Monday, October 22, 2018

Out of the Dark

Journal entry from October 11, 2018

Feeling overwhelmed by things at work and the idea of trying to buy a house has sent me into a dark cloud of despair.

As I sat in what felt like a dark cave, I felt afraid to ever trust or dream again. As I presented myself before God in silence, I sensed the Lord was with me in the dark. My emotions calmed down a bit and I began listening and watching for what the Lord might do or say.

I started the silence feeling convinced of the “tragedy” of my life, that I was well justified in thinking that all was indeed hopeless. The evidence seemed incontrovertible! I am a weak puppet at the utter terrifying mercy of a cold, malicious, dark world. The message at the forefront of my mind is:

“No one cares or looks out for me.”

As I sat with the Lord, a descending progression occurred - 

I began to realize that the “incontrovertible evidence” I had cited was more interpretation than fact; it was a collection of my assumptions and beliefs about events and emotions that were keeping me confined to the darkness, hidden from light, space and freedom. The problem is with the way I’m interpreting/seeing God, myself and my life.

Secondly, it became clear that self-will was indeed the interpretive grid that was causing me so much pain and despair. Self-will is the need or demand to have my own way. When my sense of safety and security is threatened, I double down my efforts to regain control over my circumstances and my world. No longer trusting in God, I am sinfully taking the burden of the world on my shoulders. My self-protection in this situation was strongly triggered, causing an “interpretation cascade” that blinded me to reality - the reality of God and his faithful care.

The Lord spoke, asking me if I would be willing to let go of my self-will and trust him again. Here is the invitation I heard:

“Beloved, when have you ever trusted me and lost your sense of self? I know giving up self-will and self-preservation feels like losing your identity and significance, but when has protecting yourself ever given you life and space to breathe? Think of the times in the past when you surrendered your life, your very self to me - has that diminished you or enlarged you? Has that led you to feel constricted or spacious? Don’t believe the lies, dear one - though the whole world seems driven by fear and self-promotion, those things will never be true, real and life-giving.

I know you feel small and abused in a harsh world, but that has more to do with your vision of reality than reality itself. Think of the birds, the flowers, the mountains - what reality, what world are they a part of? They thrive without fighting or grasping or demanding their own way; at the heart of their identity and vocation is trusting rest in my order, my Kingdom. You have a dignity far greater than they, because they don’t have a choice which world they will live in - you do.

Radically re-think your life, beloved. Remember who you are - your belovedness, your destiny, your dignity - Christ in you, the hope of glory! Remember who I am - your good Shepherd, your loving and attentive Father, your compassionate Savior and ever-present Counselor.

Trust me once again, beloved. The cave you are in is already in the Field of my caring vision. Just let go of the need to have your own way and step out into the light of day.”

Monday, July 02, 2018

God's Invitation in the midst of Suffering

I recently had the opportunity to preach through Romans 5:1-5 in light of my story of suffering and a "dark night of the soul" I experienced from 2003-2013. It was very difficult to summarize and teach from this time in my life, since mystery always attends suffering in all its forms. We never know fully why something painful happens to us, even if we have all the best doctrine and teaching in the world. Scripture provides us with many handholds though, one of the clearest being found in Romans 5.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (ESV)

In my sermon prep I worked on paraphrasing the passage in my own words. I didn't get to use it in the sermon though, so I thought I'd share it here.

Since we have been made right with God through confidence in Jesus, we have all our well-being secured, now and forever. Through Jesus, we have immediate and abundant access into his kingdom of grace. Grace is God at work in our lives to accomplish what we can’t, and it is absolutely free to all those who live by their confidence in Jesus. We rejoice in hope that God’s glory is and will be our atmosphere and home. This glory is intimacy with God. The same glory that God the Father shares with God the Son now becomes ours! We participate in the glory of God through Christ!

This experiential knowledge is powerful; it completely changes the way we see things. I know that God is good, so much so that every trial and trouble I face is an opportunity to taste and see his goodness and greatness. We are able to re-interpret and translate our sufferings, both the everyday and life-shattering kinds, into tenacious endurance; endurance, if properly nourished with that same love, can produce character. Endurance can shape us into a specific kind of person – the kind of person who is inhabited by God. We have become people who trust God in every situation and have thus found real hope. This hope is the byproduct of his love poured out in our hearts by his Spirit, enabling us to let go of shame. (my paraphrase)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Living in Trinitarian Community: A Sermon

Loneliness is a universal human experience, and it is getting worse as technology fills our lives with noise and "ease" devoid of relational interaction. Britain has recently recognized that their country is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and has appointed a Minister for Loneliness, finding that loneliness can be deadlier than 15 cigarettes a day!

