Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reflections on 2013: Year of the Disciple

There have been three times in my adult life where I have experienced deeply profound paradigm shifts that completely changed the way I live and relate.

The first was when I surrendered my life to Christ in 1989. The year following was one of sweet fellowship and deep immersion in the Scriptures. This resulted in a desire to train for full time ministry and enrolling in four years of Bible College that, among other things, gained me a bride and a calling.

The second shift was in 2002-2003. We had moved to Louisville in 2001 with plans for me to work toward a Ph.D and train for a teaching vocation. To keep a long story short, these plans and dreams were shattered through a series of breakdowns, both internal and external, that left me reeling. I was introduced to a deep kind of suffering that St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a radical (radux, to the root) restructuring of all that I have believed and valued up to that point.

As darkness surrounded me and I questioned everything, I was desperate for new categories to understand what was going on so that I could survive the process without killing others or myself. All my old familiar pathways of following Jesus shriveled up and died. I clung to any authors or teachers that offered new ways of thinking and living, anything to give a sense of hope to the despair, anything to lighten the darkness that threatened to consume me. Authors like Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Larry Crabb and John Eldredge provided solace for my tormented mind and heart.

The presence of Jesus through all the years of darkness has provided me with a tenacious faith in the Lord’s tenderness toward the broken, and a profound distrust in all religious pretension (false selves) as a means of getting by in the world.

I am in the middle of the third shift. 2012-2013 brought deep structural changes to my personality and habits. Mostly these occurred apart from anything I was directly seeking or doing, which was confusing, though gratefully received. God’s usual way of working has been to break a stronghold in an area, giving new freedom and joy that was once bereft of life and blessing. I then invest great amounts of time and energy trying to understand and catch up with God’s activity, so that I might give him thanks and more intentionally enter into it. It seems that a thousand tiny decisions in the dark to trust Jesus with little or no external support yielded new possibilities of thinking, feeling and acting in mid-2012. Most of these changes involved my body and mind.

For example, I lost 90 lbs, and for the second time in my adult life attained my goal weight (ironically, at least to me, the first time was in 1989 right after I became a Christian). This was only possible because of habits being broken, habits of reliance on food, violent TV and porn as means of comfort in times of distress.

As for changes in my mind and thinking, the profoundest change came in understanding and applying the gospel. I came to see that the gospel I had received, though correct as far as it went, was not big enough for me to live in. It was narrow and cramped, provoking constant frustration and even despair. It was the “gospel of forgiveness of sins,” which boils down the gospel to the legal and forensic work of Christ on the cross. Through men like Dallas Willard, and months of marinating in The Divine Conspiracy and his last lectures given this side of eternity in February 2013 at the Westmont Dallas Willard Center [You can order these lectures here]. I spent hours listening to these lectures, many of them 30-40 times each. I just couldn’t get enough! I learned something new almost every time. Such a profound paradigm shift was happening that I needed daily deconstruction in my soul and my relationship with God to be able to see clearly what God was up to and be open to a new renovation.

I have come to see Jesus and the gospel through new eyes, as the “gospel of the Kingdom of God,” which begins with forgiveness of sins but cannot be contained in it, at least as it is currently articulated (the Reformers and some of the Puritans were able to hold it as a “gospel for the whole life” better than we have been able to). The gospel that Jesus actually preached was the availability of the Kingdom of God to every person.

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)

The forgiveness of sins provided by Jesus on the Cross leads us into LIFE lived with God as disciples. Everyday, mundane life lived in and with Jesus is the Kingdom of God. He calls me to be his disciple, his apprentice, in learning from him how to live eternally now. I committed myself to him for the first time as a disciple, with daily settled intention to learn from him how to live. I am still very green and ignorant, but I see progress, and my joy and peace are increasing.

Quotes like the following from Willard deeply challenged all that I had learned about God and the gospel, but it described better than anything else I have ever encountered what God was doing in my life.

“He is able to penetrate and intertwine himself within the fibers of the human self in such a way that those who are enveloped in his loving companionship with him will never be alone.” (Hearing God, 43)

“The advantage of believing in the reality of the Trinity is not that we get an A from God for giving “the right answer.” Remember, to believe something is to act as if it is so. To believe that two plus two equals four is to behave accordingly when trying to find out how many dollars or apples are in the house. The advantage of believing it is not that we can pass tests in arithmetic; it is that we can deal much more successfully with reality. Just try dealing with it as if two plus two equaled six.

Hence, the advantage of believing in the Trinity is that we then live as if the Trinity is real: as if the cosmos environing us actually is, beyond all else, a self-sufficing community of unspeakably magnificent personal beings of boundless love, knowledge and power. And, thus believing, our lives naturally integrate themselves, through our actions, into the reality of such a universe, just as with two plus two equals four. In faith we rest ourselves upon the reality of the Trinity in action - and it graciously meets us. For it is there. And our lives are then enmeshed in the true world of God.” (Divine Conspiracy, 318)

“We must understand that God does not "love" us without liking us - through gritted teeth - as "Christian" love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core - which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word "love.” (Divine Conspiracy, 64)

As 2013 gives way to 2014, I am amazed at the deep changes brought about by God in my life. Deep habits have been overturned; strongholds broken, new habits developed and new waters have been tasted. Not since I first came to Christ (1989) have I seen such fundamental shifts in my thinking and living. For all this I am beyond thankful!

