With the train station closed in Budapest, over 70 dead in a truck on the side of the road in Austria, millions in refugee camps, and talk of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, perhaps one thing the entire world can agree on is that we have an immigration problem.
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
He sends us snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above.
So thank the Lord, O, thank the Lord for all his love.
We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seedtime and the harvest, our life our health our food,
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts,
But that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love..
I really wanna thank you Lord!
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love..
Oh thank the Lord…….
Have you ever had this experience? You look back at yourself after some moments on the far side of an argument, or the far side of dipping your toe into the waters of an addiction from which you thought you were free. Not only do you not like what you see, but you think to yourself, “I don’t know who that person is, but it’s not me. I don’t throw things at my spouse, or swear and hit the wall, or gaze at porn, or get drink just because I’m sad…” or whatever it is that you did just 24 hours earlier.
But now here you are, seated and in your right mind, wondering how it happened that you were a different person yesterday.
The answer’s simple: identity theft. You became, for a period, someone other than who you are, or at the very least, who you’re meant to be. When we do this (and all of us do it from time to time, though our failures vary in degrees of both privacy and social acceptability), we step right into Romans 7 in the Bible. Paul the Apostle shares this struggle when he writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He articulates the universal struggle that there’s a gap between our actions and our ideals. We want purity, but struggle with lust; want humility, but are prone to arrogance; want contentment, and yet are driven by insatiable appetites. Paul ends his diatribe about this struggle with the timeless question: “who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s a great question, and unless there’s an answer, we’ll continue to feel ourselves hijacked by ourselves the rest of our lives.
But there is, thank God, an answer. “The Victory” Paul says, “comes through Christ.” Yes friends, life in Christ is that practical. It’s God’s intention that each of us move inexorably toward the life for which we were created, which is a life of joy, peace, wisdom, hope, generosity, justice, and strength. Here’s why identity theft is so damning and thus why identity in Christ is so important.
I. In Christ, you’ve become a new person. – This is what we’re told, and what it means is that Jesus, mysteriously but nonetheless actually, is joined with our human spirits to give us a new essence, a new identity. This changes everything, because it means that Christ now resides in me, so that all of his joy, hope, and power, are available to find expression through me in unique ways. But more than just available – the reality is that I’m called to be the presence of Christ in my daily living. This is my identity: a light bearer, bringing hope, healing, and joy to the world.
II. Though new, the “old files” are still embedded. I still hear ghosts, sitting in the shadows, telling me, not that I’m a light bearer, but a loser – telling me I’m unloved because my parents abused me, or that I’m unworthy, because a past failure caused a life implosion, or that life’s unbearable without a hit from sex, or drugs, or alcohol. All of this is what Paul calls, “the old man” which is a euphemism meaning “this is who you once were” – Once you self comforted via compulsive drinking, or one night stands. Once you dealt with conflict through rage, or seething bitterness. Those “old files” are still there on the computer that is your soul, just waiting to be opened.
III. The Liar’s Specialty – Diverting You from Your Identity. Satan delights in opening the old files. You take a look at them, and if you believe them, you’re stuffed. That’s because your belief empowers them and they rise up and change your behavior. “I’m unloved, or unlovable, or unappreciated” becomes, “so life’s not worth living”, or “so I’ll prove I’m worthy” or “so why not have another drink?” Soon you’re living in ways that contradict your own identity, if only temporarily. Then you wake up and say, “what happened?” and you realize that your identity has been hijacked.
IV. The Way Forward – Looking at Jesus’ temptations at the hands of “the liar” in the wilderness, we can see that Satan’s key strategy has always been to divert us from our truest identity. He says to “the Son of God”…. “IF you are the son of God, make these stones become bread” as a means of getting Jesus to move into a distorted identity. Jesus’ answer? “I’m more than just a material person, so though I’m hungry just now, I’ll not let my life be defined by the pursuit of bread. That’s not my identity.”
Wow! When I’m hungry, it’s overwhelmingly easy to think that my life is about getting bread. When I’m lonely, it’s about companionship. When I’m feeling neglected or overlooked, it’s often about proving myself. When I’m in pain, it’s about self comforting.
It’s easy, in other words, to allow our identity to be hijacked by the whims of various trials that are blowing through. Allow ourselves to be hijacked though, and we’ll “act out”, only to look back, on the far side of our failure, and ask, “Who was that?”
The answer: That was in imposter. Send him/her back to the tombs because though the files are still on the hard drive of your emotions, they’re corrupt, and corrupting. You have a new identity: in Christ. And that changes everything.
Here’s a helpful list of verses about your identity in Christ. When you read something here and it doesn’t seem true, or feel true, you’ve met your battleground.
