A Slow Death

Why should I feel discouraged and why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, a constant Friend is He,
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Civilia D. Martin (1905)

 

A friend shared this week about two of his co-workers who were experiencing the most terrible crises in their lives. A bunch of us prayed with our friend, that he would be enabled as an inspiration and help to his friends during their tribulations.

“If your Lord calls you to suffering, do not be dismayed, for He will provide a deeper portion of Christ in your suffering. The softest pillow will be placed under your head though you must set your bare feet among thorns.” – Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

None of us are really immune from being touched in some way by tragedy. These days, when I bump into monsters in the dark, my question is no longer, “why me?” but instead, “what’s going to happen to me?”

In an earlier post I asked this question about Joseph…

What happened to him during those years in slavery and prison that transformed him into a man who could calmly walk into the court of the most powerful king on earth and bear witness of the power of God?

I was thinking about it again the other day, always reflecting within the boundaries of my own perpetual midlife crisis…when am I going to get out of this quicksand?

Remember, up until the moment Joseph was jumped by his own brothers, beaten and bloodied, dropped into a pit and then sold into slavery…his father had made him the center of their universe. He was younger, didn’t have to work so much, and got to dress really well. In his world it was all about him.

What happens to us on the inside when our world collapses, what we thought we could depend upon, what we had built and all the careful plans we had made? What’s the game plan when:

  • kids grow up and make all the wrong decisions
  • your career falls apart out of the blue
  • the spouse you always depended upon takes flight
  • your health becomes the most urgent crisis – right now
  • God doesn’t seem to answer anymore

How do we survive while imprisoned by tragedy? How do we make it one more day – and then month after month? Peter advises us to bow down (worship), submit your will and fears, then let God carry your heavy baggage. Sometimes this is a moment-by-moment act, every time the fear hits.

So bow down under God’s strong hand; then when the time comes, God will lift you up. Since God cares for you, let Him carry all your burdens and worries. – 1 Peter 5:6-7 (The Voice)

No one else here has ever or will ever care about you as much as God does and always will. Do you believe this? Do you trust this? Are you willing to put it to the test? It’s not a once-and-for-all decision. It’s something you have to do each and every day of your life, until it becomes a habit, like dreaming.

Something happened to Joseph in that dark prison. He probably spent more than ten years of his life locked up with not much hope for his future. But something happened. His God never left him alone, never stopped working something eternal in his life. He started using God’s gifts instead of his own charms – he let God take care of his problems. He became a different person who loved others, forgave his brothers and looked out for the interest of his family and a whole nation first.

“Whatever direction the wind blows, it will blow us to the Lord. His hand will direct us safely to the heavenly shore to find the weight of eternal glory. As we look back to our pains and suffering, we shall see that suffering is not worthy to be compared to our first night’s welcome home in heaven. If we could smell of heaven and our country above, our crosses would not bite us. Lay all your loads by faith on Christ, ease yourself, and let Him bear all. He can, He does, and He will bear you.” – Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

Seems like the Joseph who went in to prison stayed behind and a new man emerged, ready to change the world because he had surrendered something his father had built but God wanted to transform.

What a turnaround.

It took time.

It meant being willing to become someone new.

Advertisements

Who You Thought You Were

lj-street-photo-05

I was watching a talk by writer David Brooks a few weeks ago. He said something that seemed very important to me.

“As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.” 

Tillich was a Lutheran theologian from Germany (1886-1965). He spent his academic career here in the United States first at Union Theological Seminary and then at Harvard Divinity School. I hear these words from the past and I discover some meaning to the road I’m on for the past few years. A road I’m sharing with several others as well.

My response to suffering has been anything but pretty. I can’t believe what’s coming out of my mouth most of the time. I’m the guy who has old men at church calling me “sir” – surely at this stage I am supposed to have things figured out and be able to maturely handle defeats and disasters. But that’s not what’s been going on. Tillich hits the nail on my head. I’m never going to grow up if I’m not even sure of who I really am.

“I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.” ― Hermann Hesse

When we suffer we are able to look past the fable of who we think we are and present to others. We see another side of ourselves, the vulnerable and broken remains.

  • Suffering helps us to grow up because it reveals to us a truth hidden from our happy introspection
  • Suffering helps us to see what must be attended to in our lives, we see faults and frailties for the first time or that we thought we had outgrown
  • Suffering shows us more of the truth and less of the fiction that keeps us deluded about whether we are moving forward or not

This quote from Tillich continues to speak to me because it calls me to cast off more and more of the comforting veneer and become more genuine, more frail and less in control. I believe that transformation, healing and growth can happen only when we look at our true selves. No, I’m not who I thought I was.

