Living out Truth

Poemen said that someone asked Paesius this question, ‘What am I to do about my soul? I have become incapable of feeling and I do not fear God.’ He said to him, ‘Go, and live with someone who does fear God: and by being there, you too will learn to fear God.’
~ The Desert Fathers

 

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

“Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” ~Acts 20:22-35


A good night’s sleep, which has been a hit and miss experience these days, waking up surprised to see brightening sky outside. I don’t see it directly, my view from bed is trees that mostly hide the hills (and houses). There’s a window that nicely reflects what is to the east, where I can see when the day is starting and sometimes what it has in store. I close my eyes again, my thoughts wandering, and as wandering thoughts can do, leading variously in helpful and unhelpful directions.

I had a burst of discontent last evening, frustrations building up like lava in a volcano. Anger, irritations, depression, all circling around my academic and pastoral career. The roller coaster of opportunities, strong affirmations, encouragement always seemingly intertwined with dismissive responses, bypassed options, called into the mix then pushed to the margins again and again by frenzied leaders.

My mind tries to justify my experiences, making me a good guy who has been unjustly wronged, composing notes, devising strategies, plotting new projects, having conversations where I push back and make my case. My thoughts go from active counterattacks to distracted, depressive resignation, as the negatives storm my mental castle, putting my peace and hope to flight.

The surprisingly restful sleep invites me to get a new start today, and as my distracted thoughts try to break in again, I close my eyes and begin to listen.

I hear a slight breeze in the trees, each kind of tree with a different voice in response. What I think are mountain quail chirping to each other, then the squawk of a Steller’s jay. I hear the twitter of chickadees and patter of squirrels running around. My thoughts turn from self to my setting, trying to figure out what I’m hearing with each sound made outside.

I open my eyes. A hummingbird is at the feeder outside my window. I see movement in a distant tree and realize it’s two squirrels in a high branch.

I think back to where I was a couple years ago, where my view was the back of a neighbor’s two story house and animals only rarely visited. We were disappointed in attempts to find our way back to family and familiarity, and then I was fighting feeling like both God and Fuller had marooned us in a place where we never felt settled.

Thank you, God for creating a surprising opportunity and now we are here. I look out and see beauty and I am invited to peace for the first time in a long while.

I welcome that thanksgiving stirring within my heart, a geyser of hope rather than seeping, burning lava.

My thoughts turn toward thinking about remembering God and the journey we take. I think about what this means for our call to respond to God and our selves in authentic ways.

That issue of authenticity is both really popular but also really, honestly, missing in so many cases, not least of all in far too many Christian communities. That’s not as much a critique as an acknowledgement of human tendencies, how pride sneaks in to make us justified and to rationalize how we’re responding to the life around us and the life within us.

The human brain is a master at rationalization and making artificial connections. This is what both magicians and scammers take advantage of, tricking our brain into assumptions that aren’t in keeping with reality.

It’s not too much to say, I think, that one of the key tasks of psychology is to unknot the assumptions we make and the dysfunctions we’ve been led into by others and ourselves. But those knots are very complicated indeed, and sometimes pulling on the threads in the wrong way can lead to some sense of progress but actually end up tying the knots tighter.

We tell stories of ourselves to help as make sense of our part in the world around us. But when we’re surrounded by competing stories we find ourselves caught between who the world is telling us to be and who God has made us to be. We may keep Christian categories in part but find a way to prioritize world’s stories and bolster our own attempt to justify our fitting in them.

We do this with all the ways that the world asserts are necessary for our identity: money, success, sexuality, food, the power of our will over others, the acceptance by others for our inclusion into their community. These can start as temptations but easily drift into what I’m now seeing are pseudographies: falsehoods that define us and how we look at our past, present, and future.

These pseudographies become our new kind of Way, our rationalizing narratives that justify excusing sins of all kinds: anger, lusts, greed, laziness, gluttony, vainglory, acedia, pride. They worm their way so deep into our psyche that we feel not only justified in them as rational responses to our experiences, but even more, that to take them out would somehow leave us without identity.

Inauthentic communities preach Christ but breed these dysfunctions, because pseudographies then become the models we see all around us and shape our theology in all its forms.

We justify our broken narratives with fancy sounding new orthodoxies that portray God other than what God has revealed or emphasize aspects that may be true but are not what God prioritizes.

We justify passions and then actions that reflect these distortions which then feed into more and more diversions from the path we’ve been called to, our true story that the Spirit has created us for.

Slavery is a great example of this process. Love God, love your neighbor, became de-emphasized for absolutizing nuances of other doctrines and hierarchies. Violence became rationalized, the people de-humanized as just holders of unwelcomed opinions or unfamiliar customs.

De-humanizing allowed “Christian” rulers to wage wars, treat subjects as objects fueling their ambitions. Dehumanizing hierarchies and wars led smoothly into a return to enslaving others, justifying it all with high sounding rhetoric but really expressing an even more debased actions than ever before. Then sadly far too easily condemning whole generations to chains and abuse based only on rationalized differences that skin color makes in defining who is human, who is worthy of being treated with love and respect.

This was utterly against all that Christ taught and what the early church lived out, but the story had taken so long to take shape that no one noticed how far it had drifted from God’s vision for who we are to be.  The Good News became a false story and oppressing, death, evil reigned with the Bible in hand.

That’s a historical experience of centuries. We replay this in our own lives and our own communities at a much smaller scale, a fractal falsehood that leads to dysfunctions and destruction we wouldn’t have envisioned then excuse away when confronted with them.

