Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Advent Musings with Mary's Magnificat - Week 4

Our Place

Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
   In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
   Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
      because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
   He shows mercy to everyone,
      from one generation to the next,
      who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
   He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
   He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
      and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
   and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
   remembering his mercy,
   just as he promised to our ancestors,
      to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

In this final week of Advent, as I read Mary’s Song of Praise, what stands out is her awareness of her place in the greater narrative of history. She recalls God’s history of faithfulness “to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” She praises God who “shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.”

She also proclaims her own place in this narrative of God’s faithfulness as she recognizes that “from now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.”

As I write this, traffic around shopping areas is heavy and drivers are tense. Kitchens are busy with folks preparing food for visitors or for gifts to others. People are rushing in search of one more gift, a bag of flour, or scotch tape. Lines are long and tempers are short.

What if we paused to consider our place in the larger story? Along with the outward preparations, how have you prepared inwardly to honor God as God? Do you have something to add to the story of God’s faithfulness from one generation to the next?

I hope you know your place in God’s story and God’s place in your story. I pray we all write the story of God’s continuing faithfulness as faithfully and winsomely as Mary.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advent Musings with Mary's Magnificat - Week 3

This past Sunday in worship, we sang an Advent hymn that I recognized, by about the end of the second verse, as a rendering of Mary’s Magnificat. The hymn, entitled My Soul Gives Glory to My God, includes this verse:
Love casts the mighty from their thrones,
promotes the insecure,
leaves hungry spirits satisfied,
the rich seem suddenly poor.

Like many hymns, I wonder how much we really tuned in to the words as we sang. We might do fine with the first three lines, but as those who by the world’s standards are rich, do we really want to seem suddenly poor?

When you get into Mary’s song of praise, you suddenly realize that she has gone from praising God for honoring her to praising God for upending the entire social order:

He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.

Reading these verses (Luke 1:51-53) gives us an insight into Mary as much more than a docile, delicate teenager. These are the words of a prophet, and like all good prophets, her words are neither gentle nor subtle. They tell of a new way, a way that turns power and possessions toward those who do not have them and away from the ones who perennially hold the world’s purse-strings and power.

These prophetic words remind us that God’s way is not the way our world operates. The wealthy and powerful, the proud and intimidating, are not the ones God honors. It’s the poor, the powerless, the meek and the hungry that God favors. Just read the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) if you aren’t convinced, or better yet, look at the life and death of Jesus. He had no place to lay his head; he was killed by the powers that be and instead of retaliating, he chose the humble way of suffering, crucified as a criminal. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Advent Musings with Mary's Magnificat - Week 2

Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.”             Luke 1:46-47

Oftentimes a different voice helps us to hear something familiar in a new way. Reading Mary’s song from the Common English Bible presents a phrase that has had an impact on how I see Mary, and gives me new ears to hear her song.

“In the depths of who I am” is how the CEB renders the more familiar phrase “my soul.” The different wording provides a glimpse into who Mary is and why she was chosen. For Mary, praise is not limp, hollow or perfunctory. It is uncontainable and irresistible.

Is that true for us? How has your worship, your praise, been expressed this Advent? Is it irrepressible or is it imperceptible?

What is important about our praise is that it come from the depths of who we are. Expressing our praise will look different for each of us. Some of us are naturally more demonstrative and exuberant. Others of us are naturally quiet. Connecting with our deepest being connects us to God, which then leads us to praise. When I am moved from the depths of my being, praise gets expressed with tears, enthusiastic singing, and an uncontrollable smile.

Rejoicing from the depths of who we are is not confined to an hour in the sanctuary each week. It is a way of living every moment of every day. It is a thanksgiving way of living, being grateful for what is. It is having eyes that see God in all life’s circumstances. It is being aware of God’s presence always.

This Advent, can you rejoice in God from the depths of who you are? I imagine that is a gift God would love to receive!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent Musings with Mary's Magnificat-Week 1

And Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
   In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
   Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
   because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
                                                Luke 1:46-49

For this season of Advent, I want to spend time reflecting on Mary’s song of praise, that spontaneous utterance she gave upon being greeted and blessed by her cousin Elizabeth as she arrived at Elizabeth’s home.

While her song is appropriate material for reflection at any time, I am especially aware of its significance currently, as hateful words and actions seem to be more prevalent, accepted and even encouraged in our country than I can remember in my lifetime.

Today, I reflect on Mary’s chosenness, on her worth as a woman, her status as the mother of Jesus. Mary is a strong prophetic voice, a person of strong faith. Her song of praise echoes that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and the voices of prophets all through Israel’s history, who knew that the weak, the poor and the least are those whom God lifts up and holds in high esteem.

It disturbs and angers me when women are treated as objects rather than as children of God and worthy of respect and equality of opportunity. I have heard first hand disparaging remarks about the capability of women. Being told “you’re pretty smart for a girl” is not a compliment. Calling women bossy for being in leadership roles, criticizing their appearance, and labelling them as “shrill” when they recognize and speak against discrimination does not recognize the worth and dignity of women.  Strong women have changed the course of history but have seldom been highly regarded in their own time. Contemporaries did not esteem their gifts because they came in a female package.

Mary, as well as her cousin Elizabeth, and a host of other women, remind me that we would not have Christianity and the Church today if not for women. And yet, the Church has had a checkered history in its treatment of women that, sadly, continues even now. Isn’t it appropriate as we prepare for the coming of Christ, to remember that God chose a strong young woman to be the one who would not only give birth to Jesus but who could be trusted with his life until adulthood? A woman whose trust in God enabled her to risk ostracism and judgment to become who God called her to become?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Celebrating What Is

It’s a week where we are reminded to be thankful. Many of us will gather with family or friends to share a meal (or two or three). There will be laughter, stress, tears—a whole gamut of emotions. Maybe we’ll go around the table and ask folks to name something for which they are thankful. The responses will vary, and some will be predictable.

Being grateful is easier sometimes than others. But gratitude should not hinge on the acceptability of our circumstances. Gratitude is a way of being. When we are grateful people we see the world with different eyes. Grateful people still see the pain and suffering in the world and in their own lives. They feel it deeply. They hurt—both for themselves and for others. In fact, because they are grateful people, they can more acutely hold pain and suffering than those who blind themselves to their own hurt or that of others.

Grateful people are faith-filled people. They can hold the pain because they know there’s a bigger picture, a larger scenario than the pain they know. It is those who deny, numb, or ignore pain and suffering who cannot truly be grateful. When you numb yourself to pain, when you pretend it doesn’t exist, you cannot be fully present to great joy and gratitude.

