The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life! – Jesus the Christ
Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there. Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team. But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.
Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically. 45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide. It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic. As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.
We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well. When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.
It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days. I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian. When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left. The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world. We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.
But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide. A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide. Another young gay man commits suicide. To the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer: yes.
In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him. This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it. There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly. I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something. A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.
On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change. Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity. Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story. It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now. Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…” Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something: Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.
So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.
Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere. There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.
We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.
Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843. Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain. Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.
It’s this simple:
1st place (random drawing) wins 2 copies of “The Map is not the Journey” and one copy of “The Colors of Hope” (winner of a Christianity Today “Best Book” award in 2011)
2nd place wins one copy of “The Map is not the Journey”
Thanks, in advance, to all who are able to share their reviews of “The Map is not the Journey”.
And here’s hoping your journey throughout the Advent season is filled with the peace and joy of Christ.
“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it. She’s was onto something, surely. When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat. There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture. However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within. What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.
I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book “The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”. The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future. The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps. Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers. Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.
It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.
It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.
It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine.
It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.
It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.
In short – I hope it’s for a lot of people!
Here’s a little video teaser I made on my iphone.
You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:
If you think you know people who might like it, share your purchase, or this blog post, on your social media. Thanks!
Reviews on Amazon are always helpful. Thanks!
What some have said who’ve read it:
Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.”
Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”
Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures. They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book. Thanks!
My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”. The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy. Here’s what I mean:
I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors. Murdering another human is sin. Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin. Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so. It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”
The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.
We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder. We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness. We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism. We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused. You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty. It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall. This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.
This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“. Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.
II. a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted. In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.
The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.
The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.
The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.
The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.
You get the picture. God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.
This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing. This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy. The book doesn’t trash sex. It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated. Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin. Sin is a good thing bent!
III. Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!
This is what I love about the new book I’m reading. It declares:
“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”
To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.
Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.
Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.
Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.
Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.
God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares. And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.
Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.
Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint”
Sometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story. Here’s mine, explaining why
Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.
I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now. Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family. He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony. And music in our house? “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana. Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.
The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. God only knows why, but dad loved that piece. He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter. Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music. At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both. My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums. I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums. He was perfect on the rhythm test.” I smiled. Mom frowned. Dad said yes. By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist. I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things: Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!
Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop. My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small. Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen. There were certain pieces: “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen. What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.
Then dad died during the World Series of 1973. Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it. Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?” He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened. There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.” I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe. The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.
A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school. Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often. Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful. During Messiah, though, I never brought a book. Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song. Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible. That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore. Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it. With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture. The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.
SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 – It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more. To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic. Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood. I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone. I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it. Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends. I’ll go.
It’s a matinee, the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more. Walkers. Wheelchairs. I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges. I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.
The play itself is masterfully delivered. It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy. God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation. If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling! I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings. But there’s more…
I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words. He’s known rejection, loss, shame. These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations. Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force. I was rejected, but so was Christ! Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path. I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker. I see a child with a disability. And the words are there, as people rush by: “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you. Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.
That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again. Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors). Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.
Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball. Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God. Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1. But O the One! Hallelujah!
If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.
My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door! A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen. Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together! (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)
To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there. Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car. This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes! I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out. The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!
We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing. After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.
Does music do that to you? Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful? Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.
Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important. Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart. God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.
In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.
Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory. As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:
It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School. We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades. We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”. I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe. I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation. I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.
I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken. This is the song sung at the special chapel service. “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…” That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”
The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there. I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing. I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.
The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary. We were growing older and knew it. Friends were dying, and parents. Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:
I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…
Indeed. I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.
There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday
Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:
And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning
Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over
I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am. When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.
And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains” because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”
I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered. It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!
There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments – after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer. Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”. As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!
What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you? And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude? Smells? Food? Places?
(This will take a few minutes to read, and maybe create more questions than answers. So at the outset, please know: I believe in just war – I believe in the right of governments to carry the sword in order curb evil as seen in Romans 13. And, I believe in that the path of the cross is our calling as Christ followers. May God give us wisdom)
Of course it happened again. We all knew it was just a matter of time before another bomb went off, this time in Belgium. The explosion and shrapnel, though, is never, never the end of the story. Rather it’s a beginning. It sets off another round of fear, profiling, stereotyping, and hatred. It becomes the soil in which the human heart is tempted or incited to match violence with violence. It mobilizes armies, entrenches already held ideologies, and loads lives down with anxiety over the future. Fear of neighbors. Fear of burkas. Fear of travel. And worse than fear; hate. And worse than hate; the threat of violence in retaliation. And worse than the threat of violence; actual violence.
