God, Help Us

Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.Hebrews 2:18, NRSV

Believe it or not, you’re being tested. So am I. All of us are.

Life is an assortment of tests.

When we encounter people with whom we disagree, we are being tested.

When we are faced with the choice of being generous or closing our hands, we are being tested.

When the world is full of hunger and poverty, and when people are suffering at and within our own borders, we are being tested.

Testing from God is often viewed negatively, as though God is waiting for us to slip up. However, according to Hebrews 2, God’s will is to help us in the midst of testing. It’s not that God sends us means by which we may fall, but those occasions come naturally and God, in Jesus, gives us a blueprint by which we may emerge victorious.

God desires for each of us to be successful in the imitation of Christ’s love, especially in those moments where it may be all too tempting to choose a more selfish path. The love of Jesus led Him to the cross rather than saving Himself at the expense of His message that honoring God and all His children is a cause worth dying for. Salvation in Christ is unity with His will, empowering us to follow in His footsteps when temptation strikes.

The faithful are charged with the responsibility of acting differently in the face of adversity. Like Christ, we are to forgive when affronted, and we are to actively care for those whom the world has forgotten or cast aside. We are to love those we’d prefer to hate, and we are to make our voices heard in the face of injustice.

So take heart. Yes, we are surrounded by tests, but God would prefer us to see these temptations as opportunities to witness to the Divine’s insurmountable love. When faced with a choice in which we are tempted to serve ourselves, let us look to Christ and remember that how we treat others is indicative of how we relate to God. I pray we all may fight the good fight by feeding the hungry, advocating for those in prison or immigration detention centers, forgiving our enemies, and trading love for injury.

We have help in God. We are never alone. Let us look to His grace and share it with one another.

This world cannot bear for us to do any less.

Peace be with you!

A Blessedly Tense Week

For the last two weeks or so, I had been in the midst of a spiritual beating. If you have ever seriously been a part of a faith for a long time, you know there are moments when you question the validity of what you’re doing with your belief, time, and gifts. For me, this was a hefty instance of that. Years and years of doubt and resentment came boiling to the surface in the form of apathy and denial.

I’ve always struggled with certain aspects of orthodox Christian belief. The Trinity, Church authority, and the idea that a corpse rose from the dead 2,000 years ago all fail to appeal to me at times. In the last two weeks, this sense of resistance was heightened to the point that I thought I was becoming what would essentially be a Unitarian with very little investment in traditional Christianity outside of believing in one God. I felt I was being torn from something I had always loved, defended, and tried (unsuccessfully) to follow.

Fast forward to Maundy Thursday.

I was driving to our church, an Episcopal parish, representing all I was currently detaching from. Frankly, I was dreading sitting through the foot washing and Communion service.

At the end of my rope, I decided to pray. I asked God to lead me and guide me to the truth. I wasn’t strong enough to try to manage the journey I was on, and I was desperate to experience some level of peace.

Welp. God showed up.

I walked in the doors and was greeted by the smile of our wonderful clergy. I took a seat and prepared for what I thought would be a liturgical ass-whooping, only to be pleasantly surprised by a rapidly building spiritual experience that I’ve only had maybe one or two times in my life.

The music and readings aligned perfectly with where I was. My favorite hymn (“What Wondrous Love is This”) preceded the Gospel reading, and when our deacon read John’s foot-washing account, I was undone. I actually felt tears forming in my eyes as I was overwhelmed with God’s simple response to all of the complicated theological and religious pondering I had been losing sleep over.

“It’s not about that stuff.”

Just like that. I settled into worship with a renewed sense of comfort that I’d been trying to reach for all of my Christian life.

So what’s the point of this story?

I can tell you it’s not to dump on Unitarians. It’s also not to tell you that a desperate prayer will fix whatever problem you face. I also should say that I don’t intend to stop questioning and examining the faith to which I have dedicated myself.

I suppose the teaching I want to put forth is the one I received from God in that moment of brokenness.

“It’s not about that stuff.”

It’s not about all of humanity’s formulas concerning the substance and essence of God. It’s not about the historicity of the miraculous claims of the Bible. It’s not about being right.

It’s about actually, honestly, and expectantly seeking God.

The relief for me came not with answers to all of my theological questions, but with God’s presence with me in a moment of deep need. I can say this was the first time I remember actually opening myself up to that possibility, with no exceptions, add-ons, or parameters. It was a moment of actually seeking what God had in mind for me instead of trying to make God work through my own sense of logic and reason.

So what about all of those other details? They are, after all, pretty important.

