“You’re Worth Everything to Me”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace be with you!

 

“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!

Doubt: What I Wish I Had Known

Doubt isn’t a thing fondly spoken of in faith circles. James tells us that “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” and this person “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8, NRSV). Such opinions abound in the Scriptures, but I can’t help but feel a little rebellion toward them. After all, it is unreasonable to expect humans to believe in what cannot be seen with unyielding resolve.

For some reason, though, this seems to be the standard for the religious of the world. Doubt means a lack of faith, which puts one in danger of a lesser standing in the eyes of the Divine. Anything that could cause a person to reconsider their faith, traditions, or core belief system is a threat to the fragile realities we tend to build for ourselves.

I witnessed this first-hand in college. I was part of two pretty conservative ministries, and as a history major with a geology minor, evolution was just a fact for me, as it still is today. Little did I know that when I got into a conversation about Genesis with my small groups, my invitations back to those gatherings would cease and I found myself in search of a new spiritual home.

When I presented the evidence for an evolutionary view of biology and history that conflicted with Creationism, I was met with anger that seemed… panicked. I didn’t understand it, and I also felt there was something wrong with me.

This feeling continued even through seminary. Why couldn’t I believe like all of my classmates? What was making me question everything? Where did this resistance come from that kept me from accepting everything as it appeared to be?

I sought out counsel and was told “the devil was trying to throw me off course.” That didn’t help. Other people said I just needed to “fake it” until I was convinced. That came across as basically being advised to brainwash myself.

It was only when I stumbled upon Søren Kierkegaard that I found something useful. Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian famous for his understanding of doubt and faith as realities that play off of each other, best summed up in his quote, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” For Kierkegaard, faith is something that always exists beside doubt, as faith, truly expressed, is a decision to believe in spite of a lack of what is considered proper evidence.

This changed the game for me. Suddenly, my doubting nature wasn’t a curse, but something natural to me. It was a characteristic that removed all pretense and forced me to decide whether I was going to live in light of faith or something else. Faith, hope, and love became conscious decisons rather than passively received and executed spiritual gifts.

Odds are that you’ve shared my experience in some way, especially if you come from a Christian background. Doubt can often be a source for guilt and despair, even outside of the religious world. The “go-getters” are the true believers who never seem to waver or step back for examination. To be successful, we must believe, confidently striding forward in all our glory, right?

Nonsense. Life takes all kinds, and your doubt is essential to making sure we don’t get too full of ourselves. When no one asks questions or challenges the status quo, growth and positive change become impossible.

Doubt serves to keep us all in check, ensuring that every decision we make about what we believe and do in life is intentional. While an excess of ever-present doubt can be disheartening, tempering our words and actions with the possibility that we might be wrong produces a humility we could use more of these days.

So maybe you feel like you’re always the “Debbie Downer.” Maybe you feel like this world has no place for you because you don’t connect with our perceived cultural norms. Perhaps you feel flawed because you struggle to accept the dominant beliefs that surround you.

Well take it from me. You’re not flawed, broken, sick, or lost. You are gifted, loved, and here on purpose. So embrace the doubt in life, that the faith you choose to hold may mean all the more.

Peace be with you!

Joyful Discomfort?

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! — Psalm 95:2, NRSV

I know I just wrote a post on the importance of “fearing” God as something “other” and unattainable, but if Christianity is allowed to be so full of paradox, so am I! I was reading my morning Psalm a couple of days ago, and Psalm 95 came up. We see joy, reverence, reservation, and warning all in the same Psalm! So how does it all come together?

It is true that God is not something we can possess. He is, after all “a great God, and a King above all gods.” This is a God before Whom we are to “worship and bow down” (v. 6) and “listen to his voice” (v. 7),” lest we never enter His rest (v. 11). There is no mistaking the fact that this is the God that is the Source of all that is, from “the depths of the earth” and “the heights of the mountains” to “the sea… and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (vs. 4-5).

On the other hand, this is One whose presence should inspire a sense of thanksgiving and joy (v. 2)! Why? Because this Source, this Mystery beyond definition, earnestly desires a relationship with us! God wants us to choose Him as “our God,” that we may be “the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (v. 7). This is a relationship in which we each recover our value as a beloved part of creation, imbued with the image of the Creator, designed for life-giving relationship with Him and each other!

So why the warning? Why the admonition in verse 8 to “not harden your hearts?” Simply put, relationships have to be properly maintained.

When you have a spouse, there are certain “spouse-specific” ways you are expected to honor that relationship. Fidelity, communication, consideration, and self-sacrifice are all necessary components. When we deny them, I can personally attest that the relationship suffers severely.

