Monday, July 25, 2016

Some Disciple Thoughts on Lack and Abundance

[After a rough day of job searching and frustrating job interviews, I am on the verge of losing heart and need to recover my vision of God and his goodness. May others find hope here too.]

Lack and deprivation are always part of the honest person’s experience of life in this world, regardless of religious beliefs or faith commitments. We are all broken by lack and need. We have all experienced “not having what it takes” for life in this world, and it hurts. Sometimes the hurt can feel unbearable, threatening to crush our very souls. Caught up in this category would be things like piercing loneliness, physical disability, paralysis, financial loss, grief, physical and emotional abuse, hunger, injustice, etc. They are an inevitable part of living life in a world that is radically affected by the sin of our first parents in the garden.

These deprivations tell a story all their own, using voices loud and convincing, demanding to be heard. If we don’t have a larger story in which to hear and do justice to their presence in our lives, they will easily dominate us and define us, determining the range of our effective choices, relational opportunities and our “emotional normal.”  The only story large enough to hold all these experiences of lack and deprivation is the Kingdom story coming from God through Jesus.

The kingdoms of this world, of men and women "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12), are all driven by various forms of lack and deprivation and the strategies to ameliorate them. These kingdoms are driven by belief assumptions about reality and what is good:
"I must act on my own, lest I miss out on what is good."
"What I want, what I desire, is what is good, what is best."
"Getting my own way is my highest pursuit, for therein lies my safety, security, and well-being."
For those who entrust their lives to Jesus as disciples, however, the abundance of the Kingdom of God envelops and transforms all lack, deprivation and need into connecting points to the grace of God. Instead of separating us from God they bind us to him as branches to the vine, as sheep to the Good Shepherd. Lack can be transformed through trust and surrender into experienced intimacy with Jesus.

Enveloped by God's Kingdom care all around us, we see the difference between
what we need
what we want
what is good

We are now free, under God, to choose what is good. Our lack no longer drives us; we are no longer at the mercy of desperate hunger and thirst. From Jesus, we learn rest even in the presence of need; we learn gratitude even when we don't get what we want; we learn joy even when we don't get our own way.

The well-being of Jesus' disciple is rooted in the good world of God, with roots deeply intertwined in gushing fountains of endless life.
“It is confidence in the invariably overriding intention of God for our good, with respect to all the evil and suffering that may befall us on life’s journey, that secures us in peace and joy. We must be sure of that intention if we are to be free and able, like Joseph, to simply do what we know to be right.” (Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, 338)

Having lack and deprivation in my life doesn’t mean I need to be defined by it; being defined by lack and deprivation is a choice, a settled intention, to live in a particular world, a world devoid of God, where I am left to my own meager resources to fend for myself and make a life for myself (Jer 17:5-9; Prov 3:5-8).

I can choose, even in the severest experience of lack, need, or deprivation to live according to the reality of God’s Kingdom all around me through trust in Jesus. This also requires settled intention (Hab 3:17-19; Lam 3:19ff).

Through trust in Jesus (not just something he did or said) I am rooted and grounded in the boundless abundance of love, power and light of Father-Son-Spirit (Eph 3:14-21).

  • I am never alone (Deut 31:8; Heb 13:5-6; Isa 43:1-4)
  • I can call on God and his resources, the simple way a child presumes on his loving parents (Matt 6:5-13; Phil 4:4-7; 12-13)
  • No lack or deprivation (real or perceived) can separate me from the abundance of God and His Kingdom. His rule will never be shaken and never end (Ps 23:1; Rom 8:35-39; 2 Cor 8-9)
  • The sufficiency of God and his Trinitarian fullness of life, love and power is the only place to experience safety and security in this life (Ps 63:1-5).
  • Because of who God is and the way he rules the world, this world is a perfectly safe place for me to be, right here, right now.

"It is being included in the eternal life of God that heals all wounds and allows us to stop demanding satisfaction. What really matters, of a personal nature, once it is clear that you are included? You have been chosen. God chooses you. This is the message of the kingdom.” (Willard, ibid., 340)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Call to Amazement

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-4 NIV)
As I read and reflected on this passage recently, it struck me that the amazement of the apostle is lost on those of us who have low views of God.

