August 21st was one of those rare days where people cheered darkness. In Seattle, where the eclipse only reached 92% of total, it was still dark enough, cold enough, awesome enough, to elicit cheers. It was the same everywhere along the path of darkness forged by the moon – eruptions of joy as people embraced the darkness.
The rest of our lives, it’s a different story, especially if we’ve been taught to love Jesus. We’ve often learned that darkness is unequivocally bad. Every verse mentioning it says so, linking darkness with Satan, and all else worth avoiding in the world.
As a result, we’ve managed to find ways of banishing darkness. We’ve caste it out of the natural world by lighting up the night so that we don’t need to deal with it at all until we close our eyes for sleep (though our extension of light beyond what nature intended means we’re paying a price). We’ve cast it out of our faith too, by creating what one favorite author calls “the full solar version of Christianity”, a faith which intensely seeks to keep the lights on perpetually. “All good, all the time – that’s Jesus!” they say, with a big grin and powerful handshake. In its worst forms, it claims to “pray the darkness away” whether the darkness is cancer, infidelity, abuse, job loss, or a shocking accident that leaves a husband and father suddenly staring into a future of loneliness, his family having been killed in the car. All good all the time? Wishing it were so, yea even praying it, doesn’t make it so. Ugh.
Darkness is real. But don’t despair. God lives there too.
When Abraham doubted God, where did God send him? Out into the dark to count the stars. When Jacob was running for his life as a self perceived failure and dropped down to sleep in desert, God met him there in a dream, in the dark. Later God met him again in the dark for a wrestling match. The shepherds? The dark. Jesus birth? The dark. Jesus final triumph over evil that caused him to cry “it is finished” and graves to break open? The dark yet again. It turns out some good things happen in the dark after all. But there’s more.
The reality is that darkness has been with us since the beginning, before sin. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day…” From the beginning, it was our lot in life to deal with the darkness, about half the time actually – at least physically. Ecclesiastes tells me that the same’s true in the real of spirit and emotion, at least in this present age. “There’s a time for everything” is how the wise old preacher put it: birth and death, war and peace, seeking and losing, laughter and tears – a time for everything; including darkness.
The reason this looms large as an issue is because we live in a world were all manner of bad things happen, plunging us into the darkness of uncertainty. She walks out of the oncologists office with a 40% chance of living a year. He weeps at the graveside of his spouse, wondering what’s next for he and his three children. They weep as the ultrasound reveals an abnormality.
What are we supposed to do? Celebrate? Resort to hollow praise in hopes that if we sing loud enough all will be fixed? Claim our healing and prosperity? Nope. There is one thing only:
Don’t be afraid of the dark. Recognize that these seasons of uncertainty, loss, betrayal, and even death, go with the territory of the world in which we live. I sometimes thing that some of us Christians like the light so much that, ironically, we stick our heads in the sands to live in denial of the darkness all around us. But hear this: the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that, though the darkness is real – God meets us there, and walks with us there. Our fear of the dark has the affect of shuttering our lives, so that joy dries up, risk dries up, faith and hope dry up. Our single paradigm becomes avoiding the dark – hardly a decent way to live ever, but especially if you’re called to courageous faith, as all disciples are.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” writes about one grown woman who was terrified by the dark: her fear was the fault of everyone who taught her to fear the dark, convincing her that it is cdangerous – all of it, all the time, under every circumstance – that what she cannot see will almost certainly hurt her and that the best way to protect herself from such unseen maleficence si to stay inside after dark, with the doors locked and sleep with lights on.”
Not Abraham or Jacob, as they pondered infinity under the starry sky. Not Jonah in the darkness of a fish’s belly. Not Job in the darkness of mysterious and massive loss. Not Jesus in the Garden, or even on the cross when the whole world turned dark. Not Paul and Silas in the darkness of dungeon prison.
Why? Because the light of the world is with us, even in the dark. “Even the darkness is light to you….” is how the Psalmist says it. This is why I say, “Welcome autumn – with your shorter colder days. Thank you for the chance to learn how to walk with you through the dark seasons.”
If you’d care to comment on how God has met you in the dark, I and perhaps other readers too, would be grateful.
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in a such a way that you may win…”
You are God’s uniquely handcrafted beautiful creation. You have gifts to bring to our darkening and weary world, and that means you weren’t just put here to survive, or have a few grand adventures of your own. You were put here to bless; to pour your life out onto the canvass of this world in the colors of hope, in an artistry that’s yours alone.
