HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Pruned”

phonto-3

In John’s gospel, Jesus talks to the disciples a lot. He spends a lot of time in chapters 13-17 giving advice and challenging them to live a radically loving and service-oriented life. As in the rest of the gospel, Jesus makes good use of metaphor, in particular in chapter 15:1-8, which is worth quoting at length:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you on’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you. Ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

There are two things that stand out in this passage: First, as with “sifting”, pruning is not usually meant to be pleasant. Most of us think that we increase our effectiveness by adding things to our lives:

  • gadgets,
  • activities,
  • Titles
  • Commitments
  • Awards

However, Jesus’ words here push back—quite forcefully—against this. Pruning is not grafting: it’s not adding things onto a plant or a grapevine. It is removing things… quite abruptly.

By cutting them off.

God wants us to be effective—to produce fruit—and most of us would eagerly agree to the idea of being effective “for God.” What most of us don’t want to think about is cutting things out of our lives—being pruned—in order to be effective. Removing, for instance…

Gadgets…

Activities…

Commitments…

Awards…

Titles…

It doesn’t seem so pleasant, and yet “addition by subtraction” really does seem to be what Jesus is aiming for.

The second aspect of this passage emerged when I was studying the Lord’s Prayer. A theologian pointed out that a common practice for growing grape vines was that a particular plant would be pruned for three years before it was allowed to produce fruit. Rather than rushing to produce, the vine was cut back so that its root system could grow deeper. 

I was struck by my attitude towards serving: my rush to “do something” for the church, and my impatience to make an impact.

In contrast, Jesus says that before you do something, you need to be something: namely deep and rooted. 

Obviously, there are pretty profound implications for the way we lead people as well, specifically in how deeply we challenge people to grow, and how much to we emphasize who people are becoming as opposed to the things kinds of things they are doing.

As we reach the halfway point in this Holy Week, the two questions that Jesus asks today are:

  1. What are you prepared to cut away in order to produce?
  2. Have your roots grown deep enough to balance out the ministry you are involved with? Does your character match your call?

Feel free to share, and also feel free to follow me on Twitter.

 

Next up: Jesus says, “Please.”

 

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HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Sifted”

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Just after the Last Supper, the disciples show their humanness by immediately having an argument on who is the greatest. Evidently they have utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teachings on service and humility. When he hears their debate, Jesus reminds them that the greatest among them “must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant” (Luke 22:26).

In the gospels, Peter often serves as the “representative disciple”, meaning that he symbolizes the questions, successes and (mostly) failures of the disciples—of The Twelve and of all us.

Immediately after Jesus reminds all of the Twelve about “true greatness,” he turns to Peter and says, “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. However I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your bothers and sisters” (Luke 22:31-32).

 

This is a harsh but very true statement that holds as true for us today as it did for Peter. Sifting is not easy. Sifting separates the good from the bad, but it is seldom pleasant. If for nothing else, sifting reminds us that inside us there is both wheat and chaff.

 

Most of the time we don’t want to be reminded that we are not all perfect, but Jesus here reminds the “representative disciple” that it’s sort of inevitable, that some kind of breaking or humbling is going to come Peter’s—and thus our—way.

 

Interestingly, Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed that his strength won’t fail. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Don’t lead us into temptation” (Luke 11:4b). In Matthew’s version of the prayer, Jesus says, “Don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” There is a sense in Jesus’ teachings that temptation is a given. Avoiding it is not the point, but enduring it is (otherwise, he wouldn’t have to add, “but deliver us from the evil one”).

 

So with these words, Jesus is saying that reflection, humility, and even a bit of failure is inevitable for a disciple, but Jesus will be praying that we find our way through it. 

 

Then  Jesus adds this additional challenge to Peter: “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.”

 

The sequence seems pretty clear:

 

  1. We need to be “sifted”: to examine ourselves and see what’s good and bad in our inventory, and then be prepared to respond appropriately.
  2. We need to rely on Jesus’ strength to help us endure the humbling that sifting involves.
  3. After we get done with our inventory, and come to terms with the “chaff” in our lives, we are called to service.

 

Next up: Jesus gets out the pruning shears.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @ericcase

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Holy Week 2014: Last Words – Monday

A couple years ago, I wrote out some thoughts for Holy Week. They were centered around some of the places that Jesus encountered during his last days before his crucifixion. This year, I thought I’d offer some devotional thoughts on some of the last words he spoke. These are simply meant to give us all some things to think about as we process Jesus’ sacrifice.

“Let’s Go To Jerusalem.” 