Let me explain.

What is the reason, the source of the apostle's amazement in v.1? Why is he captivated to be a child of God? Why is that such a big deal? In our day, being a "child of God" is commonplace language, like being "born again" or "evangelical." It has lost much of it's original wonder, I think.

John's amazement is due to his experiential confidence gained through an ongoing interactive relationship with Jesus. Through interaction with Jesus, John learned how uniquely beautiful and wonderful the Father is! We see this at the very beginning of his letter:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3 NIV, emphasis mine)
John then summarizes Jesus' gospel message in v. 5, "This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." I used to believe that this was primarily referring to God's unapproachable holiness, and perhaps it means that. But that poses a huge problem when we look at Jesus, who John was referring to, who was so utterly approachable, especially to sinners!

What, then, was the gospel that Jesus preached?

Jesus preached a gospel of God's good Kingdom, immediately available to all who enter into a relationship with him through trust. Those who enter this Kingdom would find that God is better than anything they could have ever hoped for.

What John means, then, is that the message that John and the other early friends of Jesus heard was that God is utterly, unchangeably, good. Dallas Willard, in writing about a "curriculum of Christlikeness," comments that,
The first objective is to bring apprentices to the point where they dearly love and constantly delight in that “heavenly Father” made real to earth in Jesus and are quite certain that there is no “catch,” no limit, to the goodness of his intentions or to his power to carry them out. . . . When the mind is filled with this great and beautiful God, the “nat-ural” response, once all “inward” hindrances are removed, will be to do “everything I have told you to do.” (Divine Conspiracy, 321).
This is a school I long to be enrolled in.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

For Those Who Lose Heart

Don’t get distracted or impressed, beloved,
by the ways the world works –
ways of manipulative power
perfectly timed technique
measured in dollar signs and predictable results.

You will quickly feel small and insignificant in such a world
for it was not made for the likes of you;
shoved aside by bullies
and chewed up in the gears
of the glory-making machines.

Worse, you will quickly lose sight of me
and with me goes your courage
for I always reside with your deep heart.

When you’re slammed up against an immovable mountain,
when caught between a rock and a hard place,
the issue for you, dear one, is not if you have what it takes,
if you have the 
money, 
power 
and relational connections 
to make things happen;

The issue is never whether or not you can;
the issue, always, is – is this something I want done?
Do you know me well enough to answer that, beloved?

Every task of mine is an invitation to partner with me,
to know and be known
and I promise to take the lion’s share.

Yoke yourself with me and you will know rest
courage will once again fill your chest;
Walk with me and you will know peace,
where it’s safe to be least.

Peace can only come in when you are unafraid of outcomes;
when the need to control circumstances has died,
when the existence of the mountain no longer makes you afraid
or filled your mind with frenzied strategies,
Peace, My Peace.

I love you, right where you are, afraid and overwhelmed!
My love is the reality upholding all others, 
the atmosphere that makes you safe.
You can never create safety and security 
by arranging circumstances in your favor,
that project is ever changing and never ending.

Let not your heart be troubled; have confidence in me.
Let my peace guard your inner life.
Then my joy will flood your outer life.

Now pick up your gear, for we will make use of what you have brought.
Come, follow me!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Recovering Identity