So get on with it.
Run to win.
Get over the mentalities of scarcity which define survival and a hefty stash of cash as the win because God knows that the world is full of people who have more than enough food, money, water, and activities, but who are utterly missing the life for which they’re created.
You’re not made to survive and consume, though you’ll do both, throughout your days. You’re made to thrive and bless and serve. Abundant Life is what Jesus called it. Don’t settle for anything less.
Run to win.
Flush your fears of thermonuclear war, political insanity down the toilet, and quit arguing, or worrying, about who stands or sits during the national anthem of a football game . You have no control of any of this.
Focus instead on what you’re going to be doing with your “one wild and precious life” because if you waste your days in fear and worry, you’re not just cheating yourself out of joy, peace, and meaning – you’re cheating the rest of us too. The world needs what you have to offer.
Find your gift (is it teaching, healing, serving, walking with those who are suffering, empowering, creating…?) and spend your life developing your precious gifts so that you can be a blessing to others.
If you already know your gift then for God’s sake (literally – for God’s sake) turn off the TV, set aside the video games, let go of the petty tie suckers, and get on with using it.
Run to win.
Paul the Apostle said that he disciplines his body, so that at the end of his life he’ll be confirmed to have been a participant in the abundant life Jesus offers, not just a spectator, or worse, an armchair quarterback who knows Jesus, justice, hospitality, confession, risk, love, service…but only as theory.
Run to win.
I woke up one morning recently, having had a moment in a dream where my own moments of self-pity, petty indulgences, cynical judgement, time wasted in social media political grenade lobbing, and the paralysis of an absurd self-pity (in spite of all the blessings I enjoy) marched past my bed like characters in a parade. Each one filled me with regret and I woke with a start, in the middle of the night – praying to God that I’d create no more of these subtle, yet despicable characters the rest of my days. “Rather” I prayed, “may I run to win – continually receiving your revelation from creation, friendships, text, and trials” and “may I pour my life out, using my gifts to love, serve, and bless”
Are you running to participate?
Are you running when it’s convenient?
Are you running at all?
Run to win.
I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler? If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling. In fact, they’re confident they will fall. They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again. This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too. I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down. Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so. He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis. It looked serious. I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes. No fear of falling there!
Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else. We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness. Don’t stand out. Don’t make waves. Conform. And above all – don’t fall! It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.
This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly: the Pharisees. They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:
1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers. This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more. In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.
2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.
3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality. In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with. That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.
4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small. “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was. We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.
The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge. There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.
Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.
David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.
Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.
Paul? Courageous and argumentative. Humble and proud. Content and coveting.
Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.
Solomon? Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)
Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls. Every. Person. But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling. This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job. This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it. This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”
All right then. We’ve fallen. We’ve named it. We’ve seen it. We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on. That’s the way it should work. That’s why Martin Luther said, Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”
These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure. Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.
I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites. Rubbish. If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all. You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world. Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement. Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality. The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.
Why don’t we set out to live this way?
Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly. We’d rather deify and vilify. We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.
Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.
Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home. Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.
Infants get this. So do most children. And climbers too. Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?
“Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question. If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.””
Daniel 3:14-18 CEB
I know it’s not technically firewalking, but its fire – maybe “fire bathing“? The point of the story is that there are three men who are so deeply committed to worship their God, and no other, that they’re willing to pay the ultimate price while being mindful, as well, that their God is powerful enough to protect them in the fire.
In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg helps readers see that when we determine in advance what our routine will be when certain cues occur in our lives, our response to those cues become habits. Cue: stress Response: nicotine. Habit: chain-smoking. Cue: weariness. Routine: TV. Habit: wasting your life! Cue: loneliness. Routine: porn Habit: arousal addiction (as brilliantly articulated in this book).
Our three fire bathing friends have something significant to teach us about this. They’ve determined in advance that when the cue is worship, the routine will be to worship their own God, and no other. It’s become so entrenched in them that they don’t seem to wrestle with it at all. They’re all in, with no thought of turning back, even at cost of their lives.
The critical question that comes into play here for me at this point in their story is: “What’s their reward?” It’s an important question because the reality is that we’re built for rewards. You run (or sit and eat ice cream) for the reward. You get an education (or stop learning and growing) for the reward. You do your job with excellence (or choose to scaresly show up) for the reward. We do what we do, including following Christ – or abandon fidelity to Christ in pursuit of other sources, in order to receive a reward.
