Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
                     In the Bleak Midwinter, by Christina Rosetti

The carol, In the Bleak Midwinter, is probably my favorite Christmas song. The verse above is not in our hymnal. I found it online at website for The Poetry Foundation. The word “Enough” spoke to me because Rosetti’s description tells me that Jesus did not need much when he was born—a place to sleep, food to eat, and parents to care for him. It was enough. I find it humorous that even though angels fall before him, it was enough that the animals adored him!

How satisfied am I with simple things—simple, nourishing food, an adoring pet, a place to sleep, and the companionship and support of others? Maybe the reason the word “enough” keeps coming back to me is that I recently read about Evagrius Ponticus, the early monastic teacher whose naming of the eight deadly passions laid the groundwork for the seven deadly sins. Evagrius also named eight virtues, one for each of the passions (the monastics always considered passions as negative—they were states of mind that were considered destructive of love). We don’t talk about the virtues as much as we should. Evagrius said that the only way to do away with a passion was to overcome it with a corresponding virtue.

Interestingly, the first passion he named was gluttony. Considering the word “enough” against the backdrop of gluttony makes the contrast between the two especially strong. Gluttony is not only about overeating. It is about overdoing anything that is destructive of love. So how much of what we do in this season becomes gluttonous? And when we identify our overeating, overbuying, overdecorating and overdoing as gluttony, how is that celebrating the birth of the One who was born into simple surroundings and was satisfied with the simple things that nourished his life?

The virtue that overcomes gluttony is temperance. What would it look like to practice temperance in this season? Would simple meals, simple gifts, and a simple celebration allow me to focus more on the birth of Jesus, to adore along with the animals that surrounded him? 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jesus In Us

I cannot imagine how it must have felt for Mary to have been impregnated by God. Did she experience the wonder of knowing that within her womb, the promised Messiah was growing daily? Did that sustain her against the criticism of others, the shame of family, the potential loss of her betrothed?

Why did God choose this way of bringing himself into the world? A single young woman engaged to be married. Her reputation stained, even her life at risk because of this pregnancy, certain evidence, it would seem, of promiscuity and adultery.

Maybe this is why Jesus was compassionate to the woman caught in adultery. What had his own mother told him of her experience being pregnant with him? Of the rejection she endured? Of living with a ruined reputation?

And what does this say to me about how I should live? Can I be so certain of the evidence I see as to judge another without knowing how God is at work in that person—how Jesus is growing in them? Is Jesus in me so that I can see Jesus in another—even when that person has been labeled and judged by well-meaning “church folks” as someone unfit to be accepted?

What strength Mary had to be able to praise God as she did, even knowing that what God was doing in and through her would bring scorn and rejection from family and community! Can I see beyond the black and white to the Light of the world? Can I love others and give them grace, knowing that Jesus is growing within them, even if they do not acknowledge it themselves? Will I let Jesus live in me, even if it brings me criticism and rejection?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Zechariah's Silence

“But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
                                                                                                  Luke 1:20

I cannot imagine how Zechariah felt during the time he was silent. It would have been all of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and even before, so he was probably mute for ten months or more. Over the past week, my ability to talk has seemed essential, as I was traveling and needed to be able to ask for help with arrangements and directions. I’ve thought a lot how difficult it would have been to contact the hotel shuttle driver or to ask an airline agent how to adjust for a missed flight.

Zechariah couldn’t share in the joy of telling friends and family what he had seen in the Temple and that, after long years of disappointment, he was going to have a son. He could not relay the prophecy about his child. He could not share the good news.

How helpless he must have felt. When you have spent your life talking, what must it have felt like to go so long without being able to do so. Our ability to speak is one way we are judged by society to be relevant. Have you ever sat quietly when others are offering their opinions and not shared your own? Have you tried to say something and been ignored? We attach great value to our ability to say what we think, to speak our mind.

What submission Zechariah must have learned over the long period of silence. He couldn’t easily convey his likes or dislikes. He couldn’t tell others if he felt good or bad. He could neither express joy over his son’s impending birth nor offer verbal comfort to Elizabeth as she experienced the growth of the baby within her. It must have been a humbling experience.

How might being silent change me? 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Loving Self and Neighbor

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
                                                              Matthew 22:34-40 (NIV)

Is self-sacrifice necessary for a life of discipleship? I recently heard someone argue that Jesus’ quotation of Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself” refutes the necessity of self-sacrifice. This person felt that self-sacrifice equated to not loving yourself.

While I know there are those with self-esteem problems, it seems to me that our culture encourages us to love self more than we love others, not less. We live in a self-focused, self-absorbed society. We want what we want and we want it now. We may like to talk about the needs of others, and we may even do something about them, but the idea of giving up something to help another is a different matter. Even in our giving, the motivation can be to make us feel better about ourselves, not to improve the life of another.

How many of my decisions are the fruit of loving myself more than I love others? Do I consider the impact that my purchasing decisions have on others? Do my dollars support child labor, sweatshop conditions, environmental destruction or planned obsolescence? Does my lifestyle revolve around overindulgence?