It’s nothing new. And further, it’s nothing new to note that it’s all being done in God’s name by both sides. Giving a soldier a Bible though, or a suicide bomber the Koran doesn’t sanctify the cause, and there’s no better time to be reminded of this than Holy Week because while wounded people are treated in hospitals, while victim’s families mourn, millions will spend time this week pondering the path of Jesus walking to the cross. That cross, and then one who went there, still speaks and lives today, imploring us to follow him on a different path than the one that matches violence for violence, fear for fear, hate for hate.
As Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem on the last week of his life, his poignant cry is telling. We read that “…he saw the city and wept over it saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!…” And then he entered the city, spoke truth to power, was arrested, unjustly tried, forgave his accusers, and died.
Why did he say that? Evangelicals might have been happier if he’d said, “If you had known the prayer to pray so that you can get to heaven when you die…” Or, “If you had known the right sexual ethic or aligned with the right (or further right) political party.” Or, “If only you had armed yourselves and exercised your 2nd amendment rights.” Don’t misunderstand, please. Prayer, sexual ethics, and one’s views on gun control matter. But Jesus wept because the people who studied, defended, and sought to protect the ancient texts, never knew the things which make for peace:
They never understood, not really, that monotheism is, at the core, about peace. The God of the Bible was distressed in the early parts of Genesis because of the violence which had filled the earth, and monotheism began in the midst of polytheistic world views characterized by violence, tribalism, and slavery. In such cultures, religion was the mask used to cover the pursuit of power for the few at the cost of oppression for the many. So it has always been. So it is to this day.
But the God of Abraham, who by the way, is the God at the headwaters of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, posits an entirely different path. Jonathan Sacks, in his marvelous and timely book, “Not in God’s Name” writes:
Not all at once but ultimately it made extraordinary claims. It said that every human being, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God. The supreme power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. (According to this God)….A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin. Between people there should be a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbours, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God –‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
Things turned out differently of course. Judaism became marked by a terrible superiority complex of self righteousness. Christianity quickly became wedded with state power, and we’re still bearing the ugly fruits of violent colonialism, crusades, and violence carried out in Jesus’ name. And Islam mutated too, presenting itself as overflowing with hate and a lust to destroy, as seen yet again in Belgium this week. Boom!
Jesus words are haunting. “if you’d known the things which make for peace…” Though we hate what happened this week, and in Paris, and in Istanbul, and in Egypt, and in Syria, I wonder: Do I know the things which make for peace? Or have I baptized my lust for comfort and control in Bible words, and continued to wander in the deep ditch that is violence done in God’s name, matching hate for hate, threat for threat, bomb for bomb?
The answer comes as I walk with Jesus to the cross this Holy Week, and perhaps in light of all that’s happening, this Holy Week is the most important week of our lives. When I walk with Jesus with a goal, not just of feeling bad about how much he suffered FOR me, but rather, through the lens of seeing him as the prototype of what it means to be a person of peace, I’m struck with some profound and radical realities:
I learn that retaliation isn’t God’s way. Peter pulls out a sword and is ready to take on the army, but after cutting off a guy’s ear, Jesus heals him (the very soldier who’s come to arrest him) and tells Peter to put away the sword, reminding him that the one “who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Sure, if you want to get all pragmatic about it, the fact is that if someone’s dead, they’re no longer a threat to you. But their family? Their tribe? Their government? All of them will make sure that, by god, “you will pay.” All the way back in Genesis 4, a man named Lamech boasts, “I have killed a man for wounding me…and a boy for striking me” and goes on to say that if anyone tries to extract retaliation he’ll pay them back 77x greater! Yes. This is our world.
No. This is never. Ever. The way of the cross. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
I learn that forgiveness IS God’s way. Later, after Jesus has been beaten, spit on, humiliated, and nailed to a cross, a crowd is mocking him. Jesus’ response is to pray, asking God to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Wow. If I’m going to walk with Jesus, rather than just appropriating him for my own political ends, I’m going to need to lay down my weapons, lay down my life, and pray for my enemies. I’m going to need to learn how to forgive the very people who aren’t even aware they’re wrong. As Jesus warned the disciples, “an hour is coming when people will think they are doing God’s will by killing you.” That hour is here.
