When “Here” is better than “There”

I wake up this morning in Colorado and, as is typical, make my coffee and then go to my ipad where I catch up on the news before reading my Bible.  It’s just getting light as I scan the news, the craziness that is Ukraine.  Last night on the newshour, a professor of Russian studies said, “even if you’re not religious, you should be praying, because if this becomes war, all bets are off.”  Toss in some stuff about Syrian refugees, and I’m mindful that our world is filled with suffering, and though the cup seems overflowing already, still there’s more pouring in, moment by moment, as lives are plunged into war, hunger, poverty, trafficking, disease. 

I read my scriptures for the day, something about nations and kingdoms fighting against each other, and food shortages, and epidemics.  It’s a reality, of course, as the news a few seconds earlier corresponds with Jesus’ timely words. 

Then I turn around, and there’s a sunrise happening that can’t be described, because it’s not just the colors: it’s the cold, it’s the clarity of the air, it’s the silence, it’s the raw beauty, and significantly, it’s the fact that I am here – in this place, and not there, and any of those places I’ve read about this morning.  I’m awestruck, but conflicted at the same time.  photo copy 2

“Why am I here” is the question that haunts me, and at many levels there’s no answer.  There are responses though, and some of them aren’t helpful.

Guilt isn’t helpful.  We’re here, in wealth and, relative to most of the world, peace and safety. There are hard working, honest people throughout the world who are victims of oppression and injustice, so the causal sense that we’re here instead of there because we’re better must be evicted from our thoughts.  Equally wrong, though, is a sense of paralyzing guilt, a sense that we, for some reason ought to be there and not here.

Fear isn’t helpful.  Our collective narcissism is evident when the questions and comments of journalists extend no further than how the events over there affect our “self interest here”  It can be strangely dis empowering to watch various parts of the world collapse around us, filling us with anxiety about whether we’ll be next, and how we should arm ourselves for protection.  But no, over and over again, Jesus tells us that he’s warned us about these things precisely so that we ‘will not fear’, which is the message that heralded Christ’s birth, and rings throughout his ministry for our benefit and well being.  We need to give fear a swift quick.

Isolation isn’t helpful.  “Not my problem” we see, as we change the channel to some rerun, or go out for a run, or pour another glass of Merlot.  It’s far too easy to believe that the stuff that over there is outside the sphere of our influence and should therefore be outside the sphere of our concern.  This, as we’ll see, misses that mark.  I’m surprised at how many people no longer digest the news because it’s simply “too depressing”.

To the extent that we allow these mindsets to carry the day, our worlds will shrink down into petty preoccupations with our own personal survival, or crippling depression and anxiety.  One need only read the Bonhoeffer story or this favorite diary read from WWII to realize how tempting these options are.  Gratefully, there’s a better way:

Instead of guilt, gratitude.  Every sip of cold water, every good night kiss, every moment of this very precious life.  It’s vital to recognize that our culture is well beyond the boundaries of comfort, having become guilty of lavish excess, and surely guilty of increasing injustice too.  Gratitude though, is for the fact that there no bombs on the roadside, that people gather in public places to express their views, mostly without fear of reprisal, that there’s food on the table and the possibility of friendship, love, education.  It’s far from perfect, but there’s much for which we can be grateful.  This is a starting point to living here well.

Instead of fear, hope.  It might sound shallow and cheap to offer hope from the scriptures for those living and dying in the midst of suffering, but what other hope is there?  Nations will rise and fall.  Justice will ebb and flow.  People will die in the crossfire, and the friendly fire, and the forest fire.  And those of us who escape these ravages?  We’ll die too, and it will always be inconvenient, and seem wrong.

This tired script, though, is coming to and end.  History is headed towards a new script, where every molecule is shot through with the glory of King Jesus.  You know, the one who loved lepers, and women of the night, who told stories that hinted his kingdom would be utterly other – a place where the lame, blind, oppressed, broken, would not only find healing, but a place at the table with the king – a place where all war, and cancer, and rape, and genocide, and AIDS, and tribal divisions will vanish in the flames of a just judgement, leaving nothing but healing and joy in its wake.  MARANATHA… it can’t come soon enough.

But until it does, it’s our calling to live as people of hope.  If the sun’s not yet fully up, we are, nonetheless, called to be the Colors of Hope – the sunrise foretelling a better world.  This isn’t about a short term mission trip; this is about a total overhaul of our values so that our daily lives embody, in increasing measure, the very hope of which Jesus spoke.  That way, Jesus is no longer a theory – he’s a living king, and our lives reflect his reign.  That’s the best response I can think of to the nightly news.

Instead of Isolation, Prayer.  We feel helpless, watching the news like that. We’re not.  We can pray, believing that God intervenes in history in response to the prayers of God’s people.  Years ago, a dear friend whose husband was a British Major in WWII showed me the program from a prayer service held in London after the war.  In it, there were quotes from Churchill, Roosevelt, and other spiritual and national leaders, calling the nations to prayer.  There were even specific prayers offered, having to do with weather.  History tells us (I believe) that God intervened.  Prayer matters.

