Vicarious vs. Experience: Not Even Close

There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem.  “Come back!  Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!”  It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story.  She strong, lovely, confident.  And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd.  Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back.  Why?  “So that we may admire you!”

They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives.  This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate.  Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option.  Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal.  The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta.  There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity.  The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction.  Much of this is cataloged here.

Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science.  The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago.  You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world.  What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same.  He/she wants “different”.  If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.

What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention.  Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required?  You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills.  But why not play a video game instead?  Alone.  With no risk of rejection or failure.

In a word: safety.  Is this alternate world real? No.  Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No.  Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel?  No.  But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.

What’s the way forward?

1. A strong core.  If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality.  When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping.  You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world.  Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!

2. A sense of call.  When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ.  When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.

3. A high view of marriage and sexuality.  The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better.  It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation.  They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O.  All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.

4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes.  Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world).  Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.

The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen!  Here are a few resources for your consideration.

Celebrate Recovery

Homecoming

Pure Desire

There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story.   Contact us for details.  Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.

The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God.  You have a calling, a journey yet ahead.  Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you.  Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.

37 Years married and Still Enjoying Eros: Here’s How

Preaching the Song of Solomon this spring has reminded me of a few critical truths that are mostly lost among Christ followers.  In our fear of abusing the gifts of sexuality God has given humankind, we’ve unwittingly taught that our sexuality is a liability to be scorned and controlled, rather than a gift to be celebrated.  The Bible tells us otherwise:

  1. God affirms eros.
  2. Healthy eros requires a cocktail of practices on a regular basis, including affirmation, invitation, respecting each other’s boundaries, and a commitment to serving the other.
  3. These ingredients aren’t possible in casual hook-ups, let alone pornographic stimulation via a fabricated fantasy world.
  4. There’s a book in the Bible about sexual love, because God affirms it.  There’s only one book in the Bible about sexual love because it is a part of life, but isn’t the whole of it.

This past Sunday’s teaching, “Eros Affirmed” might provide some insight into what I’m talking about.  Steep a pot of tea, a carafe of French Press, or a glass of “something”, and have a look and listen – and maybe consider sharing with someone who’d benefit from it.  One woman told me on Sunday she’s planning on sharing it with a few folks who’d benefit from it.

(audio or video)

http://churchbcc.sermon.net/main/main/20940294

I welcome your thoughts!

The Subtle Seduction of Letting Ourselves be Bent

My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”.  The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy.  Here’s what I mean:

I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors.  Murdering another human is sin.  Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin.  Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so.  It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”

The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.

We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder.  We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness.  We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism.  We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused.  You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty.  It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall.  This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.

This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“.  Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.

II.  a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted.  In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.

The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.

The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.

The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.

The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.

You get the picture.  God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.

This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing.  This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy.  The book doesn’t trash sex.  It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated.  Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin.  Sin is a good thing bent!

III.  Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!   

This is what I love about the new book I’m reading.  It declares:

“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”

To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.

Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.

Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.

Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.

Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.

God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares.  And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.

Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.

Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint

 

 

 

The Cultural Faith Crises of Burnt/Raw pancakes

What does the pornography problem in the Bible belt, and the appalling lack of generosity among democrats have to do with a burnt/raw pancake?  Plenty….

“Ephraim is a cake not turned…”. Hosea 7:8.   That’s Hosea’s description of a nation gone wrong, and it’s terribly applicable today.

a cake not turned:  Burnt to a coal at the bottom, raw dough at the top: an apt emblem of a character full of inconsistencies (Bishop Horsley).

The prophets were good at painting word pictures, and word pictures are good because, rather than listing specific problems unique to a time and place, they portray a principle.  The principle then becomes widely applicable to other cultures, eras, and situations.  This is part of what makes the Bible so incredibly relevant, if only we’d take the time to read and ponder. 