I’ll be speaking on the Temptation of Christ at Bethany Community Church on Sunday, August 2nd. Tune in for a live stream of our worship here.
The last time I’d actually spent time climbing was just about two years ago, just before my son’s wedding. It was on that trip that both elbow and shoulder started bothering me, with little aches and big ones, annoying enough that by the end of the day the rock had stopped being fun.
And so I’d stopped being on the rock. Weeks became months, became two years. The whole time, I banished thoughts of climbing because “the last time I did it” wasn’t pleasant.
Negative experiences are like that. You have one, and it takes over, preemptively disqualifying you from all future attempts as the ghost of the past imposes that negative experience on your future.
“I tried running and got injured. If I do it again, I’ll just get injured again”
“I tried to find intimacy with Jesus but my prayer life sputtered; life got hard and I quit. Not worth the effort…”
“The last time I was honest with my spouse led to a big blow up.”
“I submitted an article, but never heard back from the publisher.”
“I hit a snag learning that language and set it aside… it’s too hard.”
“I’m sick of succumbing to my addiction, but sicker still of trying to beat it and failing… I surrender”
All these scripts are lies, because they’re all rooted in the common deception that tells us: “Past behavior is the best indicator of future results” HR departments roll this little line out when interviewing people, reminding us that transformation rarely happens, that who we’ve been in the past, is who we are destined to be.
If I believed that, I’d have quit my job as a pastor and Bible teacher long ago. I’ve kept going because I believe in transformation, because there are endless stories of movement in both the bible and history as –
1. Judah moves from the jealous, hard hearted, hating brother, to the one willing to lay down his life for his youngest sibling.
2. David moves from a posture of catastrophic failure to confession, hope, joy.
3. Peter moves from fear and arrogance, to bold humility.
4. Zacheus moves from greedy to generous.
5. The Samaritan woman moves from despised outsider to friend of Messiah.
6. The woman caught in adultery moves from the death sentence to worshipper of Jesus.
7. Abraham Lincoln moves from multiple losses to extradorniary president.
8. Esther moves from obscure woman, to savior of Israel.
9. Lindsay Vonn moves from horrific ski injury to amazing comeback
If the gospel is true, then these important statements are also true:
I am not my failures
I am not my injuries, emotional or physical
I am not the script handed me by my culture to keep me an insecure little consumer, always looking for the next purchase for comfort.
Who am I then? I’m new in Christ. I’m complete in Christ. And I’m on a journey of transformation in Christ. This transformation piece includes, at various times, body, soul, and spirit – and my presumption that who I was yesterday is who I will always be is the lie that needs to be exposed. This will require faith, and the risk to try again.
Last January I undertook the one hundred push up challenge, and pressed myself toward the goal of being able to do one hundred push-ups in a single set. That process, I think, strengthened by arms, but I still hadn’t done any climbing, presuming that if I did, I’d replay my last climbing experience.
Then, two weeks ago here in Austria, I went out with the leaders for their training day on the rocks. And climbed. Injury free. I did it again yesterday, this time with the students – and I’m not even sore! The entire experience has me thinking long and hard about the reality of transformation in our lives, and how often we subvert our own progress by simply self selecting out of the arena where our best life is meant to be lived.
Here, then, our my own take aways:
After failure – learning and recovery. This is a necessity because if we keep doing the same things over and over again, we’ll likely see the same results. This doesn’t matter if it’s a running injury, and a dysfunctional marriage, or broken staff at your job. When there’s a problem we need to become learners, and change the input that lead to the problem. In the past year I’ve been learning to do this as a leader, as a runner, and now as a climber.
If you’re too proud to admit you have a problem though, then you have a problem than can’t be fixed, because your denial will entrench you in your bad habits.
If you’re too complacent in the midst of your problem to look for a solution, then you also have bigger problem than your problem. You have a deplorable lack of curiosity, and that too will entrench you in bad habits.
But if you fail, and then learn, and then do the hard work of recovery (one hundred push up challenge in my case), then what’s happening is called the miracle of transformation. It requires, though, this inexorable belief that tomorrow’s carries with it the possibility, even the hope, of transformation. Can you believe that? I hope so, because that’s the story God wants to write in your life.
After learning and recovery – Try again (don’t skip watching this video!!)
Downhill skier Lindsay Vaughn suffered a ridiculous crash, at the downhill world cup, about 400 meters from where I’m sitting as write this.
I once watched a documentary about her recovery from that injury. In it she offers us a line that applies to all of life. “Crashing is part of my sport… if you can’t get over it, you should probably stop skiing.” Crashing is part of preaching, part of leading, part of climbing, part of loving, part of parenting, part of everything worth doing. “Risk free” is becoming one of my least favorite phrases in the world, because the only thing that’s risk free is the inevitability of our decay.