Of course we’re not necessarily called to spend all of every day in prayer, interceding for each nation and activity.  That would take us out of the game. Instead, we’re invited to live lives that are permeable enough to let God in, to let God break out heart over some specific thing, whether its Sudan, Congo, Crimea/Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, homelessness, sexual slavery, or something else in the seemingly endless list of brokenness.  Maybe all you can do is pray over the thing that breaks your heart.  But prayer’s a big deal, or so we say we believe.  And of course, we could all pray this a little bit more, since Jesus taught us to do so:

May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen?  Amen!

I welcome your thoughts.

Real Housewives of Mesopotamia – and what we can learn from them

The first words out of Abraham’s mouth that are recorded in the Bible are spoken to his wife, when he says, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Please tell them that you are my sister that it may go well with me, and that I may live on account of you.”

And so begins a mini drama where Abraham’s wife is taken by force because of her beauty and offered to the harem of the highest leader in the land.  It’s an amazing story, and I don’t want to give everything away, because I’ll be preaching on it this coming Sunday here.  One thing worth pondering during the middle of the week, though, is our often shallow, thoughtless, and critical judgement of Abraham, as we gaze down on his fear based decision, convinced that, “we’d do better”.  Maybe you don’t think that way, but I have in the past, and still do sometimes.  But let’s look a little closer…

That he was in a tough spot is beyond a doubt.  What I often hear though, is that Abraham was faithless, and that he ought to have trusted God to protect him.  That’s (for some, perhaps) easy for us to say, 4000 years later, in the midst of seminaries, Bible teachers, stories of God’s faithfulness down through the ages, and the fact that it isn’t really our problem. It’s just that sort of dismissive self-righteousness, that sense of “I’d never do that”, which stunts our growth, often creating an arrogant and ugly misrepresentation of our faith.  So let’s just pause for moment and consider that, of the many reasons Abraham might have doubted God, there’s at least one worth talking about precisely because we still doubt God for the same reason:

Territorial Gods

Remember that when Jehovah spoke to Abraham, the notion of a single God to “rule them all” so to speak, was unheard of.  The prevailing world view was that gods were territorial, and that if you were the god of Canaan, you had power only in Canaan, like being the local sheriff in a small town.  You had power, but only to the boundaries.  After that, there were other gods, and the stories of nation indicated that the gods had learned to steer clear of each other.

When God called Abraham, there are only subtle hints that anything will change.  God tells Abraham that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed, which is a cryptic way of saying something, but not clear enough for Abraham to divine that, while in Egypt this new God of his would be his protectorate there too.

Add to this the fact that Abraham traveled south to Egypt in defiance of God’s explicit command, and you realize that, even if he believed the new God would protect, the fact that Abe went out ‘on his own’ would create questions in his mind about whether God would get him out of the jam.  The net result of this kind of thinking?  Abe felt that, down there, in Egypt, he was on his own. 

“Silly Abraham” we say, as we put down our devotional reading (if we even have such a thing on those “other days” – you know, during the busy M-F routine).  Then we’re online, checking the market.  Our bottom line of course, is ROI (return on investment).  We don’t believe in social venture funds because they’re “fraught with complexities” and rarely do as well as standard investment.  So our money’s distributed among the fortune 500 and the S&P index.  It’s sad that some of these companies are outsourcing to places where labor practices and environmental standards aren’t so stringent, but that’s the market, and we need to be “good stewards”.  God language?  Yes… but most if it comes from a different god than Jehovah.

Later tonight we’ll go out on a date, fully believing that the notion of virginity is an archaic throwback to earlier days because Dan Savage, Sex at Dawn, Sex in the City, and car commercials remind us that sex is for pleasure.  That’s it’s meaning.  Period.  The culture preaching this has a beautiful man, made mostly but not entirely, of straw, that they easily topple, as they point out how many people have been damaged by shame inducing, body demeaning preaching that demands chastity or hell as the only options.  It’s convenient for the culture to have this mostly straw man, but creates a false dichotomy between the gods of pleasure and suffering in a shame filled hell for daring to enjoy your body as the only two option.   The beauty, eroticism, and intense sexual pleasure found within the walls of covenant relationships isn’t really elevated as a realistic option.  Ironically, that’s the very first thing God tried to teach Abraham.  It seems we haven’t learned it yet.

That’s because we too often also believe that God’s are territorial – not geographically, but ideologically.  There’s one God for the my spirit, another for my money, another for my sexuality, another for my patriotism.   But when we move into the land of economics, or (historically at the least, if not today too) colonialism, violence, slavery, nationalism, environmental stewardship, or the primacy of the individual over the community, we’re sort of singing the song of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.”  As a result, Indians were given blankest infected with smallpox by Christian settlers.  Slavery was not just sanctioned – it was exalted as sound doctrine from the Bible.  These things happened because people failed to let God’s reign bleed into those areas of their lives.

