More Is Less

Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”Hebrews 13:5, NRSV

There is a song I love by Foster The People called “Ask Yourself.” The chorus has a line that has always spoken to me.

“And you say that dreamers always get what they desire, but I’ve found the more I want, the less I’ve got.”

It’s always been a sobering reminder to me that “more” is not always more. When I stress about my training business or the trajectory of my life according to the “worldly” standards of success, it’s important that I ground myself in the knowledge that it’s okay to opt out of the rat race. It’s okay to be content.

This flies in the face of nearly all advice we are force-fed by those who have “made it,” as well as those who wish they could. The conventional wisdom of today is to push and push and push until we have achieved it all. To reach a place of contentment is to “settle” or “quit” if it occurs before the world can declare us successful.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews caught onto this long ago. The quote from Hebrews 13 comes from a conversation about maintaining a faithful life, and the drive for “more” is seen (rightfully) as a distraction from living for God by being at peace with ourselves and seeking the welfare of others. As Jesus says. “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

Does this mean we shouldn’t have goals or that we shouldn’t strive to do our best in this life? No!

BUT.

If we allow that pursuit and effort to dominate our lives to the detriment of our self-care and our compassion, we have fallen into the trap of insecurity and greed, and we need to recalibrate. If we cannot enjoy life right now in this moment, no amount of money or accomplishments will magically enable us to do differently. Life is not beautiful because of what we have or do. It’s beautiful because it “is” and because we “are.”

Only when we can be content in this sense of “being” can we live in peace, balance, and in right relationship with the Divine and each other.

So let’s make that happen.

Peace be with you!

A Christian/Muslim Project

…and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. — Luke 9:2, NRSV

I am excited to announce that my friend Ekram and I are working on a joint writing project that will (hopefully) provide an interesting dose of inspiration and learning for those who are interested. We don’t have a title worked out, but the work will be an interfaith devotional, comprised of alternating daily quotes and reflections from the Christian Bible and the Muslim Qur’an. For those of you who don’t know, I worked with Ekram on a text he published a while back, which you can read about here.

Now, I have been asked why I’d want to do this kind of project and why interfaith work is so important to me. I think these are fair questions, especially in a world like ours. We see a lot of division, a lot of fear, and a lot of lazy responses to both of those things. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what is happening here.

I believe disciples of Jesus are obligated to contribute to the healing of the world. Jesus, in Luke 6:9, highlights the necessity of intentional healing activity when He asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” There is no option to “do nothing.” To not act in a manner that brings light and life into the world is to do the opposite.

Further, the quote at the start of this post is from Luke 9, when Jesus sends his disciples out into the surrounding area to participate in His work of sharing God’s Kingdom. They were sent to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” and that is what I feel I am doing by participating in interfaith work.

Much of the world’s tribalism, hatred, and distrust can be found in the religious realm. Many in my context fear the entire religion of Islam and anything associated with it, and that makes sense due to the violent actions of those who claim to be Muslim all around the world. These horrific activities receive a lot of coverage, and a large amount of people have no experience of Islam outside of the media.

I feel that interfaith work is a way to help heal some of that fear and distrust. When we reach across boundaries to actually experience each other, we often find that we have more in common than we might otherwise have thought. Most of us want to be okay, and we want our families to be okay. We want to work, raise our kids, worship God, and enjoy life. When you understand this, you tend to come away with more potential friends than enemies, and that is a good thing.

Another concern that I want to address is that I am promoting syncretism by blurring the lines between the two obviously distinctive religions. Many well-meaning individuals do this kind of thing, and it is disrespectful to both faiths. While we have much in common, our differences are very real, and you can’t truly love someone without acknowledging all that they are.

With that in mind, I am always clear that my participation in such work is that of a Christian believer, and Ekram always stands as a devout Muslim. I’ve defended the Incarnation in the middle of a mosque, and Ekram has conducted Islamic evening prayer in a church hall with those who accompanied him to our facility. As we were initiating this writing project, we adamantly agreed that we would clearly indicate that this is a written interaction between confessors of two separate religions, even while as we emphasize our faiths’ common themes of peace, justice, mercy, and hope. We openly disagree on some pretty fundamental things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t promote understanding and compassion by recognizing all we share.

A final consideration is brought to mind when Jesus says, “For whoever is not against you is for you” in Luke 9:50. In context, He is responding to the disciples’ rebuke of a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ response is still a widely cast net, though, and just as Ekram and I have defended our own faith, we have also stood in defense of each other. When armed protesters came to his mosque and started stomping on copies of the Qur’an, I was there. When my faith was maligned, Ekram defended Jesus and reminded people that the Qur’an speaks highly of both Him and His followers. Throughout all of my meetings and interactions with large amounts of Muslim people, I have never encountered a person that stood in full opposition to me or the practice of my faith. In this way, Jesus’ words ring true for me, and I want to honor that.