That’s okay.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

What is God’s Will For Me?

choices

We asked that question in my Sunday School class today. We didn’t come up with any “Sunday School answers” like “Jesus loves me”

Mostly blank stares. I had been talking too much.

How do people find an answer to this big giant question? Here’s one place to look for guidance.

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

After reading this, it makes me think of several crucial steps to take when trying to figure out God’s will. I don’t like to reduce the Christian life to a list but I couldn’t resist.

  1. Live out your physical life in service to God – take a hard look at all your motivations
  2. Expect to act, think and feel different – this type of  consistent practice and worship changes your internal “wiring”
  3. Submit to transformation – you always have a choice, sometimes we don’t know God’s will because we don’t really want to obey it…
  4. Learn what God wants by spending time with God as a submitted and transformed disciple – this type of practice makes understanding God’s will easier and more evident to us

I really think knowing God’s will is not that difficult. Obeying God’s will is much larger challenge, one we struggle with all our lives.  I want to pray in faith each day – “May Your will be done on earth (in my life), as it is in Heaven” – it’s not going to be done in my life if I’m unwilling to make that first step and choose to walk in that direction. There’s always a choice before me.

“Choices will continually be necessary and — let us not forget — possible. Obedience to God is always possible. It is a deadly error to fall into the notion that when feelings are extremely strong we can do nothing but act on them.”  ― Elisabeth Elliot

This corrupt world is already wasting away, as are its selfish desires. But the person really doing God’s will—that person will never cease to be. (1 John 2:17, The Voice)

The Searcher

51856d5e-d396-4058-a784-e951987d63ac_l

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. – Colossians 1:15

Humans have always been searching for God. Jump on Amazon, there are hundreds of books written about the topic. The search continues.

The very young, who I encounter in college every day, seem so certain they’ve found all they need in their brief search. I always have one student who’s just brimming with confidence and answers. It’s inspiring.

I’m still searching for answers as I navigate through the shipwreck of this world. Long ago, when I was young and filled with answers, I assumed that one day the search would end.  Someday I’d get to a point where I had it all figured out. Still waiting. God remains a mystery. As He should be.

While I’m searching for the right path to take and looking for more answers to the multiplying problems I keep tripping over, the only certainty that comforts my spirit is what I discover about the words and actions of Christ. More and more, He becomes for me the answer to my restless soul as I search for God each day.

Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him. – John 13:5

Putting my vanity out the door and bending my knees to serve someone else (who doesn’t even expect it) – that’s where I know I can find God.

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:44-45

Treating people who seem to be out to get me as if they were the dearest of friends is the most difficult of journeys to make, and yet that’s where God is waiting.

“But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail.” – Luke 22:32

While enduring his own most agonizing trial of faith, Jesus invests his heart and mind in the life of his friend. As big as they might seem, I can’t let my own problems distract me from caring about the lives of others. This is where God is calling all of us and where He can always be found.

 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34

Putting down that grudge and taking up my cross is another certain way in which I will find God today. He is always there in the midst of forgiveness. Waiting at the gate to welcome home the wandering child. Pouring out a wealth of forgiveness to ones who owed a debt of sin. “But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.” – William Langland

As I search, I can look to the words and deeds of Christ and always find what I’m longing for.

He is Alive and Still Praying

Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.  – Romans 8:34

jesus-gethsemane

 

 

 

 

 

 

I may have stirred everyone up today. I told people in my Sunday School department that Jesus wasn’t living in their hearts. That’s not a nice thing to say on Easter Sunday.

Lot’s of fidgeting around in their plastic chairs. I was racing to get it all in before members of the choir had to leave early and everyone else needed to exit in time to get a seat for the packed Easter worship service that follows. I wish I had slowed down and let people process what they were hearing. That always works best. It may be a lot to think about if you’ve grown up singing “Since Jesus came into my heart…”

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.” – Luke 22:31-32

I had never noticed this before. As we were studying the life of Christ these past few years, I saw for the first time Jesus talking with Peter about His prayers and what He hoped the results would be. As I thought about this I wanted to remind my class that Jesus wasn’t living in their hearts (like our hymns might wrongly teach us) but he was still fully human, fully God and still fulfilling His mission in Heaven.

God has sent the Holy Spirit to reside in our hearts.

“If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you.”  John 14:15-18

Remembering that Jesus isn’t in my heart but instead is in heaven helps me to realize what He is doing for me there. He has ascended as victor over death and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He is preparing a place for me. He is going to return one day as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Now he is interceding for me as He did for Peter, pleading in prayer, that my faith would not fail.