I wonder how much of our self-love has made us our own idols, replacing God as the focus of our attention and desire. If I really love God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind, can I simultaneously overindulge myself? It seems to me that loving God with all my energy and focus will open my eyes to what God loves and to what breaks God’s heart. And when what breaks God’s heart breaks my heart as well, love of self and love of neighbor then get into right relationship with each other.

When I love God with every fiber of my being, I will desire what God desires. That will include taking care of myself, but it will not stop there. I will also focus on meeting the needs of others because God loves them and I should love what God loves and as God loves. My wants may not be fulfilled but I contend that if I am that focused on God, my wants are then what God wants, which is life and love for each person—no one excluded. When I want what God wants, what I do does not feel like self-sacrifice. Instead it feels like joy!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nonretaliation as Faithfulness

Over the past week, I’ve been confronted with my lack of trust in God for all my life. One way this stood out to me was in my kneejerk reaction to defend myself in a discussion with another person. When my position was denigrated, I immediately and instinctively retaliated.

Later, as I was reading Psalm 23, the very first verse spoke to me. In the New Living Translation it says: The Lord is my Shepherd; I have all that I need. It dawned on me that if I would allow God to be my Shepherd, I would not need to defend myself or justify my position or explain my behavior, for God is all that I need. God will guide me if I will stop trying to take matters into my own hands and instead trust God for everything.

In a nation where attacking others verbally, if not physically, seems to be part and parcel of our culture, nonretaliation is certainly an anomaly. When much of our entertainment is found in shows where people insult others, yell at others or discredit others, how would it look if those efforts were met with a gentle response or silence? How long could one person verbally berate another if the recipient of the abuse simply did not respond? We see examples of it in our country, though they are few and far between. The Amish community whose children were gunned down while at school, the nonviolent protests during the Civil Rights Movement, Jesus’ silence before his accusers.

If God is my Shepherd, then I am God’s sheep. And that makes me think of another passage that speaks of nonretaliation and sheep.  Isaiah 53:6-7 says:

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
      We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
   Yet the Lord laid on him
      the sins of us all.
He was oppressed and treated harshly,
      yet he never said a word.
   He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
      And as a sheep is silent before the shearers,
      he did not open his mouth.

It is not easy to remain silent when attacked. But what would it do to our communities, not just our Christian communities, but our cities and states and countries if we could embrace the example of Jesus and trust God for our lives instead of retaliating against others?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Christian Workaholics

It’s interesting what you observe if you pay attention to what you read, what you see and what you hear. That should be fairly obvious, but the pace at which many of us live makes observation of anything challenging.

I’m facilitating a small group study of Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster.Using a quote from Thomas Kelly, Foster observes that God never guides us into an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness. And Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30, says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (The Message).

“Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” How often do we simply let ourselves rest in the arms of Jesus? Is there anything in our lives of faith that we just let happen unforced?

I read the above passage in The Message before heading out to be with a group of church friends. As the group shared life experiences, much of which revolved around church activity, I was struck by the contrast between what I was hearing and what I had been reading, both in the gospel of Matthew and in Foster’s book. I was almost tired simply from listening to all the stuff I was hearing.  All the activities were good and worthwhile, and some were even recounted with joy. But I was having a hard time finding any unforced rhythms of grace.

In a society where our value is measured by what we do, and in a church that often seems more obsessed with metrics rather than transformation, to have Jesus calling us to rest and recovery is hard to accept. Yet Jesus warns us of the danger of not resting in him and taking the time to build a relationship with him in Matthew 7:22-23: “On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.”

I’ve been a Christian workaholic but I am learning to live in the “unforced rhythms of grace.” I am trying to let what I do for God be at God’s initiative and at God’s pace, not what the world, or even the church, expects. Jesus didn’t build a megachurch or plan and organize elaborate ministry projects. He seldom preached to large crowds. He taught a small group of followers and ministered as he went, one on one, relationship by relationship. He embodied the unforced rhythms of grace in his life. Rest and recovery and the unforced rhythms of grace are healing and transformational. May we discover the promises of God’s care by living unforced lives in the arms of Christ.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sabbath and Silence

 One of my New Year's resolutions was to slow down, so this video got my attention. I'm facilitating a study of Richard Foster's Freedom of Simplicity, and as I've been reading in preparation for each week's discussion, I am sensing a connection between simplicity, singleness of purpose and slowing down.

The deeper I dig into spirituality and simplicity, the more counter-cultural I find Christianity to be. In Freedom of Simplicity, Foster observes that if we practice Sabbath, it goes against our urges to get ahead, be productive and provide for our own futures. The discipline of Sabbath leads us, if faithfully practiced, to recognize that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions or promotions or productive actions. Life is only found in our obedience to God and in the recognition that our God who loves us provides all that we need. As we detach from our culture's ravenous pursuit of status and possessions and power, we can learn to be content with what we have, to enjoy all that God has already given us in creation (including relationships), and we become more aware of the needs of others and thus, more compassionate. We then finally begin to live what we pray in the Lord's Prayer: thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as in heaven.