To be truly grateful is to celebrate what is, to live fully in the present moment, whatever it brings, with faith and trust and thanksgiving. It is to recognize that being human means being present for all of life. Habakkuk captures beautifully what it means to celebrate what is:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
Habakkuk 3:17-18

Monday, November 14, 2016

Public Park

On a day when hate hangs
like thick fog across the land,
when the tears in my soul
are those of the shaken,
it is good to be here—
to look people in the eye,
to smile and greet each other,
to love by simple presence all
who congregate here.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thinking About Saints

This week we celebrate All Saints Day. In many churches, the names of those who have died in the past year will be read aloud in Sunday worship. We’ll think more intentionally about the Communion of Saints, the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. Some of these are friends and family members who loved us, affirmed us and supported us as they lived alongside us.

There are others whom we never met but who influenced us through their beliefs, their commitment, and the legacy they left the Church and the world. Some of these are canonized saints but many others are not.

Recently I profiled saints for a lunch and learn group at my church. I selected four saints. Certainly there were many others I could have chosen, but the four I selected included men and women from different time periods. Each had a unique story and made an impact on the Church based on their own gifts and voice.

Each was human, just as human as any of us are. The most well-known of the four I profiled, St. Francis of Assisi, went from living what today might be thought of as an upper middle class life, doing all the “right” and acceptable things that go along with such a lifestyle, to living as a beggar, because he took seriously three passages from the Gospel: Go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, take nothing for your journey, and if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.

Brendan the Navigator struck out on a sea voyage while in his eighties, following a leading from God, though he had already lived a life devoted to the Church. Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 1100s, was a prophet, physician, author and composer. While there has been controversy in modern times within some denominations about women in the pulpit, she did several preaching tours at the encouragement of the leadership of the Church. Therese of Lisieux only lived 24 years, and did nothing the world would consider spectacular, but she was faithful, performing the ordinary tasks given to her with love and self-effacement.

Looking at each of these, and many others, I am reminded that each represents a life lived with the desire to love and serve God. None of these was focused on accolades from others, but on living faithfully where they were and with the gifts God had given them. They lived life to the full, serving with the capacity they had, something we are all capable of doing. Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, I am challenged to live to my capacity. I hope you are as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Over vs Through Part 2

In my last post, I talked about the necessity of pruning for spiritual growth. Because we are pain-averse, we try our best to avoid circumstances that are difficult or painful. But spiritual growth happens in the situations when we are most challenged. As Psalm 23 reminds us we go through the valley, not around it.

If we are seeking to travel faithfully on the path of discipleship, we have to recognize that the path will be rocky in places, dark in others, and sometimes impossible to see. For sure, we will have to give up our notions of control if we are to grow in our faithfulness. Parker Palmer says, “hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost—challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge.”

If we are determined to be in control, we will find ourselves unable to advance in faith. Grasping control may take us completely off the path of spiritual growth, because we avoid the difficult positions and places that call us to exercise our faith muscles. Grasping control keeps us from developing the traits needed for faithfulness. Joan Chittister notes that the goals and values of the spiritual life are “just plain different from the goals and values we’ve been taught by the world around us. Winning, owning, having, consuming, and controlling are not the high posts of the spiritual life.” These all revolve around possession and control.

The events of life will eventually wrest control from us. How we respond will determine if we grow bitter or faithful. Lack of control is a little death, and as we faithfully “die before we die” we are able to approach the next death, and the final death, with greater peace and acceptance.

Our willingness to go through difficulty, rather than over or around it, may very well be the refining that leads us to stronger faith and deeper love for God. And this leads us to a more faithful witness for Christ, who both told us and showed us that suffering is part of choosing the path of discipleship.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Over vs Through

I bought an Italian Parsley plant a few weeks ago. I put the pot in a sunny window, gave it water, and hoped it would thrive there. I snipped leaves off for several recipes that first week.

All seemed to be going well with my little plant until I returned from a weekend retreat. Yellow leaves greeted me on my arrival, even though there was still water in the dish under the pot. I got the scissors and began to trim the dying leaves, which took almost all the leaves off the plant. I wasn’t sure the plant would survive.

But just a couple of days later, I noticed lots of new leaves. The severe pruning allowed the plant to be healthy and grow. Had I simply repotted the sick plant, or just continued to water it, without any pruning, I am convinced it would have died completely.  

That little plant reminds me that avoidance of difficulty, or glossing over one’s pain (think Monty Python—“It’s only a flesh wound”) does not create the opportunity for growth that going through difficulty, enduring the pruning, or feeling the loss makes for us.

When we are seriously wounded, healing takes time and attention. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just get over it. The leg has to be set, protected and immobilized, so the bones can knit back together. The inner wounds of bullying, betrayal or rejection are no different. Wounds take time and attention to heal. Ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist is just as unhealthy as wallowing in self-pity.

A friend told me that cancer was the best thing to happen to her. She let go of her go-go pace, allowed her body to rest, and spent time with God. Her spiritual growth through the process of chemotherapy was tremendous, and she is a different person now—filled with a peace and wisdom that only time, reflection and stillness can bring. She told me how she felt sad watching others who, while undergoing chemotherapy, tried to maintain their lifestyle at the same level of activity as before their treatment. She said they missed the gift that their treatment offered—to go deeper with God. They were focused on getting over cancer. My friend focused on going through.

To go through, we have to let go. We have to relinquish our timetable, our sense of control. When we go through loss, pain and wounding, when we allow the pain to teach us, we learn that there is much we no longer need. Pruning makes space for something new, something that cannot grow without enduring the difficult.

Jesus fully went through his suffering. He drank it, without any self-pity, to the last drop. He died, the ultimate pruning, but he rose from the dead. And how did the disciples know for sure it was him? Because he rose with his wounds. He bore the scars in his resurrected body, a constant reminder of the suffering he endured.

Jesus, my parsley plant, and my friend remind me of the gift of going through, of allowing the pain to give us new life.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Doing Good vs Being Good

For the next few weeks, I’m facilitating a study at my church on the book Jesus for President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. As I’ve been reading their description of the Biblical prophets, I’ve thought about the difference in doing good and being good.

As Claiborne and Haw note, “The prophets are weird. They set themselves apart from the normalcy of civilization and its pattern of destruction and war. Their vocation is to interrupt the status quo.” When you think of some of the things the prophets did, you realize they were less concerned with appearances than many of us who call ourselves “church folk” are.

Hosea married a prostitute. Isaiah walked around naked for three years. Ezekiel cooked over human dung, which violated Israel’s purity codes. They would not have been called “good” by the culture in which they lived. But they lived lives of obedience to God, in contrast to the “good people” who fit in by following “the rules.”

