Monday, March 31, 2014

For the Love of Love

Every now and again, the time comes in life to get rid of things you once held dear. Most of us do this sort of thing in the spring and call it "spring cleaning." But if you're anything like me, you may find it takes several spring cleanings to convince yourself you're ready to get rid of something, and another several springs to actually let go. 

It's not that I ever plan it to be that way. I'll got through my things, set out a pile for yard saling or goodwilling, then in the process of moving that pile to a designated location within my house, something will catch my eye and I'll say....maybe not yet. A couple of years later, I'll realize I've said the same thing for a couple of years about the same item but have not actually done anything with the item but put it back in a box in storage. Then the day comes to move it not just to a designated location but to a new home entirely, and something in my heart gasps. There's a part of me that isn't ready to let go. There's a part of me that is torn.

When I realize that the items in question aren't all that meaningful (in fact, many of them are downright silly), I've had to stop and ask myself what in the world is going on with my heart. The truth is that everything I've never regretted getting rid of anything once I've let it go. And the truth is that the things that I've let go don't actually mean anything to me. But it stings all the same. What gives?

And finally, it hits me. After so many years of this, with so many different things, it's happened again and I suddenly realize what all the trouble is. It's this: not that I particularly love these little trinkets of my past, but that I once loved them.

I will hold these things in my hands and that old feeling of what they once meant to me washes over. I imagine I'm not alone in this. If you really think about it, maybe this is your trouble, too. It's that feeling of remembering all of the Christmases you asked for a thing, and then finally got it. It's that feeling of all the nights you stayed up late playing with it. It's that feeling of surprise when you didn't even know they made such a thing, but here it is. It's that feeling of knowing who gave you that thing, and when, and what it meant in your life at the time. It's...remembering how much you loved it and realizing, painfully, that maybe you haven't loved anything that much in a very long time.

That's what hit me. I used to get excited about these things! I used to hold them close to my heart! I look around my life now, and it's filled with so many intangibles. The process of aging, and maturing, I suppose. My life now isn't defined by stuffed animals or t-shirts or the collectibles that my family kept buying when I was kid. It's not defined by the puzzle that took me years to finally figure out, or the books I stayed up all night reading. In fact, I was recently asked to bring an object that defined my life to a group, as part of introducing myself, and I couldn't think of one. I brought something lame, but knew the whole time it wasn't quite it. More recently, I took part in a photography project and was invited to bring props, if I felt so inclined. I couldn't even think of what to wear! I couldn't even decide what piece of clothing I'd want to mark my life with in this season. But again, I took something lame and now that's forever. 

My life right now is not defined by things, so it's harder to hold onto that kind of passionate love. The kind I once had for things, things that have come and gone, things that are tucked away, things I haven't seen in sometimes 15 years but still evoke a strong sense of loving within me...long after I realize I don't love them any more. I just get so attached to the love of loving in a moment like that, and it's hard to let go.

Because I think about what anyone going through my life today might say. What they might discover. They could easily look around and say, "We're not...really....sure what she loved. Nothing, I guess." That's the truth. If you look around, you'll find nothing I'm attached to, nothing I love. No thing that satisfies anything within me. On the surface, it all looks rather depressing. Where is the joy? Where is the love? Where is the passion?

It's fleeting, but it's there. And as the days go by, it's a more stable, more reliable presence in my life. It's there in the intangibles, in relationships and service and the smile on my face. In the bounce in my step. In the praise in my song. It's there in a way that would never fit in a box, that wouldn't go for much in a yard sale, that wouldn't be valued at goodwill. It's there in a way I could never hold onto it yet nor could I let it go. It is powerfully there.

As I laid in bed this weekend thinking about this sort of thing, I came to the conclusion - isn't that better? Isn't that what I'd rather it be? I have had the unfortunate experience in my life of losing loved ones - family, friends. A parent. I've had the gut-wrenching experience of sorting through their belongings, weeding through their things, understanding what meant the most to them over the years of their lives. And I've never been inspired to start collecting things because someone I love treasured them. Not once. I've never even felt obligated, for long, to hold onto things because they meant so much to someone I love. For awhile, sure, but that's a part of letting go. In the end, you realize those things don't mean a thing.

But I have always been inspired, humbled, and downright blessed by something else entirely. By the intangibles that start coming out when someone leaves us. By the steady stream of people who walked into the viewing of my father's body, carrying stories of the ways he'd touched their lives. By the standing-room-only at the back of the funeral parlor because that many people wanted to hold on just a little bit longer. By the stories that come out in eulogies across our land. I've heard them at every funeral I have ever been to, and whether I knew the person well or only by a tangent, I have always been inspired by the way people have secretly lived their lives. Things I would never know if it weren't for the stories.

When I look for the stories in my life, they are overwhelmingly there. And I'm humbled to think that I probably only know a small portion of them. That's what I'm thinking about these days when I'm thinking about things. I love that feeling of love when I hold an old beloved in my hands, some treasure that once meant so much to me; it's easy to lose that feeling of love in the intangibles of the story, but if you look for it, it's there. You don't, I think, have to worry about losing your love. Which means you can let go of those things that aren't telling your story any more. You can send on those items and you never know, they may make a new love story of their own somewhere.

I don't think I'll ever get rid of everything. There are things that are still important to keep, things that have been such a huge part of telling my story that I think they are important to hold onto. To remember where I've come from. To remember how I got here. To remember where it is I've wanted to go. But those things I'm holding onto just because they remind me what it was like to love? That's not enough. Life is love, if I'm doing it right, and if I pour what I've got into old wineskins, we're both going to crack. I choose to pour out my love on the world. I'm building stories. That will hopefully mean more to anyone who might hear them than anything I'd ever choose to tuck in a box in the closet. That will hopefully inspire someone someday.

That will hopefully take off and start building love stories of their own. By my feeble example. By my faithful try. By my fledgling love. 

For the love of love, I haven't forgotten what that feels like. Indeed, I have only begun to discover....

Friday, March 28, 2014

The GodHead

A couple of days ago, I talked about how what the world needs to see from us more than anything is how we go to God. How we personally, intimately, passionately take our hearts to God and have that moment of faith when we believe in Him to hear us, to hold us, and to heal us.

Last night, I kind of got to eat my own words.

About this time every year, our creative arts team gets to work on Stations of the Cross, a self-guided Easter experience to prepare our community's hearts for the risen Christ. It's a Holy Week experience, and personally, I love it. It's exactly the kind of quiet moment of passion that I need to kind of recenter my life. I am blessed to be a part of the team that makes this experience possible.

And each year, I come up with something interactive and to varying levels of profound, something I believe will tug at the persons in attendance, if they should choose to really engage with it. (Funny story: Last year for "Jesus prays in the garden," I came up with the idea of sharing a bitter cup with those going through the experience. Not knowing I was behind that one, a lady shared with me her experience of the experience and said, "It was really good. But at the first one, I didn't really do it." And I was like what? Why? And she said, "Well, you were supposed to drink a cup of bitter water and think about Jesus while He was praying, but I don't really like bitter things so I didn't do it." I hope you're laughing right now. It took her saying the words out loud to realize that that was kind of the point of the whole thing.)

The way this usually happens is that I think about the scene which I am trying to portray. I think about the angles involved, about the different parties and the different parts of the stories, about the things going on that we may or may not realize in the moment. And usually, something just comes to me. I grasp onto a concept and start putting it together, and when it's all done...I imagine myself going through the experience and try to figure out if the finished concept speaks to me in the way that I hope it would. If not, I tweak.

Whenever I hit a stumbling block, I think about what God has to say through this moment. I think about the overarching story that contains this little narrative, about the bigger picture of what is going on.

Above all, I try to bring it back to redemption. I try to make my experiences self-contained, so that I bring a person to their spiritual emptiness and fill them up again with some powerful truth of God. The model works.

This year, however, it wasn't working. I'm working on a scene for which I have already done one concept in a prior year, so the pressure is really on to come up with something fresh, something new. And my heart cries...something deeper. Not that the first go of it was bad, but I was hoping to come upon something more personal and powerful this year. The flesh side of it came to me almost immediately. 

The human side of it that knew exactly what was going on in that moment was easy to hold onto. It was easy to translate into my present life, without losing sight that there had to be a Jesus in there somewhere. The woman who anticipates going through this experience knew right away how she would come at it from her own heart, from her own life. So for the past two weeks, she's been trying to figure out what the redemption in all of it is.