Silence is the complement to Sabbath, because silence causes us to learn to quiet our minds. It is the inner manifestation of Sabbath, for if all we do is cease actual activity, our minds are likely to work overtime to make up for the lack of external busyness. In my own experience, without the discipline of contemplative prayer, I shift into thinking about what I will do when I am no longer practicing Sabbath. Silence is Sabbath for my mind.

Ironically, these disciplines are likely the most difficult for us to practice in our American society. When I've suggested dependence on God's provision, I've received sometimes angry protests. I understand, because I struggle to be dependent on God and find it difficult to reconcile productivity and dependence. It seems to me that we are often unwilling to accept that who we are is not defined by what we do, that, in fact, anything we do, for it to actually glorify God, has to arise out of who we are. And we cannot know who we are at the pace we live our lives. We can only discover who we are through the faithful, regular practices of Sabbath and silence.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Modern Manna

Last night, our pastor, Tommy Mason, began a Bible study entitled “Generous Living.” His primary Scripture reference was Luke 3:1-15, which tells of the work of John the Baptist. After John tells the people they need to change their ways, three different groups of people ask him, “What then should we do?” To the first group, the crowds, John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” The second group is the tax collectors, to whom John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers are the third group, and John tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Tommy pointed out that when people asked John how to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” John’s responses consistently addressed possessions. As I looked at the three responses John gave, I also noticed that they also focused on sufficiency of possessions. People were not to hold onto more than they needed.

St. Basil the Great takes John’s words and makes them even more pointed:
“The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry;
the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked;
the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot;
the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor;
the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”

For me, the way God provided manna to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years is the best example of how we should handle our possessions. When God provided the manna, he told the people to collect what they needed for that day, not any more, unless it was the day before the Sabbath, when they were to collect enough for the current day and the Sabbath. Of course, people didn’t follow instructions, and some collected more than they could eat in the one day. The following day, when they awoke, the amount they had laid aside for the future had spoiled and was full of maggots. God did not honor their planning for the future, which really was hoarding.

I wonder if our possessions putrefy our souls in the same way the manna did. When we possess more than we need, when we go from living with an attitude of sufficiency and contentment to purchasing more than we need and holding onto assets for the future, our priorities shift from God to our “manna.” We have to store it, maintain it and invest it and in the process, we put our faith in it instead of God.  We pray “give us this day our daily bread” but we live as if we do not trust God to provide bread for today, tomorrow or the next day.

What is the manna I hoard? What is the excess I cling to while others have nothing? How can I live faithfully with possessions in the state with the third highest poverty rate (Georgia)? These are questions I am asking myself. I am not sure I will be comfortable with the answers, but faithful living means I cannot avoid them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Passion vs. Sanity

Yesterday I read a purpose statement from a committee at a church.  The purpose statement included a line that said that its deliberations would be conducted in an atmosphere conducive to dispassionate discussion. I looked up the definition of the word “dispassionate” at This is what it said: free from or unaffected by passion; devoid of personal feeling or bias; impartial; calm.

I also read yesterday a meditation on the death of Adolf Eichmann, written by Thomas Merton. It’s long, but thought-provoking:
                One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing. If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, well-balanced, unperturbed official, conscientiously going about his dark work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well. . .
                The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.
                It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea, aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep hem far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chains of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake.
                We can no longer assume that because a man is ‘sane’ he is therefore in his ‘right mind’. The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by his disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted’. God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself. . .
                I am beginning to realize that ‘sanity’ is no longer a value or an end in itself. The ‘sanity’ of modern man is about as useful to him as the huge bulk and muscles of the dinosaur. If he were a little less sane, a little more doubtful, a little more aware of his absurdities and contradictions, perhaps there might be a possibility of his survival. But if he is sane, too sane. . . perhaps we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally without anxiety, totally ‘sane’.

I wonder if sanity and rationalism is too highly valued in the church. To consider that a committee might have dispassionate discussion worries me. Should we not be passionate about that which pertains to the body of Christ? What if Christ had acted sanely and dispassionately? I mean, what he did made so sense—dying when he could have used his power to bring about a new kingdom right then and there. Instead he spoke to people on the outskirts and he died just as he was becoming known in Jerusalem. His passion for God, and his passion for us motivated him, not numeric goals and strategic plans.