The same is true for God, in that our relationship with Him isn’t just about soaking up the benefits of His love. We are expected to share that love with one another, and in that way we honor the One who made us all. When we harden our hearts and refuse to do this, the judgment of God is a necessary and imminent reality. After all, we see the results of our lack of compassion and love everywhere as our nation struggles to deal with racism, sexism, poverty, and violence.

God desires that we return to relationship with Him, and this desire is clearest at the cross of Christ, where God reveals His willingness to die that we might know the power of His love. That is some strong love! What we must do now is commit to imitating that love in all of our own relationships in the Name of the One who has given us those relationships. It’s not easy, but the results will speak for themselves!

I hope this “rounds out” my previous expressions of God’s mystery and majesty. It’s my prayer that you will recognize this day how loved you are and that you matter very much. The next step is accepting the responsibility that comes with that realization. Specifically, we should go forward into our daily lives determined to treat others (and the rest of creation) with the respect and dignity we would offer God, for it is He that made and loves us all.

Peace be with you!

Black and Blue Lives Matter

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

With the shooting of Botham Jean by a Dallas Police officer and the killing of Garrett Hull, an undercover Fort Worth officer, we here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have seen another set of contributions to the national “debate” regarding police officers and their treatment of people of color. I render “debate” this way because we aren’t truly debating, whether it be this or any other issue. Debate is a discussion in which two positions interact for the purposes of finding the truth. It is a conversation that happens in community. What we are doing these days is more like screaming at each other from inside our own little boxes.

What I mean is that both people of color and police officers have experiences that are true. People of color were never intended to have an equal share to success and dignity in this nation, and we are in the midst of historical growing pains as we try to overcome a prejudicial narrative that spans over two hundred years, made more difficult by the tendency to devalue certain lives based on whether or not they meet a fickle set of standards in the eyes of the public. On the other hand, police officers are often under-trained, under-paid, and unsupported as they enter into situations we’d all like to pretend don’t exist. They are tense, and they have good reason to be, especially when a routine traffic stop or sitting on a lunch break can become deadly activities.

Families of police officers are fearful every day that their loved one might not make it home. This feeling is both shared and amplified in communities of color, whose fear is actually stoked by the sight of a blue uniform. Further, both officer families and marginalized citizens earnestly desire justice and peace for those they love.

These commonalities, however, are largely ignored in our national dialogue. A motto as specific as “Black lives matter” chafes a public that is still not at peace with its own history, and is misrepresented as an attack on law enforcement and all other lives. Meanwhile, officers are demonized, killed, and blamed individually for systemic issues. To make matters worse, inflammatory rhetoric surfaces that further deepens a divide that never should have been there, putting all parties in greater danger.

So what do we do?

So far, it seems to me that we pick our “box” and scream at those on the other side, blaming “those people” for the present state of our country… and the world loves it. The world is all about handing us two human-made sides from which we must choose. We cannot stay in the middle, for this is a most unacceptable neutrality. When it comes to our politics, religion, or this specific example of Black and Blue lives being pitted against each other, we must exclusively decide.

Screw that.

I’m done, and I hope you are as well.

The truth is, there is no reason to “pick a side” in this worldly debate. Why? Because understanding and reform are needed across the board if we want this nation to move forward with justice and peace. When citizens feel safer, officers are safer. When officers feel safer, citizens are safer. Too much overlap exists for there to actually be exclusive “sides” in this (or any other) national issue.

To illustrate this, I’ll share a conversation I had with an Orthodox priest from Ferguson, Missouri, who was chaplain to both police officers and protesters in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer. During one protest turned riot, looters from surrounding areas had started tearing into a local food pantry. Within seconds, protesters, who were ahead of police forces, performed a citizen’s arrest, locking arms and barring the perpetrators from leaving the charity until officers arrived.

“There,” he said, “in the midst of all that chaos and shouting, I saw hugs exchanged, tears shed, and finally, everyone understood that they all wanted the same thing.” The priest went on to say that even in separate consultations with police and protesters, he found the concerns of both to be similar in every way. They all wanted justice, they all wanted peace, and they all wanted everybody to be okay.

My own experiences testify to the truth of his claims. I have marched in and been a part of Black Lives Matter protests and events. I have also sat with my father-in-law and the rest of my wife’s family in fundraising dinners in honor of fallen police officers. I’ve listened to my Black brothers and sisters and my police-related friends and family as they all described the horrific fears and realities that face them on a daily basis.

So what do we do? It’s true that we can’t just sit neutral, but I also believe that just picking one of the “sides” presented to us is far too simplistic. This is where the text at the beginning of the article comes into play.

At this point in Joshua’s story, he is preparing to attack Jericho. He sees a representative of God, and asks him which side he is on. Notice what the angel says. “Neither; But as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” The Hebrew word the NRSV Bible translates as “Neither” actually means “no.” God is not on any particular human-made side. God is on the side of righteousness, and perhaps that is the side we need to be on as well.