I know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a story that has changed my life. I have experienced the truth of its teachings firsthand, and I do believe that God’s nature and work are revealed in the Incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. For now, for me, that is enough. I am more than content to sit in that tension, not knowing exactly how it all works or what the “historical reality” might be.

There’s no real “wrap-up” here. I simply hope that this testimony of mine is useful and edifying for you. Life isn’t about having everything figured out and in place. It’s a journey on which we are to learn about God, each other, and ourselves, and sometimes all we can do is sit in the glorious tension of it all.

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!

 

 

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.

Why Bother With Prayer?

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. — Matthew 6:7-8, RSV

I am becoming a more and more consistent member of an Episcopalian ministry called The Brotherhood of Saint Andrew, which sounds a bit esoteric, but it’s actually an open men’s ministry that meets several times a month for food, Scripture, and prayer. This past week, we had a wonderful (and lengthy) conversation regarding confidence in prayer. While we began talking about being confident in prayer, we ended with a more general discussion of the purpose of praying at all.

This isn’t a new topic. If all is God’s will, why bother trying to change it? Or what about the ethics of praying for God’s favor to the exclusion of others? What does it mean when we seem to go unanswered or unacknowledged? Does God not love us? Does God not exist?

All of these questions were spoken or implied regarding prayer in our meeting this past Saturday, but we kept coming back to the purpose of prayer. Out of nowhere, I was struck with a response that stems from an experience I had in childhood.

It all begins with a hacky sack. I was a young boy, and hacky sacks were still a common form of entertainment. Texas is hot, however, and I much preferred to work out my new “skills” in the comfort of our air-conditioned living room. I hope you can see where this is going.

I was asked repeatedly not to keep playing in the house, but as a pre-teen, I obviously had it under control, and my parents were overreacting. Naturally, I got a little over-ambitious and broke the glass in a picture frame. After the panic subsided, I thought, “Glass is clear! I’ll just get rid of the glass and put the frame back up like nothing ever happened!” This obviously went off without a hitch, and my parents came home, noticed, walked into my room, and asked me about the frame.

Now, my parents knew the glass was broken and gone. So why did they ask? It was clearly a combination of entrapment and moral examination, but it was also an opportunity. If I had chosen to lie, this would have done damage to our relationship. It would be a sign that I didn’t trust them to handle the truth well, and it would also be a sign that they couldn’t trust me. So I opted for honesty, and our relationship took a step forward.

Too often, we view prayer as an exchange of goods rather than a moment of vulnerability and an enhancement of our relationship with God. Sure, we should pour out our petitions before God, but we also need to know that God knows what we need and will give it to us, regardless of whether or not it’s what we are requesting. But the reason we ought to pray and pour our hearts out to God is because that show of trust and reliance with regard to our Creator is something that will cause powerful transformation in life with God and life with others.

Opening up to God is about relationship maintenance, not receiving whatever we want. Too many people twist passages of Scripture out of context, and Matthew’s “Ask, Search, and Knock” passage is often viewed outside of the discussions of prayer and worrying in chapter 6. Remembering that the Bible was written without chapters and verses, we should note that Jesus lays out parameters within which we are to “Ask, Search, and Knock,” and the only way we can meet those is if we meet God with honesty, simplicity, and trust. We need relationship before “results,” and too often we switch those.

If you struggle with prayer and its purpose, you’re not alone. We live in a capitalist world where every relationship and act is a means of gaining something. God, however, doesn’t operate that way. God desires our honesty and trust in prayer because He wants a relationship with us because He loves us. Period. Likewise, we should also seek relationship with Him without expecting prayer to function like a vending machine.

I hope this post has let you know that struggle with prayer is not uncommon. Your doubts are not strange, nor do they have to be an impediment to your relationship with the living God. If we honestly lift our faults, fears, doubts, and concerns to God (with praise and thanksgiving for all the blessings of our lives), we are vulnerable in a way that opens our lives up to a transformative relationship with the One who loved us first and loves us still.

Peace be with you!

A Question of Sides

Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Joshua 5:13-14, NRSV

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of always having to have a “stance.” Our world is all about finding ways to divide us, usually over issues that provoke our most intense emotional responses. Pro-choice, pro-life, Republican, Democrat, this or that religion, pro-closed borders, pro-immigration reform, pro-gun, anti-gun, cat people, dog people, and the list just goes on and on and on.

It’s exhausting. There is always someone getting angry, upset, or offended. Sometimes, that’s just life, but it’s also the case that the sharp divisions in our society have left everyone’s nerves exposed.

