Will You Dance?

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Tonight is one of those I-wasn’t-planning-to-write-but-I-have-to.

I just heard from a long-time friend that two of our mutual friends from seminary, a married couple with two college-aged sons, have both died of cancer. Jim died last year and Pati died this past weekend.

I remember thinking, some years ago, that if you lost a parent in your late teens or early twenties, that wasn’t so bad. At least you weren’t still a kid. If you died in your fifites, you had a pretty long life, right? Sure looked that way from our twenties.

Of course, that was before I became a parent. Now all I can think is “We couldn’t leave our kids at this age!”

I don’t have to guess that Jim and Pati had more plans for their lives; I know they did. When we went to seminary together and had silly parties and talked about future ministry and our hopes, none of us said, “Until I reach age fifty and I die.” We talked about “finishing well.” We didn’t mean 54. All of us knew that some people die at age fifty, but none of us thought “some people” meant us.

Hearing about our friends’ deaths makes me think about those “finishing well” ideas we discussed in seminary classes, ideas about stages of ministry and how one’s spiriual influence would develop and expand throughout life. So many spiritual leaders crash and burn, it made sense to think through how to sustain a life of sixty or seventy years in ministry.

But then, you know what happened to those great concepts? Life. Life in its messy, bulldozing, remorseless march. “Ending” started happening out of order. Some of us–and some of our children–died.

Isaac died at eight hours, my friend Fred at twenty-nine years, Rachel Held Evans at thirty-seven. Jim was fifty-five and Pati, fifty-four.

Death should clear our minds. We hide from death as a culture and it’s unhealthy. It’s also a bit ludicrous, considering one out of one of us will die.

Tonight, my mind is clear. I’ve been getting bogged down in resentment lately. I need to regain the ability–and the willingness–to forgive.

In the day to day of demands and meals and driving kids around and the queasy adrenaline of another ER run and the cleansing adrenaline of another hike, the clarity of life and death get blurred. When I say death should clear our minds, I mean it should work like our windshield wipers. The crushed bugs on the windshield, the spray from the slushy snow, and the smeared lines that were the cats’ pawprints–and maybe the remains of bird droppings–are what we look through, not what we look at. I do not mean that trips to the ER and meals together are the smears, I mean that all the busyness leaves those smears, leaves little disgruntlements and unresolved conversations and getting caught up in small things as if they are significant. Those aren’t life, they are blurry smudges through which we continue to see life, unless we get so distracted that we start to focus in on them. Imagine driving and you’re paying more attention to the slush on the windshield than what’s outside the windshield.

“I know nothing, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

W.H. Auden

Tonight I’m shocked and saddened and yet again disturbed by how horribly unfair life is. I wasn’t still in touch with Jim and Pati. We were friends at another stage in our lives. But they were kind, grace-giving people doing the work of love and redemption in the world. Why do they both die of cancer? Within less than a year? When they have two (now I’d say) young sons, not small children but not the age anyone should have to say goodbye to both their parents.

But I’m not solving any of that tonight, or ever. Some people have lovely (or at least lovely-looking) faith statements regarding death, and I think I did, too–back when twenty-one was grown up and fifty-something was a long life, back before I knew how it felt to have a baby die or to see good parents dying and leaving their young children behind.

Tonight, death reminds me, with utter clarity, that “ending well” might be this year. Or next.

Tonight, death of friends–and the random draw of cancer…and COVID, and car accidents, and heart attacks–removes the blotches that obstruct my view and distract me.

Grace is here. I’m going to dance. I’m a poor dancer, and I’m going to dance. I’m not giving in to a world of angry noise and rising hostility. No.

Were I to die of cancer this year or next, I will not look back and say, “Well, I sure did let that smoldering resentment catch fire and blaze away.” I need more grace in my heart. I need more kindness to express to my kids, while they still pay any attention to me–while I’m here and they can. I’m coming up on my twenty-ninth anniversary and my wife still loves me. I know that’s a miracle. I’ve loved her for thirty-four of my fifty-three years. That’s what I’m doing with my life. That is my main dance.

I have more words to write. I have more people to hear and to love. I have more hikes to take and ultimate to play.

I don’t know how many. I hope a lot. But the windshield is clear right now and I remember that small things are small and smudges are just smudges. They merit cleaning away, not holding my attention.

I’m not afraid of death but I’m certainly afraid not to live well and to wake up one morning and wonder why I didn’t. I’m not in a rush to go (thank God) and I think Jesus still has some plans, or at least some directional nudges, I have yet to fathom.

The real world is both beautiful and brutal. Real human beings are both wonders of grace and repulsive. Jesus is faithful.

Grace is here and today could be the start or the end. I will dance.

Sunrise of another day.

Trying to Change the World When You Struggle to Get Out of Bed, Part III: The Redemptive Life

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[Preached at New Song Community Church 1-16-22. You can watch the video here. Sermon begins at 18:17. The manuscript contains much substance that the spoken sermon does not. This time, I prefer the manuscript. I need a “director’s cut!”]

I’m beginning with three Scriptures. Grab your Bible or find them on your phone.

Luke 4: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me

        to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

        to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Luke 14: One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

And Luke 2: 2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn

Everything I say about the Kingdom of God today must be heard within the context of weeks 1 and 2 of this series. Everything Jesus did and said was within the context of proclaiming and living the Kingdom of God. Living the Redemptive Life. “Good news to the poor, release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free,” and Jesus says “Today, with me here, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus says, “I”m doing this now.” 

Jesus tells a parable of someone giving a banquet. He invites people, but what do they do? They make excuses. Yeah, I can’t make it. So whom does he invite to fill his banquet hall? “Bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” and look at this–his servant says, “Sir, what you ordered has been done.” Did the servants know the character of the man so well that they immediately knew, “Okay, this is who we need to bring in”? It’s not full yet? Go out into the roads and lanes. Tell people they are welcome, they are wanted, they are valued and loved and invited to this banquet. In that culture, you had a banquet so that important people could see how rich you were and those you invited would owe you and repay you by inviting you to their banquets. How many of these new guests will be able to pay back the man in kind? None? Remember, it’s a parable. This is the Kingdom of God. People are welcome, and all they have to do is say “yes.” Like when Jesus went to the land of the Gerasenes and healed the man possessed by demons, right? Who is willing? I don’t care how broken or screwed up you are, don’t come at me with your “I’m not qualified, I’m too messed up!” Will you come to my banquet? Will you receive this grace? Faithfulness is simply, “Will you try?” 

That brings us to our third Scripture. Jesus, himself, in utero, still in Mary’s womb, is the poor, is the outcast. There was no place for them in the inn; I don’t mean the rooms were full, I mean they weren’t welcome. These aren’t nice stories to make us feel cozy, these are descriptions of God’s Kingdom turning the upside down cultures and values of our world rightside up. 

Jesus’ Kingdom is for the screwed up among us, those who struggle, literally or figuratively, to get out of bed in the morning, in whatever form that takes for you. I assume that all of us are screwed up in some way or we wouldn’t be here. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I’m not really screwed up,” I think that means–how do I say this nicely–you haven’t figured it out yet. When I read the Gospels, the only thing that I can see that might disqualify anyone from joining in the Kingdom of God, or entering the Redemptive Life, is believing you’re righteous on your own and have no need for God or redemption or grace. That’s self-selecting, not Jesus telling anyone they’re unwelcome. They all alike made excuses. “Yeah, I’m good. I don’t need that banquet.” The Redemptive Life makes no sense for someone who believes they have no need to be redeemed, who has never had any trouble getting out of bed and is already self-righteous, which means that evil in everyone else’s heart–remember, we said “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”–that doesn’t really apply to me. 

At this point in the series, I call your attention to the title. I want you to read that title aloud. Literally. Please. 

I did not name this sermon series “How to Change the World.” I titled it “Trying to change the world.” This has been a description of an effort to change the world from someone who deals with issues like depression, severe punctuality deficiency, and a massive imbalance between what I’d like to be able to do and what I’m competent to do. 

In other words, God could have done better. But that’s always true of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has this odd preference for partnering with the weak, the lame, the poor, the screwed up, the struggling. Except it’s not that weird because it turns out that’s all of us. It’s all of us, and some of us just haven’t figured out it’s us yet. 

Jesus and I have wrestled, around and around, about why give someone like me such a burning, inextinguishable desire to make the world a better place. Wouldn’t that, you know, be more productive in someone who can, you know…do stuff? 

Jesus said, “Nope, it’s yours. Do what you can with it.” 

So here I am. 

And here we are. 

LIfe has been strange for me lately. My blog is called “Grace Is Greater: Reflections on a Ridiculous Life.” So life for me is never what anyone should properly term “normal.” But things have gotten a little…surrealer? recently.  