The prophets focused on doing good. They were in close communion with God, and they trusted God even when God called them to do what put them at odds with those in positions of power. Claiborne and Haw say, “It can embarrass us to read of their antics, but what they do is not nearly as embarrassing as the things we do, which their actions expose so we can see that another future is possible.”

We become desensitized to evil when evil promotes our “good” agenda. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says: “To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode, to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” We rationalize all sorts of things when it serves our purposes to do so. Cheating in business can be excused as needed to take care of our family. Slandering another may be our way to preserve our reputation so we can continue to use our influence “for good.”

The prophets, ancient and contemporary, remind us that when pride, power and self-preservation become our gods, being good becomes more important than doing good, and whatever good we actually accomplish is not pleasing to God, who honors the powerless, not the prideful.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Letting Go

I have a hard time remembering that I cannot control much (if any) of what happens to me. It’s one of those things I know, but I still get frustrated when things don’t go as I think they should.

It hit me last week. One of those “A-ha” moments as I recalled the most familiar part of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

There is more to the prayer than these lines, but there is plenty here. And while it is a prayer I am familiar with, last week it went from my head into my heart.

The persistent theme of my life lately has been letting go. In my reading, journaling and in multiple instances of life I have encountered the prompting to let go. Suddenly last week, the beginning lines of the Serenity Prayer hit me like something I was hearing for the very first time.

To accept what I cannot change, not grudgingly, but with peace, is a challenge. When I get frustrated at another’s behavior, when the actions I’ve undertaken with pure motives are misunderstood and criticized, being able to let go with serenity requires discipline.

In a recent discussion I was reminded of one way Jesus did this. When a rich man comes to find out what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. The man goes away sad.

Jesus lets him go. He does not run after him, even though Mark 10:21 says that Jesus loved him. Jesus lets him make his own decision, even though the man’s decision is to walk away. Sometimes love looks different than our expectations. One might think that if Jesus loved the man so much, he would run after him and try to make sure the man understood the cost of his decision. But Jesus gives him the freedom to make his own choice.

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen contrasts attachment and commitment. I think what she says is relevant to being able to let go, to accept what I cannot change. She says that attachment closes down options, while commitment opens them up. Attachment leads to entrapment, while commitment leads to greater degrees of freedom.

Jesus was committed to the rich man, but not attached to him. The rich man was not committed, but instead was attached to his reputation as a moralistic rule follower and to his possessions, and this limited his options. He was entrapped by his image and his stuff. Jesus loved the man enough to give him the freedom to remain attached. This way of love may not seem like love to us, but time and again Jesus gives people the openness to choose for themselves. If we love as Jesus did, our hearts and lives and love become more open, and we may be better able to let go and accept what we cannot change.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Slow Small Steps

One of my favorite stories of the desert abbas and ammas reminds me of the slowness and smallness of progress in spiritual growth. A hermit told a brother who was discouraged about his lack of progress in keeping the monastic rule about a father who told his son to clear a field. The son, discouraged at the amount of thorns and thistles, lay down and slept instead. His father found him asleep and asked him why he had done nothing. The son said the task was larger than he could do, but the wise father said that if he would clear only the place he slept each day, the work would advance slowly and the son would not lose heart.

We sometimes think we are not progressing because we don’t clear our inner field all at once. The spiritual journey, however, is not a sprint but a marathon. The thorns and thistles have to be cleared away a little at the time. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In chapter 6, Paul encourages the Galatian Christians to not grow weary in doing good. As I reflected on that verse this morning, I saw within myself the thorns and thistles of a lingering resentment. My first inclination was to berate myself for the resentment, but then I thought about story about clearing the field, and I realized that this was the “patch” that needed my attention at this moment.

We live in a culture that does not value slowness and smallness. Consequently, we get discouraged when the only way forward is through slow, small progress. I’ve seen it with folks who are recovering from surgeries or health issues and I’ve also seen it in people who have had a significant spiritual awakening. We tend to grow impatient and frustrated when healing is prolonged and when the spiritual high has descended into ordinary time. And when we come upon an inner patch of thorns and thistles, we may choose to shrug our shoulders and go to sleep, preferring to numb ourselves against the acknowledgement that we are not all we imagined ourselves to be.

I’m grateful that God’s expectations of us do not move at our Western culture’s go-go pace. Grace is about slow, small progress. I won’t even say it’s about steady progress, because the journey of spiritual growth is not linear. It happens in its own time, but it only happens if we keep at it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Spiritual Blindness

. . . it is possible for some Christians to live and work in a shockingly unjust society, closing their eyes to all kinds of evil and indeed perhaps participating in that evil at least by default, concerned only with their own compartmentalized life of piety . . .
                                                                                --Thomas Merton, in Life and Holiness

We who are financially secure first world Christians can easily fall into the delusion that we are “good people” because we avoid what we think of as big sins, such as murder or theft. We can fail to see that we are part of systematized injustice because we are often so far removed from the injustice as to be unaware of our economic contribution to unjust practices.

We purchase food and consumer items made or harvested by people who are not paid a living wage. We support businesses that exploit the environment. We overspend on ourselves and balk at providing assistance to others, arguing that they “deserve” their difficulty and that we “deserve” our luxury.

We can become desensitized to the ways we mistreat others while priding ourselves on our service to the church, our work in the community, on our morality, or on the compliments we receive for the work that we do.

I’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul admonishes the Galatian Christians for losing sight of the grace they have received and relying instead on their own morality as measured by obedience to the Jewish law. Paul says “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4) He points out how they “bite and devour one another.”

When we are more concerned with image than substance we can easily become blind to the ways we participate in evil. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is preceded by what we might call the fruits of human nature. Here’s what Paul says: What human nature does is quite plain. It shows itself in immoral, filthy, and indecent actions; in worship of idols and witchcraft. People become enemies and they fight; they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups; they are envious, get drunk, have orgies, and do other things like these.

The temptation is to look at this list and say, “I don’t practice witchcraft. I don’t have orgies or participate in indecent actions.” But read the list again and consider some of the other items like ambition, anger, jealousy and separating into groups that exclude others. When we combine prideful morality with acting according to human nature, we blind ourselves to our need for grace.

We grow spiritually as we are able to receive the gift of grace and respond in gratitude by choosing to live in love. Grace invites us to see ourselves as we really are, and to know that God loves us as we really are. Grace is the cure for spiritual blindness.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Choosing the Starting Point

When my older son was small, he enjoyed Disney’s Winnie the Pooh cartoons. There was much to learn from the behaviors of the different characters. Pooh’s simplicity, Tigger’s energy and Piglet’s winsomeness give us a glimpse of the positivity and pitfalls of various character traits. The character whose personality seemed to me the least desirable was Eeyore, the donkey who seemed always to see doom and gloom.