The pseudographies become their own chains on us, the inauthenticity can’t be acknowledged, the way that the world defines identity in terms of wealth, power, sexuality, recognition, and all the rest are assumed as absolutes around which our Christian identity must orbit. So, we battle over these things, justified in our affirmed righteousness that fits the pseudographies of others we respect.

This is a path of abuse, a path of death, one that Christians at all levels can fall into.

Sexual abuse by ministers or leaders never starts, after all, by them waking up one day and deciding that would be a good thing for them to do.

People don’t fall into wanting an ever-bigger building or ever louder sound system by reading the Gospels. It’s all a series of steps, a series of wants, a series of comparisons that lead to the point where it not only becomes a tendency it may even be seen as a justified good.

Until the light shines.

When this is on something clearly illegal the light is more often from the State than from within. When it’s socially acceptable, like greed can be, the light never quite gets through the filters. No wonder that atheism, more often than not, is a product of Christian culture than a ex nihilo reaction against it.

The way of true life means casting off the falsehood at its roots, being willing to let every part of our life be open to the Spirit’s transformation, not taking meaning from what the world values, or even those Christians around us who are being fed by that gruel. Pursuing true life means confronting our deepest selves, where the knots first start and truly converting, with our whole self, to the life Christ has given for us, through us.

What if we’re far down the wrong road? If our knots are so tightly wound and our pseudographies have not only many chapters, but also side narratives, appendices, illustrations, and others have invested through us down their own deficient paths?

What if we have caused brokenness in others, abuse, bad influence, corrupted expectations? It’s not just about stopping and trying better, there’s a swath of brokenness we leave behind us and within us?

Truly a body, a corpus, of death. Who will save us?

What is the path of being saved if we have already once been forgiven and have done all that we do in the name of the Christ who rejects our assumptions, passions, actions as representing not him but the other fellow?

The Spirit is the giver of life and hope at any point, even to us who are not only broken but have led others into brokenness, who have the scars of being broken by others, who carry the weight of resisting insufficient identities without having somewhere else to turn.

Jesus was dead for three days, after all, then came to life. That means there’s no point at which death, our false stories, have so overtaken us that we’re beyond hope, but we have to lean back into the Spirit, and be blown back into who we are called to be.

We need life, and we need this life together, because the Spirit is given to the community.

And that is why we not only must value life—salvation into wholeness—but also truth, in all its confronting and disturbing ways.  We need become people who not only voice truth about external things–exegeting a Bible passage with skill, taking a moral stand on the political issues of the day. We also need to be, even more importantly, willing to be honest and forthright about that harder truth, about ourselves, our temptations, our weaknesses, our knotted-up threads.

If churches cannot be places where people experience that deeper life and who are invited into authenticity with a sharing of that deeper, harder truth, then we perpetuate pseudographies in the guise of faithfulness. People then have no where to turn to for genuine transformation.

There’s no easy way for this to get going, but once it does, there is an awakening possibility far beyond what we think or imagine.

Yet again and far too easily, that promise is drowned out by the cacophony of the world’s identities. We want to triumph through the world’s priorities, to show off, rule over, do what we want and to who in corrupted rationalizations of love or power. We think people will be impressed and drawn to us.

Meanwhile the Spirit is grieved, and rather than life we are pushed back into justifying our pseudographies as being what Christ calls us to.

This is where soul friends and honest vulnerability play a part, especially at the beginning before we get knotted up, but always an invitation toward redemptive rewriting of the story we tell about ourselves. We begin as people who are invited into a new life and then must be willing, persevering, to wander the heroic narrative from calling, to conviction, to rejuvenation, to be holy as the Spirit empowers us to be holy in all of its holistic expressions. In this, we overcome as Christ has called us, not giving in to defeat, by giving over all of who we are to all of who he is.

What is the truth about who you are, the deepest hurts, the most shameful tendencies, the ways you have been led the wrong way, the ways you have led others the wrong way?

We need to be a people who no longer live in the shadows, hiding from others because they too are hiding and we’re all embarrassed about being seen as less than saints.

We need to step together into the light, come what may, in the hope and promise that this light is the resurrection itself. The way to our true story is through the honest experience of facing our broken selves and being willing to help each other stay on the path of life.

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Freedom together

If we compare the two ways of knowing, it is easy to see that modern men and women need at least a balance between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, the active and the contemplative life, if they are not to atrophy spiritually.

The pragmatic way of grasping things has very obvious limits, and beyond these limits the destruction of life begins. This does not apply only to our dealings with other people. It is true of our dealings with the natural environment too.

But the meditative way of understanding seems to be even more important when it is applied to our dealings with our own selves. People take flight into relationships, into social action and into political praxis, because they cannot endure what they themselves are.

They have ‘fallen out’ with themselves. So they cannot stand being alone. To be alone is torture. Silence is unendurable. Solitude is felt to be ‘social death’. Every disappointment becomes a torment which has to be avoided at all costs.

But the people who throw themselves into practical life because they cannot come to terms with themselves simply become a burden for other people. Social praxis and political involvement are not a remedy for the weakness of our own personalities.

Men and women who want to act on behalf of other people without having deepened their own understanding of themselves, without having built up their own capacity for sensitive loving, and without having found freedom toward themselves, will find nothing in themselves that they can give to anyone else.