Though Matthew doesn’t quote Jesus saying this, he does record that “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).

Personally, I think it’s crystal clear that Jesus knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. The portrait that the gospels paint of Jesus is of a man who is well aware of the directions that the winds in Israel were blowing. Between Rome’s empire and Israel’s coming, religion-fueled violent revolution Jerusalem was not the place to go if you (a) wanted to stay safe while (b) preaching the arrival of God’s kingdom.

But safety isn’t part of Jesus’ agenda.

Unless he chooses to change his message (God is King) or his strategy (non-violent resistance and prophetic pronouncements), Jesus knows what waits for him in Jerusalem: the might, power, and force  of the temple and the religious establishment (backed by Rome’s interest in keeping the tax money flowing).

Jesus may not be a mathematician, but I imagine he can add, and he can see that this is going to end badly for him.

But that’s exactly why he chooses to go.

I don’t know if Jesus was “afraid” in any sense that we may understand that word, but at any rate he sees where the danger and darkness lies, and he walks straight towards it. 

For many of us, we don’t need to look very far for darkness and danger. For a lot of us, we have wilderness and black caves inside our own souls; that’s where our darkness is. There are things—brokenness, fears, unconfronted/unacknowledged sin—lurking deep inside of our hearts and lives. They may be backed by the power of years of co-dependency and escapism, and we may be well aware that to confront them may very well mean pain and even death of parts of us.

But in the same way that Jesus knows, and still goes, I think we are called to go: go to the dark places inside us, the places that are rooted in the power of this world, that will buffet and beat us as soon as we show up.

Moreover, I think that we are called to go to the dangerous places inside us with Jesus’ message and method: “God is King, and you will be defeated, not by asserting more power or more control, but by surrender of ego, of self, and by a willingness to die to myself.”

What is your “Jerusalem”? An addiction? A vision of your future that you’ve clung to? Your pride? What would it mean to walk towards it, to face it, and then to surrender so that God can begin to heal you? 

Science Mike, The Liturgists, and the Silence that is Saving My Life

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A good friend of mine sent me a link to something he’s been working on with the folks from the band Gungor. There’s a spoken word piece on the power of prayer, and in particular a practice called “Centering Prayer”. This is an ancient form of prayer practiced by many of the church fathers and desert monks. The spoken word piece talks about prayer from the point-of-view of science, and discusses some of the proven benefits of silence and meditation on our health.

This was so encouraging to encounter, because I had discovered centering prayer about a year ago, and it is a discipline that has taken root in a deep and powerful way in my life, and while I’m not a scientist, this approach to prayer has had profound and significant effects for me.

Mike can explain all of the silence behind praying; for me it has been all about me learning to recognize and quiet the pathology that is inside me. The prayer has helped me begin to recognize the lies that I so easily believe:

+ That I am the center of my world.
+ That I have more to say to God than He could ever possibly say to me.
+ That my words can somehow control or manipulate God.
+ That God—and grace—can be understood and controlled.

All of these ideas—in some circles they are known as “the false self”—and more start to crack and crumble in the face of 20 minutes of absolute silence and a quiet mind and heart. They evaporate in the presence of a God who dwell in “deep darkness” (1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:2; Psalm 97:2, ).

After a while, you can even begin to see that God is working in you to heal you, to grow and transform you in something resembling Jesus Christ.

(This is a good thing.)

If you wanted to get started with the practice of centering prayer, I’d suggest a few things:

  1. Check out The Liturgists: either live or recorded and rest in the peace of what they are doing.
  2. Read Richard Foster’s book Prayer, which has chapters on The Prayer of the Heart, Meditative Prayer, and Contemplative Prayer, which are somewhat related.
  3. Read Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
  4. Have a conversation with someone who has experience with it. You can sometimes find these folks in monasteries, or in certain local faith communities (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).

Two brief words in closing:

  1. Gungor/The Liturgists have taken this meditative approach to worship and prayer on the road, and I’ve seen some great responses to it. If they come someplace near you, you should definitely go, but at the same time, keep in mind that experiencing mystery, silence, and contemplation one time in a theatre or arena is not the same as incorporating it into your daily life. If you had to choose between a daily encounter and a one-time tour stop, choose the daily encounter.
  2. There is a certain nervousness in the west (North America) about disciplines like centering prayer and contemplation, and I suppose I can understand this. My response is first, this is not a new (nor a “new age”) practice, but one that has long standing connections to our faith tradition. Just because it is alien to us in our North American mindset does not mean that it is wrong, or something to be feared. Second, this is merely a way for us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Jesus’ work on the cross was complete and takes care of the brokenness that is inside me. That being said, Jesus (and Paul as well) was also passionate about change and growth and maturity. Prayer is probably the key mechanism for that growth and maturity.