What does God say? What kind of nice little bow can I put on this package? The deeper truth of this little snippet of Christ's life is....what? I know how to invite people into the moment. Now, how do I get them out of it? For weeks, I have wrestled with this question. For weeks, I have come up empty.

As I laid in bed last night, thinking about this Station of the Cross, thinking about what I already knew about it, trying desperately to figure out what God was speaking over it, all of a sudden, my question changed. I stopped asking so much about what God thinks. I trusted He'd bring me back to that. I stopped asking how do I fix it. It's not my job to fix it. I stopped asking how to make this a powerful, but feel-good experience because suddenly, I felt no obligation to wrap things up. Rather, I asked myself one powerful question.

Once I'm there, when I engage myself in this moment, what do I need to find there?

My heart has really held onto what my flesh already knew about this experience. My spirit has been engaged in the human side of this from the very start. I knew I was onto the right thing, and I believe that if people will let themselves honestly engage with it, they will find it deeply meaningful. I was just hoping I could pull it back into God and make it meaningfully meaningful. When I asked myself what I needed to find, I immediately got it. Clear as day. An image in my head and the peace in my heart that says it's going to be right on.

It's different than the way I've gone at it in previous years. It's different than the way I normally do it. Why? Because I can't promise redemption. I'm not sure it's inherent. The points are there, but it's going to be up to our guests to draw their own lines. As I set to work on pulling this together, it is my prayer that people will open their hearts and give themselves the space and the grace to truly experience this. I believe this moment will change someone's life. 

It's also different because this time, I start with my heart. I start with the woman who needs to hear it. I start with the girl who will, honestly, probably cry at this moment (if she doesn't run it over and over in her head enough times beforehand to feel like she's already had this moment). I start with the thing that binds us together, which is not God's truth but rather the raw heart of a man looking for God's truth. I start with our brokenness because it's the one place we all have together. That's different for me, but I think it's going to be blessed.

To be sure, this is what I just said, two days ago, that we need to be doing in ministry. Formal or informal. To be sure, this is what I believe I could do better in my own ministry many times. It's easy to know the answers of God with your head. But the power comes from the heart. Everyone's looking for that heart-level engagement with God, and those of us who would share Him with the world need to be willing to engage our own hearts in the process if we ever hope to make the God of the heart a tangible presence among us. 

So this year, it's my heart. And I'm excited. And I am humbled. And I am so blessed to be doing this another year.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned what I'm doing, or even what my scene is. That's quite on purpose. The team that puts these things together for our community is fabulous, and regardless of what I do or don't do with my space, this is our work. I will not single myself out by placing more emphasis on one of ten. That diminishes what those I serve with are doing. However, I believed this was an important heart story to share in the midst of ministry, and so I have shared where my heart is at in the creative and ministry process as Easter draws near. And I also know that we are not the only congregation putting together an experience like this, so I will extend that if you're working on Stations of the Cross for your own community and are looking for ideas, feel free to email me (address on the contact page) and I'm happy to bounce some things around with you. Just not in this public space.

Lest someone forget this is all about God.

Stations of the Cross at TurningPoint Church is free and open to the public. Come take part in this self-guided Easter experience Wednesday, April 16 through Friday, April 18 from 2-8 p.m. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

First Church of the Lord's Holy Temple

It's no secret that the church is not quite what it used to be. For weeks, maybe months, I've been watching these conversations on social media. There is just a dwindling emphasis, it seems, on the traditional church community in our society. There are reasons for that, of course. Individualism that says church is supposed to inspire you leads people searching for a congregation they enjoy and when they don't enjoy it anymore, they leave. Eventually, they find a flaw in every place and leave the church entirely. 

We live in an increasingly 7-day-a-week world. And all around us, parents and families are making the decision that we go to church on long as we don't have something else to do. Sporting activities, family outings, really anything that happens to be scheduled on a Sunday can trump a commitment to going to church. Then these kids grow up and don't have the same affinity for the community of God that maybe their grandparents did. So they can take church or leave it...and many of them leave it.

My pastor posted a link to an article and some statistics about the declining role of the church, at least in the eyes of believers, and a few of us kind of took it over to have some of this church debate. Then someone said it. Someone said what I believe is the greatest lie about church in this generation, and the very real reason that our churches are struggling to stay relevant:

I don't need a building on Sunday mornings. WE ARE the church, wherever we are. It doesn't have to be an actual church.

It kinda does. Look, I don't know where we got this idea. Ok, I sort of do, but this has been so twisted, so contrived, so contorted that the idea we have of this today is not anywhere near what the Scriptures intended it to be. And yet, there are loud voices among us who tout the benefits of just this - leaving the church to discover your own church in the world and make it your thing.

I don't even know where to start.... So let's try the beginning.

God has always worked in community. That's His M.O. He works through His people for His people, surrounded by His people. People have always gathered around Him in community - in the courtyard of the Tabernacle, in the festivals in the streets, in the teaching in the Temple, on the road to Cavalry. There have been occasions when God has dealt with a man or a woman alone, but always for the sake of community. Always so that man or woman can then take some part of the story back to the people. There is always a bigger story at work; it's never individual.

That's hard to swallow in a culture that constantly reminds us how God loves each and every one of us, individually. That God loves you and God loves me. You know? Now that I think about it, it's been a long time since I heard anyone say that God loves us and not meant the individual us, the separate each and every one within the us. That's sad. We have lost that sense of being God's chosen people.

And here's where I think we started missing it: when God said, "Don't you know that you are the Temple of the living God?" That's where we started to make our shift. We started to take on a personal ownership of God that I don't believe is inherent in that statement. Somehow, we've twisted and contorted this to say that God dwells inside of us. That He makes His home in us. And we've taken this to mean that He is our God, that He is in us for the sake of us. 

That's not the purpose of the Temple.

The Temple was God's dwelling place among His people. The Temple was the place where the people knew they could come and find the presence of God and someone who knew how to enter into it. (A priest. And, by the way, we are all priests.) God didn't put His presence in your Temple for your sake. He doesn't dwell within you to give you a holy place. He dwells within you to make you a holy place. You are the Temple of the Lord. The community around you, the place He's given you, the people...are looking to you for the presence of God and someone who knows how to enter it. God has come to dwell in your Temple, in the Temple of you, so that His people have a place to go where they know they can find God. 

That's the purpose of the Temple. Need more proof? Take a cursory look through the Bible and see what happens to the people of God who build an altar in their own house. Look what God says about, and does to, the people who take it upon themselves to literally build their own Temple, erect their own altar, offer their own sacrifices. They die. The presence of God was meant for the community, not for the man. The presence of God in you is meant for your community. 

And the presence of God in someone else is meant for the same. See, that's the thing about meeting together. We don't go to church so we can see our friends. So we can shake hands with Bill and Betty, with Joe and Jill, with Thomas and Tina and Mary and Mark. We go to church because there we encounter the Temples of the living God, the people with God in them. We encounter God in our world in a place we know where to find Him and among people who know how to enter His presence. Together, we come. Together, we worship. Through the community, we see the true image of God. 

Which means, yes. Church is not a building we walk into on Sunday mornings. That part, at least, we're getting right in our new way of thinking. The church doesn't have a physical address; we have simply, for convenience, built it a house. But we were never meant to consider that the church. The fine line, of course, is the one we draw here. Because there are many among us who say the church is not the building, that we are the church, that the church is out there - that it's whatever we're doing in the world. And this could not be further from the truth, either.

It is true that we are the church. All believers, under the umbrella of Christ, are the church. Not in a physical presence but in a spiritual one. That's only true, though, when we are living out our purpose as the Temple. When we are the place that people come to find the presence of God. If, however, as so many of the people who say this sort of thing are doing, we call it the "church" when we forsake a building, embrace our community, and quietly live a good life among people while drawing it back to God in our own hearts...that's not church. That's not even close to church.

I've talked to people who say WE ARE the church, who have turned their backs on buildings in favor of community. I've asked them how they're doing it. And the truth is that I haven't met anyone who is actually doing church outside of a building. They have communities they do good works in. They have people they hang out with regularly. But the essence of God is not there. Because the other members of their "church" have no idea they're supposed to be the church.