Until our churches are driven by a mad, passionate love for Christ, the Christ who loves us madly and passionately, I’m afraid we will continue our decline, despite all the “dispassionate” planning we do. Churches in Africa, China and Korea are growing exponentially. Until we get away from the secularized business model and instead become led by the Holy Spirit and by our passionate love for Christ, we will continue to wring our hands and wonder why we are dying.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spending or Saving

“I was afraid I would lose your money . . .”   Matthew 25:25a

The story of the master who entrusts three of his servants with his wealth is a familiar one to students of the Bible. Recent reading I’ve done caused me to look at this story differently than I have before. Usually, I’ve focused on the idea that we are to use the gifts God gave us, not to bury those gifts. In What God Wants for Your Life, by Frederick Schmidt, the author says that the gifts we are given by God are to be spent and risked. That caused me to consider the risk the two faithful servants took by investing the gifts their master entrusted to them.

By investing what they were given, they risked losing everything. Certainly in our current economic climate, I see that as more possible than I might have in more prosperous times.  They were judged faithful by their master, not for playing it safe, but for taking chances. The cautious servant was condemned for playing it safe!
The faithful servants’ faithfulness was embodied in their act of spending and risking what they were entrusted with, not the fact that they doubled their investment. How does this play our in my life and in the life of the church? I’m afraid that too often, I am more like the third servant, playing it safe rather than spending and risking what God has given me. And I’ve sat in enough church finance committee meetings to know that churches often do the same thing.

Yet our example for how to live, Jesus, spent and risked everything for me and for us all. He did not run away from a risky situation, but instead went to Jerusalem, where he knew people were out to get him. In fact, in Luke, this story of the three servants is immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday.

I don’t believe God gave me material gifts so I could put my trust in them instead of in God. I don’t believe God gave me talents and abilities, even life itself, for me to use for my own benefit. The question for me is, will I spend or save what God has given me? What Jesus wants me to do is abundantly clear: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Facing Myself

It is so much easier to be busy and surrounded by noise than to be still and silent. Yet silence is essential if I am to draw closer to God, not so much because I need the silence to hear God, which I do, but because before I can draw closer to God, I have to confront the noise within my own life, and that is a frightening process.

As long as I fill my days with noise and busyness, even good busyness, I postpone the hard work of coming to know myself. I may recognize that there is dissonance in my life, but I am too distracted to examine what is causing that dissonance. It’s like taking aspirin because my leg hurts, but failing to take the time to determine that my leg is broken. In our inner lives, the brokenness often exists for years because our “aspirin” of busyness keeps us from reflecting on what is really causing the pain in our lives.

In silence, I confront the broken and the ugly parts of myself. I must force myself to do this, because no one will make me do it. Some will argue that there’s too much work to do, too much need in the world for me to occupy myself with myself. I would argue that I cannot embrace the brokenness of the world until I come face to face with the brokenness within myself. A life without self-reflection leads me to judgments of others, a certainty that I am always right, a propensity to criticize rather than offer compassion.

Coming to grips with my own brokenness teaches me compassion. When I see another stumble, I can accept it because I recognize within myself my own failures. It is what Jesus spoke of when he said that adultery includes lusting after another and murder includes calling someone an idiot.

Immediately after Jesus was baptized and God called him his beloved, he spent forty days in the wilderness. In the silence of that place, I believe he had to confront who he was before he could accept his belovedness and embrace his mission. I wonder if our own pain and insecurity, our own unwillingness to accept that we are beloved is because we cannot or will not be silent long enough to recognize the masks we wear and know why we wear them. Instead we cover over the parts we don’t want to face with another coat of activity, an added layer of busyness.

Jesus said: “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.’ (Matthew 7:21-23a) The first step to knowing Jesus is getting to know myself, the kind of knowing that can only come out of silence and stillness.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Taking God's Name in Vain

I was reading a book earlier this week that brought up a point I’ve heard before: “The ancient Hebrew prohibition against using the name of God in vain is not about using God’s name in profanity, nor simply about frivolous vows. It is a caution against living as if God does not matter.” (From What God Wants for Your Life by Frederick W. Schmidt)

I have been thinking about the ways I live in which God doesn’t matter. It’s disturbing to think about how I rush through life without considering God in my decisions. For every decision I make carries with it the opportunity to live as if God matters. From the choices about what I eat to what I wear to my driving habits and spending habits, I am in every choice deciding if God matters to me. How I interact with anyone I see during the day is a statement of whether God matters to me. My decision to speak or be silent says whether God matters to me.

It can be overwhelming to consider all the effects of the decisions I make each day. It could almost paralyze me from making any decision, but even that is a decision in itself. Yet I consider a line of a prayer by Thomas Merton, which says: ‘I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.” Rather than throwing up my hands and giving up, I want to persist in being increasingly attentive to the choices I make, trusting that even when I fail to make the choice that honors God, God’s grace envelops me and encourages me to continue on the journey.

The greatest tragedy is to know the right decision and then choose deliberately to take the easier path, the socially acceptable path, the culturally encouraged path. I do this far more than I would like to think I do, whether it’s for my convenience or comfort or simply because I really do want to eat that barbeque sandwich made from a pig whose life was worse than death. When I put my desires first, I am taking God’s name in vain.

