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!

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!

Notice The Blurs

And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’…But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ — Luke 12:19-20, NRSV

I went for a walk this past Saturday as part of my new and improved self-care regimen. I recharge by being alone in nature, a church, or some other place or situation in which I can think, process, and just “be.” While on this walk, I looked up and saw an oncoming vehicle with an exceptionally excited dog hanging out of the window. His jowls were flapping away in the wind, and his eyes were squinted in that canine way that indicates extreme pleasure. Sadly, the car was moving too quickly for a picture, so the dandelions I saw in the park will have to do. Anyway, the sight caused laughter to burst from me in a genuine, joyful sort of way, and I realized that if I had been running, reading, or if I had decided to drive to the park, I would have missed it!

This made me think about life and how we miss so much. We trade away large portions of our lives to pursue wealth, stability, and progress. We push through more and more hours so we can get that house or car for a family we aren’t around very much. We blitz through vacations for the sake of “doing everything,” but we actually enjoy very little. We damage our relationships with God and others over opinions, practices, and institutions that are as finite as we are (which I discuss here).

Jesus addresses this non-stop pursuit of worldly things in a parable regarding “The Rich Fool.” This is a guy that spends his entire life building up more wealth and goods than he could possibly need. Hell, he had to tear down and rebuild his storage facilities just to give it all some place to sit (Luke 12:18)! Further, he appears to live by an idea that drives most of us: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (12:19). After all, if we just get to that mythical “next step,” we will have all we need and we can finally enjoy life, right?

Jesus says no, and I am inclined to believe that He is correct.

At the end of the parable, God tells the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Everything that you and I earn and possess over the course of our brief existence will go to others. The fights we “win,” the cars we drive, the houses we rent or own, the parties we vote for, even the nation in which we live will eventually all pass on in one way or another.

With that in mind, perhaps it’s time we stop going so fast. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse tells Guy, “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly… If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass!” Bradbury’s commentary is just as true now as it was then. In the pursuit of all the things we are told are of primary importance, we lose sight of what truly matters.

My prayer for you is that you will take time to slow down and realign with God’s will for your life, and that is that you will actually live it. God’s not concerned about our paycheck or possessions. God doesn’t care if we vote blue or red. It doesn’t bring God joy when we insist on your own way, convinced of our own rightness. God’s desires are that we connect with Him and with each other in ways that honor the gift of life.

If we decide to embrace the path of God, our priorities can realign. We can be free to love and be present with the people God has placed in our lives. We can fight for justice and peace without the pesky allegiances that cause more harm than good. We can pursue our careers and livelihoods without becoming enslaved to them. Life can be lived without always obsessing over the next step, because the current step is all we have. And with God and each other, it’s all we really need.

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!

Your Own Eyes

…for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did. — Deuteronomy 11:7, NRSV

Religion is an interpretation of life and its meaning. Every faith in every place sees the world in a particular way, with problems that its teachings are designed to solve or address. Even if you don’t hold yourself to be particularly religious or a person of faith, I guarantee that you have a belief system that affects how you approach and understand the world around you.

The same holds true for the Israelites in this passage of Deuteronomy 11. In fact, I would argue that the long sermon of Moses that is Deuteronomy is designed to ensure what view of life the nation of Israel brings into the land of promise. Repeatedly, Moses emphasizes that the people of God should live in a way that honors their history and the grace God has shown to them.

Moses frequently reminds Israel to keep “the commandment.” The word is singular, implying that this command is an umbrella over the 613 specific commands laid out in the Torah. In fact, this command is the very one Jesus calls the “greatest and first” in Matthew 22:34-40. “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always” (Deut. 11:1, while Jesus quotes 6:5). Israel’s worldview, then, should be filtered through love for the God who first loved and delivered them.

The generation of Jews Moses is addressing in Deuteronomy is not the generation delivered from Egypt. Those of the previous generation were all led through the wilderness until they died, as a punishment for their chronic disobedience and dissatisfaction with regard to God. So why does Moses say, “It is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did?”

Communal memory is an important thing in Judaism and Christianity. We were all delivered from Egypt through the Red Sea. We all drank water from the rock, ate manna in the wilderness, and witnessed the pillars of fire and cloud as they led us to the promised land. We all saw the healing power of Jesus, fled from His cross, and rejoiced at His resurrection and ascension. This is not just the story of those who were physically there, but it is our own story that we (are supposed to) witness to with our lives.