I’ve been going through some pretty major…unlearning and relearning in my faith. Good stuff, but weird, like “Whoa! Did not see that coming!” It’s really fortunate Jesus has given me such a strong belief in grace, because I’ve thought, numerous times, “Oh, dang, I used to believe and teach that. Yow.” I’m not going to make a list, but to give you an idea, recently I told God,while on a hike up Two Bears, “If I’m done preaching now, that would be fine. I get it.”  I meant it. 

Within a few days, Pastor Tim texted me and asked me if I could preach the first three Sundays of January. Right after that, Pastor Don, who retired from being associate pastor at New Song but now serves as interim pastor at another church in town, called to ask me if I could preach the fourth Sunday in January. 

How many do we have? Five, right? I’m still not sure where I’m preaching on the 30th. 

Have you ever had God do that? Like you kind of make up your mind/slash let God know, “Okay, I think we’re about done with this,” and God just starts laughing and then pours “this” out of the sky? 

So, I stand corrected, yet again. I am not done preaching, apparently, and I will continue until God directs otherwise. 

And here’s my point: a good friend, Adam Cole, shared this quote with me: 

From the Pirkei Avot a section of the Mishnah, one of the Sacred Jewish Texts (and by the way, we’re fond of Sacred Jewish Texts): “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”

Remember again, we said in Part 1, what is faithfulnessI? Faithfulness is just showing up. Seriously. Show up and try. 

The world sucks, in so, so many ways, and we are not obligated to fix it all, but neither are we free to turn a blind eye or decide “It’s unfixable.” I have many…shall we say challenging idiosyncrasies, but I truly want everyone to be like me in this (but more competent): To follow Jesus is to desire the Kingdom of God; to desire the Kingdom of God is to want to change the world. That’s why we’re talking about changing the world. The Kingdom of God always changes the world. 

“Wow,” some of you say, “Did Mike just tell us in his sermon to be more like him?” 

He did. I mean, I did. But let’s be very clear: I want you to desire to be part of the Kingdom of God, to help the world change, to be a part of this crazy, wondrous Redemptive LIfe, except not like me because you have all these skills and abilities and competencies and gifts that I don’t have. Which is awesome! I’m over being jealous that other people can do stuff I can’t–except the occasional great writer, and that’s just more of a professional courtesy to envy them–and I’m trying to be done arguing that Jesus should send people who are better at stuff. I want you to be done with that argument, too. 

As I’ve been pondering this whole question of changing the world, I thought of Pastor Tim, our very own pastor, Tim Wilbur.   

How many churches have been planted through New Song Community church in East Wenatchee? At last count, it’s over one thousand. One thousand churches.

If that many churches had been planted in the United States, Pastor Tim would be under endless demand to be on the conference speaker circuit. We’d be lucky to see him twice a year. (And you might be stuck with me preaching more.) It’s hard even to wrap my head around how much impact 1000 churches have on the world. The ripple effect is exponential. People who are being changed by Jesus, learning to love their neighbors as themselves, learning to love their enemies, are going out and offering that love to more people who will in turn be changed through this Redemptive Life and then change others… If you could track all this, it would make your jaw drop to the floor. God’s Spirit, moving among us. 

I have two things to say about this: first, Tim is one of my best friends in the world, but he isn’t someone you’d emulate everything about his life. I mean, first and foremost, he has terrible taste in sports teams. Ghastly.  But joking aside, Tim would actually be the first to say, “Yeah, don’t do everything the way I do it.” 

Second, you aren’t expected to figure out how to plant 1000+ churches in India. And some in Pakistan. And orphanages and schools. But you are expected to change the world. Anytime we follow Jesus and partner in the Kingdom of God, we become change agents, people who turn the upside order right-side up. 

My point in bringing up this example is simply to remind us that God does work through us and often does more than we would ever imagine possible. Willingness. Say “yes” when God nudges us. Jesus will do crazy things.

Then there’s me. 

I’ve never been to India. But I did live in Nicaragua for seven years, and while there, you know how many churches I planted? 

None. Zero is the correct answer. 

But the other day, my friend Veronica posted this in a Facebook group. 

“Tonight I [Veronica] was telling Kelsey Bonilla how Mike Rumley-Wells helped scrape my heart off the floor after my church essentially dumped me. Kelsey told me of other times Mike did that during his time in Nicaragua, in particular for high school students struggling with identity issues and isolation. Mike, you model the parable of the Good Samaritan with your very life. You are appreciated and beloved!!”

I want you to get why I share this: I’m not called to plant churches in India and God is not bummed with my failure to do so. But I am part of that, because I’m Tim’s friend and go to his house sometimes and eat his food and drink his beverages. So you can see, I’m a vital part of his support team. All seriousness aside, I am part of New Song and part of Tim’s community and I do help make it possible for Tim to do what he does. No, seriously, ask him. Sometimes I even preach at his church. Even after I tell God maybe I’m all done preaching, I preach at his church three times in a row. 

This is how it works. God gives each of us gifts and abilities and talents and competencies and we get to decide how we will invest these. We decide to say “yes” or “no.” We make big decisions, like “Can I get out of bed today.” Though it sounds like I’m being flippant, I’m not.  I promise. We look at the world and say, “Okay, what’s my part, Jesus? What can I handle? Whom are you sending me to love today?” 

This is my faith: loving a few people, really listening to them and walking with them through challenging times in their lives, has been one of my main ways to try to change the world. There are 7.9 billion people in the world. I’m not getting the whole job done. I am not obligated to complete the work, but neither am I free to desist from it. 

I learned this trick from Jesus, who hung out with twelve people over a course of about three years and got to know them and shared his life with them. Can we all agree that Jesus changed the world? 

How did Jesus change the world?

Well, for one thing, he hung out with people. He affirmed them. He encouraged them. He ate and drank with them, listened to them, asked them questions, and challenged them to think about their answers. 

He also healed people, raised people from the dead, cast out demons, calmed storms, and read their thoughts. I’m not so good at any of that stuff. That’s fine. We use what God’s given. But the hanging out? Yeah, I excel. Helping people know that they are loved and valued? Showing them that with my time? Check. 

All of my children will tell you stories about times they have had to wait (and wait and wait) while a stranger tells me personal things, sometimes their life story, sometimes a struggle they’re having right now. Things you wouldn’t expect to hear from a stranger. But it happens to me all the time. I mean, it happened to me at the bank on Friday. All the time. 

I figure if someone needs so badly to be listened to that at the first hint of receiving that, they open up like this, that’s God’s way of telling me, “Here! Love this person with your attention. Now.” And I hope my kids have at least started to forgive me. But they know darned well that I love them and they are loved. 

We change the world when we change other people’s lives, and Jesus taught us that the Redemptive Life is to go around loving people, whether or not they deserve it or merit it. Sometimes we love them by providing them with things they need. Dear friends of mine, and I won’t mention Joe and Kindall’s names, stock our church’s food pantry and pay for the feminine hygiene products themselves. That’s a really small, very big deal. The people receiving this love likely don’t even know Joe and Kindall’s names. But we are changed as we are loved, and therefore love changes the world. That’s how God’s Kingdom works: we love people in simple, practical ways, and through this love, we change the world. Cups of cold water when people are thirsty. Like that.

Someone might say, “Oh, come on, Mike, you gave us this big build up for earthshaking, change-the-world stuff and now you’re talking about buying pads and tampons? Listening to high schoolers or strangers talk about broken relationships with their kids?”  Yes, I am. And also planting churches in India. All these things. Because in this Redemptive Life, this Kingdom work of turning rightside up what is upside down, the scale of “big” and “small” aren’t up to us. God sees stuff we can’t see. God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts. Cups of water given to children. How is that significant? You have no idea. Jesus also says that children are a really big deal in the Kingdom of God and if we can’t enter the Kingdom as they do, we can’t enter at all. So maybe my wife Kim’s exhausting job of trying to teach lower-income fifth graders isn’t so insignificant, after all? Maybe that’s the world being changed, one math lesson at a time? 

These are examples of the Redemptive Life, using what we have to love others. 

Acknowledging that though we struggle to get out of bed, each in our own way, we’re not disqualified from changing the world. When we seek to love others, we’re going to see the evil in our hearts. We’re going to come face to face with the ways we don’t want to love others, our selfishness and manipulativeness and fear, our trauma and shame. I’m firmly convinced that if we just mind our own business and live basically selfish, self-centered, comfortable lives, we can hide most of our evil from ourselves as well as others and really appear fairly nice and polite. Jesus really messes with that, doesn’t he? 

So by this time, nearing the end of our series, I’m sure you see there is good news and…challenging news. 

From a Kingdom perspective, it’s quite likely you are changing the world already. That’s the good news. 

Here’s the challenging news, in four parts. 

First, we change the world in community.

