Lamentations: Recovering a forgotten discipline.

This article first appeared as an article for The Anglican Church of Canada at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/discovering-lament-why-crying-out-to-god-may-be-good-for-our-souls-23cf60ccfe3a.

While out for a walk with my family the other day, we came across another family, also out for a stroll. Mom and Dad were following their two small daughters, each on bright pink bikes with streamers. As we approached each other, without saying a word, each family adjusted course appropriately. My family moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. The other family stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curbside, their bike-riding daughters pulling to the far side of the sidewalk. We passed each, smiling of course, with a good four or six feet between us.

There is a sadness in the fact that such physical distancing has become so normalized that it occurs without speech. Life has changed. We have grown comfortable with words such as “self-isolation” or “physical distancing.” Such concepts have become the necessary boundaries through which we navigate our lives. As we grow more and more comfortable with this new reality, we cannot deny that there has been a tragic loss. With startling quickness, our lives became turned upside down. Plans were instantaneously changed or cancelled outright. That long-awaited summer trips have been indefinitely postponed. Jobs have been lost. Doors have been closed. Perhaps we, or those we love, now face a time of illness in isolation.

How do we respond to this situation faithfully? What practices or disciplines may help us navigate this new normal, and give voice to the strangeness of life as we experience it currently? I suggest that the discipline of lament might be exactly what is need in this time.

We often fail to think of lament as a spiritual discipline to be cultivated. Literature detailing essential habits of the Christian life rarely speak of this practice. A read through Scripture, however, clearly displays this spiritual practice. This goes far beyond the specifically classified “Lament Psalms.” Old Testament books such as Job or Jeremiah are filled with laments, and of course we can’t forget the biblical book which bears the name “Lamentation.” More profoundly, however, we see prayers of lament modeled by Jesus himself. In Gethsemane, for instance, Christ throws himself down to the ground and cries out “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” This is a lament, a prayer disclosing the deep burden of his soul. Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (a psalm of lament): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to pattern our lives after Jesus, adopting the spiritual practices evidenced in Christ’s life and teaching, then engaging in prayers of lament is one of the ways we can do that.

Lament, simply described, is an unburdening of the soul. We may think of this as a type of grieving. We grieve the loss of your summer plans — or the inability to gather with family. I know several people who have had to cancel long-awaited trips overseas and they are grieving the loss of that which they so eagerly looked forward to. Alternatively, we might think of lament as a sense of soul-heaviness we carry within, because of our concerns or anxieties. Questions such as “what’s next?”, or “how long”, or “where are you?” often dominate a prayer of lament. In lament, we pour out how we are feeling at the deepest core of ourselves. They are prayers that give words to our thoughts and feelings around the difficulties or struggles we may be experiencing.

Lament, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is rooted in two important realities. Firstly, Christ is Present. Christ is not absent from us. In fact, Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. This may not be what we feel in the moment. Our laments may take the form of asking God to act or questioning why God seems absent. Yet the simple act of crying out to God is one of boldly acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggles. Thus, laments are an acknowledgement of our confidence in Christ’s unyielding presence. Secondly, Christ lovingly invites us to lament. Christ invites us to bear our soul before him. He does not shy away from laments, or from our bold complaints or questions. If we think our own liturgy of corporate confession, we see a fabulous invitation: “Dear Friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love, and infinite in mercy….” This reality is also expressed in our prayers of lament. In Christ’s love, we are invited to disclose our hearts in all its raw messiness.

These two realities are important for they ensure that our prayers are laments and not curses. We never curse God. For all the stark honesty of their lamentations, neither Job, nor Jeremiah, nor David ever curse God. As much as we may describe how much we may be angry at God, or feeling abandoned by God, laments hold true to the claim that God is present in love. Cursing amounts to pushing God away. In lament, we grab God close.

With these realities in mind, how might we make our lament? The Psalms particularly can be a great guide for us. You may consider using one of the lament psalms as a pattern for your own. Psalms 6, 13, or 77 would work wonderfully in this regard. In general, there are three guiding steps to making our lament, and most psalms of lament follow this three-fold pattern (there are exceptions — consider Psalm 88).

Firstly, be honestPretending does not help our prayer-life, or our spiritual growth. In lament there is little room for being appropriately Anglican, reserved and stoic. Similarly, pretending that we are not affected by a situation, or not struggling in faith, hampers our spiritual lives. God wants to hear from us in prayer. As we keep the two aforementioned realities in mind, careful to not curse God, we disclose our hearts in all raw and unhindered honesty.

Secondly, we cry for help or assistance: Fundamentally, laments are a reaching out to God. Thus, ask Jesus to respond to your situation, to your feelings, or to your experience. This is what prayer is. Sadly, many have been taught that it is selfish to ask God to respond to our personal situation, that it amounts to using God. Yet scripture is awash with instances of people asking, or begging, God to respond. Again, consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” As you make your Lament, ask for divine help, whether that be help in healing, in understanding, or in perseverance.

Lastly, end with a statement of trust: Most psalms of lament conclude by affirming the two realities spoken of previously. The lament ends by be grounding the individual in the truth that God is present and loving. In this way, we can think of our lament as a prayer that moves from complaint to confidence, or from trouble to trust. Thus, end your lament by acknowledging the blessing you have previously received, or a statement regarding your faith that God will be with you. Again, Psalms 6 and 13 are a good examples of this.

It may seem strange to say that offering a lament can be beneficial to our spiritual growth and formation. Laments, after all, seem so negative. In this time, however, where our lives have been turned around so dramatically, giving voice to our unsettledness may just be the discipline we need.