How we choose to approach life says much about our discipleship. When our starting point is doom and gloom, distrust, name-calling, or other forms of negativity, we hinder, if we don’t block completely, the ability to be transformed ourselves and to be transforming agents for God’s kingdom. Like Eeyore, if our initial response is negative, we are like horses wearing blinders. We only see what we want to see, and we miss the invitation to grow.

When others around us begin with the negative, it can be a drain on community. I’ve worked with folks whose initial response is critical—of others, of the situation—or who are distrustful of others within their community—be it work, or church or neighborhood. There are times when criticism is warranted, and where discernment leads us to be wary or distrustful of others, but that should only come after a process, not a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s better to choose gratitude, hospitality and openness as one’s initial response. The damage done by leading with a negative, critical, distrustful attitude can be difficult to repair. It certainly affects our ability to be effective representatives for the faith we profess. When we label, exclude, name-call and denigrate others, we hurt ourselves, we hurt others, and we break God’s heart.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What Matters

Today’s liturgy for Morning Prayer in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals described the life of Franz Jagerstatter, of Austria, who was the sole conscientious objector in his village to the annexation of Austria to Germany under Hitler. Jagerstatter was not part of any resistance movement, just an individual whose Christian faith could not be reconciled with fighting for Hitler’s army. Religious leaders in his village encouraged him to conform and serve, but Jagerstatter maintained his faith, and was imprisoned and beheaded for it.

Jagerstatter was simply a person who loved God and chose to live (and die) guided by that love. That we know of him at all, because he was a peasant laborer, is surprising. Through the centuries, there are those who choose the unpopular way of Jesus, choosing to live lives motivated by love, by powerlessness, by foregoing the values of the culture and instead surrendering to the downward mobility of the gospel message. Because they understand that real power comes through weakness and that strength comes through surrender to the way of Jesus, they are the unseen, unspectacular yeast that works its way through the dough and rises, despite efforts to suppress them by those who put their faith in power, influence and riches.

People who know what matters do not have to shout or threaten others to be heard. A friend once told me that silence speaks louder than criticism, name-calling and moralistic diatribes. What matters is to live outwardly congruent with what is in one’s heart. True authenticity is not motivated by what others think about you; it is living an undivided, singly-focused life. The courage to be faithful and authentic, even when authenticity and faithfulness is unpopular and misunderstood, will stand the test of time, long after power, influence and riches fall away.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Living Up to Our Capacity

For a lunch and learn at my church, I’m facilitating a series of some of the words we use in our faith. The inspiration came from Amazing Grace, a book by Kathleen Norris. One of the words we discussed was perfection.

When you read Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect, you may dismiss it as an impossible mandate. But in a devotional by Laurence Stookey, he points out that we should think about perfection as capacity. A pint jar can be as perfectly full as a gallon jar, though each holds a different quantity. So then, what Jesus may be challenging us to do is to live up to our capacity.

To live up to our capacity, we have to be aware of our capacity. Many of us are trying to live a life that we are not equipped to live. We have a certain image that we want to project, and we fail to do the introspective work needed to know for what we are gifted or not gifted. Thus, we fail to live fully because we are trying to live someone else’s life with someone else’s gifts to meet someone else’s expectations of us. We are trying to fill a jar that isn’t our jar.

I like that capacity and capable are so similar. We are capable of living up to our capacity, but to do so, we need to strip away the masks we hide behind to seek approval from others. We need to learn to see ourselves as God sees us, to live the life God dreamed for us to live when we were being knit together in our mother’s womb. When we understand and embrace who we are with all our gifts and our limitations, we joyfully desire to live to our capacity. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Nothing of the old remains.
A life utterly new, not a rebirthing
but birth, a first birth—
like all first births, painful,
bloody, forced upheaval marks
its occurrence.
The caterpillar’s soul longed to fly.
What seemed an impossibility
instead is deep truth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Threat of Silence

Many people I know have a difficult time practicing silence and stillness. They’ve bought into the myth of our Western culture that we are what we produce, that our worth is based on our busyness. Sadly, I see many in the Church who do not value silence, some who even laugh at it as if it is trivial, silly or nonessential to one’s spiritual growth. Yet I have seen some of these same people anxious, reactive and rootless, changing like a chameleon to please whatever audience offers them approval.

We tend to dismiss what we do not understand. It’s part of the reactive nature of our culture. One does not need to look far to see that this is true in this political season. But such dismissing happens within religious communities just as much as it does in politics.

Take a look at this pointed quote about silence from Joan Chittister:
Those who cringe from silence see it like the plague, fearful of its weight, cautious of its emptiness and the shock that comes with its revelations. The heaviness and emptiness we feared give way very quickly to turmoil and internal pressure for change. Silence enables us to hear the cacophony inside ourselves. Being alone with ourselves makes for a demanding presence We find very quickly that either we must change or we shall surely crumble under the weight of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves, under the awareness of what we could be but are not, under the impulse of what we want to be but have failed to become. Under the din is the raw material of the soul.

When we set out to practice silence, we soon discover that what is within us is disordered. We find that we begin to question things we had once accepted as absolute. When we get uncomfortable with the way that silence works like a spotlight into our soul, our reactive nature causes us to want to run away from the silence back into the comfortable environment of distraction and back into the moral codes we substitute for discipleship.

Without a regular practice of silence, one soon runs up against a wall that prohibits any further spiritual growth. Such a person is like a child who continues to play in a sandbox when just over the bluff is the beach and an entire ocean. We miss the immense joy of freedom because we choose to stay confined in a small, constrictive space.

The discipline of silence is essential to spiritual maturity and wisdom. The way forward is not easy and is best done with a wise spiritual guide, one who has been where you want to go. But the journey, though difficult, is the way to live a life of freedom, detachment and grace. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Unspoken Implications of What We Say

Recently I heard someone talk about a pleasant surprise she had experienced. She was making a large purchase and discovered when she was about to settle the transaction that a significant discount would be applied to her purchase. She said it was a blessing. I wanted to say “No, that is not a blessing. It is good fortune, but hardly a blessing.”

Some Christians attach the word “blessing” to capitalistic, materialistic, self-promoting ventures. I do believe we are blessed, but not when we get a bigger house, a better deal, or an award. We are fortunate to receive such things, but not blessed.

If we call these fortunate events a blessing, then what do we call it when our house is foreclosed, when the car repair costs more than we expected or when we are passed over for a promotion? Do we say that God is cursing us? That God does not find favor with us?