Even presupposing good will and the lack of evil intentions, all they will be able to pass on is the infection of their own egoism, the aggression generated by their own anxieties, and the prejudices of their own ideology.

Anyone who wants to fill up his own hollowness by helping other people will simply spread the same hollowness. Why? Because people are far less influenced by what another person says and does than the activist would like to believe. They are much more influenced by what the other is, and his way of speaking and behaving.

Only the person who has found his own self can give himself. What else can he give? It is only the person who knows that he is accepted who can accept others without dominating them. The person who has become free in himself can liberate others and share their suffering.

~Jürgen Moltmann, Spirit of Life

 

The Bible is a really long text. For those who aren’t very familiar with it, it can seem meandering and disjointed.

For those who know it well, that idea couldn’t be farther from the truth. All throughout there is a driving theme, a theme that is expressed through two core archetype stories: the Exodus narrative in the Old Testament and the Resurrection in the New.  Freedom from slavery and freedom from death.

Really, these aren’t different at all.  In the Bible, death isn’t just about a physical body, it incorporates all sorts of different kinds of deaths.  Sin itself is death, after all: the initiator of death and the instigator of death.

Sin is something we do and it is also something done to us.  We become dealers in death, mostly in little ways, the thousands of cuts that undermine our self, undermine others, creating ripples in history itself.

The contrast to sin is holiness. And just as sin is death, holiness is life.  It isn’t about hiding away or lashing out against any unseemly intrusions, as if the icon of a holy life is a crabby old man waving his cane at the kids running on his nicely manicured lawn.

By no means! Life is about a lot more than that.

God who is life and love and light brings light and love and life to this world that he made, and this is a resonating presence.  We who are filled with the Spirit resonate this life and love and light wherever we go, inasmuch as we are walking with the Spirit.

The ways of this world are wily, however, and we are easily seduced from the calling of Christ into distractions or, worse, distortions of the life we have been given.

Instead of bringing freedom we become slavers.  Instead of light, we bear shadows.  Instead of love, we offer something else: rules, expectations, performance, obligations. We turn relationships into our little fiefdoms where we expect our will to be done and are filled with indignation when its not.

This is bad enough when we don’t claim the name of Christ, but when we do, rather than resonating hope of God’s life we resonate our anemic egos and call this Christ’s salvation.  Which is so sad, because there’s no power in our blood!

In our attempts to navigate life on our terms we can respond a couple ways. We can ignore the real problems around us, intentionally or unintentionally. We put our faith into some distant moment and don’t let our faith be tested by trusting God in resolving present circumstances. We don’t help those around us or see current crises of justice or hurt as our problems to address.

On the others side, we become obsessed with the problems.  We become impatient, unwilling to trust God’s faithfulness and think that God needs the methods of this world to bring the plan to completion.

Both these reflect a kind of end times millennialism too, but that’s a discussion for another week.

It is as if a building is on fire and people are trapped inside. On the one hand, we can look away, ignoring the suffering.  On the other hand, we can run into the burning building just as we are, with no precautions.  We probably won’t help and everyone will get burned in the process.

The way of life involves both the right goal and the right method, the commitment to help and committing to doing so in a way that is fruitful not just rushes into things.

God’s work among us invites us to see and act, to be peace-makers and bearers of living hope for the suffering. God’s work among us also invites us to a particular method of doing this, one that doesn’t sacrifice love for results or justify more oppressing. Death can’t save the dead. Only way way of life offers the methods that accomplishes the thorough goal of liberation that Scripture calls for throughout its many pages.

The Spirit is the Spirit of Life. Because of this, a real liberation requires a substantive theology of the Holy Spirit. In developing a pattern of liberation for our specific context, we must continually ask questions about the Spirit. Where is the Holy Spirit working? How is the Holy Spirit working?

Throughout Scripture, we find God’s particular presence—the Spirit—with people, filling them and in this filling enlivening them to accomplish specific tasks. In the New Testament, this Spirit is even more expansive, with Pentecost the story of the Spirit in each person, blessing, and using them in a new way.

Those who are free in Christ become named participants, no longer anonymous, sharing and receiving, freeing others and building others up in the particular way the Spirit gives them gifts.

This is the body of Christ, which comes together as a community in the name of Christ. The calling of the church is to be a focused fractal community of experienced liberation that reaches out into the world as each person lives in the new way of life of the Spirit.

We live the narrative of God together and we live out the narrative of God in the midst of the world systems, no longer anonymous and defined by their patterns.

We find coherence in the Spirit who integrates our lives according to God’s lordship over all creation. The Spirit remakes each context according to the Kingdom’s integrating and coherent values.

Because the Spirit is always particular—and the experience of the kingdom is a fractal experience of the small extending within and spreading out among the whole—the emphasis can never be focused on the general goals while negating any person.

That is a negating of the Spirit’s particularity. It is in the relationship of person to person that the most transformative experience of the Spirit takes place, because it is in each person that the Spirit chooses to dwell.

We are gathered together as persons into a unity, and this gathering is what transforms anonymity into identity. Oppression is diminished and eventually dissipates.  Freedom rings.    ~Patrick Oden, Hope for the Oppressor

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The Challenge of God

In his book on the stages of faith, James Fowler noted that when people move to a higher level of faith, they tend to despise those still in the stage they just left. There’s a tendency to take one’s one new insights and wonder why this isn’t apparent to everyone.  We have compassion for those who are much less mature and we have respect (or bafflement) for those who are higher. It’s those who are closest to us, without making the changes we have made, who we have a problem with.