Messy Faith

This post first appeared at https://medium.com/@revkylenorman/  under the title “Embracing the Messiness of faith” 

Someone once told my mother that eating chilli peppers would cure her cancer.

I wish I was making this up.  Upon hearing of her diagnosis, this individual informed my mother that the Lord had led him to discover a certain brand of chili peppers, and that if she would but eat of them she would be healed.  This was not the only ridiculous thing spoken to her.  Another offered these words: “don’t you worry, we are going to pray for your healing, and God always answers our prayers.”  Don’t get me wrong, prayer is good.  It meant a lot for my mother to know her church community was praying for her.  But to boldly promise a healing, based on the greatness of my mom’s faith, or on the superb eloquence of their own prayers, is simply mistaken.  The reality was that my mother knew three months into her treatments that she was not going to get better.  She died six months after the date of her diagnosis.

I would like to say that the crazy comments stopped upon her death.  Sadly, they didn’t; they just migrated to other members of the family.   Upon her death, someone said to me matter-of-factly that the reason she died was because “she had finished her work on earth.”  This may sound like a nice sentiment, a simple explanation providing an easy logic for why people die.  It is even covered in a thin veneer of spirituality that makes as if it is a faithful response to death.  It might seem this way, that is, until you realise my mother was only 62.  She died before her own father; she will not get to see her youngest daughter get married or watch her only grandchild grow up.   I have no doubt that, given the chance, there would have been a whole lot more “work” that my mother would have loved to do.

I bring these things up because I feel we do not always give voice to the messiness of our Christian faith.  Our faith rarely exists in palaces of simple logic and problem-free solutions.  We face difficulties, we struggle with God’s silence in prayer, we sometimes are left bereft of an answer for what is occurring in our lives.  When we rationalize such difficulties by resting upon easy answers and stock phrases we reduce our faith to something safe and palatable.   For example, a church in my neighbourhood recently posted the quote: “When the answer is simple, God is speaking.”  Now, there are two things wrong with this quotation.  Firstly, this is quote from Albert Einstein, a man who fundamentally rejected any notion of a God who loved you, cared for you, or spoke to you.  Einstein’s god was a non-personal, non-affective, non-redeeming God.  But more importantly, what does that say to the person going through a tumultuous time?   What does this say for the one struggling for direction?  If God is speaking only when the answers are simple, then any difficulty in life necessarily testifies to the absence of God.  In promoting this easy answer, we step away from the very incarnational reality testified to in scripture.

The fact is, scripture is filled with messy situations.  From Adam and Eve to King David, from Job to Jesus, we see faith lived out amongst the muck and mire of regular life.  In scripture we uncover many questions, yet interestingly, very few answers.  The book Job is a prime example of this. Upon Job’s suffering, Job’s friends put forward the answer to his plight:  Job is suffering because he deserves it.  Their theological outlook is quite simple, really: Bad things happen to bad people. The logic of easy answers are direct and pointed: Sin means suffering; Death means God has no more need of you; Chilli peppers cure cancer.  Yet such statements offer nothing to the grieving or struggling person.  They only serve to let’s us off the hook, to move us away from actually wrestling with our life with God.

Faith does not make us immune to difficulty or struggle.  The good news, however, is we are not alone as we bear the difficult things in life. We see this throughout all of scripture, starting right from page one. In response to their sin, God enters the garden (that has just become infinitely messier) and calls out to the hiding Adam and Eve.  We see in Job.  Despite all his questions, God provides no easy answers.  Instead, God provides Job with an understanding of his presence. Job final words are “now my eyes have seen you.” It is in this reality that Job finally rests.

Of course, we see this most profoundly in Jesus.  God steps into the world to take our mess upon himself and to bear it with us.  Christ is born in backwater town of Israel, surrounded by animals, unclean shepherds, and gentile mystics.  Although perfect and without sin, Jesus is baptized in order to take up Israel’s need for salvation.  In the wilderness he experiences the temptations that so often besiege us.  He is hated, despised, and rejected.  Jesus is beaten mercilessly and suffers an excruciating death on the cross.  Such physical agony is only matched by his spiritual anguish as he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Make no mistake, the messiness of Christian faith is that Christ is there in the mess.

Rarely do easy answers make us feel better. I can’t answer why, despite all the prayers, my mother was not physically healed.  But I can claim that Jesus held her each and every moment of her difficult journey.  And that gives me comfort. See, when we fail to embrace the messiness of our faith, we may just fail to meet the one who embraces us in our mess.  It is the presence of Jesus in our lives, not safe and easy answers, that makes all the difference.

As you journey through the rest of Lent, allow me to pose a question for reflection: Where is your faith a little messy at this moment?  Perhaps you have some questions that remain unanswered.  Or possibly those easy answers you have been previously offered just don’t seem to cut it anymore.  Maybe you are facing a hard conversation, a difficult road, an unforeseen circumstance.  Whatever it is, what might it look like for you to embrace that mess?   Because having a messy faith is not the worst thing in the world.  It is within that mess that you may just uncover the presence of the Lord.

View at Medium.com

Habits of Devotion

This article first appeared at Ministry Matters under the title “Habits of Devotion: Observing the season of Lent in a healthy, restorative, and biblical way.”  Published February 27, 2020. 

 

Are you bored of Lent? This probably seems like an odd question to ask, considering we have yet to enter into the liturgical season. The question is apt, I think. With only a few days left to go before our big plunge into the penitential season, most of us are probably trying to figure out what will define this year’s observance. If you are like me, you probably have already started to ask yourselves a series of complicated questions: “Do I give something up or take something on?”, “Do I repeat a past observance or think of something new?” , “Do I focus on my exterior life or my interior life?” These questions can be hard to answer. Furthermore, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to figure out what will make for a good Lenten experience. Have you ever felt so exhausted trying to figure out what your discipline will be, that by the time Lent arrives, your passion for the discipline is already disappeared? We may still do our Lenten obligations, with an appropriate mix of understated humility and begrudging liturgical compliance, but that’s all we do. We observe them, but we aren’t transformed by them.