The other expression that carries the same weight is “It’s a God thing,” as if God really cares that we got a better interest rate than expected on the car loan for our new Lexus. God is not Tinkerbell, or Santa Claus, or a genie who grants our wishes. I think most of us know this, but we still debase who God is through our choice of words and the weight they carry.

I had the privilege of hearing someone talk about the way her faith had grown through the years. She used the word “blessing” but not to describe some fortunate turn of events. Instead she said that although her first husband had been an alcoholic, there was blessing in her circumstances because she learned to cling to God through the difficulty. Years later, she says that had she not had the struggle of that painful marriage, she would not have the faith she has today.

I’ve heard similar stories from cancer patients, from those who are financially destitute and from people who have suffered in other ways. I don’t think God causes these difficult events of life. I don’t believe the unexplainable and unexpected pain of life is a barometer of God’s favor.

What I know is that my faith has to be like the roots of a tree, firm and grounded in the heart of Christ. Seasons change, storms blow hard and break us open, sun shines and life takes fortunate turns. I’m no less blessed in the storms than I am in the sunshine.  It is not the presents of God that bless me, but the presence of God. To be content with who God is—that is a blessing for me and a blessing for God.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


This morning at Vineville UMC in our morning prayer service using Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, a proverb quoted by John Perkins was included in the liturgy. You’ll see it in the photo. 

It’s a good challenge for anyone in a leadership role, and for a leader who claims to follow Christ, such leadership shows love and respect for the people one is leading.

This way of leading recognizes that patience and listening are important, and that offering one’s best work involves much preparation, consideration of existing conditions, and grace. It also involves an absence of ego, especially as to concern about who gets the credit or who leaves the legacy. In building on what already exists, in listening to and learning from others, a leader shows humility, respect for others and gratitude for the gifts and abilities of those who have given years of faithful service to a community.

I have seen leaders who lead with forbearance and humility and I’ve seen leaders who scorch the earth as they aggressively pursue their agendas. There are leaders who lead by demanding respect and leaders who gain the respect of others because they are not above doing whatever is needed, even the most menial task. Love, not accolades, motivates their service.

When I think about humble leadership, I think of how Paul exhorts the Philippians to model their lives after that of 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. (Philippians 2:6-8)

Particularly in the Church, we need leaders who lead with love and humility, who listen and learn. And all of us, leaders or not, are challenged to follow the example of Jesus, not claiming special privilege, but serving with love and grace.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Prison of Fear

In Anam Cara, John O’Donahue talks about fear and how fear keeps us from being ourselves, which constrains us from living out our unique God-given destiny. He relates a story from India about a man condemned to spend the night locked in a cell with a poisonous snake that will kill him if he makes even the slightest movement. The man spends the whole night standing in the corner, afraid that even his breathing might cause the snake to strike. As the first traces of daylight come, he can make out the shape of the snake in the far corner of the cell. As the light increases, he realizes that what he thought was a snake is actually an old rope.

It’s a powerful illustration of how fear causes our imagination to turn old ropes into snakes, to turn what is harmless into a monster. Fear distorts our vision, makes situations into something bigger than they actually are, and holds us captive to illusion. When we are afraid, we cannot be free.

Fear may manifest in jealousy, anxiety, insecurity, resistance to change or arrogance. However it masks itself, it is still fear and it keeps us from living fully. It constricts our spiritual growth, much like a pot-bound plant is unable to flourish. When we aren’t growing spiritually, we begin to lose ground, and like a pot-bound plant, we get weaker.

O’Donahue says that the way to transform our fear is to ask ourselves that we are what it is that we are really afraid of. What makes us resistant to change? What holds us in an anxious, insecure or jealous state of mind? If we can name our fear, we can begin to transform it. But we have to acknowledge it. We have to admit the emotion that holds us captive. We have to be vulnerable, and this may be the hardest step to take to free ourselves from fear.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Being Seen

A few weeks ago, our pastor preached on Luke 7:11-17, where Jesus raises the widow’s son, restoring him to life. He talked about how Jesus sees the woman, and how there is seeing, and then there is really seeing. We can know that Jesus really sees us, and that is a comfort when we sense that others don’t truly see us for who we are or what is going on in our lives.

A blessing by John O’Donahue includes this line:
May you have friends who can see you.

That simple thought is a significant blessing because many people move through life at such a frantic pace that they are unable to see others, even those who are in close physical proximity to them. Physical closeness does not translate into being seen in the way that Jesus sees and that O’Donahue invokes in his blessing.

Being seen involves understanding, at least the willingness to understand. It means seeing another for who they are. To see another for who they are means not allowing stereotypes to govern one’s seeing. It means not projecting the actions or habits of one person on another. For example, you can’t assume that your spouse will act as your parent did.

To have friends who can see you has been one of my greatest blessings. Being misunderstood and mislabeled is painful, but is more common than it should be, especially because it takes time and attention to see another. The easy way out is to stereotype, project and label another. We think if we can do this, we can “manage” or control another.

But people are not machines or projects. We are, each one of us, uniquely created by God, with our own distinctive desires, gifts and vulnerabilities. To label another is to deny their uniqueness. If we choose to follow Jesus, then following means a willingness and effort to see others. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Something Beautiful

In the book, Anam Cara, John O’Donahue shares an idea from Blaise Pascal that is good advice: In a difficult time, you should always keep something beautiful in your heart.

It is easy to be brought down by difficult seasons and events. None of us are immune from tough times, but while we may not choose the struggle, we can choose our response to it. Pascal’s wisdom can be part of our response. To hold something beautiful in my heart keeps me from being defined by whatever difficulty I’m facing. It shapes my thinking and helps me to recognize the seasonality of struggle.

Keeping something beautiful in my heart does more than counterbalance the difficulty; it likewise keeps me from despair and allows me instead to be hopeful. There is a very fine line between hope and despair, and the perspective I bring to struggle determines whether I endure the struggle with hope or am sucked into the mire of despair.

As I hold something beautiful in my heart, I am also invited to be gentle with myself. Difficulty is not a time for blame, shame or guilt. These hold me in the hard place and keep me from moving through the struggle. Blame, shame and guilt are paralyzing and prevent growth.

Just as seeds begin in the darkness of earth and have to move through darkness to get to light, we have to keep gently growing through our own seasons of darkness and struggle until we break into the light where we can grow and flourish. The seed holds something beautiful within itself, the image of what it is to become. The same is true of us. This is good to remember when we are in the midst of difficulty.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Faith Swings

One of my favorite things about Elijah, the prophet of God, is how he goes from having an experience of God’s power and presence to an experience of fear and running away. In an epic tale, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a contest to see who really is God. Elijah says, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.” (1 Kings 18:22)

Two altars are constructed and two bulls sacrificed, and the priests of Baal call to their god to send fire down to consume their sacrifice. All day they call out, growing more desperate, but nothing happens. Elijah calls on God, and in dramatic fashion, fire comes from heaven and consumes the sacrifice, the altar and the stones. The people observing this rise up and kill the priests of Baal.

