40 Words: “Family” (02.23.2016)

Despite what you might think, Lent isn’t only about giving things up. Overall, it’s more about making “space”—spiritually or otherwise—to reflect on our lives and God’s love.

In other words, if all you do is give up chocolate (why do I keep picking on chocolate?) without making that space through service or prayer or meditation or community, you’re only get half of the story.

My particular Lenten journey definitely involves surrendering something, but I also added in reading, and not only reading, but a commitment to read with my wife and family during the evening (whenever possible).

Lent isn’t just about “you and Jesus”; others are on your journey as well. Bring them in; share this with them.

My personal desire is that the space I carve out for God can be filled, not only with my personal spiritual activities, but also with conversation and interaction with people who not only love me but with whom I can have honest conversations.

The Gift of Isolation

What’s the nature of our life together?

For years, I was under the impression that “community” meant a sort of seamless “inter-meshing” of lives; a true uniting of individuals.

I’ve now come to understand that this belief has caused a tremendous amount of stress and strain in my life.

I was speaking with my counselor this summer (don’t have a counselor? Get one. Trust me.), and I was talking about my dad.

Here’s what you need to know about my dad: he had a big personality. He was a salesman (a really good one), and it showed through in most of the dynamic of our lives. He dominated—albeit benevolently—our family for decades.

Then he had a stroke.

A big one.

He really shouldn’t have survived but he did (and we are grateful). Furthermore, he’s made a remarkable recovery: he gets around, and talks and interacts and everything.

But much of the “largeness” of that personality was taken from him in 2004, AND FROM OUR FAMILY AS WELL.

We were sort of left reeling. There was a void at the center and point of our family, and also in my life as a man. All of a sudden, the man that was supposed to help me navigate fatherhood (not to mention my 40s and 50s) was gone. In its place there was now a wall, a barrier, that was just spray-painted with the word, “Stroke.”

I could no longer get to the man that I’d grown up with. I was left outside. I felt that, deeply.

I felt very alone.

I was relating all that to my counselor (again: don’t have yet? get one. trust me.), and he reflected back that to me: “So what you’re saying is that since your dad’s stroke you feel isolated from him?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “That’s it.”

Then he hit me with the big guns.

“Well, all he’s done is pointed out a central truth of our existence: the truth is, we are all isolated from each other. We can’t know perfect union or relationship in this lifetime. To be human is to be isolated—to some degree or another—from each other.”

.To be human is to be isolated—to one degree or another—from each other.”

That hit me like a ton of bricks.

And then it set me free.

It’s easy to labor under the illusion that we can expect perfection:

  • perfect families
  • perfect jobs
  • perfect community
  • perfect relationships

In actuality, we live in an “in between” world:

  • in between Genesis and Revelation
  • in between brokenness and beauty
  • in between fracture and healing
  • in between isolation and reconciliation

This is the human condition. Freedom comes when we begin to accept it, and release those around from the burden of being perfect.

(Including ourselves.)

It may sound like a sad or depressing to think of ourselves as ultimately isolated from each other, but it really shouldn’t. I think it’s really simply choosing to accept and to live in the reality that God has given us.

The truth of the matter is that we will know this someday.

Just not quite yet.

The exciting part is that it can start now; we can begin to move closer to each other.

But only if we know where we are starting from.

Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. (1 Corinthians 13v12 CEB)

Words

I’ve been thinking lately about words… We spend an awful lot of time interacting with them: spending them, receiving them, pondering them, etc.

I’m probably over-simplifying this, but I want to suggest that there are three levels of words that we deal with in our lives. Each one of these categories are useful, but can also contain a certain amount of danger in them.

Level 1: “Wal-Mart Words”. I have nothing against Wal-Mart; like most American families, we shop there for certain items. But let’s be honest: there’s not a whole lot that’s special and unique about Wal-Mart, besides the fact that they are relatively easy to come by, and you know what you’re getting when you go there. Wal-Mart words are the words we run across as we go through our days: they can make us laugh, or cringe, but they are typically used to get through our lives, and are soon forgotten about. We need Wal-Mart in our lives (ever run out of toilet paper at 11:45 on Saturday night?), but our lives may not turn on our experience in a Wal-Mart store.

Level 2: “Luggage Words”. How long do you keep a suitcase? I don’t know what the prescribed retention is for luggage, but it seems like most of us keep ours around way past the date that it’s useful. I used to haul luggage out of my closet that was falling apart, had holes in it, and looked like my grandmother’s curtains from 1967. Luggage is something that we keep with us, usually for a while, and certain words are like that. They are the spoken at pivotal times in our lives: in departures, in graduations, at major events in our lives. They are often accompanied by tears and deep expressions of love.