How might we engage in the season of lent differently this year? What might it look like to engage in this season of spiritual discipline with the purpose of transforming our spiritual lives? Are there practices or disciplines that have been proven to do this? Luckily there are. The book of Acts contains a wonderful description of how the early church structured their Christian lives. Having accepted the good news of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, members of this new community lived in a particular way. They structured their spiritual lives around four simple habits. We read in chapter 2 that the early Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” These habits are not complicated by any means. In fact, they are rather quite simple. All it takes is a little dedication and a willingness to engage in these actions on a regular basis. For that early baptised community, devotion to these practices opened them to the continuous presence of the risen Lord.

What would it look like if Anglicans everywhere purposefully engaged in each of these disciplines on a weekly basis throughout the season of Lent? What if we structured our life around these exercises? Importantly, these four practices call us into a deeper engagement with the community of faith in a way that giving up my favourite snack does not. By adopting these practices, my Lenten observance is transformed into our Lenten observance. To follow along with the example set by the early Christians, we need to know a little more about each practice.

The Apostles’ Teaching: For the early Christian community, devotion to the apostles’ teaching meant learning about Jesus from those who had been with him. This wasn’t about private moments of silent reflection upon the scrolls. The early community discussed Jesus’ teachings with one another and explored implications for their own lives. The point was to be influenced by Christ’s teaching, example, and Spirit. How might you join others in learning more about Jesus? Can you form a small group and commit to reading a Gospel each week, or work through a 12-lesson Bible study booklet? What would it look like for you to takes notes during the Sunday sermon? Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching is about allowing the good news of Jesus to form (and transform) the community of faith.

Fellowship: Fellowship lies at the centre of the faith community because it forces us to recognise the call to a common spiritual life. Fellowship is not just about “hanging out” or “shooting the breeze.” Nor is fellowship just about having “Coffee time” with one another. Fellowship is about connecting with a fellow Christian for mutual, faith-based, encouragement. In fellowship, we share what is occurring in our spiritual lives. This means we need to cultivate a radical sense of both hospitality and vulnerability. Could you call the clergy of your parish and arrange an appointment to talk about where you are in your faith life? Could you ask a fellow parishioner how you could support them in their faith life? We live in a time of rampant individualism, and because of this, it is easy for us to believe that such conversations are both intrusive and unwelcome. Yet devotion to fellowship demands that we push past the safety net of small talk and willingly engage in deeper, soul-rich, conversation and sharing.

The Breaking of Bread: The New Testament describes several instances where Jesus blessed, broke, and gave bread to people. Each case was a moment where the Lordship of Jesus was revealed in a particular way (c.f. Luke 24:30–32). The greatest example of this is the Last Supper. For Anglicans, we see our participation in the eucharist as the chief act of worship. Yet the hyper-busyness of modern day often interrupts our celebration of the Eucharist. This is understandable, and maybe unavoidable. Still, as a Lenten observance, what would it look like for you to devote yourself to taking communion every week during the season of Lent? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have to be on Sunday morning. Many churches have several communion services per week. If you cannot make it to church on Sunday morning you may choose to attend the mid-week service. Or perhaps you could call the church to arrange for someone to bring you communion in your home. (FYI: you don’t have to be a shut in to request this!). Now, if you do not yet take communion, perhaps this is the opportunity for you to engage in discussions with your local clergy about the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.

Prayer: The community’s devotion to prayer probably sounds the easiest. However, this is not just about having a personal prayer-life. Devotion to prayer for the early Christian community was about devotion to communal prayer. The community gathered together to pray for one another, and to pray with one another. Prayer was both personal and liturgical. This is completely contrary to the privatised and individualistic way that we sometimes view prayer today. There are many different ways that you could cultivate communal prayer during Lent. You could say the liturgy of Morning Prayer (or Evening Prayer) using the BAS or BCP rites; take your bulletin home and pray the collect before bed each evening; ask someone to join you in prayer — either in grace before a meal, or in saying The Lord’s Prayer; seek out a Christian you trust and look up to, and ask him or her to pray with you. Options are limitless and opportunities to join in prayer with others abound. All it takes is a little creativity and boldness.

None of these practices are overly complicated. Each are fairly strait forward. So simple are they, in fact, that we often overlook the transformative power of them. The fact is, each of these practices opens the door for us to creatively engage in our life with God in a unique way. So, if you want the season of Lent to be a time of spiritual renewal, this is perhaps one of the simplest (and most biblically based) ways to go about it. May we all have a blessed Lent.

When Words Speak: 5 books that formed my faith and brought me closer to Jesus (besides the Bible).

Recently, our bishop asked us clergy to provide a list of three books that we have found influential to our lives or our ministry. These books didn’t have to be necessarily theological in nature, just books that we would recommend to others.  For me, this proved to be a difficult task.  I love my books and so the idea of reducing my library to only three influential titles seemed overly problematic.  But, exercising my vow of canonical obedience, I presented my three choices at the clergy day.

Since then, I have thought a lot about the books that I chose for presentation.  Why did I pick these books over others? What made me gravitate to those titles over other books I enjoyed?  I also felt that my presentation to my colleagues did not do justice to some of the influential books I have read. I also feel that, if asked to do this again, I would pick different titles than the ones I initially presented.

