Blessed Submission

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5:21, NRSV

Ephesians 5:22-33 is often quoted at weddings, and verse 21 is often omitted from the beginning because it implies that men and women should “be subject to one another,” rather than just the wife being subject to her husband. While this is generally a small issue, I find it gets at the heart of authority and what it actually means to follow Jesus.

We live in a world that likes authority and power. We admire those who are in charge, and we aspire to their perceived level of success, whether it’s the loaded CEO or the couple your age that just bought a nice house while you’re stuck in the same small apartment. As mentioned above, certain traditionalists in the Christian realm believe men are special in the eyes of God, and are thereby called to all positions of prominence in the home and in society. In the church world, those with large parishes and congregations are held up as paragons of effective ministry.

It’s my contention that as long as we maintain this outlook, our world will continue to spiral out of control with greed, envy, and the resulting violence.

When we read this passage in Ephesians, we are seeing so much more than a mandate for newlyweds. Rather, we are actually given a template for the function of society and the potential impact our discipleship can have on this world. The key is submission, which is a dirty word, especially *stereotypical southern drawl* in these here United States.

We don’t like to be subject to anyone but ourselves. We’d rather serve our own interests first, reserving that of others for the occasional act of charity. Whether it’s traffic, self-defense, voting, or relationships, we want things to fit our preferences, and we resent anything that might force us to deviate.

As a result, we are violent. We engage in war to make the world look and function like we prefer. We physically attack or kill those that are different or frightening to us. Our words and thoughts are full of anger and ill-intent for those people or things that inconvenience or challenge us.

But what if we change?

What if we would rather be inconvenienced or hurt than do the same to others? What if we speak and think with the calmness and gentleness we would like to receive? What if we become “subject to one another,” and what if we love each other “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” as Ephesians 5:25 asks of us?

I bet things would start to look very different.

Discipleship isn’t just about how we check our religious boxes. It’s about actually letting the submissive love of Jesus (as witnessed on the cross) touch every single aspect of our lives, whether that’s in traffic, at work, or in the voting booth. Discipleship is about living differently because we have experienced the all-consuming love of God, which is too powerful to ignore!

I hope that you will join me in re-joining verse 21 to the conversation of our human relationships. “Being subject” isn’t a command of passivity that feeds our traditional view of power and authority. Rather, it is the very power of God that we see in Jesus Christ as He became subject to us, that we might know what it takes to truly live out God’s purposes for Creation. This is not a command just for women or saints, but for all people who desire to experience the Kingdom of God here and now.

Peace be with you!

Balance

the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. — Ezra 3:13, NRSV

You’ve probably heard it a million times. “Life is about balance.” Whether it’s off-setting your diet with a cupcake, your exercise with a day of sloth-like relaxation, or your attempts at holiness with the odd swear word, it seems balance is something we appeal to more and more frequently.

When reading Ezra 3 this morning, I was struck by the last paragraph. The Israelites have returned to rebuild Jerusalem, specifically the temple. Having been in exile, you can imagine there are mixed emotions when confronted with the reconstruction of God’s house.

Many of the Israelites raise a shout of praise (3:11), while the older generations, “who had seen the first house on its foundations,” began to weep (3:12). What struck me is that this is all that is said.

No one corrects the mourners.

No one rebukes those who celebrate.

All of the emotion, whether joyous or grief-stricken, is held in a single, glorious tension. The entire mash up of sound rises on the air and simply… is.

To me, that is the balance of life.

It’s not how often you nap or do goat yoga. It’s about fully experiencing the broad range of emotion and beauty and pain that this life has to offer. To live a balanced life is to find peace in the tension between our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, knowing a well-lived life is comprised of both.

We are in a world afraid to feel, and afraid to hurt. Our culture forces down “negative” emotions in favor of the “sunny side up” approach to everything, not realizing that to paint pain as abnormal is to reinforce unhealthy emotional processing and coping mechanisms.

My prayer, then, is that we will instead accept this Scriptural representation of balance. I hope we will be bold enough to feel, to sing, to laugh, and to grieve. I hope we will decide, no matter the experience, to just “be” in it. After all, we only get one chance.