Every thing worth doing has risk. So if you fall but you’re called to walk, get up and try again. If you’re called to love, but you got hurt. Learn by all means, but risk loving again. Risk climbing again. Risk generosity, joy, truth telling.
I climbed yesterday, fell often, failed to make it to the top of a climb I thought I’d complete. But I climbed, and while I was on the rock, I was reminded that this is part of who I am, but that it’s a part of me I’d let atrophy because the ghosts of failure sat on my shoulder and whispered words of doubt. Those ghosts died yesterday, and I’m grateful.
After a week of meetings in Germany with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship, my wife and I made our way to Schladming for a little bit of rest before I head up to England for a week of speaking at Capernwray Hall. The week is a break in the midst of what has been a very busy time, both at home and on the road.
Because I’m here without obligations or responsibilities, I hadn’t anticipated that the Spring Bible School students would still be here, but as it turns out, today is their last day. What this means is that they’ll spend their morning worshiping, praying, and sharing together the things God has taught them during their time here.
Though I don’t know them at all, Donna and I sneak in the back to listen just a bit and it’s there, in that space, that I remember my time here twenty years ago, in spring school 1995. That spring I spent my free time filling out an application for the role of senior pastor at Bethany Community Church in Seattle because, after speaking there for a week earlier in the spring, I’d been asked to apply for the job, a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but was certain I didn’t want to miss, if it was God’s will. I remember writing answers to questions, printing the whole thing and faxing it to the church office in Seattle, fairly convinced that my lack of large church experience (I was leading a house church at the time) would disqualify me from consideration anyway.
I was wrong, of course, as I often am when I presume to know the ways and mind of God. By the fall of that same year, Donna and I were packing up our things for a move to Seattle where, on December 1st, we began our five year commitment to the big church of 300 in the big city of Seattle. After a year, 300 had grown to 225. After five years though, we said no to some other opportunities, convinced that there was another chapter for us in Seattle and Bethany.
Five years has become twenty. 225 people have become 3500 people. One location has become six. And all of this represents the faithfulness of God in changing one life at a time, one step at a time. The church in Seattle has changed profoundly.
And here in Austria? New facilities. New staff. New leaders. Larger Bible Schools. A sailing ministry in Greece. Yes… God’s been at work here too, and all the outward signs are but the most visible outward displays representing countless changed lives, now scattered throughout the world like so much life giving seed, making Jesus visible. This space has also been a place of change.
All these thoughts are swirling as I run through the mist hanging in the alps this morning. I’m mindful that the church I lead is changing in good ways, as is this school in Austria. New leaders. New locations. Changed lives. It’s good stuff! So I ponder, as the rain falls – “What practices and attitudes help create positive changes?” Though there are many, these ___ seem foundational:
I. Vertical Connection – Jesus said it: “Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit” Those eight simple words are at the core of the work God wants to do in the world. This is because God’s desire is to express nothing less than the life of Christ through the likes of you and me. When it works, his joy, peace, power, wisdom, love, patience, generosity, forgiveness and hope are poured out through us, watering thirsty souls.
Foundational as this is, it is also the most elusive piece of the puzzle for many. We’re raised to believe that we have what it takes to make a grand difference in the world, and that with enough planning and projects, metrics and media, goals and objectives, we’ll reach the promised land of fulfilled vision, or meaningful work, or perfect children.
Um, no. That’s not going to happen. To the contrary, the story that God will write through any of us will, in the end, declare that it’s those who are mindful of their own thirst and need for the reality of Christ that God will use to express God’s life to the world.
Our thirst for God and for the enjoyment of Christ’s real presence in our lives are the most important realities we can pursue and experience. They’re as vital as air and water, critical resources for the kind of life Jesus invites us to live.
II. Patient Expectation – My techno watch tells me two things while I’m running this morning. First, it confirms the glad news that I’m running at pace that keeps heart happily ticking along between 130 and 140 beats per minutes, sort of a sweet spot for my running. Second, I lean the even better news that I’m travelling faster in this same sweet spot now than I was last summer when I was here. Same heart rate; faster running! How did that happen?
Gradually. In his book about training for alpine adventures, Mark Twight introduces the acronym: TINSTAAFL, which means “There is no such thing as a free lunch” It’s his way of saying that nobody can compress the time it takes to get in shape for a big climb, thinking that a few cross fit sessions where your heart pumps and your muscles ache and you feel like throwing up will never be able to do the job. “Gradualness is the only way aerobic adaptation is gained” is the essence of what he says.