I participate in interfaith work and relationships because they help remind me that it is my choice as to whether I am surrounded by friends or enemies. It’s my choice to interpret my faith socially or exclusively. Many of us feel like we have no choice but to act and believe the way we do, but when encounter the teachings of Jesus and put ourselves in position to frequently encounter difference, we can see that this is simply not true.

I hope this post adequately answers the questions that have been posed to me regarding this issue. Further, my prayer is that you will join me in the work of sharing the Gospel, promoting peace, compassion, and hope, even with those we might once have considered enemies. Remember, you’re not as alone as you might think.

Peace be with you!

 

 

What Waterfowl Taught Me About Suicide

For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. — Wisdom 11:24, NRSV

When I was eleven years old, I tried to hang myself in the bathroom of my elementary school gym before basketball practice. Luckily, it didn’t work, and as I lay there, cursing myself, jacket sleeve still tied around my neck, my Dad came in looking for me. I will never get the quiver of his voice out of my head, as he cried my name and moved like lightning to my side.

I am not sharing this for shock value or pity, though I am sure some of my readers are surprised. The reason I tell this story in detail is because suicide is a major issue that many speak of and experience, yet the loudest voices seem to come from those who have never felt that depth of darkness. I am telling my story because I want you to know, dear reader, that I have looked this monster in the eye. It left its mark on me, and if there is one person out there who sees that it doesn’t have to be the end for them, then this post will have done its work.

I mentioned in my previous post that I went for a walk in a local park this past Saturday. Besides the super happy dog and lovely dandelions that I got to see, I saw some ducks and other assorted waterfowl in the pond that the park is centered upon. Watching them churn their feet and “swim for their lives” as I approached the shore, I noticed something I had never given much thought to before.

As the ducks swam, they cut through the water, leaving behind a triangular trail that expanded as they went, leaving an enduring mark that was much larger than the duck herself. I had considered writing this post for a long time, but it had retreated to the back of my mind until I noticed this seemingly minor detail. As it turns out, nature has much to say on the topic.

You see, we all leave trails behind us. Like the duck, we cannot see the trail, as we are continuing to move on through life, but it is still there, always expanding until it becomes a part of the greater body of water. In the same way, our lives (all of them) leave a trail that moves from our immediate vicinity into the greater narrative of human history. We cannot always see it, but it is there.

I often hear that “life can’t be that bad” for the suicidal person, and I get what those people are trying to say. Keep things “sunny side up” and such. But in that place of deepest darkness, there is no sun. There is no “bright side.” We cannot see the positives of our existence.

I had no idea of my parents’ love for me at that time when I was 11 years old, and many years after. There was no seeing the friends I had made and the lives I had touched in my short time. But now that I have the chance to look back and reflect, I am so glad that my plan failed that night.

I would never have met my little brother, who I now can’t imagine life without. I would not have the amazing wife I have now, nor would my relationship with my parents have had the chance to heal so that I could enjoy the closeness and mutual love we now share. Mission trips to Costa Rica, Mexico, and all across the U.S. would not have happened for me, and that would be one less positive relationship for me and for many people. I never would have preached the Gospel and worked with an amazing group of youth for over four years, never would have had the chance to be there for my dearest friends, and never would have come to the understanding of God’s transformative grace that I have now.

I also wouldn’t be writing this message that I feel many of us need to hear.

If you are reading this and struggling with suicidal thoughts, whether they are ideational or actually being planned, please talk to someone. Say it to somebody, because right now you do not know the impact your life (and death) has had and will have on the world around you. You are not broken. You are not worthless. There is a point and a purpose for you.

I have often quoted the verse that started this post, that God loves “all things that exist,” and He detests “none of the things” He has made. But the passage continues to say that God’s “immortal spirit is in all things” (12:1). God’s immortal Spirit rests in you. It rests in all of us, and that means that none of us are here on accident. We are here because God desired us to exist. God wanted you here because He loves and believes in you and your ability to make a difference.

Now I am not promising you that everything will always be good. This is not an appeal to “keep on the sunny side of life.” I still struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. These things are a part of me. However, they are now tools with which I can empathize and love others as I feel I have been called to do. No matter what darkness you face in your life, the power of God can turn it into a blessing that will ultimately serve Him and help to heal you and others.