Our rewards are the same as these three enjoy: confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, and power – which are all promised to us in the scriptures as fruits of faithfully looking to Christ as our source.
Our eyes tend to glaze over when we think of idolatry these days, because the word conjures imagery of statues, altars, and visible representations of false gods. Here in the west, though, our idols are different: less visible, and more seductive.
Our idols anything we look to in our lives as our foundational source for comfort, meaning, direction, security. Our idols, then, are our ROUTINE RESPONSES in the cue, routine, reward loop, that we look toward as a primary means of coping with a particular state of mind and heart.
“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”
“When I’m stressed I drink”
“When I’m frustrated I get angry and blame”
“When I’m _________ I ________”
Especially to the extent that any unhealthy response to a cue becomes a habit – we’re enslaved, and hurtling toward idolatry, if not already there. Idols overpromise and under-deliver – every time.
In contrast, whenever I choose cues that contribute to my fundamental identity as a child of God, or to my calling – the rewards of confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, are ignited and I’m strengthened to walk through fires – surely most of which are metaphorical, while believing that if I’m meant to walk through literal fires, the power will be granted.
Consider an unhealthy cue, response, reward pattern in your life and change both the response the reward. Do you believe that, over time at least, the right response will lead to the fourfold reward of confidence, courage, peace, and freeedom? Then determine the right response to the cue, the response of faithfulness that will bring the reward:
When I’m lonely I will call a friend to encourage, be encouraged, or both.
When I’m stressed, I will exercise and give thanks for my body
When I’m frustrated at work, I will pray for the wisdom and strength to be a person of peace, grace, and truth – and by faith thank God that I’m becoming such… little by little.
You get the picture. Changing our habits of response to life’s cues isn’t just what the book The Power of Habit is all about – it’s what Christ followers call discipleship.
It was just a casual breakfast encounter at a conference where I was speaking last week. He told me about his time in Indonesia. I asked him if he’d read “Speaking of Jesus”, which is one of my favorite books, precisely because the author has a knack for telling people about Jesus as if it’s actually good news, rather than the distorted version of the gospel that implies God’s mad at the whole world. God’s angry at sin and death, friends, and we’re trapped in a matrix of these very elements… but I digress.
The guy from Indonesia then says, “Have you read his newest book?” and when I told him I hadn’t he began to tell me about it. “Something about fear… I can’t quite remember the title. O wait! ‘Adventures in Saying Yes- A Journey from Fear to Fatih’ That’s the title.”
Because I loved the other book I’d read by this author I bought it immediately. I bought it for a second reason too: Almost everyone I know is afraid these days. We’re afraid of the economy imploding if we elect someone untrustworthy for president. There are unemployment fears, terror fears, fears for our children, fears of aging, fears of rejection, fears of dying, fear of conflict, and o so many more fears. Many members of the prayer team at the church I lead tell me that fear and anxiety are the number one issues about which people are asking for prayer. Not shame. Not anger. Not prayers for the health and well being of others. Fear!
I’ll let you know that both books of Carl’s are easy reads; funny at times; brutally honest, and very practical – they will help you express the reality of your faith in Christ (if you have one) in a more natural and honest way. Rather than saying more: here are a few quotes from his “Saying Yes” book:
Stop for a moment and think of all the things that your need for security might actually stop you from doing…
Here’s my definition of fear: Fear is anything that potentially threatens your sense of safety and security.
Most of our fears are ‘potential fears’. What ifs. Yeah buts. Maybes. Then whats. They’re not real. They could be real. But they’re not. Those sorts of fears are dream squashers. They’re not fun. They rob your joy.
Carl decides to basically spend a year saying yes to everything, and as a result, finds himself in some amazing circumstances in the middle east, where he’s a missionary living among and loving Muslims. As a result, the fears that he needs to overcome include things like death threats, encounters with angry Imams, and opportunities to speak hope to groups of Jews and Muslims who hate each other. We’re afraid of losing our high paying jobs. He’s facing the threat of death of he follows through and speaks in this one certain place. Different fears – same principles!