After a weekend of being haunted by fits of sadness and anger, I entered Monday with little sense of identity or purpose. My heart was saying, “I’m not sure who I am anymore, and I’m not sure it matters.” Obviously this was a toxic mixture of sadness, confusion and a little anger.
As I got ready for work that day, I felt very “off.” I was easily irritated and overwhelmed. I was just trying to get out the door, and if I could manage that, I would try to put the pieces together later when I had time and space to do it. In the process of hurrying out the door, I forgot my wallet at home, which is something I’ve never done before. Realizing it as soon as I pulled in to work, I scrambled for a few seconds trying to figure out what to do. Frustrated and ashamed, I texted my wife to see if she could bring it to me sometime during the day before I had to drive again. I felt awful interrupting her day with this. Her homeschooling and housekeeping are more than full time jobs!
My delightfully gracious wife, Cheri, brought me my wallet a little later, without a hint of annoyance or frustration with me (which is what I expected, since I felt a great deal of annoyance with myself). Instead, she empathized with my frustration and validated me. As she left I felt very thankful that she loved me that much – to bring it to me without any hint of shame or annoyance, but simply because she loves me. At that moment my question had been answered, my ID returned – I am one who is loved and cared for.
My situation was symbolic of the inner realities I was experiencing. I left home without much sense of identity, and if a police officer would have happened to have stopped me, I would not have been able to legally prove who I was. I was “driven” by confusion and pain, no longer sure of who I was. An act of incredible God-like kindness woke me up and restored my sense of self, my sense of identity. Cheri didn’t just bring my wallet which happened to contain my I.D. - she brought me a much greater gift: she brought me radical grace which provided me the space to receive who I was again, in a humble receptive posture before the Lord Jesus.
In the Kingdom of God as a disciple of Jesus, I am one who is, and always will be, loved and cared for. This is something I continue to learn as each situation of my life filters through the loving and brilliant hands of my Jesus my Master.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

To Birds Gone Bye

[Last week I said goodbye to the hundreds of thousands of Robins and other birds that had migrated to the small forest behind our complex. For three months their sheer numbers and artistry in the sky have entranced me. Then all of a sudden, they were gone. I knew it was coming, but dreaded it. I had to mourn the loss of this unique display of beauty, one that we’ve never seen before. Every morning about thirty minutes before sunrise they would take off in massive rivers piercing the dawning sky, a process that would take ten minutes because of their sheer numbers. Every sunset they would return, flooding the trees with their song and stories. As soon as the sun was set, they had all nested in the trees further back, still making noise but no longer seen.

It’s amazing how I can hear the unique individual bird calls now that were drowned out by the Robins. I am learning to see God not just in the massive flocks but once again in the single bird; not just in the big and impressive but in the simple, quiet presence of one or two things. Every day this week the Lord has sent Rabbits to accompany me on my walks, a scampering reminder of the tenderness caring for our world.

Anyway, I decided to write a goodbye poem to the birds. Until next time, compadres.]


The sky seems
so empty
so quiet
vacant

I’ve grown
accustomed
to the sounds
to the sights
of thousands upon thousands
suffusion
overflowing artistry
weaving skillfully
slicing through
God’s atmosphere

Suddenly,
gone.
silence.
loss.

But this is the migratory way,
the turning of the seasons
from emptiness to fullness
and back again
and again
and again.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Reasons to Drag Myself to Church Today, part 2: Church Stalker

I never know which of my blog posts will resonate with readers, but my “Reasons to Drag Myself to Church Today” (July 2012) post has always been among my most visited (It’s actually my second highest post ever). Here’s a continuation of it on a slightly different, more humorous, theme.

[This story is too funny not to share, though I doubt I can capture the utter absurdity of it.]

We are in the process of looking for a church closer to home, and visited a local Southern Baptist church (maybe 250-300 members). We talked to the youth leader about what’s available for our kids and she said she would mail out some info on upcoming events if we filled out a connect card. I don’t usually fill out those things on the first visit, not until we’ve had more than one visit and are seriously considering it, but I thought, “Sure, why not. What could happen?”

Well, the DAY AFTER we visited, right before we sat down to dinner, an older couple showed up at our door from this church. It’s about 25 degrees outside and they’re asking questions like, “so you’ve been to church before?” - questions that can never be adequately answered quickly or with any justice. Um, yes; I’ve got some experience with church. No, I’m not about to invite you in.

Sigh.

I was polite, but ended the conversation pretty quickly, mildly annoyed. I was willing to overlook this as we considered the church for a “fit” for our family. In the meantime, we visited several other churches in the area. This became a benchmark for me though - the churches that were not likely to visit us uninvited received higher “ratings.” I was on the lookout for “pressure levels.” How much pressure do they put on people to show up and make things happen?

Cue this past Monday night; two weeks have passed since that initial home visit and we haven’t been back. Not one, but TWO separate visits at our door over the course of an hour or so, one before dinner and one after. These were higher caliber visitors this time, leaders involved in the youth ministry. You see, they had already taken our kids’ information and put them into classes! Holy Frick! Monday must be psycho-church visit night.