I feel on the verge of adventure, a life lived with and in God, as he lives on earth through my life. If 2013 was the “year of the disciple,” then I hope that 2014 will be for me the “year of surrender.”

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Contemplation Helps the Mind

Spiritual practices such as centering prayer and contemplative prayer help us become aware of what our minds are up to. We are rarely aware of the habitual thinking patterns we live in, day in and day out. The result is that we often live at the mercy of these patterns. Special methods are often necessary in growing in awareness. This helps us present ourselves more fully and honestly before God.

One of the ways I have found to be helpful in this area is sitting in silence and solitude for a set period of time on a daily basis. This practice helps me 1) become aware of what I’m thinking and feeling and 2) turn my mind toward God. The following reflection by Richard Rohr has proven itself to be true in my own experience. Let me know what your thoughts are, dear reader.

Contemplation is meeting as much reality as we can handle in its most simple and immediate form, without filters, judgments, and commentaries. Now you see why it is so rare and, in fact, “the narrow road that few walk on” (Matthew 7:14). The only way you can contemplate is by recognizing and relativizing your own compulsive mental grids—your practiced ways of judging, critiquing, blocking, and computing everything.

This is what we are trying to do by practicing contemplative prayer, and people addicted to their own mind will find contemplation most difficult, if not impossible. Much that is called thinking is simply the ego’s stating of what it prefers and likes—and resistances to what it does not like. Narcissistic reactions to the moment are not worthy of being called thinking. Yet that is much of our public and private discourse.

When your mental judgmental grid and all its commentaries are placed aside, God finally has a chance to get through to you, because your pettiness is at last out of the way. Then Truth stands revealed! You will begin to recognize that we all carry the Divine Indwelling within us and we all carry it equally. That will change your theology, your politics, and your entire worldview. In fact, it is the very birth of the soul.

Adapted from CAC Foundation Set: Gospel Call to Compassionate Action
(Bias from the Bottom) and Contemplative Prayer

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Season of Christmas

Advent has been a time of expectation, waiting and painful longing. We have waited for God’s deliverance with perseverance and clear vision. The waiting has often been painful, but also mixed with fertile expectation.

Christmas brings us God’s answer to our waiting. If we have been waiting in broken faith, then we should be ripe for recognizing the way God reveals Himself. We remember that most people missed him when he came. Most people still miss him, blinded by worldly notions of God, glory and grace. Faith that is humble, broken and childlike will have eyes capable of seeing him.

He comes in a way that we never expected! As a weak baby boy who needs us to take care of him. He comes in our most vulnerable state, literally at our mercy. Yet, he never ceased to be truly God! This is one of the rich mysteries of Christmas.

Another mystery that captures my heart and mind this morning is the symbolic nature of the manger. Our Lord lies in a food trough made of rough wood (perhaps from the same wood as the cross, you never know) presenting himself as the food of the world.

“I tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.”

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:32-35 NLT)

The wood manger holds the author of Life. Believing in him (not just in something he did or something he said) brings us squarely into the Life of God Himself. Further, just as the manger was made of wood held together by nothing other than the word of Jesus, so the wooden cross was held together by this same word. The solid reliability of physical matter, sustained by the faithfulness of God, provides the setting for God’s invasion of our world. The wooden manger holds the promise of life; the wooden cross holds the curse of death.

Merry Christmas, friends. May you find the real Jesus in your real life today, filled with frustrating family moments, exciting giving and receiving of gifts, feasting, grieving, alone or in the company of the masses. He knows where each of us is right now; he knows the way to meet us in that very place. He is Emmanuel, always within reach!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent Humility

Humility is the only requirement for getting into the stable. The sad fact is that most will find this too demanding, and will pass the stable by with its animal stench and engagement scandal.

There are many ways to look at humility, but I wanted to reflect on a passage from Dallas Willard that I’ve been drinking from for the past few weeks.

. . . we must  humble ourselves and become like little children (Matt.  18:3–5). That means we must be turned around (“converted”) from the normal human attitude, the attitude that says we are in charge of our life and that we are quite competent and capable of managing it on our own.  Little children, on the other hand, come to others for guidance and help and simply presume upon them for it. They have no other option, and they do not think they do—in spite of occasional outbursts of what in adults might be called “self-will.”

Now, for many people, perhaps for most, that will simply be the end of the story. They are not going to humble themselves. That would be beneath their dignity. Or they may try to “negoti-ate a deal with God” in which they are still the ones in charge of their lives and just occasionally get a little help from him for some of their projects. It simply doesn’t work that way, however. They will never come to know the reality of the kingdom or the King if that remains their approach. Any efforts they make in such an approach will meet with a blank wall.

Jesus told a story about two men who went “to church” to pray (Luke 18:9–14). One thought very well of himself and “thanked God ” (can you believe it?) that he was not like other people— especially not like that crook the tax man, standing over there by himself. For his part, the tax man stood with downcast eyes, unwilling even to look up at heaven. He was deeply ashamed of himself. In agony he perhaps jerked out some of his own hair and repeatedly slapped himself (“beat his breast”), saying, “God, be merciful to me, a disgusting wretch! ” Jesus pointed out that the tax man went home accepted by God, while the other man did not. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,”  he said, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” We need to ref lect deeply on what this says about the nature of God.