Then instead of providing a path for transformation, a person becomes a fundamentalist in a new way, defending and attacking rather than loving, a seemingly psychological need to bolster one’s own unsteady spiritual and emotional status.

We see this in the book of Acts.  The Pharisees were among those most committed to God’s Law.  They had a reputation for putting their lives on the line rather than give into Rome’s demands.  They were zealous and they were committed to not falling back into the errors of their ancestors.  While enduring the colonialism of Rome, they were neither co-opted nor fell into patterns of violence. They sought the path of truth in God’s salvation.

Yet, when Jesus arrived on the scene, far too many rejected him out of hand for not fitting what they thought God would do.  Others followed Jesus but wanted to make sure that this expression of God’s work stayed familiar.  They had worked out the patterns of the Law for their culture and saw this as equivalent to God’s whole mission.

Silly people, didn’t they know better?

We’re far too often the same kind of silly.

We get locked into our assumptions about who God is, and what God must be doing (and what he can’t be doing).  We assume theology is limited to a.narrow scope of a few famous authors or the questions asked by those in a certain time and place. Every church tradition has an era which it implicitly assumes was the one people were most in tune with God, then make everyone else try to fit into the styles, answers, and insights of that era.

If, however, we begin to see past these narrow boundaries, the tendency is to first get really frustrated at that narrowness and then react against it.

We get locked into binary kind of thinking. Either this or thatone or the other, them or us,  Science or faith.  The problem is that these kinds of binaries don’t take into account the complexity of actual life.  And in pushing us to one side, they leave us either ignorant or defensives.  Both Fundamentalist theology and Liberal theology fell into this trap.

“His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”

― C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength 

The tendency is to reject Modern theology altogether, without realizing that the questions of science and technology were radically disconcerting for people thrust into new kinds of life that their parents and grandparents couldn’t even imagine.  The questions asked and answered (both wrong and right ways) has helped us in our continuing journeys without us even knowing it.

But we’re no longer in the Modern era.  Like the Pharisees, we can respond with defensiveness, locked into thinking that because so much good material was developed in that era, we have to fight against any and all adaptations.  A lot of seminaries, for instance, are teaching theology the same way it was taught 50 or a 100 years ago, and take pride in this.

But there’s more to life than Modern theology, and for those of us who only know theology shaped by the early to late Modern era, we can think theology itself is at fault.  It’s irrelevant or ivory tower.

That’s not theology’s inherent nature, however, that’s just shows how we get locked into comfortable places where when we know the answers to certain questions we make sure those are the only questions we let people ask.

Religion is well known for doing this, but what isn’t often acknowledged is everyone has some kind of religion, maybe not always, or even often, one that includes a deity, but still functions as an orienting philosophy to help navigate the challenges of life.

The Modern era effectively began to end when people realized the idealized promises of science and secularity weren’t satisfying either.

How to respond?

If there’s no imagination for something more, the only way people see is to dig into what they’ve already been doing and blaming others for the insufficiency. Both Religion and Science in their fundamentalist forms insight on power as its own goal for an increasingly vague result.

“The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already… begun to be warped, had been subtly manoeuvred in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result… The very experiences of the dissecting room and the pathological laboratory were breeding a conviction that the stifling of all deep-set repugnances was the first essential for progress.”
― C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

God isn’t locked into a certain time and place, however. Nor does God despise those who are ignorant or wayward.  God certainly isn’t asking us to abandon our humanity and dehumanize others or to reject what is good and loving for the sake of a cause.

God is the God of truth but not a simple, narrow truth.  A truth that encompasses all times and all places, all of Creation and everyone in it, a truth that is established and bathed in love.

God does a transformative work, and that is a continuing invitation to be open to this work, to see how even dead approaches to knowledge can experience resurrection. The Pharisees thought they could find life and hope in their established patterns of ordered rules and life.

The Zealots, in contrast, wanted to overthrow Rome, seeing hope only in radical rejection of what they felt was their core problem. Others just joined in with Roman and Greek culture, rejecting their traditions and their distinctions, just wanting to have the experience of cultural acceptance.

None of these were the paths God established in the New Testament, however, none of these were actually rejected by God.  The work of Christ incorporated the positives of each of these approaches in the Spirit’s transforming, diverse, yet still unifying work.

The challenge for us in a global and post-modern era is to embrace the complexity of life without despising those who don’t quite have eyes to see or ears to hear.  To be open to God’s work in our own complexity, our actions, our desires, and our thoughts, to see that addressing what it means to be human in our time is itself the stuff theology should be addressing.

We don’t need to hide from God, we don’t need to reject God, we certainly don’t need to protect God.  God invites our whole selves into sustained reflection of life, the universe, and everything.

How will you answer this challenge to those in your neighborhood?

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Reflecting on Stillness

 “Our holy fathers hearkened to the Lord’s words, ‘Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity, thefts, perjuries, blasphemies; these are the things that defile a man’ (Matt. 15:19-20); and they also hearkened to Him when He enjoins us to cleanse the inside of the cup so that the outside may also be clean (cf. Matt. 23:26). Hence they abandoned all other forms of spiritual labor and concentrated wholly on this one task of guarding the heart, convinced that through this practice they would also possess every other virtue, whereas without it no virtue could be firmly established. Some of the fathers have called this practice stillness of the heart, others attentiveness, others the guarding of the heart, others watchfulness and rebuttal, and others again the investigation of thoughts and the guarding of the intellect. But all of them alike worked the earth of their own heart, and in this way they were fed on the divine manna (cf. Exod. 16:15).” ~Symeon the New Theologian

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.