They're not coming together for the presence of God. They're not purposefully together to strengthen one another in the faith. They haven't come to worship. In fact, they forget to worship at all because they're so busy just doing things. Things that any normal person could do on any normal day. There is the complete absence of a mindfulness of God and that's not church. It may make a man feel good about himself. It may even make him feel good about his God. But if he's not putting God in the center of that, and if the community around him doesn't hold God in the middle of them, then it's not church.

If the people in your community don't know they're your church, then they're really just your project. They don't feed your faith; they feed your ego. 

Why does it matter? Why does it matter if it's church or not, if it is (no argument) something good? 

Because without the church, man quickly comes to worship only a figment of God. A creation of his own imagination about what God is, or what God should be. Without community, we lose the essence of God because God has always revealed Himself in community. Because without the church, pretty soon we have a God who looks different for every person, who has no common standard, who has no definable characteristics because each man defines this God for himself. We're already approaching that. We have so many versions of the same Christian God out there and we're fast losing track of who HE says He is. Because there are a lot of versions of God that are easier to live with, and if we only see God and know Him in ourselves, then over time, He will slowly begin to look more like us. Good, but no longer glorious. Good, but no longer God. 

That, I think, is why God said, "Never neglect meeting together." When we are together, we see God in the other Temple. We see Him in His holy place. Not only in our hearts, but in the hearts of our friends, families, neighbors, communities. We see God revealing Himself through more than our preferences, through more than our sensibilities. It's a checks and balances system to make sure we don't lose track of the One True God.

The bonus is that we get the community. We get people who stand beside us, who pray with us, who help when we call, who invite us over for lunch or to watch the game, who become our extended family and help us know our place in this world. We get people who encourage us, inspire us, and hold us to a higher standard. We get people who come along beside us to be the presence of the Lord in the world, to be the Temple, to be the place the world is looking because they know they can find God here.

And indeed they can. Because when two or more are gathered in His name, there He is. Right there in the church.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Living Faith

Yesterday, I talked about why it's so easy for so many people to hate religion. Which raises the question, of course, of "What are people of faith to do?" If I make it so easy for a man to hate me, and to hate my religion, then how do I make it...less easy? How do I show a man that religion really can make him better, as he's so desperately hoping?

That's a tough one. Because the hard truth is that we will never get away from the appearance of hypocrisy. Never. We cannot, even in perfect faith, live the perfect faith. (If we could, we wouldn't need the faith.) People will always see us mess up, fall short, and epic fail, if they're watching us at all. Pretending to do anything else doesn't solve this; it only intensifies the disconnect between what we profess and what we do. Worst of all, if done wrong, we come off as holier-than-thou and a man sees that we simply think we are better, but he sees right through that.

It's a mess of a situation. It makes me wonder sometimes why God has chosen vessels like us to demonstrate to the world what faith is. But He has, and so we must. (Yesterday, I had some comments on other faiths, primarily Judaism and Islam. Today, I will focus solely on Christianity because it is my faith of practice and therefore, the only one about which I am qualified to speak regarding the day-to-day life of the faith.)

I think it starts with us remembering the core of our faith. When you've been around Christ long enough, the word that echoes loudest in your head is "love." They will know that you are mine by this, by the way you love. Love, certainly, is the highest calling of a Christian. Yet, ask a gilted world what a Christian is about and most are likely to tell you "Hate." We aren't known for our love; we are known for our hate. We're known for standing against things...and falling for a whole lot else. Sadly, that's not entirely inaccurate. The problem is that when a man is looking to a Christian to understand how Christ can make his life better, and he hears love and sees hate, it's too easy to see right through the words. This God cannot make his life better.

Then we kind of swing toward the other end and talk about grace - the umbrella over forgiveness and mercy. We talk about a God who forgives us, redeems us, and lets us come to Him. This doesn't work either. Because it doesn't take long for a gilted world to see that this has produced a whole culture of Christians who believe God doesn't even care what they do any more, that He is just poised and waiting to forgive them when, not if, they do wrong. In fact, there are Christians who refuse to even try to escape the trap of their sin any more because they believe God loves them in spite of it. 

The whole idea of grace, as it is meant to be, is that grace is strength. It's meant to give you the courage and the faith to stand up, dust yourself off, and try again. Try better. It's meant to encourage you that this is not the end, that there's another chance out there, and that you haven't fully messed up. And that's what a man is looking for in grace - something that strengthens him and inspires him to be better. The kind of grace most of us are showing the world is not that grace; what we are showing them is an empty "grace" of God's indifference. That God just doesn't care what you do. How is that supposed to inspire a man to care about what he does? How is that supposed to spur him toward "better"? It doesn't. And he knows it. So he turns away.

Then there is an entirely different school that lives a life of faith based entirely on how unworthy they are. They beat themselves up every chance they get, out loud and in public, declaring their faults and their flaws, falling to their knees and begging for mercy. Throwing this whole faith thing on God because it's Him who makes it work for them; they haven't, and can't, do anything on their own. But the man who is looking for something better is already an expert at beating himself up; he's not looking for another excuse to do just the same. He doesn't need his worthless feelings sanctioned and validated. He has been doing that himself for far too long. This God does not make this man better.

That's why this is so tough. Because all of the above are true tenets of our faith. We are defined by love, or at least, we should be. We are sanctified by grace. We are entirely unworthy and God is the only reason this whole thing works.

To be honest, I have been thinking about this post since yesterday. Thinking about all these ways we show our faith to the world and they see it broken. Thinking about the hypocrisy that is inevitable if we are to be both flesh and faithful. It's the nature of the beast. And since that first thought began to form, I haven't known where I would go from here. Where I could go. What the answer is to this trouble that we show the world in our faith. But I just got it, and I think it is this:

I think the answer is faith in action. And not faith in extension.

God told His disciples, and through them, us, to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations. To spread the good news. To teach people the love of Christ. To teach them Christ. I think we have taken that too literally and spent too much of our time trying to teach.

All of the problems I've outlined above come back to this one thing - us trying to bring God to the people. Us trying to show them how He gets here. We try to show them in love what God is like, bringing love to the world and proclaiming it God. We tell them Love is what God looks like, and inevitably, our love fails and God looks like a failing love. We talk about grace as though God is right here, in this fallen place, and knows how hard it is down here. As if God has come with the sole purpose of forgiveness, as if He stands beside us to respond to our failings and our needs. We condemn ourselves as if God were standing over us, saying the very same words. We even use His Word to justify our self-condemnation. We make Him a presence here in the hopes that...what? That He will walk over to the unbelieving man and introduce Himself?

We spend all of our time trying to make God manifest here. But what this world really needs is not to see God coming to us, but to see us going to Him.

They need to see us loving God first, then see how that love extends to our neighbor. After all, that is the commandment - Love God first. Then love your neighbor. We are not so good at showing people how we love God. We kind of hope they'll just "get it" by the way we do everything else. The fallen, inherently hypocritical way we do everything else. We have to be intentional about showing how we love God. 

We paint grace as the free gift of God, which is it, but there's a step missing. We have to go get grace. We have to go ask for it. We have to humble ourselves and cry out to God and ask Him for grace. We are not so good at showing people how we repent. We are not so good at showing them how we come to God. They don't see it when we just say God forgives us. They don't see it when we just declare grace. That's why grace comes off as cheap - it doesn't seem to cost a man anything. What the world needs to see is the way we request grace. The way we go after it.

We condemn ourselves usually by comparison, but the world doesn't see the line we're drawing. It's easy to look in the mirror and say, "I am a fallen man. I am a broken man. I am a sinner. I am unworthy." and so on and so on. But we say that knowing that God is the risen Man. God is the whole Man. God is the sinless Man. God is worthy. The people watching us condemn ourselves don't see the distinction we're making and they are probably looking at our lives, already thinking we're better than them, and if we think we're garbage then what in the world does that make them? We have to show them our understanding of and deference to God's greater ways. We have to show them the line between sinner and Savior, the very real line that we are drawing between the best we can do and the better that God wants to give us.

I think that's it. I think that's the way we, as Christians, need to do faith. I think that's what the world is looking for. It seems like it's easy to bring God to the world, but it's not working out for us. It's not working out for them. We're building a world increasingly hate-filled toward religion because they don't think it can answer their nagging questions. They don't think it can make them better. But when we demonstrate faith, when we embrace faith in action, and show a man how we come to God, he sees the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, and the truth about what faith can do.