What is this about? Only the humble person will let God be God. Such people are realistic about who they actually are (none of Peter Berger’s “masks”). A proper sense of human sinfulness and inadequacy may bring people to humility, though for those still set against God, it will not do so. It will only make them more hostile and defiant toward God, and perhaps greater hypocrites, hiding who they really are. We don’t get God’s attention by doing him favors and “looking good.” He doesn’t need that. Through Isaiah God says, “But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word” (66:2). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” Proverbs says, “and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (3:5–6). Turning away from evil is itself an act of humility, for to choose evil is always a matter of doing what I want in dependence on me. (Knowing Christ Today, 151-2).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Pilgrims

And how blessed all those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!
(Ps 84:5-7, MSG)

A thought occurred to me this morning as I was praying for my best friend’s holiday travel to see his family. I wondered, what if we saw holiday travel in terms of holy pilgrimage?

I would define a “holy pilgrimage” as a journey undertaken (often with danger and considerable sacrifice) to a holy place. At least, that’s the definition I’m assuming as I write.

Very few things I do would qualify for such a journey; perhaps the closest thing is the occasional hour long trip I take to the Abbey of Gethsemani for a weekend retreat. There is a certain time involved, certain preparations to be made, particular meditations and activities that occupy my mind as I drive. I hope and pray for certain things to happen.

Although our family is not travelling this year, I found it helpful to think through such travel through the lens of pilgrimage in my quest to bring every part of my human experience under the Lordship of Jesus in his Kingdom. Also, it helps me pray for my friend.

Think of the destination. Do you have positive feelings about it? What would have to happen for your time there to be beneficial and life-giving? Are these realistic things to expect and pray for?

What kind of person will you be when you are there? So often these places are familiar places where we often assume old roles and patterns without thinking, many of which are unhealthy. Are there any things you can do, mentally or physically, to disrupt this pattern, at least in yourself? We can’t control what other pilgrims say or do.

What truths will you be clinging to? Usually truths about our identity and security in God are very helpful to me in preparing for these places and times.

When things get hard or unpleasant, how will you handle it? What places of refuge (if any) exist where you can escape and recollect your heart?

What do you think God wants to give you and your family this year? What obstacles stand in the way?

As I pray for my friend, I ask the Lord will sustain him and his family physically, that he would have the mindfulness to be aware when his heart and mind are being overthrown by old patterns and habits; that his hope and security would be firmly rooted in Jesus who travels with him, and indeed goes before him (Deut 31:8 ); I pray that the Lord will meet him in unexpected ways, that he will be surprised by grace.

God’s Presence in Our World

I found this Advent meditation by Ron Rolheiser compelling. Take a breath before reading it and allow yourself a chance to reflect on what it means for you and for me.

Daniel Berrigan was once asked to give a conference at a university gathering on “God’s Presence in Today’s World.” I suspect that his talk surprised a number of people in his audience both in brevity and content. He simply told the audience how he spends some time each week sitting by the bed of a boy who is totally incapacitated, physically and mentally.

The young boy cannot speak or express himself to those who come into his room. He lies mute and helpless, by all appearances cut off from any possible communication. Berrigan described how he regularly sits by this young boy’s bed to try to hear what he is saying in his silence and helplessness. He explained that the way this young man lies in our world, silent and helpless, is the way God lies in our world. To hear what God is saying we must learn to hear what this young boy is saying.

This is an extremely useful image in helping us understand how the power of God manifests itself in our world. God’s power is in the world like that young boy. It does not overpower with muscle, or attractiveness, or brilliance, or grace, as does the speed and muscle of an Olympic athlete or the physical beauty of a young film star.

These latter things – swiftness, beauty, and grace – do reflect God’s glory, but they are not the primary way God shows power in this world. God’s power in the world is more muted, more helpless, more shamed, and more marginalized. It lies at a deeper level, at the ultimate base of things, and it will, in the end, gently have the final say.” (Daybreaks: Daily Reflections for Advent and Christmas, 26).

Two images fill my mind as I read this and reflect on receiving the Jesus of Christmas.

First, I see the baby Jesus speaking the same message as this incapacitated child. Somehow, this helpless baby (probably not very silent!) is one of God’s clearest displays of power in our world, which overturns everything we know about power and glory. Take time to listen in the stable. What do you hear?

Second, I hear a call to sit alongside my “incapacitations,” the places in my life that are broken and helpless. I usually try to avoid these areas at all costs. I don’t want to look at my “financial future.” I don’t want to consider my “gifting and calling.” It’s just too confusing and painful.

I receive the invitation to sit alongside the incapacitated boy and run the other direction, offering him nothing but rejection. If I sit alongside him though, what would he say? He offers me something that I can’t find anywhere else, something essential I need to be human before God.

When I reject the invitation to sit alongside the paralyzed boy that are my weaknesses, I reject the invitation to sit alongside the manger in Bethlehem. Both invitations are necessary for me to become who I’m meant to be.

This Advent, I will choose to sit, listen and receive what God has for me. May I be willing to sit in the dark broken places where there is not yet any light. Perhaps a few other ragamuffins will join me there and we shall throw a party!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Gospel

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.  Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 NIV)

If our only need is forgiveness of sins, then “Jesus the Savior” is enough.

But, if our even greater need is LIFE then we also need “Immanuel” to be with us and teach us how, day by day, to live the eternal kind of life.

