Hurry Up… and Stop

Advent starts tomorrow.

Maybe your “Christmas season” started at 4:30am on Friday morning; maybe it started online on Thursday night.

Maybe you are already running at 150 miles and hour.

Maybe you are already stressed out due to family tensions and too-many-parties.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s a reminder: Advent is about waiting. 

If you don’t come from a liturgical background (I don’t, by the way), you may not realize that Christmas actually begins on December 25 and lasts for 12 days (hence the annoying song). The season that leads up to December 25 is called “Advent”, which literally means “the coming into being.”

If you follow the Christian calendar, Advent is a period of time reflect on the significance of the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world.

(Which is kind of a big deal…)

So maybe your holiday season has already begun with a frenetic—even pathological—tone. However, it does not need to remain that way.

After all, it doesn’t take a ton of effort to engage in some moments of reflection and thoughtful contemplation this season.

So here’s my question/challenge: What will you do over the next 25 days to slow down, to reflect, to rise above (or stay below, as the case may be) the Christmas (not Advent) madness? 

What if you set aside 10-20 minutes in the morning to reflect and stay silent (or maybe even begin a practice of centering prayer)?

What if you lit a candle each evening at dinner to remind yourself of this light that is “coming into the world”? (see John 1)?

What if you went through a book of Advent reflections?

What if you chose to read through a Gospel (or 2 even) during this season?

Christians are fond of saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season”, but most of us really don’t do anything to actually act like it. We tend to go about our business in much the same way as the rest of the world.

Could this December be different?

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Is Jesus Cruel?

“We were always taught that Jesus said these things to remind us of how utterly depraved we are.”

I am journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with some friends of mine, and we spend last Wednesday going through Jesus’ “re-interpretation” of the Torah in Matthew chapter 5. If you haven’t read it, you can see it here, but essentially Jesus selects a few of the Ten Commandments, and takes them to incredibly high levels:

  • He says it’s not enough to “not kill”, but if you’re even angry with someone you’ve broken a commandment.
  • It’s not enough to refrain from committing adultery; if you look at a woman (or a man, for that matter) lustfully you have broken the commandment.
  • Divorce is prohibited except for pretty extreme circumstances (either sexual unfaithfulness or incest, depending on your interpretation of porneia in 5:32).
  • Revenge is ruled out as well, as is swearing allegiance or taking oaths, and an overall rejection of human ideas of honor and humiliation.

It is an incredibly high standard of living; something that seems virtually unattainable.

So the question is, “Did he mean it?”

One school of thought—reflected by my friend’s comment above—is that Jesus never intended for us to be able to live that way. In fact only he could actually do it, and the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is therefore to remind us how awful we are; that we can never live up to this standard, and therefore we just grateful that Jesus would die for us wretched people.

Frankly, I find this image of Jesus cruel, and I just dont’ think that Jesus is in the “cruel” business.

Succinctly, I think:

1. He totally meant it, and furthermore,
2. He thinks we can do it.

Now in no way is it easy; in fact, it IS impossible, but only if we refuse to do the things that he did in order to live the life he lived. 

One way that you can interpret Jesus’ kingdom pronouncement—”The Kingdom of God is here/near/among/within you”—is to hear or read it as, “The eternal life that you will live forever, in God’s presence, is available now.”

Ultimately, what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5 is what the “eternal life”, the kingdom looks like. Obviously Jesus lived this life perfectly, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to experience it for ourselves now as well.

I think this is the point he’s trying to get across.

What’s more, I think that he hints at how to start experiencing this kingdom life in the very structure of the Sermon.

Briefly, he begins the sermon with the Beatitudes. It’s easy to see that these are simply a way to say, “Before anything you are blessed. You don’t have to work for your blessing. You are blessed because of God’s love for the outcast, the outsider, the spiritual losers.” (And by the way, aren’t we all these things?)

After the Torah reinterpretation of Matthew 5, he spends over a chapter talking about working out your spiritual life in humility: away from the expectations (and praises) of others.

+ Praying in private
+ Giving in secret

These things, and others, are simply ways to humbly separate ourselves from the reward systems that our culture so readily gives us, but that ALSO go to reinforce the pathological parts of our existence, the parts that make us demand, and strive…

and fight…

and objectify…

and crave revenge…

(In other words all the things he says we can’t do.)

Ultimately I think the Sermon is a call to live the Kingdom life, and to start doing it now. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that Jesus releases us from it, and ultimately it’s not working to be a person who isn’t angry, or lustful, or vengeful, or who swears allegiance to anything or anybody over God.

