Note to reader: In my previous post I offered an overview of various values and priorities that are taking “the front seat” for me this year. They’re prominent because they’re needed, both in my own life and in this moment in history. In the coming posts, I’ll be unpacking each of these elements one by one, beginning with this post about establishing a rule of life. Here’s a sample from my just released republication of my first book. It’s now under the title of Breathing New Life into Faith: Ancient Spiritual Practices for the 21st Century. The book has new chapters and updated chapters, and largely syncs with the recent sermon series “Sustainable Faith: Soil Care for the Soul”, available free on itunes podcasts. (making a great duo for small group study) Here’s to the adventure of transformation awaiting each of us in 2018!
Whether it’s Beauty and the Beast and the transformation of relationship, A Christmas Carol and the transformation of values, or The King’s Speech and a king’s movement from fear to courage, stories of change for the better inspire and resonate with our deepest longings. This is because something deep inside all of us realizes that the world, and we ourselves as individuals can be better. At an even more fundamental level, these desires for upward movement resonate because transformation is the central good news that Jesus brings us. “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly” is how Jesus put it one day when talking with a crowd. Later, Paul would say it this way: “He [God] made him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, in order that we might become the very righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). Our destiny is to become nothing less than “the righteousness of God,” which means that God’s desire is that justice, mercy, hospitality, peacemaking, generosity, and hope pour through our very being so that those in our lives can be blessed. That same Paul would tell us that we’re called to swim upstream against the prevailing currents of culture, not being conformed to the dominant taboos and mores, but being “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2).
How? We’ll start by saying that the narrative of culture won’t get us there. We’re increasingly stressed out, addicted, anxious, lonely, and afraid. It appears that wealth and hyper-connectivity aren’t providing a pathway to the lives of peace, intimacy, and meaning. Jesus compared our life journeys to walking, and suggested that we’re often standing in front of two doors. One door is huge, well-lit, inviting, and the masses are clamoring to get through it. The other door is small, unassuming, and a bit “out of the way.” Jesus has an opinion about this choice: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). It’s as if Jesus is telling us that defaulting to conventional assumptions won’t get us where we want to go, and won’t enable us to build the life for which we’re created.
A crusty prophet of old hinted at the same mentality, using a road metaphor, rather than gates or doors. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16)
All of us could use a little more rest in our lives, or so it seems at least. This picture is painted by Jeremiah and Jesus, who shares a similar message, when he says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The promise is that those who are weighed down by carrying heavy burdens will be able to find rest if they can develop a consistent and real relationship with Christ (hence the phrase “learn from me” in the same invitation). A consistent and real relationship with Christ, though, is like any relationship that’s going to be consistent and real. Relationships take time and require the development of habits.
The process of developing spiritual habits on the ancient path has been called the creation of a rule of life throughout the history of the church. At the end of this book, there’s a tool that will help you in creating your own rule of life, and such a creation is precisely where everything we’ve considered has been leading. So let’s dive in and consider the what, why, and how, of that ancient path called “the rule of life.”
What is a rule of life?
A rule of life is your declared intention regarding the habits you seek to make real in your daily life. Jesus, for example, gathered with other worshippers on the sabbath, not just when he felt like it, or if the weather was just right. According to Luke 4:16, Jesus gathered with others “as was his custom.” He had a habit of worshipping with others. Habits are brilliant, because once they become a natural part of our lives, they bring both order to our time use, and free our minds for other pursuits, as mental energy is no longer wasted on decisions. They’re already made because you’ve developed habits!
God is simply telling us that what we already know to be true physiologically is also true spiritually: “use it or lose it!” The challenge is that we also know from history that the default for us as fallen humans is to stop using it. We stop exercising. We stop eating mindfully. We stop praying. We stop taking the stairs. We stop. Develop life-giving practices so that they become habits, and they strengthen and multiply. Neglect them, and they atrophy and decay.
In addition to habits, your rule of life will consist of an intention to fan certain attitudes from a tiny spark into a full, raging fire. Attitudes are different than habits, in that they’re more a way of looking at and responding to the world. They could almost be called values, and they’re fanned into flame by putting them in front of you on a regular basis. Our minds are renewed and transformed by choosing wisely day after day: contentment over consumerism, hospitality over isolation, silence over noise. For example, by being mindful of Christ’s hospitality and care for people who are weary and downtrodden, I’m sensitized to the practice of hospitality, and this changes the way I relate to people.
Intentionally choosing to build certain habits and affirm certain attitudes is what it means to build a rule of life. One author writes that a rule of life serves as a framework for freedom – not as a set of rules that restrict or deny life, but as a way of living our vocation alone and in community. It is rooted in Scripture, pointing always to Christ, and in the words of Saint Benedict, it is “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
Why is a rule of life important?