Looking at how Jesus did it, and reading what the Bible teaches us, we need to be part of community. Please note that this does not mean if you are in a dysfunctional, abusive church, God expects you to stay and just “make the best of it.” We are part of the body of Christ, and we live the Redemptive life with others. 

“The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.  He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.  He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ.  The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.

Many of us are pretty good at convincing ourselves how good we are when we’re just imagining loving other people. But real people are a lot more difficult than imaginary people. For example, when I argue with people in my head, they almost always acknowledge my rightness. And sometimes they grovel. But real life people behave differently when I argue with them. Sometimes they even show me the evil in my heart. I mean, teaming up with the Holy Spirit they do that for me. 

But even more importantly, we need other people living the Redemptive Life to encourage and reinforce this crazy mode of life for us. We need our sisters and brothers to remind us to love our enemies and not just hate or disdain them. We need folks who will speak truth and love to us when we feel hatred and disdain for ourselves. And as members of community, we look for opportunities to speak this life to one another. Especially if, let’s say theoretically, there was a group of people who have been told that God doesn’t love them. We would speak up really loudly and say, “No, wrong, Jesus loves you like crazy! Don’t listen to those lying liar pants!” 

Jesus never intended us to go it alone. We need others who will believe the same crazy stuff we believe and complement our gifts and abilities with theirs. We need people to remind us about hope when we grow hopeless, and to say, “For the actual love of God and yourself, take a break!”  On the flip side, we need people to tell us, “As a fellow follower of Jesus, get your butt off the couch and do what God’s given you to do.” That’s community. 

Second, We change the world by standing with the people Jesus stood with.

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong. Bonhoeffer

When you read the Gospels, you see that the Kingdom of God directly confronts the hierarchies of important people and unimportant people, valuable and worthless, lovable and unlovable. We all know the parable of the Prodigal Son, but sometimes we forget that this parable came in direct response to the Religious Leaders. Luke 15 1 and two: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Can you imagine? I hope you can. That’s how we change the world. We welcome sinners and eat with them. Remember I told you that Pastor Tim feeds me? See, he’s doing it! Welcoming sinners and eating with them!
But seriously, read Luke 15. Look how hard Jesus goes after “No, you’ve got it wrong about God. God doesn’t hold these people out of the Kingdom, God pursues the heck out of these people” Then, when we really dig in, we realize that “these people” are all of us. Oops. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Remember? Jesus isn’t just rejecting the Religious Leaders’ error, he’s breaking down this mistaken division. 

This is when the whole “mind my own business, look the other way, look like a nice person” really falls short of living the Redemptive Life, jumping in with God’s Kingdom. 

Third, We change the world by opposing injustice and seeking shalom, loving those society values least

“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”Naomi Shulman

Some people are doing horrible evil. Some systems support and continue (word? propagate?) evil. 

We know that the line of good and evil runs through all hearts. But we’re not pretending that all evil is the same. The Bible never says all sin is equal; it says all people are sinners. Not the same thing. God isn’t keeping score, but some sins have more devastating consequences; it would be silly, even infantile to pretend otherwise.
Our redemptive life keeps speaking up, standing up, acting against these evils, whether within our systems or acted out by people.
Jesus followers don’t excuse or rationalize evil by saying “We’re all sinners.” Of course we are. We’re getting the log out of our own eye. First. Then we’re speaking up against those harming others. Jesus didn’t decide that because the Religious Leaders were in power, their harmful behaviors and attitudes should be swept under the rug because, after all, we’re all sinners. 

We love those valued least in our society by sharing what we have. We love those valued least in our society by opposing unjust laws, by calling out prejudice and hate. We can’t be content to give charitably but ignore the causes of poverty. 

Sometimes opposing injustice will make us unpopular. Standing with those persecuted may draw persecution on us. 

“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Bonhoeffer

“The followers of Christ have been called to peace. . . . And they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods . . . . His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they overcome evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.” Bonhoeffer

Finally, We change the world by laughing together, celebrating together, sharing joy.

We are people of celebration. God’s love for everyone is good news. Grace is the best news. God loves laughter. God has a great sense of humor. We heal ourselves and reflect the image of God in the world when we laugh together. We call it “celebrating communion” for a good reason. 

We share our joy because joy is contagious, like holiness. 

God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. Bonhoeffer

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” Rachel Held Evans

Fighting the Winter Blahs

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So, they’re here.

I made up my mind, consciously and willfully, not to hate winter. December we had fresh, gorgeous blankets of snow and photo ops straight out of mountain postcards. We endured a week of single digit temps. We had a lovely white Christmas.

Now it’s January. We had the single day record for snowfall and consequently two snow days, one of which we fully, blissfully enjoyed. We’ve had about a week of forecast “freezing rain,” of which we’ve suffered only small doses thus far. But there’s still time.

Wenatchee is buried and icy. The downtown roads have snow piled in the center lane–I’m talking six-to-eight-foot walls–making winter driving just that much more challenging. Of the last two hikes I took, the one to Castlerock was a disaster, with the dogs struggling through deep snow and me falling and postholing and consoling myself, “well, it’s cardio.” The one to Two Bears went okay…except that my drive afterward took literally four times longer than it normally would, due to icy roads, which made me late to pick up Kim, so hard to feel positive associations.

One of the powerful lessons God taught me in Nicaragua, that I probably knew in theory (do we know anything when we merely know it in theory?) but had driven home nearly every day for seven years, is our happiness/joy does not have to depend on our circumstances. Before you role your eyes at such an obvious, remedial lesson, remember that I’m talking about things like going without running water, not surviving a slow internet connection. I mean taking in stride that the previously rough dirt road is now physically impassable because the road crew came in to “improve” it but in reality to get a photo op and left it excavated with a five-foot drop off from everyone’s driveway. If I’m honest, most Nicaraguans living in our barrio accepted with a shrug and a smile conditions that would send most of us frothing and spitting.

I need to dig into this for a second. I’ve learned that very few of us have our attitude improved merely by hearing an abstract “other people have it worse.” We aren’t moved by faceless, anonymous humans who live differently than we do. I could argue that we should be. Truth, though, we aren’t.

The lesson worked in Nicargua because they became neighbors–no, more accurately, we became neighbors, as they were already there and we moved in. Becoming neighbors was more than living in that home. We shared soup. We laughed together and prayed for each other. We set off fireworks together. We shared pets. No, really, we did.

Trust me, I’m coming back around to cold, grey days in Washington. The lesson God taught me went deeper than “you can be happy in difficult circumstances.” I know we’re getting very sensitive to this word “entitled,” but I’m not going to try to find a synomym here because it’s the word I need: I’m not entitled to better conditions than my Nicaraguan neighbors. I mean, I think I am. I am accustomed and conditioned to having them. I want them. But in no way do I deserve them or have them coming as some birthright. That sank in (not as quickly as it should have) because we grew to love some of our neighbors as family. Some were strange, quirky family, admittedly, but loved nonetheless. Mileydi, Juan Carlos, Manuel, and Dora became the opposite of faceless, anonymous statistics. Those are still just names to most of you, but I can feel their laughter and still bask in their smiles, even at this remove of time and distance.

We didn’t live in Nicaragua for the purpose of Jesus teaching me object lessons, yet God was not letting me miss these points, either.

Okay, ready for the big leap back to snow and ice?

I don’t like this weather or this season. I’m trying to see every part of it I can enjoy. Back in December, I told a clerk at Grocery Outlet with whom I always chat how beautiful I think it is and she said, “Yeah, I’m over it.” I told her, “Oh, I get that. I won’t force my cheeriness on you.” The irony was not lost on me. There I was, recently repentant winter-haterstill my fourth favorite season–standing accused of trying to sell happy winter to someone.

Corin asked me last night when our local team, the AppleSox, start playing again. “That would be June, Son.” He groaned. I felt that groan deep in my baseball-loving, green-grass-longing soul.

“Major League Baseball* starts in April,” I offered as consolation. He shrugged..

I’m over this. But it’s not done yet. We could say the same thing about the pandemic. In fact, we say this in our household about COVID all the time. It may be the truest thing I can say about it.

Sorry, I digress. Back to winter. I have to clench my muscles and try now. It was coming pretty easily, this new attitude, when everything was beautiful and I just needed more layers and to breathe the cold air more deeply. It really worked. I never once grumbled. I lost weight. I took tons of pictures.

Today, I need to apply the lessons I learned–maybe even earned–in Nicaragua. Yes, I dislike these conditions. Yes, some kneejerk reaction in me wants to demand that we stop this bloody freezing rain shite, and I mean right bleep-bleeping now. Guess what? The more I give in to those impulses, the more I hate all this.