Disciples of Jesus are those who are learning to be with him in all that they do and say in such a way that their life is becoming more and more an expression of the life of Immanuel, risen and enthroned.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:27-30 NIV)

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20 NIV)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I Wait

Empty, I wait
For what I do not know

The waiting is painful
The emptiness black and foreboding
I don't want to be here;
I'd rather be anywhere else,
doing anything else.

Why do I stay?
Where else can I go?
I wait for someone
Only he has life
Only he can light my darkness
fill my empty ache

but will he come?

He is elusive
He plays hard to get, this one
His birth is postponed

When will he come?

O God, help me wait.
Waiting feels like living death.

This stable is dark and smelly, 
but alas it's mine.
The only thing I can call my own.
My only offering for a King is a rough wooden feed trough.

I think, I hope, it will be enough
because he is the kind of God who likes to sleep in this sort of place;
he doesn't take shelter in what we call "strength" or glory,
he dwells in the weak lowly places of the world.
He seems to prefer the dark weaknesses that we run from.

His coming is my only hope.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Don't delay
Have mercy on this one 

Shipwrecked at the stable
I wait for you.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Advent Longing

Advent is about longing and waiting for God’s promise to come to fruition.

I hate waiting!

I am so impatient; my perseverance vanishes like the morning mist when I’m called to wait for something! I feel called to attend to my longings this Advent and learn in deeper ways how to “wait upon the Lord” (Gen 49:18; Ps 27:14; 31:24; 38:15). I have found a few readings helpful to me, and I’ve posted the most poignant a little further below.

The heart of my reflections so far this Advent is that my waiting is a kind of sitting with my longings and desires (which is often a deeply painful prospect) so that they create a space for God in much the same way that a stable was made ready for Jesus.

We don’t usually think of the stable as being God’s first choice; we think of it as an unfortunate backup, an  embarrassing “plan B” for the King of Kings. What if the stable was God’s choice all along? What if he scoured the smelliest, plainest animal shelters in Bethlehem, looking for just the right place for the object of his love to be born? What if the stable, with all the smell and dingy glory, was essential to the revelation of God that shone through Immanuel? I happen to think so. I happen to believe that God wanted it this way, and it is incredibly good news for those of us whose lives take on the form of a plain stable far more than a shiny palace. God really, truly moves into the slums where we live! This is offensive and foolish to our minds, to the extreme; but the offense is necessary if we are to wake up out of our worldly stupors. We have views of God, of glory and what it means to be human that inevitably get in the way of God and his saving work.

As you reflect on Advent and what Jesus has for you, imagine what your “stable” would look like; each of us has our own unique piles of crap filling the pens. Sexual abuse; family dysfunction that just never quits; meaningless work, empty marriages and barren wombs; regrets and terrifying experiences, and so it goes on and on. Each of us have broken hinges and shattered windows and off-centered pictures of our loves and loved ones. Our stables are always more humble than we think!

I am often embarrassed of my stable. I try to hang lights on it and only highlight the strong beams and solid parts of it, when most of it is actually falling apart and covered with mold and rotten wood. God comes to the falling down parts, the smelliest corners and least attractive parts of my stable and takes up residence with a gentle but firm, “I am here because I love you.”

“I will make all things new.”

“I will save you from your sins, and be with you forever. Dare to receive this love of mine.”

May your Advent be filled with the radical humility and intense longing that drove the Most High God to become the lowliest possible form of “us.” He is that good. Let us seek him above all.

To that end, some spiritual masters who have helped my thinking:

What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” (Mk 10:51 NIV; cf. Matt. 20:32)

“Our spiritual life depends on his perpetual coming to us, far more than on our going to him. Every time a channel is made for him he comes; every time our hearts are open to him he enters, bringing a fresh gift of his very life, and on that life we depend. We should think of the whole power and splendor of God as always pressing in upon our small souls.” (Evelyn Underhill, source unknown)

“To live as a child of God is to live with longing, aching for a love that is never quite within our grasp. As attachments lighten and idols fall, we will enjoy increasing freedom. At the same time our hearts will feel an even greater purer ache. That pain is one that never leaves us.” (Gerald May, source unknown)

“People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us.” (Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting,” in Weavings; quoted in A Guide to Prayer For All Who Walk With God, p. 24)

“The spirituality of Advent is about carrying tension without prematurely resolving it so that we do not short circuit the fullness that comes from respecting love’s rhythms. . . . To give birth to what’s divine requires the slow patience of gestation.” (Ron Rolheiser, OMI, Daybreaks: Daily Reflections for Advent and Christmas, 5)

“Advent celebrates human longing. It asks us not to deny our longings but to enter them, deepen them, and widen them until we undergo a metamorphosis. Longing shapes the soul in many ways, particularly by helping create the space within us where God can be born. Longing leads us to the stable and the manger of Bethlehem. It carves out a trough into which God can be born.” (Rolheiser, 6)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Pre-Work

I’m realizing more than ever how necessary and appropriate the act and discipline of thanksgiving is to preparing us for the Advent season (which begins this Sunday, December 1, 2013)

Preparing to receive Jesus as he gives himself to us and not how we expect him;

Preparing to receive Jesus in the company of other hungry disciples, shipwrecked at the stable;

Preparing to receive Jesus with humility, being brave enough to admit that we have no idea what is going on, even after all these years;

Preparing to receive Jesus as the way, the truth and the life of God.