Peace be with you!

From Within

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defileMark 7:15, NRSV

I’ve always looked at this teaching with an emphasis on the “all foods are clean” thing (Mark 7:19). After all, it means I can enjoy bacon guilt-free and it represents a shift from religious box-checking to a more transformative spirituality. But the last part… the “defilement from within” part… that didn’t truly sink in until recently.

We as humans always look to external causes for our inappropriate actions. It’s never our fault. It’s the unclean “stuff” out there that got us.

We see this when the media crucifies an assault survivor for what they were wearing; we hear it about the victim of a careless police officer for what they may or may not have been doing out so late in that neighborhood OR we see the same logic used to justify the assault on a police officer. After all, there’s this back story…

It’s never our fault.

I’ve done this in my own life. Old habits die hard, and all the more so when changing seems too scary or painful. There was always a reason, whether it be my childhood, my losses, or my depression.

We always look for external sources of trouble and salvation. We don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes because then we might be responsible for fixing them. Jesus rightly criticizes this attitude.

Agreeing with James (4:1-3), Jesus asserts that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly(Mark 7:21-22). Our desires and our fears produce the evil we enact in the world. Other people or situations may stimulate or add specificity to these things, but our response is ours alone.

Now this is not a guilt trip or a statement about my own perfection. I am simply indicating that this passage has taken on new life for me because I now understand that I must heal what is within rather than waiting for something from without.

When many of us entered into faith, we are taught that God is a Savior, which is true. But what often follows is the expectation that God will do it all, which is actually a blatant denial of free will. God gives us the means and awareness, and He is with us always, but to change and grow and leave behind our harmful practices is our work. We must desire it, initiate it, and see it through while relying on God’s grace to keep us moving with compassion for ourselves and each other as we all embark on our roads to healing.

For me to change, I have to want it. If any of us have habits in need of changing, it must be us that seek to enter into that process with God. God’s already where He needs to be, He’s just waiting on us to meet Him at the station.

Whatever is plaguing your life, and whatever negative habits or behaviors are manifesting in you, I pray that you will know that it is never hopeless or too late. All that you need to make the change is already with you, waiting for you to find that motivation and get started. Is it your relationship with your family, friends, or kids? Your relationship with God or yourself? Are you simply sick and tired? Whatever it is, may the grace of God light a fire within, and may we all choose to take a step into that transforming Light.

Peace be with you!

But Did You Change, Though?

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! — Galatians 6:15, NRSV

I grew up mostly “in church.” I was baptized, confirmed, took Communion once a month, and attended all the Bible studies and youth events I could. When I became an adult in ministry, I read the Bible daily, studied the faith at seminary, prayed multiple times throughout the day, and participated in service and worship projects all. The. Time.

With all of that said, it’s only been in the last year or so that I feel I have actually experienced the grace of God for myself. When I was a kid and when I was a minister, I made lots of selfish and harmful decisions. I had scars that I had never healed and unacceptable ways of coping with them. While I had affirmed all of the doctrines, aligned with all of the beliefs, and performed all of the pious acts, I had not yet been transformed by a real encounter with the grace of God.

A lot of us are like that. We use the symbols, say the right words, agree to the right doctrines, and do all the right “stuff,” yet our scars remain unhealed, our habits remain unholy, and our lives have yet to be transformed. We talk about the grace of God we see in Jesus, but we don’t feel or know that grace on a real, personal level.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, the Christians in that area were being led astray by those who valued the outward expressions of faith more than the internal transformation brought about by it. Adult Gentiles were getting circumcised to please a particular religious faction, but that sign ultimately proved empty because it amounted to “checking a box” rather than transforming one’s life to follow Jesus. This leads Paul to say what he says in chapter 6, part of which is quoted above.

The truth is that what we believe is irrelevant if it only amounts to being a part of “the club.” If we claim to believe all the right stuff, say and do all the right things, but our lives remain unchanged, it’s time to re-evaluate the depth and meaning of our relationship with God.

