Category Archives: questions

The Cultural Faith Crises of Burnt/Raw pancakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am writing this?   

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behavior needs to match mission, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Lord Christ; 

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

Amen 

 

Mythical Freedom and Real Freedom

What_does_freedom_really_mean.jpgYesterday we celebrated freedom here in America.

But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free?  The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies.  So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ.  They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.

He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

A freedom tied to obedience

These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute.  As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.”  Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”.  The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom.  There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.

What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong.  If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?

Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love.  We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny.  This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.

I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers.  They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.

A freedom tied to external revelation 

One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed.  “If you want to own a gun, own a gun.  If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion.  If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.”  What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone.  Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being.  What if you want my wife?  Or my children?  Or my stuff?

So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”

Ah, but there’s the problem.  One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone.  Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine  rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server.  But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.

The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage.  Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul.  “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you”  Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom.  Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.

Simple right? We’re all free.  Yes, free.  And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom.  How’s this working for us?  Not so well, I’d argue.

What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke.  Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing.  My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps.  Freedom?  Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway.  That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.

Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable.  Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.

In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more.  But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.

The Illusion of Freedom 

When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children.  We have never been anyone’s slaves…”  In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?”  I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome.  Before that it was Greece.  Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire.  Before that it was Babylon.  Before that it was Assyria.  Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.

We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.

But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need.  This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”.  And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough.  Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority.  That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.

“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”

 

When shoot happens… what happens next?

The latest shooting is over.  Very soon it will fade like invisible ink, further hardening our collective consciousness against a despicable form of violence against innocence.

By now, unless the shooting is personal, we Americans know the drill quite well.  Our president will stand up and talk about the need for a change in gun policy.  The president of the NRA will get up and talk about the 2nd ammendment, and mental health. The press and internet will explode with arguments and stats, and mentions of Australia and Honduras.  The left and right will talk loudly, with lots of inflammatory language, but neither side will do much listening.  There will be news clips about the victims, the shooter, his mental health (it’s almost always a male), and his family (in this case his mother was a gun rights advocate who kept a loaded AR 15 and AK 47 in her house.  There’ll be stirring pictures of the memorial service, and a nod to some heroic figure who put themselves in harm’s way.

Then, after a week, everyone will get back to living their lives as if nothing happened.  Then it will happen again.  And again.  And again.  This one appears like it will be #298 on the list once it’s updated; more than one a day, in the most civilized nation in the world.

All this is tragedy enough.  But the bigger tragedy, in my opinion, is the peace we’ve made with this ongoing scar and tragedy, so visible to the rest of the world, and yet becoming an increasingly evident blind spot in our collective national consciousness. We seem to “get over it” in short order, so that this will become just one more thing to which we adapt.  Like late term abortion, food policies that are killing both people and the land, childhood obesity, and homelessness, human trafficking, and mass shootings are quickly becoming the new normal.

According Walter Brueggeman, the prophetic role during the time of the Old Testament was to awaken hope for something different.  This was important than, as now, because dysfunction had become the new normal.  Without such hope, we accept our new normal, and then we retreat into tiny survivalist mentalities whereby our personal safety, long life, and well being become paramount.  Of course we all know what Jesus had to say about that kind of mind set right?

I don’t have solutions.  I know the challenge of putting the genie back in the bottle, even if our country wanted things to change.  I understand a belief in self defense and defense of family.  I understand the rhetoric for both sides, and have been around this discussion long enough now to know that there’s no simple way forward.  The right and left and mostly preaching to echo chambers.  But most of all, I understand that the violence is systemic, and the status quo isn’t changing a thing.

For the love of God (and I choose the words, not as a saying, but intentionally because they mean something) I have a suggestion:  Can we please pray that the trend line of becoming numb to this kind of violence ends, and that we’re shaken awake to the tragedy this is? I say this because mourning is the soil out from which a vision for change will someday occur.

There’s much that’s right with our nation, and against the backdrop of Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and dozens of other locales, our challenge pales.  Still, this is our challenge, and it’s important that, as was prayed decades ago by the founder of World Vision, that “our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God”

Can we at least start there?  

Beauty and Brokenness – Living in the Tension

image

I’m happy to offer a repost today of something offered earlier this summer during my sabbatical because it seems so very appropriate during the holidays, when sometimes the tension between beauty and brokenness is so great we’re afraid we’ll snap.  Here are some observations about that tension and living in it.  Enjoy!

We’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world.  During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey.  These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter.   For these reasons, we pray, and pay attentionstep by step.