Preparing to receive Jesus in wonder, adoration and in joy.

Thanksgiving is necessary “pre-work” for this work of receiving Jesus. Not just the holiday of Thanksgiving, of course, but the actual act of giving thanks, being thankful, offering thanksgiving for what is good, holy and true. When I say necessary pre-work, I don’t mean it merits us anything, but that thanksgiving carves out and prepares a place for Jesus to be born in us, just as room was made in a stable in Bethlehem. We give thanks for what is good in and around us, for what does not come from us. This requires a certain childlike humility, and as it happens, humility is the basic requirement for recognizing Jesus in the way he reveals himself to the world. Otherwise, we will miss him, leaving us to fend for ourselves in Black Friday lines and shiny packages, in overeating and lopsided football games. We remember that most people, throughout history, have missed him.

Two writers have become travelling companions with me as I do this preparatory work, so I wanted to quote their wisdom here and reflect on it a bit. Their words are unique in that we don’t usually hear things like this at this time of year. I hope you will see what I mean.

First, from the poet John D. Blase:

“Here’s a thought. I share it on Monday because it might take a coupla days to seep deep and if that’s the case then come Thursday you could be ready. I believe this Thanksgiving Day that God has a message for you and me, for all of us really. I don’t know whose voice you imagine God’s voice to sound like (maybe Morgan Freeman or Maya Angelou) but in whosoever's voice you think God sounds like, God says directly to you:

‘I AM so thankful for you.’

If we say that God loves us, and there’s at least a fair number of us who claim to believe that, then why would it be a stretch for God to be thankful for us? Just imagine this huge Camelot-style roundtable and everybody’s seated there and instead of the usual okay-now-tell-one-thing-you’re-thankful-to-God-for exercise, we all sit stunned while God goes around that mythic table and says ‘I AM so thankful for’ and names us, every one, by name, or nickname depending on how God feels in that moment?

That the voice of Love in the universe, and I believe there to be such a voice, were to pause on Thursday and say ‘I AM so thankful for Meredith and Winn and Mark and Ann and Leah and James and Jan and Holly and Michael and Anne and Kent and Pam and Boots (nickname) and Richard and Abbey and Sarah and Will and Don and Ingrid and Mary and Amy and Scout (real name) and…’” (Facebook post by John D. Blase on 11/25/13)

This idea blows my mind! Of course, the idea of God giving thanks leads us to ask, “But, who does God give thanks to??”

We forget that God is a Trinitarian fellowship made up of indescribably rich persons of power, love and goodness. It makes perfect sense that the members of the Trinity give thanks to each other. Jesus gave thanks to God the Father while on earth in an overflowing demonstration of the life and goodness of God caught up in Himself (Matt 11:25-30; 26:26; Mk 14:22; Jn 6:11).

What if, as part of this Trinitarian thanksgiving, you and I were included in God’s giving of thanks?? I am undone with the thought. This is where I want to live! If we are dwelling in this kind of reality, then we can safely navigate all the pitfalls that usually come with the holidays: toxic relatives, shopping lines, traffic jams, painful longings, deep disappointments and elusive joy. Amidst it all we can be grounded in God’s Trinitarian fullness, overflowing from eternity into time in the form of a baby in a dirty feed trough. This is peace and goodness to be thankful for!

The second quote comes from the late Dallas Willard.

“The emotional life of these children of light is deeply characterized by love.They love lots of good things and they love people. They love their life and who they are. They are thankful for their life—even though it may contain many difficulties, even persecution and martyrdom (Matthew 5:10-12). They receive all of it as God's gift, or at least as his allowance, where they will know his goodness and greatness and go on to live with him forever. And so joy and peace are with them even in the hardest of times—even when suffering unjustly. Because of what they have learned about God, they are confident and hopeful and do not indulge thoughts of rejection, failure, and hopelessness, because they know better.” (Facebook post from Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation on 11/25/13, emphasis mine)

The reason this quote is so meaningful to me is that the idea of “being thankful for my life” is profoundly foreign and even offensive. Offensive, at least, to my habitual self-hatred which I have cultivated and held dear, especially during the holiday season when there is so much ammunition for self-hatred! We gain weight, say something stupid, make stupid purchases, get our hopes up and feel utterly foolish when those hopes are dashed, we blow up at store clerks and “idiot” drivers, we get back with our families and feel age 9 again, responding to everything with the immaturity of that 9 year old, we traffic in shame and guilt and then wrap it all up and expect something different than self-hatred to come out on December 25. Lord, have mercy.

The Lord has been doing a new work in me in the past year and a half, and a deep part of that work is learning to be thankful for my life as it is and not as it should be. I am able, in Jesus name and in the power of his Kingdom, to look at all the painful areas of my life (past, present and future) and bring them out of darkness and into the “kingdom of the son he loves” (Col 1:13-14). I can learn to be thankful for parents who failed me, for authority figures who abused and manipulated me; I can learn to see the good that God has brought into my life through loneliness, suffering and physical pain. In Willard’s words I hear the whisper of the Bethlehem Jesus, who loves to dwell with the lowly and broken, saying, “My grace is sufficient in all these points of weakness, sin and excruciating pain. Trust me with them, because I am all you need and I am aboundingly good. You are a gift, from me, to the world.”