I’ll stay silent, and wait on God.

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Actually Kids Really LIKE Vegetables

I remember the first time my wife set some steamed broccoli on my plate.

Our daughter was about a year old, and she was starting to eat regular food.

But broccoli? 

I looked at Shana with my eyebrows raised.

“Our children are going to go up eating healthy, and Emily needs to see us eating vegetables.”

But broccoli?

Like many other kids who grew up in the—oh let’s face it who grew up anytime in the last 50 yearsbroccoli was the food that we all made fun of.

No one ever actually ate it, did they? 

Well, regardless of my history, I took a bite.

It wasn’t bad.

And so began our long running association with fruits and vegetables.

At one point, things got so bad that we got Emily a “Costco-sized” can of Del Monte Green Beans for her birthday and she acted like we’d just gotten her a car simply because she was so used to eating fresh or frozen green beans that the added preservatives in the can was like eating cake to her. 

Really.

But you know what? Kids really like vegetables.

We think they only like fish sticks and pizza, but when kids get a taste of real food, they tend to want more.

It’s like that with true spirituality.

Last June I went on a mission trip with some folks from my church. We ranged in age from 15 to 45, with most of us (okay: them) in their 20s. We built houses all day, and hung out with some kids in villages around Panajachel, Guatemala. At night we would sit up on the roof of our hotel and just unpack the day.

There was an older gentleman who wasn’t really a part of our church, but he’d traveled with our team to see what Porch de Salomon was up to. This guy—he has since become a spiritual mentor/director to me—would sit with us, and while most of us were just trying to recover from the day or crack bad jokes, he would start to ask us very simple questions:

“So how did you grow spiritually today?”

“Where did you see God today?”

These were not crazy, earth-shattering questions, and yet somehow they were the questions we needed to answer. 

And as we began to answer, the most amazing thing began to happen:

tears were shed…

poignant stories—of vulnerability and roundedness—began to be shared…

fears were exposed…

hopes were laid out…

All from these simple questions, and an older individual who refused to let us stay on the surface, and who was unafraid to lead us to tender places.

Even when what we thought wanted was just a chance to knock back a beer or two and laugh.

What we really needed was to go into our souls.

It revolutionized my understanding of what people are seeking.

I thought people—in particular younger people—were in search of superficial, tepid spirituality. I thought they wanted to work and drink and laugh and then shop and then go home.

But I was wrong.

What I learned is that people are hunger, even desperate for something real and deep and life-changing.

They want to cry. They want to tell their stories. And share their fears. They—we—want to be known.

I see so much in church “discipleship” that is designed to get people serving, and giving, and participating, but I’m not sure I see efforts to cultivate spiritual directors, or mentoring. I’m not sure I hear people relentlessly asking the basic spiritual questions we are all hungry for.

“How have I grown spiritually today?”

“Have I been honest with myself and others?”

“Have I hurt someone today? Do I need to ask forgiveness from someone?”

These are the thoughts that people want to think about.

Sometimes it seems like the church is convinced that people want “Happy Meals” or some kind of GMO perfection, but what we want is something earthy, connected, and trusted.

Like vegetables.

Gospel Artist and Rainer Maria Rilke

I picked up Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I quickly stumbled across this:

I know no advice for you save this: go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise: at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.

Seen through the eyes of a Gospel Artist, and one who is called to change, this is a great quote. I actually we believe we are all called to create a gospel-shaped life. We take the destiny of Christ-likeness (or at least we do, if we choose), and begin our pilgrim path of change and evolution.

Have you ever considered that change is possible? That you are called to create (along with God through the Holy Spirit) a life that is shaped by God?

What would it look like if you were called? What could your life look like if you decided to create something wonderful and beautiful?

What would it look like if you chose to be an artist? 

The Key to Everything: Humility

journalsYesterday, I took part in a panel discussion at church about “resetting” for the New Year. We talked about some of the rituals and systems we use to try and get ourselves for the New Year.

It was fun to talk about my journals and such, and some of my approach to this season of the year, but I was left wondering if anyone “got it”.

At one point I said from the stage, “If you don’t expect anything more out of 2014 than what you did in 2014, I’d challenge you to examine what you expect out of your faith.” 

Do people really believe in transformation?

Do you?

Do you believe you can change?

Do you believe you’re called to?