These prayers, though, are also very provincial.  They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family.  We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).

High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep.  Yes. This was round one.

We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assault, in a different direction.  We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in  St. Louis.  Bombing in Iraq?  Ukraine?  Syria?  Fires still burning.  Refugees.  And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide.  My God.  Is this the same world?

Yes.  The same world indeed.  What are we to make of the disparity between candle lit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in a place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?

My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price.  There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment.  The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a costvulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial.  That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.

But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college.  I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings, for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child, for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.

imageAll I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering.  Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened.  Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasywhether that takes the form of  porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.

Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear.  He knew, as Simone Weil also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our Creator.  “There’s a time for everything,” is how the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.

For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days.  We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold.  We pray, we’ll be safe.  We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people.  But, the Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us cry out once again, “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger for Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final. ”   Rilke

 

 

 

All I want for Christmas is: A Vision for Unity

It’s Advent, and that means there are daily reports on the success of our national goal to “shop ’til we drop”.  Black Friday’s off a bit from previous years, and the experts declared over the weekend that it was because more people would be shopping online, on “Cyber Monday”.  That also came and went, with less than expected results, and so now new theories are being spun, about people waiting for “super deals” closer to Christmas.  Whatever.  I no longer carebecause as a pastor, I have bigger concerns.

That’s because I live in a different world.  I live in a world where I know more and more people who are coming out of closet; they’re gay, Christian, and wanting to find the grace and acceptance of Christ in their churches.  I live in a world where black people love Jesus but also feel on the outside of things, not because of Ferguson, but because 400 years is a long time to be sub-humanized, bought and sold, denied the chance to vote, and o so much more, and they’re a bit tired of white people just telling them to “get over it” while the distrust continues.  I live in a world where women who have gifts of teaching and leadership can use them in lots of places, but still not in some churches.  I live in a world where people I know are deeply divided on how the church should respond to all kinds of things, including mental illness, poverty, and gun violence.

In all these matters, the church is divided, but not just divided, deeply fractured, as evidenced by blogs and discussions this past week about Ferguson, World Vision’s challenges earlier this year, and the inflamed language associated with any attempt at a good conversation around the issues of gun violence.

It’s this deeply divided faith world, with its attendant hateful, sarcastic, and derogatory language aimed at the other side, that’s the biggest issue on my plate these days.  This is because I serve in a church that has sought to live faithfully for many generations on the basis of this declaration:  In Essentials Unity.  In Non-Essentials Liberty.  In all Things Charity.

Finding unity seems harder and harder these days, because the list of essentials seems to be growing for most people.  Real people of faith need to be for gun control or against it; for same-sex marriage, or against it; for the police, or for Michael Brown.  And its vital these days that you not just be FOR or AGAINST but that do so with enough dogma that the true faith of those on the other side is called into question.

This is not only rubbish, but really very alarming to me for several reasons:

1.  Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 4:13 says we’ll keep growing “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” which implies (as reinforced here) that we’re not in a state of unity yet.  What’s more, that’s apparently OK, because Paul indicated that in this moment, we see through a glass darkly.  That means we don’t have perfect knowledge yet, so we’ll need to keep at this; keep dialoguing, growing, learning, praying.

2. Our division into self-referential communities kills our testimony because Jesus says that it’s our unity that is the best evidence that our faith and life in Christ is real.  There’s a unity that comes from uniformity of agreement on ALL things, but this is, at best, an ideal to which we aspire, rather than an experience we’ll be able to attain in this fallen world.  But there can be a unity that’s willing to say, “Look.  We don’t know all the answers about every doctrinal or ethical issue that comes from following Christ.  But we do know this much:  Jesus is Lord.  He’s the hope for this shattered world.  He’s the One we’re committed to proclaiming, loving, obeying, and serving.”   Living through this lens, World Vision phone workers wouldn’t have been sworn at and been the objects of cruel hate in the wake of their initial decision last spring.

3. Our self-referential communities allow us to prematurely think we have the moral high ground because, in our smaller worlds of Fox News, or MSNBC, or whatever is the denominational equivalent, we’re in an echo chamber where all our reasoning, assumptions, and conclusions are airtight.  As long as we stay inside the echo chamber, we’ll be happy, resting in the delusion that our way is, and always will be, the right way.

How can we approach unity?

1. Get out more – meet people different than you.  (By the way, one of the very best reasons to travel.)

Our view of things is all good until we actually meet a person with a different view who, just like us, loves Jesus, prays regularly, and desires nothing more than to be a vessel filled with the life of Christ.