So what is your story? What is the tale you tell with your life? For far too many of us, our lives do not tell of the magnificent works of God, nor do they bear witness to the hope of Jesus Christ. In fact, many of us live without any hope at all, settling for bleak acceptance. The result of this is a life lived proudly, inwardly, or selfishly. We become our own gods, and we fail to recognize all the opportunities God sets before us to make a difference.

Even if you are of the non-believing crowd, careful application of hope in the ultimate victory of good can make a huge difference. What you do in this world matters, even if only for those around you. The choice that faces us is the choice that faced the Jews in Deuteronomy: blessing or curse, life or death. Whatever you and I believe, I hope we will choose the things that bless others and bring life to a world trying to kill itself.

So now I ask, what have your eyes seen? How will you choose to walk on this brief journey of life? It is my prayer that the grace and love of God will be your lens, and that the hope of Christ will fuel your heart for the purposes of doing some good during your short visit to this earth. Pray the same for me, and let’s live out a better story together.

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!

Getcha Some Spiritual Wisdom

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. — 1 Corinthians 2:2, NRSV

A lot of people praise what’s known as “common sense.” It’s a slippery concept that is popularly described as the cure for many of today’s issues. For too many people, there is a particular way the world works, and the best we can do is resign ourselves to it.

Now don’t get me wrong. You shouldn’t stick a fork into an electrical outlet. Trying to capture a rattlesnake by hand is also a horrible idea. I’m not saying we should live in ignorance of particular facts of life. Electricity and rattlesnakes can kill you. Just imagine if there were electric rattlesnakes…

Anyway.

What I do have a problem with is our all too common practice of merely accepting the world as it is and propping up its unhealthy practices because we don’t believe there to be an alternative. War is just what happens. Politics are dirty. Violence is a necessary evil. You get the idea.

What Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 2 is an alternative way of thinking… assuming we decide to embrace the idea of spiritual truth. You see, in Paul’s time, the Romans and Jewish authorities each believed the world worked in one particular way. Romans saw things in terms of logical arguments, and Jewish authorities wanted to see miraculous signs of power (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). In this world, Caesar is king and the empire is true power… unless you’re Paul and the Christian community.

For those of the faith, a crucified carpenter was considered King above all, and it is in the flesh of this person that the power of God is revealed. This meant the emperor and his minions didn’t have the final word, and for all their killing, torture, and conquest, they would eventually have to pay the piper. There was an alternative to the way the world seemed to work, and this alternative was full of hope and peace for those who were able to embrace it.

Turning to our own time, this alternative still exists. Sure, it’s been buried under thousands of years of violence, oppression, abuse, and scandal. Whenever humans are involved with anything, sin lies close at hand. Underneath all of those layers, though, the truth that began a powerful, transformative movement still remains.

Our world accepts poverty, hatred, and wanton violence as unchangeable aspects of life. You either have to get on board or get out of the way. Even those who claim to be people of faith filter their religious practice through the lens of “realism.” We follow the faith insofar as it doesn’t become inconvenient for us, our loved ones, or our bank account.

To accept the alternative God gives us in Christ, though, we have to start seeing things differently. While worldly wisdom is concerned about the way things are, spiritual wisdom is concerned with the way the world should be. It doesn’t mean ignoring reality, but it does mean looking beyond what is in order to live for what could be. The truth of the Spirit is one we must fight for, and that is a battle that requires us to place our hope and trust in a different place.

Earthly wisdom would have us trust in ourselves, our weapons, and our fear. Spiritual wisdom asks us to trust in God, a reality that is beyond us, the Source of all being.

Earthly wisdom encourages us to look after our own interests. Spiritual wisdom has us look to the cross, where self-sacrifice is the key to meaningful relationships with God and each other.

Earthly wisdom sees victory in conquest and destruction of the enemy. Spiritual wisdom sees victory in love, even for those we don’t believe deserve it.

Earthly wisdom fears death above all else. Spiritual wisdom sees that love and forgiveness are things worth dying for.

Ultimately, the choice lies before each of us. Every decision and every interaction present us with an opportunity to embrace the truth of the Spirit. Day by day, we decide whether we will support the way things are or search out a better alternative. It is my prayer that you will join me in striving to think spiritually. Life in this world can be painful, but that doesn’t have to determine how we choose to live.

Peace be with you!