Given all of this, I present to you my revised list.  Instead of three influential titles, I list five titles that have helped me deepen my love for Christ.  My criteria for choosing these texts are fairly simple: these five texts are ones I seem to return to again and again.  They inform how I understand my life with Christ.  They encourage me.  They challenge me. They inspire me.  Simply put, they are the works that began, and seem to sustain, my spiritual life.

  1. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster This book tops my list because it began my journey into the area of spiritual formation. Funnily enough, I attempted to read this book early on, but only managed a few pages before pushing it back onto my shelf.  Years later, I picked it up again on a whim. This time, however, Foster’s words seemed to speak to my desire to find practices and habits to sustain my life with Christ.  It is an accessible read, but rich in content and insight. This is a wonderful work for anyone wanting to know how to live a more intentionally Christian life.
  2. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. If you have read any Foster’s books, you will recognise this book. Foster quotes Kelly often. After gobbling up all of Foster’s works, I turned to this small work strongly rooted in the Quaker tradition.  Never have I read anything, where from the first sentence, i found it speaking to my innermost desires.  I find Kelly to be uncanny in his ability to describe the inner cries of the heart, our longing to be centred in Christ.  Kelly’s words seemed to sum-up an increasing depth of faith that I yearned for, but didn’t know how to describe.
  3. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This was recommended by a friend of mine after learning I had enrolled in a doctorate program focused on Spiritual Formation. Smith’s book is a wonderful entrance into theological anthropology.  Instead of being merely thinking-things, Smith advocates that we are ruled by our passions – that which our hearts cry for.  Smith’s offers insightful words regarding the danger of being a “bobble-head Christian”, and his discussion of the “liturgy of the mall” is perhaps the best description I have found of the “spirituality” of contemporary society.  These are concepts and images I have passed on to many, and directly informed my final doctoral project.
  4. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Full discloser: my congregation has been hearing a lot about Bonhoeffer as of late.  Life Together is probably the one book on this list that I have read most often.  I return to it year after year, and when asked to lead retreats for new clergy, I base everything on this work.  I find Bonhoeffer’s words profoundly prophetic in our highly individualistic time.  Furthermore, his radical willingness to centre the Christian life within the context of community is something, I believe, we would do well to recover.
  5. Introduction to the Holy Life by St. Francis deSales. Honestly, I struggled with what text to include as my last selection.  I initially had A Serious Call to the Devout and Holy Life by the good old Anglican, William Law.  That is a work that was important for me in doctoral studies. I chose deSales, however, simply because I read him first.  Introduction was the first book I picked up after realising I wanted  to hear what Christians centuries ago had to say about nurturing the life of faith.  How has Christian’s throughout the ages managed an authentic spiritual life?  Are they any truths that seem to transcend time.  deSales did not disappoint.  His care for the student he writes to is evident, and his spiritual wisdom is applicable today as when he first penned his work.

There you have it, my (current) list of the five works that influenced my spiritual life.  I commend them to you.  If you haven’t read these works, I highly recommend them to you; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

 

Thy Word: A light through the darkness

In my late teenage years, I spent many of my summers at our local Christian summer camp.  Camp Columbia was nestled in the forests of Thetis Island.  It was more run-down that rustic, but I enjoyed much of the time I spent there.  One summer, my role was to help with the Leadership Training program.

One evening, the group decided to wander up to Pride Rock.  Pride rock was a clearing in the forest,  where you could sit and look at the stars.  As I was finishing some duties at the main house, I told the group that I would meet them later.  It was only 10 minutes or so before I was walking up toward Pride Rock in pursuit of the group.  My journey, however, did not go as smoothly as I would have liked.

There were two reasons why the trek to Pride Rock did not work in my favour.  Firstly, it had grown dark. The sun had long ago set behind the horizon and the stars were beginning to come out.  This meant that a pathway through the forest was nearly impossible to see.  Furthermore, the deeper I got into the forest the less I could see.  At one point it was close to pitch-black.  I was convinced, however, that I knew the way.  I had been to Pride Rock several times before; I was confident that I could find the appropriate pathway and meet the group.

Secondly . . .I didn’t have a flashlight.

The lack of a flashlight proved to be disastrous for me. At one point in my journey through the forest, the path zigged where I thought it zagged, and I went tumbling down a hill, landing in a bed of thorn bushes.  I did not hurt myself, beyond a few scrapes on my legs, but now I had a new problem; I was deep in the forest, unable to see, and unsure which way I should go.  I was disoriented and confused.  And I couldn’t see anything!   I called out to the group yet no reply came.  Had I taken the wrong path?  I tried to walk back up the hill, but with no visibility I could not make any progress.  I tried to step in different directions, but it seemed that each way I moved brought me deeper into bushes, thorns, and scrapes.  I will be honest, at one point panic started to set in.

Then I saw it.  The light from the main House.  I could see the light of the House cutting through the darkness of the forest.  While I still could not see a defined trail, or the house itself, I could see the light, and I knew the light meant safety.   Walk towards the light, I told myself.  I began moving in that direction. With each step thorn bushes cut into my legs, but I had to keep going.  The light was always before me, despite all the darkness and scrapes.  I kept moving toward that light, and eventually, emerged from the forest and into the clearing by the main house.

The Psalmist declares, “Thy Word is a lamp unto our feat, and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).  The Psalmist is not thinking specifically about the pages of scripture, but about an inner dynamic.  When we live in relationship with God, we have the privilege of experiencing the voice of God spoken to us.  Sometimes we may ‘hear a voice’, sometimes we may have a feeling; but like a light shining in through the darkness, God’s voice beckons us forward in our Christian lives.  God guides our steps.  God illuminates the way.  God directs our path.