But that cannot happen if you are not here. If your life ends, your story ends at its darkest moment, and nothing can ever be made better. That is something worth remembering.

My prayer for you is that you remember that we all leave trails behind us. Our stories are a part of the greater “pond” that is human history, whether we know it or not. There are people who are a part of our story we have yet to meet. There are people (and a God) who love and care for us, who would notice our empty seat or cold side of the bed.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts or ideations, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are planning to go through with it, call 911. Your story does not have to end. You matter to us all, and this world would not be the same without you.

Even if you do not struggle in this way, remember your trail. What are we leaving behind? Are we leaving examples of love, compassion, and just action in our wake, or are we leaving… something else? Let us go forward remembering that God’s purposes for us are to live life fully and for the glory of His name, and let us leave our mark on this world, following in the example of Christ, who has won the victory over death and darkness, and who passes that victory on to us.

Peace be with you!

The Task Ends With Peace

When the Lord gives rest to your kindred, as to you, and they too have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving them beyond the Jordan, then each of you may return to the property that I have given to you. — Deuteronomy 3:20, NRSV

If you’re like me, you have wondered when everything finally stops. Life is a constant, tiring journey full of stressful decisions, twists and turns, hills and valleys. For the person of faith, concerned with the improvement of the world based on their belief system, this is made even more difficult by the constant clash between one’s ideals and the seeming reality of earthly life. For every step we take forward, it seems that we are given yet another series of challenges to face.

Therefore, when joy in our progress is constantly hindered by new challenges, it is only fair that we sometimes wonder when it all will finally stop. Isn’t there some checkpoint that we get to when the veil peels back and we are able to just coast? Unfortunately not, my friend.

You see, the effort of changing one’s world by way of God’s grace is a life-long trek sustained by faith, hope, and (above all) love. In the text for today’s post, Deuteronomy 3, Moses recaps his conversation with the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, all of whom having been allotted terrain beyond the Jordan before Israel’s formal entry into the Promised land (verses 12-16). The temptation must have been strong for those tribes to settle, so Moses instructs them to continue in the journey until “the LORD gives rest to [their] kindred” (verse 20). The Israelite journey began together, and it will end together.

The same essential truth is evident in our lives. Only when peace, justice, and wholeness are a reality for all can our efforts cease. As such, it stands to reason that it is only “when the complete comes” that we will achieve the rest we seek (1 Corinthians 13:10). The life of faith is not a checklist that, once fulfilled, allows us to rest on our laurels. It is a journey to the day when Christ comes in final victory and we all experience the blessed feast together.

So perhaps you have been sprinting through life. In spurts, you make progress only to be slowed by even more derailing challenges. In that case, it is best we examine how to consistently sustain our efforts to share the light and love of God in Christ with the world. We must exhibit the humility to accept our constant room for growth, stay connected to God through prayer and ritual, and regularly commit acts of charity that we may embody the peace we wish to one day experience.

It is important to note that Moses assured the tribes that the day would come when they could rest. I am offering the same words of encouragement. The day will come when you and I see and understand the fullness of God and become partakers in it. We will have our rest. For now, however, we must be content with the little glimpses we are allowed through our everyday interactions with the Divine.

With every kind word and action, with every embrace of the Eucharist and other rituals, and with every moment spent in community with the Spirit, we are able to foster an enduring sense of joy that will be brought to completion at the appointed time. It is my prayer that you will join me in our long journey together. May we all earnestly tread the road of Life, helping each other experience a little bit of Heaven all along the way.

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!

Focus, Please

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. — Romans 15:13, RSVCE

We had our weekly Bible study at the church last night, and we managed to finish our study of Revelation. I love studying the Revelation to John, though many people are put off by its intense and foreign metaphors and imagery. It took me a long time to crack it open and appreciate the depth and meaning behind each passage, and the most important lesson I learned from Revelation, which translates to the entire Bible, is to be careful not to miss the forest for the trees.

We as 21st Century humans tend to get lost in the details. With Revelation, all of the gore, death, plagues, and judgments snag onto us, and we end up so worried about the who’s, what’s, and when’s that we forget what the letter was designed to convey. By the same token, while I may post a lot of stuff about what it means to think, act, and live according to the faith, it can sometimes be easy for me or my readers to forget the underlying truth that serves as the foundation of the Scriptures and traditions of the Church.

Paul sums this truth up wonderfully in his letter to the Romans when he offers up the short blessing at the top of this post. For all his theological explorations, moral exhortations, and apologetic explanations, Paul brings his readers back to center by invoking a blessing from God that perfectly describes the intent of the entire Gospel. God seeks to give us “joy and peace in believing,” that through our Christian faith we might receive the presence of the Holy Spirit which fuels us with real, substantive hope.