I hope you’ve read my blog enough to know I don’t believe in pretzel-twisting our emotions to make ourselves believe something we don’t really believe, just because we should. If you haven’t, um…that. I refuse.

But there’s a tension between that approach, which would suggest that tragedies need to be celebrated because God is good so we’re to “be thankful” for misery, and the spiritual truth of “fake it ’til you make it.” The latter does apply sometimes. I may not feel loving toward some people–okay, I definitely don’t–but I can’t wait until I feel that love bubble up to the surface beore I act lovingly toward them. Truth to tell, often the acts of love will help me feel love toward them; even if it doesn’t, the right thing is still the right thing. I will respect my feelings, but I won’t let them run the show and despise people created in God’s image.

Today, I’m choosing not to let the negative feelings run the show. Two days ago I fell on our icy front step, in spite of having spent real time and effort clearing it of ice and snow. My feet shot straight out from under me and I had no time to catch myself (which would have beat the crap out of my hands), so instead I landed on my left hip and shoulder.

Ready for this? 1)I’m so glad that was me and not Annalise, post-shoulder surgery, 2)I’m grateful I fell on my left side instead of my right, which might have screwed up my ability to throw a disc, 3)I’m appreciative that I’m not yet the age at which a hard fall on my hip means I break my hip and end up hospitalized and maybe lose my mobility permanently, as happened to Kim’s grandmother.

I’m not sugarcoating. It wasn’t a fun experience, I did have choice words for it, and I had to do some deep breathing (not the fun, take-in-the-fresh air kind) to get re-centered, especially since I was about to drive a kiddo to the dentist.

I’m now approaching the entirety of winter drawing out for two more months (or so) as I did that fall. I don’t love this. I’m not pretending to. I’m choosing not to hate it and I’m recognizing that while it inconveniences and occasionally even threatens me, many, many people have it much worse. Real people. Including some people I truly love. I will remember that I have no right to comfort and convenience, however much I like them.

Absolutely, I will seek to notice and soak in the beauty whenever possible, but when it’s ugly and difficult and ranges between uncomfortable and dangerous, I’ll simply do my best to remember that this could be worse and refuse to let myself fixate on what I dislike.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that this has been a wondrous and difficult start to a New Year for me. The wondrous: I’ve experienced less depression, and of a lower intensity, than in the past several years. It feels like being able to breathe when I anticipated gasping for air the whole way through. I’m not giving you any “just change your attitude and it’ll all go away” crap regarding depression. Believe me, I’m not. I call it “wondrous” because it has caught me off guard and I don’t know how much of it to attribute to this attitudinal change. I can point to a few other major differences in life this year that likely contribute as much or more to the improvement.**

Therefore, on with winter. The winter blahs have started kocking on the door and I’m doing my best to turn them away, which is a vast improvement over when I invited them in and served tea and cookies. Lots of cookies.

But I likely won’t tell any more clerks how beautiful it is.

*I didn’t mention strikes and lockouts. Sometimes I hate the adult world.

**No, nothing I can package and market. Thanks for asking.

Trying to Change the World When You Struggle to Get Out of Bed, Part II: A Piece of Your Heart

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[[Manuscript of sermon preached at New Song, 1-9-22, second in a three-part series. You can see the video here.]

Last week we talked about how we come to be part of this crazy Kingdom of God when we’re also the people who struggle to get out of bed, literally or figuratively. Jesus’ Kingdom seeks to turn things upside down or, maybe better said, seeks to take what is upside down now and turn it right side up. Jesus tells us the last will be first. We become great by serving others, not by ruling over them. 

You know what the Kingdom of God is like? It’s like Jesus showing up in a foreign country, the land of the Gerasenes, and making a point of talking with one person–a man possessed by so many demons they call themselves “Legion.” Jesus delivers this man and heals him.  How does everyone else who lives there react to Jesus? “Please go away.”  Okay, there was the small matter of the swine who went over the cliff because of the demons, but let’s not get sidetracked. The people of the city saw Jesus had transformed this man from a raging, screaming, horror into a calm, sane, grateful human being again. What is the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is Jesus taking the least likely person in the entire region and making him a partner to spread this vision, this mode of life, this world-challenging teaching about love, of all things. This Good News. 

We discussed how Jesus seeks out seemingly underqualified and truly unexpected candidates to join in this Kingdom movement: Zacheus, Peter, the woman at the well. The Healed man of the Gerasenes. Everyone you see Jesus hanging with in the Gospels.

Today in Part 2 we’re talking about changing the world and considering how much of the job is ours, somewhere  between 0 and 100 percent. Right in there somewhere. Just to be clear, this series is Trying to Change the World When You Struggle to Get Out of Bed, “struggle to get out of bed” stands for any ways we feel underqualified–or disqualified–to change the world. “Change the World” here for us means the Kingdom of God. Part II is: “A Piece of Your Heart ” 

When we dig into the Kingdom of God, we run into all these paradoxes, these seeming contradictions that somehow work together and even make a crazy kind of sense. The Kingdom is like the tiniest seed that grows up into the biggest plant. The Kingdom is like leaven that gets into the dough and spreads through and changes everything. The Kingdom is treasure, but it’s buried in a field and no one seems to know it’s there. The Kingdom is made up of ridiculously challenged people who, it turns out, have this huge impact. People who struggle to get out of bed but also change lives. The one thing, the only thing we need to participate in God’s Kingdom is some experience of Grace, some sense that God loves us now, sinful, messed up, and challenged as we are. 

When God looked at the Wenatchee Valley and thought, “What church should I lead to be inclusive and affirming, embracing of all?” clearly it made sense to pick a church founded and led by a pastor trained and raised in an extremely conservative Baptist tradition. Who better? I don’t know why God chose New Song, and yet I know exactly why God chose New Song. When God said, “Will you do this?’ Tim and Kelsey and the people of New Song said, “Okay.” Remember, God’s goal isn’t to find the most competent people; it’s changing us as we’re willing to try.  Faithfulness is simply being willing to try. 

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” I Corinthians 1:26-31

The Kingdom of Jesus is a beautiful vision–not a dream, mind you, but an alternate way to live we can choose, through God’s Spirit–in which love is stronger than hatred, peace overcomes violence, and the hungry, the thirsty, the abused, neglected, and persecuted, all know their value, their belovedness. You are God’s beloved. That’s the Kingdom of God. You are.  When Jesus sent seventy of his followers out to tell about God’s love and gave them power to heal, Jesus told them to declare “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Their presence, and God’s spirit in them, was the Kingdom of God drawing near. Just so as not to be too abstract, the Kingdom of God is where Black lives matter just as much as everyone else’s, where queer kids are loved and not bullied or forced to hide, where we value women enough to end violence against women and we work together to end it, and where we nurture and protect the physical world we live in–serve as stewards–instead of this suicidal insanity of poisoning our planet we’re doing now. That’s the Kingdom of God.

Those sound like huge jobs, don’t they? And those are just examples. Like this massive, bigger-than-we-can-wrap-our-heads -around campaign. 

Guess where we start?

Us. INside us. With our hearts. 

It’s almost anticlimactic…but it’s not.

Changing the World When You Struggle to Get out of Bed: Part 1 is God chooses the unqualified and all we have to do is receive Grace of how wildly unqualified we are. Being “qualified” merely means “will you receive God’s grace? Will you say ‘yes’ when God says ‘I love you like this and I’m going to do some work in you?” That’s part 1.

Part 2 of changing the world is Our hearts. A piece of our hearts. It has to start within us. 

This is another paradox. I’m going to tell you how we are called to pitch in to improve all of the problems in the world and we are responsible only for the issues emanating from here [Chest] and here [head].

This may be my favorite quote of all time. It’s by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. 

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The world, virtually every country on the planet, current political parties in the United States, and every sports team fan, takes the view that [pointing] “they” are the enemy, the bad guys, the “evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds.” If only it were so simple. Our vision would not be a redemptive one, but a simple “seek and destroy.” We’re pretty decent people, right? I mean, sure, we have trouble getting out of bed, and we have our own little quirks, but we’re not the bad ones. They are. IN any way you happen to like defining “they.” When I was a pastor in Colorado, I spent time with a guy who was on Team Chevy and just hated Team Ford with a raging vengeance. In 2015, when the Yankees did so badly, I cheered for the Royals as an honorary fan, in solidarity with Tim. When the Yankees did well and the Royals didn’t, Tim…said “Nope. I can never cheer for your evil team.” 

The Kingdom of God is, in its deepest heart, the most central core of its being, a Redemptive life. The Bible gives many descriptions of God, but we know from the Bible that God is…what? God is love. God is love and love is from God. 

We don’t believe that there are “evil people somewhere,” because we know exactly where the evil people are. Don’t we?

If you haven’t seen grace, if you’ve never acknowledged your own brokenness and sin and need for transformation, it makes no sense to be part of God’s Kingdom. You don’t need healing. “They” do. 