Of course, this does not stop us from experiencing some cuts and scrapes along the way.  The word of God is not the voice of easy street.  As we journey through life, we will still fall down hills, or experience the zigzaging paths. This is simply part of being imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  Yet with God’s light shining before us, God will continually direct us into the places of life where we experience his presence, power, and healing.  Even though the Psalmist is not thinking about leather bound books with gold-trimmed pages, we have the benefit of the Bible to aid us in in hearing the voice of God. Prayerfully reading scripture mediate’s God’s voice to us.  The gift of scripture is that God’s voice is always open to us.  When we read the text on the page, we hear God’s voice spoken into our hearts. God is always speaking.

Now we can turn to the light of God’s voice in two ways.

We can turn to the word of God when we find ourselves lost.  Like falling down a hill in the middle of a forest, there may be times where we find ourselves in a situation that we are ill equipped to handle.  In these times we can turn to God’s word as that light that breaks through all darkness.  The light of God’s voice, spoken through scripture, becomes the way we journey through the unexpected tumbles of life.  Of course, this does not stop us from getting hurt along the way.  There will always be difficulty in life, and even with the light of God’s voice before us we may still find ourselves scraped or bruised.  Yet God’s voice proves constant and faithful, and it will lead us out of the darkness.

There is nothing wrong with this approach to scripture.  In fact, the very Psalm that lauds God’s word as a lamp and light speaks about the sufferings of Psalmist.  When we find that life zigs where we zagged, when we fall down the hills of life and find ourselves knee-deep in some type of obstacle, we are encouraged to turn to scripture for guidance, healing, and wisdom.  God’s voice is spoken in those times to protect us, to lead us, and to rescue us.

Still, it is one things to look to God’s voice as a distant beacon when we find ourselves in need of direction; it is quite another thing to carry a flashlight.

When we turn to God’s word as a flashlight – when we carry it with us daily – we find that we are able to avoid some of the pitfalls of life.  When we carry God’s word with us, we walk in God’s will with every single step.  We avoid the snares and traps that lurk in the darkness, and who can say how many hills we do not tumble down, simply because we are able to the right path clearly.

God’s voice is always there for us.  It is a lamp unto our feet.  It is a light to our path.  God’s word provides direction when we are lost, healing when we feel battered by life, comfort in times of stress or panic.  The faithfulness of God’s word is never in question.  The only question we face is ‘how will we approach God’s voice?’ Will God’s word be a distant voice, turned to only in times when we need rescue? Or, will we take God’s voice with us as a cherished guide for each and every step, allowing God to illuminate where, and where not, we should step.

Bad Fruit and Bobble-Heads

One of the most engaging books I read recently was J.K Smith’s You Are What You Love.  It was in reading Smith that I first came across the term “Bobble-Head Christians.”  A Bobble-Head Christian is someone who has a head full of information about God but an underdeveloped body.  That is, while the individual may know a lot about the bible, faith, or points of theology, he or she does not live out those truths in their lives.  Their bodily existence, or witness, does not match up with what they say they profess.  Smith’s overall point in this is that our actions point to our primary love – that which we value above anything else.   Right knowledge makes no difference if it does not trickle down into right living.

Jesus says something like this in the gospel of Matthew.  Jesus points to the discrepancy that can exist in some people between what that person says and what that person does.  Jesus illustrates this point by pointing to the connection between a tree and its fruit.  He says;

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit, you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.”  (Matthew 7:15-20)

Here, Jesus highlights the fundamental truth that our actions point to who we are.  Like a bad tree producing bad fruit, our actions testify to our inner nature.  While Jesus begins by singling out the ‘false prophets’, his point is more generalized.  You are what you love, and your actions point to that upon which your soul is set.  Thus, all of us should take care to ensure that our actions are in line with our Christian values.  The gospel has no room for Bobble-Heads.

However, is that all Jesus is saying?  Is Jesus’ message above, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, akin to a call to smarten up?  Often, when commenting or preaching on the above passage, this is usually the point made.  Our actions count, we preach.  Thus, if our actions do not line-up with what we say we believe, we should all just smarten up and make sure that we living rightly.  This is not a bad message, per se; but it does not address the deeper issue to which Jesus is speaking.

See, Jesus is speaking about the tree, not about the fruit.  Yes, bad fruit is bad, but more than that, it points to that which is faulty about the tree itself.  The fruit of the tree reflects the inner nature of the tree.  Thus, if one wants to produce good fruit one must address the heath of the tree itself.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of this again when he says “I am the Vine, you are the Branches . . . Apart from me you can do nothing.”  We abide with Jesus so that we can be healthy inwardly.  As the Spirit of God in the inner selves nourishes us, the fruit of our lives (our outward actions) will naturally reflect that deeper reality.  If the tree is healthy, the fruit will take care of it self.

You are what you love.

The question posed in this passage, therefore, is not ‘How do we address the fruit of our actions?’ but ‘How do we address our inner health?”  We are to allow Christ to shape us, to form us, to become that overwhelming reservoir of love in our souls.  We are to be people formed in the love of Jesus above all else.  Only as we abide in Christ can we make sure that we will be bearing the healthy fruit produced from spiritually healthy lives.

How do we go about this?  A portion of Psalm 119 contains a perfect prayer for the deepening of our faith.

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
that I may follow it to the end.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
How I long for your precepts!
In your righteousness preserve my life. (Psalm 119:33-40)

What would it look like for you to pray this prayer every day for a month?  How could this prayer help you open up the inner part of your self to Jesus?  How is Jesus calling you to produce good fruit through addressing the deeper formation of your heart and your soul?