I look east at the sun rising over the horizon, a moment of peace that signals the beginning of what I know to be a busy day. I gather my thoughts, drink some water, and try to be in the moment.  My kids are awake, I heard them earlier, but they’re not in the living room where I’m sitting, so it’s quiet still.  A moment of hope.

As I sit seeing the glow of the sun that’s just to the left of my sliding door (hard to stare directly at the rising sun after all), I see a young raven land in a branch in the tall pine tree across the street, a tree that has lately been the home to a family of acorn woodpeckers. I know it’s young because of its distinct call, its bouncy, yet unsure way.  He seems to be eating something, then as he finishes he walks along the branch and bounces to a higher branch, then yet higher. The woodpeckers see him, but aren’t as bold as they get with other birds.  They flurry around as he goes higher and higher, finally out of my view.

A flicker lands on the rail just outside my window, pokes around and then flies to the roof.  I turn right and see a grey squirrel just outside my other window, walking along a rail, then she hops to a nearby tree and climbs up.

As I write this, things calm down again.

The sun has continued to rise, and while it seemed for a few minutes that the forest menagerie were all beginning their day, now I don’t see anything except a small moth reflecting the morning light.  It’s chilly outside, not even the slightest breeze moving the leaves or needles.

I woke up this morning thinking about stillness.  The ancient Christian monastics wrote about the contrast between stillness and frenzy, not unlike how a lot of more recent writers write about the contrast between holiness and sin.

I’ll admit this is another way those monastics gave me categories that are more helpful in my journey. Sin is an important theme, but it has been so stylized and packaged and holiness itself has been abused, redefined, and taken out of the context of the living experience of Jesus of Nazareth, made religious rather than freeing.

Stillness resonates with me as reflecting that deep experience of trust, hope, peace, and love, steering me into the fruit of the Spirit that Paul highlights in Galatians 5.  Frenzy is its opposite, often expressing (in action or temptation) sin, but more often pulling us into the kind of socially acceptable sorts of distortions: impatience, frustration, irritation, worry. The contrast of frenzy vs stillness is all through the Bible, where faithful disciples could sing with joy in prison, where Jesus himself napped in the midst of a storm that caused the disciples to panic.

I’ve come to realize that just like musicians begin practice by tuning, getting their instrument into right alignment with the notes and the other instruments, so too we need to tune ourselves with the Spirit. This isn’t about works, doing more, using frenzy for religious ends. This is about finding that resonance with the Spirit so that we become centered in Christ.

There are so many different stories out there, so many different demands on our lives, so many people advising us, demanding from us, expecting us to live up to their standards or goals or to feed into their frenzy. So many people telling us who we just have to be, what we have to do to succeed, where we need to go, what we need to eat, how we need to perform. They define the good for us, and compel us deeper into the chaos.

Where is life today? Where is true and substantive freedom?  In that path of the Holy Spirit that leads us to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These aren’t, as many may think, a retreat from the world, a kind of naïve disengagement from the real problems around us.  They are what it means to be in tune with the only hope and power for substantive transformation of ourselves and the world.

Stillness is inner shalom, an experience of living into the story of God’s lordship, a story that began at creation and invites women and men into ever retuning to live as we truly were made to be, in community with Father, Son, Spirit and others around us.

It’s almost impossible to describe, I think, as we’re so used to words that they’ve lost their emotional power. Yet, the experience of this, once tasted, is hard to forget, that moment of deep peace, of relaxed tension, of being active in and for this world but not co-opted.

In the midst of so many demands on my life this season, experiencing the mental and physical impact of stress, I yearn for relaxed shoulders, eased thoughts, songs and prayers stirring from within, to dance amidst the trees and to laugh with the wind and birdsongs, to seek out friends and family to share my time with in joy, not obligation.

The journey toward this stillness is at the root of the spiritual disciplines, to align ourselves in prayer, study, rest, maybe fasting, definitely exercising, and so many others that are a buffet for us to discover. The goal isn’t the tasks, the goal is to more and more find that stillness in the presence of the Spirit, who is the giver of both life and calling.

Without the stillness, we get lost in the flood of other stories that want us as minor characters.  With the stillness, we become whole in the work of the Spirit, able to be and to do according to God’s good will, God’s good timing, God’s good strength, God’s good delight.

Stillness isn’t always easily found, especially when we can’t get away from the storms of life and the expectations of a busy world.  But it is there.  It is available.  Jesus isn’t far away and waiting for us to do everything right. Jesus is with us, here, in the storms too. Let us listen, let us learn his voice, the story he is telling within us and to the whole of the cosmos, together in this intricate, complex, ever more beautiful experience of life.

Be still.

Let us this week and this quarter tune to this calling and in tuning to this find this beauty and transformation resonating in our lives and in our contexts, genuine good news in present and eternal ways, the story of true and resurrecting life.

