Why Go Away?

First, this is worth quoting at length:

In saints you find that perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide. The two turn out to be practically the same thing. The saint is unlike everybody else precisely because he is humble… Humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, and since no two people are like, if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe. But this individuality will not necessarily assert itself on the surface of everyday life. It will not be a matter of mere appearances, or opinions, or tastes, or ways of doing things. It is something deep in the soul.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

This is the essence of it: you get away because the truth of the matter is that, as much as you’d like to be otherwise, you really do not know yourself (yet).

You tell yourself in the busy-ness of life that you are your thoughts and your beliefs and your experiences and even your brokenness, but when you get quiet enough and humble enough, you realize that who you are is deeper than that.

You need to release all of the distractions, and go deeper than the surface. To hear the voice of God in that mysterious silence who will begin to tell you who you REALLY are: which starts with “BELOVED.”

From there, you can realize that so much of who you think you are in your day to day life is nothing but illusions and tapes installed by years of struggle and fear. The deeper water of true identity and humility linger underneath.

And so you begin to become yourself at last.

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IMPRESS GOD?

I was watching a YouTube video a few weeks ago. It was one of those “accidental” clicks, where I’m not REALLY interested in it but something tells me I SHOULD be.

It had a clever title—something about musical worship in church—and since that’s a world I used to know quite well, AND I was a bit bored, I loaded it up and started to watch and listen.

The two guys were requisitely hip. One introduced the other with nice credentials: he’d made it through to the << insert impressive number here >> round of American Idol, and led worship at << insert impressive church name here >> in Nashville.

I actually have no doubt about his talent, and I have no doubt about his sincerity either.

But as they got into the talk, he said something like this: “God is not impressed by your voice or talent.”

Okay?

I imagine what he was trying to say was that we need heart and intention and integrity as much as we need talent and chops.

But…

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been living with the parable of the prodigal for 5-6 hours straight, or maybe it’s something else, but here’s the deal…

MY GOD DELIGHTS IN ME.

(And also in YOU.)

My voice (or my preaching, or my writing, or my whatever-talent-you-choose may not “impress Him” BUT HE LOVES TO WATCH AND HEAR ME.

He is not an American Idol judge; he’s the Father who runs down the road to see his long lost son.

It’s as if we’d like to say, “Yeah but that was about salvation; once that boy (the prodigal) got home, you can be darn sure the Father would be unimpressed with his bad decision-making.”

To put it another way, God is not FORCED to love us because of some theological trickery (“Man, that Jesus really made me tolerate these people…”); He CHOOSES to love us, to DELIGHT in us, JUST BECAUSE THAT’S WHO HE IS.

He not only LOVES us. HE LIKES US.

Either the Father delights, or He doesn’t.

He is the God who has heard every beautiful voice ever, every symphony ever made, every bird ever created, every note played anywhere, at any time…

AND YET IF I SANG TO HIM HE WOULD SMILE AND JUST SAY, “OH THAT’S BRILLIANT! PLEASE SING MORE!”

Is that “impressed”? Maybe not.

Would He be delighted?

Heck yes.

And He’d ask for more.

What Repentance Is (Redux)

(I am away on a personal silent retreat; however this was too good to pass up.)

The Hebrew Scriptures, along with many Rabbis, affirm both the need for repentance—turning around, or changing your mind—as well as the POWER of repenting. They understood YHWH as a god of radical grace and love, and so to them it was nothing to affirm (as the Babylonian Talmud does),

“Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the Throne of glory… Great is repentance, because it brings about redemption…
Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors…”

A rabbi says this, “An arrow carries the width of a field; but repentance carries to the throne of God.”

So for Jesus to talk about repentance in a novel way, he had to somehow go BEYOND this understanding. Otherwise, very few people would have found his teachings novel, and CERTAINLY they would not have been worth arresting (and eventually killing) him.

BUT…

But when Jesus tells a parable (with three parts) in Luke 15, the first image he uses of REPENTANCE is striking.

He tells the story of a “good shepherd” who leaves his 99 sheep goes after a lost, single animal. The text tells how the good shepherd (i.e., God/Jesus) is thrilled when he finds the sheep, and then comes home and celebrates with his friends.

But the punchline comes in verse 7.

Jesus tells his listeners (the Pharisees and legal experts), “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over ONE SINNER WHO CHANGES BOTH HEART AND LIFE (read: “repents”) THAN OVER NINETY-NINE RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE…”

On the one hand, Jesus unambiguously tells his audience, “THIS IS ABOUT REPENTANCE…”

One the other hand, THE SHEEP NEVER REPENTS.

The sheep is merely “FOUND.”

In this story of repentance, Jesus seems to be saying that repentance is not always about DOING something; it’s about LETTING YOURSELF BE FOUND BY THE GOOD SHEPHERD.

Even “turning yourself around”, or “changing your view of reality” can be turned into performance, into making God happy.

But Jesus tells us RIGHT HERE that sometimes to repent just means to STOP and ALLOW the good shepherd to find you, pick you up, and carry you home.