I just focus on staying between 130 and 140. It’s my body, and the magic of health and exercise that make me faster. My own attempt to go faster nearly two years ago resulted in a strained Achilles, the result of which was a total ban on running for about a month. Faster? My attempts at self improvement were in the toilet. It was then that my physical therapist said, “you’re going too fast – keep your pulse under 135″ My first days on my urban running path were an exercise in humility. As person after person passed me, I wanted to shout, “I’m faster than this!!” but I kept quiet and kept doing my turtle thing.
Slowly faster. I’m convinced that those who want to look more like Jesus need to find out what it is that Jesus wants us to actually DO, and what he promises to do in response. This is where my II Corinthians 3:16-18 favorite stuff comes in. That’s where I’m told to “behold his glory” and that if I do that, I will be transformed, slowly, yet relentlessly, ‘from glory to glory’ – so that I look more like Jesus. Little by little, hope will evict despair, light will overcome darkness, love will overwhelm hate, and the whole complex thing that is your personality will be infused with a hope, quiet confidence, and joy that I can’t be made in any self improvement program any more than the guys who make potato chips can fabricate, a butterfly.
Our transformation, you see, is divine handiwork. We are his workmanship, we’re told. So we can all just relax bit, drop our program of self-branding and building a following, stop worrying about what the other moms think of our recipes and living rooms, and simply make getting to know Jesus as a friend our chief aim in life. Then he’ll do the changing while we focus on other stuff, just like my body produces whatever it makes so that i run faster now than a year ago, not because I’m trying to run faster, but because I’m showing up more consistently.
No single devotional, or utterance of gratitude to God for a sunrise, or receptivity to what Jesus is saying through that difficult person – none of these things are deal breakers. The sky rarely opens up and pours out fire, or doves. Instead, like mitochondria multiplying in response to the stress of running, little unseen things are happening, just because we keep showing up.
Then one day, we open our eyes and realize that, in spite of ourselves, the years have given us more joy, more contentment, and more grace, than we’d every have hoped, surely more than we deserve. When that happens we’ll not only thank God for the work God has done, we’ll realize it happened in spite of ourselves, while we were living.
O Lord Christ…
You promise to change us, starting with the gift of rest, if we’ll just relax and learn of you. But we’re religionists, busy, striving, making ourselves holy for you, or effective for you, or at least less guilty in hopes you won’t destroy. Forgive us Lord, for the image we’ve made of you is an idol, and our souls are parched because of it. Staring now, we pray, may you be our pursuit, our joy, our companion. Teach us this, so that we’ll keep seeking you… and then we’ll simply thank you that, without a lot of perception on our part, the deepest changes of our soul needs will ripen. We’ll wake up some day, see the changes, and give thanks.
In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah. It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching. Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked. I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of it all… cheers!
Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause. In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away. I, the Lord, affirm it! I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”
God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden. This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome. Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money. Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help. Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another. In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.
Not burdensome? Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:
What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?
What God’s thinking about is the big picture. When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself. Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths
There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment. This is one of the most important truths in the universe. You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart. You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.
Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day. The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts. The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation. The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.
You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden. But in the end? The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy. They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.
God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers. They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest. In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden. To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway. Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy. Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.
Christ’s motivator was joy!
He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice. In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed. And yet he said his commands were not burdensome! Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?
Not at all. We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him. Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”. We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden. I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory. One taste though, and we’re hooked. When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.
A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.
And we think God’s commands are burdensome? Maybe we should reconsider. After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”
To suffering. To self-denial. To service. To life!
I welcome your thoughts….
It was just over a year ago that my mom-in-law came to visit, and some health matters made it clear it would be best for her to stay with us. This set in motion a series of events that led to my wife and I moving east of Seattle a bit, up into the mountains, where we’d planned to move eventually anyway. The self contained apartment has become my mom-in-law’s home, and she’s pure delight to have with us. We’ve rented a tiny place next to the church in the city so I can skip horrific commutes and be “down” (as we say at the pass) on a regular basis, but selling our “big house” was the obvious next step. My lovely wife’s been preparing it for market with paint and care this past week. Of course, each brush stroke brought memories. Here are her thoughts….
Yes, these walls can talk. As I find myself sitting on the hardwood floor with mahogany inlay, painting the baseboards of my Greenlake house in Seattle, I’m hearing the sounds of Legos being spilled out, the vacuum cleaner chasing dust bunnies, tap dancing on the indestructible 1920’s kitchen flooring, violins and piano echoing off the lathe & plaster walls, drums pulsing from the basement, thumps from the climbing wall in the attic. As we prepare to sell our home of the past twenty years, the flood of memories is at times overwhelming. I always said that this little house had “good bones” but my family have been the ones who have fleshed it out and given it life for these past two decades, coming and going, filling it with laughter and joy and questions and tears and decisions and major life events of every kind, mostly documented in photos at the front door before heading out on another adventure.