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Power and Spirit

Today we celebrate Pentecost, which is a day that people from many nations heard words of hope to share together in a new experience of humanity. This is not a hope the world offers or a hope the world can pull off on its own. The world offers only more reasons to divide and rage.
The miracle is not the tongues, but the possibility there’s a new way that languages, races, nations, cultures are no longer reasons to hate but become ways of hope and sharing. Too often even the church has used language of peace to inflict chaos and spread more chaos widely.
Today is the day we remember there is a way of unity because of diversity and a way of deep peace that overcomes injustices and promises wholeness as individuals and as a community. But it is also a day we remember the world cannot and will not do it on their own. I have little hope people will do better. I have hope the Spirit can and does bring the Kingdom among us even now.
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Hoping toward the Future

First, a prayer:

God, creator of heaven and earth, it is time for you to come, for our time is running out and our world is passing away.

You gave us life in peace, one with another, and we have ruined it in mutual conflict.

You made your creation in harmony and equilibrium. We want progress, and are destroying ourselves.

Come Creator of all things, renew the face of the earth.

Come, Lord Jesus, our brother on the way. You came to seek that which was lost.

You have come to us and have found us. Take us with you on your way.

We hope for your kingdom as we hope for peace.

Come, Lord Jesus, come soon.

Come, Spirit of Life, flood us with your light, interpenetrate us with your love.

Awaken our powers through your energies and in your presence let us be wholly there.

Come, Holy Spirit.

God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, triune God, unite with yourself your torn and divided world, and let us all be one in you, one with your whole creation, which praises and glorifies you and in you is happy.

Amen.

~Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 145

There’s probably no topic that has a bigger gulf of study between academic discussions and church discussions than eschatology–often thought of as the study of the “end times.”  I have a lot of critiques about academic theology and I have a huge passion to see theology connect better with the church and popular discussions.

Well, eschatology–the ‘end times’–is a topic in which I think the Church has really lost a sense of transformative focus and turned eschatology into something that I struggle seeing the fruit of the Spirit within.  If this is the work of the Spirit in bringing God’s Kingdom among us, then eschatology, maybe even most of all, should be full of love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest.

Being awakened to a, ahem, fuller eschatology really has rejuvenated much of my own faith and hope not only for the future but also the present.

Last Sunday, we got home late from a whirlwind trip to Santa Barbara (about a 3 hour drive). My daughter is in 4th grade and here in California 4th graders study state history and do a project on the California missions.

This is a pretty difficult history in part because of how Christianity was used to virtually enslave the native coastal populations of Chumash, Tongva, and others.

Yet, the continuing work of the Franciscans in Santa Barbara (the only mission with a continuing community of Franciscans since its founding) has a lot of light and hope and help in it I could see going on these days–I really like the preaching of the pastor there. But, it wasn’t constant progress from then to now.  That work also had some really dark times even as recently as the last few decades.

What do we do with the Franciscans of the 1th century or the Franciscans involved in horrid scandals in the 20th century (which impacted, I learned later, one of my good friends in 4th and 5th grade)? Does that ruin any chance of hope? Do we abandon ourselves to rage or despair? Or do we, on the other hand, ignore the tragedy and evils of humanity?

I don’t think so.

Eschatology involves not a dismissiveness about the past, nor a triumphalism, but a hope that we are never wholly lost in our brokenness, that at every point we are invited to seek a better way even in this present life and be people who encourage, renew, edify each other.

The vision God gives us of our future should bring us peace because we know we don’t have to be people who hate, who undermine others in competition or attempts at asserting our will.  We don’t have to be caught in the frenzy and never ending expectations of the world.

We can become people who listen. Who learn, Who dance in the rhythms of the Spirit’s work, remembering the brokenness of the past in seeking a redeeming story of life together, reconciled and finally truly free.

Where are you needing freedom this week?  What do you need freedom from? Who can you give freedom to in your efforts?

Let us together seek a living eschatology that in bringing us hope for what is to come makes us be bringers of life and freedom to our neighborhoods and to our families.

This isn’t our work, this is the work of the Spirit that we sing and dance with as we learn the words, the steps, and love those around us.

It’s also really true that our trip this last weekend was a wonderful getaway after a very long season of sickness, frustrations, and other things.

I lived in Santa Barbara for a while growing up and my family then had some really difficult experiences, that eventually caused us to leave, severe financial and health issues. But in being back with my own family, I was able to find places of peace I remembered and places of beauty to share.

It was busy, but it was also restful. I pray you are able to find places and moments of rest, of beauty, of deep grace that helps you think of the challenging moments with a sense of God’s care and provision.

The story God is writing continues, and let us seek God’s telling in our lives and in those around us.

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Narcissism and Church Leadership

Good insights here talking about narcissism among pastors, though nothing surprising. I’m struck and stuck with the reality that church leadership is structured to select for narcissistic leaders, and that is what troubles me a lot about the huge emphasis on “leadership development” in churches, which is often much more emphasized than spiritual or emotional development.

This isn’t unique to church leaders, of course, but churches, of all places should be free of this kind of reality–if they were structured in the pattern of the Holy Spirit’s work of giving gifts and empowerment to all the people. Another troubling reality is that narcissist leaders can be very wise and very astute in ministry and the Bible.

There are a lot of leaders who fall, of course, but there are also a lot who thrive in ministry and are very famous in their ministry, but are still narcissists, leading others into destructive habits. Meanwhile, there are a lot of wonderful, balanced, pastors who are struggling because they are made to feel insufficient compared to those “successful” ministry.

It’s a bad cycle that endures because it’s what our church models continue to develop.

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renewing a way

How different all this is from the instruction I received as I grew into my own Christian faith. I was taught to recite the creeds, I was prepared for confirmation on the basis of a catechism that in effect told me that there were certain articles of belief to which I must subscribe. My head was constantly engaged, my mind filled with information.