This aspect of “giving thanks” prepares me for Advent in bringing all of my life to Jesus as he reveals himself, not the strong, choice, good-looking parts, but the real parts: broken and sagging and empty and dysfunctional. This is the “neighborhood” that Jesus moves into, day after day after day (Jn 1:14).

To wrap this up, remember friends, as you feast with friends and family, to make sure you feast on God’s goodness expressed through Jesus. Take time out to receive the thanksgiving of God that he sings over you (Zeph 3:17)  and allow this to translate into thanksgiving for yourself and your life! That’s a meal worth waiting for and a meal worth sharing!! Bless yourself, bless others, bless God.

3 Because your love is better than life,

   my lips will glorify you.

4 I will praise you as long as I live,

   and in your name I will lift up my hands.

5 I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;

   with singing lips my mouth will praise you. (Ps 63:3-5 NIV)

Here are some more Scriptures that have been on my mind recently regarding these things:

13 For you created my inmost being;

   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

   your works are wonderful,

   I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

   when I was made in the secret place,

   when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

   all the days ordained for me were written in your book

   before one of them came to be.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!

   How vast is the sum of them!

18 Were I to count them,

   they would outnumber the grains of sand—

   when I awake, I am still with you. (Ps 139:13-18 NIV)

Col 1:9-13

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Col 3:15-17

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Life Change for Couples: A Book Review

Life Change for Couples

Christian marriages need all the help they can get. Books on marriage abound, and it’s hard to think of anything unique or fresh that needs to be said. I think James Reeves has succeeded in saying something fresh and helpful, which is what draws me to his workbook, Life Change for Couples. The book originated with another book entitled Life Change for Every Christian and Reeves found it helpful to apply the same principles to marriage relationships.

Using the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as a template, Reeves brings couples face to face with a variety of issues that tend to fragment their relationships with their spouses. Some Christians may be turned off by this feature, thinking the steps as only applicable to “addicts” of various kinds. I think it worthwhile to explain why I think this is a wrong conclusion to make. It was actually a drawing point for me personally, because I believe that the 12 steps in general reflect well what churches should be about generally. Too often, words like “change” and “transformation” are thrown about in the church without any clear pattern or path to follow in actually seeing it take place. The steps provide a reliable path to follow in seeking transformation in a variety of relationships and settings. Dallas Willard highlights this point beautifully.

“Another illustration of the "general pattern" of personal transformation is provided by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar "twelve step" programs. . . . A desirable state of being is envisioned, and an intention to realize it is actuated in decision. Means are applied to fulfill the intention (and the corresponding decision) by producing the desirable state of being: in this case, abstinence from alcohol and a life of sobriety, with all the good that that entails. The familiar means of the traditional AA program—the famous "twelve steps" and the personal and social arrangements in which they are concretely embodied, including a conscious involvement of God in the individual's life—are highly effective in bringing about personal transformation.” (Online article, “Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling,” found at http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=119)

In practical terms, it must be remembered that this is a workbook best suited for a small group made of married couples who have agreed to go through this process together. It can be done individually, but the results will be less profound I think. Also, the role of group facilitator is vital in helping the group stay on task in a balanced and life-giving way. A wise and gentle group facilitator can help apply the “steps” to particular situations. If read individually, there should be some basic background in Christian counseling and/or biblical recovery for this purpose (i.e., not for beginners). The chapters follow the general pattern of introduction, introspection and interaction.

Prior to getting into the specific steps, Reeves lays the groundwork for couples by showing the relationship between emotional and spiritual maturity, particularly through concepts like integrity and gratitude.

The greatest strengths of this workbook are threefold:

1) The focus is on each individual’s own behavior and is not about changing another person’s behavior, often the pitfall in marriage counsel.

2)  Related to #1, there is the assumption that everyone is broken and wounded and in need of the healing of Jesus, in community with his people. Too often marriages fail simply because there is no support and accountability from trusted Christian friends.

3) The workbook provides a well laid out plan, a way to deal with marriage issues that wisely navigates the painful realities of daily married life. Not all plans or paths are equal, but I think this approach holds the most overall value to the majority of married couples.

For these reasons, I recommend use of this workbook to help couples strengthen their marriages and find healing for the areas where they are experiencing brokenness. It could be a real lifesaver!

Thanks to Kregel Publishers for a review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Listening to Silence

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” (C.S. Lewis, From The Weight of Glory, taken from A Year with C.S. Lewis)

For God alone my soul waits in silence;

from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken. (Ps 62:1-2 ESV)

What if silence had a language? What does it say? How do we acquire ears that can hear it?

What if silence is the only place fit for us to bring everything that is “formless and empty” (Gen 1:2) within us? What are the consequences of avoiding silence? We live in what Henri Nouwen a “wordy world,” and if we are to hear God we must cultivate habits of being alone and quiet (disciplines of silence and solitude as discussed in Nouwen’s Way of the Heart).

Creation itself seems to speak this language, the words of silence.

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;

no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world. (Ps 19:1-4 NIV)

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Rom 1:20 NIV)

When we spend time in creation (with nature and persons) we can detect a secret language woven into the fabric of each breeze, permeating wildflowers and birdsong. What does it say? Are we listening?

Significantly, silence seems to be one of the few “right” responses to suffering. How often words have intruded on the bloody scene of a broken heart! Silence is like police tape wrapped around the broken heart saying “Caution - Crime Scene.”