Suddenly, we’ve meet the ones we vilified, and have come to see that we have more in common than we’d ever have guessed.  We see that we’d made a caricature of those whose view is different than ours, and that “the other,” looking at the world through a different lens, differs with us for reasons that (gasp) make sense.  We’re not persuaded, necessarily, to change our view, but having met the other, we find it harder to label them and shoot them.

2. Embrace the humble belief that you’re not yet perfect.

It’s not that we don’t believe in absolute truth.  It’s just that we don’t believe that we’ve yet understood it perfectly, communicated it perfectly, received it perfectly, because our understanding of the world is filtered through the lens of not only the Holy Spirit, but our fallen humanity.

A quick view of history reveals that there have been about a thousand blind spots among Christ followers.  We’ve wrongly predicted the date of Christ’s return at least 500 times, taught that blacks aren’t human, justified land theft and colonization, barred women from having a voice in the church, taught anti-semitism, persecuted Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Anabaptists, all in Jesus’ name.

I wonder what our blind spots our today?  If you say you don’t have any, then I already know your blind spot, before even meeting you:  it’s pride and self-righteousness.  So let’s relax and enjoy the dialogue, giving each other space to let Christ continue to teach us without doubting the authentic faith of the other who claims Christ as her own.

“Really?  How long should we do that….?”

“Until we all attain to the unity of the faith..”   which will take “a little while.”

 

 

After Failure – The next steps matter most. What to avoid and what to do.

I’m coming home next week “aware of a million failures”.  There are “church fails” in my city.  “Health care fails” in Texas.  “Personal failures” on the list of summits and huts I didn’t reach, chapters I’ve not yet written, spiritual habits I’ve not yet mastered.  My conversations these past weeks have largely been with people who are deeply aware of both their own failings and the failings of others, and who wonder what to do next.  That’s why I wrote this post. 

Failure isn’t really the main problem in this world.  There are remedies for failures, and often clear steps to take so that in the wake of failure our lives can be stronger, richer, more compassionate, and more honest than they ever might have been without failing at all.

So failure’s not the biggest problem any of us face.  The critical moments are the steps we take immediately after though.  It’s those steps that will become the main determinants of our future.  So here’s a quick and (I hope) practical guide, offering both critical steps to avoid and critical steps to take, after failure.

Steps to Avoid

Denial –  Rock climbing is nice because a fail is always an obvious failure.  It can be valuable and transformative, but it’s always a failure.  Nobody cheers when you fall.  I wish all of life were that easy because perhaps the biggest problem with respect to many failures is that we remain blissfully and intentionally unaware.  We’ve got a temper problem, or control problem, or abuse problem, or a drinking problem, but don’t see it.  In our own minds though, we’re just social drinkers, and have the guts to tell the truth when nobody else will, or to take control of things, or to put people in their place so that things can get done.

Any failure that remains hidden will be repeated over and over again until it becomes a deep part of our character.  This is the first and primary reason we’re a world of addicts and abusers.  If we could ever move beyond the denial stage,  we’d eventually do the beautiful and hard work of transformation, but until we overcome denial, we can’t overcome anything else.  This applies, of course, to persons and institutions.  A relentless commitment to uncovering reality, or “ground truth” as Susan Scott likes to say, is not the solution to anythingbut it’s surely the first step for everything.

Of course, it’s easier to see your failures than mine.  There’s no shortage of critics in this world.  That’s why I love David in the Bible.  His interest was in his own transformation when he prayed that God would search his heart and “reveal any unclean ways”.  Try praying that, and the remedy for failure will begin to work immediately!

Blame – Once I’ve embraced the reality of the situation, it’s vital that I own my part.  If it’s marriage, or church, or the corporate world, I’ll be sorely tempted to deflect my responsibility for the problem by blaming “circumstances beyond my control”.  You know the suspects:  spouse, board, pastor, co-worker, boss.

Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but our response to those circumstances is entirely ours.  We were free to leave and we stayed, or vice versa.  We were free to respond with grace, but we lashed out.  We were free to find comfort in some redemptive way, but we self-medicated with drugs, or porn, or drink, or shopping instead.  It happened.  Don’t blame the others.

