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!

 

 

Faith and 3-D Movies

When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs came to pass that day. — 1 Samuel 10:9, RSV

Have you ever gone to a 3-D movie? I’m personally not a huge fan, but I’ve still managed to find myself dragged to Finding Nemo, My Bloody Valentine, and other headache-inducing films that required plastic glasses. What I found was that the movie was actually more annoying without the glasses, all fuzzy and oddly distorted. When I put on the glasses, I may not have liked things flying at me, but at least I got to fully experience the actual movie.

I find that faith works in much the same way.

Living in a consumerist nation like the U.S., it is second nature to want some kind of proof or evidence before committing to anything. If I am going to purchase a product, its quality and function should somehow be vouched for or proven, which makes sense. The problem comes when we apply this kind of thinking to the experience of God.

As I will talk about next week, the Church is not meant to operate like the rest of the world. While we can shop for and “dip our toes” into everything else, the life of faith is one that comes to fruition only after we surrender to it in one way or another. Just like the movie, an immersive experience is the only way to get a full sense of God’s promises and action in the world.

The quote that kicks off this post comes from 1 Samuel 10, in which Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. After Samuel gives Saul a detailed account of all that is to come, God gives Saul “another heart,” and then “all these signs came to pass that day.” Before Saul could experience all the wonders God had in store for him, he needed a new heart, to become a different person.

As Christians, we are to “be transformed by the renewal” of our minds, in order to “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Before we can fully experience, appreciate, and participate with regard to the Divine Presence, we must change by accepting God’s invitation as offered through Jesus. Even if we aren’t entirely sold on the idea, we must at least be truly willing to try, actively inviting God to give us a new heart with which we might understand the truth.

I used to spend much of my life waiting for signs to show me it was acceptable to submit myself to discipleship. I wanted to know this was true, dammit! The interesting thing is that it was only after I decided to actively try to believe (even in the absence of my required evidence) that I began to see all that God was doing in my life.

If you’ve been sitting around waiting for signs, I can honestly tell you that I understand. We are taught from a young age to look for evidence, to never commit to something without proving it first. However, I can also honestly tell you that the only signs you’re likely to encounter are those that point you to the curtain of faith. For anything more, you’ll have to walk behind that curtain.

What does this look like? Practice. Faith is learned by doing, not by abstract theories and considerations. If you want to see God at work among the poor, go work among the poor. If you want to see prayer work, offer to pray with a hurting stranger. The Christian faith is designed to walk, talk, and breathe. It is earthy, tactile, and real, and it can only be fully experienced when practiced.

I continue to struggle with walking in the life of faith, as I’m sure many of us do. I’m skeptical by nature, and I second guess everything. However, I’ve found that when I stop debating every Divine moment in my head and simply act as Jesus leads me, powerful manifestations of the grace of God follow. I would covet your prayers as I continue on this lifelong journey, and it’s my prayer that you will walk this road with me, that we may together experience all that the Kingdom of God has in store for us.

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!

All That’s Wrong with “Love”

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. — John 15:12, RSV

Do you ever get tired of hearing about “love?” I do. As someone who has spent most of his time in mainline denominations (and surrounded by people who espouse more liberal theology), I was hammered on the head for YEARS about the supposed “love” of God that we were supposed to share with one another. Often, the verse above was cited to make sure we understood the importance of this.

Now why am I bashing on the idea of “love?” Also, why am I putting “love” in quotes?

For starters, the “love” that is often peddled in the religious mainline is not real love. It’s a form of passivity that keeps us out of confrontation. When we “love” one another, we blandly accept each other in a way that keeps everyone feeling comfortable. Preachers don’t really say anything because they don’t want to alienate anyone by declaring certain beliefs and practices to be inconsistent with the Gospel, so you get a lot of “spiritual” sermons that just tell you God “loves” you and it’s going to be okay.

People “love” each other, so they don’t call one another out for being total jerks. Parents “love” their kids, so discipline falls to the wayside. We “love” our country, so we don’t question its practices or heroes. God “loves” us all, so we can basically do whatever we want.