That’s all that I’ll say, but I’ll share one more thing Carl says:
…fear keeps you from selling everything and moving to Lebanon with your young family. It keeps you firmly in the grip of words like ‘responsible’ and the often-used ‘wise’. But Mr. Wisely Responsible never had much fun. he doesn’t go on Hobbit like adventures. He might save money. And he might raise three very responsible and wise children who are very well behaved. But he doesn’t dream, never lives outside the box. To him, life appears quite normal.
But I say, Leap! Dream. Say yes! Set out on an adventure – a risky journey with an uncertain outcome. ...
All this is terribly appropriate as I’m planning on speaking this coming Sunday about the three kinds of people in the Moses story of leading God’s people through the wilderness. The three kinds are born from three different attitudes towards risk.
Looking back people live with a fear of the future that creates in them a bitterness about where they are and a longing for the good old days.
Looking around people decide that they’ve had enough adventures, and that they’ll spend the rest of their days staying safe.
And then there are looking ahead people. They’re…
WAIT! You need to hear the sermon. And you’ll be able to hear it here – on Sunday. But whether you listen or not – read “Saying Yes” – because saying Yes to this read might just change your life and lead to adventures!
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
from Rainier Rilke’s “Book of Hours”
In a few short weeks the church I lead will host a “longest night” service. It’s offered because behind all the glitter and “city sidewalks dressed in holiday style”, there are griefs and losses which are a bit elevated in December, precisely because it’s the month when “joy” seems some sort of expected norm. Because of this, those who don’t feel the joy are left dealing not only with their grief, but with a culturally imposed guilt because of their failure to enter into the joy that oozes through every song, every light, every tree, every cup of hot chocolate.
My parents were married on December 25th during the WWII, and so after my dad’s death, Christmas became an intensely difficult time for my mom and hence, for me too. The second Christmas Eve after dad died, I’d hoped to go to the candlelight service at our church, mostly to be with friends and escape the cloud hanging so heavily on my mom’s broken heart. Her car, though, was parked behind mine, and she was intent on me staying home and waxing the floors with her because her sister and their family, who live a mile away and drop in literally every day, were coming over for the Christmas meal. “It needs to be clean for Christmas” she said wearily. Of course, it wasn’t about the floor really, but I didn’t know that then.
I only knew that waxing the floor on Christmas Eve was, of all the options for the joyous night, somewhere just below the bottom of the list. I wanted to be with happy people, to celebrate, to find a little hope. Mom, though she couldn’t articulate it, wanted me mostly to be with her and since she’d found a reason to stay home, wanted me home too. An argument ensued. She wouldn’t let me leave. Her car was parked behind mine and it was not to be moved. Things got heated, and in a family with Scandinavian roots, known for moderation and civility, the tension and harsh words were some of the worst I can remember. It was a stalemate that wouldn’t be settled until my uncle/pastor came over to mediate around midnight. Thus when most families had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, I had visions of leaving home forever, and my poor mom had longings for her best friend to come back from the dead and restore normalcy.
Merry Christmas indeed.
Moments like that fateful Christmas night are precisely why everyone who walks through valleys of sadness, grief, and loss (which is everyone… or should be everyone) needs to watch “Inside Out”, Pixar’s marvelous movie about emotions. A girl named Riley is at the center of the story. Her emotions are personified and as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco the roles of joy, anger, and sadness all come into play.
Riley needs to deal with loss and grief is she’s ever going to adapt to her new environment, but those emotions are generally swept under the rug along with aging, disabilities, and failures, away from the limelight of what ‘ought to be’. It’s not just Christ followers who have a hard time with loss; apparently its all of us.
Joy is at the helm in Riley’s emotional construct and her “can do” attitude is both vital and annoying. The annoyance arises because “can do” isn’t always true, and until we’re willing to honestly face the losses that are present in lives, we’ll not find the critical next steps needed to move forward.
Sadness is present too inside Riley, but appears initially as a sort of unnecessary burden that she’s forced to carry. Joy’s view is that sadness only weighs Riley down, holds her back, and makes her suffer. Joy finds sadness annoying, and so do we some of the time, if the truth be told. This is because there’s a mythical narrative out there that says the only right way is up, the only worthy outcome is success, the only proper response in life is joy.
To which the Psalmist David, the Wise Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Paul the Apostle, Rainier Rilke, Desmund Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoffer, would all say: “rubbish!” Though some of us might, in the name of authenticity, overdose on grief and sadness, most of us are addicted to joy, or at the least we’re terrified of sorrow.
