Taking Stock

Abraham answered, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets they will pay no heed even if someone should rise from the dead.” — Luke 16:31, REB

In Luke 16, Jesus offers us a parable encouraging generosity, hope, and repentance. At the end of this parable, there is also a truth about the nature of change. So let’s take a look!

In the parable, the rich man wants Lazarus to rise from the grave to warn his brothers not to live as selfishly as he did (16:27). Ironically, this is selfish, as the rich man wants to make a servant of Lazarus even in the afterlife! It’s at this point that Abraham drops the bomb of free will on the poor fella.

Free will dictates that life is made up of choices. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them” (16:29). All the tools are available in life for us to seek out and embrace the will of God, to change and grow as people. We just have to choose to make use of those resources. No one, not even God, will do this for us.

It’s important that we take stock of our lives and listen for what God is saying to us here and now. We can’t sit around waiting for God to wave His wand and make us into more faithful people. Doing so would violate the very agency He gifted to us from the beginning.

I used to pray and pray that God would just fix all that was “off” in my life. What I failed to realize is that the burden was on me to actively seek and embrace God’s transformative presence. God has done His job by leaving a part of the Divine Self in all of creation, like a spiritual hand extended toward us. But we are tasked with taking hold of it.

So let’s all take a moment to assess our lives and whether or not our practices align us with the will of God. If not, let’s make time to listen for what God is calling us to in this life, and let’s get after it!

Peace be with you!

In the Dark

“He called the light day, and the darkness night. So evening came, and morning came; it was the first day.” — Genesis 1:5, REB

When God creates the universe in Genesis 1, He begins by bringing forth light. We tend to understand light as being positive. God is light (1 John 1:5), Jesus is the Light of the World (John 8:12), and we are called to be children of the light (1 Thessalonians 5:5). We get it: light is good.

But life isn’t all light and sunshine.

There is darkness in this world, both physically and in a spiritual sense. We experience pain, suffering, violence, and oppression. People starve, fall ill, are attacked, make mistakes, and leave us too soon every day.

Darkness is often portrayed in Scripture and religion as the enemy. It is the sign of evil, ignorance, and suffering. Yet all God makes in Genesis 1 is called “very good,” and in the initial verses God doesn’t eliminate darkness.

Darkness is kept, named, and maintained as an ever-present aspect of reality. As such, it is part of God’s “very good” creation. We may not like it, it may hurt, but it’s also how we are aware of light.

When a light is turned on, shadows immediately emerge. This is a law of life. What we know as “good” and “evil” are only definable in the context of each other. Both are necessary for wisdom in life.

Sitting in silent worship last night, I looked at my candle and asked for Christ to teach me wisdom. What I received was a message I have needed for a long time.

You see, I hated my darkness. I have a past, and though I’ve accepted that it happened, I hadn’t accepted that the person I am today doesn’t deserve to constantly be punished for that past… until last night.

What came to me was, “You cannot be the better man you are now if the worse man had never been.”

Have I made mistakes? YES! But paying for those and learning from them has led me to a place in which I am proud of the person I am now. I am not perfect by any means, but I am learning to love myself, and my love for others is enhanced because of it.

This couldn’t be the case if not for my darkness. The same is true for you and for all of humanity. Our darkest moments help highlight (and even produce) our greatest ones. Does this mean we strive to promote evil so that good may come? Of course not!

Rather, this message should serve as a reminder that where darkness is, light is close at hand. By the same token, where there is light, shadows fall. Therefore, we should neither be hopeless or complacent, but ever watchful for what God is calling us to.

Peace be with you!

The Cost of Change

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.Hebrews 9:22, NRSV

Yeesh, this is a verse that is uncomfortable for a lot of people. The Letter to the Hebrews itself is often a bit… shaky to those uncomfortable with “bloody sacrifice” language who assume Jesus’ life and teachings remove the need for such things. I find, however, that if we look beyond the means of expression we will find a wise and necessary teaching.

If you have ever tried to change… anything, you know that it isn’t easy. Whether it’s a move, a job switch, or *shudders* personal growth, the process of transitioning from one state of being to another can be uncomfortable, if not painful. Imagine, then, the difficulty involved in seeking to live a Godly life, a life beyond our own needs and desires, a life like that of Christ. To change from an inherently selfish way of being (taught and encouraged by the world) to one that is more selfless isn’t easy.