We found the house on a Sunday in December 1995, the FOR SALE sign having been put out the night before. Richard turned one street too early for the café he was headed that morning but that “wrong turn” led him past the house that was to become our home later that day. We made an offer an hour after seeing it and moved in within a month. It was a house like no other we had lived in; hard wood floors, white plaster walls, tiny kitchen, treeless back yard, neighbors within hearing distance on all sides. Over time, we learned to lower our indoor voices and wash dishes by hand. We planted trees in the yard that grew into our own forest retreat and discovered many, many special friends in the surrounding houses.
Around year five, I ventured into adding color to the walls and have since painted every room and hallway in the house. And they’re not neutral colors. Most are bold and bright. They’re not of the same color palette so they may be puzzling to potential buyers or new owners. But for me, the matriarch of this home, they are telling me story after story of the inhabitants of each room. I know, that under this freshly painted “guest room” in the basement, there are lovely blue walls with fluffy white clouds near the ceiling, carefully sponged on by our oldest daughter in her room where she filled journals with creative stories. The bright yellow room on the main floor has always been bright yellow, just like our bouncy youngest daughter who covered most of the walls with drama production posters and pictures with friends (hence needing to be repainted once we peeled the paint with each removal.) The dark forest green room belonged to our equally artistic son who choose to glue his excellent black and white photography masterpieces to the walls (in addition to a pastel mural drawn on one wall that never quite washed off as expected) but fresh paint repaired all that.
The Paprika red basement family room housed many late night slumber parties and “Basement Club” meals and movie events as well as hundreds of college students who found their way to our house for the Final Four Basketball Championships for several years. The bright green living room-turned dining room hosted our oldest daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner, hearing stories of how this group of thirty people happened to gather from all around the world to celebrate this special event. Birthday parties, holiday meals, ordinary meals, small group gatherings, meetings of many sorts, fill the dining room with stories. I’ll always remember my mother-in-law sitting for hours at the front window, reporting on all the comings and goings of the neighbors or my dad who was the last one to bring order to my workbench in the garage, many years ago.
The attic was what sold us on the house twenty years ago. The top floor became our master bedroom, our place of intimacy and “retreat” after long days. The same friend who built our indoor climbing wall also paneled the ceiling in knotty pine to match our log bed that was clamored upon every Christmas morning by our three children, no matter how old they became. We hung an Austrian cow bell on the front door to alert us when the kids came home and I’ll never forget the sound of the door opening to the stairwell while waiting for them to come up and check in. Sometimes there were long conversations, perched at the foot of the bed, about the event from which they had just returned and sometimes it was just a kiss goodnight, but always, a feeling of relief that they were home, safe and sound.
And then there is the kitchen. It was a difficult adjustment when we moved in, being about one third the size of my former kitchen. It has a smaller than average refrigerator and no automatic dishwasher and yet I’m proud to say that I managed to raise three very responsible adults from this kitchen. I’m fairly confident that potential buyers will see my woefully ill-equipped kitchen as a liability, but they will be mistaken. I think our step-saver kitchen has been our greatest asset. It taught us all to be creative. It taught me contentment. It always became the gathering place for conversation while chopping vegetables or stirring at the stove or scooting someone aside to open the oven door. And I’ve also discovered that there is something magical about soapy dishwater, lending itself to camaraderie and honest conversation. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned kitchen with old-fashioned values but the cabinets have a fresh coat of paint and shiny new knobs that may very well get pulled out by new owners, but they served our family well and the many guests whom we were privileged to host.
I know it’s silly to get sentimental about a house, but I’m going to just let the tears flow and pray that the next family is blessed by the stories imbedded in these walls. Thank you, sturdy little house, for protecting us from storms, within and without, for rooting us deeply in this neighborhood and in this city, and for filling our lives with tremendous memories. May the next occupants be sheltered well by your walls, making our sturdy little house a home once again.
The first few minutes of this video (or the print version of the article) reveals a trend in the United States whereby a larger and larger percentage of the populace move toward the “religiously unaffiliated” category. The trend is happening across every age demographic, but is particularly pointed among millennials.
In the wake of the survey results, there’s been no shortage of diagnostics offered, and further dicing of the data. Words have spent explaining why: Homosexuality. Science. The creeping effects of secularism. Theological compromise. Bad music. Justice. Bad coffee.
It’s the same song, different verse, that we’ve been hearing now for forty years. It’s mostly finger pointing, and “speck in your brother’s eye” stuff that we’re talking about. Emergent types are looking for a bigger tent as they read Richard Rohr and drink Scotch. The new religious right quote folks fighting for the all important doctrines of election and inerrancy as they gather for coffee and sound their battle cry.
