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!