Elijah should be on top of the world, full of God’s power and confidence. Instead, when the queen threatens to kill him for killing the priests of Baal, he is shaken to his core and flees, lacking any confidence in God’s ability to protect and preserve him. It’s such a human way. We so easily find ourselves pulled between poles of fear and approval. When we accomplish something significant, the good feeling only lasts until the first words of criticism come.

Living one’s life based on accomplishments and approval keeps us always on an emotional roller coaster. One minute we’re up, the next we are down. If our identity is found in externals, we never really know who we are. We have abdicated our identity to what others think about us and this keeps us always in a state of dis-ease, because different people think different things about us and emotions are so volatile and variable.

The only way we can have any sense of inner peace is to know who we are in our innermost being. This is the journey of a lifetime, but it is not a journey easily undertaken. It is a hidden way, and many are not even aware that it is the most important journey. But until it is undertaken, a person will always be tossed about by the ebb and flow of external circumstances. The inner journey gives us the anchor to stay grounded whether we are approved or attacked, because we will know who we really are. When moods swing, our faith can hold us like an anchor.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Soul-Tending in the Workplace

A question I often ask myself and others when contemplating a major decision is: Will this be life-giving or life-draining? We are often so accustomed to making decisions based on economics and other practical criteria that we are unaware of how a decision affects our soul. We treat our soul as an afterthought, or only something that matters at the point of physical death.

John O’Donahue, in his book Anam Cara, makes this observation about work and our souls:
When we perform an action, the invisible within us finds a form and comes to expression. Therefore our work should be the place where the soul can enjoy becoming visible and present.

Life-giving work is work in which the soul can enjoy becoming visible and present. That one word, enjoy, is important. A healthy workplace is one in which each person’s soul is respected and treasured for its uniqueness. Parker Palmer speaks of the shy soul and how it is like a wild animal. We don’t go stomping through the woods expecting to see a wild animal. We have to be respectful of the soul and create the environment in which the soul senses it is safe to make itself visible.

A workplace where diversity of thought and giftedness is honored and encouraged allows each person to find fulfillment. Such a workplace encourages people to grow both in their own self-appreciation and in appreciation for one another. A soul in such an environment can thrive and grow more Christlike.

When diversity of thought is not encouraged, or where the thoughts of only one or two people matter, souls withdraw, compassion flees and the ethos of the workplace becomes deadly. Workers are not appreciated for the souls they bring to work, and God-given uniqueness is treated as irrelevant and unimportant. The tension in such an environment is destructive, alienating people from their true nature and potential.

How we work is as important as the work we do, maybe even more important. If we are to shed the masks of the false self and instead allow our soul, our True Self, to become visible and present, we have to bring integrity, compassion, and respectfulness to work with us. If we are managers, we must love ourselves so that we do not treat others as objects to control but as souls deserving of compassion and Christlike inclusion. Our work environment and the way in which we engage with our work colleagues affects our souls. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fear vs. Love

Recently I talked with someone who has been progressing in their spiritual journey but who is struggling to overcome the negative theology of his upbringing. While he has left the church of his childhood, he still has a hard time accepting God’s love and grace. When accused by someone in the church of his youth or unfaithfulness and heresy for leaving, he realizes that while intellectually, he believes that God is love, but in his heart, he is still haunted by a theology of condemnation and judgment.

Father Richard Rohr acknowledges that we need a container, a way to develop our ego as a moral, religious person. It helps us understand our self-worth to know intellectually that God loves us. But if our religion gets stuck in morality codes, in acting out of “Christian duty,” we never move beyond fear of punishment as the motivator for our acts. It’s like when we tell a small child that if they run out into the street one more time, we will punish them. Until the child is old enough to know how to discern when it is okay to walk into the street, we set parameters with punishment as a guide.

But what happens when the child is older, able to cross the street on his own? It is ridiculous to then continue to enforce a standard inappropriate for the child’s level of maturity. Why do we think it is appropriate for our spiritual lives to stagnate at the mentality of a toddler?

A fear-based theology treats individuals as spiritual toddlers. It demands obedience out of threat of punishment rather than motivating people to act rightly out of deep love for God. Most fear-based theology is more subtle than “You’re going to hell if you do/don’t do __fill in the blank__. It still operates from a threat of judgment as it encourages compliance to moral codes by asking, “What will God say about your behavior when you get to heaven?”

If our obedience is extracted from a shame and fear-based system of belief, how can we possibly love God and accept that God loves us? As John, the beloved disciple says in his first epistle: There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18).

As we grow spiritually, we learn that the ego, while necessary early in our religious formation, becomes a barrier to transformation. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection give us the example for our spiritual development—we have to die to self (the death of ego) if we are to experience new life. Thomas Merton spoke of this transformation in terms of shattering the false self so that the True Self is revealed. As Rohr says, the True Self is all about right relationship, not requirements. When we are in right relationship with ourselves, we can then be in right relationship with others. It is why loving self is the only path to loving neighbor. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Choosing a Master

But I am among you as one who serves.
                                                                                                Luke 22:27

The humility of Jesus should stop us in our tracks. In all he did, he served. His healing, his teaching, his living, even in his admonishing of the Jewish leaders, he acted with love and humility. He was always a servant of God.

Those last two words—of God—remind me of the right orientation of our service. When faced with a decision of which master to serve, there is really only one choice, and to serve God faithfully will not always appease other masters whose ways and values take us away from God’s love and mission. We who live economically and socially comfortable lives can easily be distracted from serving God. We like our power, our possessions, our comfortable morality and our freedom of choice. We are deluded into thinking we are serving God by being “nice.” Yet our very conformity to the culture within which we live tells us that our master is not God.

 Those of us who have power within churches can lose sight of who we serve when we wield our power out of fear or arrogance, when we capitulate to the temptation to be “relevant” rather than relational, when we push certain people to the margins because of lack of attractiveness, community prestige, age, ability, or economic power and elevate those who can make a “big splash.”

Jesus did not hang around the pretty and powerful. He chose those who were at the margins, who were diseased, poor and lacked influence. He identified with the oppressed and powerless, the ones we might cast aside even in our churches today.