One of the most famous parables in the Bible is the story about the seed and the sower. “A farmer went out to sow his seed” is how it begins, and by the end of the tale we discover that not all the seeds reached their full potential. The seed, though, was never the problem; it was the soil. Too many rocks. Too many thorns. Not enough depth. It’s a powerful tale, because later in the Bible we’re told that “His seed abides in us.” The astonishing reality is that nothing less than the life of the resurrected Jesus has found a home “in us.” This means that His seed, if allowed to grow, will find unique expression through each of our lives, so that the joy, hope, mercy, justice, sacrifice, love, and generosity of Christ can continue to be revealed in this dark and broken world. Each of us has a part to play, and when we do this, we’re living the lives for which we’re created!
Some people recoil at the word “rule,” because they believe that since we’re saved by grace, there’s actually nothing we need to do other than receive what God has freely given. My response: “Yes. Just receive the seed, the same way soil receives the seed.” What farmer do you know who plants seeds without preparing the soil? The reality is that the seed of Christ’s life is God’s rich gift to us; the life is in the seed, the growth is in the seed, and the fruit is in the seed. Farmers don’t randomly toss seeds out from the window of their houses and say, “There’s really nothing more I can do, because it’s all about the seed.” Rubbish. Of course there’s no fruit without the seed. But there’s no fruit in your life without the union of seed and soil, and who needs to take responsibility for the soil that is your soul? You do! Your habits and attitudes will determine the quality of the soil, and hence the fruitfulness of Christ’s seed flowering in your life, so that you can enjoy the kind of life for which you were created, a life overflowing with meaning, joy, and love.
Soil care happens. Either we’re fortifying the soil through life-giving habits and attitudes, or we’re allowing rocks, weeds, and thorns to choke the seed by neglecting soil care habits. The whole project is a lot like exercise; sometimes energizing, sometimes not so much. And yet, by faith, I’ve come to believe that it’s always valuable. Now the question is much less “How was my time of Bible reading?” because I know, through experience, that what matters isn’t the particular experience of any single day. It’s the trend line that counts.
Soil problems in the physical worlds stem from neglect of the elements that produce long-term value in the soil in favor of policies and practices that provide instant gratification and short-term profit. The results are clear to everyone, yet everyone keeps neglecting the future in favor of the immediate. Sound familiar? It’s not just a soil problem. It’s a soul problem.
How do we care for the soil of our souls? I’m glad you asked!
I’ve noticed on my social media feeds that lots of people are happy to see 2017 disappear. There’s been more than enough killing, lying, inappropriate touching, de-regulating, threatening, boasting, and mocking to last a lifetime, or longer. Like the snows where I live though, “it shows no signs of stopping…” and so I’m spending a bit of time today pondering how I’ll live in 2018. Yes, there’ll be goals and plans, but before that, I’m more convinced than ever that there needs to be priorities and values. It’s been quite some time since we’ve collectively entered a year with such high levels of cynicism and mistrust, and the temptation in such times is to retreat from our broken world into the pursuit of our own personal peace and prosperity. Tired of relational tensions with people of differing political or theological views, we simply shrink our world down to a more controllable size.
The problem, of course, is that this runs counter to the exhortation of Jesus who reminds us that we are light, and as such we’re made to shine into the darkness. We are salt, and as such we’re called to bless, serve, and tell the truth so that we can contribute to the well-being of the place where we live. Like Frodo, many of us wish we lived in better times, easier times. But the word from Gandalf rings true, no matter when and where we live. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us” – to which I’d add, “and before we DO anything by way of vision and strategy, we need to decide what kind of person we’re going to BE by way of values and priorities.
Here’s my list of values and priorities which I’m using so that the light will shine and the salt will be salty in 2018:
I’m valuing my Rule of Life habits – I taught a series this past fall at the church I lead about the timeless spiritual disciplines that enable the seed of Christ’s life to flourish in the soil of our hearts (the whole series is available on apple’s podcast site – see “sustainable faith” series). My next post will be about how to build a rule of life in hopes that you’ll join me on the adventure of releasing the light of Christ more fully in our world by caring for our souls.
I‘m going subterranean – Earlier in 2017 I made a little leadership pyramid for some of my senior staff, which I’ll share with you sometime in January. The basic point of it was to show how most of what I read about leadership seems to focus on the top half of the pyramid, the visible part of our lives, which has to do with priorities, tactics, and strategies, all with an eye toward achieving goals. This is all well and good, but the burnout rate among leaders leads me to believe that before we address these things, there are other things we should be addressing, things that are invisible to the public, but foundational to living the life for which we’re created. In 2018 I’m going to do the needed subterranean work so that the visible fruit will be both meaningful and sustainable.