Inside Out, and the Bible, both remind us that real joy is on the far side of suffering.
Christ’s birth is good news precisely because humanity’s mucked it up so much, each of us contributing mightily to the problem, that we need a savior. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” is good news indeed because God knows without Christ’s coming we’d have flushed ourselves into the sewer of violence, greed and suffering that is too often our world. Instead, there’s hope, healing, and a new trajectory for humanity, made all the sweeter by the knowledge of what we are, would forever be, without him.
There’s the pain of childbirth and the joy of new life, the pain of hunger and loneliness, followed by the feast. War, followed by peace.
Pretending all’s well when it isn’t has a way of numbing our longings for a better life, a better world. Advent, ironically, is an invention to lean into our longings for the wholeness and healing that Christ alone can bring. But giving those longings space in our hearts means giving space in our hearts to grief, and sadness, and loss.
Eight days ago I was privileged to be in the room when my oldest daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, a beautiful healthy girl. I’m not sure any event has ever baptized my soul with more joy. The realities of sorrow in the night and joy coming in the morning were literally true that day – and yet the first moment I left the room after her birth, my heart was pierced with a longing that my dad, my mom, my sister, aren’t here to share the joy.
Sorrow and Joy. Longing and fulfillment. Suffering and Glory. This is our world friends. May the presence of Christ give us the courage to walk every single step with courage and grace.
The Overconfidence of Darkness
“And in His name all oppression shall cease…” These were the lyrics coming from the speakers yesterday afternoon when I discovered there’d been a tragedy in Paris—six actually, or seven—leaving over 100 dead and over 300 injured in a city known for love, civility, fine wine, and late walks along the Seine. If you’ve been there you know the beauty, which only serves to heighten the ugliness, as we’re reminded once again that whatever Jesus meant by “it is finished,” from our chair we pray to God that this isn’t the end of the story, because if the future is nothing but violence and hate, rising and falling according to unanticipated tides, then this is a sorry place to be, at best. All oppression hasn’t ceased. Far from it, in fact. And in moments like these, some walk away from faith entirely, convinced the joke’s been on them all along and that the whole is nothing more than a Darwinian struggle for survival, as we eat our own species to make a statement.
Others, often in God’s name, get mad, certain if we can match violence with violence, and add just a little bit more firepower on our side, that “light will win”. While there’s a place for “the sword” as a means to curb evil, that place belongs to the state, and so I’ll leave it to John Kerry and powerful people from around the world to find a way forward on this front, praying for them and their plans, because God knows there’s zero moral high ground for this, or what happened the day before in Beirut. Pray for those charged with response, not cynically as a partisan, but simply and prayerfully, knowing they carry the weight of watching the West fall apart as much as anyone.
But there’s still another way to look at this, and it’s through the lens of history, realizing that this is yet another instance of evil and darkness overplaying their hand. When it says in Ecclesiastes 3 that God has placed “eternity in our hearts,” I believe this is precisely the kind of situation to which the wise philosopher speaks. Sometimes the evil, the blood of innocence, and the unabashed violence, reach a tipping point where the world rises up and says, “enough.” It happened in Germany in the 40’s, Uganda and Cambodia in the 70’s, Eastern Europe in the late 80’s, and Rwanda in the 90’s. We’re slow, tragically slow, to collectively intervene when blatant violence and injustice lay waste to a people. But eventually something happens. The collective sickening is just too much, and there’s some sort of tipping point reached.
That’s because evil doesn’t know when to quit, doesn’t know or believe that humankind has a limit to its capacity for tolerating unabashed hate, violence, and death. Now, in many of the places named above, there’s a collective commitment to justice, generosity, truth-telling and confession as a foundation for real healing, and lasting peace. Could this be the event that creates our tipping point? That’s my prayer, more than anything, because the reality is that until the vastness of humanity rises up collectively and cries “enough!”, the sorry cycle will continue. Paris, an in-your-face declaration that terrors so common in the Middle East are pouring across all borders. There’s nowhere to hide. Maybe, God help us, this will wake us up to the right questions, the right prayers, and the right collective actions, so that we’ll look back and add Paris to a long list of tipping points that turned things around. Pray with me that it will be so.