Even if my steps are only baby steps, and they are, and even though I stumble and give in to the culture around me, I know that I cannot just shrug my shoulders and do nothing, for that would be choosing to live as if God didn’t matter. I pray that my desire to please God will grow beyond desire and into action.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Downward Mobility

I first encountered the term “downward mobility” in the book Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross by Michael Gorman. It was a term Gorman used to describe the life that Jesus chose to live, using Philippians 2:5-11 as his reference:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God,
    he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
   by taking the form of a slave
   and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
   he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
   even death on a cross.
Therefore God highly honored him
   and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
   in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
   Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
(from the Common English Bible)

Downward mobility is not something to which we aspire. Our society is built on upward mobility. Our heroes are those who have excelled in sports, in Hollywood, in war, in politics or in business. Someone who gives himself for others might make the second 10 minute block of the local news, as long as it’s a slow news day and then, only if anyone actually finds out about the person (which is unlikely because such people don’t give themselves for recognition but out of love).

Our society functions through consumerism, or so it seems. We gauge the strength of the economy by spending habits. As individuals, we define ourselves by what we own and by our work (but only if our work gives us status). We attach worth to others by these same measures.

Jesus owned nothing except maybe the clothes on his back—no house, no land, no donkey. His disciples gave up their life’s work to follow him, and on occasion, speculated as to what reward they would get for doing so, showing that they were still focused on upward mobility.

In the Philippians passage above, Paul tells us that we are to adopt the attitude that Jesus had—emptying ourselves, humbling ourselves, not exploiting our status. The path of downward mobility is not an easy one. It is the narrow path that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:14: “But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.”

Sharing these thoughts seems hypocritical, because I write them in my upwardly mobile home surrounded by the trappings of my upwardly mobile life. But while I am not comfortable with the challenge given by Jesus and by Paul, I am less comfortable with my current surroundings. So staying where I am is not a good option. The question for me then is will I, out of love for Jesus and those for whom he died, take the path of downward mobility, the narrow road.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Surrendering My Agenda

I’ve been reading in Galatians this week as Paul exhorts the Galatian Christians to stop trying to follow the law and instead return to the grace they received when they accepted Jesus. I’ve been using a Bible reading plan found in This Day. Just a couple of days ago, I realized that I have gotten off track and am actually reading Scriptures for some week in June rather than July. It has distressed me greatly, and as I read Galatians this morning, I realized, in my own way, I was living under the law rather than under grace as I beat myself up over reading in the wrong place.

I like order and predictability and rule-following. Paul is certainly speaking to me as he tells the Galatians that they cannot be saved by the law, otherwise it would not have been necessary for Jesus to die. Surrendering myself to Christ means surrendering my affinity for order, predictability and rules—the law in my life.

In the daily message from My Utmost for His Highest earlier this week (I AM in the right place in that book) Oswald Chambers says that when we plan without God, God has “a delightful way of upsetting the plans we have made.” When I fail to live by grace and instead try to live by the law (aka my agenda) I can tell because I do become upset when my plans fall through.

It’s a real lesson in trust for me. Do I trust God with my agenda? Can I trust that God does know the plans God has for me (to recall a verse from Jeremiah) and that those plans are for good, actually for my best? It takes a radical reorientation for me to abandon my agenda to God, but I realize that unless and until I do it, I am keeping God’s power and plans for me in a sealed box. I pray for help to release my grasp.

Friday, July 1, 2011

In Training

My husband thinks I am obsessed with exercise. My early morning walks are special to me, and are spiritual as well as physical for me, especially this time of year, when the sun is rising and the birds are singing when I’m walking. Maybe I am obsessed. I do know that morning exercise has become part of my daily routine, as much so as brushing my teeth or my morning devotional time. If there was a “Rule of Ann” (like the rule of St. Benedict) I’m pretty sure it would include exercise as the day-beginning activity.

In 1 Timothy 4:8, Paul tells his protégé: Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come. Am I as obsessed with my training for godliness as I am my physical training? I do have my devotional practices, but how well do I live out my faith in the world each day? Would others consider me spiritually fit?

Last Sunday in his sermon, our pastor Tommy Mason asked us whether others would call us Christian. He referenced the church at Antioch, where the believers were first called Christian, not by themselves, but by those who observed them. They were in training for godliness and it showed to others.

How exactly do I train for godliness? It is a question I have been asking myself this week. I know how to create an exercise plan for physical exercise, but I am wrestling with how to create an exercise plan for godliness.

I do know this—without intentionality on my part, I can become spiritually flabby just as I can become physically flabby if I don’t have an exercise plan and stick to it. Practicing John Wesley’s means of grace is likely a good starting place. Training for godliness includes the inward works of piety and the outward works of mercy. Using these, I can develop a training plan, and I pray I will become more obsessed with training for godliness than with physical training!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Have Mercy

Grace, mercy, and peace, which come from God the Father and from Jesus Christ . . . will continue to be with us who live in truth and love.                         2 John 3

There is no truth apart from love, yet the hate and exclusion that many who claim to be Christians practice would lead one to think that trust could exist apart from love. If what comes from God and from Jesus is grace, mercy, and peace, where is there room for condemnation?

