… Like a Hurricane

Recently, I made a mistake.

A big one.

Those are enough details for now, but it left me thinking about love and forgiveness.

Now, my wife is not perfect, but repeatedly I’ve been blown away, overwhelmed, by her ability to forgive and love me in spite of my faults. She is a fierce lover, and when she is loyal, she is loyal. 

It’s a withering love. And it’s difficult to stand.

In the midst of this, I realized that there is something inside of me that absolutely wants to flee this kind of love. I have a hunch I’m not the only one. I have a theory that this condition is more human than I’d like to admit.

What is it inside of us that makes us flee this kind of acceptance?

It’s obviously similar to the love that Christ has for us/me. To look into the face of a love that is totally accepting and forgiving is excruciating sometimes. We want to hide and run because of all the bad that we have done, but there is something there that says we must stand in it and take it, like a fierce rainstorm.

That’s what love is. That’s what love can be… A hurricane. 

Love him, or hate him, Saint Paul must have learned to stand in that hurricane. Here was a man who had people—innocent people—killed, and then later sought those people out in community, as one of them. Moreover, before that he had to stand in the face of Jesus and accept that love.

He could stand in the face of that storm. He was no longer a man with blood on his hands, with the lives of men, women, and children (!) on his conscience. He was simply a man who was now “In Christ”, and was inviting others to experience this same storm.

I know I’m not naturally wired for it. It makes me want to hide, to go numb, to retreat.

I guess I’m TRYING to learn to withstand it, but it is difficult.

Musically speaking, not that it is anything like this:

But maybe, it’s a bit like this:

peace

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Lessons I Learn (… over and over again)

August to November was a difficult season, but somehow some of the clouds are parting and some light is creeping through…

I was sitting with some friends of mine recently—older men who have gone round and round with life and lived to tell about it—and unpacking the things I’ve seen and heard and done.

Most of it revolves around buying into the same lies I’ve bought into countless times before, namely that I can somehow control the brokenness inside me. Some of us—I’m not the only one—lose sight of the fact that our false self is manipulative and sneaky, and largely seeks to just throw us off our path.

It hits me again and again; it’s a strange thing when you can’t trust your own thoughts (because “your own thoughts” are really the thoughts of your false self).

One of the amazing gifts of centering prayer and meditation is that gradually you can learn to identify these tricks of your false self as such, and steer clear of them, but sometimes…

… Sometimes you still drift.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul uses the phrase “the old self” (6:6). I used to understand this phrase theologically, as a reference to “just” our sin. Now, however, I realize that Paul is actually wading into to pretty deep psychological waters: the “old self” = the “false self”. It’s the part of ourselves that seeks to find its solace in security and control; in acceptance and affection; in power. Technically (and theologically) it has no power over us except the power that we give it. 

When we buy into what the false self is selling, we tend to reap the consequences.

The only cure for it is to deliberately (and painfully) return to rejecting this false self through meditation and prayer, and to choose to live in reality instead of the illusion of the false self.

(By the way, this is called repentance: it’s really not as scary of a word as you might think.)

And guess what: reality is actually kind of refreshing and peaceful.

Is “Religion” REALLY Opposed to “Relationship”

I’m tired of playing off “religion” against “relationship.”

The notion (as defined by my tribe) is that Jesus came to save us from “religion” and invite us into a “relationship” with God.

This is a false dichotomy for a few different reasons.

First of all, it’s generally understood by Biblical scholars that the Jewish faith of Jesus’ era was immersed in “relationship”. The Jews (probably even moreso than most modern, western Christians) were intensely aware of the all-encompassing nature of God. They lived in a God-soaked, God-bathed world. God pervaded their politics, their art, their social structure.

They did not compartmentalize.

This God that was everywhere lived in a vital and dynamic relationship with them through a Covenant relationship that looked something like this: God committed Himself to Israel in a binding relationship; Israel would wander away, and God would pursue, invite and even “woo” Israel back like a lover who had betrayed her true love and left.