To be like Jesus, to be one who serves when serving brings abuse, rejection and false accusation, is not easy. To choose the popular way of our culture, exercising power and might fueled by pride and greed, is much easier, because it keeps us within the status quo and keeps us in control. We have to be careful in our choice of master to serve.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Being Emptied

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.
                                                                                                Philippians 2:5-7

Precedent exists for the expression, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It seems that power is like an infection. Just a small exposure is often enough to set the disease on its voracious course.

It is an infection that does not discriminate. Power is as abused in churches as in commerce and government. Power unleashes pride and the two join together with deadly force. Combatting the corruption of power is a mammoth task because there are always folks around to feed the pride of the powerful and it is hard not to be sucked into the flattery and attention that power attracts.

Reading the passage above should remind us that following Jesus is so completely counter-cultural that if we actually follow, we will certainly be criticized, misunderstood and rejected by many. It will not make us popular. It will not feed pride.

Those who empty themselves, who do not seek to meet aggression with aggression, may seem to be defeated right out of the gate. The peace and presence of God in them makes them stronger than the prideful powerful.

Jesus emptied himself. He had all the power in the world but chose not to wield it. He came to us a weak, helpless infant, grew into an adult in an out of the way village whose only possessions were the clothes he wore.

Imagine how much difference we could make if we chose to empty ourselves of power and pride instead of using them to advance our agendas, even when we believe our agenda is God’s agenda. This passage in Philippians reminds us that emptiness, humility and sacrifice are the way of Christ. May it be so for us so that we may be kingdom builders instead of power brokers.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


This week I am sharing a piece I wrote in 2014 for the newsletter of my former church:

Assets matter in our culture. Power, prestige and possessions measure our success and achievement. Our lifestyles testify that we believe the one who dies with the most toys wins.

When I graduated from college, I wanted to be the best CPA in Macon. I threw myself into passing the CPA exam, working long hours, community involvement, and eventually, building an accounting practice that received both local and state awards. I was involved at Mulberry, holding positions of leadership within the church. From the outside looking in, one might think I had achieved success.

Richard Rohr says that we only begin to glimpse our True Self through experiences of great love or great loss or failure. In most cases, it is loss or failure that causes a shift in priorities, but even in loss many people never relinquish our culture’s priorities. They measure their worth in terms of assets.

These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8-9a)

Through a series of losses and failures, God began changing my priorities. I began to see my assets as hollow and meaningless. They distracted me from knowing I was supremely loved by God, not because I achieved anything or served on church committees or even raised my children in the church. God loved me through all my hypocrisy, pride and arrogance. God loved me when I was addicted to busyness, status, and the approval of others. When I realized that I didn’t have to meet expectations, say the right words or do the right things to gain God’s love, I could rest, knowing I am beloved by God.

Writing this brings tears, tears of contrition for my utter ugliness and tears of joy for God’s unending grace and love toward me. Luke tells of a woman who came to Jesus while Jesus was eating at a Pharisee’s home. The woman, crying, wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfumed oil on them. When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing the woman to touch him, Jesus said “her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

Love this great holds nothing back. Jesus held nothing back, giving himself that we may know with certainty that we are God’s beloved. With overwhelming joy and gratitude, I want to hold nothing back from my Beloved.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.         Joshua 5:12

During all the time the Israelites were in the wilderness, God fed them. Though they disobeyed, grumbled, made a golden calf and generally were an unpleasant and distrustful lot, God fed them.

I wonder if the miracle is not that God made manna fall from the sky for their daily food, but that God persisted in faithfulness to them when they weren’t likable travelers, which was most of the time!

When they needed food, God rained it down on them. And when they arrived in a place where manna was no longer needed, it stopped. The simple verse above reminds me that God pays attention to us, knows our needs, and cares for us in the way that is most beneficial to us. It may not be the way we think it should happen. It may not be as unusual as manna; it may be produce that grows in the usual way. But are crops that grow from the soil any less miraculous than manna dropping from the sky?

A favorite quote of mine is one I read in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. Claiborne is actually relating a response he received from one of his college Bible teachers when he asked the instructor if he still believed in miracles. The instructor said “we have insulated ourselves from miracles. We no longer live with such reckless faith that we need them. There is rarely room for the transcendent in our lives. If we get sick, we go to a doctor. If we need food, we go to a store and buy it. We have eliminated the need for miracles. If we had enough faith to depend on God like the lilies and the sparrows do, we would see miracles. For is it not a miracle that the birds find enough worms each day?”

If we really stop to think about it, what we may think of as ordinary is miraculous. Today I enjoyed a beautiful late winter day. It was a good day to be in the car, and as I sat at a traffic signal, I was mesmerized by the clouds drifting across the sky. What could be more beautiful? How do they do that?

And yesterday, I was thinking about a recent joyous occasion in my life, and the web of events that led to this occasion. Some didn’t even involve me. Some occurred over five years ago. Some seemed so insignificant at the time they occurred that I would not have given them a second thought had I not been reflecting on this joyous occasion. Yet had any single one of these events not happened, I might not have had this significant occasion to celebrate. The web of life is intricate, interconnected and miraculous!

To see the world with eyes of wonder, to make room for the transcendent, the miraculous, is to make all of life sacramental—the apple, the cloud, the soil, the meal shared with a friend. There is no place where God is not.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Better Plans

My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
                                                                                                                                Isaiah 55:8

If someone had told me a year ago that I would be where I am now, I would have dismissed such a prediction as highly unlikely. From my perspective, life was rich and fulfilling. There were bumps and discomforts, but there was much love and laughter, community and familiarity. As a friend observed, I had found my voice. But then things changed.

Walter Brueggemann categorizes Psalms into Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of new orientation.  I went from a strong sense of orientation to disorientation. Through a series of events and losses, much of what seemed stable in my life was removed. It was like living a Jenga game—block after block was pulled out until finally the structure toppled over.

Life is like that at times for us. We experience many seasons of disorientation. Light and darkness, feasting and fasting, life and death, summer and winter—even nature shows us that living fully involves seasons of change.

I’ve been part of a nine-month course on centering prayer, and one of the key points that is often repeated is that we tend to treat security, affection and control as needs. We think we need these to be happy. When we look to these for happiness, we are not looking toward God, who alone is the source of peace and joy.

Because I’ve experienced God’s faithfulness through other seasons of disorientation, the foundation of my Jenga tower was and is God, so that even when I felt cast into a turbulent, storm-tossed sea, I never lost my anchor. Oh, I wondered why I was in such a place, and sometimes struggled to hold onto the knowledge of my belovedness, but I never felt alone. And I learned that my plans are not the last word, that God is faithful and trustworthy, if unpredictable at times!