Shame/Cynicism – For lots of Christ followers these twins are the biggest problems.  Though they’re not exactly the same thing, they both have the effect of taking us out of God’s story.  Embrace shame and you’ll say that you’re nothing but rubbish, and that God has nothing for you, and can’t/won’t use the likes of you.  Don’t believe it for two seconds.  A quick overview of the Bible shows us that some of the people most deeply involved in God’s story had also sold family members as slaves, slept with their daughter-in-law, committed adultery and murdered the husband, had a quick temper and rushed to judgement, doubted, had arrogance problems until their catastrophic failure forced confession etc., etc.  O yes.  God can use you.  Whether you stay in the game or go to the bench for a break is God’s prerogative, not yours.  But don’t preemptively bench yourselfyou may never get back in.

Steps to Take

Embrace – This is really the positive flip side of denial.  “Yes” we say, to ourselves if our failure is private, or to the one or ones we’ve hurt if public, “I failedI own it without excuses.”  You drank too much, or ate too much, or look back at your week and see that you didn’t pursue Christ, or exercise, or engage your neighbors in conversation, or whatever it was that you said you’d do and didn’t.

Own it.  In the Bible this is called confession, and we’re told it’s the key to moving forward, both with relationships, and in our own internal freedom.  I needed to do this again this morningand pray it will remain a lifestyle for the rest of my days.

Learn – This principle requires more space than a sub-point in a blog post, but it’s vital.  If you failed to a reach a goal, maybe it’s too big a goal and you need to adjust, or maybe it was just a bad week and you need to start fresh tomorrow.  If it’s some besetting sin like anger, drinking,  cynicism, or unhealthy sex, you need to discover why you go there; what are the triggers that move you, and how can you avoid them?

How can you build your life differently to favor transformation?  Do you need accountability?  Counseling?  A chat with a friend who’ll walk with you in pursuit of your transformation?  Someone to exercise with?  Find your next step and take it.

Receive – Receive forgiveness from Christ, and hopefully from others, if others are involved.  It’s vital to believe we’re forgiven because there’ll be a little shadow creature perched on your shoulder telling you that you are your failure, that you’ll never get over it, that you’re worthless rubbish and “why bother”all in an attempt to keep you stuck in your patterns and failure.  Give that voice the finger pleaseany finger you want, as long as the result is that you stand in the truth that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

Continue – I watched a little kid take an epic fall skiing a couple years ago.  I was heading up on the lift and I saw him lose control, fall, slide 150′ down the hill, scraping his face on ice the whole way, and then screaming as he lay there in pain.  I quickly got off the lift and skied down to see if I could help or call ski patrol.  By the time I got there, he was putting his skis on again and within seconds was off again, bombing down the mountain.

I thought to myself, “Learn from this, R.  This is how you fall and fail well.  Whatever else you do, you need to get up and carry on.” 

Please don’t misunderstand this critical last step.  I’m not suggesting that we simply proceed as if nothing’s happened.  Do that and we’ll just fall harder the next time.  There’s a time to leave your job; or your church; or your leadership position, or your abusive relationship.  The steps we’ll need to take in order to be free and really grow often require dramatic changes.

But, and here’s the key, they are changes toward transformation.   Wisdom will be able to identify the steps God has for us.  Leave your position.  Change your church.  File for separation and insist that your spouse get help precisely because you want a loving marriage rather than a shell.  Join a gym.  Find a program that limits your time on social media.  Whatever it is… do it.

The War of Fog – 3 truths for Living with Clarity in Zero Visibility

We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut.  We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward.  All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds.  Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car.  A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward.  Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us.  The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there:  The Lunarsee and Douglass Hut, our home for the night.

IMG_5962We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment.  This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant.  You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map.  We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.

Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good food, hot tea, wine, and reading time.  The hours pass quickly actually.  In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty.  There are guests sitting around IMG_5968talking, drawing, reading, playing games.  None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.

The fog lifted!  Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains.  People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this.   All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.

“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view.  There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!”  By the day after IMG_6093tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog.  “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment.”

IMG_4897 It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction.  It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment.  “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning.  They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is  fog.

Yes.  This is why they call it faith.  We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog.   What does this mean?

1.  It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.

2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with His strength, in spite of the fog of  brokenness and weakness

3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day

4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever.  It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.

Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)

“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”  For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him.  But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.  But we see him….!!

I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear.  This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it.   The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.

Two quotes speak to this powerfully: 

IMG_4927“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child.
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  Julian of Norwich

Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.

 

“A different plan” – Three Postures you need when Change Comes Knocking

IMG_4578
It was supposed to be the Cascades…

I spoke with a couple last week who lost their child to cancer at the age of six.  As we talked of loss, change and challenge, she reminded me that about 85% of the marriages where a child suffers a disability end in divorce.  This, I presume, is because of the tremendous gap between how we thought life would unfold, and how it actually unfolds.