Blah blah blah. About three years ago I grew weary of taking part in these conversations, fearing that I was just another voice in the midst of the myriad of sound and fury. It became clear by talking with close friends who’d quit the church that only those on the inside care about these arguments anyway, that our internal arguments just reinforce the outsider’s view of our irrelevance.
I still feel that way now, only now it’s hard to even listen. The whole thing appears, on the surface anyway, to be an exercise in rearranging the chairs after the boat’s hit the iceberg. “How shall we set the chairs so people will come? Circle? Rows? Small groups of four? Three? Stacked in the corner?” Nobody cares. The dramatic shift toward unaffiliated is because people are moving on. Any plan that claims to offer a ‘way back’ is, in my opinion, misguided.
What is needed though, is for we church leaders to do some serious introspecting about our own hearts. The truth is that it is we leaders of the past two generations, with our priorities and world view, that allowed the ship to hit the iceberg. We should ask about our own health, not in hopes of getting people back into their fold, but in hopes of fixing the leak in the hull, for the good news is that the church isn’t the Titanic—by virtue of Christ’s life, the ship can be healed!
I’m slowly coming to see that a big reason there’s a hole in the hull is because we’ve failed, often catastrophically, to let Jesus be Jesus. Instead we’ve used some sort of fabricated replica of Jesus, some plastic mass-produced thing, that highlights some elements of Jesus that we think will play well in our time and place.
The real Jesus can’t be fabricated by religious efforts. The real Jesus can only grow in us and express life through us to the extent that we are yielded to his rule and reign in our lives. What grows out of that yieldedness won’t be easily brand-able, marketable, or reducible to sound bytes and Twitter posts. But this requires the hard slow work of spiritual formation, and trusting God with results; hardly the stuff of our upwardly mobile, market share, and metrics driven world.
The way of recovery is to realize that, ironically, the pure Jesus is a mixed drink almost every time, usually of two seemingly incompatible ingredients. The cup that is Christ’s life is filled with apparent contradictions, and the only way the real Jesus shows up is if both sides of the contradiction are present. Here are two examples of what I mean:
Leadership as a Servant – The testosterone saturated view of leadership that’s prevailed for the past many decades has not only marginalized and disempowered half the church; it’s created a situation where, behind the veil, domestic violence and spouse abuse occur unchecked. This is because we have a hard time seeing “servant” and “leader” in the same sentence. And yet the reality is that this is the mixture that is the real Jesus. He led by taking a towel and wrapping himself about, serving his followers the way a slave serves. Though he’s a bridegroom and longed for intimacy with his people, and yet refused to force himself on them in the name of headship, so wept at the gates of Jerusalem because they wouldn’t let him in. Every element of his leadership was saturated with submission and servanthood. Wow!
What if marriages worked that way? What if pastors led that way? What if we prayed and confessed that we don’t really understand how to lead and serve at the same time because the hierarchy embedded in our culture is so strong that we can’t see how to do this, apart from divine revelation?
I’d suggest that we leaders start there, and then take next steps by finding some ways to serve our spouses meaningfully, if we’re married, and our team at work too. Do you think this would make marriages in the church healthier? Might churches becomes more joy filled, less fearful? This has been a profound revelation for me lately, both at work and home. I’ll have more to say, perhaps, when I’ve walked the road a bit further. For now, it’s enough to say that I’m tired of the plastic Jesus I’ve fabricated who leads like a tank. We need to find ways to lead by serving.
Grace and Truth – There are churches that take holiness and transformation seriously, so much so that people are afraid to present their real selves to the community for fear of being viewed as immature, weak, ‘fleshly’, or whatever other derogatory adjective you’d like to choose as the descriptor. The disconnect in these places is between what people present themselves to be, and who they actually are, and it’s this way because there’s no grace.
There are grace churches that essentially have jettisoned truth by saying, “Come as you are. Stay as you are. You’re forgiven; heaven bound. It’s enough.” These places too, are conspicuous in their lack of transformation; still drinking too, or too greedy, or too self-absorbed, after 30 years of participation.
What happens though, when grace and truth are brought together, filling the cup that is our life? For starters, we’ll be free to be authentic with each other and God, knowing that our depths of failure can never diminish the God’s infinite love and acceptance of us. However, we’ll not feel free to stay where we are. We’ll embrace the reality that because God loves us infinitely, he is infinitely committed to our transformation.
These mixtures don’t happen with humans at the helm of the ship. When we’re in control we always drift. Leadership at the cost of servanthood, truth at the cost of grace. You get the picture. And then, boom! There’s a hole in the hull.