Today I’m pondering the “cake not turned”.  You’ve no doubt eaten a pancake that was burnt on the bottom but raw on the top.  It’s wrong; imbalanced; filled with overemphasis and a commensurate underemphasis.  God’s complaint with Israel was that they’d lost their devotion to God as their source and their lover, choosing loyalty to surrounding pagan ideals instead.  

Israel was, in other words, selective in her loyalty to God, alternately embracing and denying the values of Jehovah based on what they wanted, what they considered to be best for them moment to moment.  The result of this was a mixture of bribery, white-collar robbery, neglect of the Sabbath, woven together with lip service given to God, and outward forms of worship often continuing in spite of glaring disobedience to God’s revelation.  Light and dark.  Burnt and raw.  Idolatry wrapped in religion.  

Sound familiar?  It should!  The mixture of political loyalties with faith has long been an example of this burnt pancake phenomenon.  Consider mainline churches, which are often largely aligned with left leaning politics and more socialist policies.  Their views are, rightly, intent on seeing to it that the poor aren’t left hungry, cold, or naked.  It’s hard to argue with those priorities if you take the Bible seriously.  

But two complaints arise immediately regarding this seemingly holy affiliation.  First, if the left is so intent on caring for the poor, why are they themselves so greedy?  The problem of meager charitable giving among liberals is well-known, as seen in this article, which posits that conservatives give 30% more to charity than democrats.  

My second complaint is that liberals are selective in their adherence to the Bible, being quick to appeal to verses on caring for the poor, but silent on Jesus’ sexual ethics, including his stringent view of divorce.  And by the way, nobody on this planet is more vulnerable than the unborn, who the left seem to regard as nothing more than tissue until they’re born.  

Conservative (and many evangelical) churches, provide an opposite, though equally alarming snapshot.  They’re all about the sexual ethics, with vocal views on premarital sex, same-sex behavior, masturbation, abortion, and in some places, divorce and remarriage too.  Most of these values are derived from the same Bible the left uses to address systemic economic sin.  

My complaint is that in the same manner the left is stingy while preaching generosity, the right is sexually dysfunctional while preaching family values.  They crucify Bill Clinton for his sexual sins, and then elect a president who is in his third marriage and whose language and behavior would get him fired in most work environments, including FOX NEWS.  They even go to some lengths to call him a Christian in spite of the appalling lack of any compelling life evidence.  

Further, the right suffers from the same hypocrisy problem as the left.  Regarding our nation’s porn addiction, the 4 out of the top 5 states are in the Bible belt (Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia), the very places where God’s sexual ethic thunders from the pulpit weekly.   Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas, are three of top four states in per capita abortion rates.  Pro Life indeed.  Similarly, these same states, so pro-life, seem intent on protecting life in the womb, but once you’re born, you’re on your own.  Policies regarding family leave and access to health care and social services for those in poverty are weak. 

Let’s summarize.  You have a party that preaches generosity, but is stingy, and they elect a man with an exemplary marriage.  You have a party that preaches sexual ethics, but elects a womanizer, and whose states are most stridently red also happen to be national leaders in porn use and abortion.  

This is the cake not turned problem, and until we see the problem and acknowledge it, we’ll continue talking past each other, advocating that “my partial view of reality is better than your partial view of reality” We can do better. 

Why am writing this?   

1. So that we can stop wedding political parties with our faith, and begin to recognize that no party has the faith 

2. So that we can recognize, all of us, that preaching values does not equal living them.  

3. So that we can recognize that it’s in the human heart to view God’s values and directives as a buffet line, where we pick what we want, and leave the rest.  

4. So that we can repent of the buffet line mentality, our divisions into self referential and self-righteous little communities, and our arrogance – instead asking God to give us ears to hear what the spirit is saying, especially through those with whom we disagree, and so move toward the unity of the faith that will better represent God’s heart.  

In a world filled with burnt/raw pancakes, it would be refreshing to find a few that are properly cooked.  Perhaps you can help cook one!  