Where’s your gap?  Job change, or joblessness?  Health challenges?  A relationship evaporating before your eyes?  Unexpected financial hardships?  Whatever the issue, our response is vital to our continued transformation, to our movement in the direction of joy, peace, wholeness.

The notion that we’ll escape these unforeseen changes is fantasy.  A quick glance through the Bible reveals otherwise.  Abraham left home.  Moses went home.  David became King, lost the throne because of his son’s coup, and then came back.  Let’s not forget the fallout from wars as sons were lost, families torn apart.  Job lost everything.  Peter changed vocations to follow Christ and was eventually martyred.  It’s not just that these people suffered.  It’s that they all lived in families that paid the price too.  Change comes knocking, and it opens the door whether you want to let it in or not   It’s what you do with it that matters (tweet this)

I’ve been thinking about this recently because this upcoming trip to the Alps, as amazing as it will be, wasn’t the original plan.  The plan, in less than two weeks, was to head down to southern Oregon and hike the Pacific Crest trail back home, or even further, to the Canadian border, if time permitted.

My friend’s paragliding death in the Alps eventuated in a change of plans, because he directed a Bible School with which I’m closely tied.  When the new director called and we chatted last September about the upcoming year, I knew I was to go over and help out.   So, two weeks from today, I’ll be teaching the Bible school and hiking with students high into the Alps.  My wife will be with me and we’ll separate from the students for a few days before meeting back up after hiking the “Bible smuggler’s Trail” (I’ll post about that later), speaking at graduation, and then beginning our long hike through the Alps.

The plan was solitude – The reality will be otherwise , we’ll find ourselves sleeping in bunkhouses and waiting for showers.

The plan was wilderness – The reality is that the Alps have been civilized for a thousand years, and so we’ll be learning more about the history of World Wars, religious wars, and tribalism, than we will about traveling through the wilds of our unoccupied Cascades.

The plan was to hang food in the trees so that bears can’t get to it.  Now we’ll be buying food at each hut, and it will be far better than the freeze dried stuff that would have been reconstituted each night in the wild.

It was going to be this… now it’s that.

It was going to be a life together.  Now there’s been infidelity and he/she doesn’t want to rebuild.  It was going to be comfortable retirement.  Now, after losing everything in the ’07 meltdown, I’ll be working into my 70’s.  It was going to be the lush green and mild climates of Seattle.  Now I’m living in Phoenix.  It was going to be a small, simple, rural ministry.  Now it’s urban, and complex, and 3500 people.

Yes, I know the illustration’s weak, because the choice between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Alps is like choosing between Filet Mignon and Copper River Salmon.  “All right God… I’ll go to the Alps!  Force me!”  Suffering?  Disappointment?  Get real.

Still, while a hike in the Alps isn’t, in the least, disappointing (how could it be?), it does require an adjustment, and the postures enabling us to adjust are, in the end, the same, no matter how joy filled or painful our unintended changes:

Availability – When God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, his answer is “Here I am”, a Hebrew word (Hineni) which implies availability and a willingness to embrace whatever God brings to us.  This stands in stark contrast a word Abraham could have used, “I’m here” (Poh) which would have meant:  “Tell me what you want me to do and then I’ll decide my answer.”

My wife sometimes says, “Will you do me a favor?” and though the right answer is “Yes”, I often blurt out “What do you want?”, as if to say that I don’t trust you enough to give a preemptive yes, because I’m afraid of what you’ll ask.  I wonder how much richer our lives would be if our posture, vis a vis the God who loves us, would be “Hineni” rather than “Poh”?

A phone call from Austria was all it took to set in motion a drastic change of plans.  All of us have had far more profound phone calls, from doctors, spouses, parents, that rocked our world.  Our willingness to inhale and embrace what’s on our plates rather than railing against the universe can make all the difference between a life of joy and bitterness.

Honesty – There was no mourning or loss over the change of plans, from Pacific Crest to Alps.  The same can’t be said for many other changes life brings.   The parents of the little girl who died of cancer, the wife of my friend who died paragliding the Alps, the other who lost his business; these are utterly unwelcome changes.  They’re a reminder that we leave in a world of dissonance as the chords of beauty, peace, and health, clash with the unwelcome intrusions of disease, loss, war, poverty, injustice.  We’re right to mourn, as Job teaches us, or David, or Jesus.

It’s no good pretending that unwelcome change is welcome, no good painting over it with some spiritual language about God being “all good – all the time”  God may be all good all the time, but this world is messed up.  So weep, for God’s sake, and your own.   This is the best way forward.