The love of God, when experienced and truly understood, is a powerful, deeply moving reality that soaks into one’s very being and provokes change. It inspires us to live differently because we simply can’t afford not to do so when we finally become aware of God’s loving presence throughout this entire created universe. We can’t help but treat ourselves, each other, and this good earth with the respect and dignity of beloved creations of God!

When I was faced with this grace, this unmerited love, I had to change. I had to see a counselor and heal the wounds that had long influenced my behavior. I had to make apologies and find a different path forward. I had to take a step away from what was causing me to stumble so that I might be free to minister effectively in my everyday life. I just had to do all this because it meant I could more fully participate in the love I was experiencing!

If you feel like you are just going through the motions, checking the boxes, and joining “the club” because it’s all you know, there is good news for you. If you have left faith behind because you didn’t see any depth or meaning to it, there is good news for you. If you feel that God can’t possibly love you because of the life you’ve led, there is good news for you.

The good news is that it’s never too late to change. The good news is that God is not a doctrine, a building, an altar, or a ritual. The good news is that God is already present with you and reaching out to you!

I pray that you will ponder this good news and seek to put it into action by changing your approach to life. Live as though the love of God is for you and for all others. Live as though the image of God rests upon you and all whom you encounter. Live like this world is not a resource, but a beloved creation designed to be cared for and protected. After all, it’s true.

Peace be with you!

Change! *Hiss*

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. — Romans 7:21, NRSV

Some of Paul’s most “real” comments come from this section of his letter to the Romans. For those of us who have had to make major changes in their lives, we know exactly what the apostle means when he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). For those who have tried to change anything for the better, whether internally or externally, they know that evil is close by when we start to try for righteousness.

Our world is theoretically supportive of redemption, but in practice, I have found that many people would rather write you off as whatever they perceive you to be. When you try to have a positive effect on your surroundings, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the naysayers are quick to protect the negative environment from which they draw energy. For every harmful system, hierarchy, habit, or practice we might try to extricate ourselves and others from, there will be forces of major resistance.

So what is the appropriate response?

Often, we hit this resistance and despair. Even Paul heaves a dramatic sigh in Romans 7:24, exclaiming, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” When we are faced with a world that is too comfortable, and that benefits too much from all the hurt that surrounds us, it can be difficult to stay the course, and many of us don’t. We fall back into our comfy, negative patterns of behavior, uttering inane phrases like, “That’s just how I am,” or “I’m just set in my ways.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work.

Luckily, Paul doesn’t end with his despair. He goes on to say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25). In Christ, we have the premier example of how we ought to respond when met with resistance in our quest for positive change. With every negative comment or attempt to undermine His ministry, Jesus reached out all the more, healing, teaching, and loving people, even up to His “final” moments.

Our first response to resistance, whether internal or external, should be compassion. Change is scary. When we are resistant to ourselves, we should understand the fact that altering our patterns of thought and behavior is not an easy task. It takes undoing years of programming, and change means uncertainty, which is something humans fear.

By the same token, resistance from others comes from the exact same fear. When a person looks at me and sees a screw up, it gives them an outlet that allows them to feel better about (or even avoid) their own unhealthiness. If I start trying to change, if I start to make note of those darker aspects of the world that connect to my own pain, and if I start to try to change those things, those who would rather use me as a distraction, projection, or scapegoat start to lose their foothold. Their negative response is fear. After all if others can change…

The next step beyond compassion, however, is to simply continue. Now, to be clear, “simple” does not mean “easy.” After all, Holy Week is coming, and we will see the level of resistance Jesus had to overcome. It can be costly. However, we know that Good Friday is not the end of the story, and God will see us through as we seek to grow closer to Him in a world that grows increasingly hostile to the idea.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of all of this being put into practice is my dear friend, Jonathan Allen. Over the course of his life, he has face powerful resistance as a result of his race, his beginnings, his relationships, and his seemingly radical dreams for what this world could look like. However, despite it all, he remains one of the most positive, determined, and beautiful people I have had the privilege to know.