Our experiences of "church" often don't help our loneliness unless the vision and practices of the church are intentionally geared toward fostering relational connection - removing obstacles and nurturing genuine connection with others who share our trust in Christ. For many of us, engaging with church activities often makes loneliness worse, not better, because they fail to be intentional in such ways. How can we set a different course?

This past weekend I preached a message entitled, "Living in Trinitarian Community." My text for the morning was Ephesians 4:1-16.

My main point was that we need to have a broader vision for "church" (doing church, being the church, etc) if God's purpose for the church is to be realized. The vision of the life and work of the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit) as they expand their giving/receiving love into the broken and sinful rubble of fallen humanity through Jesus Christ is what provides us sufficient experiences, resources and categories to find and cultivate life together. Though this "Trinitarian overflow of life" re-defines every sphere and activity of human life, here I only focused on some ways it can redefine church.

I hope that those who have been hurt by the church and wonder whether or not it's a "thing worth doing" might find hope here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

A Prayer for the Grieving

Lord, have mercy.

We feel gut-punched and out of breath, darkness is like a cloak.

In a daze, we try to do normal things but we feel sure that life will never be “normal" again.

Death is palpable and offensive, a stench in our nostrils that is at the heart of everything wrong.

It feels as if all that is good and life-giving is lost to us. It feels as if all we’ve ever felt is the deep heart-wrenching pain of loss!

Lord, have mercy

Have mercy, Lord - visit us in our loneliness, grief and confusion! Don’t forget about us! See our desolation, know our desperation! If you don’t reveal yourself in this place of ash and sulphur, we shall never rise again. They tell us that you know what it is to suffer. Bring your experience of suffering, pain and loss to us and gently teach us how to live in the midst of raging death.

In the place where we have no more words, speak to us in the silence.

If we don’t know you better, we won’t make it. Help us know you Lord; reveal yourself again and open our hearts. Give us courage to stay open to you and others.

Forgive us for trying to walk this path alone. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to pick up the phone and let somebody in. We fear rejection and misunderstanding and the bane of trite answers. Give us safe friends Lord, who can let us hurt and be silent with us and weep. Give us friends who know the weight of what we feel and the weight of what we have lost.

Help us in the little things, Lord. The now momentous tasks of getting up and showering, fixing breakfast and driving to work. These common things used to be so trivial, now we can barely manage them. Help us get through the day; help us get through the next 15 minutes.

Lord, have mercy

Monday, September 04, 2017

What Work Is - Part 2 (Labor Day Reflection)

I'm still thinking a great deal about work, and how to interpret it through the lens of the Kingdom of God and discipleship to Jesus (see Part One here). See also my son Samuel's new blog and his reflections on work here.

Joan Chittister has a long tradition of drawing wisdom from monastic spirituality for living life today. I don't agree with everything she says, but her reflections on work are right on the money and worthy of reproducing here.
The implications of a spirituality of work in a world such as ours are clear, it seems: Work is my gift to the world. It is my social fruitfulness. It ties me to my neighbor and binds me to the future.

Work is the way I am saved from total self-centeredness. It gives me a reason to exist that is larger than myself. It makes me part of possibility. It gives me hope. Martin Luther wrote, “If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.”

Work gives me a place in salvation. It helps redeem the world from sin. It enables creation to go on creating. It brings us all one step closer to what the kingdom is meant to be.

Work is meant to build community. When we work for others, we give ourselves and we can give alms as well. We never work, in other words, for our own good alone.

Work leads to self-fulfillment. It uses the gifts and talents we know we have and it calls on gifts of which we are unaware.

Work is its own asceticism. When we face the work at hand, with all its difficulties and all its rigors and all its repetition and all its irritations and accept it, we do not need to traffic in symbolic penances. What today’s work brings is what is really due from me to God. And if we do it well, we will have spiritual discipline aplenty. What’s more, when this is not the job we want but we cannot get any other, when this is not the wage we need to make ends meet but they will not pay more, when we see younger workers and more automated machines and job slowdowns begin to encroach on the work we once thought would be our lifetime security, then virtues of faith and simplicity of life and humility come into play in ways too real to be reduced to empty rituals or religious gestures. Then work becomes the raw material of wisdom and holy abandonment.