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13 NIV)

Silence also robs us of what is false, because our false selves are maintained by noise and busyness. Let us not be afraid to enter into silence, for if we press on past the awkward terror of losing our false selves, we just might encounter a God of raging holiness and furious love who shall embrace us in ways more tightly and firmly than a baby is held in a mother’s dark womb.

To this end, I’m off to the Abbey of Gethsemani this weekend to drink in some silence and solitude. Prayers appreciated.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Disappointed, but Not Surprised

Permit me to “let my hair down” for a moment. Actually, I don’t have much hair anymore, so let’s change that to “take my shoes off and throw them across the room,” shall we?

I don’t usually pay attention anymore to what John MacArthur is doing these days. Early on in my Christian life he greatly helped me fall in love with Scripture in a time when many around me were forsaking the Bible, and for that I am forever grateful. But I haven’t been able to draw much encouragement from his teachings for a long while, mainly because his tone and style of communicating a fairly narrow view of God and Scripture (which I largely agree with) are seemingly done in such a visibly angry and superior way that I find it distasteful. That is my response, however, and I don’t push it on anyone else. Bless you if you can still find life from his teachings. Please allow me the space not to.

Recent events online have provoked me to say something. It seems in his old age he is taking on more and more of a polemical, even hateful, spirituality toward all who disagree with his narrow interpretation of reality (again, much of which is correct, I would argue). A right view held in the wrong spirit though, could be said to be the “way of the Pharisee.” Someone who is “right” with their theology and what is spoken, but with hearts far from God and his ways. At the very least, I think MacArthur’s tactics undermine and erode whatever is correct in his theology. It probably doesn’t win anyone on his side who already isn’t on his side.

The recent event I’m referring to the conference being held at his church from October 16-18, 2013 (happening as I write) called “Strange Fire,” which continues and deepens his attack on charismatic forms of Christianity (see his book called Charismatic Chaos for reference). Simply put, Charismatics believe that all of the gifts of the Spirit described in the New Testament are for today’s church.

It’s OK to be Cessationist (those who don’t believe the sign gifts of the early church are for today), many of the teachers I respect are. But what is not OK is the direction this is taking. I would even argue, but don’t have time or space to document it here, that the directions and flavor that are becoming characteristic of my “theological camp,” which are largely young and reformed, are becoming more and more hateful and polarizing toward those who don’t hold their views, casuing conferences like this to be commonplace. My guess is that it’s because their commitment to the “truth” and to the “gospel” has trumped all other considerations, especially those of love, hospitality and mercy. Sadly, this is the picture many in our culture and churches will get of Reformed Christianity, a tradition I dearly love and find great strength in as I walk through this darkly scarred world.

A few blogs, written by other teachers I respect are speaking out against this conference, and I commend them to you for reading. If nothing else, folks, don’t assume that John MacArthur speaks for the rest of us Reformed folks. Reformed theology does NOT require being an ass.

May love and unity, based in truth and reality, be what carries Christ’s church forward.

Adrian Warnock’s (Reformed Charismatic) response is here.

C. Michael Patton’s (Reformed Cessationist) response is here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pain As A Way of Knowing

I’ve been locked in a “cell” of sorts for a while, unable to write anything more than a few ideas down (actually this is laughable, I’ve started about 20-30 different posts, but am unable to finish them).

I suspect I’ve needed to stay hidden awhile, for the work of God in me to deepen. I feel like there may be some creative “water” starting to leak from under the surface, so hopefully I’ll write more regularly soon, Lord willing. In the meantime, I found this selection from Richard Rohr’s daily devotional, Radical Grace, particularly beautiful and haunting:

Suffering is the necessary deep feeling of the human situation. If we don’t feel pain, suffering, human failure and weakness, we stand antiseptically apart from it, and remain numb and small. We can’t fully understand such things by thinking about them. The superficiality of much of our world is that it tries to buy its way out of such necessary knowing.

Jesus did not numb himself or withhold himself from human pain, as we see even in his refusal of the numbing wine on the cross (Matthew 27:34). Some forms of suffering are necessary so that we can more fully know the human dilemma, so that we can even name our shadow self and confront it. Maybe evil itself has to be felt to understand its monstrosity, and to empathize with its victims.

Brothers and sisters, the irony is not that God should feel so fiercely; it’s that his creatures feel so feebly. If there is nothing in your life to cry about, if there is nothing in your life to yell about, you must be out of touch. We must all feel and know the immense pain of this global humanity. Then we are no longer isolated, but a true member of the universal Body of Christ. Then we know God not from the outside but from the inside! (p.209, day 218)

We’ve all known people (and been people) who stood “antiseptically” apart from suffering. People inevitably avoid what they don’t understand, and suffering is all about mystery and confusion and the loss of control. Antiseptic spirituality by definition doesn’t get its hands dirty, and prefers staying “numb and small.” For many people (most? all?) the feeling of loss of control can be maddening to the extreme.