It won’t be fixed by fair trade coffee in the foyer, or better lighting. For the church to be the church requires letting the real Jesus show up in all his mysterious contradictions. I can only pray we’ll have courage to move in that direction.
One of the reasons I love living in the mountains is because the weather changes dramatically, almost all the time. Waking up in the morning is a bit like unwrapping a fresh present each day whose content is utterly unknown. Will it be like a warm cup of coffee enhanced with the light of a thousand candles and the fragrance of fresh blossoms, or ice, wind, and darkness, stark in its beauty, but hard to handle nonetheless, especially in April.
It turned dark late this past Friday afternoon, and the mixed snow and rain turned to just snow, pure and white, cold in her beauty, relentless in her covering of every fresh blossom of spring. We watched with a bit of anxiety as the fresh blossoms in the hanging baskets were blanketed in signs of winter, and sat by the window with our relatives from California, watching winter fall from the sky on April 24th.
Saturday morning when we woke everything was under a white blanket as we gathered with our neighbors for our morning walk. Halfway through the walk, I left them for a run, and by the time I returned, heading east toward my street, there was a blazing sunrise, back lighting the trees like we were in a studio somewhere, only better.
I stopped, overwhelmed by the beauty of it, but not for long, as I finished my run, got my camera and returned, shooting a dozen pictures before the bacon was even in the pan. Why? Two reasons:
1. Snow in spring is reminder of how the story ends, and this gives me hope.
There’s enough news of brokenness these days to make our heads spin. Yemen. Isis. Baltimore. Nepal. Syria and poisonous gas. Maybe some can just shut it all out by turning up the baseball game or chatting about their latest investments or a vacation plans to Europe, but I can’t. Day after day, the avalanche of suffering and death, most of it inflicted on humanity by humanity, leaves me reeling, wondering if these storms won’t in the end, carry the day, the way snow around here usually wins by Thanksgiving, covering everything and hiding all signs of life until sometime around high school graduations. I wonder if peace will ever happen, if oppression will ever end.
The same thing happens personally sometimes. There are setbacks. We break promises made to ourselves, or are suddenly wallowing in the deep freeze of broken relationships, when only a few days earlier we were basking the warmth of the Holy Spirit’s gentle turning of our hearts toward God in some area. We feel as divided as fresh blossoms blanketed in ice and we wonder. “Who are we really? And who are we becoming?”
The good news of the Gospel is that we, along with the whole cosmos, are heading toward an end when everything will be shot through with the glory of God. All wars will be over. All relationships will be reconciled. All diseases will be healed. Every tear will be dried up.
We know this because Easter is like a fresh blossom in spring, “the first fruits of the resurrection” we’re told. That means the snows of suffering we see these days whether in Yemen or in our own hearts, are winter’s last gasp. New Life is inexorably growing and will continue its miraculous and healing work until all things are made new.
If I didn’t believe that, I’d quit my job, never watch the news again, and confine myself to the pure pursuit of pleasure. Why not, if winter wins in the end? But of course, winter doesn’t win… so Paul, with promise of eternal spring in mind, reminds us to get on with making springtime visible: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…” This is what gives me hope, what gets me up in the morning, what gives me a love for my calling.
2. Snow in spring is a reminder that there’ll be storms until the sun reigns completely.
When we walk with our neighbors during these crazy spring snow storms, nobody’s afraid that we’re going to miss summer. In spite of the thick white everywhere, there’s a quiet confidence in the inevitability of the sun’s power, and this confidence sucks all power out of the storm. The fear is gone.
You’ve had faith setbacks, relationship setbacks, financial hardships, health challenges. We all have, in varying measure. And yet, the reality is that these things aren’t the biggest challenge most of the time. Most of the time the big challenge is our reaction to these things, and all the drama we bring to the situation. It’s as if we’re worried that April snow is going to kill God’s love for us, or that this setback will spell the end of our marriage, or this unimaginable loss means there is no God at all.
The truth of the matter, though, is that these are April snow storms. In spite of the thorough victory acheived at the cross and resurrection, we’re told explicitly that “we do not yet see all things subject to him” which is God’s way of saying that it snows in April, May, even in July and August if you live in the high country of vibrant faith.
You’ll be cold alright. The ice will inflame your heart with a longing for God’s divine fire. As a result, precisely because of the storm, you’ll know facets of God’s character you’d never have otherwise seen, and grow in confidence that God’s trajectory is assured, that we are, indeed, moving “from glory to glory”.
Is it snowing in your life just now? Know that underneath it all, the strong juice of Christ’s resurrection life is working its relentless purposes toward peace, beauty, hope, and joy.