If you’ve experienced Jesus’ grace for yourself, you know grace changes everything. I don’t mean it magically solves all your problems and makes you able to play the violin when you’ve never picked one up before. I mean it fundamentally changes how you see yourself and others. 

Because this is the Gospel truth: the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. There aren’t evil people “somewhere” because all people, all of us, have evil and good in our hearts. 

The danger of “us” and “them” is we are tempted to forget where the dividing line cuts. We start to imagine that the line swerves around us and circles the [insert descriptives of those you consider bad] people. That’s what racism does, for example. “Those people who look that way and act and talk that way are the real problem.” That’s why every military force has to dehumanize the enemy. 

When I tell you the Kingdom of God changes everything, turns everything upside down (or finally rightside up) I mean this: It throws out the idea that “we” are good and “they” are bad. 

We are beloved. All of us. We have evil in our hearts and Jesus loves us. All of us. The God who is love enters our world to say “let me help you with that.” God didn’t come for good people, or Christians, or the right people with our views. God came for all of us

The biggest and most immediate job, the one Jesus gives us, is us. 

You’ve got evil in your heart. I’ve got evil in mine. Now here’s something you may not have heard before: That’s okay. I mean, yes, it’s an issue, but there are worse things. Like what? Like not knowing or admitting we’ve got evil in our hearts. Like really believing that we’re the “good guys” and someone out there, our least favorites, are “the bad guys.” Like believing that God hates everyone we happen to hate. Like being hypocrites who won’t admit that we hate some people. Having evil in our hearts is less a problem than being blind to it or in denial of it. Look at Jesus’ story of the tax eollector and the Pharisee praying in the temple in Luke 18. 

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The guy who knows he has evil in his heart is going in the right direction while the one who is only grateful not to be evil like “them” is not. 

Now I have to stop here and say we are living in the real world. Please don’t hear me saying that this means people doing truly horrific things in our world aren’t a real problem. They are. A big one. We’ll get there. We’ve got one more week to go. But we can’t start there, or we jump the track off this whole Redemptive course and get on the Fix Others by Force track. That might feel more instantly gratifying but it will destroy us internally instead of restore and heal us. And it won’t heal them. The disciples took a shot at this: “Jesus, they didn’t welcome you; shall we call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus did not say ,”Oh, that’s a good plan. I’m glad one of you finally thought of that.” Jesus said, “I rebuke you. You have not understood about love yet.” I think that means it would be bad. Like “crossing the streams” bad.  

Those of you who heard Part 1 last week might have suspected that Part 2 of Changing the World was the changing the world part. You might have suspected we’d be hearing about world problems. We are talking about world problems. We’re talking, in fact, about the. literal. biggest problem in the world: people not dealing with their own stuff. People not addressing their own hearts, our own sin, our selfishness and unacknowledged, unhealed pain and trauma. We have an environmental crisis because people won’t deal with themselves, because we prefer our comfort and selfishness over other people’s survival. See, that’s not dealing with ourselves. We have systemic racism within our nation and within major parts of the US Christian church because people won’t look at themselves and deal with themselves. By “people” I mean Us.. Abuse of women? Same cause. So yeah, this is bad. 

You know what would be cool? If everyone would read Solzhenitsyn’s quote, or have it read to them where necessary, and respond, “Oh, dang, there’s evil in my heart! That sucks! I need to do something about this, now!” 

I tell you, Friends, I am optimistic and irrepressibly hopeful, especially when you take into account I’m someone who deals with depression. But even I am not hopeful that this will happen any time soon. What I see in much of the church is a circling of wagons, a digging of trenches, and a deeper commitment to finding and destroying that enemy out there. 

To paraphrase Pogo from so many years ago: “We have met the enemy, and they are us.” 

Jesus never says “hate the sin, love the sinner.” It isn’t in the Bible. And we’re terrible at differentiating. We’re all too good at lumping sin and sinner together, and conveniently forgetting who we are. 

I don’t need to “fix myself.” I need to start with myself.

Jesus said, 39 “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Luke 6:39-42

Jesus teaches we need to think of our own heart problem as the log and our neighbor’s as the speck. I’d say that’s because we’re naturally inclined to think of them the opposite–of course my problem is tiny and your problem is huge.  When I think that way, I’m much more likely to want to start with my neighbor’s problem–in fact, mine is so small and theirs are so big, I might not even get around to mine at all. 

Our goal is to be part of God’s redemptive and restorative work. That means I need God to redeem and restore me. Starting with my neighbor won’t do that. Most likely, my neighbor won’t be psyched when I show up to say “Hey, you have a problem. Let me look at that eye!”  And since I know they have a big problem, their unwillingness is just going to frustrate me. So what do I do? Discount my neighbor? Write them off?  Or up the force with which I try to change them? 

But if I agree with Jesus and first sit down with God to take that log out of my own eye, I will see clearly to take the speck out of my neighbors’ eye. I won’t be so critical that my neighbor allowed a speck to get in there in the first place. My neighbor may be a lot more willing to listen, when they know that I, too, have dealt with eye lumber. And I know exactly how uncomfortable–or excruciating–this surgery is, so I’m not going in with scalpel and tweezers, swinging them around like…someone whose own vision is occluded and who can’t see well enough because of that to be performing surgery on someone else. 

Jesus wants to redeem, everywhere that redemption is possible. And I can spread redemption if I let it start with me.

Truth is a key, not a hammer. We don’t use the truth to beat the crap out of other people, we let the truth turn as a key to open the redemption in us. And then we can share that key and people say “Oh, cool, a key!” They’re much more receptive than when we swing a hammer.

Again, this is the real world. All of this sounds beautiful on a Sunday morning. But it’s not neat, it’s not, orderly, it’s not linear. It’s cyclical. We can’t really hunker down for the next 30 years and then go love. What we really do is we start with ourselves and then we go love. And when we go love, we realize “oh, crud! I’m still ugh!” And that forces us to go back to Jesus and say, “I’m still ugh! Jesus, help me!” And Jesus does. We become more able to love. And as we love, we start to see who we are. And we start to see who others are, more like us, less like “bad guys.” And it’s a cycle. It’s not a straight line, it’s a cycle. And Jesus redeems us through being willing to try to love, face the evil in our hearts, and try to love again. That’s the whole thing. That’s how we change.

The We open ourselves to God’s work in us, we love others, we learn more about what needs changing in us. We see more clearly where that line runs through our hearts. 

I was sickened when I saw another leader, and one whom I have hugely respected–and I’m not going to say the name of the ministry–just be removed from leadership. because of abusive of power in their leadership. We’ve all seen these. I know the media love to report these. But the fact is, they keep happening! All I can say is, I think probably you should have dealt with your own heaert first, before you tried to fix and change other people by force. And then we wouldn’t have this abusive style of leadership. You know, the way Jesus says to do it: my log first, your speck second.

“But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” When we want to change the world, I pray we will be willing. Amen.

Trying to change the World when you Struggle to Get Out of Bed: Part 1: Grace for Our Brokenness

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[Manuscript of sermon preached at New Song, 1-2-22, first in a three-part series. You can see the video here. I start laughing at 24:02 and speaking shortly after that.]

I’m guessing most of you have not been to Nicaragua. Pastor Tim has. He came to visit us when we lived there. So, for those of you who have never been to Nicaragua, what is one thing you know about the country? Like one basic thing?

Nicaragua is an impoverished nation in Central America where they speak Spanish. Wealthy people will often speak English, and English is probably the most useful tool in getting a good job, but most people there living in poverty–which is most people there–speak little or no English. 

I’m very good at English. If I may boast, I am excellent with the English language, both spoken and written. I can even sing it pretty well. Guess what language I’m not great at? 

Spanish. 

The Wenatchee Valley is full of people who are fluent in Spanish. My wife is a gifted language learner and, though she spoke little Spanish when we moved to Nicaragua, she acquired it quickly. As did my children. 

But there’s this saying about old dogs. How does that go? 

“Trying to change the world when you struggle to get out of bed” is my way of summarizing the conundrum we’re all in when we talk about the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus followers are the people who are trying to live the Kingdom of God here, now, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus came, fully God, fully man, and taught and modeled and lived this reality that challenged, well, nearly everything. He taught about loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, loving our neighbor as ourself, loving our enemies–our enemies, for Pete’s sake–and instead of pursuing power over others, seeking to serve others. It’s crazy stuff. 

Jesus died to atone for our sins and reconcile us with God. That doesn’t mean “Oh, you horrible sinners.” It means “You people I love, I’m doing for you what you can’t do for yourself, because you’re my beloved.” 