United Airlines, Holy Week, and Missing the Forest for the trees

Behavior needs to match mission, right?

They did it “according to the book”.  With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later.  You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411.  Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process.  This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media.  In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)

The point for the moment is simple.  By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man.  The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force.  That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here.  The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”.  Ugh.

I don’t write to do a post event analysis.  Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers?  We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.

Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.”   People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value.  Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question:  “does this action make us look friendly?”

REI gets this.  Nordstrom gets this.  Starbucks gets this.  Amazon gets this.

If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.

This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse.  In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus.  You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even.   These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important:  any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!

And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:

The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity.  The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations?  Poof!  They’re gone.

The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name?  The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century?  The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story?   All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.

I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.

So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.

The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.

The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.

I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character.  So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?

You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently.  Yes, there’s a manual.  But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis.  As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.

O Lord Christ; 

You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it.  Have mercy on us Lord.  Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.  

Amen 

 

Fear of Falling vs Freedom to Fail: Choose Wisely

fear of falling is more dangerous than falling

I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler?  If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling.  In fact, they’re confident they will fall.  They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again.  This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too.  I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down.  Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so.  He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis.  It looked serious.  I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes.  No fear of falling there!

Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else.  We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness.  Don’t stand out.  Don’t make waves.  Conform.  And above all – don’t fall!  It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.

This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly:  the Pharisees.  They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:

1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers.  This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more.  In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.

2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.

3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality.  In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with.  That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.

4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small.  “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was.  We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.

The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge.  There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.

Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.

David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.

Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.

Paul?  Courageous and argumentative.  Humble and proud.  Content and coveting.

Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.

Solomon?  Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)

Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls.  Every.  Person.  But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling.  This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job.  This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it.  This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”

All right then.  We’ve fallen.  We’ve named it.  We’ve seen it.  We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on.  That’s the way it should work.  That’s why Martin Luther said,  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.

Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”  

These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure.  Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.

I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites.  Rubbish.  If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all.  You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world.  Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement.  Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality.  The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.

Why don’t we set out to live this way? 

Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly.  We’d rather deify and vilify.  We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.

Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.

Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home.  Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.

Infants get this.  So do most children.  And climbers too.  Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?

 

Idol Busting and Fire Walking – the power of right habits

“Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question. If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.””

‭‭Daniel‬ ‭3:14-18‬ ‭CEB‬‬

I know it’s not technically firewalking, but its fire – maybe “fire bathing“?  The point of the story is that there are three men who are so deeply committed to worship their God, and no other, that they’re willing to pay the ultimate price while being mindful, as well, that their God is powerful enough to protect them in the fire.

In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg helps readers see that when we determine in advance what our routine will be when certain cues occur in our lives, our response to those cues become habits.  Cue: stress   Response: nicotine.  Habit: chain-smoking.    Cue: weariness.  Routine: TV.  Habit: wasting your life!     Cue: loneliness. Routine: porn  Habit: arousal addiction (as brilliantly articulated in this book).

Our three fire bathing friends have something significant to teach us about this.  They’ve determined in advance that when the cue is worship, the routine will be to worship their own God, and no other.  It’s become so entrenched in them that they don’t seem to wrestle with it at all.  They’re all in, with no thought of turning back, even at cost of their lives.

The critical question that comes into play here for me at this point in their story is:  “What’s their reward?” It’s an important question because the reality is that we’re built for rewards.  You run (or sit and eat ice cream) for the reward.  You get an education (or stop learning and growing) for the reward.  You do your job with excellence (or choose to scaresly show up) for the reward.  We do what we do, including following Christ – or abandon fidelity to Christ in pursuit of other sources, in order to receive a reward.

Our rewards are the same as these three enjoy:  confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, and power – which are all promised to us in the scriptures as fruits of faithfully looking to Christ as our source.