Please don’t miss the point because of the illustration.  I’m not telling you which stock to buy, or not buy.  I’m suggesting God reigns over economic matters, and sexual matters, eating choices, body care, and whether community is more important than individualism.  We should try to let God be God all week long.

Like Abraham, we function “on our own” outside of the small private realm where Jesus talks about justification by faith.  Maybe it’s time we recognized the reality of Ephesians 1:10-11, which is that Jesus wants the glory of God to saturate every atom of the universe.  Only then will infinite joy and pleasure, perfect justice and peace, reign!

Let Jesus go beyond the boundaries of Sunday in 2014 and get ready for a grand adventure.  Who’s in?

When Everything’s Collapsing? The Ancient Paths

IMG_0229It’s been a week.  In the normally limp and newsless lazy days of late August, our senses have been assaulted by horrific images, at home and abroad.  We’ve learned that the Syrian government is exterminating their own people, and that options of intervention run the risk of a full scale attack of Israel, an event which puts the middle east, and hence the world, in a heightened state of vulnerability – more ready to burst into flames than a California forest.

Meanwhile, our pop culture offers one of it’s stars at a music awards show and we’re struck with the realization that nobility, inspiration, edification, and real beauty are all lying on the ash heap of a previous era.  In their place, we’re offered objectified and sexualized bodies, bawdy lyrics, and the stark realization that our cultural “elite” have played their hand, declaring that this is, and will be, the new lower norm.  CNN’s elevation of the event to front and center news is newsworthy in its own right because the huge spike in readership for this “news” over any real news reveals the depths of depravity  (yes, it’s an Onion article, because truth is sometimes best told through satire) to which our collective culture is rapidly sinking.

It’s tempting to respond to all of it by turning off all media and withdrawing to a cave, or a fundamentalist church that’s working on personal purity and self-fulfillment while waiting for Jesus to come fix it all.  Nope: that’s a false hope leading to disengagement and private faith.   It’s tempting too, to mobilize, aligning ourselves with campaigns to reign in the crass media, and make sure our military, and Israel’s are both strong enough, not only to win the impending wars, which could be massive, but also the wars that will happen AFTER the wars are won, because God only knows who will fill the power vacuum in a new Syria.  It will become Egypt 2.0, only worse.  Nope: that’s false anger, leading to public rage, and more fear based responses.

How about this instead?

Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the anciengt paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ – Jeremiah 6:16

What are these ancient paths that will enabling us to know peace, beauty, hope, in the midst of the meltdown?

1. They are paths that take intimacy with God seriously.  Jeremiah lived in similar days, when people couldn’t look outside or inside without getting depressed or overwhelmed.  When all hell breaks loose, whether personally, culturally, or globally, it will be good to already have habits that take intimacy with God seriously.  This was Jeremiah’s point in my favorite Bible verse, found here.  He said that no other pursuit is worthy of “boasting”, which is a way of saying that nobody really cares about the car you drive, or the mountains you’ve climbed (corporate or literal), and neither, in the end, should you.  Your real joy, real meaning, ultimately should have intimacy with God at its foundation.  He’s the one who, as Jeremiah says, “practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth…”  Make knowing God a priority, and God’s priorities become yours.  You’re called, in the midst of all this insanity, to look like Jesus, and you will, as a by product of making intimacy with God your main priority.  We won’t always have economic prosperity, national greatness, physical strength – but we’ll always have our relationship with God – right up to our dying breath, and beyond.

Knowing God means looking for revelation from God everywhere, as I’ll write about later next week.  But to begin with, everyone needs a lens through which to look at everything differently.  Acquiring this lens comes by making a habit of listening for God’s voice in a daily encounter.  If you need help with that, let me suggest this resource, or this one, or this one.

I rise early, make my coffee, open my bible, sit in the forest, receive God’s revelation, pray a bit – and get on with my day.  Over time, I’m gaining a perspective on reality that’s different, more hopeful, less fearful.  I wish the same for you!

2. It’s a path that looks around and does something.  It’s easy, when the bottom drops out, to allow our concerns to shrink until our concerns become nothing more than our personal peace and safety.  Jeremiah, though, writing to people in the midst of a world (and culture) gone mad, writes:  “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 

This is Jeremiah’s way of saying that hand wringing, and moaning, whining and withdrawing into our Christian ghettos to talk about how the world’s all “gone to hell”, or spinning conspiracy theories about birth certificates or NSA wire tappings or whatever it is that Limbaugh’s saying today isn’t, in any way, the Christian life.  Rather, the Christian life means being the presence of Jesus, right where you are, which means:

Giving stuff away, throwing a party for the neighbors, visiting someone in the hospital, spending time with children, mentoring a young mom, or young teen, serving in a homeless shelter, planting a garden, making beautiful music or art or great coffee, visiting someone who’s lonely, spending quality time with your grown children, or o so much more.

The days ahead don’t look very bright from my chair.  Years ago, though, I read this about that:

Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.   

Good idea… I think I will.