He said more crazy stuff like, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” and “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” 

So we come in here on Sunday and talk about how God loves us and we abide in Jesus. We talk about this Kingdom of God in which all people, all people, have value and reflect God’s image, all people are beloved of God. We don’t have to earn it. It’s ours, by the love and grace of God. What a beautiful vision. 

Then we turn and look at the world, at what’s happening in the world. Instead of making a horrifying, comprehensive list, I’m going to ask you just to think about the one thing–or two, if you can’t choose–that most upset and discourage you about the world, local, national, international, right now. 

Jesus says, “This vision I’ve given you? This Kingdom of God? Go make it a reality out there.” 

This, then, is a three-part pep talk on why we, the grossly underqualified, are exactly the people to be bringing about this vision. 

When I say “Struggle to Get out of Bed,” I’m talking about me. I’m not referring to laziness or that whole “morning is hard” thing, though of course it is. I’m talking about struggling with depression and that deep feeling of being…inadequate… incompetent. Looking at other people and thinking, “How do you do so many things well when I can barely keep track of my bloody car keys?”  

The first thing we need to do is not figure out how big the problem is. I promise, it isn’t that. Today, we’re just working on grace for our brokenness, for our shortcomings, for our feelings of incompetence and our honest recognition that our hearts aren’t completely into this. IT’s a cold, hard world out there and God has blessed me pretty good right here. Maybe I could just kind of avoid the nastiest sins and keep to myself and, you know, be nice?

We’re going to do a little Bible Exercise. Ready? Of the people who Jesus involved in his work, who was the worst?  I mean, of those Jesus interacted with and in one way or another included in his ministry–not talking about people who opposed him and attacked him–who were some really not promising ones? 

I’m going to give two examples, to make sure you know what category I mean, and these aren’t bad ones: John 2, Jesus was at a wedding. Mary, his mother, came to him and told him that they were out of wine, an absolute travesty at a first century Jewish wedding. Jesus and his mom have this fascinating back and forth, then Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Jesus tells them to fill these gigantic containers with water–six of them, twenty to thirty gallons each, then take a sample to the chief steward. “When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom…” We know how that goes.  As far as we can tell, these guys do exactly what Jesus says–including bringing a scoop of water from a purifying vat to the chief steward, which had to take some nerve–and what else do we know about them? Nothing. They’re the only ones besides Jesus’ disciples who have first-hand knowledge of this miracle, and that’s it. They worked with Jesus. 

Another is the Centurion in Luke 7 who asked Jesus to heal his servant. He sends messengers with this request, but then what does he have the messenger tell Jesus? “You don’t have to come to my house. I’m not worthy. I know you have power. Just say the word. That will heal him.” Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith–the Bible says Jesus is amazed and not in a negative way–and heals the servant, just as the Centurion asks. I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

So those are wonderful examples, and I used them because I didn’t want to steal anyone’s. I’m not looking for the “right” answer here, just what comes to mind. Who are some challenging people Jesus works with? Give me a name and a few words or a sentence why this person is difficult or challenging? 

[Peter, Zaccheus, Samaritan woman at the well were offered as examples]

Okay, I want you to take that in. Jesus worked with a bunch of people. Many of them are messed up in big and small ways. Jesus didn’t care. That didn’t stop him. 

I really like the woman at the well in Samaria. Remember her? Jesus asks her for a drink. They get talking. Jesus tells her about this water that he has that will keep her from ever being thirsty again.  Jesus tells her to go and get her husband and come back.  “I have no husband.” “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 

Jews were not supposed to talk with Samaritans. Unrelated men were not supposed to talk with strange women. And this one has been married five times and has a sixth…something. Considering that women in that culture had few means of supporting themselves if they had no husband, I’m inclined to give her slack, but Jesus brings it up. It doesn’t stop Jesus from making her part of his work though, does it? She’s the one who tells the whole town of Sychar about Jesus–“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

But here’s my favorite, Luke 8:26-39:

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Okay, for our purposes today, I’m not getting into the whole swine issue. Sorry.

Jesus approaches this man. The man is filled with demons. Just for reference, a Roman Legion had 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers. It wasn’t going well for this man. 

He’s naked, not in a sexy way, and he’s living among the tombs. He’s scratched and scraped and lacerated. Jesus approaches him and commands the demons to leave him. The man falls to his knees and starts screaming “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”

Just for the record, that isn’t a cooperative response. 

But the demons beg Jesus not to “order them to go back into the abyss.” Okay, that;s creepy. Instead, they beg Jesus to let them enter the swine. The swine plunge off the cliff. The man has no more demons, thanks to Jesus. 

 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 

I find that response absolutely fascinating. The man broke shackles and chains, lived–if you can call it that–in the graveyard, naked among the tombs–and screamed and hurt himself. Now what? He’s sitting at Jesus feet, he’s dressed, and he’s coherent. This scares them. 

If I had predicted the ending to one hundred Bible stories, I think I might have done okay, but I guarantee you I would have gotten this one wrong. The townspeople all beg Jesus to leave. “Please go. Please go, Sir. Please leave. You scare us.” 

Jesus did what they asked.

So he [Jesus] got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

I’ve shared before that for many years I found this inexplicable. Just couldn’t explic it. If ever in the world a guy could use a few months or years of discipleship, a little training, maybe some healing and nurturing, isn’t it this guy? Nope. Jesus sent him away. But not “I don’t want you with me.” “Go back where you came from and tell people about how God helped you.” God. I mean, Jesus. So the man went. Jesus sent the man out to be part of Jesus’ work, to spread the word.  You might think a guy who was possessed by some indeterminate thousands of demons would hope to put his past behind him. Maybe go somewhere new, you know? 

Nope.

Okay, so you and I are picking teams. Remember doing that in elementary school? You pick, I pick, you pick, I pick. This time, we’re picking teams for doing Jesus’s work. You know, Kingdom of God stuff. If that were here, would you pick Pastor Kelsey or Pastor Tim first? Delete that question. We’re doing it in the country of the Gerasenes. You see where I”m going with this, right? Who are you going to pick very, very last? Isn’t it the guy with thousands of demons? In fact, one of us is going to argue “No way, he doesn’t count! I shouldn’t have to pick him!” 

Let’s address that for a second. I’m guessing several of you have serious questions about this whole “demon possession” thing. It’s theoretically shocking what the Bible is describing here, but in practice, probably most of us haven’t seen someone possessed to give us a point of reference. Some of us may have. Have you seen someone fully taken over by addiction? Or maybe you’ve experienced that yourself. You begin by making choices, but at some point the addiction takes over and it no longer feels like you are in charge. The only thing that matters is feeding the addiction. The person becomes unrecognizable from who they were before. As my high school friend Dan, a recovering alcoholic for thirty years, says, “the only choices are recovery or death.” When I read “possessed by demons” in the Bible, that’s my picture: someone who has given over their will and is now almost completely under the control of something that will destroy them. There’s a ton of alcoholism going generations back in my family. There but for the grace of God go I. 

I want you to let all this sink in, how wildly unlikely that man was to be partnering in Jesus’ Kingdom, other than as a sad object lesson –but now clothed and in his right mind, now proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus has done for him. Doesn’t matter how unlikely it was, because it happened. There was grace for his brokenness, for his demon possession, for his addiction, for his having given himself over to something horrible. 

I don’t claim to know how God works. Most of the time, God is a mystery to me, and if I’ve grown in wisdom at all, it’s that I can walk in that peacefully. I don’t need to know. God loves me and has redeemed my life. 

I could find you hundreds of people in the Wenatchee Valley better equipped to go live in Nicaragua for seven years. But when God asked me–more kind of told me–I said, “Okay.” And Kim said, “Great, when?” Because my wife is amazing like that. 

But it’s more than willingness. There is grace for our brokenness. That means our brokenness does not disqualify us. But the wild thing, the very Kingdom of God thing, is that I’ve begun to suspect that our brokenness actually plays a crucial part in Jesus inviting us. Listen, I don’t say “makes us qualified,” because I just don’t think it works that way. “Qualified” suggests some objective criteria that we have to muster, some resume’ we must turn in. Seriously, what did the healed man of the Gerasenes put on his resume’? What did he tell people when they asked, “So, where did you work before this?” 

Here’s the punchline: grace for our brokenness makes us the people who can live the Kingdom of God. Jesus healed the man of some horrible stuff, but notice that everyone else begged Jesus to leave. The man had experienced grace and didn’t question when Jesus sent him. Of course he would tell others about that. T/here were some amazing, competent, jump-out-of-bed, people in that city. But this man knew grace.