Jesus said in Matthew 11:25 that it is the childlike who understand this message of truth more clearly than those who are considered wise according to the standards of the world. Would we not do more to fulfill the teaching of Jesus if we extended grace, mercy and peace to each other instead of arguing over whether or not hell exists, and if so, who is going there? How do such arguments strengthen the body of Christ? Sure, they may strengthen a particular individual or group, but at the expense of another, so the whole body actually suffers.

It seems to me that what people are really hungry for is not theological superiority but love and grace and mercy and peace. We may think that resolving the conflict of who's "in" and who's "out" will make us feel whole, but in cutting away any part of Christ's body, we are never whole.

Jesus extended mercy even to those who didn't ask for it. I am called to do likewise.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lesson from an Embankment

My morning walk regularly takes me by an embankment that was created in the grading for a shopping center parking lot. For years, the dirt washed over the sidewalk every time it rained. Finally, about a year ago, grass seed was planted and netting laid over it to hold it in place. Now the bank is a carpet of green and the erosion has ceased.

As I walked by the bank earlier this week, I thought about the mutuality of the relationship between the grass and the dirt. The dirt needs the grass to hold it in place. The grass needs the dirt to grow. Neither can flourish without the other.

Jeremiah 17:7-8 says:
                But blessed are those who trust in the Lord
                   and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.
                They are like trees planted along a riverbank
                   with roots that reach deep into the water.
                Such trees are not bothered by the heat
                   or worried by long months of drought.
                Their leaves stay green,
                   and they never stop producing fruit.

Psalm 1:3 echoes a similar message. And Paul, in Ephesians 3:17, speaks of our roots growing down into God’s love, keeping us strong. If we are the plant and God is the soil, is it not safe to say that God needs us just as we need God?

Without our roots, God’s “soil” washes away and is wasted. Soil on the riverbank won’t stay on the riverbank without roots to hold it there. It is washed downstream, away from where it is needed. If I fail to put roots down into God’s love, others cannot experience God’s love through me, and I miss out on experiencing God through others.

The Church is much like that embankment I see as I walk. It takes all those grass plants with all their roots to hold the soil in place. If only a few grass seeds send down roots, they likely don’t have enough strength to hold the whole bank in place. We need each other. The body of Christ needs us all and we need each other.

When we gather for worship, we are putting down our roots into God’s love, which strengthens God as it strengthens the church. My absence from worship weakens the embankment, making it more difficult for the remaining “seeds” to keep the bank from washing away. My attendance in worship is not for my benefit, but for the benefit of God and the other members of Christ’s body. My showing up is something I do for others, but at the same time, my own roots are strengthened.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Gift of Life

A recent conversation with someone who shared her struggle with the untimely death of a family member got me thinking about life, and caused me to ask the question: is life a right or a gift? While I may say it’s a gift, I more often treat it as if it were a right. Even the term “untimely death” illustrates that I consider life a right, like someone died before they were supposed to. We may not say it, but we often think that person was robbed, as if something that belonged to them was taken away.

Yet is my life really my own? My life is given to me as a gift, and just as Jesus gave his life for me, discipleship means that I give my life for others. Each day is a gift from God for me to return to God as a gift by living a life that glorifies God.

With that perspective, there is no untimely death. If I awake each day aware of the gift that day is, then every moment is an occasion for joy. When I can be grateful for each moment I am more likely to live fully in the present, taking nothing for granted. Living in the present moment keeps me focused on the gift of the now, instead of worrying about a future that may or may not be given to me. I should appreciate the gift I have instead of seeking another gift.

Every day is a gift from God. May I accept it with gratitude, living each moment to the fullest to show my love and appreciation.

He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
                                                                             Ephesians 2:10b

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Going Down

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
   Though he was God,
      he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
   Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
      he took the humble position of a slave
      and was born as a human being.
   When he appeared in human form,
      he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
                                                                Philippians 2:5-8

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Paul’s description of Jesus here would not be good marketing material for attracting disciples. We would rather skip over these verses and go to verses 9-11 that talk about glory and knees bowing and honor. I would much rather be on the glory train than the slavery train.

Yet Paul tells us that our attitude and our lives are to be patterned after the life and death of Jesus. The cross not only represents the means for our salvation but also the way by which we should live. Jesus bore suffering for the sake of others. He gave up his divine privileges for the sake of others. He poured out his life for the sake of others. He identified himself with criminals for the sake of others. And I am called to do likewise. That’s not a comfortable call. I’m not real sure I want to do these things, but discipleship means that I pattern my life after the life of Jesus, and his life also includes the way he died for others.

Jesus identified himself with those who suffer. He didn’t just identify with those who suffered unjustly, as we see in the way he treated the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).  He told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. To use a phrase from the book Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross by Michael Gorman, Jesus chose to be downwardly mobile.