Is Lent really just about treats?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, heralding the beginning of Lent.  Typically, this liturgical season involves adopting a devotional activity to mark one’s observance.  Often, this involves some type of fasting.  We ‘give-up’ something for the 40 days of Lent.  What are we to give up?  Well, that’s the question.  Too easily does Lent become a time of merely stepping away from the treats enjoyed in regular life – the coffee, the chocolate, the candy.  In our media-saturated world, it is becoming popular to give up Facebook or other Social Media platforms. We take our 40 days away from posts and shares, likes and comments.  We boldly proclaim that we are ‘signing-off’ – and then we live our lives with near-regular routines.

We feel good about these treat-based fasts.  We move through the 40 days of Lent seamlessly.  After all, we know the routine.  We know what to expect.  We have felt the coffee withdrawals, or the hunger pains, or the sugar-crashes.   These Lenten observances hold nothing new for us.  They are, in the grand scheme of things, fairly easy.  The ease of these fasts may be more pronounced if we give up the same thing year after year.

Has our Lenten disciplines become little more than easy exercises in self-righteousness?  Does giving up my treats amount to an external observance without an inner change?  If I give up the same thing year after year, then where is the transformation?

I’m not against giving up our treats per se.  All of us would probably do well to step away from the idolatrous grip of self-satisfaction and consumerism.  Maybe giving up our treats signifies a dislodging of our idolatries. Perhaps our intemperate love for the treats of life is a deep sign of our spiritual off-centeredness.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe we give up our treats because we know it’s manageable and easy and doesn’t impact our lives all that much.  After all, do candy bars and potato chips really get in the way of our relationship with Jesus?

“Sorry Jesus, I’d love to spend time with you, but I’m too busy eating a Kit-Kat!”

In order for our Lenten journey to be truly transformative, we must push past these easy observances.   Lent involves a journey to the cross, a journey that is not paved with the treats of modern life.  This journey to the cross, realised in the celebration of Good Friday and Easter, is marked by our longing for divine closeness.  In his 1st letter, Peter reminds his readers that ‘Christ died for sin once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (3:18).   The truth we re-hear at Easter is the truth we long to embrace today, that Jesus ushers us into the heart of God.

Lent is a time to look at the relational closeness between ourselves and our Lord. Where do we need to grow closer with Jesus?  Where do our actions, our habits, or our attitudes, get in the way the call to faithful living?  After all, we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  This means that we still struggle with the likes of sin and waywardness.  You sin.  I sin.  We sin.  This sin occurs in a myriad of ways.  We sometimes care too much about ourselves than our neighbours; we take up self-indulgent appetites; we live out of anger, or frustration, or doubt; we act uncharitably or unkindly; we forsake justice and fairness.   Lives lived in these ways step outside of the relational closeness with God for which we were created, and into which we are continually invited.  Does giving up Facebook do justice to our struggle with sin?

If the cross brings us close to God, then our journey to it calls us to look for whatever obstructs this closeness in our lives.  Our Lenten observance should address the habits, false worships, and misplaced loves and keep us from experiencing the gracious intimacy with God.   It is only as we address these areas, and not the popular treats we enjoy, that we can fully enter the celebration of Easter as transformed people.

Our journey through Lent is a time to think about how we can further enter divine closeness. Christ died to bring us to God.  Christ died so that we, in this moment, can experience the liberating power of his salvation. Christ died, and was raised to life, so that we can step away from all that is spiritually destructive.  Through the resurrection, and the forgiveness it brings, we are called into a life where we are reminded, by divine voice, that we are the beloved of God.   May our journey through Lent grasp this vision of divine closeness, as we turn away from those places where we fall short of God’s call, seeking ways to more deeply enter the loving heart of God.  Amen.

 

Requiem for my mother

On the last day of this year, just hours before the flipping of the calendar, my mother died after an extensive fight with Cancer.  The road had been long and painful, but the death itself was relatively quick.  Time after time my mother had shown her resolve, living even in her last moments with a desire to care for those she loved.  Since her death, the family has talked in length about her self-sacrifice, her love, and most importantly, her faith.

A few days following her death, I took some time alone.  I sat in a coffee shop with my journal, and began to write whatever words flowed out.  I wanted to put to paper the myriad of thoughts, memories, and emotions that whirled within me.   As part of this time, I began to reflect on my mother’s faithfulness.  Here is what I wrote:

All the stories of her selflessness, her constant desire to put others before herself, to bless them, this was drawn from her deep love for Jesus.  It was because she fed herself constantly on the grace of God that she could, even in her most painful of days, look to the blessing and betterment of others.  She longed to put on Christ, to serve as he served, to bless as he blessed – to be a witness and a sign to the very kingdom in which she lived.

As such, her faith was not an escape.  It did not shield her from the difficulty of life – it provided no retreat from the torment of cancer.  Her faith did not make the road easier – for in some respects it led her more deeply into her own suffering.  It highlighted the home she longed for – the mansion to which Jesus would lead her.  She embraced those painful days knowing she was embraced by the one who walked his own suffering road.  She sat and cried knowing her tears were matched by the one who wept blood in the darkness – but over whom the darkness would never prevail.  And so she could, in the midst of all pain and hurt, live in faith and hope.

With her eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of her faith, she grasped the eternal hope rooted in his victory. Where, O Death is Your Victory?  Where O death is your sting?

And now she resides in blessed rest, experiencing the fulfillment of the longing of her soul.  She breathes in full  the grace and joy only partially experienced in this fragile world.  She is embraced in the loving arms of Jesus where she again weeps – not in sorrow or sadness – but in joyful eruptions of delight at the vision of the Lamb upon the throne. Her eternity is one of rejoicing for she spends it in the very activity she loved here on earth – the praise and worship of her Lord and Savior.