 If we can’t accept grace, if we refuse to acknowledge our need for God, our messed-up-edness, our sins and shortcomings and struggle to get out of bed, then we spend our lives either trying to fix ourselves or pretending we don’t have these issues.  Jesus offers grace, each for our special circumstances, and as we learn to receive that grace, we begin to embody this Kingdom. This is the great news, it isn’t “okay, here’s the grace, figure out how to receive it and be healed, now go do the job.” The receiving the grace is the beginning of living the Kingdom of God. It’s happening. When the man is healed, he is already working in the Kingdom of God. In my experience, our problems don’t suddenly get solved–and sometimes we spend inordinate energy just maintaining, just dealing with ourselves. And that’s okay. God’s goal isn’t finding the most competent people, it’s changing us as we’re willing to try. Hear that: God is transforming us as we’re willing to try. Faithfulness just means willing to try. “Okay, I have doubts and it sounds difficult, but okay, I’ll try. I’ll show up.” That’s faithfulness. 

Next week we’re going to talk about how much of this big job is ours. Here’s a sneak preview: it’s not all ours and it’s not none ours. It’s gonna be somewhere in the middle of that that is our job. 

The measuring sticks of our culture, our good looks, our “success,” of getting ahead or high caliber, these are not Kingdom measures. The measure of benign part of the Kingdom of God is saying, “Yep, I have a struggle and I need your grace, God.” Amen. 

Surprised by Adulting

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It snowed here. I mean, snowed. We had two feet in less than twenty-four hours. Not kidding nor exaggerating.

Today we had a snow day from school. Kim claims she doesn’t remember when Wenatchee last had one. I remember them vividly from when we were kids, because they were some of the best days all winter. Once my dad, who was a teacher, bundled up and we walked through the snow to…the school, where he unlocked the door and let us play pick-up basketball all day, any of us who could get there. Something about the windfall of not sitting in boring classes or even being stuck at home alone but getting to play on a school day… If I’ve had more fun playing basketball than that, it doesn’t readily come to mind.

We live in a cul-de-sac and are a humorously low priority for the snowplows. That is, it’s funny as long as there are no emergencies. There were none today, thank God. When the plow finally gets to us, they push all the snow up into a huge pile in the middle of the road. Thus, our kids have established their tradition of creating snowforts when we get big snows.


But not today. Today there was too much snow to make a fort. Instead, they enjoyed “Mt. Crumpit” or “The Matterhorn” (I heard it both ways) as a scale-the-mountain-and-sled-or-slide-or-roll-down adventure.

When I was a kid, that would have been a dream. Walk down your driveway and there’s a twenty-foot mound of snow that you can climb on, right there in the street, with no concern for cars (no one could have driven in or out or our road today except with a monster truck or snowmobile). Since my kids have cousins who live roughly thirty yards from our driveway, we had all the snow day ingredients: snow, freedom from school, adventure, and companions with whom to enjoy it.

So I…shoveled.

No, seriously. For a good portion of the time the kids played on Mt. Crumpit, I was over at my sister-in-law’s, helping her shovel out her driveway. We had only a walking path of ours cleared (see above), but her driveway slants toward her garage. Today’s bizarre weather forecast was a winter storm warning…followed by freezing rain. Seriously. We were (and are, up to 4AM) supposed to get some nice rain on top of all this snow, which, you can picture, would have been a disaster. It would likely flood her garage, freeze again and become difficult or impossible to clear the driveway, or–with the best of luck–both.

But this afternoon, it was still only a deep pile of light, fluffy snow. So we shoveled and shoveled and built up 6- to 8-foot walls on both sides because you have to throw the snow somewhere. She and I talked while we labored, and laughed about parenting and all the ironies we never caught when we were kids. We reflected how our kids have it better than we did and how they can’t quite see that, but if only we could send them back in time to get a taste…you know, classic parent conversation. I tried to use caution with my back, having suffered disabling pain when I strained it last summer. A few times one offspring or another walked over, asked if we wanted them to take a turn, then, when we waved them off, headed back to the fun.

An example of my offspring helping.

I’m not telling you this to boast and I’m not playing the back-of-my-hand-to-my-forehead martyr. I’m reflecting on the experience because it caught me off guard: I was happy in my role. I didn’t envy the kids for getting to play while I worked. I (cough) enjoyed the chore. Kim came over a couple times to see if I wanted to trade. I went over to watch them all play for a minute. The dogs were particularly hilarious in the deep snow.

I’m not quite sure when I grew up. I mostly have suspected that I skipped that step. If I could play ultimate right up until such time as I am placed on hospice, I would be utterly content. But here today, I had evidence, right in my face, literally in my hands, that perhaps some part of becoming an adult snuck in while I wasn’t watching.

I remember–you remember too, right?–how Almighty-awful boring it looked to be a parent, a grown-up, when we were kids. They sat around and talked instead of doing things. They had all these dreary responsbilities. It baffled me, because here they were, the ones who had actual choices while we were told what to do. No one was telling them what to do, and they always chose the boring stuff!

I like sledding. I enjoy playing in the snow, having snowball fights, making snowfolks. I would have enjoyed playing on Mount Crumpit all afternoon.

But I enjoyed what I did, too.

I do think it was a little easier knowing that that this help just might matter a lot. (As of 11:35 PM, all is calm, all is bright and no freezing rain yet.) But bottom line, that shoveling needed to get done and today–a little to my surprise–I was happy to do it so the kids could all have fun together.

It was a snow day, after all, and they don’t get many.

Will I still feel as happy in the morning, when my back delivers a “Payment Due” notice, possiblyu in the least subtle of ways?

That’s why I decided to write this tonight.

Oh, and we get another snow day tomorrow.

New Year’s Resolution, started weeks ago.

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[Photo of Two Bears as I arrive. Note empty parking lot.]

2021 was a tough year for many of us. Our family had severe medical issues for Annalise, who thank God is on the mend, finally. 

About three weeks ago, we hit our hiatus from getting to play our version of indoor ultimate (“goaltimate“). In general, I was excited for Christmas break, especially for Kim to get a breather from teaching and to for Aria, our college kid, to visit. But losing my main and favorite exercise at the same time as the temptation to eat poorly rose exponentially–tough combination. I’ve still been carrying my 2020 pandemic-so-stay-home-and-eat weight. 

So I did something a bit unusual for me–I started my new habit. I say “unusual” because typically, I would plan ahead for such a change by first gaining more weight and putting off a different regimen, all the while telling myself that this big change (that I’m not quite ready to start) will make all the difference. 

I’m an idealist and a procrastinator. I’m incurably hopeful. While these can be helpful traits, they can also induce me to make major plans for tomorrow in lieu of making real changes today. Anyone relate to that? Just me?

But this time, instead of constructing the huge plan in my mind, I just started going to hike Two Bears. Every day. I think I’ve missed only two days, one being Christmas Eve when we had two consecutive family get-togethers (with only 8 hours of daylight right now). 

This past week, the temperature plunged. Northern Canadians will not be impressed, but the temps dropped into the single digits at night and climbed to “highs” of 10 and 12 degrees during the day. I put on more layers and kept hiking. A couple days I had the trail completely to myself; a few other days there were one or two other hikers puffing steam in the cold. 

Behaviors start to build up their own momentum. I haven’t been at this long enough to form a true habit, but I had to talk myself into it a few times in the first week; by this week I was in gear and navigating around anything on the schedule that threatened to keep me from getting out. I even hit the peak under a full moon one evening. Did I mention about the short days?


Back in the late fall, I woke one morning and had this piercing thought: Today could be different. 

I think that was from God. It had that feeling of simplicity and urgency that pierces the fogginess in my mind. The days were starting to get short–which I hate, by the way–and had the chill that warned of winter. Sometimes trying to be a writer feels like a slog, seeing little or no progress, words clumping together instead of flowing, and that  voice in my head chirping how it wouldn’t feel this way if I weren’t a total and complete failure. Bleah. I was in a stretch like that when this thought popped in.

Today could be different. 

It didn’t change everything. Of course, the thought in itself didn’t precisely change anything, except my perspective. Turns out that’s a pretty big “except.” I looked at my rut and considered. I made a few different choices.

That gentle reminder, that little whisper from God, was still playing in my head when I started my hiking spree. To be clear, I love hiking. I do not love cold weather. But the notable change for me is consistency, which has never been my strength.

An even bigger change, though, in response to that little thought, I decided to try not hating the winter this year. In retrospect, this has been a change in the making, inspired by a friend who (inexplicably) loves and revels in winter. He challenged me last year, in his obnoxiously cheerful way, and it stuck. But I needed the different perspective to make the conscious change in mindset. Maybe today could be different.

I know many people–and maybe you–are cynical about New Year’s Resolutions. Cynicism doesn’t work for me. I tend to campaign against it. I like the idea of fresh beginnings and new starts. I’m too hopeful to get bogged down in “This will be just like every other time.” It doesn’t have to be. Today could be different. 