The Power of a Dead Fly
Along with the Christmas music, I was reading Ecclesiastes for my sermon tomorrow at the church I lead. It’s in chapter 10 that I read, “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink,” and in the same way, “a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.” Indeed. A failed art student from Vienna becomes possessed with his vision of a pure race, and two decades later millions are dead, some for no other reason than being Jewish, or Communist, or gay. A Czarist apathy regarding the wholesale poverty of the Russian people combines with Lenin’s vision of workers’ rights, and suddenly there’s a totalitarian regime, complete with thought police and gulags and bread lines.
In every instance where a little foolishness has become a weapon of mass destruction, that foolishness has always presented disguised as wisdom, and confidence. People want significance, vision, and to be on the winning team, and so dead flies who shout they’re right in their own circus act of certitude become followable. Wisdom demands that two words of caution be offered here:
1. Mind your own perfume, which is another way of saying “be careful how you walk,” because you can take a million steps correctly, but it’s that one extra drink, or lingering touch, or decision to text, or that need you have to get the last word in every time that will, someday, do you in. There are, in reality, no unimportant moments behind the wheel, or at the supper table with people you love, anymore than there are unimportant anchors to set when climbing. It’s not a call to anxiety; just a call to sober awareness that wisdom means recognizing the potential value OR destruction of every decision. When life’s seen through that lens, we’re more likely to pray about everything, and when that happens, more likely too, to enjoy the peace of God. Lots of people are pointing out dead flies “out there,” but each of us responsible for our own scent. Start there.
2. Don’t be a fool in this coming election season. Confidence isn’t the same thing as wisdom, and shouting that something is true doesn’t make it so. If ever there was a time when we need wisdom among the upcoming lot of elected officials, it’s now. A dead fly in 2016 would be a terrible mistake.
O Lord Christ…
Even as we pray for Paris, France, and the international coalition forming to address the scourge of terror saturating our planet, we pray too for our own hearts. Grant that we might rest in the confidence that, indeed, darkness overplays its hand every time. We pray for an awakening hunger for peace across the globe, so that we might have the collective courage needed. We pray too, for our own perfume, mindful that the scent that is our lives and those of our families and churches, are the thing that matters most in the moment. Grant that we might be so filled with your life that, indeed, it is joy, courage, hope, peace, and longings for justice, that become our scent. Amen.
In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah. It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching. Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked. I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of it all… cheers!
Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause. In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away. I, the Lord, affirm it! I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”
God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden. This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome. Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money. Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help. Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another. In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.
Not burdensome? Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:
What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?
What God’s thinking about is the big picture. When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself. Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths
There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment. This is one of the most important truths in the universe. You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart. You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.
Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day. The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts. The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation. The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.
You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden. But in the end? The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy. They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.
God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers. They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest. In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden. To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway. Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy. Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.
Christ’s motivator was joy!
He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice. In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed. And yet he said his commands were not burdensome! Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?
Not at all. We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him. Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”. We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden. I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory. One taste though, and we’re hooked. When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.
A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.
And we think God’s commands are burdensome? Maybe we should reconsider. After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”
To suffering. To self-denial. To service. To life!
I welcome your thoughts….
One of the reasons I love living in the mountains is because the weather changes dramatically, almost all the time. Waking up in the morning is a bit like unwrapping a fresh present each day whose content is utterly unknown. Will it be like a warm cup of coffee enhanced with the light of a thousand candles and the fragrance of fresh blossoms, or ice, wind, and darkness, stark in its beauty, but hard to handle nonetheless, especially in April.
It turned dark late this past Friday afternoon, and the mixed snow and rain turned to just snow, pure and white, cold in her beauty, relentless in her covering of every fresh blossom of spring. We watched with a bit of anxiety as the fresh blossoms in the hanging baskets were blanketed in signs of winter, and sat by the window with our relatives from California, watching winter fall from the sky on April 24th.
Saturday morning when we woke everything was under a white blanket as we gathered with our neighbors for our morning walk. Halfway through the walk, I left them for a run, and by the time I returned, heading east toward my street, there was a blazing sunrise, back lighting the trees like we were in a studio somewhere, only better.