It’s about wanting to be that kind of person, and then living our lives as radically blessed as God while we intentionally cultivate humility.

That’s not easy, but I think Jesus believes in us.

Tools for the New Year: Rails

The concept of a train is simple: wheels on rails. The rails constrain the wheels and prevent them from wandering, but they also give the wheels a smooth the path to travel. Unlike a car, a train can’t go

wherever it wants—it has to travel the path that the rails follow—but a train can trust the rails, and as long as they haven’t been destroyed or damaged, the rails will take the train where it needs to go.

A few days ago I wrote about how humility is the key to growth, and one further aspect of humility is admitting our need for “rails” in our lives.

If you’re anything like me, I’d prefer to think of myself as a free-ranging vehicle (a Jeep 4×4, especially): I can go anywhere and do anything I’d like, and I will continue to grow into the person that I need to be and that God wants me to be.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

After 40-something years on this earth, I am able to say with a fair amount of certainty that left to my own devices I will wander to and fro, and “growth” will remain far from the top of my “to do” list.

I don’t make such a good Jeep.

I need rails, things that keep me on track.

Maybe I make a better train.

Now, rails have other words too:

  • systems
  • routines
  • habits
  • disciplines
  • rules

These “rails”, as long as I follow them and choose to stay on them, tend to take me to the places I want to go spiritually. (To extend the metaphor just a bit, it’s important to remember that the point of a train is not to just “ride the rails”; trains go places; the destination is what’s important. When the rails become the point of everything, we’ve lost the point.) At first, they feel odd: constrain you; they cramp your “style”; they stretch you, and may challenge you to do things that aren’t in your “nature” (“Well, I’m not really a Bible reading person, ya know?!?!”). But, after a while, they don’t feel as odd or forced. You find yourself moving with them, anticipating their turns. You’re working with the rails now.

Specifically, here are some of the rails and “constraints” that I use:

  • a regular habit of focused prayer and mediation each morning
  • a discipline of regular Scripture reading and studying
  • a commitment to regularly (1-2 times a month) sit down with 1-2 older spiritual mentors and humbly submit to their leadership and suggestions (again with the humility)
  • a system of managing my time, projects and energy (I use both electronic and paper calendars, and a combination of OmniFocus and Apple’s Reminders)
  • a method of examining the overall direction and theme of my life

As some of these rails have become cemented into my character, I have had to rely on the externals a bit less, but the principles remain the same: I submit to the rails.

Because I have somewhere to go; a person to be; a redemptive movement to play a part in.

And I trust the rails to take me there.

Do you have any rails? What are they? Do you need to reevaluate any of them?

+e

Professional Faith 3: Muscle Confusion

So P90X is all the rage right now.

From what I understand (ahem), it’s all about “muscle confusion”: when you do certain exercises over and over, your body actually adapts to the routine, and eventually you begin to lose some of the benefits of your workout. In order to avoid this you need to keep your muscles “confused” by constantly varying your workout and introducing new exercises.

A professional faith also needs “muscle confusion” in a way.

One of the phrases pastors constantly hear is, “Well, I’m not a _________ person,” where that blank space is occupied by words like, “Bible”, “worship”, “service”, “tithing”, “solitude”, “community”, etc.

People are constantly identifying and declaring their “natural wiring”: how God has naturally wired them.

This is a good thing.

Mostly.

The thing is, as I hear people say (for instance), “Well I don’t really share my junk because I’m not really a community person,” sometimes I think is our faith really based on, “I’m not really?” Is it only based on who we are, or is it based on who we are capable of becoming

Someone better?

I think identifying our natural inclinations and paths for spiritual growth is absolutely invaluable, but if we’re not careful we surrender growth for remaining comfortable in those paths.

And I don’t think that’s what God intends.

All the great religions—Christianity included—are not based on us merely being what we are but on challenging us to be MORE than what we are.

And to be honest, I want that. I need that.

And so here enters the concept of muscle confusion.

A professional faith demands that we not get too comfortable in our daily or weekly disciplines. Growth demands that we stretch ourselves, meaning we engage in pathways and efforts that may feel alien or strange to us.

So community people: choose solitude every once and a while.

Bible people: make sure you are going on mission trips (both local and global).

Service people: make sure you are reading your Bible.

Make no mistake: these will feel uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Spiritual activity that becomes too rote and routine runs the risk of losing its effectiveness.

So to review (and to paint in broad strokes), a professional faith:

  1. Isn’t governed by emotionalism, but shows up, day after day, to do the work of spiritual growth.
  2. Has a plan and engages in tools it needs to grow.
  3. Isn’t afraid to occasionally shake things up in order to get out of routine.

