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)