The Apostle Paul speaks and hears words like this when he says goodbye to some friends in Ephesus (modern day turkey). The scene is recorded in the book of Acts. I find it to be one of the most moving scenes in the New Testament:

“‘Remember that for three years I constantly and tearfully warned each of you. I never stopped warning you! Now I entrust you to God and the message of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all whom God has made holy…’ After he said these things, he knelt down with all of them to pray. They cried uncontrollably as everyone embraced and kissed Paul.”

Those are deep words, and deep emotions. I also think of Jesus with his disciples in John’s gospel, when he shares deep “luggage level” words in John 13-17. These are the types of things you don’t forget, and they give you life (hopefully) for a long time. They sustain you…

… But there’s another level still…

There are words that we hear (and ideally share) that are so deep they transcend our “luggage”, and speak to the foundation of our being. 

They are what I simply call “Soul-Level” words. 

These are the words that speak to the deepest level of who we are and who we most want to be. They challenge us to be better human beings, better Christ-followers. They call us to be full of more joy, gratitude, love, and humility.

But you know the most radical thing about these words?

Once we hear them, we must be very careful about sharing them. 

Jesus’ mother, Mary, heard (and experienced) amazing things around his birth and childhood: prophecies, angelic encounters (ahem), babies jumping around in wombs.

In short, there was a lot to tell her that this was no ordinary child.

But a certain phrase in Luke’s gospel always struck me. In summing up Jesus’ childhood, Luke wrote that Jesus “went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart.” Other translations read that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (NIV).

Secrets lose their power when they are shared; when they are negative it’s one of the reasons that it’s good to dispel them, for once you shed light on them they tend to lose their effectiveness.

But what happens when the secret has a sort of powerful goodness that accompanies it?

When it’s the story of the Savior of the world who grows up obedient to his parents?

When it’s the story of prophecies fulfilled, prisoners set free, love embracing humanity?

When it’s the words of deepest affirmations that call to the highest parts of our soul?

Don’t we want those secrets to keep their power?

Most of the time, we run to share words that we’ve been given, either through Twitter, or Facebook, or over coffee or beer.

But I want to suggest that there are some words that you need to keep back for yourself. That you need to “cherish” and “treasure.” You need to go back to them, and you need to let them pour over you repeatedly like cool water on a July day.

But don’t give them away cheaply.

I’ve been fortunate to have received some of these words lately. They were so far out of my depth of understanding, it hurt (in a good way) to just read them. They called so much more out of me than I thought capable of giving.

And guess what: you’re not going to read them. 

My prayer is that you get to read or hear those words from someone in your life. They have the power to change you, and to continue to change you.

My prayer is also that you have the chance to give those words to someone as well, knowing that they will reverberate for a long time in someone’s life. And remember: it’s not about eloquence, it’s about generosity of spirit, and of relational commitment.

And lastly, I pray that you lock those words away, and keep them between you, God, and the person you shared them with.

Because their power will go on.

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Lent Reflection #5: The Cross Creates Communities

 (1622) by Simon Vouet; Church of Jesus, Genoa

The Crucifixion (1622) by Simon Vouet; Church of Jesus, Genoa

Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into is house.

Mary is watching her son die. In his final moments, as a small community gathers around him, Jesus commends his mother to the care of one of the Twelve (possibly John, the author of this Gospel). He has to do this because at this point none of the rest of his family—not even his brother James—believes in him.

God has always had a people. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus doesn’t just heal individuals, but he creates a community around himself. Even at the cross, we see Jesus gathering people and creating networks of care.

For some reason—and I really don’t know why—we resist so much of this. We pull away from community, sometimes because of time or priorities, sometimes because of hurts, sometimes because we don’t like what we’re hearing about ourselves.

But we really need to fight against this isolating tendency.

Because someday there will come a need: a phone all that changes everything; a meeting that dries up the future; an email that shakes the foundation of everything you are.

Someday, it’s going to be dark, not just outside, but maybe inside your spirit as well.

And then where will you turn?

We like to think that we exist in some glorious vacuum: some of us alone as individuals; some of us as nuclear families.

But the truth of the matter—even revealed at the Cross—is that we are in desperate need of other human beings.

So,  this Lent:

  • are you gathered around the cross of Jesus with other folks? are you committed to them, and they to you?
  • if not, is there something you need to do to restore yourself to that community?

This is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard about the Church, and this deep need that we have for community. Watch it and think—really think—about these words.