Finally, work is the way we really live in solidarity with the poor of the world. Work is our commitment not to live off others, not to sponge, not to shirk, not to cheat. Giving less than a day’s work for a day’s pay, shunting work off onto underlings, assuming that personal days are automatically just additional vacation days, taking thirty-minute coffee breaks in the fifteen-minute schedule, doing one coat of paint where we promised to do two, are not what was meant by “till the Garden and keep it.”

Work is our gift to the future. It is our sign that God goes on working the world through us. It is the very stuff of divine ambition. And it will never be over. The philosopher wrote, “Do you want a test to know if your work in life is over? If you are still alive, it isn’t.” As the rabbi and the disciple both knew well, God needs us to complete God’s work. Now. 
—from In the Heart of the Temple, by Joan Chittister (BlueBridge 2004)

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

What Work Is

I recently wrote out some thoughts for a friend who is in a painful season of unemployment, seeking to cast a broad vision for him of what work is:

Work is a gift given by God (before the fall) to teach us to share with him in the creation of what is good in the world he has made. Since we are image bearers, when we work we create value (assuming our occupation is contributing to society, and not corrupting it). 

Work is the creation of value in the sense that we are helping a business bring their vision of providing goods and services to life. We can find meaning in our work as we work alongside God in this project; we seek his help as we work and offer all our efforts up to him and leave the outcomes with him. 

The curse of the fall related to work is "sweat," meaning we now face the grind of working without God. Jesus redeems this for us though, and invites us to bring our work back into God's life and find work meaningful and life giving in and with him.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Knowing and Stillness

I've been feeling increasingly anxious lately as my long-term temp contract with Sysco Foods comes to an end soon with no word yet if they will offer me a full-time position or I will be laid off. I woke up this morning with tension in my body once again and my mind swirling over it.

As I sat with Psalm 46 for a few moments to help me enter into a time of silence and solitude, the Lord spoke powerfully to me. The phrase that spoke most clearly was "Be still, and know that I am God," a frequent guide into silence. Whereas sometimes I hear this phrase as some form of "Shut up, Scott, and respect God as God!" (which is a form of derogatory correction that actually exposes my functional view of God), this morning I heard it differently. It brought me into broad skies and green pastures.

Psalm 46:1-3, 10-11 NIV

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present [and well proven] help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

The Holy Spirit applied this word to my situation:

Be still, Scott, and know me as God - your God, who leads, saves, cares for you and holds you. I AM your Shepherd, your God, so you don't have to be god. The pressure's off to figure everything out, to provide for yourself and your family, to make your life "work" and come out "right."

Trust in me with all your heart and lean on me instead of your own meager resources; your limited wisdom and power, your connections and experiences cannot bring you the peace and joy you were made for. In all your ways and means acknowledge me as your God and Father, know me as the living God who goes before you, is with you and has never failed you, and I will direct your paths and make them life-giving so you won't have to! You know well the burden of trying to make your paths straight and life-giving on your own; it leads to only weary despair. You don't need to do that anymore. Let go of your life as a thing to be managed and open yourself to the life I bring you moment by moment. Submit to this knowing and to the fruit it yields.

The job search is over, Scott. The job for "Shepherd, Father, Teacher and Lord" is over - I am more than able to care for you and those you love; my hopeful and joyful vision for your life is wide and vast, and has ample room for your uncertainty, anxiety, and struggles to learn. Your job is to trust and obey, mine is to guide and provide, save and heal. When you get these mixed up there is no end to your distress. My yoke is easy and my burden is light; rest for your soul is always right here, right now.

To "know that I am God" also means to "know that you are loved, safe and cared for." This is what the birds and flowers know without thinking about it. They are "careless in the care of God," and you can be too. They exist in the reality of my Kingdom and are not hurried or worried. Look to them and learn. Listen carefully for the slow patient work of God.

See Deut 31:8; 33:12; Matthew 6:25-34; 11:25-30; Prov 3:5-7; Ps 23, 46; Phil 4:4-7