THAT’S WHAT REPENTANCE IS.

(The Talmudic and Rabbinic quotes come from Kenneth Bailey, Jacob and the Prodigal, p 80-81.)

What Fridays Are Good For

One of the books that changed my life is a tiny, short book called The Illumined Heart, by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Out of everything I’ve read and talked about, my wife and I have probably given away more copies of this book than any other.

I can’t even remember how I stumbled across it, but I read it around 2010, I think. It’s a few things: an introduction to the Eastern Orthodox stream of the faith, and also a description of what Christianity was like (as best we can tell) in the first few hundred years after Jesus, the period that some Church Historians call “Classic Christianity.”

One of the things that Mathewes-Green notes is that early Christians structured their weeks in a symbolic, rhythmic way that did not only include Sundays.

They also FASTED weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They fasted on Wednesday because that’s the day that Judas agreed to betray Jesus; Friday was a fast because it was the day of the crucifixion.

I try to keep the fast: mostly from sunup to sundown. No meat, smaller portions, etc.

Time is a gift, and we can use it in a way that reflects our deepest priorities and desires.

Fasting, or structuring your week like this, is an easy way to deepen your spiritual journey, and to bring up both struggles you weren’t aware of (just wait until you get really hungry) and spiritual aspirations you didn’t know you were capable of.


But Are You Ready?

You tell yourself, over and over again, how much you crave spiritual growth, transformation, enlightenment, sainthood, etc., and etc.

But are you really ready?

To be honest, your cravings are still laced with very human, ego-ladened desires: growth, transformation, enlightenment, etc., with the “understanding” that you will then be admired, sought out, revered.

But when your eyes and ears are open enough, and when your heart is tender and ready, you know that the growth and change you claim to desire also comes with service and compassionate love to and for others.

To summarize and paraphrase many mystics, you cannot shut yourself up in solitude in order to escape humanity. That is not true solitude, and is even a potential recipe for a life consumed with self.

Which is the very definition of hell.

So if you claim that you are ready for this journey up the mountain, you should be prepared to embrace other human beings with an open, radical love.

Where to Start

Assuming you want something different, spiritually speaking, and assuming you want some spiritual growth, what do you do? How do you get started?

The tools are not complicated. A hammer has been a hammer for how long? Two thousand years? Ten thousand?

I ‘d wager that if you picked up a hammer from a 5,000 BCE it wouldn’t look all that different from the one you could snag from Home Depot just down the road. It might be made of better quality materials, but it is essentially unchanged.

Sometimes tools don’t need to be the shiniest, and the most technologically advanced.

So here are some tools to help you move forward spiritually:

Know the story.

We are living in the middle (or, probably more accurately, the last act) of a great story, the bulk of which is found in the Bible.

So pick it up: pick it up and read it. Not for 2 hours a day, maybe not even for 30 minutes.

How about 10 minutes? Start there.

Every day.

What’s more, don’t just start reading randomly (or even from the beginning, necessarily). Instead, pick an approach, a PLAN for reading it.

(Two possibilities are: the one year chronological approach, where the story is told—as best we can determine—in chronological order; and also what’s known as the M’Cheyne reading plan, named for Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne. The M’Cheyne takes you through the Old Testament once in a year, and both the Psalms and the New Testament twice.

Ten minutes a day is all that it would take to introduce this new practice into your life.

One additional thought: as you read, don’t get too bogged down in the details. Make notes of questions you might have, but focus on getting the “spine” of the story you are living in.

What Repentance Is #2

IF you take seriously the Biblical concept of “repentance” (and humbly, I think you should), it changes your understanding of a lot of Jesus and John the Baptizer’s statements about repentance.

Both of them make the statement a key part of their preaching and teaching. Each of them use a variation of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is here.”

When I was growing up, I always heard that taught as “Confess your sins, believe in Jesus as your savior, and follow his teaching.”

(Actually, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t ALWAYS taught the part about “follow his teaching.” Often, they stopped after the “believe in Jesus” part. Once everyone could assume I was going to heaven, I guess that was enough.)

But based on the idea of repentance as changing your mind, your understanding, a better translation of these statements is probably closer to, “The Kingdom—God’s ruling reign—is happening RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW through Jesus. Change the way you perceive the world; things don’t work the way you think they do.”

Then, after that, you can fill in the details of the Gospels and Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection:

  • Right where you are at, whether you are a spiritual winner or loser, your are BLESSED
  • The first will be last
  • Jesus believes in you: if he calls you to the water, you can do it (in other words, you’re capable of MUCH more than you think you are)
  • The rich and powerful do not have a corner on “the good life”
  • God is present EVERYWHERE
  • You don’t have to “get your act together” BEFORE Jesus will fellowship with you
  • Suffering does NOT mean that God has abandoned you
  • Suffering is a mechanism for growth and change
  • Suffering can be redemptive
  • Suffering—even unto death—leads to resurrection

The Kingdom is here in and through Jesus’ presence. Change your conception of reality.

“Repent”, indeed.