I’m seeking my flow – I read “Flow” in 2017, a popular book about maximizing human performance. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the book because it’s longer than it needs to be, but there are some principles in it that I’ll share in an upcoming post that have helped me be fully present with whatever I’m doing, whether work, conversation, exercise, writing, photography, everything. When I’m in the flow state, my inner critic dies down, I’m more creative, and time flies by! Hours feel like minutes, and I’m usually at my best during these flow times. I believe that contemporary psychology is actually in pursuit of something Jesus spoke of in several places, as I’ll share in my post.
I’m focusing on my gifts – “Stir up the gift that is in you! Be devoted to (your gifts) so that your progress might be evident to all…” are two ways Paul the apostle spoke of this. As I grow older and come to see the inevitability of the finish line, I’m increasingly filled with a desire to spend as much time as I can doing the things I’m best at. It’s a matter of stewardship, of taking care of what God’s given you. In an upcoming post, I’ll write about how people find their gifts, and how liberating it is to focus on them.
I’m going holistic – Sleep is a spiritual matter. When the Bible says “above all else, guard your heart”, it just might be possible that God is telling us to pay attention to our physical heart, because our heart indicators are often revealing the wisdom or foolishness of our life choices. Prayer is a physical matter, affecting not only the spirit, but the physical heart, sleep patterns, and emotional well being. Exercise of the body affects the spirit. Exercise of the spirit strengthens the mortal body.
I’m cultivating curiosity – This article in the Harvard Business Review talks about the challenge of turning people with leadership potential into successful leaders. What is the characteristic that shows up most consistently as a predictor of success in developing leaders? Curiosity! It trumps engagement, determination, and insight as the quality most consistently present and needed! For this reason, I’ll be posting about how to develop curiosity in yourself and others.
I’m living like each day matters – “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver asks this marvelous question in her poem “The Summer Day” and it reminds me that we’ve only this one life in which to bless, serve, use our gifts, and make a difference. My hope is to plow through the dense and destructive news cycle, staying informed without allowing myself to get derailed by it, and simply getting on with doing what I’m called to do. I hope you’ll join me in the adventure that is 2018.
Expect more detailed posts about each of these elements in the days ahead. As always, I welcome your thoughts.
It’s this simple:
1st place (random drawing) wins 2 copies of “The Map is not the Journey” and one copy of “The Colors of Hope” (winner of a Christianity Today “Best Book” award in 2011)
2nd place wins one copy of “The Map is not the Journey”
Thanks, in advance, to all who are able to share their reviews of “The Map is not the Journey”.
And here’s hoping your journey throughout the Advent season is filled with the peace and joy of Christ.
The political and theological left and right have become so tired of both shooting each other and being shot at, that there’s little stomach left for honest conversation about ethics, faith, and the relationship of faith to politics. So when you go over the river and through the woods to enjoy a family gathering at Grandma’s house this coming Thursday, what will you talk about? Here’s a little guide to help:
Here’s hoping you embrace your identity as exile so you can relax and live into the confidence of your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. May you find beauty there, and hope, and may the light of your joy and gratitude radiate at your Thanksgiving table, wherever you are.
“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 bed – In 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
A note to readers: I’ve been on a bit of a “blogattical”, which is my word for a blogging sabbatical, post election. I’ve been silent, not because I have nothing to say, but because the volume of rhetoric has been so amplified that it’s felt as if everyone’s talking and nobody’s really listening anyway. So I’ve been silent, seeking to live into James’ exhortation a bit more than usual: “be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger”. I think the “blogattical” will continue a bit longer, but with sporadic entries breaking the silence as appropriate, at least until Lent. The first breaking of the silence is today’s entry on lessons learned from Camp Andrews. Thanks for reading, and as always, I welcome both your feedback and your comments.
After a red-eye flight to Boston, and a chip shot from there to Philadelphia, I soon find myself at Sandy Cove, a wonderful conference center in Maryland where I’m privileged to speak for a few days to people who work for camps on the Atlantic coast. In the room of 200-300 guests, I know perhaps 3 people. I make my way to a random table and introduce myself. I discover that they are all employees of “Camp Andrews”, a camp with Mennonite roots, which leads to conversation about Fresno, and then Yosemite, and ultimately “the west”, where few of them have ever been. As the conversation develops I discover that these rural Mennonites, in Lancaster County, PA, are passionate about brining inner city youth to their small camp and introducing them to the outdoors and Jesus Christ. Youth for whom concrete and hip-hop are their common experience make their way to Camp Andrews for a week. Here they hear the night sounds of the forest, see stars, climb, learn of creation’s rhythms, learn of Christ’S love, and experience that love ‘in the flesh’ through the fine folks sitting at this table. They light up, all of them, when they speak of the work they do, of the lives that are changed, of how much they love exposing inner city kids to God’s books of text and creation, kids who know precious little of either.