I think it actually boils down to some very basic beliefs, so let me ask you:

  • In John 4, Jesus says that he offers water that will become a spring of water that bubbles up (inside us) into eternal life…
  • In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul says that we have the mind of Christ…

Were they liars? 

Were they only talking to “super-Christians”? 

As one of my spiritual mentors says, “Either it is, or it isn’t.” 

So, if Jesus and Paul knew something about life; if they really meant what they said, then we are left to wrestle with their statements.

The burden is on us.

Question 1: Do you want to have the mind of Christ? to have a constant stream of living water inside you? 

Question 2: What are you prepared to surrender in order to gain it? 

This is the point where many of us get snagged, if for no reason than this: we have our lives, our systems of existence, and we don’t like to think that they maybe aren’t working. 

So where do we start?

We start with humility. We start with the admission that we actually don’t know what’s best for us. We declare as best we can, “I believe that there’s something more for me, but my life isn’t set up to obtain it. God help me.”

He wants to.

Someone asked a desert hermit once, “What is the way to make progress?” The hermit answered, “Humility. The more we bend ourselves to humility, the more we are lifted up to make progress.”

Humility declares, “I don’t know the way.”

Humility opens the door to learning. To growth. 

Humility says, “There must be more, and I am open to it.”

Humility says, “I cannot save myself.”

(By the way, humility is not merely self-deprecating or a way for us to belittle ourselves; it is a way to open ourselves up to growth and change. Feeling sorry for ourselves can actually merely be another way to be arrogant and self-centered. True humility is accompanied by a desire and willingness to change, to move, to reconsider.)

So, as 2013 begins, where are you with humility? Have you figured it all out, or are you still willing to acknowledge that you need to make more “progress”?

If you’re still learning, still growing, still changing, what are you doing to continue to learn and grow this year?

Spiritual Growth Isn’t Sexy

I like new things. Curiosity is pretty hard-wired into my being, and I like it; it drives me to new subjects, to new perspectives, to a broader understanding of God’s world.

But there’s a point at which “new” starts working against you, particularly in regards to growing.

Over my years of following God, I have dabbled in charismatic faith, liturgical faith, post-modern worship, and more recently centering prayer and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Some of these movements—the more ancient ones in particular—are particularly attractive to me because they seem so alien. They use a language that I’m unused to, and that wakes me up and draws me in. The way monks and Orthodox folks refer to the spiritual world is compelling to me, and I respond by buying books and beginning to experiment.

Historically, however, I get bored; after a time the newness wears off. The words don’t seem as fresh anymore.

This is when curiosity becomes a problem.

I’m learning lately to work through the “boredom”, to stop looking for new words and language and concepts, and to merely accept the forms that God has given me (and millions of others) to find Him.

It’s really not that exciting, in the end. Words can’t stay new forever. Eventually you have to get to the thing-behind-the-words. That’s the thing that really matters.

Don’t get me wrong: Manning, Merton, Keating, John of the Cross can certainly turn a phrase. I will always appreciate that part of their gifting.

But the hard lesson I’m learning is that even when the phrases have been emptied of their “magic”, even when they are less poetic and more pragmatic, I still have to grow.

Ultimately, it’s not the poetry that makes me grow. It’s the Spirit behind the poetry that is the real thing.

What about you? Anyone else out there struggle with always pursuing the new? What have you sought out?

Coming Down the Mountain

“Mountaintop spiritualilty has perhaps been one of the most destructive things in my spiritual life.”

The words were really out before I had a thought about them. They emerged in a morning devotion with a group of people high up (ironically) in the Guatemalan hills, at a morning devotion time before we went out to build houses.

For me, it was a typically melodramatic overstatement, but in this case it was also pretty true.

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

I am certainly no mountain climber, but I’d spent a season reading and learning a lot about climbing Mount Everest through books like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and a Discover Channel series called, “Beyond the Limit”, about a professional guide at Everest who helped people with their final ascent.

It is an absolutely brutal and a very real you-can-really-die-in-an-instance type of experience. The altitude and brutal conditions take a horrendous toll on your body, making taking even ONE step an excruciating experience. Some people end up being able to put one foot in front of the other about once every thirty minutes. In the last couple of ascents (it takes many days to get from “base camp” at Everest up to the top), the oxygen is so thin that your body is literally incapable of getting enough nourishment, so it begins to essentially “eat itself.” The caloric requirement is so huge, that your body goes into hunger mode, and starts devouring muscle protein in order to survive.

Every move, every stop must be highly scheduled and coordinated or you will literally die on the mountain (many bodies are left frozen on the mountain; you can see them as you climb).

