Persevering Toward Peace

Earlier this month I had the chance to share the Advent message of Hope at, appropriately, Hope Christian Church in La Puente.

In looking at the nativity passages I was struck by the differences of the angels announcing to the shepherds and the magi going to Herod. The message of hope and deep peace sometimes also involves having to be patient in hope to see the fullness of the promise take shape.

Persevering toward peace

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Who to be?

Hyperichius said, ‘Keep praising God with hymns, and meditating continually, and so lighten the burden of the temptations that attack you. A traveller carrying a heavy burden stops from time to time to take deep breaths, and so makes the journey easier and the burden light.’

~The Desert Fathers

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
    and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
                     ~Isaiah 55:1-8

While out on a walk into the nearby national forest, I saw a doe.  Off in the distance, a fleeting moment as it saw me about the same time and bounded higher up the hillside and behind some brush. For many that’s not exciting news.  Especially for those who live in relatively rural areas.

Deer are common in much of the country, and yet, for me, it was exciting enough to pull out my phone and text Amy, “I saw a deer!”  In the twenty years since I’ve been a regular in these mountains, I’ve never seen a deer.

Most of the other wildlife around, I’ve seen.  Squirrels, both gray and ground, coyotes of course, all kinds of birds, bobcats, bears (in the last couple years), even some bighorn sheep when I was camping near the peak of Mt. Baldy and San Bernardino flying squirrels, which would land on a bird feeder at my parents house in the middle of the night and not be bothered when I’d turn on the light.

But I’ve never seen a deer up here even though I’ve seen deer in many other places and assumed deer were native to the area.  I’ve long suspected that it has to do with the really huge fires these mountains had in 2003 and in 2008, pretty much encircling the mountain communities with their devastation. Like in Bambi, the deer were driven away.

Then, yesterday, I saw a deer, twice even. Maybe the same deer, as  I saw it once while walking up the trail and then again on my way back.

The other day we were watching a movie as a family and I looked up out the kitchen window and saw a hummingbird at the feeder, a nice comforting sight, which encouraged me because I had forgotten to refill it, so hoped the hummers hadn’t given up on me.

Back to watching the movie—Age of Ultron—and then saw more movement outside. Another bird at the feeder, but not a hummingbird. An acorn woodpecker?  That’s not a good fit.

Yeah, the woodpecker could hang on the feeder and maneuver around, but the feeder was made for hummingbirds. I got a little worried about what the woodpecker would do (they’re kind of bullies around here) and yet I was curious all the same. Clearly it realized there was something good to be had but it just wasn’t the right sort of bird for that.

It flew off finally after a few minutes, thankfully not knocking the feeder down or breaking it by trying to get through the ceramic flowers.

That moment has stuck with me since, not so much the bother about the woodpecker but more a growing sense of how much I try to force some kind of spiritual sustenance at times, and in those seasons where I’m just really caught up in frenzies, I add frustration about not experiencing God’s peace or guidance.

In the past I’ve felt guilt, that I’m not doing the this or the that which I know I should be doing or anger, at myself or at God, about the season of flurried demands that I am in and wishing for a setting that would allow me to recover a sense of my self and focus on those tasks that are life-giving rather than life-draining.

I know how that woodpecker feels.

Yet, there’s this regular invitation the Spirit offers. I can’t be a woodpecker trying to get into a hummingbird feeder, I can’t force myself into peace or orchestrate being handed the kinds of opportunities that I think I need to develop the rhythms I want.  I’ve tried doing those and will admit that even in the last couple of years as new opportunities for restoration have arisen, I still find myself striking my head against the walls and knocking at the doors that never get answered.

Impatience, irritations, feelings of regret combined with pride-violating experiences of being overlooked in my areas of strength by the gatekeepers.  I can get locked into the pattern of “what ifs” or “it could have beens.”

Given the length of my journey in seeking a place of calling this dispiriting retrospective clouds my whole sense of self and depresses my sense of present faithfulness in doing the work I have before me.  I hang on, not feeling able or increasingly even willing to keep at it. I wasn’t made for this and I wonder why God shut other doors only to have me stuck on a feeder I can’t feed from.

It’s me, I know, though it took me a long time in my 20s and early 30s to finally realize this, not excusing the circumstances or justifying being mistreated at times, but coming more and more to the realization that while I can’t force opportunities, I can attend to what I say I believe by re-orienting my emotions in an attitude of praise and noticing.

It’s not a quick turn, to say the least. A sea-going cargo ship carries tons and tons of weight, hard to stop and hard to turn once on its way.  So too my sense of self and emotional trajectory can get locked into destinations of frustration and despair, yet in the work of God I’m invited to look around and see from a different perspective, to become, to be present with myself in a new way.  The discipline of this turning isn’t itself easy, an intentional embrace of faith, from knowing what I should do and trusting that this is actually what, and who, God calls me to be.

In the turning toward praise, in the seeking of stillness, in the letting go of those areas of frenzy and assumed identity that promise so much but leave me hanging, I begin to not only see differently but be differently.  The fruit of the Spirit begins to grow and ripen within, I am no longer the outsider to myself and the world I long for but am increasingly the person who I truly was made to be, oriented in God’s perspective because I begin by praising the God who has variously haunted and comforted me my whole life.

I choose the Spirit rather than wanting, ever wanting, the sustenance that seems so sweet yet isn’t available to me.

Do I trust God? I’ll admit that I struggle with this.

Will I praise God even still?  That’s the invitation to enter into a posture of trust even with my tangled doubts and memories of being abandoned on the sides of roads and left out of relevant opportunities. If I am who I am made to be in the Spirit, living the day with faithfulness and praising God for what I see and what I am able to do, then I know that this God of life itself can bring the sweetness and fullness into this moment, into this place, into this season.

Come what may, I can experience peace and hope and expressed love that all indeed is well.

God is with us. Do we see and respond to this transforming reality?  Or do we want the world to create idols for us that mimic a sense of the divine in fractured patterns of insufficient meaning?

That’s the crossroads for me today and every day.

Life awaits. It begins with praise. Who or what shall we praise this day?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,
    that will endure forever.”

~Isaiah 55:8-13

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hoping rather than wanting

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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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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