APPLICATION: 

Our eyes tend to glaze over when we think of idolatry these days, because the word conjures imagery of statues, altars, and visible representations of false gods.  Here in the west, though, our idols are different: less visible, and more seductive.

Our idols anything we look to in our lives as our foundational source for comfort, meaning, direction, security.  Our idols, then, are our ROUTINE RESPONSES in the cue, routine, reward loop, that we look toward as a primary means of coping with a particular state of mind and heart.

“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”

“When I’m stressed I drink”

“When I’m frustrated I get angry and blame”

“When I’m _________ I ________”

Especially to the extent that any unhealthy response to a cue becomes a habit – we’re enslaved, and hurtling toward idolatry, if not already there.   Idols overpromise and under-deliver – every time.

In contrast, whenever I choose cues that contribute to my fundamental identity as a child of God, or to my calling – the rewards of confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, are ignited and I’m strengthened to walk through fires – surely most of which are metaphorical, while believing that if I’m meant to walk through literal fires, the power will be granted.

TRY THIS: 

Consider an unhealthy cue, response, reward pattern in your life and change both the response the reward.  Do you believe that, over time at least, the right response will lead to the fourfold reward of confidence, courage, peace, and freeedom?  Then determine the right response to the cue, the response of faithfulness that will bring the reward:  

When I’m lonely I will call a friend to encourage, be encouraged, or both.

When I’m stressed, I will exercise and give thanks for my body

When I’m frustrated at work, I will pray for the wisdom and strength to be a person of peace, grace, and truth – and by faith thank God that I’m becoming such… little by little.

You get the picture.  Changing our habits of response to life’s cues isn’t just what the book The Power of Habit is all about – it’s what Christ followers call discipleship.

 

 

Beauty, Beast, and the Gospel of Identity

When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented.  It happened years ago with Avatar.  Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.

Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow),  it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”.  My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie.  I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes:  the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.

New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse.  Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.

The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy.   The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger.   Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults.  Sound familiar?

In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”.  Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own.  This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.

Nothing’s changed, of course.   The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator.  Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.

The curse is broken in the movie, of course.  It’s broken in real life too.  The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.

The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken.   Why is this?

The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.

For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.

We’d be wise to take a cue from him.  After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ.  He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism.   Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!

Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement.   So there you go.  You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong.  You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters.  You’ve built a wall.

Congratulations.  But make no mistake.  You’ll pay for your own wall.

The better way?  Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine.   Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.

 

New Axioms in a Post Truth World

Do you remember eighth grade geometry, and the subject of axioms?  An axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”.  An example in math would be:  “if x and y are real numbers, then the sum of x+y is also a real number”.  There’s no need to prove it because it’s self evident.  Axioms are important because mathematicians and philosophers build structures on their foundations.

Get the axiom wrong and the whole structure will ultimately be unsustainable.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”.   This gets practical in our moment because there are claims floating around in our social/political world and they’re being accepted as axiomatic.

“The lyin’ media”

“My inauguration crowd was bigger”

“I won the popular vote”

“I was wiretapped by the previous president”

I’m not writing here as democrat (I’m independent and voted both sides in the last election) and I’m not writing about health care, or the philosophy that lower taxes will be good for the economy. Both the conservative and progressive voices are vital in shaping our democracy; their ideas need collision with each other in order to arrive at next steps in moving a country forward – at least that was the intent of the framers.  Further, the conservative world won the election and has both the right and responsibility to govern.  All of us are on the bus, so we’d all do well to press for success.

It’s the very desire for democracy to succeed, whoever is in power, that causes me to write today.  Whatever your party loyalties, know that a very dangerous foundation is being laid when a country is asked to believe things as if they were axiomatic, simply because they’re spoken by people with authority.  While not technically axioms, we’re being asked to believe more and more things,  “sans evidence”.

My plea is that you not go there, that we not go there as a nation, that we not allow our leaders to take us there.