All for thirty minutes.

Due to oxygen requirements (and the schedule that keeps you alive), you can only spend about 30 minutes at the top of Everest.

Now, that thirty minutes may be wonderful; the experience is absolutely magical and unmatched; the time there may even be transformative; but it does not last.

You have to descend.

THAT, essentially, is how I lived my spiritual life for decades: a quest to get from “mountaintop” to “mountaintop”, fixing on spiritual highs like a drug. I would climb the mountain, dwell in the heights for a time, and descend like Moses, full of optimism and reflecting the Glory of God.

But it always faded. It always does.

And so I’d climb again.

And again.

And again.

Is this what Jesus meant by a stream of living water, welling up inside me to eternal life?

This didn’t feel like abundant life to me; it felt like experience addiction.

Lately I have decided to “come down the mountain”, and approach my spiritual life with a different metaphor.

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

The desert is not like the mountain. Where the mountain apexes into a specific peak, the desert drones on and on in a sort of monotony. There is a definite sameness to the landscape (though it’s certainly no less dangerous than climbing; the desert can just as easily kill you with thirst or a rattlesnake).

The desert leaves you alone with yourself. It forces you to face our most difficult challenge: OURSELVES.

On the surface, the desert is the same, day after day, but if you look more closely and have eyes to see and ears to hear, you can encounter amazing life and variety.

But it’s not easy.

You have to be attentive.

You have to watch and listen.

You have to be silent.

For me, this is the way I have to live in order to stay sane in this world. Mountaintop spirituality was simply turning me into a “religion junky”, and the fix NEVER seemed to hang around long enough. The desert, on the other hand, is a consistent, day-to-day walk that continually forces me to find beauty in the apparent normalcy of my life. It makes me work out my salvation in a very consistent, low key manner.

I don’t think it’s any accident that after the “light show” of Mount Sinai took place in the midst of Israel’s long desert experience. It’s as if God wanted to emphasize the fact that the occasional mountain may show up (though you may not even get to ascend; you may just get to watch Moses walk up), MOST—if not ALL—of your life is going to be spent walking through the desert. You have to get the desert right in order to keep the mountain in perspective.

Keep on walking.
+e
Perry and Jane’s gets it… (WARNING: If you know Jane’s Addiction, you know that this video is probably, well, CRAZY, and even a bit NSFW)

It Still Hurts (sometimes)…

Chicago, from Jonathan's Boat

Chicago, from Jonathan’s Boat

I know I was supposed to start this series on Jesus today, but I decided to wait another day or two…

So today, I lost my center. I’d been a little a over the place all day, but what sent me (at least briefly) over the edge was a simple text from a good friend in Chicago. He just asked me how I was doing, and caught me up in his life (including this totally unfair shot from his boat on Lake Michigan).

Almost in an instant I was swamped with the practically physical pain of loss from my life in Chicago. It’s a pain I knew really well for about two years, from 2006 to 2008. During that time, I thought of my life in terms of some kind of giant joke that God was playing on me. So much of who I thought I appeared to be taken from me, and very little was given back.

It took years to work through those feelings; to begin to accept my life in Tallahassee for what it was/is, and to begin to see good things grow up around me.

But in that instant, those things were shaken, and I was transported back to that place 4-5 years ago.

It wasn’t pleasant; in fact it was almost strange and surreal to feel the (once normal) feelings of pain, loss, regret and hopelessness.

But some things have changed since then.

After a lengthy battle with those demons, I gradually developed some healthy spiritual practices that remind me of the truth of my life.

(It’s much, much too easy to believe the lies…)

Centering, contemplative prayer (I’m still a novice, believe me), meditation and praying the Daily Office have slowly begun to transform me; it’s easier now to remember that those feelings of homesickness for Chicago may be valid, but are simply not the whole truth of who I am.

There is a deeper truth to my being (and to yours as well). That truth is mostly covered up and obscured by a lifetime of lies and pain and mistakes, but it is still there.

However, most of the time it won’t influence our lives unless we do some kind of work to get out of its way. We layer our own false selves—Brennan Manning’s “Impostor”—on top of that truth and bury its life-giving breath underneath the heavy fabric of pride and arrogance.

We need, as I’ve discovered, practices that silence those unhealthy, false voices and let the voice of God, of Love, of Jesus whisper through.

And over time, day-to-day, minute-to-minute, moment-by-moment, we begin to recover that true self that is centered and rooted in God’s love and power.

At peace.

At rest.

In Tallahassee (or wherever).

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