Class is in Session

I was reading Matthew 23 last night, where Jesus says to his disciples, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.” You can find the whole chapter for context here. I know that the passage takes place within the Christ-disciple dynamic, but I can never help but expand things to a more universal perspective.

After all, we are all students, aren’t we? I mean, some of us are harder to teach than others, but we are all making our way through life not always knowing what we are doing. We are constantly having to stretch and grow and learn, and the only time we really fail is when we dare to believe that we know it all.

Everyone is at a different phase in their learning, and condemning someone for that is hypocritical, as all of us have areas in which we could make some improvement. Sure, there are ideas and practices that need to be called out, altered, and/or stopped, but too often we confuse ideas with people, taking out systemic frustrations on individual humans. What’s needed instead is compassion and empathy alongside righteous action, because God knows there isn’t a person alive or dead who “got it all right.”

By the same token, we need to be more gracious with ourselves. When we see our failures as indicators of who we are rather than lessons to be learned, we begin to define ourselves by those failures. We become self-fulfilling prophecies, caught in a horrible cycle of self-judgment and self-sabotage.

Life is one enormous lesson, and we are all students. We are each at different phases of our lesson plan, just trying to get to the next step. This should be a source of solidarity, not division.

Ultimately, every belief system, every way of being in the world is an attempt to understand the mystery of our existence. We may interpret this Mystery in different ways that don’t always agree, but the fact that we are all struggling and striving in this work in some shape or form should cause us to lock arms and march toward that Mystery together.

Peace be with you!

Gaining Wisdom

“…acquire wisdom, acquire perception, never forget her, never deviate from my words.” — Proverbs 4:5, JB

I’ve been reading Proverbs recently and this little snippet caught my attention. Proverbs is all about gaining wisdom, acquiring it, and learning how to live life in full connection with God. What struck me is that wisdom is something to be gained, not something you either have or lack with no recourse.

The reason I found this idea so powerful is because, when I look around at the way our society treats people who make mistakes, it is clear that our standards for each other (and ourselves) are too damned high.

I’ve grown much wiser in the past few years, but that was after mistake after screw up after pitfall. It took a lot of lessons, often repeated with a healthy dose of karmic discipline, for me to grow into a better, wiser human being. In the midst of all those lessons, I lost respect, friends, and colleagues.

When I see other people make mistakes or having their skeletons thrust out of the proverbial closet, I see much of the same. Friends and family members curse, deride, or abandon. Society mocks, points fingers, all while securing the lock on their own closets even tighter. There is no compassion, no chance for redemption, no assumption that someone could do better.

Reading Proverbs, however, reminds me that when I look at my life and my failings, I am really seeing a long journey of lessons learned that enabled me to be the man I am today. I am proud of that man, and of the boy who never gave up so that yhis man could exist today. Further, I’m reminded that everyone has lessons to learn, and my job is to accept where each person is on their journey.

Does this mean sitting back and accepting or condoning abuse, hatred, or misconduct? Of course not. It does mean, however, that in all of our attempts to do and enforce what is right, we should also be compassionately present for those who are in the midst of the painful process of gaining wisdom.

Wisdom, knowledge, and righteousness are all things we pursue and gain as we live life. Unfortunately, learning in life often means making mistakes, sometimes a lot of them. Understanding this means not abandoning each other or writing people off. Rather, we should connect with those who, like us, are having to embrace some of life’s more painful teachings. After all, isn’t that what each of us would want?

Peace be with you!

For Good

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28, RSV

The challenge coin in the image above is a small(ish) thing that I carry with me every single day. A lot of people get these tokens for far more important reasons, and, if we’re being honest, you can even purchase them. So why is it so important to me?

This coin is a daily reminder for me that I may never know the full scope of my life. Further, it’s a testament to God’s ability to take our worst moments and turn them into something beautiful and edifying. This isn’t some cheesy “lemons and lemonade” theology. I am actually arguing that no moment, good or bad, determines our future indefinitely. What’s more, no moment in our lives should be taken for granted, for it could become a means by which we become characters that advance the story of God’s salvation.

If you read my post about my attempted suicide at age 11, you know that such a moment produces lasting effects. I still deal with depression and suicidal ideation, albeit in far healthier ways than when I was a child. It’s still “there” in my relationships with loved ones, and long ago, I accepted that would be the case.