Faith in Christ is not designed to fill you with guilt or a sense of responsibility for solving all of the world’s problems. It’s true, Christian religion should produce works in us that help channel God’s grace to others and transform the world for the better. We should be made humble enough to recognize our sinful nature, calling upon God to restore to us the Divine image He always meant for us to have. The purpose of all of this, however, is to provide believers with a sense of joy and peace.

We are to be filled with joy knowing that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. Each of us is here on purpose, and we are redeemed by the love of a God in Whose eyes we are worth dying for. A sense of peace should fill us at the knowledge that God has already overcome the negative powers of this world, and they are just slow to catch on. We no longer have to stand in the fear of death which makes us act sinfully. Rather, we are free to recklessly love each other as Christ did for us.

Finally, there is hope. You may have noticed that I added the words “real” and “substantive” to the word “hope” earlier, and this is because we have had hope peddled to us in very shallow and insulting ways for a long time. We’ve been promised health, security, and happiness if we just looked a certain way, feared certain people, or had a certain amount of guns. False gospels preach that God will always be on our side if we but “plant that thousand dollar seed” in some scoundrel’s televised ministry. All of this is garbage, and a mockery of what hope actually is.

Real hope is something that fuels your life. It takes root in your soul and is unshakable. It enables you to think, speak, and act in ways you never thought you could. Hope is the belief that what we see is not the end, and that a better reality is coming and is already here.

I plan to write more stuff that gets into the “nitty-gritty.” After all, details are fairly important. What’s more important, however, is that we remember the point of it all. God’s will is that you and I live our lives with true joy and peace, and that our faith in Him might spark hope in us. This hope is rooted in our identity as beloved children of God, the love of that God that defeated the grave, and the understanding that the best is yet to come.

Peace be with you!

Freedom Isn’t A Blank Check

…Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” — Matthew 17:26-27, NRSV

Why is it that whenever someone defends “freedom of speech” in this country, it’s because they are being a jerk? I suppose it is technically true that one can say (mostly) whatever they want, and people can respond (to an extent) however they feel is appropriate. My issue is that the freedoms we seem so eager to embrace appear to be free of any duty to utilize them responsibly, and this is a problem, especially when we are examining Christian behavior.

Enter Jesus. In the text above, the full passage being found here, Jesus and the disciples are accused of not paying the temple tax, a payment that more or less went to the upkeep of the Jewish Temple. To not pay it would be considered both rude and unlawful according to the mandate set forth in Exodus. Jesus then has a conversation that parallels earthly kingdom practice with the nature of God’s kingdom, and in both of those, Jesus indicates that “the children are free.”

Yeah, buddy! Dang right, we are free. We don’t have to pay a stupid temple tax. Of course, Jesus then says, “However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

Wait a minute. You just said we were free… Yet we still have to act in a way that is inoffensive and perceived to be costly?!

That’s right.

It concerns me when I see my fellow Americans, particularly Christians, emphasizing freedom when it comes to what they say and do with no regard for how it affects others. The current situation with Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford is a perfect example. For me, the question isn’t even about those two individuals anymore, especially when I  see people react the way they have to Dr. Ford’s accusations. Our nation has once again had its rape culture exposed, this time defended by partisan politics. Little “jokes” and “jabs” here and there have surfaced, many of which amounting to outright attacks that make light of sexual assault survivors in general.

Sure enough, when someone is accosted about these tasteless comments, they use words like “freedom” and “opinion.” But if Christ teaches us anything, it is that our freedom is not a blank check to speak and act however we want, as God is still concerned about how we use our freedom. After all, Adam and Eve had freedom… and their bum choices had severe consequences, yes? So will all of our crappy words and actions.

In Romans 6, Paul encourages us to “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness,” but to “present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” Jesus did several things He didn’t have to in order to not ruin His witness to the truth of God. We should follow their lead and stop using our freedoms and feelings to justify our callous comments and actions that could have damaging effects on others.

I hope you will join me this week in keeping better track of how we use our “rights.” While we technically can do many things, that doesn’t mean that we should make use of that freedom at all costs. If we are willing to sacrifice the emotional and physical well-being of others to express our “freedom,” we are still under the slavery of sin and far from accepting of the transformative grace of God. If, however, we temper our freedom with understanding and compassion, we will find ourselves walking in the way of Christ, the way of the Cross, the way that leads to life.

Peace be with you!