And so even in this loss we can join in her song and say Hallelujah.

The Flip-flopping of Eugene Peterson; highlighting the logs in our eyes.

If, like me, you are someone who lives at the intersection of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Facebook’, you probably have come across reports about Eugene Peterson’s views of same-sex marriage.  Yesterday it was reported that Peterson, a stalwart in the Evangelical world, had ‘changed his mind’ on the issue, and is now in support of same-sex marriage.  Today, this statement was retracted.

As Christian people, the reporting on Peterson’s views is something we need to pay attention to.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not interested in teasing out points of theology here.  This post isn’t going to get into what Peterson is reported to have said (each time), or whether we should agree with him on this but not that.  What I am more interested in is how the news of Peterson’s flip-flopping was received and promoted in those online forums we Christians love to frequent.   It is here where I believe that the Peterson reports are instructive for us.

When the first report came out yesterday, it was immediately shared all throughout cyberspace.  It was shared one of two ways.  Like me, you may have seen both expressions. . . . multiple times.

Peterson changes his mind – the end is coming!

In one of the forums I belong to, the report on Peterson’s change-of-mind was simply posted with an array of exclamation marks and weepy-emoticons.  The implication was clear: This was a blow to the conservative agenda or ‘real Christianity.’  Satan obtained another foothold and the rapture was just around the corner.  Well, not quite.  But in the battle of theology, it was deemed that one side ‘lost’ a major player, while the other ‘team’ gained one.  However, such comments weren’t simply about what side of the theological fence Peterson was on.  Peterson’s change of mind seemed to mean that he left the faith all together.  How could someone who believed in same-sex marriage accurately reflect the truth of the gospel?

Because of this apparent change of mind, the value of Peterson’s ministry, teaching, and writing became quickly discarded.  How do I know this? Well, because people said as much.  The report was followed by statements such as ‘well, I guess I need to toss his books!’ and ‘I guess he likes popularity more than truth.’  In comment after comment, grace was no longer extended to Peterson.  Those who previously would have championed his works now ripped Peterson apart.  So much for specs and logs.

Peterson changes his mind – Take that you evangelicals!

Just as there were those who decried Peterson for a change of mind, there were equally people who applauded Peterson for this growth.  Peterson was now being praised for his insight, compassion, and obvious Christ-likeness.  It proved evangelicals were wrong about everything; if they would only become more enlightened, they too would change their minds on this matter.  Again, specs and logs . . .although I guess this time it is more acceptable as people happen to like these logs and specs.

The internal spiritual attitude driving this response, however, is the same as the previous one.  Just as Peterson was being rejected by some for no other reason than what the report claimed, he was conversely also being accepted for no other reason than what the report claimed.   Those who posted the article with comments of ‘about time!’ and ‘This is MAJOR news’ did not care about his ministry, his books, or his character.  All that mattered was whether ‘Eugene Peterson’ belonged to our camp or theirs.  It is as if a particular stance on same-sex marriage (i.e., the one I agree with) is the litmus test for all faithfulness, all goodness, and all compassion.  But is this really the way of Jesus?

All of these comments were floating around Facebook and other forums.  We, as the Christian community, either loved or hated Eugene Peterson.  His change of mind was either the best thing to happen in the likes of the church or the worst.  To make it worse, there was no stopping it.  Unless, of course, it wasn’t true.  And just like that the conversation flipped.  Again, this news was taken one of two ways.

Peterson doesn’t change his mind – he is such an idiot!

When it was revealed that Peterson didn’t change his mind, those who previously heralded Peterson’s growth and Christ-likeness now began to unleash a tirade of criticism.  Appeals to Peterson’s intolerance, bigotry, or shallowness we continually employed.  In just the span of 24 hours Peterson went from being the hero of the church to its villain. His intellect was attacked; his character was defamed; and his works were decried.   Those who posted and shared the news with the greatest of fervor now retracted all their support.  After all, why extend Christian love to someone who thinks differently than us?

But isn’t this the same as the first group, who rejected Peterson for his apparent change of mind?  If a hard-hearted rejection of someone for agreeing with same-sex marriage should be called out as uncharitable and graceless, isn’t the hard-hearted rejection of someone nor not agreeing with same sex marriage the same thing?  What does this say about what we truly value in our relationship with our Christian brothers and sisters?

Peterson doesn’t change his mind – we knew he wouldn’t desert us!

So, what happened with those who were so horrified that a popular evangelical author may agree with same-sex marriage?  Well, now the comments relating to his lack of theological change described a sense of relief over Peterson’s steadfastness in the faith.  Those who attacked him now endorsed him.  Peterson was again seen to be a true and righteous man and his works endowed with a sense of spiritual authority.  Peterson hadn’t left the evangelical ‘team’; once again he could be embraced and accepted.

Such a response, however, wasn’t based in humility.  There was no regret over having misjudged a man, or acting so horribly to suggest the burning of his books.  There was no request for forgiveness. No, the new-found heralding of Peterson seemed to be based in pride.  It screamed messages like ‘we still have him’ and ‘I knew he agreed with me.’

So what now?

I’m sorry, none of these ways expresses the way of Jesus.  Accepting or rejecting Peterson based solely on whether he agrees with our understanding of human sexuality betrays an internal shallowness for which we should all be ashamed.   Those of us who critiqued Peterson for his flip-flopping (wherever the flip happened to be), did we not notice how we flip-flopped in our reactions to Peterson? Shouldn’t our own flip-flopping cause us to seek forgiveness and an amendment of life?