What strikes me is not that we keep this “antiseptic distance” toward others (though we do), but to ourselves. I have been struck recently how much I still “despise” aspects of my life - painful, shameful aspects – when it is in those very places that Jesus calls me to himself. He puts on my sores and my stink and calls me to come fellowship with him. When I refuse, I consign myself to a parched wasteland of life lived without-God (Jer 17:5ff). I also lose touch with myself, preferring the paltry selves of my own making, the “scholar,” the “good Dad,” the “faithful employee,” etc. But these selves are not real, so God will have nothing to do with them. He waits for me to acknowledge my “actual self” which is broken and messed up, sinful, manipulative and dearly loved, forgiven and accepted. If I can embrace this self that is me, then I shall be on the road to receiving grace, for it is only to actual selves that God gives grace.

Gently, and patiently, God calls to us in all our pain and trials to know him and know ourselves in relationship with him. This is the only true life, eternal life (John 17:3). Thus, pain becomes a “way of knowing” the most important things in life: God, grace, what it means to be human, etc.

Hear what Job has to say about this at the end of his trials with God:

2 No one can oppose you,
because you have the power
to do what you want.
3 You asked why I talk so much
when I know so little.
I have talked about things
that are far beyond
my understanding.
4 You told me to listen
and answer your questions.
5 I heard about you from others;
now I have seen you
with my own eyes.
6 That’s why I hate myself
and sit here in dust and ashes
to show my sorrow.
(Job 42:2-6 CEV)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Larger Than Fear

Sometimes, anxiety hits so hard it leaves me shellshocked. My thoughts and emotions run at a frantic pace to any semblance of control, but because control is an illusion it disperses the moment I lay my hand on it.

Slowly, I am learning some new ways of dealing with fear, of bringing the resources of God and his kingdom to bear on it and it is making a difference. Slowly.

This poem by Walter Brueggemann helps me remember that God is larger than my fear, that what I need is not control but trust.

We do not really know about running and hiding.
We do not have any real sense, ourselves, of being under assault,
—for we live privileged, safe lives,
—learning in a garden near paradise.
Nonetheless the fear and the prayer
—live close beneath the surface…
———enemies we cannot see,
———old threats lingering unresolved from childhood,
———wild stirrings in the night that we cannot control.
And then we line out our imperative petitions,
—frantic… at least anxious;
—fearful… at least bewildered;
Turning to you, only you, you… nowhere else.
In the midst of our anxiety, confidence wells up,
In our present stress, old well-being echoes.
We speak and the world turns confident and grateful,
—not because we believe our own words,
—but because of your presence,
———your powerful, bold, reliable presence
——————looms large,
——————larger than fear,
——————larger than anxiety,
——————large enough… and in our small vulnerability,
—————————we give thanks.

On reading Psalm 54, after the World Trade Center bombing, Sept 26, 2001.

The One Year Holy Land Moments Devotional (Book Review)

The genre of “Christian devotional” is populated by a vast variety of voices that are odd, sappy, and sentimental. But, it is also home to some of the most profound reflections of what it means to “walk with God” available to us on the planet. At its best, the genre takes what is best from Christian history (ancient and modern) and makes it available in daily, digestible forms for today’s believer. For most of my 24+ years of walking with Christ, I have usually had one by my side. They usually perform the helpful service of “priming the pump” of my soul, helping me get to a place where I am awake and alert, eager and responsive to God.

When I picked up The One Year Holy Land Moments Devotional, I had hopes that this would be a unique contribution to the genre, providing access to the Jewish roots of the faith and practice of Jesus and the early Christians. There is some of that, to be sure, but I was a bit disappointed overall with the actual contribution this devotional makes.

Holy Land Devo

First, some of the nitty gritty: it is a collaboration between a Jewish Rabbi (Yechiel Eckstein) and a Christian Bible Scholar (Tremper Longman). I have long benefited from Longman’s reflections on Scripture, so I was eager to see what this would look like. Each day is primarily a reflection by Rabbi Eckstein on some aspect of Jewish faith and practice, which is then followed up by a short responsive reflection by Longman. This occurs for six days each week, followed by a “Sabbath Reflection” that allows space and time for reflection on the week as a whole in the context of a day of rest.

The value of any devotional is very subjectively determined by the desires and intent of the person reading it. My reasons for engaging devotionals is stated above, and so I would say that one is “good” or “valuable” to the extent that it presents God to my thoughts and imagination in a fresh way, generating warmth and desire in my soul with which I can approach Scripture reading and prayer. My critique which follows will be based on this understanding.

I would classify this work as an “ecumenical” devotional, drawn mainly from Rabbi Eckstein’s ministry of reaching out to find common ground with Christians. He is not a Messianic Jew (one who recognizes Christ as the long awaited Messiah), but a Jewish Rabbi seeking to find common ground with Christian believers. This is an admirable goal, but I’m not sure if it makes for a good devotional. 

Ecumenical efforts are notorious for watering down distinctives in an attempt at “finding common ground.” At its best, ecumenicism maintains distinctives but generates kind and winsome dialogue that promotes understanding between groups of different belief systems. Personally, I would have gained far more benefit from the Jewish heritage had it been conveyed by someone who shared my fundamental assumptions about Jesus as Messiah. Whatever “common devotional ground” is shared between Eckstein and Longman, it is not substantial enough to foster much warmth, desire or wisdom for this disciple’s walk with Jesus.

The book is interesting, to be sure, and there is value in the dialogue of these two perspectives. I just don’t think such a dialogue is good material for a Christian devotional. It should have been marketed as a different kind of book, for a different kind of audience.

Thanks to Tyndale House Publishers for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.