Welp. I’ve had it.

I’ve been as guilty of this as everyone else, but sometimes, you just have to change. Why? Because this form of “love” is a slap in the face to God. I will repeat.

This type of “love” is a direct, violent, and dismissive slap in the face to God.

Referring back to the selection of John 15 I used for this post, it is true that Jesus’ commandments ultimately boil down to “love one another as I have loved you.” But how did Jesus love us? Read the next verse. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13).

Oh, SNAP!

Yes, as it turns out, real love is costly. It hurts. It is confrontational, takes no prisoners, and can end up costing us our very security, comfort, and lives.

God doesn’t “love” us. God loves us. God came in the flesh to show us the extent of that love, even going so far as to accept a horrific, torturous, and humiliating death to make sure we understood what love really is.

To love God means to love one another. To love one another means we are willing to speak the truth to one another and to ourselves. We are willing to point out what’s wrong and our own participation in those wrongs. We are willing to face our darkness so that our lives may be life-giving and a blessing to those we encounter. Further, love also means that we are willing to change in order that we might grow in our ability to honor God by truly loving our neighbors and enemies as ourselves.

I openly admit that this post is a lot of frustration with myself. I used to live a life that was rooted in “love,” a fickle feeling that justified the crappy things I did while paying lip service to God in how I treated His people. I’ve recently come to the point where I am much healthier; physically, mentally, and spiritually. With that health comes the full knowledge and recognition of all the wrong that I have done in the name of “love,” and I am writing in the hopes that the rest of us can avoid learning this lesson the hard way.

I am also writing, however, that you may know just what it means to love. Love is sacrifice. Love is fierce. Love transforms our hearts, minds, and lives into something utterly beautiful. Love is what God has for you. Yes, God is just, holy, and “other.” But all of that is rooted in the reckless love God fosters for every aspect of His creation. It’s a love we are reminded of when we look to the cross and see how far He was willing to go for our sake.

This was a pretty heavy, passionate post, I know. It at least felt that way to me. But my own revelations over the last year or so (my entire life, really) have come to a head and I just feel this urgency to let you know that love still has power for us today. No matter how often it gets watered down or misused, the power of love is the power of God, and it is offered to you and me. It is my prayer that we will accept it.

Peace be with you.

Right Place, Right Time, Weird Day

Trust in him, and he will help you; make your way straight, and hope in him — Sirach 2:6, RSV

As an Episcopalian, I read the Scriptures according to the Catholic canon, which include books like the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, quoted above. In fact, I was reading this particular quote when a truly powerful moment came upon me at a local Catholic Church. It was a moment I needed, and God, in God-like fashion, provided so much more than I could have asked for.

I have made it a habit to go sit in the sanctuary of this church when I have down time between personal training clients. It’s somewhat “out-of-the-way,” darker, and very quiet. Say what you will about Catholics (unless it’s unnecessarily rude), but they tend to leave the doors open more than anyone, and they also know how to craft a sacred space. On this particular day, I found myself drawn to the Pieta statue, depicting Jesus in the arms of His grieving mother, Mary. I didn’t know why, but I just followed the feeling and took a seat, pulling out my Bible and journal.

I read my “secondary canon” book in the afternoon, so I turned to the chapter of Sirach I was on and read.

For the past few days, I had been vexed. Was I doing enough with my life? Am I really doing anything to change the world for the better? Has my past rendered my present and future minimally effective? These questions had been plaguing me, but as I arrived at the quote above, I closed my eyes in prayer, and a thought came to me.

Jesus didn’t set out to change the world. He focused on what was assigned to Him, what was in front of Him. The only thing I am responsible for is dealing with what’s in front of me in a Christ-like manner, and the rest is for me to entrust to God.

This powerful teaching came upon me, and as I opened my eyes, I kid you not, a woman was kneeling a few rows in front of me, crying. I felt the pull to go and offer to pray with her.

Now.