Notice that he told Peter not that he was going to pray that all of his problems would go away nor that he would be able to avoid his trials with a happy attitude. He prayed for Peter’s faith, that it would not fail. Not that Peter would necessarily feel better about himself, but that he would have the maturity and wisdom to lift up his fellow apostles. Jesus was praying for Peter and his faith so that he could use that faith for the sake of others and in so doing launch the church. Instead of sinking into self-destructive despair because of his denial, Peter becomes one of the key leaders in the birth of Christianity.

Jesus was already praying for Peter as he prepared Himself for the cross.

Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf. – Hebrews 7:25

He is alive, He has risen from the dead.

Jesus is now in Heaven and He is praying for me – He is praying for you.

Thinking and Feeling

Fyodor-Dostoyevsky1

“A fool with a heart and no sense is just as unhappy as a fool with sense and no heart.”  

– Dostoyevsky

How’s it going as you balance your way through life these days? Are you happy AND wise? Do you feel a sense of balance or rather a slight car-sick nausea because something is out of whack? There are two essential dimensions to walking on the right path, wisdom and love. Without both we tip over too much.

I often leave meetings with an ache in my heart. I just had to say something very sensible. I couldn’t resist the temptation and just sit there in silence. The ache that came later was because my heart just wasn’t in it. There were other feelings like anger, frustration, or fear but not the right one that should have added balance to my cleverness and helped me be more wise.

all-in-the-family-episode-reflects-today-s-pro-gun-argument-40-years-agoNow that I’m in the second half of my life I’ve discovered why this balance is so important. People become jaded with all the wisdom that experience teaches and along the way can lose too much of their heart. It’s an awful feeling to keep realizing you’ve become THAT coot. The wonder has leaked out. You’re not offering any real wisdom to those around you, just one long cynical commentary. Wisdom must have heart (passion, empathy, grace) in order to be of any use, to yourself or others.

Eugene Peterson’s Message translation helps to show how real wisdom and love are intertwined in living out (practice makes perfect) our faith in community:

Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.  James 3:17-18

Feelings must have their balance as well, especially those that reflect our deepest beliefs. Without that key ingredient of “sense” people sometimes sound half-baked when they talk about a religious faith that’s mostly feelings but faith only up to your ankles.

When was the last time you sat down and thought about how someone else must be feeling. With all the social media, who has time to talk things out, to listen, to understand? Wisdom leads you to slow down, shut down and hear things. Feelings get hurt, they swell with pride, they become so fragile. Without the anchor of “sense” they can carry you off to places that you never intended to go.

Wisdom and lovpouring_watere travel together on the same path toward heaven. If your great ideas are causing you to say things that are abrasive, egotistical, and pessimistic – just keep your big mouth shut (I’m talking to myself!). If your love for others is leading you down the road of bad decisions and hurt feelings then it’s time to grow up. The love of God is deep, mature and steady. It is eternal. It’s purpose isn’t to make you and I feel good for today. God’s love is here to transform us starting now and for eternity. That transformation only works when we are putting it into practice (maturity takes time) and pouring it out (it’s not about you).

Be wise and remember how God is transforming you into his image so that you can demonstrate his heart to someone else.

“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

Believing is Seeing

poem_lead_t658

 

 

 

 


Pity me that the heart
is slow to learn
what the swift mind
beholds at every turn

– Edna St. Vincent Milay

When you’re looking at the world and all its traffic racing past you every day, how do you tend to see things? What shapes your “definition of the situation” as you navigate through all of those opportunities and obstacles? What do you see when you get a glance of that mirror deep in your own heart? Is this who you thought you were going to be at this point in your life?

At the end of the day, are you being transformed – even your perceptions and all that excess baggage buried deep in the basement?

Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is bad, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!  – Matthew 6:22-23

One clue to the state of your transformation is your eyesight. Our perception of reality is connected to how we think and feel. Attitudes shape perceptions. Perceptions shape attitudes. It’s usually easy to figure out how someone sees and thinks by listening to what comes out of their mouth. Have you spent much time listening to yourself lately? Real transformation effects the whole you.

…let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  – Romans 12:2

I thought I would get there one day. That I’d finally cross all the bridges and arrive in that vast field of dreams.  I’d be there having learned the hard lessons and would be wise. What a bitter revelation now, to see that field so very far away, almost beyond reach. Transformation never stops, it keeps on working, rooting out all the stubborn holdouts that cling to this life. I guess it’s a good sign, that this essential work is still happening in my hardheaded soul. But of course, my pride is bruised and my ego is not a happy camper.  I still need to be saved, just about every single day, usually from myself.

“Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.”   ― Thomas Merton