I stopped, overwhelmed by the beauty of it, but not for long, as I finished my run, got my camera and returned, shooting a dozen pictures before the bacon was even in the pan. Why? Two reasons:
1. Snow in spring is reminder of how the story ends, and this gives me hope.
There’s enough news of brokenness these days to make our heads spin. Yemen. Isis. Baltimore. Nepal. Syria and poisonous gas. Maybe some can just shut it all out by turning up the baseball game or chatting about their latest investments or a vacation plans to Europe, but I can’t. Day after day, the avalanche of suffering and death, most of it inflicted on humanity by humanity, leaves me reeling, wondering if these storms won’t in the end, carry the day, the way snow around here usually wins by Thanksgiving, covering everything and hiding all signs of life until sometime around high school graduations. I wonder if peace will ever happen, if oppression will ever end.
The same thing happens personally sometimes. There are setbacks. We break promises made to ourselves, or are suddenly wallowing in the deep freeze of broken relationships, when only a few days earlier we were basking the warmth of the Holy Spirit’s gentle turning of our hearts toward God in some area. We feel as divided as fresh blossoms blanketed in ice and we wonder. “Who are we really? And who are we becoming?”
The good news of the Gospel is that we, along with the whole cosmos, are heading toward an end when everything will be shot through with the glory of God. All wars will be over. All relationships will be reconciled. All diseases will be healed. Every tear will be dried up.
We know this because Easter is like a fresh blossom in spring, “the first fruits of the resurrection” we’re told. That means the snows of suffering we see these days whether in Yemen or in our own hearts, are winter’s last gasp. New Life is inexorably growing and will continue its miraculous and healing work until all things are made new.
If I didn’t believe that, I’d quit my job, never watch the news again, and confine myself to the pure pursuit of pleasure. Why not, if winter wins in the end? But of course, winter doesn’t win… so Paul, with promise of eternal spring in mind, reminds us to get on with making springtime visible: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…” This is what gives me hope, what gets me up in the morning, what gives me a love for my calling.
2. Snow in spring is a reminder that there’ll be storms until the sun reigns completely.
When we walk with our neighbors during these crazy spring snow storms, nobody’s afraid that we’re going to miss summer. In spite of the thick white everywhere, there’s a quiet confidence in the inevitability of the sun’s power, and this confidence sucks all power out of the storm. The fear is gone.
You’ve had faith setbacks, relationship setbacks, financial hardships, health challenges. We all have, in varying measure. And yet, the reality is that these things aren’t the biggest challenge most of the time. Most of the time the big challenge is our reaction to these things, and all the drama we bring to the situation. It’s as if we’re worried that April snow is going to kill God’s love for us, or that this setback will spell the end of our marriage, or this unimaginable loss means there is no God at all.
The truth of the matter, though, is that these are April snow storms. In spite of the thorough victory acheived at the cross and resurrection, we’re told explicitly that “we do not yet see all things subject to him” which is God’s way of saying that it snows in April, May, even in July and August if you live in the high country of vibrant faith.
You’ll be cold alright. The ice will inflame your heart with a longing for God’s divine fire. As a result, precisely because of the storm, you’ll know facets of God’s character you’d never have otherwise seen, and grow in confidence that God’s trajectory is assured, that we are, indeed, moving “from glory to glory”.
Is it snowing in your life just now? Know that underneath it all, the strong juice of Christ’s resurrection life is working its relentless purposes toward peace, beauty, hope, and joy.
O Lord of all seasons
We thank you for the inevitability of spring, for the hope found in the cycles of renewal that reminds us of where history is heading. Grant that we might be people of hope in spite of the storms that blast us, knowing that through it all, your life is filling us, changing us, and making us fruitful.
“Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” Exodus 24:1,2
When climbers are headed up to Mt. Rainier through the Camp Muir route, they start in the parking lot of a place called “Paradise” which is the highest point to which one can drive in this beautiful national park. This turns Paradise, at any given moments, into a weird mix of highly skilled mountaineers, beginners who are hoping to make it to the summit, and masses of people who will never leave the paved paths, ever, as long as they live. They’re decked out in L.L. Bean’s newest and best, or REI tech gear, or whatever, slurping ice cream in the parking lot. They’re peering through those coin operated telescopes to get a glimpse of the glacier before snapping a selfie with the imposing massif in the background, and calling it their “outdoor challenge for the year”.
The climbers are in the mix with the masses, but not for long. They get their permit from a little office, use the bathroom, maybe grab one last taste of actual food for a few days, and that’s it, they’re gone, headed up for the summit. When the paved path ends, the tourists turn around, while the rest step onto actual soil, and eventually snow, pressing onward, upward. Even among the climbers, not everyone will continue to the top. Camp Muir, at 10,400’ is the next common drop out point, as the realities of altitude sickness, sunburn, loss of appetite, cold, thirst, nausea, or any other number of factors will lead yet another group to say “far enough”.