The downwardly mobile journey will take everything I have to give. It involves not only becoming externally downwardly mobile in choosing to identify with the ignored, the outcast, the oppressed and the forgotten. If I do only this, I will become exhausted and burned out. I must also become inwardly downwardly mobile, going deeper in my relationship with God, sending my roots down deep to the source of Love and Truth. If I only focus on the inward journey, I am selfish, taking the blessings of Christ only for myself and this leads to self-righteous superiority, not at all the attitude of Jesus.

Downward mobility is not an easy path, but it is the path we are called to take. Help me, God, to turn away from the privileges and take up the cross. Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Generosity vs. Grudges

"When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will had you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. And if that happens, you surely won't be free again until you have paid the last penny."                                                 Matthew 5:25-26

While Jesus' advice here might reduce the need for the legal system, I don't believe eliminating bureaucracy was the reason for this teaching. Jesus has a deeper message: when we refuse to reconcile, we imprison ourselves. Jesus leads up to this by teaching that even being angry at another makes us subject to judgment (Matthew 5:22).

This is one reason generosity is a fruit of the Spirit. A generous person is not only generous with her money, but with her love as well. If I hold a grudge against another, my hands are too full to offer gifts to God or to anyone else. I cannot praise God while resenting one of God's children. I am just a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." (1 Corinthians 13:1). I am just going through the motions without any substance within.

It is so much harder to hold a grudge and live in the prison of resentment than it is to let it go and be reconciled. Being generous is a life-giving attitude. The more generous you are, the greater your joy. Joy cannot live in a resentful heart, and a resentful heart can make me physically sick and certainly does make me spiritually sick. Holding a grudge holds me in a prison that keeps me from taking hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:19).

Monday, April 25, 2011

Accepting My Ordinariness

Saturday evening, when the Sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went out and purchased burial spices to they could anoint Jesus' body. Very early on Sunday morning, just at sunrise, they went to the tomb. . . 
When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked, but the angel said, "Don't be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn't here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died."
                                                                                                Mark 16:1-2, 5-7

When the angel gave the women his instructions, he singled out Peter. I believe it was a way of letting Peter know he was still loved. He had not been laid aside because of his denial of Jesus.

Contrast the difference between how Judas and Peter handled their sin toward Jesus. Judas could not get over it and commits suicide. Peter moves ahead and remains in his role as a disciple. Peter becomes the leader of the disciples despite having denied Jesus. He can preach forgiveness because he has experienced forgiveness. His failure strengthened his message. Judas could have also had a powerful message of redemption but he could not get over himself and his selfishness cost his discipleship.

Jesus had chosen both men to be his disciples, but only Peter kept his focus on Jesus. Judas was self-absorbed and it was this that cost him his life, not his betrayal of Jesus.

This is a powerful lesson for me. I can put so much pressure on myself that I am unable to see the grace and forgiveness that is always available to me. My self-focus keeps me from focusing on God, so I overstate my own failures just as I overrate my own righteousness. 

I have a friend who observes that we have a hard time accepting that we are ordinary. Peter was able to accept his ordinariness, and because he did, God did great things through him. Judas could not accept being ordinary, and God could not work through him. 

Lord, help me accept my ordinariness, and to keep my focus on you and your greatness. Amen

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Way of Death

If I am to pattern my life after that of Jesus, should that not also extend to how he lived and died in the final week of his life on earth?

Can the crucified Christ be my model for living and for dying? It seems that Paul is saying this in Philippians 2:5-11, a passage I’ve returned to time and time again in this season of Lent:

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
  Though he was God,
      he did not think of equality with God
      as something to cling to.
   Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
      he took the humble position of a slave
      and was born as a human being.
     When he appeared in human form,
      he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

   Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
      and gave him the name above all other names,
   that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
      in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
   and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
      to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus’ faith was embodied in self-surrender. My faith cannot be just belief, but must be my pattern for living. My faith will lead to death, death of my own self-interests, death to my own instinct toward self-preservation, death to seeking to have my own way. It is costly—yet Jesus bore that cost out of his love for God and his love for me.

I cannot fully love unless I die to self. Jesus modeled self-emptying, downwardly mobile love. How countercultural to the values of our society!

As I go with Jesus to the cross, I ask myself if I am indeed willing to pattern my life after Christ.

Can I voluntarily give up my rights and my wealth to help others?

Will I choose to become downwardly mobile for the sake of elevating others?

Will I constantly ask myself how my behaviors and choices affect others?

These are questions I will wrestle with long after the joy of Easter Sunday. I cannot dismiss them, for they must be answered. The answers I give determine if I am a merely a believer or am a disciple.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Middle Part

On Sunday, I was thinking over the previous week, a discipline I do in preparation for worship. I reflect on when I've been aware of God's presence, and when I've missed God and why. Some weeks are full of encounters with God, and some, like last week, seem to be devoid of such experiences. As I considered why that might have been the case, it dawned on me that it was the middle of Lent and maybe that had something to do with my spiritual dryness.