O Lord of all seasons
We thank you for the inevitability of spring, for the hope found in the cycles of renewal that reminds us of where history is heading. Grant that we might be people of hope in spite of the storms that blast us, knowing that through it all, your life is filling us, changing us, and making us fruitful.
When Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem just before his crucifixion he wept and said regarding the people he loved, “if you knew the things which make for peace…” but they didn’t. And we don’t either much of the time.
We know the Bible, the words on scroll, know it like the back of our hands. But the Bible doesn’t bring peace. Neither does institutional religion, your 401(k), a great alarm system, life insurance, or enough guns in your house or your government to obliterate every enemy. Have these things or don’t have them; that’s your call—but know that they’re not what brings peace.
Peace, we saw last time, is a person. But there’s a bit more to it than that, because we can sit around and read or argue about Jesus all day without enjoying peace. Some of the most religious people I know, in fact, are some of the most anxious, fearful, argumentative people anywhere.
This is because we all have the need to move beyond some disembodied concept of Jesus into the reality of a mind, heart, and body progressively renewed, liberated, healed, and transformed by the actual presence of the living Christ. This is what happened to peace people in the Bible, like the woman at the well, and the other one caught in adultery and then freed from the religious talking heads who were ready to kill her. I don’t need a religious system; I need Christ, the Prince of Peace, changing both the way I view the world and changing me.
Here are more steps forward for those wrestling with anxiety, body image issues, fear of rejection, fear of the future, debilitating anger towards some ‘other’, or a sense of shame with its attendant fear of being discovered:
Believe by faith that Christ is with you. We’re not talking about trying to conjure up mystical feelings here. We’re talking about affirming in prayer (whether written or spoken) your belief, by faith, that Christ is with you, living in you, filling you with all he is, so that you might become all you’re created to be. “Thank you that you live in me” is a great place to start. This gratitude doesn’t answer every question about evolution, sexual morality, or the causes of human suffering in the world, but the good news is that it doesn’t need to. If you think waiting ’til you have the world figured out is a precondition for faith or peace, you’ll wait forever to start living outside your head, and doubts, and questions. If you need help with this, you might consider 02: Breathing New Life into Faith as a resource.
Take comfort in Christ’s presence. When we were climbing a klettersteig in Austria last summer, a good friend became frightened, then she froze up, afraid to take the next move. Not only is fear unpleasant; it consumes energy, and quickly her muscles were weakening, further contributing to anxiety, further weakening her body in a downward spiral. That’s when my mountain guide friend moved to be with her, gave her some encouraging words, and roped her in, tying her directly to himself and assuring her that, even if she fell, she’d be safe.
That, apparently, was all she needed, and soon she was back on the move, confidently climbing the rest of the way to the top. The assurance of someone who knew the ropes and knew the way was enough. It was a beautiful picture of Christ who promised to be “with us always, even to the end of the age”. To the extent that we believe this, the comfort and strength of it become realities. This isn’t magic; it’s the reality that we find comfort in the strength of the other; parent, mountain guide, protector. My hope is that you’d be able to discover this aspect of Christ as real, for without it we live as if we’re on our own, like sheep without a shepherd.
Take comfort in the end of the story – We’re in the middle of the story right now, and there are traffic jams and bad medical news, breakups and our own moral failings. We’re a thick soup of faith and doubt, glory and loss. Bad news breaks in and our fragile peace evaporates. This push and shove of doubt and faith, success and failure, horrific evil presenting itself in the world, with infinite love in the midst; all of it can be a bit much at times. We see both sides, perhaps, but grow tired of evil triumphing o so much of the time. How can we know peace in a world where hell seems to win so often?
Jesus took comfort in the end of story. He spoke of the sufferings of this world as birth pains which would eventually give way to full healing. There are powerful moments in film that capture this well, like reunion scenes in the Lord of the Rings and the Pianist.
God pulls the curtain back on history and shows us a future banquet where there’s great food, peace, and “death swallowed up for all time”. Every disease is healed, both emotional and physical. Every war over. Good food and wine speak of matchless beauty and abundance.
The audacious claim of God is that this is where history is heading. Believe it or don’t, but without a hope along these lines, I’d be finished. My world would shrink into the pursuit of trivial pleasures which I’m sure would eventually become addictions and destroy me. That’s not how everyone would cope, but its how I would. Bold faith in a better story—that’s what keeps me going.
Thank God there’s a different ending saturated with hope and healing, and a companion whose presence brings wisdom, strength, comfort, a new start in the wake of every failure, and bursts of joy and gratitude that seem to come out of nowhere. This whole package, I believe, is called peace—and it’s available for those who are willing to learn the reality of Christ’s presence.
Religion is over-rated. Peace that blossoms out of intimacy with Christ, though, is a different story entirely.