Finally, there will be those who leave base camp the next morning with every intention of summiting. They thought they’d prepared well enough, thought that riding their bicycle to work and doing the “7 minute workout” app on their phone twice a week would adequately prepare them for carrying 40 pounds on their back up one and a half vertical miles of snow, rock, and ice, into the thin air above treeline, where rockfall, avalanches, and crevasses hidden in the glaciers present a large menu of ways to die. Somewhere before the summit they say, “this is good enough for me!” and either descend or stay put and wait for their group to go up and then join them on their descent. The herd self selects out of further progress until only the best prepared, most courageous, and most diligent, make it to the top.
When God’s about to give the law to Israel as a centerpiece of establishing the new nation, a similar culling of the herd occurs. God sets a boundary around the mountain and invites only Moses and his key leaders to ascend beyond the parking lot. Then, beyond the high base camp, it’s to be only Moses. Though he takes his successor, named Joshua, with him some distance, there’s no indication that Joshua summits. At the top it’s Moses. Alone with God.
In this story God’s the one who sets the boundaries around the mountain and keeps people away. There are reasons for that, in that time and place, but they don’t apply to us (as I’ll write about in the forthcoming book, of which this post is a part).
We’re living in a time when summiting the pinnacle of intimacy with God is available to everyone because the barriers to the summit were annihilated at the cross. Still, the same Christ who broke down the barriers said that the road to the summit is narrow (ref) and, like Mt. Rainier, there are few who actually find it. There’s a parking lot filled with religion. Jesus stickers and t-shirts are for sale, and lots people looking “a couple dollar’s worth of God”. The parking lot is the Sunday meeting, and there are folks there for the photo ops and real estate contacts. If there’s a little entertainment or even a dose of conviction along the way, so be it. But they’ve not intention of going farther. Others will hit the trail until the pavement ends. Some fewer will keep going a bit further, until there’s more hard stuff than joyful stuff, at which point they turn around, in search of safety, predictability, warmth.
If Christ’s blown up the barriers to the summit, then what’s holding anyone back? The answer can be found by switching metaphors, because a quick glance at Jesus’ parable of the seed and sower explains why “some seeds don’t produce fruit”, which is the same thing, metaphorically, as not reaching the summit. And what are the reasons? O you know; the usual suspects: affliction, worry, the lying seductions of wealth. There are, in other words, lots of reasons to descend to the parking lot of religious carnivals.
“Up” is about the pursuit of intimacy with God, about Christ becoming, in real ways, a friend, companion, lover even, in the daily stuff of living. Getting there, Jesus is saying, doesn’t happen by accident, any more than you wake up one morning having run a marathon, or summiting Rainier. It requires intentionality, prioritizing, and pressing on toward the goal when others stop. It requires shedding stuff, so that by the end, there’s one true pursuit to which all other pursuits give way.
“Right Intentions” is the starting point: the way of fruitful discipleship. Making intimacy with Christ your summit goal will be simple because you need to travel light if you’re going to travel at all. It will be hard because it requires letting go of stuff the majority carry with them daily, stuff like self-medicating when disappointed, and being defined by consumerism and what we own, and feeding on a diet of entertainment rather than creativity. It’s beautiful because the glory of meeting Christ in thin and unpolluted air will ravish you. It’s ugly because you want to quit due to pain, more than once.
Where on this mountain called discipleship, are you headed? If it’s the summit of intimacy, know that it takes more than the right gear. It takes traveling light, endurance, and a hunger for the summit of knowing Christ like a lover. Who’s in? The rest of you? Enjoy the telescopes and ice-cream. I’ll see you later.
O God of the summit invitation
Thank you for inviting us to ascend utterly. Stir in our hearts a discontent for the tourist faith that’s commonplace, where signing a card and signing a song, substitute for radical discipleship. Fill us with a longing for the summit instead, and teach us to travel light, shedding the fears, bitterness, lusts, and attachments that the whole world seems to carry on its collective back this days. When we tire, give us the grace to take next steps, and rest, and celebrate beauty. But may we never, ever turn back short of knowing you fully.