What I did not foresee, however, was how such a dark experience would enrich my life.

My post on suicide found its way to a Lieutenant Colonel at Goodfellow Air Force Base. For those of you that don’t know, our armed services have a horrific suicide rate. The pressures of training and the things these people have to see take a hefty toll that we still don’t properly acknowledge as a nation. As it turns out, the Lt. Col.’s squadron was going to take part in suicide prevention training two weeks after I posted the article.

A few emails and a phone call later, I was set to travel to Goodfellow AFB and share my experience out loud, in full detail, for the first time ever, in front of 40 or so Airmen. No pressure. I drove down feeling relatively calm, but once I arrived, it became a different story. I realized Dad and I had never talked about this. We never discussed this topic after it happened. I was glad he was there to support me, and to hear that it wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t know how that was going to impact him. On top of that, right before I was to speak, I went to the restroom, where I saw a handicap rail.

Normally, I ignore handicap rails. I am glad restrooms have them. But not this day. This day, I wanted to tear off the wall the very thing I had tried to hang myself from as a boy. Somehow, though, after a lot of shaking and praying, I found myself talking and baring my darker side to a lobby full of total strangers. And Dad.

When it was over, there was applause I couldn’t really hear from people I couldn’t really see regarding an experience I couldn’t really process. I took some questions, bowed out gracefully, and then the Lt. Col. shook my hand. It was in this handshake that he passed me the challenge coin as a token of gratitude. In the moment, I was unable to truly appreciate such a gift from a service member, but now my heart is humbled by it. I am also grateful for the physical reminder that an experience that was so ugly for me had become a means by which I could bless others.

The Scripture verse at the start of this post is used to justify all kinds of theology regarding the will of God and the problem of evil, but I am honestly not interested in that today. Rather, I want to affirm the truth that God honors our trust in Him by taking our moments of pain or weakness and making them into a blessing by which His will may be accomplished.

If had not been the one to attempt suicide at age 11, this particular talk and this particular service to this particular group of service men and women would not have happened. Several in this group had been touched by the problems of mental health and suicide in the armed services. My connection to this base and my experience as a boy led to a moment in which those feelings could be validated and addressed.

Further, if I had not gone through the painful process of being fired from a ministry job, and if I had not chosen to leave my long-beloved denomination, I would not have started this blog. I would have remained in a job that actually discouraged me from sharing this very story of my life. While my life would have been smoother and more comfortable, my purpose would have actually been cut short. My firing led to my leaving. My leaving led to this blog. This blog led to that post, and that post led to a moment of service to those who serve.

In John 6, Jesus ducks a crowd for fear of being placed in a position of power. In verse 15, we see that, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” If Jesus had allowed himself to be made king, he would have been powerful in a way to which we humans could relate. He would have been like every other person exacting judgment and promoting power from the top down. Instead, he withdrew, in order that he would become the Christ we all needed to see.

Likewise, moments of humiliation or pain in life seem to be causes for shame and disgrace. For God, however, they are fertile ground for our humble participation in His kingdom. If we remain open to His love and Spirit, even in the darkest moments of life, we can rest assured that opportunities will arise in which we can draw on that experience in order to heal and edify others. In doing so, we are also edified and healed.

All of this is why I carry this coin every day. It’s not a trophy or statement of how awesome or brave I am. Instead, it serves as a humbling reminder of God’s undeserved activity in my life. Even when I stumble or fall, God is always working for good, and the same can also be true for you. .

Peace be with you!

Dismiss Others, Dismiss God

He came to his hometown and began to teach the people[h] in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? — Matthew 13:54-55, NRSV

We limit our perspectives a lot, especially when we are being confronted with information we have already decided not to believe or entertain. Look at how we treat various news sources. If we lean “left” on the political spectrum, we sneer at Fox News or The Federalist. If we tend “right,” we dismiss out of hand reporting done by CNN, NBC, or NPR.

When I was working in ministry professionally, and even still today, my seminary education from Perkins School of Theology would be counted against me under the assumption that I was nothing more than an indoctrinated theological liberal. My lack of military experience counts against me when I argue on behalf of my Muslim friends, or if I dare to question the reasons our brave service members are sent to risk their lives. Knowledge of my past sins sometimes causes others to take any wisdom I may offer with a grain of salt.

