Blessed in the Bad

I need only say, ‘I am slipping,’ and your love, YHWH, immediately supports me; and in the middle of all my troubles you console me and make me happy. — Psalm 94:18-19, JB

It’s been a trend for quite some time that the Christian world, particularly in the U.S., has associated blessedness with ease of life. When we have faith, our lives should become easier, right? After all, to consider one’s self “blessed” is to acknowledge the smooth ride life has been and/or all the material blessings one has accumulated.

Or not.

Take this quote from Psalm 94. For me, it hearkens back to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. In both of those texts, a person is considered blessed right in the middle of their suffering.

Why?

“Blessedness” has to do with one’s connection to God’s love, not the abundant or enjoyable nature of one’s earthly life. Scripture regularly assumes that life is going to be hard, perhaps even more so for the faithful. This is precisely why being “blessed” can’t be related to our comfort. Rather, it refers to our state within our discomfort.

If, when sh*t hits the fan, we consider ourselves to have lost the blessing of God, the situation ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are blinded to the activities of Divine love in the midst of our struggles. When we get stuck thinking God is absent or angry with us, we fail to utilize what befalls us as an occasion to lean on and share the love of God. Our tragedies and failures become means of humiliation rather than transformation.

Does that mean God makes bad things happen to teach us lessons? I don’t believe so. But bad things do happen, and we can either be destroyed by them or educated/transformed through them. This is the choice before us, and whichever one we embrace determines whether or not we are truly blessed.

To connect with God is to choose hope in the face of tragedy, kindness in the face of evil, love in the face of hate. This is the example Jesus leaves us, and to imitate it is to embody the powerful love of God in our own lives.

That, dear reader, is what it means to be blessed.

But Did You Change, Though?

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! — Galatians 6:15, NRSV

I grew up mostly “in church.” I was baptized, confirmed, took Communion once a month, and attended all the Bible studies and youth events I could. When I became an adult in ministry, I read the Bible daily, studied the faith at seminary, prayed multiple times throughout the day, and participated in service and worship projects all. The. Time.

With all of that said, it’s only been in the last year or so that I feel I have actually experienced the grace of God for myself. When I was a kid and when I was a minister, I made lots of selfish and harmful decisions. I had scars that I had never healed and unacceptable ways of coping with them. While I had affirmed all of the doctrines, aligned with all of the beliefs, and performed all of the pious acts, I had not yet been transformed by a real encounter with the grace of God.

A lot of us are like that. We use the symbols, say the right words, agree to the right doctrines, and do all the right “stuff,” yet our scars remain unhealed, our habits remain unholy, and our lives have yet to be transformed. We talk about the grace of God we see in Jesus, but we don’t feel or know that grace on a real, personal level.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, the Christians in that area were being led astray by those who valued the outward expressions of faith more than the internal transformation brought about by it. Adult Gentiles were getting circumcised to please a particular religious faction, but that sign ultimately proved empty because it amounted to “checking a box” rather than transforming one’s life to follow Jesus. This leads Paul to say what he says in chapter 6, part of which is quoted above.

The truth is that what we believe is irrelevant if it only amounts to being a part of “the club.” If we claim to believe all the right stuff, say and do all the right things, but our lives remain unchanged, it’s time to re-evaluate the depth and meaning of our relationship with God.

The love of God, when experienced and truly understood, is a powerful, deeply moving reality that soaks into one’s very being and provokes change. It inspires us to live differently because we simply can’t afford not to do so when we finally become aware of God’s loving presence throughout this entire created universe. We can’t help but treat ourselves, each other, and this good earth with the respect and dignity of beloved creations of God!

When I was faced with this grace, this unmerited love, I had to change. I had to see a counselor and heal the wounds that had long influenced my behavior. I had to make apologies and find a different path forward. I had to take a step away from what was causing me to stumble so that I might be free to minister effectively in my everyday life. I just had to do all this because it meant I could more fully participate in the love I was experiencing!