It costs something.

The sacrificial culture of ancient Judaism wasn’t about a disdain for animals or the need to see gallons of blood every day. To sacrifice a living creature to God for purification, for one’s sins and those of the community, sent a clear message about the gravity of our choices. Sin costs life. Holiness requires giving up sin.

While we may not need to spill a poor goat’s blood to bear this in mind (yaaay), it’s a message that is worth repeating. We see movies, read books, and hear stories about people who seem to gracefully and inspiringly turn their lives around. We know we have aspects of our lives that deny who God created us to be, and I believe many of us want to make the changes necessary to be a more faithful, compassionate, kind, and positively productive version of ourselves. There’s just one hiccup.

It’s hard as hell.

We humans fear uncertainty. We love familiarity, and we are creatures of habit. To change, even when we know it to be necessary, is a frightening prospect because the roots of who we are, the habits that define us, will need to shift, and that is not an easy ask.

But it is entirely worth it.

Jesus’ life highlights how painful it can be to seek to do the will of God in every situation. Indeed, persecution and the inevitability of walking the road to the cross make for quite the challenge. Yet the power of transformation, of the healing and resurrection that come with such a life overshadow that difficulty.

The freedom to live a life unhindered by addiction is worth the withdrawals and shadow-work needed to address one’s unhealthy coping habits.

A love life unstained by one’s relationally catastrophic past is worth the facing and acceptance of uncomfortable truths about what happened “back then.”

Leaving work knowing you positively affected the lives of others is worth the horrifying step of leaving a comfortable yet unfulfilling employment situation in search of meaning.

The peace of mind that you and/or those who depend on you are safe because you made that petrifying phone call to end an abusive situation is worth it.

Whatever the specifics, it is true that it is difficult and scary to transform your life according to God’s will for you. It means giving things up that we think we need. It means sometimes accepting unpleasant truths about ourselves or others, and it means surrendering those things that keep us from acknowledging “that of God” in everyone.

It’s also true, however, that what we give still pales in comparison to the effects of that change. To align ourselves with Christ, to walk in the way of selfless love and action, is worth the cost. His way is one of unity with the Divine and each other, and that’s something this world is in desperate need of.

Sure, we don’t have to use blood-soaked Levitical language to describe the difficulty of change. It may be enough to say that transforming into more Christ-like people is exceedingly difficult and requires that we give up certain things. But I think the severity of the author’s words in the Letter to the Hebrews is a great acknowledgment and reminder of what’s at stake in our choices.

After all, to walk in the way of Christ will cost our life as we know it, and I for one am so glad.

Peace be with you!

Don’t Judge Your Journey…

Do not reproach one who is turning away from sin; remember that we all deserve punishment. Sirach 8:5, NRSV

At age 27, almost 28, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’ve learned lessons about managing emotions, honoring relationships, watching the words of my mouth, and avoiding situations I don’t need to be in. I’ve learned about my relationships with God, religion. and other people. As you can imagine, many of the lessons I have learned came through the undesireable avenue of mistakes made… and I used to hate myself for it.

As a society, it feels like we have gotten in the habit of judging not only the lessons we have learned, but also those others have had to learn. While one person may struggle with addiction, they cannot fathom why someone would cheat on their spouse. When one person works their way to an early grave, neglecting their family and friends, they can’t stand those who are overzealous with their opinions online or at social gatherings. In all these instances, we are resentful of ourselves because we weren’t born perfect, and downright wrathful toward those who have had to learn things we didn’t.

As I said before, I used to HATE that I ever had to learn how to be a decent spouse, son, friend, etc. I hated myself for not having a natural gift for navigating complicated people and situations. On top of that, I would find relief in the obvious flaws of others.

Guy that yelled at me after a sermon? What a jerk!

Lady that flipped me off in traffic for stopping at a stop sign? Rude!

Overzealous Facebook warrior? Crazy!

It feels good to hammer on people who are flawed in ways we are not. We are able to rationalize OUR mistakes because WE have good reasons, right? We couldn’t say the same about others… Could we?