After all, why should it have mattered if Eugene Peterson changed his mind, either to agree with same-sex marriage, or to not agree with it?  Why would we, as people who live in the Kingdom of God and are called to be expressions of God’s love and grace, change our behavior toward Peterson simply because of what was reported? Furthermore, shouldn’t the fact that our behavior did seem to change sicken us?  Shouldn’t we be horrified by the thought that we may just be interested in being right more than we are interested in being in the way of Jesus.

This flip-flopping nightmare is important for us in the church because it highlights that we are all sinners in need of grace.  None of us has a claim on moral superiority.  None of us can assert more righteousness than the other.  We all need to forgive each other, and we all need forgiveness from each other.  This whole event shows us how easily we can succumb to the worship of our own perceptions.  Instead of looking upon Peterson through the eyes of Jesus, we could not see past our disagreements and controversies, and it tainted the very essence of our Christian unity.

Perhaps next time we can try a new tactic:  Let us love one another, for love comes from God.

Leaping wombs: Does Elizabeth hold the key to being church?

For liturgical churches, such as my own, May 31st celebrates The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth.  It is not a celebration we normally think about, except maybe as a forerunner to the Magnificat as the Gospel of the day includes Mary’s exultant song.  Obviously, thoughts and reflections normally reside here.  And why shouldn’t they.  The song is beautiful, powerful, and triumphant.

But is there anything in the visitation itself that can be of aid in our spiritual lives?  After all, I’m willing to bet that we will never come across a pregnant young woman carrying the Christ child?  And, speaking personally, I’m pretty sure that no baby will leap within my non-existent womb.  So what might this passage say to us as today?  Does this visitation have something to teach us about what it means to be a community of faith?

Luke records the visit in Chapter 1, verses 39-45.  When we boil this interaction down to its basic premise you see a meeting between individuals:  Mary visits Elizabeth.  In this moment, however, the Holy Spirit descends upon Elizabeth empowering her to both bless the person before her, and rejoice in the magnitude of God.  It is not just her child the responds to the presence of Jesus, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth herself respond to Christ in her midst.  Well. . .  it’s more than that isn’t it?  The Holy Spirit prompts Elizabeth to respond to the presence of Christ within Mary.

Could we see, in this interaction between Mary and Elizabeth, a model for what it means to be a church community?  There are two lessons we may learn:

Firstly: We recognise the presence of Christ in the other.

As a community of baptised people we recognize certain truths about who we are as human beings.  For one, we recognize that each person, regardless of who they are, are made in the image of God.  This is fundamental to our identity as people, created in God’s image.  For those within our community we add to this the understanding that each person bears the presence of Jesus.  There are many different ways that we can talk about this; having Jesus in our hearts through faith, receiving Jesus in baptism, being ‘alive’ in Christ Jesus.  But whatever language we use, we are called to recognize that those within our community of faith are themselves Christ bearers.  They have the presence of Jesus within them.  This is what St. Paul claims in his letter to Colossians when he states that the mystery of the gospel is ‘Christ in you.’  This may not mean we agree with everyone, or even like everyone, but it does mean that we boldly and faithfully affirm the presence of Jesus within that person, and thus within our midst.

What would happen if we allowed that to be the basis by which we interacted with others in our church community?  Would some of the petty disagreements end?  Would fellowship be enhanced?  Would our witness become more effective?  How do you think we would feel internally, if we chose to see each other as Elizabeth viewed Mary on that day of visitation?

Secondly: Elizabeth rejoices in God and blesses Mary.

What a fabulous visit!  This visitation is not seem as just happenstance, a meeting of the minds, or a polite gathering of individuals.  Elizabeth sees the visit as a profound moment of God acting in the world.  The visit testifies that God is active and doing something.  Elizabeth’s exuberant exultation is a song of praise itself.  Yet intermingled with this song of praise, testifying to her reception of God’s work in her midst, Elizabeth also recognizes the activity of God within Mary, and so she pronounces a blessing over her.  Simply put, Elizabeth reinforces God’s work within Mary thus encouraging her in her faithful acceptance of God’s word over her.

Of course, Elizabeth’s response to Mary wasn’t simply drawn out of her own effort.  She was empowered by the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth and she responds to the visitation (this instance of community) in a two-fold of act of rejoicing and blessing.

Being Elizabeth: A model of Community

While we may find such a descent of the Spirit prior to Pentecost a unique instance within scripture, we live our lives on the other side of Pentecost.  Scriptures continually testifies to our assurance of the Spirit’s activity and leading in our lives.  Our baptismal liturgy links the rite of baptism with the reception of the Holy Spirit, and thus, as a community of baptized people, we assume we are a community of ‘Spirit-filled’ people.

So what if we acted like Elizabeth and chose to see each ‘random’ instance of community as a divinely appointed action?  How might the Holy Spirit within us call us to respond to the presence of Jesus within the other?  How might we go about blessing each other, and affirming the work of God deep within them? How might the community be affected, or formed, if we actively lived our lives in such a manner?

This demands that we live our lives with a sense of openness and submission to the spirit of God, yet there is to be a beautiful complementarity in this way of community.  While we respond to the presence of Jesus in the other person – through blessing, rejoicing, and encouraging – they too would be acting in similar fashion towards us.  The Holy Spirit in the other person would cause the other to rejoice in God’s work in our lives, and thereby bless and encourage us.

This almost sounds if we would all be in one accord.  Behaving like Elizabeth in this way will only lend itself to the strength of the community of faith, and the effectiveness in our witness and mission.  Christ would be glorified, not as a distant theological abstraction, but as a tangible manifestation of our common life.  If we could just choose this pathway, as a community, than who can tell what beautiful, powerful, and triumphant songs may be sung in our communities.