The latest instance of his perseverance comes in the form of the non-profit he and his partner have started, called The Leadership Brainery. This non-profit is designed to identify, support, and train first-generation scholars from all fifty states and Puerto Rico. It’s a powerful testament to Jonathan’s desire to follow Christ, and I pray you’ll check them out and offer your support here.

Now, I’m not saying you need to start a major non-profit in order to affect change. What I am saying is that your perseverance through the resistance of the world can result in powerful differences being made. If even one person a day is positively affected by your growing relationship with God, you’ve done something incredible.

Further, resistance means you’re on the right track. When you find yourself desperately wanting to crawl back to your place of comfortable darkness, when others try to remind you of “your place” or of “what you are,” or when the world itself seems to be against you, you know you’re on a path to powerful transformation, and I encourage you to keep moving forward toward the cross of Christ.

I pray for you and all that you hope to heal and change, dear reader. I hope you will do the same for me.

Peace be with you!

“Not of This World,” But We Do Try

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. — John 17:16, NRSV

I hear the phrase “In the world, but not of it” quite frequently when it comes to the Christian faith and its adherents. This idea comes from John 17, in which Jesus is praying for His disciples before entering into His Passion. It’s true that the image of the Cross depicts a King and a Kingdom unlike any we have ever experienced on this earth, but how do we, His people, match up with this vision?

Not long ago, a senior official representing the United States implied that God sent President Trump to save the nation that calls itself Israel, and this merely echoes what many voices in the president’s base have been saying since he initially ran for office.

Churches often base success on “the numbers.” If there are a lot of people buying in, tithing, and attending, we must be onto something.

We individuals, when life is going well, use words phrases like, “I’m blessed,” and “God is good.” When things take a turn for the tragic, such phrases tend to fall to the background and we begin to question the goodness of God. We avoid images and descriptions of Christ that “fall short” of His triumphant resurrection and ascension, believing the crucifixion was just a moment of temporary embarrassment before His intended glory.

So what’s the problem?

All of these circumstances align prosperity, ease of life, and power with the Gospel’s main character. As humans, we naturally find these things desirable and positive, yet that’s not exactly the message of the One who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted” and those who are reviled  and persecuted because they believe in Christ (Matthew 5:1-12).

It’s perfectly natural for us to crave security and pleasure in life, but too much of this can lead us to portray God as a character in our own story rather than understanding that we are a part of His. When that happens, we are able to justify a lot… even if it actually takes us away from the Good News Jesus imparts to us. The Gospel urges us to look at our darkest and most painful moments with the knowledge that God is there.

This is why the cross is the primary symbol of the faith. It has nothing to do with guilt, shame, or depression. Rather, it is a reminder that we don’t need to “look high” for the presence of God. He is here, with us when it hurts and when following in the footsteps of Christ ends up costing us all the power, prestige, security, and comfort we seek so desperately.

Because it will.

Yet this is not something to resent or fear. It’s a joyful connection to our King, who Himself gave all that He had that we might know what it is to love and to fully, intimately know God. We will not always act in accordance with this truth, but the power of transformation is revealed in our efforts and our openness to regular reminders, often the most accessible of which being communal worship and the Eucharist.

When the disciples were concerned about power and greatness as the world sees it, with the “great ones” who “are tyrants over them,” to which Jesus responds “But it is not so among you” (Mark 10:42-43). The Church, the people of God, are not meant to live as though Jesus were just another king with just another kingdom, with all of the power-hungry politics of this world. Rather, we are meant to realize that all of these things, the institutions, the powers that be, will all eventually fall away and be no more. The Kingdom we are a part of, the One we serve, is something… other.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t written to lay a burden. It’s written as a reminder, first of all to myself. We are not required to live perfectly, only to consistently make efforts toward following the path Jesus sets before us. He will walk with us and though we stumble, He will not let us fall headlong (Psalm 37:24). God is not our tyrant, nor is He the sanctifying force by which we may do whatever want. God is the One who walks with us, guides us, corrects us, redeems us, and forgives us. Above all, He is the One who loves us instructs us to imitate and share that love. If we follow His lead, we will truly be a part of something “not of this world.”

