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.
Sometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story. Here’s mine, explaining why
Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.
I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now. Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family. He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony. And music in our house? “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana. Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.
The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. God only knows why, but dad loved that piece. He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter. Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music. At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both. My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums. I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums. He was perfect on the rhythm test.” I smiled. Mom frowned. Dad said yes. By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist. I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things: Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!
Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop. My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small. Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen. There were certain pieces: “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen. What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.
Then dad died during the World Series of 1973. Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it. Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?” He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened. There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.” I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe. The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.
A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school. Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often. Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful. During Messiah, though, I never brought a book. Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song. Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible. That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore. Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it. With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture. The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.
SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 – It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more. To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic. Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood. I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone. I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it. Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends. I’ll go.
It’s a matinee, the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more. Walkers. Wheelchairs. I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges. I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.
The play itself is masterfully delivered. It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy. God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation. If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling! I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings. But there’s more…
I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words. He’s known rejection, loss, shame. These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations. Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force. I was rejected, but so was Christ! Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path. I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker. I see a child with a disability. And the words are there, as people rush by: “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you. Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.
That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again. Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors). Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.
Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball. Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God. Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1. But O the One! Hallelujah!
If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.
My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door! A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen. Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together! (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)
To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there. Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car. This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes! I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out. The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!
We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing. After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.
Does music do that to you? Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful? Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.
Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important. Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart. God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.
In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.
Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory. As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:
It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School. We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades. We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”. I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe. I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation. I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.
I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken. This is the song sung at the special chapel service. “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…” That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”
The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there. I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing. I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.
The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary. We were growing older and knew it. Friends were dying, and parents. Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:
I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…
Indeed. I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.
There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday
Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:
And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning
Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over
I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am. When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.
And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains” because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”
I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered. It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!
There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments – after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer. Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”. As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!
What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you? And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude? Smells? Food? Places?
“The key word for methodical training of spirituality is gratefulness“ – David Steindl Rast
Every August, in my normally green part of the world, the earth looks tired. Fresh, vibrant, variegated shades of green have been drained into shades of dust. Grass is tired. Trees are tired. Spring and early summer have been wonderful, fruitful, beautiful, but it’s over.
Sadly, I hear the same sentiment again and again these days, with respect to marriages, vocations, our nation’s strength and politic, and yes, even faith itself. There is, it seems, a collective weariness all around us. When anger, fear, and anxiety are added in, we’re looking at a dangerous cocktail! The “dog days” of summer are hounding us at every turn.
This “weariness”, this “loss of vibrancy” though, is utterly different from the vision of faith life articulated in the scriptures. The prophet Isaiah speaks of those who will “run and not be weary…walk and not faint” or the “rivers of living water” which Jesus promises will burst from our souls when we make him the spring from which we quench our deepest thirsts. These sages offer a picture of strength in perpetuity, well into old age. I think of my friend, Major Ian Thomas who, in his nineties, was still opening his Bible with pen in hand, listening, marking, praying, learning. There’s MLK, who’d get up again and again after being beaten, threatened with countless letters of hate mail and verbal curses, jailed, beaten again, and yet again. He’d get back up and press on. Wilberforce, in his determination to end slavery in the British Empire faced similar resistance, less physical but nonetheless relentless. And of course, there’s an anonymous army out there of people who keep showing up, living into that glorious exhortation from Ecclesiastes: whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
This kind of faith longevity never happens by accident, any more than someone just “happens to run a marathon” or “happens to summit Mount Rainier” (“I don’t know how it happened Claudia, we started out for a little walk around the paved path by the parking and lot and decided to just keep going – suddenly we were on the summit enjoying the 80 mile per hour winds, life sucking oxygen deficit from altitude, and severe sunburn”) No, things that are meaningful always require some intentionality.
Yes, it turns out that the life of faith, like all meaningful lives, requires some training. David Steindl Rast explains this (in this favorite book) when he writes, “Genuine spiritual practice will inevitably include training of the body, since after all we are not disembodied beings….Since spirituality is aliveness at all levels, spiritual progress must be measured not only by increasing mental awakeness, but also by bringing the body’s spirited vigor up a few notches. The key word for methodical training in this kind of spirituality is gratefulness.”
He goes on to explain that the word gratitude comes from “gratis”, which means, “what is freely given”. The reality is that, in spite of our trials, in spite of the political upheaval, anger, and uncertainties, in spite of the realities of oppression, racism, terror, and violence, good gifts continue to be poured out on us. Every. Single. Day.
Paying attention to these gifts, or ignoring them, shapes our spirits, and ultimately our outlook on life. As I presently preach through Exodus, I’m reminded of the history God’s people experienced in moving through the wilderness. They had food, freely and miraculously provided. They had water. They had shoes which never wore out during the whole forty year journey. They had guidance, every second it was needed. Gift after gift was theirs.
Instead of joy, though, their journey was a perpetual exercise in complaining: “The food’s no good. The water’s no good. The leadership stinks. We don’t like the leader’s family. Who does this leader think he is, trying to lead us?” It went on like this for forty years, with the cup perpetually empty due to the fact that the whining created so many leaks that the gifts of grace quickly evaporated in their litany of complaints.
It’s in our nature to whine, to feel entitled, to complain that life isn’t aligned perfectly with our desires as seen in this, a favorite clip of mine. This posture of what the apostle Paul calls “grumbling” in this passage, is the natural fruit of not practicing gratitude. Put another way: The means to overcome a posture of whining is always the same: practice gratitude.
It shouldn’t be hard. It just requires paying attention. David Steindl Rast says, “Day and night gifts keep pelting down on us. If we were aware of this, gratefulness would overwhelm us. But we go through life in a daze.
His solution? “Every night I note in a pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been consciously thankful.”
My solution: #100daysofgratitude as a means of kickstarting the spiritual discipline of giving thanks. We need this now, in this political season, more than we ever have before. So…
JUMP IN… call today (August 3rd) your day 1, or join with me and make it your day 2. Then, every day, post to your instagram or facebook or whatever, a declaration of gratitude along with the hashtag #100daysofgratitude You can then share in the joy of others on the journey by searching that hashtag and finding out that, indeed, the world and much in it, is a gift from God. Don’t sweat skipping a day. Better to fall and get up again than fall and then sit in a pool of self-condemnation.
Disciplines like these are life giving and teach us that every single day there’s a cause for gratitude.
I hope you’ll join me. I know you’ll be richer if you do.