Keep on growing.

 

+e

 

Footsteps :: Intro

I was talking with some folks the other day about Jesus, and I had a curious thought: if we are Jesus’ disciples, what exactly are we supposed to do

At our most pure state, it seems that we are supposed to be Jesus’ disciples. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes it (almost troublingly) clear that being a disciple means doing what he did.

In Mark chapter 6, we’re told that Jesus called the Twelve, and subsequently, “sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority over unclean spirits… So they went out and proclaimed that people should change their hearts and lives. They cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people with olive oil and healed them” (vv7, 13).

The curious thing about this statement is that the things that Jesus sends the disciples out to do are the very things that he has been doing in Mark’s gospel. In Jesus’ mind, there’s no difference between the things that he does and his expectations for the Twelve.

This is pretty amazing when you think about their track record at this point. Rather than being the star pupils, at this point in the story of God the disciples are a little bit more like the odd kid in the back of the class who may or may not have been eating paste. They’re not exactly hitting it out of the park…

… And yet Jesus does not hesitate to send them out to…

  • have authority over unclean spirits
  • proclaim repentance
  • cast out demons
  • heal people.

The profound implication for this story is simply this:

Being a disciple of Jesus means doing the things that he does…

Whether or not you think you’re good enough… 

These things constitute the short list of what Jesus expects us to do.

But then I got to thinking: what else did Jesus do? Maybe he expects us to do those things too.

So I took a brief survey of the gospels and just tried to look at the things that Jesus did. Some things he did in order to serve people; some thing he did in order to stay connected with his Father.

Over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to lay out some of those things, and see what we can learn from the way our master arranged his life.

Silence

I do “contemplation” pretty well. It’s in my nature to be somewhat quiet and at rest (as my waistline will attest).

But there’s a difference between rest and redemptive silence.

Recently, I have not been able to begin my day in silence the way I have been accustomed to, and I my soul has been paying the price. I’ve realized that taking some time—any time—has a significant positive impact to the amount of peace in my spirit.

It’s easy to assume that we’re supposed to “hit the ground running”. Maybe we’re supposed to hit the ground listening.

Or kneeling. 

To let God speak a word—The Word—to us, before we start speaking back to Him, or to our families.

We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

My (Half) Day as a Monk

image via wikipedia.org

All I knew is that I needed a break.

Last week, I found myself desperately needing to hear from God. I didn’t know quite know what to do, so I drastically rearranged my schedule in order to try and put myself, as best I could, in a position to listen. About halfway through the day, I thought, “Hey, I just spent the day like a monk would!”

Okay let’s be honest: my understanding of a monk’s life is informed mostly by television, movies, and a few books, but this represents my best guess as to what it would be like. 

  • Monks get silence. St. Benedict wrote that Monks should diligently cultivate silence at all times.” After I dropped my daughter off at school, I stopped talking (Full disclosure: In order to keep from being rude, I needed to say, “Thanks,” to a couple people). I turned the radio off, put away the iPod, and just. shut. up.
  • Monks get solitude. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Christ the Lord is a spirit before your face, and he demands solitude of the spirit more than of the body… To follow the advice and example of the bridegroom, shut the door and then pray… He spent nights alone in prayer, not merely hiding from the crowds but even from his disciples and familiar friends.” I hid my phone and turned off my mail app, in order to be fully present and not distracted.
  • Finally, monks get work. Though the purpose of a monastic life was not to work and “produce” stuff, the fathers of the church knew the value of working with your hands and contributing to a community. In the midst of my silence, I went out and mowed the lawn, continuing to direct my thoughts towards God (and also continuing to remain silent).

Silence and solitude don’t come easy or naturally in our society. Even our spirituality can be shot through and through with activity, busy-ness, and distractedness.

Dallas Willard bluntly writes that, “the life in tune with God is actually nurtured by time spent alone… It is is solitude and solitude alone that opens the possibility of a radical relationship to God that can withstand all external events up to and beyond death. (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 101)

Because I believe in the power of a secret, I won’t divulge all of what I heard from God that day, but I will tell you this much:

He spoke, and I heard. 

A lot of you might say, “I could never take the time to do that,” but I wonder…

  • a lot of us take regular trips to the beach or to the pool…
  • a lot of us carve out time to travel hours (because in Tallahassee we have to) to go see a great band…
  • a lot of us take days full of friends, shopping, and voices…

So why not take some time to seek some silence, and quietness. Take some space to get away from the constant voices in your life to sit at the feet of God?

p.s. to read a little more about the rule of St. Benedict, you can go here and here.