For Jesus, in the story I quote above, the fact that he was in his hometown, surrounded by people with whom he had grown up and share life, counted against His being understood as the Messiah. We are told that “he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). Because the people of Nazareth knew His family and His humble beginnings, they missed out on the powerful Good News Jesus had been bringing to other places.

In the same way, when we dismiss others before we even get a chance to hear what they are saying, we miss out on countless moments in which the Holy Spirit might be trying to speak to us. Even if we have heard the same words countless times, this next encounter could reveal something completely different for us to consider and be affected by if we would only leave our ears and hearts open. As Balaam learned in Numbers 22, whatever source we view as unlikely or beneath us may actually be the way in which God chooses to get our attention.

So what does this mean for us?

We must stop dismissing each other just because we assume we know the truth. When we fail to listen and be open to one another, we harm our relationships and potentially limit the means by which God might speak to us. God can do what God wants, but He wants our active participation in Eternal Life, which means loving Him by loving our neighbor. If we ignore, dismiss, or deride our neighbor, it’s safe to say that we are not open to the work of God either.

My prayer for you, myself, and this world of ours is that we may all go forward from this moment with open ears, open eyes, and open hearts. This does not mean that we don’t get to have our own opinions, but it does mean that we don’t let our opinions get in the way of loving and respecting each other, no matter how much we don’t know or how much we think we know. This is a difficult, lifelong, but totally worthy endeavor that can transform and enhance our encounters with our neighbors and the living God. So let’s get started!

Peace be with you!

 

Sacrifice Isn’t Sacrifice

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. — Matthew 25:32-33, NRSV

I live in a country that speaks often of sacrifice. We extol the virtues of our military and civil service members, revering the sacrifices they make to keep our nations safe and free. Movies portray characters that give of themselves to a heroic degree, always affecting some sort of monumental change at the end. Not surprisingly, we also lift up Jesus and His sacrifice, which grants us forgiveness and understanding of God’s insurmountable love.

With all that in mind, I believe we are very unhealthy when it comes to the notion of sacrifice and the “hero-worship” to which this nation subscribes. It is right that we respect the choice of those who join our military out of a love for family and country. This becomes problematic, however, when we are no longer allowed to question the legitimacy of the causes for which they are made to fight. Further, our respect seems to be mere lip service in a country with such high veteran unemployment and suicide rates.

Our police officers should be respected and given every chance and resource to safely and effectively keep our streets free of crime and violence. This goes too far, however, when the justice system cannot be challenged for its injustices against the poor and people of color. Again, our praise falls short when budgets, paychecks, and training protocols don’t reflect a desire for safety when it comes to our officers and civilians.

Parenthood requires self-sacrifice and putting the needs of others before ourselves. Problems arise when this idea is used to send an abused wife or child back to their home with the misguided hope of “keeping the family together” and “suffering as Christ suffered.” Again, what is a good notion of self-giving becomes an occasion by which innocents pay the price for the misdeeds of others.

I hope you noticed an important distinction. I am in no way criticizing the individuals who are simply trying to do what is right, but I am casting a suspicious look on the powers that make use of their good intentions. Blaming individual persons for structural issues is unproductive, and I do not want to be misunderstood.

So what is my point here? Sacrifice in and of itself is not necessarily a good or blessed thing. It matters who is doing the sacrificing, and it also matters for what they are making the sacrifice. Further, it is important to note that sacrifice, in the Christian sense, is not to be limited to our heroes. It’s the call of all people who claim to follow Jesus.

The text of Scripture that motivated this point is Matthew 25:31-46, known commonly as “The Sheep and the Goats” or “The Judgment of the Nations.” The “sheep” are those who, at the final judgment, are commended for their care of others (verses 34-40). As they did to “least of these,” so they did to Christ (verse 40). Notice the “sheep” have no idea that they were serving Jesus, just that they were doing the right thing!

Now, to truly care for another person, we must sacrifice ourselves. To feed, give water, clothe, visit, and comfort, we must give of our comfort and resources. This kind of sacrifice must be made of our own volition, utilizing our gift of freewill to honor God.