Trusting in God’s plans frees me to live in the present moment. And even when that moment is turbulent, I still have an anchor holding me fast in love.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Right Focus

Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.                                         Philippians 3:17-4:1

Why would anyone take pride in disgrace? That was my first question when I read this passage, the lectionary epistle for the second Sunday of Lent.

Assuming we don’t intentionally want to be proud of disgrace, then I believe that Paul is warning us to not be proud of earthly things. When our focus is on such things, we lose sight of God’s kingdom and the fact that earthly things are impermanent and passing away.

Paul speaks of people whose god is their stomach, which says to me that when something other than God claims our focus—be it food, career, reputation, possessions—it becomes our god.

The early desert monastics had much to say about attachments and their subtle pull on our hearts. One of my favorite stories from the desert tells of a monk who relishes acclaim and is downcast when accused. The abba sends him out into the cemetery two nights in a row. The first night he spends the whole night complimenting the dead; the next night he criticizes the same dead all night long. The abba asks him how the dead reacted each of the two nights. The monk tells him they didn’t respond either way. The wise word to the monk is to be like the dead, immune to praise or blame.

More often than not, it is the subtle things like the “need” for praise, and the pride that underlies it, that become a god. We may resist the obvious temptations and be completely unaware of the subtle ways we are drawn away from God.

The best way I know of to become aware of the subtle forces pulling our attention away from God is to model ourselves after wise guides and to practice silence.

A practice of silence separates us from the constant hammering of the culture that shapes our values and behaviors, taking our focus off the values and behaviors of Jesus. Wise guides reinforce the pattern of Jesus’ life, giving us models for our own lives. Wise guides may be contemporary or ancient. We may know them personally as people of great depth, or we may learn from them by their writings that have endured over centuries.

Patience must likewise undergird our diligent practice of focusing on things of God. Unlike the quick-fix, sound byte advice dispensed in our culture, our transformation is a long, slow process. One of the gifts of Lent is to help us keep our focus in the right place.

Monday, February 8, 2016

In Trouble

I will be with them in trouble. . .
                                                                                                Psalm 91:15b

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 is part of the lectionary for the first Sunday of Lent. It would be easy to read these verses and focus on God as a protective bubble, insulating us from anything difficult or painful. We would like such a God!

This text actually connects with the gospel lesson for the week, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). In fact, Satan quotes from this psalm as he seeks to tempt Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple.

But this verse about God being with us in trouble fits my experience more accurately than angels not allowing me to trip on stones. Refuge is not so much about God being a protective bubble as it is that God is with us when the storms of life come and we must ride them out for a period of time—often of unknown duration.

It can be tempting in the hard season of life to look for a reason for its occurrence, to connect cause and effect so that we can make sense out of our suffering. What I have learned though, through my own hard seasons, is that there isn’t always a clear reason for my suffering. I can become lost in my anguish or I can grab hold of God in my anguish. Like an anchor that keeps me rooted, I may find that I still am battered by storm and waves, but in the depts. of my being, I know I am not alone.

One of Lent’s great gifts, in my opinion, is that if we enter it thoughtfully and intentionally, it matures our faith. To spend forty days contemplating Jesus’ sacrificial love for us as a model of how we sacrifice for others, should burst the bubble of God as protective container. But a God who is with us in trouble, who suffers both for us and with us—such a faith tells me that belief is no promise of exemption from suffering. The promise, rather, is that God is with us in our trouble, in our pain and turbulence. That’s a promise I can celebrate.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Transformation and Freedom

. . .where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror.                         2 Corinthians 3:17b-18a

Veiling inhibits freedom. When we are afraid to unveil our faces, we stay in captivity. Unveiling is a willingness to look deeply at God by looking within ourselves. Many of us are uncomfortable with introspection. When we begin to see ourselves for who we really are, we grow uneasy with what we see, as Peter did at Jesus’ transfiguration. When we don’t know how to handle the discomfort we kill the moment before entering into it fully.

We would rather remain captive to our own delusions, to our familiar ways of thinking that keep us within well-defined prison cells, than to step across the threshold to freedom. To embrace freedom is also to move beyond what is comfortable and familiar. To embrace freedom is to acknowledge ourselves fully and truthfully, both the light and dark parts. We see both our gifts and our shortcomings, the ways of doing and thinking that make us feel good about ourselves and the thoughts and actions that we are embarrassed to acknowledge as parts of ourselves.

To remove the veil is to invite transformation, but to invite transformation, I must first acknowledge my need to be transformed. If my ego won’t admit this need, I remain captive, my soul veiled to honest self-assessment. I miss the wonderful freedom the Spirit offers, the grace and acceptance of both my light and dark sides.

Irenaeus, an early Church leader, is credited with saying that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Full aliveness comes from freedom. Full aliveness is honest acceptance and love of ourselves, for only when we fully love ourselves can we fully love and accept others. When we love ourselves, we live in freedom and we glorify God. We are fully alive!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pride and Love

1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous writing about love, is one of the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. It’s an interesting choice, alongside Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:4-10) and Jesus claiming his call in his hometown synagogue as he reads from Isaiah (Luke 4:21-30). Yet I see how love connects these two stories, because both are about the ability to speak and act congruently and courageously, powered by deep love of God.

Paul is blunt: no matter how powerful and dramatic our actions may be, if they don’t arise from love of God, they are meaningless. Our words about love are hollow if our actions aren’t congruent with them, not matter how emphatically or often we claim to love others.

When love dwells in our innermost being, our words and actions are integrated, and what we do and say builds God’s kingdom. If, however, pride is what dwells in our innermost being, there is no room for love, and no matter what we say and do to prove otherwise, there will be a disconnect between our words and actions. I believe Paul knew that, which is why he points out that love isn’t self-seeking, arrogant, jealous or boastful. Love doesn’t keep a scorecard of the good it does, while pride wants every good deed or word recorded and seen by others.

People rooted in pride may say they love others, but their actions betray their hearts. Or they may perform acts of charity, all the while criticizing those they claim to serve. Or they may shun small deeds of service because they won’t be seen or praised by others.

However, those who have hearts full of love act and speak with integrity. What they say is consistent with what they do. They may not say much and what they do may not be noticed by many, but in consistent ways they demonstrate what is within their hearts. It is such as these who lay down their lives for others in countless small ways, who sacrifice much without fanfare because love fills their hearts.

When I consider that Jeremiah faced hardship as a prophet, and that Jesus was rejected by those who thought they knew him, I can see that they endured because their eyes were fixed on the object of their love. They put God first, and not only with their lips but in their hearts.

Paul knew that pride and love cannot occupy the same space within us. Where pride dwells, there is no room for love. May we evict pride and invite love into our hearts!