Peace be with you!

 

 

Never the Twain Shall Meet

But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has wrought deliverance in Israel. — 1 Samuel 11:13, RSV

There are somethings that just don’t go together. To avoid offending those who would disagree, I will simply leave you to your own imaginings, as I’m sure that first sentence conjured up all kinds of interesting things. I simply don’t want to start another “pineapple and pizza” debate. If, however, you have strong feelings on the subject, my “comments” section is open for your use.

The point here is that certain things don’t or can’t coincide, and this is a truth that holds for the life of faith. When eternal life meets life that is temporal, there are particular conditions that need to be met for that to work out well. This is the entire point of Biblical texts like Leviticus, Halal in Islam, or the act of confession in Christian circles. When we are attempting to live in communion with God, it’s best to be accommodating.

The quote above comes from the First Book of Samuel, the prophet who anoints the first king of Israel, Saul. In this particular story, there are those who refused to acknowledge Saul’s kingship who are about to be executed. Saul, in the better phase of his rule, decrees that because God’s deliverance has come to Israel, no one is to be killed. This struck me as a reminder that for us to cling to God’s saving presence, there are certain things we need to be willing to release.

A great example can be found in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Spoiler alert (it came out in 1989…), they find the Holy Grail, save Indiana’s dad, and are trying to escape the collapsing ruins when the Grail falls into an ever-widening crevice. Indy’s somewhat lover Nazi dives in after it. Indy catches her hand, but because she couldn’t help reaching for the coveted chalice, she plummets to either her death or what I imagine would be the least fun ball pit ever. Subsequently, it’s Indiana’s turn to reach for the chalice, but the soothing words of Sean Connery urging him to “Let it go” snap him back to disastrous reality, just in time for him to leave the cup and escape with his life.

Now, I hear you. “Cool recap, bro, but what’s the point?”

The point, dear reader, is that while death and life are inextricably linked, there is no room for death-dealing vices in eternal life, that is, the life we live when we start walking according to God’s way. We can’t flee the crumbling structure of our selfish lives while also trying to satisfy our greed. This is not a “have your cake and eat it” kind of situation.

While God understands our human condition and loves us all the more, to choose a life with God is to choose to play second fiddle to His will for us. That will is that we transform our lives from self-centered behavior to a practice of love for God through our love for each other as evidenced in the life of Jesus Christ. This is not some kind of ascetic practice or punishment, but it is a demanding lifestyle that, in the end, enables us to truly live.

We cannot hate a single neighbor or enemy and claim to love the God that created them. We cannot refuse grace and mercy to others while expecting it from the One who offers it to us. We cannot cling to our old fears, grudges, and destructive habits while seeking to abide in the presence of the Living God. Just as Saul saw that execution did not rightfully express the salvation of God, so we must do all we can to recognize and root out those behaviors and habits that fall short of the love God has for us.

Now, this is not easy, and it is not a “step” that you can check off as complete, moving on to a life of piety and ease. This is a lifelong endeavor, for as long as we are in the world, we will be affected by it, for better or worse. We will always need to be on guard when it comes to our hearts, minds, and how we treat one another. If we are lax, then all of those things we set aside can crawl right back into our lives.

Naturally, this means everyone is a hypocrite. Here’s a fun fact, though: Every human who ever tries to change the world for the better is a hypocrite, because none of us can live up to our ideals. In fact, the best teachers are those who personally know the disastrous consequences of making the wrong choice. I would take one of those over ten who are self-righteous or who have gone relatively unchallenged in life. Jesus aside, the screw ups have the best lessons to impart, and I gladly count myself among such people, assuming anyone finds my words useful.

We all have our demons and struggles and temptations. We all have things we need to release before we can fully enjoy the presence of God and the fullness of this good creation. My prayer is that you will join me in this lifelong effort of discipleship. Let’s pray for one another that we may walk together and heal what needs to be healed in order that we may not just live, but be fully alive.

Peace be with you!