And he knows it can make him a better man.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Word on Faith

There is a great deal of religious hate in our world. Maybe that's always been true - we know it killed Jesus - but it's impossible now to go even a few hours without hearing a judgment on one religious group or another. We're coming to define disagreements by religion, lumping people together by hate rather than hope.

This is coming off a comment I read yesterday on Facebook where some ignorant individual in our society wrote that "of course something terrible happened to the [Malaysian] plane...there were four Muslims on board." Not that long ago, in the heat of the gay marriage debate in my state, anyone who stood against gay marriage was derogatorily named a Christian, whether or not that person's objection was faith-based. We have these things that we believe about different religions, and it's easy to fall into the stereotypes, particularly when they are blasted all over the media and propagated by the culture.

It just makes me sad. And it's all got me thinking: what is it that we hate so much about religion?

And here's the answer: what we hate about religion is the inevitable moment that it dashes our hope.

That's it, really. Religion is a desperate man's last hope. It's the thing he turns to when he doesn't have anything left in himself to which to turn. (Sadly, it is also the thing many faith-based people turn to when they run out of other options. It is why many Christians are surprised when someone asks, "Have you prayed about it?" Because we haven't. We aren't that desperate yet.) Man's entire life, his very flesh, centers around the hope of making himself better. He's always striving to make improvements, to change things, to get ahead. Religion is founded on that very thing - it's designed to make a man better.

Religion is supposed to answer the questions a man is asking. About his worth. About his purpose. About something bigger than his meager life. About a hope for tomorrow and an answer for yesterday and something to hold onto in the present. That's what religion does. In Christianity, the answer is Jesus. The answer is grace and mercy and forgiveness, purpose and presence, and above all, love. In Judaism, the answer is promise and hope, the foretelling of a better day when God answers all of this, with also a way for a man to connect to God now. In Islam, the answer is obedience and respect, that a man can live his best life by deferring to the wisdom and the plan of God. In Buddhism, the answer is in self, in centering and detaching from the world not necessarily so that it doesn't suck, but so that it doesn't bother you. The list goes on and on, and of course, not being a practicing Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, these are oversimplified ideas, but you get the gist. Religion is supposed to fill in the empty spaces of a man's life and make him, and his existence, better.

The problem, then, is when a man looks at religion and doesn't see anything better than he sees in the mirror. It's when he looks at Christians filled with venomous hate and can't reconcile that with their God of love. He understands what they believe, but the evidence of their lives says different. He is not a man filled with such hate, rather he has greater peace and tolerance and love. So he can't see how the Christian God is supposed to make him a better man. And he hates Christians for it. It's when he looks at a Muslim who flies an airplane into a building for no apparent reason and, knowing perhaps that this comes from a faith based on respect, wonders how such disrespect for life comes about. He can't see how the Muslim Allah is supposed to make him a better man. And he hates Muslims for it. It's when he looks at a Jew who is cunning in this world and can't make sense of how the man has so much hope for tomorrow but works so hard for today. So he can't see how the Jewish Yahweh is supposed to make him a better man. And he hates Jews for it.

What a man finds in religion is, sadly, the hypocrisy. It is the tension between the fallen man and the faithful God, but a seeking heart usually only sees the man. And he can't understand how it is that religion adds anything at all, anything worthwhile anyway. He can't see how religion makes things better, how it could make him better. That stings to the core of his searching soul. If there is nothing in this world to make him better, what is he to say to himself when he looks in the mirror in five years, ten years, twenty years and sees a man he still thinks has missed out on something, somehow? If there is nothing in this world to make him better - nothing inside himself, for he's run out of ideas, and nothing outside himself, for he's run into hypocrisy - how is he ever supposed to hope?

So a man runs out of hope and fills the gap with hate. Ironically, it is hate that does the very thing he's been searching for all along - his hate makes him feel like a better man.

His hate of the Christian hypocrite, who speaks love and lives hate, makes him better than the hypocrite because it feels somehow righteous to hate the man who has fallen short. The man who looks no better than him. His hate of the Muslim hypocrite, who espouses respect and lives destruction, makes him better than the hypocrite because it feels somehow righteous to hate the man who contradicts himself. The man who looks no better than him. His hate of the Jewish hypocrite, whose success speaks to his work in this world even though his words seem to hold on to a world to come, makes him better than the hypocrite because it feels somehow righteous to hate the man who cannot embrace his own hope. The man who looks no better than him. His hate of a religion that has dashed his hope that he could ever be a better man...makes him feel like a better man.

You know this is true. Have you ever heard someone say a derogatory word about a person of any religion without hearing the undertone of superiority in that person's words? Of course not. That's the basis of it all. Man is constantly looking for a way to make himself better, and if, as a person of faith, you show him a double-edged sword, a battle of flesh and faithfulness that doesn't always look better, he will make himself better simply by feeling like he's better...than you. And everyone "like you" - all Christians, all Muslims, all Jews.

The sad truth about all of this is that overwhelmingly, most persons of faith are quietly getting it right. Most Christians are quietly loving - serving their neighbors, their families, their communities. Holding out hope with an open hand. Embracing the tension well, espousing grace, and doing their best to love. Most Muslims are quietly respectful - openly talking, engaging, dialoguing with the people around them. As a chaplain, I have had the opportunity to interact with many Muslim persons and families, and without exception, they have been loving, accepting, and respectful. As a neighbor, I have this opportunity every day. And you know what? My Muslim neighbors and I share a love of dogs...and of faith. I have also heard this from veterans coming back from Afghanistan. Most Muslims are true to the word of their faith, obedient to the will of their God, and respectful of those who disagree with them - as long as you firmly believe in something. They value your belief system and respect you for it, hoping you will do the same for them. Most Jews are quietly hopeful - diligent in today but preparing for tomorrow. Believing in the promise of the Messiah and the covenant of God. Overwhelmingly, persons of faith are quietly getting it right.

Which is why it breaks my heart to see people so vehemently hateful toward a person of any faith. Those are the anomalies. Those are the few. Those are the radicals. Don't judge us by our worst specimen. Because here's the truth:

Your gay marriage is safe in the hands of a Christian because, although he may disagree with you, he also loves you and that love trumps all.

Your airplane is safe in the hands of a Muslim pilot because he is a respecter of life.

Your business is safe in the hands of a Jew because he understands how to work for today while preparing for tomorrow.

Your life is safe in the hands of any person of faith who is quietly getting it right. In fact, your life may even be better there.

And isn't that what you were hoping for?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Rich Young Man

A man came to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered the man, "Take all you have, sell it, and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me." And the man walked away sad, because he had an abundance of worldly goods that he was not willing to part with.

We assume the problem with the rich young man was greed - the things he had held more value for him than the thing that he himself proclaimed to want. And while Jesus makes this story about wealth, about a man who must choose between God and money, the heart of this story is not about a man who has more than he needs; it is about a man who does not trust in God enough.

You see, I don't think this is a story about a man for whom eternal life is not a good enough promise. I think, having sought the Lord, he believed there was an answer to eternal life and that this Rabbi had it. I think he was ready to believe whatever Jesus would say was that answer. 

But I think the man, by the end of the Lord's reply, has forgotten his question. Without that question, he's forgotten the key dynamic taking place on this busy street - the relationship between himself and God. The Lord tells him that he must get rid of his so many things and choose the one thing, and the man is left thinking, "What's in it for me?" The poor become rich. The money is spread around. The things go to new homes, to bless new owners. The man is thinking, "What do I have left?"

Exactly what he asked for - eternal life. In the cringing moment of entertaining the idea that he might lose all his stuff, however, he's forgotten what he gets in the exchange; he's focused only on what he's losing.

I say that, and I make this assumption about this man, because I know that's true in my own life. I know that's true for many of the men and women I talk with. There are these beautiful moments of faith in which we all run to God, begging for the answer to our most burning questions, ready to buy in to whatever He says the answer is. Ready to believe. And then the answer seems like it's hard on us and easy on the world, a sacrifice for us and a soiree for the world. We see all the things that are going to happen to everybody else if we do what God has asked, and whatever may be in it for us is shrouded, at best; hidden, at worst. And we forget our own question.