If you feel like you are just going through the motions, checking the boxes, and joining “the club” because it’s all you know, there is good news for you. If you have left faith behind because you didn’t see any depth or meaning to it, there is good news for you. If you feel that God can’t possibly love you because of the life you’ve led, there is good news for you.

The good news is that it’s never too late to change. The good news is that God is not a doctrine, a building, an altar, or a ritual. The good news is that God is already present with you and reaching out to you!

I pray that you will ponder this good news and seek to put it into action by changing your approach to life. Live as though the love of God is for you and for all others. Live as though the image of God rests upon you and all whom you encounter. Live like this world is not a resource, but a beloved creation designed to be cared for and protected. After all, it’s true.

Peace be with you!

Never the Twain Shall Meet

But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has wrought deliverance in Israel. — 1 Samuel 11:13, RSV

There are somethings that just don’t go together. To avoid offending those who would disagree, I will simply leave you to your own imaginings, as I’m sure that first sentence conjured up all kinds of interesting things. I simply don’t want to start another “pineapple and pizza” debate. If, however, you have strong feelings on the subject, my “comments” section is open for your use.

The point here is that certain things don’t or can’t coincide, and this is a truth that holds for the life of faith. When eternal life meets life that is temporal, there are particular conditions that need to be met for that to work out well. This is the entire point of Biblical texts like Leviticus, Halal in Islam, or the act of confession in Christian circles. When we are attempting to live in communion with God, it’s best to be accommodating.

The quote above comes from the First Book of Samuel, the prophet who anoints the first king of Israel, Saul. In this particular story, there are those who refused to acknowledge Saul’s kingship who are about to be executed. Saul, in the better phase of his rule, decrees that because God’s deliverance has come to Israel, no one is to be killed. This struck me as a reminder that for us to cling to God’s saving presence, there are certain things we need to be willing to release.

A great example can be found in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Spoiler alert (it came out in 1989…), they find the Holy Grail, save Indiana’s dad, and are trying to escape the collapsing ruins when the Grail falls into an ever-widening crevice. Indy’s somewhat lover Nazi dives in after it. Indy catches her hand, but because she couldn’t help reaching for the coveted chalice, she plummets to either her death or what I imagine would be the least fun ball pit ever. Subsequently, it’s Indiana’s turn to reach for the chalice, but the soothing words of Sean Connery urging him to “Let it go” snap him back to disastrous reality, just in time for him to leave the cup and escape with his life.

Now, I hear you. “Cool recap, bro, but what’s the point?”

The point, dear reader, is that while death and life are inextricably linked, there is no room for death-dealing vices in eternal life, that is, the life we live when we start walking according to God’s way. We can’t flee the crumbling structure of our selfish lives while also trying to satisfy our greed. This is not a “have your cake and eat it” kind of situation.

While God understands our human condition and loves us all the more, to choose a life with God is to choose to play second fiddle to His will for us. That will is that we transform our lives from self-centered behavior to a practice of love for God through our love for each other as evidenced in the life of Jesus Christ. This is not some kind of ascetic practice or punishment, but it is a demanding lifestyle that, in the end, enables us to truly live.

We cannot hate a single neighbor or enemy and claim to love the God that created them. We cannot refuse grace and mercy to others while expecting it from the One who offers it to us. We cannot cling to our old fears, grudges, and destructive habits while seeking to abide in the presence of the Living God. Just as Saul saw that execution did not rightfully express the salvation of God, so we must do all we can to recognize and root out those behaviors and habits that fall short of the love God has for us.

Now, this is not easy, and it is not a “step” that you can check off as complete, moving on to a life of piety and ease. This is a lifelong endeavor, for as long as we are in the world, we will be affected by it, for better or worse. We will always need to be on guard when it comes to our hearts, minds, and how we treat one another. If we are lax, then all of those things we set aside can crawl right back into our lives.