But this did not involve the whole of myself, my five senses, my emotions and feelings, and above all my imagination. Nor did it bring any sense of continuity or belonging, seeing myself as being inserted in my own generation into a great and continuing heritage of the past.

I had no sense of being a member of a long chain of family and kin stretching back into the past, and so being able to draw from a shared common storehouse of memory and storytelling. If I am discovering how to pray differently (and also to think and to feel differently), it is because I am now finding a holistic way which better responds to the wholeness and the fullness within my own self. And this of course helps me to become the person who I would much prefer to be.

De Waal, Esther. The Celtic Way of Prayer (pp. 35-36).

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A Way in a Manger

 Something I wrote in 2011 for a now defunct site. Gets at how the theology we sometimes want, even in Christmas, isn’t really the theology we need. In this 2020 Christmas, we need a theology of hope within the messiness.  

Do you know (well of course you know) the old hymn Away in a Manger? Here are the words:

Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head

The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay

The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
‘Til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray

Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there

This is a popular carol to be sure, one of the most popular. The sentiment is nice, indeed steering pretty much into being sentimental, emphasizing the peace of the moment, the quiet, the contented, inviting us into this still moment so as to still our hearts, encouraging us to imagine ourselves in this most pastoral of scenes so as to renew our faith in the God who cares for us and will take us, as well, to the place of peace. Lovely.

And yet… I wonder about it a little bit, and I wonder about it in a way that reflects some of my thoughts on so much of our Christmas liturgies and celebrations.

We’re docetic. This carol is docetic.

Now, before you get offended, let me tell you more exactly how you should be offended, since I basically called us heretics. There were two main ways in which the early Church erred in their thinking about Jesus.

There were those who tended to see him only as this guy, this great guy mind you, but just a guy, with a special message and work that should inspire us.

On the other side, there were those who really emphasized the fact Jesus was God, and the conceptions of God being what they were they couldn’t see how this Jesus was really a real human.

So, they danced around the idea of how this Jesus appeared in human form, but didn’t really cavort with real flesh, blood, or any of the other trappings of physical life. This latter approach was called docetism.

Now, we’ll confess that’s wrong. The incarnation is in our creeds, after all. We confess Jesus was both this guy and this God, and would heartily argue with someone who suggested anything different.

And yet, like with this carol, our worship and liturgy is much better about emphasizing the glory of Christ’s divinity than the earthiness of Christ’s humanity.

We want to be lifted up, lifted away, given space within God’s throne room, transported out of our present troubles and be promised that this impassive savior will deliver us to live in a safe, protected, always still, paradise.

The baby wakes, but the baby doesn’t cry.

That’s what we want all our life to be like. All our problems would appear, but not disturb us in any way. Just like the little Lord Jesus.

Only that’s almost certainly not how it was. We worship in a way that seems like we’re honoring God, but in a way that so often dismisses the real glory of what happened. We want to protect God, to keep Jesus safe, to honor him and make up stories that are more impressive. Sort of like what some in the early church did with the gnostic infancy stories.

That’s not really honoring God, though, is it?

The reality of the Christmas story is not that it was this moment of perfection, of stillness, of beauty and life and constrained adoration. The reality of Christmas was that everything was going wrong. Joseph was ordered by a hated ruler to travel at most inconvenient time. His wife was very pregnant.

The roads were dangerous, the weather probably was bad, and in general they were pulled away from their life. One thing went wrong after another. They finally got to the town of Bethlehem, but they couldn’t find a place to stay.

We know this story, but think about it again, now. Think about how you might feel if you had to travel during the Christmas season, the airports shut down, and all the local hotels were booked.

Think about how you feel when you go to the store, to many stores, and can’t find that thing—that ingredient or that perfect present—no matter where you go. Think about the frustrations that come with visiting family (after all Joseph had to go to the town where his family originated).

We like to reflect on peace and stillness, and get annoyed with all the frustrations pulling us away from our ‘proper’ religious focus. Only, it’s precisely with those frustrations that we can understand the fullness, the glory, of the incarnation. God isn’t this otherworldly being, away from us, distant from us, separated.

Jesus wasn’t this still, little child in this nicely arranged nativity scene—put the shepherds over there, and Mary and Joseph standing beside the small little manger, with maybe an angel or two off to the side and the wise men hovering over the manger right behind Mary and Joseph.

The nativity was messy.

It was a barn and a stable.

Birth is messy. Travel is messy.

It’s all messy and it’s all frustrating and it’s the sort of thing that makes a person confused and angry about why everything seems to be going wrong, the best laid plans going awry no matter how much we try to get things going right.

To this, God entered into this world. Into this, was Jesus born.

In the midst of the messiness and frustration and distraction, God became a human, participating with us so as to restore us.

We want to ignore the trappings of real life when we create our Christmas worship. Only that’s precisely what God didn’t want to ignore.

It came to pass in the midst of messiness. That’s the way of God’s work with humanity. It does not lift us out and away, it leads us through the times of wilderness and struggle, forming us and shaping us, creating us anew.

The earliest Christians called their faith The Way, and that’s because it was precisely in the midst of struggles and frustrations that Christ gave a new way of living, one that resonates the work of God even, and especially, when things just don’t seem to be going right.

And that’s precisely the place where God enters in, joining with us, bringing life and hope.

When it is messy, when it is loud, when everything seems out of hand, God is with us, incarnated among us, joining together in our struggles right when they seem the most overwhelming.