Sure, Lord, we say. I have more than I need. I could get rid of my things, and they would do great benefit among those in need. The poor would be well taken care of with the money. The items would be well-loved in new homes. I could make my wealth a common possession, and make comfort more accessible to the people around me. But what's in it for me? It doesn't feel like eternal life.

And the truth is that God could have added eternal life on top of the man's wealth. He's done it before. He continues to do it. There are the Heaven-destined wealthy among us right now. Wealth is no prohibition to eternity. But selfishness is. And I don't even think it was the man's seeming greed that most demonstrated his selfishness. Rather, it was that he was only thinking about himself.

He was trying to figure out how he worked into the equation. He was trying to do the math in his head - how much he would lose, how much it would be worth, what would be the cost. How Jesus was going to transform his wealth into life, through the middle man of the poor person. He never once considered, that we have evidence of, that God was doing something bigger than the man in that moment. That He was poised to do something bigger, anyway.

Because imagine this: imagine you're among the poor, and one of the rich men of the village begins to sell off his property. He auctions off this or that item, and not only is he making some great deals on the goods, but the money itself is going right back into your pocket. He's donating everything to charity! He is somehow, in his odd move of generosity, making available both things and money, the two very things your life is lacking. And they're coming into your hands. Life is about to get better.

But consider also this: what makes a rich man do such a thing? That's the bigger story. You see, God was inviting the rich young man to impact the region in more than mere wealth. He starts getting rid of all he has and, yes, the wealth spreads around. But so, too, does the message of Christ. People are going to want to know what this rich man is after that all of his riches are disposable. What greater thing there is that entices this rich man to give it all up for one thing. People start asking what's at the root of all this, they go searching, and they find Jesus. It could have been a really big thing.

So he sacrificed his eternal life...and his chance to play a huge role in God's story...and potentially the exposure of the Gospel (more easily) to a great many people...and perhaps those people's chances of understanding how big God really is...because he foolishly thought the answer to his question would be solely about him. 

That's the problem with so many of us. I know it can be sometimes for me. I come to God, full of hope, standing on faith, ready to believe and I'm so honed in on what the answer is going to look like for me. It's easy to forget that God wants to do something bigger than you...and often, He does this bigger thing through you.

Had the rich young man believed that what God was giving was eternal life, had he trusted what he'd believed five minutes before, had he leaned into the idea that even when it looked like God was using him for the good of everyone else, had he trusted that in that scheme, God was also working for him, he could have had eternal life...and a huge part in a big story.

But he didn't believe. He didn't trust. He didn't lean into what he had told himself walking up that road would have to be truth. Rather, he forgot the question. He focused on himself. He zeroed in on how this looked for him. In his narrow-minded, self-absorbed, tunnel-vision faith, he forgot the very crucial truth of how it looked for God.

And they both missed the bigger thing.

Friday, March 21, 2014

In the Annex

One of the common misconceptions, I think, among unbelievers is this idea that if I follow God, my world is going to shrink. Like choosing God eliminates so many other possibilities, removes the chance to do other things, catches a person in an ever-shrinking box as she stops doing simply anything she pleases and is limited to doing only what God wants.

What a lie! Spend some time talking with persons who are living close to God, and you will understand quickly that choosing God does not contract a man's life; it expands it. And for a practical example (a profound metaphor, to be precise), we need look no further than the wisdom of Solomon. 

Solomon was renowned for his wisdom. Can we agree on that much? People came from all over the world to hear him speak, to listen to truth come out of his mouth, to have him settle arguments amongst them because he was the one whose judgment was sober and heart was wise. He also built the Temple, the Lord's dwelling place among His people. Oh, the things we read right over...

The story is in 1 Kings 6. He built an annex containing side rooms all around the temple. (5) We have an annex building in our downtown - it's a place for those who sort of work for the courthouse to hold their offices, since the courthouse is reserved solely for the administration of justice. But lawyers, government agencies, social services...they are housed in the annex. That's what an annex is for. It's for the tangentially-related, part-but-not-part of things endeavors. In terms of the Temple, the annex was for the people who did the work of the Lord; the Lord lived in the Temple. 

So here, you're going to find priests. There will be some Levites. The men who were responsible for caring for the Temple and carrying out the sacrifices, the rituals, and the works of the Lord would live in the annex. Next to God, side-by-side, somewhere between the Temple and the world.

This is also where we find ourselves. Near God, so very near to Him, side-by-side trying to find our way through this place, trying to do a good and holy work, somewhere between holy and humanoid. 

Now, take a look at the details of the annex: This annex was next to the walls of the main building and the inner sanctuary. The interior of the lowest story of the annex was 7 1/2 feet wide, the second story was 9 feet wide, and the third story was 10 1/2 feet wide. (5b-6)

Do the math on that for a second. Let those numbers sink into your head, and imagine what this might look like. It's inverted! The smallest rooms are on the bottom; the bigger rooms at the top. As you climb the stairs, your space expands.

You may say, sure. It was an architectural design. Solomon was trying for something a little bit crazy because it was such a special place. Don't be so naive. Remember Babel? Man was building a tower to the heavens because he believed that the further he got off the ground, the closer he got to the heavens. The higher a man was raised, the closer to God he was. Therefore, being in the second story of the annex puts you closer to God than the first, and the third puts you even closer than that. By the design of the annex, then, the closer you get to God, next to Him but rising higher, the more room you have to move around.

And that is the truth. If you want to be close to God and to this world, you find yourself constricted. Everything shrinks around you as you discover that what the world is looking for is always different, that you must not commit to anything except not committing, and as you morph into the new image of the world, you have to figure out how to change your relationship with God to match that. You can, and will, be many different things but you will spend your life wondering how to also be God's in that circumstance. 

If, however, you commit yourself to being wholly God's first, and then try to come deal with this world, you give yourself a little breathing room. You remove yourself from so much of the dirt, and you have a new perspective on seeing things. You get to be what God has called you to be, and you see how that is going to work within the context of the world - because you have a bird's-eye view. You can see things from above, see how the pieces are fitting together, see where you fit in. Between the holy work and the hallowed ground. All of a sudden, you're not trying to do everything (and thus doing nothing of meaning); you are focused on doing something. You see where that seed is going to be planted, and just how wide its branches will grow. (Although, it's hard to anticipate such a thing. The little things always seem to be the big ones.) In that place, life seems bigger. It seems fuller. It seems better. Because it is all of those things.

Jesus said, I have come that they might have life. And have it more abundantly. And that is the truth. Position yourself beside God; live in the annex. And strive for the third floor. Raise yourself up from the dirt of this place and get a new perspective. Rise toward the heavens and draw near to God. It will broaden your life...and your living space. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Something New

Now ends the winter of our discontent.

In just a few hours, spring officially begins. (Well, astronomical spring. Meteorological spring began 20 days ago, and who knows when actual spring will arrive?) The general consensus, from a cursory reading of social media and several months of complaints about the weather, is that this spring will be a welcome sight. 

Because it's been a hard winter.

It's been a winter of brutally cold temperatures and unfathomable wind chills. Of deciding it's worth it to bundle up and get out of the house at -18 degrees because you just need to get out of the house. Of shoveling snow and then more snow only to reveal the unbreakable layer of ice beneath. Of 50 lb. bag of salt after 50 lb. bag of salt. Of frozen gutters and ice dams and roof damage. Not to mention all those wonderful mornings when you have to break into your own car, and pray you don't set the alarm off. There have been what seems like far too many just grey days. I don't know. Maybe winter always feels this dreary. Maybe we just forget from year-to-year.

There are those who want to live in a place without winter. Those who have been commenting already for months that it's time for winter to go away. People who like snow on Christmas and then never again, who can tolerate the cold for a few days or maybe a few weeks, but not much longer. Who can't wait for the clocks to change because it means the sun seemingly stays out a little longer, and that's a good sign. 

I am not one of those people. I understand the need for winter. Not because I love snow (I do). Not because it's easier to warm up than to cool down (it is. Blankets!). Not even because winter is that rare phenomenon where you can see both the sun and the moon at the same time (ok, a little bit. That's glorious!). But because I need some down time. I need some quiet time. I need a space for things to settle, and yes...even for things to die.

