Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Extraordinarily Ordinary

It is graduation season, filled with speeches about making one’s mark on the world. It’s a season where graduates and their families often dream big dreams of the future. It doesn’t take much to fuel the fires of hopes and dreams, for we live in a country that values big—big accomplishments, big cities, big bank accounts, big companies.

We want to be stimulated, excited, informed, experienced, knowledgeable and influential. We like full calendars, full stomachs, full closets and full control of our lives. We write wills so our full closets will continue to be fully controlled by us after we die.

How could we possibly be content with being ordinary, with having fewer items on our calendars or in our closets, with unconcern about what we have or how we are viewed by others? How could we stand ourselves if we were still, quiet and small? Who would we be if we weren’t “making a difference?”

Certainly there is much work to be done in the world, many people to help, many changes needed and fresh new eyes to see entrenched problems in new ways so that they may be solved. Yet we who claim to follow Christ sometimes forget to follow Christ. Instead we follow ego, we follow what the world says makes us valuable, and while we are busy doing good, we are at the same time starving our souls.

I believe that is why we in the West try to simultaneously pursue the values of our culture, which keep us always hungry for more possessions, experiences and influence while claiming to follow Christ. Sometimes churches are tempted to cater to our appetite for experiences. Worship that is big and stimulating and exciting competes with other things that vie for our attention. We want our worship to “do” something for us. We are not content with something ordinary.

Centering prayer is not flashy, big or exciting. Sitting still for twenty or thirty minutes, content with simply being in the presence of God, doesn’t sound very productive in a culture that values action and results. We reject the simple discipline of simply showing up to be with God, preferring instead to do something for God. Have you ever considered that God might just want our company for a little while each day?

The simple act of being present with God helps us to also be present with others and to be present to ourselves. It is so ordinary, so small, so unexciting, which is why being present is so necessary to our growth as followers of Jesus. It is exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t heal every leper, did not raise every dead child, and did not convert every person to his way of thinking. But he was fully present to the people he was with. He felt the hemorrhaging woman touch his robe. He had time to hold children. He found a blind man amid a crowd of people cheering his presence.

Being present strikes back against the ego that says we are only worth what we accomplish in the world. Being present is countercultural in its ordinariness, in its rejection of big, full and stimulating roles and activities. Yet if we really do want to make a difference in the world, we first have to be different from the world ourselves, and still enough to know how to follow where Christ leads.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I wonder if our primary way of betraying God is by our desire to be self-reliant. The speed at which most of us live leaves no room for reliance on God, nor are we inclined to wait for God’s guidance or provision. At most, we seek God’s rubber stamp of approval for our decisions.

The concept of Sabbath is not one we embrace willingly; at least that has been my experience. Whether discussing the Jubilee year or just one day a week, groups with whom I’ve met are not ambivalent about the notion of taking time off to let God be God for us. I’ve had both millennials and retirees reject the discipline of Sabbath. Sabbath as a spiritual discipline strikes a blow to the ego, teaching us that we are not self-reliant, that God is not subject to our plans, that, as Brother Lawrence said, we cannot go faster than grace.

Self-reliance and grace live in opposition to each other, which is why embracing self- reliance is a denial of God’s power and grace. It’s not an easy word for us to hear, and yet we shudder at the notion of dependence on God’s grace.

Think otherwise? Then ask yourself how willing you are to be seen as irrelevant, unproductive, or powerless by others. Is your worth so rooted in Christ’s love that you can live with these labels in order to be totally dependent on God’s grace and provision?

Both Judas and Peter demonstrated the sin of self-reliance. Judas wanted power and betrayed Jesus. Peter wanted relevance and wouldn’t accept Jesus’ prediction of his death (Matthew 16:22-23).

How do we betray Jesus by our self-reliance? 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Faster than Grace

Flipping through my copy of The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a monk who lived in the 1600s, I saw a  couple of sentences I highlighted several years ago when I read the book: She seems to me full of good will, but she would go faster than grace. One does not become holy all at once.

I wonder what Brother Lawrence would have to say about our instant, disposable, microwave culture that doesn’t have time for even a five-year plan. It seems to me that the Church of western culture has jumped on the runaway train of instantaneousness of everything we do. When I talk to church folk in various locations and denominations, I hear the lament of declining numbers, fear of irrelevance, and I see efforts at one-upping activities “competing” for the attention of church members.

We seem to want to go faster than grace, to find the magic pill that grants instant holiness. We forget the gifts we offer souls: the importance of consistency in an inconstant world, of stability in a transient society, of quiet in a world of noise. Heck, we don’t even build churches with sanctuaries anymore; we have “worship spaces” instead.

Maybe we need a sanctuary, a place to find roots and rest, a place that wraps us in healing embrace and asks, in return, that we go and do likewise with one another. A place to slow down and abide is a place of grace, a place where we are given permission to grow gradually, a place where life is about a long obedience rather than a quick fix.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from the labyrinth is that if I am distracted or try to go too fast, I lose sight of the path. Walking a labyrinth is not about efficiency or speed or results. Rather, the labyrinth invites one to move at a slower pace, to pay attention only to the next step, and to simply be present. The labyrinth reminds me that the journey takes time and is filled with changes in direction, but if I stay on the path, I will never go faster than grace. I’ll never be out of the reach of God’s love and goodness.

Brother Lawrence’s observation reminds me that distractions that pull us away from rootedness in God have existed forever. We haven’t changed that much throughout time. The hunger for God can only be filled by God, and we cannot devour it all at once, and declare ourselves done. We become holy over time, with discipline and stability and sanctuary. May we learn to walk with the pace of grace.