So what are we to do?

I guess we could keep digging our heels in, willing to fall on whatever sword our “camp” chooses for us. We could keep treating one another as either ally or enemy, unable to discuss the deepest issues of human existence because to do so would cause untold relational damage.

Or…

We could not.

Looking to the passage from Joshua’s story, we see a situation in which he puts to God the question we all face. “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” The divine answer is, “Yeah, man! Your side! Definitely!”

Wait…

God’s answer is actually that the Divine is neither of the Israelites nor of their adversaries. God is on God’s side, the side of mercy, justice, and transformation. So I guess the question is whether or not we who claim to be disciples are on that same side…

More often than not, we choose to be on a path other than God’s. In fact, whenever we draw our lines in the sand over and against the other people in this world that God created, we leave the path of righteousness. But good news!

There is an alternative.

Now, the world tells us there isn’t. We MUST decide, otherwise we are wishy-washy, and the issues that follow are our fault. This isn’t true, though.

To choose God’s side is freedom. We are free to hold a variety of positions that put people first, and not our little tribes. We are at liberty to honor one another (and God) with our choices rather than dismissing or demonizing each other.

This doesn’t mean we don’t stand for something. To honor each other and the life we share is not a timid, neutral stance. It’s also not self-glorifying or “sexy,” full of hashtags, angry articles, and half-truths.

I know it’s ironic for me to write a critique of having to pick sides while offering another one, but hey… That’s just how it’s going to have to be. But the difference here is that God’s side aligns us with the welfare and concerns of all people, not just those in our respective “clans,” and I feel like that is an important distiction.

I pray you will choose the third way, rather than the two sides always being peddled by the world. It’s not an easy path, and it won’t make you famous, but I guarantee it can change the world.

Peace be with you!

“You’re Worth Everything to Me”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. — John 3:16, NRSV

I don’t know about you, but there are many times that I don’t feel like I am worth much. Whether I’m struggling to feel deserving of love or the inability to forgive myself, there are just times when I can’t seem to see much good in who I am. This is a common affliction for many people, especially those of us who deal with depression, and that’s why I thought this story needed to be told.

Over the past year or so, I have been more or less stuck in a constant state of low self-worth. The loss of my career, calling, and spirituality all in one fell swoop left me reeling, and while the resulting personal growth has been tremendous, it’s come at the cost of my sense of identity. About two weeks ago, things had been particularly rough in that regard… But then I went to Mass at our Episcopal Church.

Now this isn’t a story about church or prayer fixing everything. I know things aren’t typically that simple, so don’t check out just yet. But as I was sitting in prayerful reflection before service, kneeling in the pew, my crucifix in my hands, I had an experience that I’ve never had before.

In the midst of pouring my heart out, pleading for guidance and consolation, words came into my mind. I didn’t hear a voice, but they were just… there. As I knelt there agonizing over my life and whether or not I was doing or being anything worthwhile, the words, “You’re worth everything to me” came to mind. The thought was so out-of-place, and it caused me to look down at my beloved talisman with new eyes.

Paul teaches us in Romans 5 that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In that moment, I realized the truth that before I even existed, before I ever did anything considered good or bad, God, in Christ, gave His very life that I may know the extent of His love. He did this not just for me, but for you as well. Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are to serve as reminders that God’s love for all of us is powerful enough to overcome every doubt and fear.

Since that moment, I have known far more peace than I ever remember having. I still have my depression and self-doubts, but I also have this experience from which to draw strength, and I wanted to share it with you in the hopes that it might remind you how loved you really are. The symbol of faith that I have always loved, the crucifix, used to be a reminder to me that sin costs life. Now, it is a reminder that the love of God is limitless, and that God saw us as worth dying for before we ever set foot on this planet.

I’ve become painfully aware in recent days that we are more and more obsessed with measuring each other’s worth in terms of whose side we are on. What do we accomplish? Did they get the right education? Did he vote for the right candidate? Does she agree with me? All of these questions and more seem to be the new standard by which we determine whether or not someone is deserving of our love and respect. It seems to me that such harsh judgment is an indication of how hard we actually are on ourselves, projected onto others.

Your worth does not consist of what you do or don’t do. Your value is not based on how you look, what you possess, or what mistakes you do or don’t make. God decided long before we were here that we are to be called “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and that we are to bear His divine image for the benefit of the world.

It is my prayer that this brief testimony serves you in whatever way you need. I hope you come away reminded of the insurmountable love God has for you, and that you always remember that you, as you are, are more than enough.

Peace be with you!