That's the foundational principle of winter - that things die. That the leaves wither. That the flowers fall. That the ground lies dormant for just a season. But it is also the time of renewal because tucked into the dormant soil is the seed of spring, something new that is dying to grow - quite literally. Aching to live again. Longing to be what it was created to be. Not a seed any longer, but a beautiful flower. Not a nut, but a tree. Not a fleck of dirt but a blade of grass. All of Creation is using its darkest season to develop its glory.

I have read more than once in the past few months a friend or family member lament the winter. "Ugh," they'll say. "Why do we even need winter?" I smile. Because everything needs a season to quit its unsustainable life and gather its glory. Because all of Creation recognizes it cannot live forever, but it can live again. That's the nature of the winter - it is glorious preparation for the spring.

Maybe it's hitting me differently this year because I've been in sort of a winter of my own. Maybe it's because there are things in my life that are dying - some that are just coming to pass me by, others that I am prayerfully letting go of. Maybe it's because I am aware of the dormancy and the hesitancy, yet at the same time profoundly aware of the preparedness and nervous excitement. Aware of the thing that has gone away and feeling the tingle of the thing that is coming. I don't know.

The past few months have been quite a season of change for me, and there is no better parallel in nature than the season of winter. It has been a time of powerful quiet that has settled over my life, although some days, it feels anything but. (Think blizzard in the middle of an otherwise-soft winter. It happens.) I can almost feel the gathering glory just beneath the surface, something inside me that is dying to grow. Quite literally. That is aching to live again, or maybe for the first time. That is longing to be what it was created to be and can finally almost understand perhaps what that is.

I'm looking forward to spring, whenever it gets here. I can't wait to see what's growing bloom into its full glory. Flipping the astronomical calendar is one good sign. Less than three hours now until time ends the winter of our discontent. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hope and Pray

I want to talk about a spiritual disconnect that occurred to me the other night when I was...sort of actively engaged in it. It is the disconnect between hope and prayer.

I find it difficult to pray under the excited burden of hope. It feels like here I am again, coming to God to ask for something I think I want in a season in which I think I want it. Begging for a specific door to open. Talking His ear off, wanting this thing so desperately to work. I have never liked those kinds of prayers because I think that cheapens, to some extent, the relationship I want to have with God. It's not that I cannot ask for the things I want, but a truth I've come to realize is that when I pray for the worldly specific - this thing or that one - I miss out on something wholly (and holy) special that may be unfolding right before me.

It's like praying for a certain man to look your way, certain that he would love you the way you want to be loved. Maybe he would. But the real prayer for God is not your want of the man; it's the want of the love. It's like praying for a certain job, an application you've put in and had your fingers crossed since. Maybe that job would be perfect for you. But the real prayer for God is not your want of the job; it's your search for purpose and place. Those are a couple of common examples from the heart of a woman. I just...when you try to pigeonhole God into your life the way you want Him, it seems you miss out on your life the way He intends it. So I don't like those kinds of prayers.

Which isn't to say I don't pray them. It's a series of stages, I think. My gut instinct is to pray such a prayer - a prayer for a specific thing. These days, when I hear that instinct rising, I pull back and consider the bigger questions. I think about what I'm hoping that thing will speak into my life. I think about why I want it, particularly that thing, and what it might mean to have it. Then I pray about the bigger thing. As time passes, however, and a certain thing is not coming, I start to panic and just repeat obsessive prayers about the thing because I know the window is closing.

That's the curse of time. As time passes, you become aware that the time is passing and may soon be past and that the chance for this or that particular thing to happen is dwindling fast. Soon, there will be not even a sliver of a chance. Soon, it will be over. Soon, you will know that you've missed this chance. Rather, that it has passed you by.

It's not a good moment. It's hard to accept that certain things could just...move on. That they wouldn't even stop for a heartbeat to entertain the idea of us, especially when we have so fervently entertained the idea of them. There are things that seem perfect to a's hard when those things are foolishness to God. Where is faith in all of this?

It's still in the prayer. In the contrite heart that bounces back and forth between knowing there's a bigger question but still holding tightly to the little thing. In a heart that hates itself even as it hears yet another prayer for the same old thing that just isn't coming, but maybe there's still time. In a heart that wants to ask the bigger question but is afraid of the emptiness it might discover. So it puts the emptiness off into this thing we call "hope."

This is really what I realized the other night. This hope thing. Because I was lying in bed trying to figure out how to pray again for the aching of my heart, which was in one sense tied to a very tangible, specific thing (an opportunity, perhaps) but in another sense was begging for the affirmation of calling that had seemed so certain only a few months ago. I was caught between the bigger question and the little thing, and my heart of prayer was paralyzed. And somewhat defeated. After all, it's not like I hadn't been praying about this very thing for a few weeks now. I closed my eyes and considered the time. Not that it was almost 10 p.m. but that the time was passing and was almost assuredly now past, and I came to the hard realization that with each ticking second, it was more and more likely that this certain thing had passed me by.

And yet, I am the eternal optimist, and I don't count anything out until after the door is locked, deadbolted, chained, and a dresser pushed up against it. In my heart, it's not enough to just slam the door; you have to really convince me I'm not getting in before I give up. So in the same breath that I resigned myself to passing time and came to some measure of peace in my spirit, I also found I was holding out hope for the improbable. It was not, however, a spiritual hope. It was not a holy hope. It was a fanciful hope, a way to put off answering the emptiness that would be revealed in the resounding silence that seemed to be answering my prayer.

I realized that in general, my hope lasts longer than my prayer. This is the spiritual disconnect.

For what is hope if it is not rooted in the relationship of man to God? What good is it to hold onto a thing so tightly that you wouldn't have open hands to gracefully receive it? Hope without faith is....magic, at best. It's a belief in...what? The universe? Some other god, for certain, whatever you may call it. There is no hope without prayer. I firmly believe that. Although I'm not entirely sure I can articulate any better exactly why. 

It's hard for me because I still thing agonizing prayers of hope are often shallow (not always, but often). It's a product of my fallen nature that, despite having written the book (ha!), still doesn't always know how to pray. It's wanting so desperately to ask, but knowing the question is bigger than I even imagine it to be. And hoping to stave off the emptiness for a little while longer when perhaps, what I most need, is for God to speak into the resounding silence.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


We have a lot of our Christian vocabulary invested in the idea of wandering. The Israelites did it in the wilderness. Paul did it in blindness. The sheep in Jesus' stories have done it. We all, like sheep, have gone astray and wandered. Wandering is the idea that for, at least a time, we are lost and taking small, unsure, but hopefully faithful steps toward finding our way back.

Not all of faith, though, at least to me, is so simplified as lost and found. It's not easy as wandering or following. It's not so clear-cut as desert or discipleship. And I've started wondering, for all of our wandering, what better are we?

Wandering does a man a lot of good, in a certain season. It gives him the space to ask the hard questions, to settle into not knowing the answers for awhile, to keep exploring. It teaches him what he can rely on, and what he can't. How far he can make it on his own and at what point he needs to ask for help to go a little further. It gives him the opportunity to practice those small, unsure, but faithful steps and to see what faith really looks like in a place where faith is all he has. The wilderness demands discipline or a man will be lost forever. He finds his way through it, and he comes out with strength.

I am all for strength. Don't get me wrong. I just think that discipline and strength - the fruit of the wilderness - oversimplifies what faith is. It understates the incredible nature of relationship between man and God. God's intention for man was never that man would believe in Him more fully, but always that he would love God more deeply.

I have a piece of driftwood in my basement, and another on my fireplace. (Not in my fireplace. Perish the thought!) Both pieces were picked up at my grandma's house in Tennessee, right on the shores of a large lake. Grandma's property backs up to a bit of a cove, so she gets most of the trash...and a good bit of driftwood. If you've been reading very long, you know that I enjoy working with natural woods. I've cut down large chunks of my own tree to build things here and there. But there is nothing I could do to a piece of wood to make it nearly as breathtaking as the stuff I can pull out of grandma's lake.

Something about being in the water for so long. The motion of the waves and the currents washes over the wood until it twists and shapes and smooths it. The first piece came out with this beautiful curve in it, a soft dip that would be perfect for nestling a candle, plus a few tiers of structure down one craggy side. The second had been in the water a good while and came out eaten away, revealing a beautiful braid structure and every nook and cranny of a once-rough surface. The first is a hardy wood; it came out strong and curvy. The second, of a different type - it is a bit fragile coming out of the water. (I already broke a little piece off in the drive back home.) But they both share one characteristic: they are beautiful. 