The Book of Sirach teaches that we shouldn’t reproach people “turning away from sin” because “we all deserve punishment.” The language is somewhat condemning, but the message is powerful. Jesus says something similar in Matthew 7:1-5.

In more positive terms, instead of condemning others for their darkness because we don’t want to confront our own, we should remember that just like “them,” we have lessons to learn, and THAT IS OKAY. We are imperfect creatures, and each of us is on a path. When we despise our path, we start to envy or judge those of others, and no one gets anywhere.

Instead, we should mind our own road, fearlessly and compassionately embracing that which we must learn about life and ourselves. In that process, we become more understanding of others and what they are going through. That understanding enables us to lovingly embrace others where they are, possibly helping them along just as Jesus does in the Gospels.

All of this boils down to treating ourselves more kindly. I had to learn through long processes and lots of therapy that my lessons are nothing to fear or be ashamed of. They’ve made me a better man, husband, friend, son, and (God willing) father. The acceptance of who I am and how I got here has also made me more accepting of others, and I believe this is something God desires for us all.

I pray that you will ease up on yourself. Learn the lessons before you, for that’s what mistakes are intended to be. Through them, we learn humility, patience, and how to do better. Embracing that ride also helps us to be more compassionate toward others, and I don’t have to tell you how important that is.

God loves you. I love you. It’s time for you to love you, so you can love others.

Peace be with you!

Hiding From God

Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. — Romans 13:14, NRSV

I have many delightful and powerfully spiritual memories associated with traditional Christianity. The Eucharist, my baptism, preaching from a gorgeous Lutheran pulpit in Kentucky, and many such qualities of what would be called “orthodox” Christian circles are firmly and fondly planted in my mind and heart. Then there are… other memories.

Having come of age “in church,” I was always struck by the obsession with “grace” that seemed to yield very little in practice. God forgives us, yet we frequently stone one another for anything and everything. We also claim to believe that humans (along with all creation) are fundamentally good, having been created with the image and breath of God on and within us (Genesis 1:27 and 2:7). But when passages like the one above from Romans came up, there always seems to be this idea that we need Jesus to act as a spiritual, bullet-proof vest of sorts.

In this passage, Paul is talking about setting aside “the works of darkness” in favor of living honorably “as in the day” (13:12-13). We are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (13:14). In this context, we are encouraged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which many take to mean that we cover up who we are so that God only sees Jesus, thereby granting us mercy. 

I think this is a deeply flawed interpretation.

If this is true, it means that God isn’t interested in a relationship with us so much as with a multitude of Jesus clones. The message this sends is that we must hide from God behind Jesus so that our awful, sinful selves can be overlooked. Unfortunately, this is what I was often taught, either explicitly or implicitly by well-meaning teachers and pastors throughout the years. We see this idea put forth in literature, in the pulpit, in our worship songs, and in our liturgy.

What we don’t realize is this kind of thinking reinforces every negative cycle and belief with regard to ourselves and how we perceive our connection to the Divine.

If the “Good News” is that Jesus allows us to hide ourselves from God, that’s… not good. I also don’t believe this to be what the passage is getting at. It seems that to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is to act in a particular way in this life. It’s to walk in discipleship, following the example of love and Divine connection that we have in Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, to “put on Christ” is to be who we were always meant to be!

God doesn’t intend for us to go around in fearful self-loathing masquerading as faith. To follow Jesus is not to hide behind Him, for God doesn’t want us to hide, but to be who we really are. To lead a life of love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, integrity, and peace is nothing more than to embrace all of the gifts which God has given us.

The Good News is that God sees you for who you really are: a good and blessed creation that bears His image and likeness. He sees past your mistakes and sins, loving all of you in a more complete way than anyone else ever could. What remains is for us to act like this is the case, and that is what it means to “put on Christ.”

In Jesus, we see the ideal human and the ideal relationship with the Divine. Jesus fully embraced the Divine within Him, and He invites you and I to do the same as His disciples. God doesn’t want you to hide behind Jesus, but to join our Lord in openly embracing your true nature, which is fundamentally and irrevocably good. The cool thing is that doing this also means treating everyone and everything else in the same way, as all are beautiful manifestations of God’s creative power. So let’s get to it!

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!