We don’t ignore the struggles. We look for the God who became a baby in the midst of a messy, awkward, frustrating manger. Because we know this incarnation means all things are made new.

And, no doubt, that little Lord Jesus cried. Because that’s what babies do.

Thanks be to God.

Amy re-wrote the lyrics to this carol that I think better fits the truth and our situations.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus lays down His sweet head
Dirty and smelly, the family of three
Exhausted from labor and from their journey

The cattle are noisy, the poor baby wakes
Mary, still bloody, no pain meds she takes
She swaddles him up in the clothes that they brought
And feeds and burps him like Elizabeth taught

The rest of the town sleeps in homes and hotels
Ignorant of wonders the angel foretells
The shepherds arrive in amazement and joy
The last in the culture are first to the boy

The Way in a manger, the Truth and the Life
He enters right into the mess and the strife
A crib laid with diamonds and gold He deserved
He came to serve others, not to be served

Merry Christmas and Happy Long-Awaited New Year!

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Embracing Hope

Read: Psalm 25; Lamentations 3; Romans 15:1-13; Ephesians 4

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.”

Know the hope.

But what is hope?

Hope is one of those words that is overused to the point of gutting it of real meaning.  In much common use, hope is really made equivalent to “want”.

In this, it’s really saying “this is what we’d like to happen.”

I hope I get that promotion.

I hope my team wins.

I hope those family members don’t get into one of their usual arguments over Thanksgiving.

I hope I can get away for some vacation some time next year (these latter two may be connected hopes).

Such anemic hopes are often the opposite of being content, the kind of content that Paul says he finds in all circumstances.

We struggle with such hopes because they are rooted in our desires, or our variously achievable assertion of will.

When we get what we want, we feel victorious, and that’s an addictive kind of experience. When we don’t get what we want, we linger in an identity crisis of one kind or another, and that’s an experience that cannot be sustained so has to be resolved one way or another.

Driven to either more achievement or to resolve our sense of lack, we enter into forms of frenzy.

When caught in this chaos, I find it hard to be content in any circumstances.  When things are going well, I look to see how much more well they can get. When things aren’t going well it is easy to fall into anxiety or distraction.

The early monastics used the term “acedia” to describe this kind of spiritual depression, where our will and emotions are caught in a trap of disoriented yearning, and we lose sight of the calling we have been given in Christ.

A person caught in this can be fully of busyness, always rushing around, always trying to do more and more, always wanting to hear what this person or that person thinks or is doing.  Or they can be caught in despair, no longer caring, no longer loving, no longer confident God is really at work.

This isn’t about ‘clinical depression’ because a lot of people living within acedia can seem very full of life and optimistic. But they are oriented in their wants and their wants are driving them in constant frenzy.  Or it can look like depression, but has a culpable quality because it is embraced as being identity and objective perspective.

Wants drive us to frenzy.

So often we take our yearnings and turn them into temporary satisfactions, drinking sea water when we’re caught on the ocean in a life boat.

Hope leads us to peace.

Real hope, substantive hope, is a driving vision of the future in which we find our self satisfied in a deep sense.

Hope isn’t just about our wants, though often our wants are folded into the bigger vision of our hope.  Hope is salvation because what we need, what we most need, is something far too many people have despaired to ever find.

Who am I?  Who can I trust?  Am I a real person?

The hope offered in Christ gives answers to these questions, an inviting answer of welcoming into a new community of eternally valued life.

We don’t have to strive to prove ourselves having worth. God love us.

We don’t have to give into the patterns of the world and the ways it says we have to establish our identity or order to find approval or acceptance.  We have value in Christ.

We don’t have to fight or undermine others in order to show ourselves stronger, wiser, better.  We have a place at God’s table, sharing and laughing and singing with others.

Hope is an orientation because it provides a vision that addresses all the concerns and questions in life. It gives us something beyond us to focus on, and keeps us from indulging the whims, distractions, sins that undermine our love of others.

Eschatologies that are established in anxiety or fear always push toward dysfunctional communities because they are rooted in a perspective of the world and the flesh.  They are eschatologies of want: wanting to escape, wanting to dominate, wanting to indulge.

An eschatology that is rooted in substantive hope offers a different path through life.

Patience, because frenzy isn’t God’s way.

Perseverance, because the present frustrations aren’t in control.

Joy, because in walking with the Spirit we experience a new kind of life in every moment.

Gentleness, because it’s not our will we’re fighting for but seeking that God’s will be done.  And God is full of grace.

Hope is the path of keeping in step with the Spirit, the way of understanding that life is much bigger and much deeper and much livelier than the wan attempts the world celebrates.

And because of this bigger vision of life, we grow in our capacity to love with the very love God resonates, seeking the best for others, seeking their fullness and possibility.

No longer anxious, we can also find rest, celebrating the Sabbath as a weekly expression of our deep, if sometimes disciplined, hope in God’s eternal presence.

Is hope leading you this day? If not, what is driving your sense of self and decisions?

Where are the areas of frustration or distraction in your life? Are you doing things to prove yourself to others (or to your own self)?  How is the hope we find in God’s Great Story helping you to navigate the crises within your community?

Stop for a little bit right now.

Pray for peace. Pray for rest.

Pray that despite all indications the world throws at us, we can hope with a genuine hope that transcends all possibilities because the Spirit is at work and Christ is with us.

Thanks be to God.

 

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