My heart melts as I see their passion, and I leave the table realizing that this is likely the first time I’ve had a good long conversation at a meal table without talking about politics since about November 9th. It’s clear to me that they know their calling. They were doing it when Obama was in office. They’re doing it now. They’ll still be doing it after the mid-terms. “Whatever your hand finds to do… do it” Their camp’s not big. They’re not in headlines. They’re just getting on with their calling.
Most of the rest of us could take a cue from them. I say this because I’ve never in my life felt the mission of God’s people so shrouded in political fears and accusations. Evangelicals are alternatively gloating, angry, afraid, accusing, protesting, and counter-protesting, and all of it’s about the new Ceasar in town. The fruit of it? We the church are more divided than I’ve ever seen us, more accusatory of our own, more distrusting, more cynical. It’s a lot of sound and fury, and its created an environment where it’s easy to get clicks, but hard to contribute to the unity of Christ’s body.
What a joy to be reminded, by a humble, hard-working group from rural Pennsylvania, that there’s a third way. They’re not hand-wringing. They’re not gloating. They’re simply doing what they know they’re called to do. Ceasars come and go, and so, by the way, do nations. God’s kingdom work though? It’s always there, waiting to be done. You have a part, and so do I.
I can already hear the accusations that this is disengagement. Here’s my response: 1000 inner city kids spend a life-transforming week in the woods each summer because of the work of these fine folk. If you want to call that disengagement, suit yourself. From my chair, they’re fulfilling the reality of I Corinthians 15:58 –
“…be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord”
We need to continually remind ourselves that while advocacy for the poor, the unborn, immigrants, and other people on the margins is always part of our calling, that same calling has never, ever been wed to a single political party, let alone a nation. The kings of this world are just that: kings of the this world. Proverbs rightly tells us that good kings make countries better and bad kings make them worse. But Jesus, also rightly, and profoundly, says, “My kingdom is not of this world” – so get on with working out your citizenship and calling in your eternal kingdom, whether that means marching, or skiing with your neighbors, or making good art, or crossing social divides.
Each of us have a calling, and that we need to rise up and do it day after day. For the vast majority of us our calling won’t change, no matter who’s in power.
We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn. In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.
With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert. This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:
1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.
2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider. She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean. And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah. She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.
3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.
4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.
5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.
6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.
7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.
7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment
All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party. Rich or poor. Jew or Gentile. Slave or free. Man or woman. Married or those with failed marriages. Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.
This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!
I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people. One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”. This isn’t because crossing over is easy. It’s not. It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.
The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them. God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation! Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall. This is a gift.
Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.
Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:
For all people!
There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you. But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!
I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership. The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected. He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world. “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.
It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself. I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”. I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world. Well connected? I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures. I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.
I left class that day wanting to quit. I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job. When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:
Well connected? He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.
Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.” Isaiah 53:2
Agressive and ambitious? There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on. In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life: “What is the will of the Father?” When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds. When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone. When it led to the cross, he went there.
Wealthy? “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.
There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected. It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.
This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.
The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters. I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on. My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).
Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle. Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t. Some could be models, they’re so striking. Then there are the rest of us. Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.
Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26
For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.
There’s a fun little mystery in the Bible. Way back in Genesis, ten brothers are starving and decide to travel down to Egypt because there’s grain for sale there. Little do they know that the man from whom they’ll be buying grain is their little brother, hated as the favored one and sold by them into slavery, over two decades earlier. They show up and he’s changed of course, and speaks a different language now, so they don’t recognize him. They buy grain, but before heading home, the little brother sneaks all the money back into their sacks so that on the way home they discover that they had the grain, but didn’t pay for it. To say there were dismayed would be an understatement, because from the very beginning of time, we’ve all known that “you get what you pay for” and that “there’s no free lunch”. There are a million other ways we get the message too: from demanding parents who shame us when we fail, to performance reviews that populate our employment files with warnings. The best things in life are earned.
This little story of free bread, though, tells us that there’s a different set of rules in God’s economy. God is showing us that the things we need most fundamentally in our lives are not bought, ever. They can only be received as gifts. That’s why later a form of bread will show up on the desert floor when a nation is wandering through it on their way to their new home. Centuries after that, Isaiah will speak of bread that is only available “without cost”, and then Jesus will declare that he is giving us his flesh as “the bread, for the life of the world”.