Promises gone awry are one thing.  (“If you like your current health care plan you can keep it”).  They’re named.  Apologies are made.  We learn.  Hopefully we move on.

This is a different time; a different leader.  As David Brooks writes: “Everything about Trump that appalls 65% of America strengthens him with the other 35%”.  This is an axiom problem.  It stems from a readiness to believe things, simply because they’re declared by someone, in spite of the fact that, not only are they not self-evident, but all available evidence points in a different direction.

And so we come to the importance of character.  Nobody is perfect, of course, and we know our previous presidents well enough to know that feet of clay have been in the Oval Office from the beginning.  Still, the accumulation of spectacular declarations lacking any evidence is new territory.  The credibility gap that is nothing more than fodder for late night comedians presently, will become the soil of national crisis when we’re asked to enter a sacrificial war because our leader makes an axiomatic declaration demanding it and, no surprise, most of the notion won’t buy it.

When I teach German students, I’m happy to report that they don’t take what I say at face value.  They ask hard questions.  They challenge my statements.  They ask for evidence.  I was taken aback by this years ago, when I first began teaching in Europe.  When I asked why they’re “so skeptical” they told me it had to do with their history, that they’d learned the dangers of following blindly, and so built healthy skepticism into their education of youth.

“Following blindly” is becoming a habit these days and that shouldn’t surprise us, though it should alarm us.  It’s in our nature to believe what we want to believe, rather than allow ourselves to be shaped by revelation that would be disruptive to our held views.  Can I suggest that, rather than elevating any human leader, or source, to the status of infallible – all of us commit to thinking both critically, and open mindedly – to engaging with those holding differing views both civilly and honestly – and that we do it all with the goal of building on a foundation of  finding truth rather than defending fallacious axioms.

So here we are, with truth claims being offered and the expectation declared that we believe them axiomatically, simply because authorities have spoken.

Well Mr. President, and speakers of both house and senate, and minority leaders of those same chambers, if there’s any good news in your deplorable, unabashedly partisan behaviors of late its this:  your lies have become unbelievable, even to yourselves and the people of your own parties.  Your truth claims are, I can only pray, creating a vast sea of skeptics who will no longer take what’s said at face value.   And in the wake of your collective integrity failure, my hope and prayer is that the next round of elections won’t be the circus this previous round was.  Instead, perhaps, people will once again look for people with integrity and elect them, weighing character above everything else.

…because one thing is certain throughout the history of the world:  as goes the king, so goes the nation.

It’s axiomatic

You Can’t Live on Adrenaline Forever – A call to rest

12699122_f520 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Jesus the Christ 

In quietness and confidence is your strength – Isaiah the prophet

God, in infinite wisdom, has given us a credit card for energy.  It’s called adrenaline and comes in handy when we need to “rise to the occasion”.  Historically it came in handy when a lion was roaming nearby in the savannah.  You’d come up over a hill and your eyes would meet. Instantly, your heart rate elevates, glucose is released to give you both clarity and strength, and a whole cocktail of other chemicals and hormones begin coursing through your blood so that you can either “fight” with strength, or “flight” with speed, and have the wisdom to know which to choose.

Then it’s over, you’re either safe or dead.  Either way, the draw down of energy for the acute crisis stops and (if you’re not dead) recovery begins.  You breathe deep, and slowly, your heart rate returns to normal.  You sit with your tribe in the fire circle, recounting stories from the day, and then maybe sing a song, before falling asleep amidst the safety of the camp.  While you rest, you digest, your recover, your recharge your emergency energy credit card, so that the next time you go out, you’ll be ready again.