The middle is not always a good place to be. The first week or so of Lent, I was excited to have begun the pilgrimage. For weeks prior to Ash Wednesday, I had been thinking about Lent, and what discipline would I take on for this forty-day journey as preparation for Easter. Like many anticipated journeys, there is excitement as the journey begins. The newness of the endeavor and the immediately apparent changes are reasons for celebration. Every step feels fresh. Every day of successfully practicing a new discipline is a victory.

But in the middle the new has worn off. The wilderness is now THE wilderness, where every day dawns much the same as the one before. The initial excitement is gone, and the pilgrimage now feels more like a forced march. Day after day, step after step. The end is too far out to motivate me forward, so I am in a dry and weary land in the middle of Lent.

The middle is where perseverance is needed, because the initial momentum is gone and it's too early for the final surge to the finish. In this place, the temptations aren't the big things, but the small ones. It's not the sharks, but instead the guppies--that look so harmless and actually kind of tickle as they nibble on my toes--that break my skin and allow my life to leak out of me ever so slowly. These nibbles come in many forms--the short answer given when someone says a hurtful word, the feeling-sorry-for-myself that results from being overlooked, the impatience with a lonely neighbor who talks too much. 

I've been reading Living With Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, by Esther de Waal. The author notes that we face a "ceaseless round of daily duties," but that Benedict asks us to pray through all of this. So maybe that is the discipline needed to persevere through the middle part of the pilgrimage. Pray when I encounter others, pray when I am frustrated, pray when the scenery isn't changing, pray when I cannot see the end in sight. Pray for safe travels.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How Long?

How long O Lord
   will we be content with ourselves
      while children are hungry,
      while teenagers are dying,
      while hatred causes violence,
      while others are oppressed to satisfy our materialism?

How long O Lord
   will we buy luxuries for ourselves
      when our neighbors have no heat,
      when children have no coats,
      when the elderly cannot afford medicine,
      when others die from lack of clean water?

How long O Lord
   we are waiting for you to act,
      while we purchase our groceries,
      while we water our lawns,
      while we work on our golf game,
      while we play with our iPads.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Weakness is not comfortable. We would much rather talk of God's power than the weakness of Jesus described in Philippians 2:5-7:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death--
   even death on a cross.

Richard Rohr, in The Naked Now, says that we idealize willfulness and will power rather than willingness and weakness. Even in this season of Lent, our decisions to give up something can be an exercise in will power rather than a willingness to recognize our vulnerability to idolatry.

We fight vulnerability by being in control. It is why some have such a hard time moving from believer to disciple. Vulnerability can only be willingly accepted by faith. At the point where I willingly allow myself to be vulnerable, I have given up control of the outcome.

Jesus modeled vulnerability by his willingness to die on the cross. He was vulnerable because he loved and trusted God. God willingly allowed this to happen because God loves us. God became vulnerable for our sakes.

Jesus taught vulnerability. In Matthew 10:5-10, Jesus sent the disciples out without any money, extra clothes or shoes or even a walking stick. They were totally vulnerable and dependent--with no protection from attack, no way to buy food and no certainty of a place to spend the night. They had to depend on the generosity of others and the provision of God. We call this irrational, but it is really grace-full living. It is faith like that of a child, open, vulnerable, trusting, loving.

This vulnerability is driven by love. The disciples went out because they loved Jesus. Love at its best makes us vulnerable. Love is about letting go of control of the one we love, which means opening oneself to the possibility that the one loved will leave. It is the way God loves us. We are given the freedom to reject God's love for us, to live willfully instead of sacrificially, rationally instead of faithfully.

It takes more courage to be vulnerable than strong. I pray I will have such courage. Discipleship requires it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Courage to Follow

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.
                                                                                   1 Corinthians 1:27

I cannot be a disciple of Jesus if I am ashamed of him. I must live in the joy and peace of Christ without hiding it under a basket. I must trust God with my life, even if it seems foolish to others.  It's not just those "in the world" who see Christ as foolishness. There is a strong pull among church folk toward worldly intellectualism that only accepts certain teachings of Jesus and writes the rest off as impractical. 

The United Methodist Church has a Lenten series called "Fearless: The Courage to Question." I don't think it's questioning that we fear. It seems to me that we are more afraid that Jesus might really mean what he says and that he expects us to live as he teaches, not choosing the parts we like, but all of it. That really is foolishness in the eyes of the world, and sadly, to many in the church.

Sacrificial living, nonretaliation, loving those who hurt us or who are merely different than us, not worrying about the future, giving to anyone who asks--all these and more are things that most of us aren't willing to do, so we write them off as foolish, which is writing Jesus off as foolish. We don't believe the powerless will shame the powerful or that the foolish will shame the wise because WE are the wise and the powerful.

Courage to question? That is not the issue. The real question is do I have the courage to abandon myself to Jesus' way of living, giving up the power and wisdom and status of the world for the weakness and foolishness and death of Christ. Now that does take courage--and trust in God.