I also felt the pull to be my usual introvert self and keep to my own business. “I can just meditate like I planned and pray for her from here, ” I thought. But something kept tugging on me, and I realized that this is always the temptation, to help from a distance, not spending too much time actually being with people in their suffering. So, reluctantly, I got my awkward butt up and walked over.

I offered to pray for this sniffling woman, and she immediately broke down and made space for me to kneel beside her. We exchanged names, and without being prompted, she shared a heartbreaking story about the divorce she was suffering through. Many tears and tissues later, we prayed together. She likened her experience to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus with a kiss, and I gently reminded her that this was not the end of the story. We reminded each other that the image of Jesus suffering on the cross is there to remind us that God knows our pain, and we are not alone.

After this powerful moment of mutual ministry, we prayed again, I lit my usual candle (with a new name attached to it), and I left.

The truth is, it is not all up to us to make the world ideal. We are not strong enough to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, but God is. Our role in this story is to keep our eyes in front of us, as Jesus did, making our way through our lives and interactions with Christ-like love and humility, trusting in God to do what He does best. As Jesus teaches, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow with be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34).

I don’t know where you are on your journey. Maybe you feel like you don’t have what it takes. Maybe you are wondering if you even matter. Perhaps you’re unsure if you have any bearing on the course of the world or if you have anything good to bring. Allow me to share God’s answer on the subject.

You do.

Peace be with you.

“Don’t Talk Religion!”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” — Exodus 3:14, RSV

You know “the rules.” Don’t talk politics. Don’t talk religion. Don’t talk sport (for some of us). For someone like me, though, these rules suck. I am bad at small talk. I don’t care what the weather is like or who won the high school football game on Friday. I want to know what you think about important stuff. I would also like to be able to share how I feel about said important stuff, and introverts like me are crippled by such nonsensical regulation.

GAH!

Anyway, there is a very serious reason I want to discuss these rules, especially the idea of not discussing religion. First of all, I understand. We are passionate about the things we believe, and any perceived criticism can come across as criticism of us if one is not careful. With that said, there is a word for the inability to discuss religion and spirituality.

Idolatry.

God is asked for His name in Exodus 3, and He instead tells Moses, “I am who I am” (3:14). When the Ten Words are offered in Exodus 20, the second word instructs:

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them…”

We all know of the obvious, surface-level implication of this teaching. Don’t carve and worship rocks or pieces of wood and call it “God.” Looking deeper, though, we find why our inability to lovingly and civilly discuss our faith with those who are different might be a violation of God’s instruction.

When discussing religion, we get angry. Why? Because our beliefs about God are being challenged. Notice what I said. Our beliefs about God are being challenged. God is not being challenged, only how we perceive Him.

God is a big Deity. He can take care of Himself.

God can also be a She. God can be whatever God wants to be, and He says as much in Exodus 3, remember? I use a masculine rendering for God because it is what I am used to, but I know I shouldn’t fly off the handle when someone discusses God in feminine terms, because, ultimately, what do I know?

Likewise, when we find ourselves being challenged on the topic of religion, and when we find ourselves interacting on a basis other than love and mutual respect, we are guilty of letting our images of God get in the way of treating our neighbor in the manner God asks of us. For all we know, God could have a powerful lesson waiting for us in the midst of a difficult conversation, and we could be spitting on it by being too enamored with our own ideas to be silent and listen.

This same teaching holds true for any of our “causes for stumbling.” Many can’t talk politics because their ideas have become idols that cannot be challenged, and that is not okay. We have become a society that cannot communicate because our own perceptions have become our gods. We cannot act righteously because we carry our idols with us everywhere we go, and we will do anything to keep them sacred.

My prayer for all of us is that we can set down our idols and turn to the One Who Is. In doing so, our hearts will become open and we can finally talk about the things that really matter. We should be talking about our beliefs, our thoughts, our feelings, and our concerns. We should be listening respectfully and carefully to perceptions of others, and we should all be looking for a way forward together.