This God—YHWH, or even “The Name”—acted time and again to bring back and restore Israel, not because they kept the Law or were perfect, but simply because He loves them. (Read the Exodus: when does God rescue? before Israel has a chance to even hear the Law, much less obey it. God acts while His people are helpless and enslaved. For those of you keeping score at home, this is what grace looks like.)

Now, had some people in Jesus’ time forgot about this? Had some of them turned the vital faith of Abraham and Isaac into rote performance and rule keeping?

Sure. But look around us: we are just as adept at doing that in the 21st century as they were in the 1st.

What Jesus was up to was (among other things):

… showing what an “eternal life now” could look like
… welcoming in the outsiders to the Kingdom
… conquering evil through suffering love
… providing a ransom for our sin

It’s simply too narrow of a statement to say that Jesus saved us from religion.

Furthermore, by playing this “binary” game (black and white, on or off, etc), we are missing a vital part of what “religion” actually means.

Though the etymology is slightly unclear, the root of religion could be understood as a coming out of the Latin root legare, which means to “connect or bind” (it’s where our word for “ligament” comes from as well). In other words, “religion” at its best re-connects us. It should literally “knit us together”; it should connect us with ourselves, the world around us, and with God.

It should not fragment us, or make us small-minded.

With these thoughts in mind, what I’d actually say that Jesus (and the Prophets, and Paul, and the church fathers and mothers, and the great saints as well) was not trying to save us from religion as much as he was trying (still is trying, actually) to save us from bad religion, that fragments, fractures, and reduces our world.

So I’ll take both. I like my relationship (with the Triune God, with the world), but I can only have that relationship through my religion (my efforts to re-connect with God through His Holy Spirit).

The Time Jesus and Paul Re-Arranged My Office

traditional-executive-office-furniture-936x728So I’d never had an office before.

I entered the ministry full-time when I was 30. Up until that time I’d worked in some combination of libraries, retail, and the requisite cube farm.

But when I went to work (at a little community church in suburban Chicago), I actually got an office (shared with a good friend, but still: IT HAD A DOOR!).

So my first day there, I worked on arranging things in a way that felt right to me: desk facing the door in the back third of the room, my back to the wall opposite the door, etc.

It looked/felt right, and I was happy.

Just as I got it all set, my boss stopped by and asked how I was settling in. I proudly said I was doing great and feeling good.

Then he said this: “You know, actually you’re going to need to move your desk. See, here at the church we make it a policy to never have our desks in the center of the room; arranging an office this way is a statement of power (it makes your visitors feel subordinate), and we’re not supposed to lead from positions of authority or power, but from positions of servanthood.”

WHAT?

I had mixed emotions, but regardless I pushed my desk against the wall (very NOT feng-shui, in case you’re wondering), and rearranged everything to make it work somehow.

And ever since that’s the way I’ve arranged my church offices (if I have one). In my home office my desk sits in the middle of the room, but if I have visitors I don’t sit at it when I have meetings; we have another area that we can sit down in.

I think we should blame Paul and Jesus.

In multiple gospels, Jesus declares that he didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and that is our model of leadership and influence. In the end, Jesus chose to release his authority and allow himself to be beaten and crucified. Paul, for all of the bad rap that he gets as a chauvinist (which I actually think is a result of bad readings of scripture), continues these thoughts when he repeatedly refers to himself as a servant of his communities. Both of them are not afraid to “tell it like it is,” but it seems to me that the “servant language” trumps the “power language” in the New Testament.

All of this servanthood talk makes me examine (and re-examine) the role power and authority takes in my life.

Servanthood seems to work like a really powerful spice, or yeast: it only takes a little to completely change the flavor of your relationships. You can talk “authority” and “power” an awful lot, but when you kneel down to wash someone’s feet, or choose to listen with your mouth shut instead of telling someone what to do, or when you choose to “make room” for another perspective instead of assuming that everyone needs to think like you do…

… when you make sure your office doesn’t tell the story of how important you are…

… all of these things “flavor” our leadership with an attitude of servanthood that carries the aroma of Jesus and Paul and a compassionate God who in the end emptied Himself of his authority in order to serve the whole world by dying.