Acceptance and Gratitude – Acceptance and gratitude were layups for me with this whole “Alps instead of Cascades” plan.   In real life, though, change that forces its way through the door, ultimately requires a measure of acceptance if we’re to avoid shriveling up and becoming bitter people in the end.  Acceptance is born out of facing the reality that this intrusion is in my life.   Eventually, after a spouse dies, or we lose a job, or a house, or certainly with lesser intrusions, we say, “All right then… this is the way of it.  Let’s go.”  Fail to get there and you’ll spend the rest of your days in regret.

This acceptance, finally, leads to gratitude, not for the unwelcome change, but for the good that can and usually does come out of it.  Voices as diverse as Victor Frankl and Jesus Christ have taught us that, in the end, our gratitude is born from the faith that God is well able to bring beauty of ashes, hope out of despair, and a strange divine strength out of the darkest moments in our lives.  So we thank God, not for the change, but for what God will do because of it.

 

From Germany to Seattle – finding hope in the midst of grief

My oldest daughter is a Seattle Pacific Alum and writes from Germany this morning as she ponders the tragic shootings here in Seattle and the  empty pages in the books that are the lives of her juniors in high school, encouraging each one to fill the pages with hope.  Her words about being grounded hope in the midst of bitter realities are appropriate, not just in Germany, but right here, right now, in Seattle.  May peace be upon us as we grieve and hope — here are her thoughts:

As my first period takes the first final of Exam Week, I’m reading news updates from Seattle, where a gunman recently opened fire on the campus of my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Yesterday, I read this letter to my students, promising that while the general discontent of American Literature is an honest response to the real suffering inherent to human life, we have better dreams, rooted in the love of a Creator who cares for us. This seems appropriate this morning, as I consider the broken world in which we live, and mourning with and praying for peace of those who are suffering in my home city, halfway around the world.

Period Five enjoying sunshine at our Literary Picnic on the last day of school.

My Dear Juniors,

Happy last day of school! I know as well as you that there are a few more hurdles to conquer before we’re officially in Summer World, but as today is the last day of regular classes, it will have to do for a farewell, for now. For some of you, this is a first last day. For others, there have been more than ten, but I win this game, at least in present company. This is my nineteenth last day of school. I don’t expect that you’ll all become teachers, but for those who will, I’ll tell you that even on the nineteenth time, it doesn’t get old. The last day of school is still relaxing, the first one still thrilling, and snow days still a magical treat made of time and ice. It’s a good life I still get to live alongside you.

I used to be jealous of Ernest Hemingway, specifically the version of his life he portrayed in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his early years in Paris. He described a life of simplicity, a pleasant parade of words, food and sunshine. I wanted that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I have everything he has, and more. I am richer than Hemingway. Because for him, the picnics on the Seine, the trips to the Alps, the attic in which to write, these things were as good as it got. We’ve been blessed so richly, students, given this time and place in which to learn and grow, yet even when we leave this quiet, emerald valley, the glory doesn’t end. We go on living and learning, growing in peace and joy as we follow Christ down the wildly divergent paths ahead of us.

Coming once again through the brightly whimsical postmodern gates at the end of our (literary studies) journey together, I notice that the path of American Literature has hardly been a happy one. Though I enjoy every book we share, I know that none of them—not one—offers a picture of wholeness, peace or joy. While the Thoreaus of the world are hiding in their cabins, watching even the ants wage war with one another, the Steinbecks are still pestering us with the suspicion that human life is full of trouble and disappointment, that sometimes even the simplest dreams are out of reach.

Of course, we know all this. We know that life is full of both beauty and brokenness. Christ promised us that, while we live in this world, we’ll “have trouble. But take heart!” He continued. “I have overcome the world.” Having come to love and respect you, my students, I wish I could promise smooth roads to success, romantic dreams-come-true for all of you, but at the end of this year of sad and lovely literature, the true triumph is that these aren’t our stories. Though we’ll all encounter setbacks and disappointments, I’m confident that each of your futures, bound up in the unspeakable imagination of our Creator, is better than a house of your own, stronger than rabbits, more realistic than time travel, and more complicated than the most postmodern plot sequence.

Wherever you go, this summer or a year from now, take heart in the knowledge that you bring with you wide eyes to see the world around you, and strong hearts, full of the joy of Christ, with which to serve and love it. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant young people who you are becoming, and eager to see Christ’s work in you.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi Gaster  (you can follow her writings here)