The “goats” also make sacrifices… out of others. They receive criticism for refusing the same compassion evident in the lives of the “sheep” (verses 41-45), and they pay the penalty for such selfish behavior (verse 46). When we decide not to care for others, we sacrifice them for the sake of our comfort, security, and self-preservation.

Now, it was no accident that sheep and goats were chosen to represent these two divisions of people. Both animals are used for sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the parallel makes perfect sense! Sheep are used as freewill offerings, while goats are the offerings for sin. Creepy, right?

One represents an offering of free will to God. The other represents a necessary sacrifice because of the power of human sin. The “sheep” sacrifice themselves by choice, offering comfort and peace to the afflicted. When we get to the “goats,” we see those who sacrifice others for the sake of themselves.

The latter is not a worthy sacrifice, and here is the takeaway: God will vindicate those who are sacrificed by executing justice on those who take advantage of them… as well as executing judgment on those who allow this to happen. It is here that we have a serious implication for this world and our tendency toward hero-worship.

When we pay lip service to those with genuine, self-sacrificing motives, we fail to truly honor what they have given. For example, if we look to Christ as a hero as opposed to an example, we fail to realize the truly transformative power of what He has done. We are called to take up our cross and follow, not to sit underneath the cross and be grateful that we no longer have a dog in this fight.

A more desirable alternative is to embody the values we extol in others, recognizing them as examples for us to follow. We should be willing to make sacrifices so that all may live full and blessed lives without having to bear the weight of our selfishness. This means asking the questions, taking the chances, and making the generous choices, even when all of this is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Now, I am not laying the world’s fate at your feet. This is a work that will not be completed until Christ comes to restore all things… but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a role to play. Start small. As always, I believe in examining our daily lives, finding opportunities to extend hospitality, keep silence, and work for justice. Whether it’s the man begging on a corner, the co-worker having a hard time, or that unbearable family member, our day-to-day decisions will bear witness to our willingness to sacrifice either ourselves or each other.

Instead of leaning on others to do what we will not, the life of Christ calls us to join the large family of people who bear witness to the love of God by their lives of chosen self-giving. Rather than merely talking of our heroes, let’s respect them fully by doing our part, walking the way of the Cross together, that we all may experience the life of God that awaits us.

Peace be with you!

For the Days I Don’t Believe

No, you didn’t misread the title. There are days when the idea of believing  in and connecting with the Source of all Being in the universe makes no sense to me. Usually, these days are spawned by my rebellious nature. Someone tells me what I should believe or what people of my faith believe, and my instant response is to resist when the subject appears to be arbitrary or unknowable.

Do you ever have those days? I bet you do. I have found that people are reluctant to admit it because, as I covered in a previous post, doubt is not considered acceptable by many in the Christian world. It is often seen as a weakness, and people like me are often blamed for our unbelief and the inability to “feel connected” to God.

This is consistent with current worldly trends. Faith is seen as a matter of feeling, so we seek worship environments with plenty of good music and lighting. When we don’t get what we want, we move on until we do, never thinking that our dependence on how we feel is getting in the way of our worship.

Our world also promotes tribalism. Whether it’s politics, social causes, or our faith, it is considered weakness to question the groups to which belong. After all, there is no security in admitting we might be wrong.

Yesterday was one of those days when I didn’t feel like a believer. My connection to God just wasn’t there, and my mind was deconstructing everything to which I normally devote myself. It was a rough day, but like all such days, an important lesson was close at hand.

Today, I stand as a believer, a person of the Way of Christ, not because I feel fuzzy when I think about it, and not because there was an open, front-row parking spot at Target this morning.  I believe by choice. I believe because I have an entire life story to look back upon wherein I see the power of my faith at work in my life.

My faith has made me a better man. It has sustained me in some of the darkest and most painful moments in my life. Days may come when my feelings and thoughts betray me, but in the end, I have to make a choice. We all do.

I don’t know if this is a struggle you have, but if so, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Instead of relying solely on how you feel or how well you’re able to rationalize your faith, I encourage you to remember the powerful transformation brought about by belief in Jesus. If you don’t have that experience, I pray that you will decide to strive for it. In any case, don’t judge yourself for questioning. It can actually be a healthy practice for your faith!