Or, you live in the 21st century, where the credit card draw down is, for too many of us, a nearly continuous elevation to the fight or flight response for any number of reasons:

1. The rude awakening with the alarm  2. The 24/7 news cycle, because it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s presented as a crisis of epic proportions.  Toss in a measure of guilt or despair for not doing enough about it, or weariness because you are doing enough, marching every weekend.  3. The rent increases, or tax increases.  4. commute challenges and work challenges, encompassing a host of emotions.  5. A virtual world on social media that is, for too many, its own form of porn, offering escape from painful realities, and painting fantasy pictures of a world better than our own. 6. Relational challenges with spouse, children, parents, roommates, friends, ex-friends – or the opposite challenge of 7. Isolation, which was never God’s intention of people 8. Sleep challenges, usually stemming from some combination of spiritual, emotional, and physical reasons.  9. Foods that stress our body because, though tolerable, God didn’t design your body to eat pre-fab food.  10. A perverted notion of faith that leaves one questioning whether they’ve done enough, learned enough, are holy enough – so that there’s a constant nagging that ranges somewhere between shame and inadequacy.

In such a world, overdraws of your stress response credit card become the norm.  Still, you need to pay.  And you will.  it will show up in hypertension, or obesity, heart disease or diabetes, or perhaps any one of a number of other “diseases of civilization”.

When Jesus invites us to learn the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’, what’s he talking about?  For one thing, I strongly believe he’s inviting us to a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, as well as an internal perspective of mindfulness, because these two things, taken together, can create break the cycle of the chronic stress response.  Here are some practical steps to take:

1. No screens for two hours prior to bedIn one of my favorite books, I learned that sleep difficulties are a major challenge in the 21st century, and that this matters because the evidence is in:  sleep shortage has all kinds of negative effects, the summary of which is described by Robert Stickgold, sleep specialists who builds a compelling case that chronic sleep shortages make us, to quote Stickgold, “sick, fat, and stupid”.   One of the major contributors to sleep loss is screen time before bed, because it dampens the production of sleep hormones that would be created if we were, instead, reading a real book via real light, or better yet, doing our stretching, praying, or snuggling, by candlelight.

2. Spend more energy on your sphere of influence than your sphere of concern.   Jesus hints at this numerous times, but nowhere more clearly than in Luke 12:25, where he ponders the question:  “can any of you make yourself an inch taller by worrying about your height?”  Your height is in your sphere of concern, but not your sphere of influence.  You can’t change it!!  And you can’t change who’s in the White House right now, or the cost of housing, or how your boss will respond to your request for a raise.

The point Jesus is trying to make?  He’s calling us to wisely invest most of our energy in things over which we DO have influence, rather than whining about, or worrying about, things over which we don’t have influence.  This isn’t a call to passivity or withdrawal.  We live in a democracy and all of us have some influence over big things.  But we need to invest most of our energies in things over which we have direct control.  Am I loving my people?  Am I living generously and enjoying intimacy with Christ?  Am I standing for actual vulnerable people in my life, not just advocating for an anonymous “people group”?   It’s been freeing in my own life to begin with things over which I have control, and move outward from there.  Until I learned that lesson, my sphere of concern was paralyzing me with worry, and rendering me ineffective in my sphere of influence.

3. Learn to live in the present – with gratitude.    Jesus is our guide here, when he tells us to take no thought for tomorrow.  You don’t know how long you’ll live, don’t know how the market will do, don’t know when the next terror attack will be, or what will be tomorrow’s news from the white house.  You don’t know.  So don’t live in anxiety over what you don’t know.

You do know that today, the days are getting longer.  You know that there’s glory and beauty in the face of those you love.  You know that you are forgiven, and that One is infinitely and irrevocably for you – and not only you, but for all of humanity, and the planet.  You know that, in spite of everything, there’s beauty still in this world, in abundance.  You know where history’s headed.  You know you have a next step to take, a practical one, that will bring life and hope to the world.

Knowing these things, and rejoicing in them, is enough to stop the adrenaline credit card drain, and bring the rest and peace you need.

NEXT UP:  three more practices –

1. Eat real food

2. Get outside

3. Love your friends

 

 

 

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step