Naturally, this means everyone is a hypocrite. Here’s a fun fact, though: Every human who ever tries to change the world for the better is a hypocrite, because none of us can live up to our ideals. In fact, the best teachers are those who personally know the disastrous consequences of making the wrong choice. I would take one of those over ten who are self-righteous or who have gone relatively unchallenged in life. Jesus aside, the screw ups have the best lessons to impart, and I gladly count myself among such people, assuming anyone finds my words useful.

We all have our demons and struggles and temptations. We all have things we need to release before we can fully enjoy the presence of God and the fullness of this good creation. My prayer is that you will join me in this lifelong effort of discipleship. Let’s pray for one another that we may walk together and heal what needs to be healed in order that we may not just live, but be fully alive.

Peace be with you!

All That’s Wrong with “Love”

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

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

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

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

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

Welp. I’ve had it.

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

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

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

Oh, SNAP!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace be with you.

The Dangers of Tunnel Vision

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. — Judges 17:6, RSV

Like others who grew up in the United States, I was raised with an emphasis on individuality. Sure, you’re expected to have a respect for family and authority as a child, but as an adult, the goal is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and carve your own way in the world. If you end up in an unhappy or undesirable place, that just means you didn’t put in the work or effort to get yourself where you wanted to be.

In recent times, this individualistic mentality has actually intensified. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if it is proven to be dead wrong. We get to choose what version of the truth suits us best, and we form tribes that align with our own sense of what is right and wrong. These groups are actually just larger extensions of our individual selves, and we use them to do battle with others.

We have “representatives” upholding party lines, no matter how insane and unhelpful such tribalism might be for us as a nation. As a society, we have carved ourselves into groups that are either entirely supportive of or condemnatory toward police officers. We must be either pro-choice or pro-life, even though solutions exist that could actually appeal to both sides. We can go online and find articles published by terrifically biased sources and share that misleading information, justified only by the fact that we agree with it.

Further, it’s become fashionable to speak and act callously, even cruelly, whether in the name of our specific cause or even just in the name of “freedom.” We are obsessed with our rights while dismissive of our duty to use them responsibly. Using vicious language designed for shock value, we have become more violent in how we think, speak, and act with regard to each other. Should anyone try to correct us, we are quick to remind them of our right to speak and do as we please, and our individual freedom will not be hindered by something so pesky and invasive as compassion.

This is what we see in the Biblical passage referenced at the beginning of this post. The Book of Judges is full of ironic warnings regarding our tendency to depart from the path of God, and the core of the problem is quoted above and appears as the very last sentence of the book. “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). It seems the ancients shared our self-centered problem.

In Judges 17, the unnamed mother of a man named Micah makes a graven image from silver coins (violating the teaching of God). Micah takes this idol and establishes a shrine in his home. Soon after, a Levite happens upon Micah’s home, and Micah makes this Levite the priest of his shrine. Then in Judges 18, the Danites get involved, take the Levite and the idol, and “set up the graven image for themselves” (verse 30). One woman’s sin, perpetuated by her son, becomes the sin of an entire tribe of Israel. To put it more broadly, because one person did what they felt was right, without regard to anyone else, an entire nation suffered violence.

I hope you can see where I am going with this.

As long as we allow our thoughts, words, and  actions to go unrestricted by compassion, our nation and world will suffer violence. If we continue to live our lives in our own little, individual bubbles, our society will face dire consequences. Every individual person has the ability to build up or tear down, to give life or to take it. For us to choose correctly, we must stop caring only about what is right in our own eyes and strive to look through the eyes of others.

What would happen if the staunch, pro-life advocate looked through the eyes of a woman who couldn’t afford to feed herself, much less the healthcare and maternity leave needed to care for a child? What would happen if the most avid pro-choice proponent saw the guilt a young woman carries after having an abortion? The most anti-police demonstrator could learn much if they saw the fear and anxiety that accompanies an officer’s family every time she puts on her uniform and goes to work. A blue-blooded tribe could also stand to experience and understand the fear a patrol car elicits as it rolls down the streets of a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood.