If you don’t struggle with your faith and tend to… admonish (judge) those who do, please stop. Compassion is part of the Christian witness, and when we fail to show it to everyone, we fail to walk in the Way. It is scary when people we know and love express doubt in something so dear to us, but it’s important to remember that love, support, and camaraderie stand a much better chance of promoting faith and peace than judgment and fear tactics.

Jesus let’s us know that faith is costly, and it won’t bring us all the peace, security, and prosperity we crave in life. Rather, we will be met with persecutions. We are told, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 21:16-17, NRSV). There are going to be days when the Way of Jesus doesn’t seem appealing. So what then?

We have to make a choice. Faith is a decision to walk in the Way, even when it doesn’t appear to do anything for us. When we make the choice to worship and act in faith in spite of our feelings and doubts, we are actually closer to the heart and mind of Christ.

I pray that you will join me in making this choice. It is a Way of adversity and self-sacrifice. Days will come when it makes perfect sense for us to want to abandon it. However, we must remember that it is also the Way of God’s transforming love, which makes the risks well worth it.

Peace be with you!

The Benefit of Not Belonging

Life’s hard when you don’t feel like you fit. I’ve felt that way a lot in my life, whether with family, friends, or just observing a world that didn’t feel like home in any way. Other people’s values seldom align with my own, and when you’re surrounded by difference, it can feel like a curse.

I am here to tell you that it is a blessing.

I was reading through Numbers a couple of days ago (the most exciting book of the Bible…), and I stumbled upon a passage that got me thinking about this topic of journeying through a “strange land.” In chapter 2, God is giving Moses the layout for Israel’s camp, how each of the tribes is to line up facing each of the Cardinal Directions with three facing east (2:3-9), three facing south (2:10-16), three facing west (2:18-24), and three facing north (2:25-31).

In verse 17, though, we see that the Levites are set apart. “The tent of meeting, with the camp of the Levites, shall set out in the center of the camps; they shall set out just as they camp, each in position, by their regiments.” While the Levites are technically members of Israel, they camp out in the midst of the tribes rather than with them. Because they are the chosen priesthood of God, they are “not enrolled among the other Israelites” (2:33).

Christians are also meant to be a priesthood chosen by God. You’ve probably heard the phrase “in the world, but not of it,” taken from an interpretation of the Gospel of John, chapter 17. It is intended that Christians find their citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20), not anywhere on earth. In short, we are supposed to live our lives in a state of “not belonging.” Why is that?

Put simply, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Sure, Jesus is talking about wealth in this specific context, but the truth still holds for other aspects of life. Too many people put their political affiliations, personal desires, national identity, or social status before their faith. Many people in today’s world have fallen into the trap of serving a worldly master to the exclusion of God, choosing sides over and against each other.

This is where the outsiders come in. Just as doubt is a gift to be utilized for the benefit of all, so is one’s place as an outsider. The Levites are chosen out of Israel because they are to mediate between the people and God, making atonement for the sins of the people. Prophets were called to proclaim a message of change and repentance to their audiences, no matter who they were. Christians are to be the people of God who live and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus and stand by it, even if it means sacrificing themselves.

People who “don’t fit” have a responsibility to use their voice. The benefit of being “on the outside” while in the midst of this crazy world is that those kinds of people tend not to get sucked into some of the crazy allegiances that pit us against the rest of our earthly brothers and sisters. Don’t get me wrong, we all have our idols, but when we walk as “strangers in a strange land,” we become free enough to ask the tough questions of ourselves and others.

Without blind allegiance, there is nothing that can’t be questioned. This world needs people who are willing to question even the most sacred human institutions and practices. If we don’t do that, we simply fall deeper and deeper into the idolatrous cycles that fuel our hatred and malice toward one another.

So you may feel like you don’t fit. Lord knows I do. As I have said before, this doesn’t mean you are broken. Rather, it means you have something valuable to contribute. If you are finding yourself convicted by this post, that’s fine as well. Let the Scriptures comfort and guide you. If we embrace our “outsider” nature and recognize our hope as being something greater than us and this world, we can rest assured that the Spirit of God will move in our lives to a powerful and transformative degree.

Peace be with you!