It is not righteous to use our experiences to judge or dismiss those of other people. We are not acting righteously if we do not recognize that God weeps for all who suffer, including our officers and brothers and sisters of color. Progress is not found in vengeance, violence, or one-sided narratives aimed at deepening social and cultural divisions. God’s desire is for all of His children to fully live, and the hatred, suspicion, and fear that so frequently guides our interactions these days will not help us honor that desire.

For us to be righteous, we must recognize that God’s image rests on all people, and they should be treated accordingly, regardless of their race, occupation, economic class, or even their misdeeds. We can’t go on only mourning officers or civilians, without striving to make life better and more sustainable for both. We can’t continue allowing the world to tell us who our enemies are and how we treat them.

We shouldn’t be afraid to specifically say, “Black lives matter.” It shouldn’t insult us, nor should we fail to understand the greater context behind the phrase, as it represents a continuous struggle that is not limited to (or even primarily about) interactions with police officers. It’s not a concept we should feel the need to argue with.

We also shouldn’t be afraid to support and respect our local law enforcement officers. The vast majority of our American brothers and sisters who enter this type of career do so out of a desire to do good things for their families and communities. While systemic issues do lead to particular biases, these problems are largely not conscious, and result from the day-to-day experience of officers in the areas they serve.

By the same token, being righteous means we have the courage to honestly look at what’s wrong within ourselves and our communities, as there are real issues that need actual attention. Such examination necessarily includes police and other institutions that impact our lives. When we let go of allegiances that blind us to suffering, we are free to question any practice or institution that denies equality, justice, and safety to any to our people.

I know this is a lot to think about. I am also sure I run the risk of pissing off a lot of people with what I am saying, as no one likes their reality to be challenged. The truth is, however, that progress and growth are impossible when we keep digging our heels in without taking time to listen with our hearts and minds open. It sounds like hippie advice, but take a look at our society and tell me with a straight face that what we are doing now is working out well. I’ll wait.

Can’t do it can you? So let’s try something different. Let’s prayerfully approach this and all other issues with the understanding that we all want a better future. Let’s acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and all we can do is offer our experience while being truly open to the experiences of others. Let’s strive to find our common ground and then try to discern together what a better way forward might be.

Peace be with you!

On Living “The Good Life”

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life. — 1 John 2:24-25, NRSV

Life is hard.

What? You already knew that?

Of course you did. We all do. The majority of our time on this (sometimes) pleasant little planet is figuring out how in the world we can make this difficult life somewhat enjoyable and worthwhile. We pursue what some would call “the good life.”

So how do we do that? The “good life” could be determined by one’s career, perhaps their family. Maybe it’s how well-off you are in life or how much one accomplishes in their brief existence. According to the world, these are the kinds of things we need to focus on to achieve a meaningful life.

Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that your career, family, comfort, and achievements don’t matter. Of course they do, silly goose. However, when it comes to truly living life in a manner that is complete, I am going to argue that all of these things are means through which “the good life” can be lived, but they do not produce it.

In Christian language and tradition, “the good life” is known as eternal life, and it’s important to note that eternal life is not just a reference to post-death existence with God. Of course, this is included, but as indicated in this text from the First Letter of John, eternal life is life that is lived as soon as one begins walking with God. Life lived from that point onward no longer consists of simple survival and checklists, and it no longer relies on worldly favor to feel valuable.

Ponder this for a second.

For the world, living “the good life” is about what we accomplish and the relationships that define us. Our value fluctuates based on fickle standards that change day-to-day. What I am telling you is that this is all nonsense, and when we realize that and live accordingly, not only will we be changed for the better, but all of those other important things (our work, families, relationships, etc.) will also be powerfully transformed. Further, we don’t have to wait for this to happen! As soon as we realize that our value is God-given (inherent), and as soon as we decide to “be” in a way that honors that value in ourselves and in others, “the good life” is already being lived!

As we see in Jesus, God is already with us (Matthew 1:23). God is in our corner, earnestly desiring to bless our lives. His mark rests upon us all, as we are all made in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26-27), and His breath is what gives us life (Genesis 2:7). In short, what makes us valuable and beloved is already walking with us every day, and all we have to do is recognize it. If we acknowledge it in ourselves and in the rest of our brothers and sisters, shunning the fragile and empty values of this world, life becomes complete.

Now, is this a cheap inspirational trick that promises to make life easier? Absolutely not. Life becomes even harder when we try to live “outside the lines.” But I guarantee you that this added difficulty pales in comparison to “the good life” that we will all be living should we see ourselves and each other as was always intended.

Peace be with you!