And they got that way by the water.

The wilderness can do a lot of things for us. We certainly are blessed by our wanderings. But there's something, too, to the sea. There's something to those times we are swept away by the water, set afloat in a sea of God's promise, tossed and turned by the currents that flow through our lives. I think we've all had these moments, too, although they are probably fewer and further between. I'm not sure whether they're actually that rare or whether we're just so used to converting them into wilderness experiences, by nature of our vocabulary, but I think of these as the times when God is certainly up to something, when He's doing something new, when He's calling you forward and making things work out, when He's bringing you closer. These are the times when you step into what God is doing, and you're just taken away. Set out to sea, engulfed by Living Water. And the coolest thing happens:

You come out beautiful.

There is a season in life for wandering. There is a season for faith and for discipline. There is a season for strength. But so, too, is there a season for drifting. For throwing yourself into the water, setting yourself free, allowing the water to wash over you. There is a season for beauty.

If we're lucky, we will find a good measure of both seasons in our lives. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Good Again

A couple of phrases, words, ideas popped up more than once last week, unintentionally, but perhaps now is as good a time as any to expound on that. It's the idea of Creation as good, of Eden as good. Not perfect, you understand, but simply good.

Because the time is coming when things are gonna be good again.

We spend a good deal of our time wondering about Heaven, contemplating the life that is to come. We dream about the streets of gold, mansions, robes. We tell stories and crack jokes about what it might be like to meet St. Peter at the gates, waiting to see our name in the Book of Life much as a VIP on the list at the nightclub. We long to get in. We long to go home. And yet...I think we put a bit too much into the place.

Most of us are longing, dreaming for the day when life, eternal life, is going to be just perfect. That creates quite a mess, particularly when you try to figure out what exactly perfect means. It's something different to me than it is to you. It's something different entirely to the next man and different still for the woman next to him. If that is true, then what can we say definitively about heaven? Nothing at all. It is an idea based on the individual heart of man. Which puts you eternally in your own heaven, and you may quickly find out such a place is hell.

If Heaven is to be desirable, it must be above all things definitive. There must be something about it to which we can cling, a truth that doesn't depend on us (and therefore doesn't change with a man) but rather relies on the Unchanging. And indeed, when we read the Bible, we find that such a truth is real.

Jesus says, "I am going to prepare a place for you." In other words, "I'm going to my place to make a space for you." It's His place. We are invited into it. It's His design. There is accommodation for us. It's His heaven. He welcomes us to be there. And what really can we say about it?

We can say simply this: that Heaven is Eden restored. This is another one of those things that takes a little deep Biblical thought...

The voice said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, 'Release the four angels who are held at the great Euphrates River.' - Revelation 9:14

At first, maybe you're thinking, 'Okay. And....?' But from Revelation all the way back to Genesis, we see the connection...

A river flowed from Eden to water the garden. Outside the garden it divided into four rivers. ...The fourth river is the Euphrates. ...So the Lord God sent the man out of the Garden of Eden to farm the ground from which the man had been formed. After he sent the man out, God placed angels and a flaming sword that turned in all directions east of the Garden of Eden. He placed them there to guard the way to the tree of life. - Genesis 2:10, 14b, 3:23-24

Do you see it now? It's the kind of simple Biblical truth that is so easy to miss if you're not thinking about it. But in the coming judgment, as God restores the world, He reopens Eden. He releases the angels from their guard (yes, they go on to kill a certain measure of humanity, but such is the price of unrepented sin) and the Garden is once again open to man. 

I prefer this image of Heaven; I can relate to it. I can relate to a longing for the Garden. For lush plants and beautiful flowers. For perfect harmony. For lions and lambs to lie down together. For abundant fruit and succulent vegetables. For sunshine and rain in perfect season. For the footsteps of God to be fresh in the fields, for His voice to carry over Creation, for His hand to be in my hand. For us to walk together, face-to-face, and talk as friends. For me, in all my indwelling sarcasm, to hide in the bushes and giggle when He finds me, declaring, "Just kidding!" Then laughing all the harder because in such a place, I feel no shame.

I never really connected with the idea of Heaven. I've never longed for marvelousness, for opulence. I can't imagine being happy with streets of gold or big mansions. It's so far out of my realm of experience, and even out of my heart of longing, that I can only fathom this version of Heaven being...awkward. At best. But I love the idea of Eden restored. Of the simple things. Of perfect pleasure. Of personal presence. Of just being relaxed in a fruitful place, diligent and disciplined but also fanciful and free. Of being in the quiet presence of love and knowing things are just as they were meant to be. It happens in the final days, when the angels are released from the Garden. When they no longer have to block the way. When man is allowed to step in and eat of the Tree of Life (Rev. 2:7) because God's desire for eternity finally comes to pass. 

With a restored Creation that, contrary to our concept, is not perfect. It's simply good again.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Season of Prayer

When we think about David and the way that he taught us to pray, I think most of us go straight to the Psalms. A seemingly perfect mix of humility and hope, fear and faith, defeat and discipline, the Psalms are certainly an image of prayer that our hearts can hold onto in any season. But there is another scene of David's prayer that I believe speaks volumes. The scene comes in 2 Samuel 12.

Nathan replied, 'The Lord has taken away your sin; you will not die. But since you have shown total contempt for the Lord by this affair, the son that is born to you must die.' Then Nathan went home. The Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife had given birth to for David so that the child became sick. (v. 13-15)

This is the part of the story where most of us give up. The trouble we find ourselves in, for the most part, is the trouble we've put ourselves in. It's our fault. We know we've done wrong. We know we've fallen short. We know we're in the Lord's hands. And He's just told us what He's going to do about it, so that seems like that. God's made up His mind; here comes the hammer. The funny thing is that we've convinced ourselves this is grace - that God would punish us but let us live, that He would speak and tell us His plan, that He would take the time to tell us how things have to happen now. It is grace that He loves us so. 

But it doesn't feel like love. It loss. We just put a holy spin on it to make it okay because it's what God has spoken; who are we to answer?

David doesn't buy into that. Continuing with the story:

David pleaded with God for the child; he fasted and lay on the ground all night. The older leaders in his palace stood beside him to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling. And he wouldn't eat with them. (v. 16-17)

David is not content with a fabricated grace; he pleads for mercy. He lies prostrate before God, petitions with every ounce of his being. He begs for another way. He disciplines himself - in fasting and prayer - to show his contrite spirit before the Lord. He still believes there's hope, and he's holding out for it. Because the child still breathes, although he is sick, and this is that time between when the Lord speaks and when Love acts, and if David has any chance of changing things, he's going to take it. 

I love that about him. I long to be more like that. And yet, there is a fine line here, too. It's not up to a man to hold onto prayer for longer than a season. There's a tender tenseness between night and morning. Unlike most of us, David knows where that line is and he's always got one eye on the reality.

On the seventh day the child died. But David's officials were afraid to tell him that the child was dead. They thought, 'While the child was alive, we talked to him, and he wouldn't listen to us. How can we tell him the child is dead? He may harm himself.' But when David saw that his officials were whispering to one another, he realized that the child was dead. 'Is the child dead?' David asked them. 'Yes, he is dead,' they answered. (v. 18-19)

In all his prayer, in his agonized petition, in his last hope, David continues to look for what God is actually doing, and he's willing to accept an answer contrary to his desire. He longs to change the Lord's mind, to spare his child's life, but he's also given himself to whatever God is doing. When the night ends and morning breaks and it's clear that God has acted, David wants to know that truth. He asks the hard question, received the devastating answer. Most of us aren't willing to do that. We want to hold onto our hope. We want to hold onto our prayer. We'll spend our lives lying down because to stand up again would be too painful. It would be an admission that God has done the hard thing, that it's time to move on, that it's time to give in. We miss too many good moments of our lives holding onto the things God has already made to pass. 

David would have none of it. He used the night to pray, but in the morning, chose to rise in the new reality of what God has done.