Give, give, give, means that there can be only one response. Receive, receive, receive. We can’t earn the gift that is Christ. We’ll never be able to repay or reciprocate. We can only receive, like little children. My granddaughter, who just turned one, will be with us this Christmas and I promise you that she’ll have no problem receiving gifts without any guilt. There’ll be no, “Rats! Grandpa gave me some overalls and I’ve nothing for him.” There’ll be a pattern to her Christmas day: receive, enjoy, repeat.
For God’s sake, all of us could stand to become children again vis a vis our relationship with God and Christ: receive; enjoy; repeat.
That requires a radical reorientation from the performance world that is often the rest of our lives, and the way to get there is to recognize that, though we’ve likely earned a bit in our lives through the sweat of our brow, the best gifts that we’ve received are the free ones. We’ve been forgiven, I hope, by a parent, spouse, or friend. We had a flat tire, and someone stopped to help. We were lonely, and a friend dropped by, unannounced. These little reminders put me in the frame of mind to see that the things I need most – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, the capacity to forgive and serve… all these things can’t be bought, can’t even be created through some sort of psychological ‘cross fit’ self improvement program. These things stem from eating the bread of life, and can only be received freely, as the gift it is.
During the days between now and Christmas, I want to share some reflections with you about the many gifts that are part of the One Gift that is Christ. I’m reflecting on these gifts because, more than ever, I see the deep divisions and violence in our world. We who claim to follow Christ are at grave risk of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution if we aren’t careful to maintain what Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”. When he writes about maintaining that, he articulates that it’s eminently easy to be “led astray”. It’s passive language because the reality is that there are strong currents that will simply carry us along unless we’re diligent to recognize the danger of the direction and swim against it.
I’m increasingly convinced that the recognition of dangerous cultural rip-tides isn’t achieved by being a cultural expert. Rather, what’s needed at a foundational level is a commitment to intimacy with Christ, for he alone is the fullness of wisdom. So what better way to prepare for the discernment that all of us will need in the coming year than by considering together the riches of the gift that is Christ. Unwrapping the glories of Christ is a bit like unwrapping a present that has another present inside, and then yet another, on and on, as we discover different facets of the gift that is Christ. Each day I’ll hope to offer a short post about a facet of the gift that is Christ and why each gift matters in 2016. I hope you’ll join me, and find encouragement in the practical value of Christ, today more than ever!
Gift #1 – Christmas means God sees and hears us.
There’s a marvelous little passage in Exodus 3:7 which declares that God heard the cry of the sons of Israel and saw that they were being oppressed, so he “has come down to deliver them”. This was neither the first nor last time God “came down” in response to the suffering of this fallen world because it’s in God’s character to “see and hear” the suffering of humanity.
We may wonder if God is listening these days. When I see the tragedies in Aleppo, the suffering of immigrants around the world, and the rise in fascist and racist ideologies, we wonder if God’s listening at all. We wonder too, in the children’s oncology ward. Who is this God who sees and hears, and why is God not intervening, God’s so good and so powerful?
It’s a fair question, and the answer is found in the name Immanuel, which means “God with Us”. What makes the “good news” good isn’t that we’re offered escapist immunity from the affects of living in a fallen world. Rather, it’s that God has promised to walk with us in the midst of everything – the suffering and the joys, and the sickness and the healing, the living and the dying. We’ve been told that life will run the gamut of experiences, that there’s “a time for everything”.
That God has been “with me” is one of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed in my life. It’s meant that when I lost my dad, I’d eventually come to discover that I wasn’t as alone as I thought. It meant that when I changed majors and loaded my 68 Ford Mustang to drive north to Seattle, though I’d never been north of Sacramento in my life, and knew not a single person in my new city, God was with me. It meant that while riding a midnight train from Northern India to New Delhi, a train on which I found myself because of a riot in the city where I was teaching, I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone in my berth when I was alone, and I wasn’t alone when I woke in the middle of the night to see six Indian faces staring at me.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not faced the depths of living in this fallen world in anywhere near the same degree as many others. I’ve tasted enough of it, though, to know that the companionship of Christ is, at one level, all I need in this life. And I’ve known those who’ve walked much deeper, darker valleys than mine. They too, have shared with me that this companionship has been a source of healing, sustenance, peace, and eventually for most, joy.
“God with us” begins with God seeing our suffering and hearing our cry. This is the first gift. God knows. God cares. Rejoice. Immanuel. God IS with us.