Over the years, I’ve become convinced that my boss was absolutely right—that office furniture can tell stories of power and authority. In fact, anything in our lives can. We can talk about servanthood and meekness and gentleness, but if the non-verbal things in our lives contradict our words, people will know.

The challenging question is this: does the non-verbal communication of your life match your words? Do you talk about servanthood but then live out power?

It all speaks. We just need to work to make it all line up.

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 3 :: The Thing About Crosses, pt. 2

Last week, I wrote about the public nature of “bearing our crosses”; how they aren’t easily hidden, and are pretty obvious to people. I challenged you all to take up a cross with someone, and share it with someone. Maybe you did that; maybe you didn’t.

That’s the nature of the interwebs, I guess.

But I thought some more about crosses this week (it being Lent, and all), and something struck me from the other side of the equation. 

I remember sitting with a friend of mine once who was going through some really heavy, trying times. We were sitting outside at a local coffee shop (because where else do pastors hang out <snark>), and she was just crying and crying. Then she began apologizing because of the crying. It was a vicious circle.

I stopped her, as best I could, and said, “Please don’t apologize for your tears. You have to understand—for pastors, these tears are a precious gift to us, because they are your deepest fears and hurts. You are giving them to us to share and to care for, and they are precious to us. This is a gift; don’t ever apologize for your tears.”

In a letter to the church in Galatia, Paul the apostle wrote, “Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2 CEB).

I’m used to thinking about “burdens” in a very tangible sense (in fact, I preached on it once): bills, sicknesses, and physical needs. This is true and necessary, and it remains true and necessary. Reaching out to help people walk through life is no small thing, and every time we help our brothers and sisters, we are truly “fulfilling the law of Christ.”

But the main “burden” that Jesus tells us to carry for ourselves is the cross. 

(See where I’m going here?)

So as we (and the folks around us) take up our crosses—our own obvious instruments of pain and torture that we experience—at the same time, we need to be reaching out and helping others bear those same crosses.

So last week, I was thinking about what it takes to share the nature of our own crosses.

This week, I’m thinking about what it takes to bear others folks’ crosses.

Someday, someone may offer you the gift of their tears, their hurts, and their shame. How will you respond?

Will you treat it like a gift? A cross that you help carry?

Or an inconvenience, an embarrassment?

I guess in a way I’m saying that we don’t walk this journey towards Jerusalem alone; we need to help each other, and share what we can, so that we can all get there.

Like you didn’t know this one was coming….. 

But this is so very tasty too….

 

peace and blessings

*e

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Why I Wrestle…

There’s a wonderful scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestly, played by the amazing Meryl Streep addresses her new assistant’s (played by Anne Hathaway) indifference — even disdain — for the world of high fashion that the fictional Runway magazine reports on. (watch the scene here; I’ll wait.)

I was thinking about this recently while wrestling through a book on the relationship between Paul and 1st century rabbinic Judaism (fascinating, I know). Streep’s character points out the relationship between the frontiers of “high fashion” and the seemingly mindless, instinctive choices that Hathaway’s character makes in shopping and picking out clothes each day.

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says. “What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s cerulean. And you’re also unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns … and then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers; and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance rack … It’s sort of comical how think you’ve made a choice that somehow exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

Chilly elitism aside, I think this is important. Theology — thoughts and study about God — is always growing and changing. Archaeology is revealing more about Jesus and Paul and their context. It’s easy to think that theology is irrelevant to our daily lives, but I think that wrestling with “deep things” is like high fashion – as folks think through the really big issues, it will work its way through the seminaries, colleges and churches and eventually into our daily lives. The problem is that I’m afraid many of us are wrestling with the equivalent of acid washed jeans and polyester shirts. The truth is, God is doing new things, always. Are we (as pastors and leaders) willing to wrestle with the “high fashion” theological questions — not so we can be faddish or “cool” but so we can keep in step with what we are coming to know about God, Jesus, and their message and mission for the world?

I believe we will walk out our theology; we will speak it into others’ lives; we will proclaim it from the platform.

I want to know why we pick the Cerulean sweater.