 "Shelter" by Jars of Clay
To all who are looking down, holding onto hearts still wounding

For those who’ve yet to find it, the places near where love is moving

Cast off the robes you’re wearing, set aside the names that you’ve been given

May this place of rest in the fold of your journey bind you to hope
You will never walk alone 
In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live

In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live

Your arms are all around us 
If our hearts have turned to stone there is hope, we know the rocks will cry out

And the tears aren’t ours alone let them fall into the hands that hold us
Come away from where you’re hiding set aside the lies that you’ve been living

May this place of rest in the fold of your journey bind you to hope
that we will never walk alone

If there is any peace, if there is any hope 
We must all believe, our lives are not our own
We all belong
God has given us each other
And we will never walk alone
© 2010 Bridge Building / Pogostick Music (BMI). All rights for the world on behalf of Pogostick Music administered by Bridge Building.

peace

*e

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Burden-Bearing and the Cross

“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It’s so easy to separate loving God from loving others. It’s easy to think that one must come before the other; that one is an “add-on” to the Gospel.

But that’s not the way the Gospel works at all. God loves to join together things that don’t seem to belong together. I believe He loves to constantly reveal the astonishing way that things are all interconnected.

The cross of Jesus is a overwhelming commentary on the unity of loving God and loving others.

When Paul writes in Galatians to “share each other’s burdens” (some of us know this phrase as “bear each other’s burdens”) in order to obey the law of Christ, our ears ought to stand up.

What is the law of Christ? 

Simply put, the law of Christ can be found in Mark 12:28-34 (also in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-25 [in Luke read through verse 37 to show how wide Jesus’ understanding is of the word, “neighbor”]). A religious leader asks Jesus what the most commandment is. Jesus responds, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen O Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”

In a sense, Jesus does nothing new here: all of Israel knew the first phrase. Every Jew was to pray the she’ma—the affirmation that God is one, and you must love Him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength—multiple times a day. It was a bedrock statement for all Jews. However, with the second statement, Jesus does make a bit of a leap, for he connects Leviticus 19 (the command to love your neighbor as yourself) intrinsically with the she’ma. 

Much of Jesus’ ministry united these two realities. But it all culminated powerfully in the work of cross.

At the cross, fulfilled his own commandment from Mark 12 by bearing our burdens: of sin, of shame, of rejection. He took upon himself all of these things in order to take them off of us. It wasn’t just a “spiritual act” between himself and God the Father; it was a profoundly communal act as well.

So when Paul (or any preacher worth his salt) tells us in turn, “bear each other’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ,” we can be reminded of a few things:

  • “Burden-bearing” is a way in which we can embrace the cross in our lives. When we take on the burden of suffering of someone in God’s family, we are following the model of the cross of Jesus. It is not “merely” a friendly act; it’s much more than being “neighborly”; it is, in fact, Gospel—”Good news”—to the world.
  • Relatedly, the cross is our model for burden-bearing. It involves suffering, and a weakening. Rather than seek to triumph in the eyes of the world, Jesus chose to empty himself and suffer, eventually dying a criminal’s death on the cross.
  • The cross and the church are intrinsically related. You can’t separate our salvation from our attitudes towards each other. If you try to tear them apart, you end up with a truncated, compartmentalized gospel.

No One Stands Alone

“No One Stands Alone”

The church where my faith initially took root and began to grow legs had a motto, “No One Stands Alone.” I wasn’t a part of its development; I don’t know who came up with it, or what debates may have surrounded its selection. What I do know, however, is that it spoke to a deep need of me and my friends: to know and to be known. That slogan has remained with me as sort of a DNA-like implant on my soul: a church should be a place where no one stands alone, whether at a party or in the darkest hour of need.

Yet, still, this is much more easily said then done. We naturally gravitate towards folks we know, folks who have common passions, interests, and hobbies. In isolation, there’s really nothing wrong with this. But the people of God should somehow be different; there should be a constant “intentionality”, or focus, to practically everything we do. Whenever we gather, the radical expression of hospitality should be right there with us as a subtext. There is always an opportunity to be the voice of welcome, the face of hospitality: all you have to do is too look for those who are standing—or sitting—alone. Welcome them into your conversations; find out what their story is, and tell your own.

I am a self-confessed introvert; one of my favorite off-handed comments is basically, “Yeah, but everyone knows that I don’t like people.” This is obviously meant to be humorous, but I know that this is brokenness and sin in my life — I intensely guard “my time”, and am reluctant to engage “the stranger” in hospitality. At the same time, I burn with indignation and conviction when I see people standing alone, staring at the backs of groups of strangers who are engaging in the well-practiced art of exclusion. The church has become much to adept at this, and we need to stop.

In the same spirit of John’s 1st letter (“We love because he first loved us”), we should welcome others because we were first welcomed by God. We have come from being radical outsiders to the very people of God, and now it’s our turn to look with the eyes of the welcoming Savior to find those who are waiting to know us, and to be also known. What if the next time you attended a worship gathering or event at “church”, you took a moment to pray to God, asking him to give you eyes that would recognize the outsider, the lonely? What if you invited those who were sitting by themselves to join your friends? Your family? I think it would start a quiet, radical revolution of love and invitation in our communities.