So David got up from the ground, bathed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the Lord's house and worshiped. Then he went home and asked for food. They placed food in front of him, and he ate. (v. 20)

It seems strange. His officials certainly thought it strange. For seven long days, David fasted and prayed. He denied himself, and it almost looked like depression. Maybe it was desperation. Then God does the very thing the king has been praying against, and the man after God's own heart stands up, dusts himself off, cleans up, and sits down to dinner. Life goes on. It is a new life, but life still the same and there are things for a man to do. He even goes into God's house to worship - because for seven days, the two have been at odds. For seven days, they've been battling it out. For seven days, David has been holding in his heart that God might do something different. Then God does something painful, and although it's hard, David doesn't want to make space for this thing to come between them. After lying down, he stands up and lays his life at the altar to restore the relationship. He brings himself back to God, a peace offering. A fellowship offering.

I love so many things about this story. It reminds me there is certainly a season in which to petition God, in which even to try to curry His graciousness (v. 22). That is the night. It is the season between when the Lord speaks and when Love acts, and there is space there for my flesh to cry out. But there is also a time in which God will do what He has purposed to do, and it's important to be awake to that. It's important to keep one eye open, looking for that time. It's important to recognize when that time has come, when a new day has dawned, when life must go on. And then it is important to let life go on. To do the things I need to do to bring me back to God, particularly after a time when I have set myself at odds against Him. To stand up, dust myself off, clean up, and sit down to dinner. Life goes on. There are things for a woman to do. Not because God has denied me and I have given up hope, but because God has acted and I embrace tomorrow. There are so many yesterdays I will never get back, so many chances that have come and gone. If I hold onto them, I give up today and sacrifice tomorrow and miss out on all of the things unfolding now and the graces to come. It's not worth it. Not for a bunch of yesterdays.

And what of our hero? What of his tomorrows?

Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba. He went to bed with her, and she later gave birth to a son. David named him Solomon. (v. 24)

Solomon. That's what happened to David's tomorrows. What's going to happen to yours?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

By a Thread

There are really two ways that most of us look at life. Some of us look at the things we do well; others focus on the things we could do better. Neither is a particularly beneficial viewpoint.

At any given time in your life, if you really think about it, about 98% of things are going well. Almost all of things are working out. But focusing on what's working is dangerous. It leads to complacency at best, entitlement at worst. It either makes you shrug off the 2% or curse it for not being a part of your near-perfect life. We learn to say that the little bad things don't matter because life is, overwhelmingly, good. That ignores a real piece of living here, and it neglects a tender space in the heart that takes on the burden of the broken places. I'm not a fan of the 98%.

The 2%, however, is no less dangerous. At any given time, about 2% of things are going wrong. Bad stuff happens. People fall short. You fall short. Life just isn't what it seems, or what it promises. But focusing on the failures is also dangerous. It leads to perfectionism and self-hatred, and eventually to feelings of futility and hopelessness. You keep pushing yourself, striving for something you can never have in this world, which is wholeness. Even at Creation, this place wasn't perfect; it was only ever "good." Even God kept improving on His design - deciding long after the six days that it wasn't good, a contradiction to His original belief, for man to be alone and thus, designing woman. It wasn't 100% that made Creation good; it was the One. It was one-ness with Him, the relationship of man and God walking together, the intimacy of the Garden. Focusing on the imperfection, on the 2%, robs us of the joy of good.

I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate what's working in our lives. We should cherish the good things. I'm not saying we don't continue to work on the broken things. There's always something to make better, and we should never be satisfied with our shortcomings. What I'm saying is that viewing this life as working and not-working, blessed and broken, good and bad is, in one way or another, inhibiting us from living the good life.

Neither is it so simple that we "turn our eyes upon Jesus" and just look at God in all of this. I don't think that's a realistic theology. It takes our eyes away from this world, in the face of a God who has put us in this very place. It disconnects us from the life we're meant to live. Everything God ever told man to do, every command He's given, every invitation He's extended, has to do with living life here. It has to do with going into the nations and making disciples, to loving our neighbors, to meeting together with the faithful, to a million tiny little things we will do over a lifetime in this place. Looking at God and pretending this place doesn't matter is like spitting in His face. Just because you're His doesn't mean you get a pass out of here; He put you here. Not so that you would drudge through your days and drag your weary self into eternity but so that you would have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10) That's more than a promise for Heaven; that's a promise for here.

So how do we do it? How do we figure out what this life is without focusing on the good and becoming complacent or entitled or focusing on the bad and becoming perfectionistic and defeated? What holds our lives up if it is not the good things? What holds us back if not the bad?

Our lives are held neither up nor back; rather, they are woven together by a thread. Call it whatever you will; I like to think of it as grace. God says He knit you together in your mother's womb, and anyone who knits know that means there's a thread that runs through your life that holds everything together. It brings the good in with the bad, gives you something to hold onto and something to hope for all at the same time. It lets you relish your blessings and embrace your brokenness in the same breath. And all the while, it keeps your eyes on the God who has given both, according to His mercy. He is the God who created you and declares, "It is good" but never stops tweaking things because good is never perfect. But still, it is good because of the one-ness, because of the relationship between your life and His, because of the intimacy of your wovenness. It is His thread that holds you together. 

I think that's the balance. I think that's the view we're supposed to have of this life, of ourselves. It's not that we focus on the good; that's a recipe for complacency. It's not that we dwell on the bad; that's an invitation to defeat. It's not even that we look to our God; that's a temptation to escape. Rather, it's that we fix our eyes on the thread of grace that holds us together, the thin strip of holy that allows us to see the good, the bad, and the Lord all at once. us. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Better Place

Yesterday, I got into a discussion with a friend. She is very pro-social movement, and I say that because it seems she's on board with a lot of groups, all fighting for various different "human rights," as the groups like to call them. I won't get into that; that's politics and in this case, the politics don't matter.

But as we got around to it, I laid the question on the line: To what end, I asked her. To what end are you fighting for all of these things? I laughed. The theology in me loved her answer.

"It makes this world a hell of a better place to live."

It's okay if you're chuckling right now; I did. I still sort of am. Because isn't that the problem? Isn't that kind of the big flaw with living in a place like this? We spend our lives trying to make this a better place to live, but by our very actions, we're painting ourselves into a hell we could hardly get out of. It's quite literally becoming a hell of a better place.

A better place where people earn more money and are better able to provide for themselves and their families. But at what price? Man is still bound by money, no matter how much money he has. And he's working himself in prolonged or sometimes unsafe situations to get it, sacrificing many other things in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Which, yes, makes life better but only by a certain measure. By many others, it makes life hell. 

A better place where people are free to do as they please, even when it's questionable to others what a person might choose to do. It seems like a noble idea on the surface. After all, most of us feel reasonably free to do as we please. Then again, most of us are fairly reasonable to begin with and wouldn't imagine doing much in the way of controversy. But when we expand the idea of a man's freedom, we inevitably run into those with mischief or malady on their mind and there's nothing we can do about it. We make it a better place in that man is free, but it is hell because we cannot say anything to a man whose freedom conflicts with our good taste. It's anarchy. It's hell.

The list could go on, but those are kind of the general idea. The problem with social movements, as I see it, is that they aren't about expanding the line; they're about eliminating it. My friend even told me that the only acceptable outcome is total buy-in, that if one man refuses to believe the end game of the movement, it is a failure. We'll never get there. We're never going to get to a place where everyone agrees on everything. There's nothing in the world that everyone agrees on right now, not even things like puppies, kittens, doughnuts, or bacon. (I know!) Yet the goal is to remove the lines and create a free-for-all. And as long as any line exists, this could still be a "better place."

It's the way we live, but I have to disagree. It's what the world tells us, but what does this world know? There is a line. There is a separation. There is a way to differentiate between right and wrong, good and bad, freedom and love, peace and war, promise and purgatory. There has to be a way or God would not have told us to choose this one over that. He would not have sent us in search of the narrow way if there were really no way at all, if it didn't matter. 

God calls us to do good in this world, and Lord help me, I try. You probably try. We live, we love, we long for the Lord. We share. We serve. We speak truth. We do the kinds of good things that we have to believe matter in a place like this, and yet we are all subject to this very temptation - to do this world according to this world and try to sneak God in. We're working so hard on surviving, on making it to Heaven, that we forget to make a little Heaven in this place. 

And what happens is we end up with exactly what my friend was hoping for - a hell of a better place to live. If we're not careful, we might start to think that maybe that's enough.