Could the Democrat grow to appreciate the need for a careful, conservative approach to change? Could the Republican see value in loosening our hold on a system that hasn’t been working correctly for quite some time? Maybe those in the public eye could learn that shock value is not the same as substantive content.

Each of us, perhaps, could learn to approach our daily lives with a compassionate heart and an open mind.

None of this means that we need to stop thinking critically for ourselves. It does mean, however, that thoughts and actions rooted in our own narrow perception of life don’t add up to much. When we cease to care about how we affect each other, we abandon the most fundamental commandment of God. We love Him in how we love one another.

I hope you’ll join me in trying to take a more “outward” approach to life. We Christians have just entered into the season of Lent, a time for personal reflection and growth. It is also an ideal time to make compassion a daily practice. We could listen to those that we disagree with, without waiting for our turn to speak. We could imagine what it’s like to be like those who are different from us, and when we are unsure, we could ask questions. We could ask the simple question of how we would like to be interacted with if we were in the same position as someone else.

Transformation is often viewed as a process that comes from power. The law must change, the policy must be altered, and the results must be major. While I agree in a series of just laws and policies guiding us, I believe in Jesus’ model of transformation: One person and relationship at a time. Consistent, intentional effort for the Kingdom of God will lead to far greater things than we can ask or imagine. So let’s get started!

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!

“The Road Goes on Forever, and the Party Never Ends”

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.John 13:34, NRSV

There’s nothing like a quote from the famous Robert Earl Keen song to set the tone for a post, and you can’t lose when reinforcing it with the beloved New Commandment. So what do these two very different snippets have to do with one another? Follow me!

After Epiphany closed the Christmas season this past Sunday, I have been reflecting on the major Christian holy days and how celebrating them should impact us today. These days honor various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, so it would make sense for there to be some application for his disciples beyond just remembering what happened 2,000 years ago. So far, I’ve discerned one major reason for keeping these holy days (all of them) sacred in our lives.

They are all happening, all the time.

I know that sounds like some “new age” stuff, but it’s true. The Exodus, the mystery of the Incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit are all realities here and now, in this life, in this moment. And they should be, otherwise we run the risk of denying the true power of these events for the sake of some mere, lame commemoration.

Each of us knows the difficulty of changing our lives for the better, of growing in relationship with God and moving from sin to life (Exodus). We know what it is to marvel at, question, or even deny the idea of a God that would take on flesh for us (Incarnation), even if it it shows indirectly as a questioning of our own value. All people know the reality of suffering and death (Crucifixion), and the importance of hope and restoration in the midst of it, ultimately leading to victory (Resurrection and Ascension). We know what it is to be inspired, and to be filled with the drive to use our gifts for the betterment of the world (Pentecost).

The problem comes when we fail to see the life of Christ in our own and vice versa. We get too caught up in the “Crucifixion” moments to remember what hope feels like. We are too consumed with our victories and comfort to remember that suffering is still a reality for many that we have a responsibility to ease.

We lose compassion for one another when we forget that all of us are sinners on the road to the promised land. Perhaps most tragically, when we lose sight of the Incarnation, we fail to recognize all others as brothers and sisters for whom God took on human flesh and died. When we limit these realities to seasons and days, we lose sight of the fact that they indeed are realities.

Christ lived with eternity in mind. He loved with eternity in mind. In eternity, everything echoes at once, without regard for day, year, or time. If we are to love as he does, we also must keep eternity in mind, letting these holy realities shape our daily lives.

It is my prayer that you will join me in living this new year in light of the reality of Christ’s life. May we all remember who we are, who God is, and what responsibilities come with that identity. Above all, whatever situation rings true for you right now, I pray that you will know how loved and valued you really are.

Peace be with you!