Those who did that to Christ were forgiven. Without confession. Without acknowledgement of guilt. Read it here. Forgiven. In a world where bitterness is the norm, and prevailing ‘wisdom’ teaches us that a scorched earth policy will eventually solve the problem, this notion of forgiving is hard to swallow, and surely leads to more questions than answers. I know because I have the questions too. It seems nonsensical and too idealistic.
But the one answer it does lead to is this: those who have the courage to forgive will break the cycle of retaliation and hatred. They’ll break it rather than escalate it, and those are the only options, friend. Either the cycle of retaliation is broken, or it’s escalated. Will I be part of the problem or part of the solution?
I learn that fear must be overcome. The way of the cross is exactly the opposite of the way of upward mobility, or comfort, or expansion, or matching violence for violence. It’s the way of fidelity to God’s vision for peace, by being peace in the midst of a violent world.
If you think that path was easy for Jesus, consider his sweating drops of blood in the garden on the last night before crucifixion and his prayer that if there were any other way to bring peace, would God please offer a way out, because this way resides far from our instincts for self-preservation! In the end though, those instincts went to the cross too, because the way of peace is the way of losing one’s life to find it, the way of turning the other cheek, the way of letting God make things right through God’s means and timetable rather than taking things into our own hands.
Bombs go off and we’re afraid, especially in proportion to their proximity. But in this global village, every bomb is a cause for fear, a cause for retreating into our cocoon of tribalism or racism or religious retaliation.
It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said “It is better to be feared than to be loved”: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. (Jonathan Sacks)
Yes, and it was Jesus who said, “he who seeks to save his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake, will keep it.” If you think that doesn’t require courage, just ask:
Now it’s our turn, and in the midst of all the political rhetoric inciting violence and hate, my prayer is that you and I will have the courage to walk the way of the cross. That’s what makes this week so special this year. It’s not just for me. It’s my path too. To make it on this path, though, I’ll need to take both fear and retaliation out of my pack, and exchange them for an eagerness to forgive and love. It’s the way of Jesus, and his load is the right one.
I pray I’ll have the courage to go there.
In world where people are tending to withdraw from hope and generosity into shrunken worlds of fear and safety, I sometimes think that most important thing any of us can do is invest our hours, days, and years in activities that are aligned with who we’re created to be. I say this because lives lived that proactively and intentionally have become rare enough that they shine as light, inspiring hope in world increasingly defined by pessimism and fear.
If finding our destiny is one of the best things we can do, then reading, “The Art of Work” by Jeff Goins is one of the best books we can read. Jeff’s taken the subject that people of faith typically name “calling” and written a book about it; how to find it, and what it takes to develop it so that it moves from latent talent to an actual life purpose that blesses other people.
I love the chronological and linear “preparation”, “action”, and “completion” structure of the book because I can tell you, as a guy pushing sixty, that he has things in just the right order. I can also say that because his book covers all three sections of our life work, it’s a good read no matter where you are on the spectrum.
Especially valuable though, and supremely important, is the early chapter about listening to your life. This is where the author challenges the reader to listen to the longings of your own heart, finding both what gives you joy and what is affirmed by other people, and investing heavily in whatever it is that rises to the surface.
As one who studied both architecture and music composition before finding my calling as a pastor, Bible teacher and writer, I can tell you that learning how to listen to your life is foundational wisdom. Without it, you’re at risk of wandering aimlessly your entire life, never finding the calling, vocation, and work that is both life giving for you and for those blessed by your gifts.
Knowing what you’re meant to be and do isn’t enough however. There must be intentionality in developing your gifts and the wisdom offered to help achieve this is immensely practical in this book, covering subjects such as practice, apprenticeship, and how your continued commitment to the development of your craft and skills will, over time, open doors of opportunity. The book is highly readable, offering real life stories all along the way to illustrate the principles being taught.
Paul, the great Apostle of the Bible, tells his protege Timothy to not neglect the “gift which was bestowed on you” and goes on to say that he should “persevere in these things”. Jeff is saying the same thing in differently language, and far from being restrictive, the exhortation is liberating, because by saying yes to our calling, we’re liberated to say no to the continual temptation of distractions and diversions that offer temporary excitement, but little meaning.
Countless people spend their entire lives looking for the perfect context and work situation, all the while neglecting to develop the gifts that are lying latent within. The treadmill of dissatisfaction that is experienced by those who live this way is exhausting and demoralizing. Far better to find your one true thing, and get on with it.
If that’s your interest, then Jeff’s your man, and “The Art of Work” is your book.
(I was given a free copy for review, with total freedom to endorse or critique the book as I have seen fit)
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.