Sigh.

I started laughing even before I closed the door on the last visit, though I tried to hide it with a cough. I just couldn’t believe it! I went a bit loopy for about 30-45 minutes (to which my family can attest), laughing wildly and occasionally cornering random family members and aggressively saying, “Hi! I’m from _______ Church! Will you be my friend?!” I started to wonder, how many visits would it take before I consider filing a restraining order?

These were nice people, I’m sure, but what kind of church requires their members to do stuff like this? I felt sorry for these people, the pressure they must be under to “bring people in.” Surely we have a better vision for church than this? Though most churches wouldn’t practice this kind of “visitation” anymore, at least this one was consistent with the “A” part of the ABC’s of church growth – Attendance (the others being Buildings & Cash). They were determined and committed to a vision of church life that required us to be a part of it. Wow, that feels cult-like.

Thus, I continue to be gun-shy about connect cards, and churches in general. I hold out hope though, because Jesus lives and he loves his people so I’m going to try and love them too. Most Christians are better than this, but once in a while, BAM!  - Church Stalkers. Time to install turrets or at least start breaking out my “Baptist Beatin’ Stick.”

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Let Me Ash You Something - Some Thoughts on Lent

Tomorrow (Wednesday, February 10) is Ash Wednesday which means the liturgical season of Epiphany is ending and Lent is beginning. Ruth Haley Barton writes
"Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season—six weeks that are set apart for the purpose of drawing closer to God and seeking him with greater intensity. Unfortunately, the Lenten season often gets reduced to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This is a fine question, but it can only take us so far. The real question of the Lenten season is, “How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?”
This begs an even deeper question: “Where in my life have I gotten away from God, and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?” 
. . . As God gives us wisdom and insight about our true condition, we can choose spiritual practices that are uniquely suited to help us return to God in the places where we have strayed or to renew our passion where our hearts have grown cold."
Are there places where you have gone cold? When you're alone and quiet, do you sense places where you have strayed from trusting in God's love? Where are you still living as an orphan and not as God's beloved? I can think of two or three such places in my own life, places where God's reign has little traction, places where I still rely on my own strategies for living. Lent helps us remember that we are in need not only of learning to say "yes" to God in surrender, but "no" to things that keep us from that surrender. This is what grace is and does.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14 NIV)
Dallas Willard wisely observed two objectives for any disciple seeking to live as Jesus did. These correspond to the "yes" of surrender and the "no" to the things that get in the way of that surrender.
"The first objective is to bring apprentices to the point where they dearly love and constantly delight in that “heavenly Father” made real to earth in Jesus and are quite certain that there is no “catch,” no limit, to the goodness of his intentions or to his power to carry them out.
. . . The second primary objective of a curriculum for Christlikeness is to remove our automatic responses against the kingdom of God, to free the apprentices of domination, of “enslavement” (John 8:34; Rom. 6:6), to their old habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and action. These are the “automatic” patterns of response that were ground into the embodied social self during its long life outside The Kingdom Among Us. They make up “the sin that is in my members” which, as Paul so brilliantly understood, brings it about that “wishing to do the good is mine, but the doing of it is not” (Rom. 7:18)." (Divine Conspiracy, 321-22).
 As we think of these two objectives, Lent clearly focuses on the second - the removal of "automatic responses against the kingdom of God." These are the orphan practices we learned while living "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). Think of what you rely on to get by when you're afraid and alone. Do these things bring life or death?

Take time and space to search your hearts this week. As you listen, ask your loving Heavenly Father what hindrances might exist that prevent you from freely, naturally and easily delighting in His love for you. In his presence, talk to him about these things. Receive his forgiveness and his vision for what your life could look like with him.

Don't lose heart - this process takes a lifetime! God is in no hurry. As Teilhard de Chardin reminds us, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God." He is not impatient or frustrated with you or your lack of progress. He is delighted with every movement you make in his direction! Soak in his lenten love, and let that transform whatever "no" you need to engage in as an act of a lover responding to the summons of a jealously tender God.