So now it’s New Year’s Eve, and I’ve been pondering these huge, ambitious plans which I will both begin and follow through, magically, and yes, I can be sarcastic about my Resolutions and still believe I’m going to pull them off.

Then it hit me: I already did one. I didn’t call it a “New Year’s Resolution.” But today is the day of New Year’s Eve and I didn’t gain more weight. I lost a little. I’m pretty sure I got in better shape–even while not being able to chase a piece of plastic around with people significantly younger than I am! 

If you’re committed to your cynicism, I probably can’t talk you out of that. If you need to hate winter, I’m not judging you; it’s taken me a long time to make this change. Most of that time went into being willing to see a need for the change. I’m also extremely fortunate in that we live next to mountains, so it’s crazy beautiful here in the winter, certainly in the early winter with a fresh coat of snow. 


But I’m going to share this with you, anyway, not minimizing how difficult change is, nor pretending we can just snap our fingers and fix things, especially entrenched habits or trauma-reinforced struggles, and speaking to you as a lifelong procrastinator: 


Today could be different. 


It could. 


I wish you a blessed and joyful New Year. In fact, I pray for it. 

A Reminder

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This one will be short and to the point. I hope.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this. Then I read a C.S. Lewis quote: “I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much beter, it makes him very much worse.”

We know both the fact Lewis is pointing out and why it’s so hard to face. We know people who call themselves “Christians” whose their behavior appalls us. We could make lists.

We want to believe in a God who is love, who transforms people into bearers of this love. The way I came to phrase the question for myself is, “God, if you’re real, why do I find so many of your followers unbearable? Why do I prefer so many people who claim no part of you?”

I have lots of thoughts on these questions. Jesus seeks out the broken and wounded. The broken recognize their need for Jesus. The broken and wounded tend to be more ill-behaved because they are, well, broken and wounded. Another non-conflicting possiblity is people are drawn to the church and to Christianity for a variety of reasons, not all of them having anything to do with a living God who would dwell in us and change our hearts. Tragically, Christian churches have proven to be easy places for abusers, narcissists, and bullies to take power and/or keep their evil deeds in shadows.

Looking back at the Lewis quote, i’m inclined to quibble: “Christianity has not done that to a person, but a false version of the Gospel that feeds the worst impulses and ignores Jesus’ harder teachings…okay, ignores almost all of Jesus’ teachings and his life.” A way to paraphrase Lewis would be to say “when following Jesus doesn’t really take for someone, when they hang around and get the trappings–and feel self-righteous because they have the truth–but don’t have the core of their own being revealed, the person can become less loving, less generous, less kind, while believing they are doing the opposite.” We are conflicted, self-deceptive beings with extremely mixed motives about nearly everything and this is when we are trying to understand ourselves and be open to repent and change. I don’t mean we’re only evil, or unlovable, at all–I simply mean most of the time we don’t get ourselves.

Of course, when we’re talking about people this way–people becoming ‘much worse’–we’re talking about them , not us. The “us” I run with, who love Jesus and seek justice and try to speak truth in tha face of battering, systemic evil, we haven’t deceived ourselves. We know we’re screwed up but we’re honest about it. We’re not just mouthing prayers and twisting Jesus’ words around to fit our politics.

In fact…

we can’t stand those folks.

Yep, if you guessed it, you’re right. We can’t be the truth-loving, grace-giving, justice-seeking Jesus followers and have a well-established “them” whom we righteously judge and hate.

2021 may have been even more divisive than 2020, and I didn’t think that was possible. I truly believed that once we got through the Presidential election, there would still be grumbling but we would move on. That, emphatically, has not been the case. I mean, the grumbling has happened. And many have adamantly refused to move on.

I know this: we are here to make life better for others. We sometimes express it in different language: love our neighbors, advance the kingdom of God, follow Jesus. I keep thinking about this–I keep thinking about my drive to change the world–and I realize it comes down to making life better for others. I want to do this so much more than I do. My longing, my drive to make a difference doesn’t match up well with what I actually do.

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of love, of loving the least, loving those deemed unlovable, the people Jesus spoke of when he told the parable of a banquet. If the wealthy, advantaged guests don’t want to attend, bring in the impoverished and the beaten, the abused and the disadvantaged. If the respectable won’t come, bring in the disrespected. It’s an upside-down kingdom, after all.

But see, here’s the problem. No, here’s my problem: the Kingdom of God breaks down the dividing walls between us. All manner of dividing walls.

I’ve spent 2020 and 2021 shaking my head at these walls but also , conflicted soul that I am, choosing a side and judging those on the opposite side.

Looking ahead at 2022, I’m reminding you because I’m reminded that Jesus doesn’t hate the people I hate. Jesus doesn’t disdain those whom I so easily disdain. Jesus isn’t mocking people like I am.

And unless I want to go all in on becoming a very much worse man, I have to look at myself. I have to confront this thing growing in my heart that has given me permission to be part of “us” against “them,” which is contrary to the Kingdom of God.

“But Mike! Have you seen them? Have you heard what they say? Have you seen what they do?

Yeah, no, I have. Every day. I shake my head. All the time. I don’t understand their thinking, their motives, how they can convince themselves that this makes any sense. Or in any way resembles Jesus.

If people are charging ahead to their own destruction, I may not be able to stop that. I may not be able to change their minds. But I am here to make life better for others by loving them, and that means I can’t step back and say, “Okay, have at it. Do your worst to yourself. Have fun. I probably told you so.”

I don’t know how to do this not-judging, keeping-my-heart -open, loving-anyway thing. But I know the first step is to pray, to acknowledge what’s happened in my stony little heart. Understand, I’m not repenting of insisting that Jesus always stands with the persecuted and the oppressed, nor that following Jesus means choosing that side. I am repenting of becoming someone who claims to follow Jesus while brazenly refusing to love the people who choose the other side. Following Jesus means seeking to love people on both sides of this line.

That’s my remdinder.

Following Jesus means seeking to love the people who think like me and the people who don’t.

Jesus has been reminding me. It’s a reminder for me. But I’m sharing it with you, just in case.

‘Twas the Night

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I’m spent tonight. We had two family Christmas gatherings–with all precautions–and an outdoor Christmas Eve/Nativity play service in 26 degree weather. A good day full of beautiful moments, but I’m tired.

However, I need to write before I go to bed because one of my readers said something to me this evening which won’t stop playing in my head.

First, I need to set the scene. Our Nativity play included two of my nephews, aged five and one-and-a-half. The former played Joseph, the latter a wise man. They were both great in their roles. Our young wise man didn’t stroll up to the manger by himself, but was first carried by his dad and then accompanied by his mom. So I guess he was guided by both the star and his parents.

After the play, after we sang our Christmas carols and held our candles, we milled around and talked, as people do post-church services. I watched our littlest wise man. He spun himself in circles until he fell on his rear on the snowy ground. Then he got himself up and did it again.

That, I thought, is a wise man I could follow.

During the milling and conversing, a friend approached. We chatted a little and she was honest that she isn’t doing great. I thanked her for her honesty, as I almost always do when people let me know how they really are instead of faking how they really aren’t. Then she said something like, “I’ve been reading your writing and it’s helpful becaue I’m effed up.” She actually said “effed,” not the word that rhymes with “ducked.” I laughed, then told her sincerely that many of the people who let me know they appreciate what I write are effed up in one way or another. I don’t think that many people who really have it all together read my stuff. I’ll give you a moment now to decide where you fit in that.

The spinning wise child and my friend’s comments were two highlights of my evening. God appears to us in funny ways. If you haven’t understood that, you maybe haven’t understood Advent and Christmas (and I have a book i’d recommend).

First, my nephew. He was having fun. He wasn’t worried about his Magi dignity nor concerned with anyone’s opinion or judgment about him. He was spinning to make himself dizzy, on Christmas Eve. It struck me that a true wise person would feel this same freedom: “This is what I enjoy, I’m not hurting anyone, I’m gonna spin.”

Of course the juxtaposition between that role–“The Wise Man,” “The Magi,” one of the “Three Kings from the East,” who must have been wealthy to have undertaken such a journey and arrived with extravagant gifts–and my energetic, fun-loving, un-self-concious nephew struck me as funny. But why wouldn’t a wise man laugh? Why wouldn’t a wise woman spin? Why do I assume that such a person would be formal and rigid and concerned about dignity? Frankly, that journey, following a star (I love this part–how did they follow a star?) must have looked crazy and earned them ridicule when they left their comfortable homes in pursuit of…what? “A baby lying in a manger?” Really? I suspect they had discovered something they valued above their appearance to others.

My friend who thanked me for my writing wanted to backpedal because I joked a little about how people have to be effed up to benefit from what I have to say.

But I suspect grace is meaningless to people who have never known they’re effed up. You don’t have to be a trainwreck currently derailing, but if you’ve really never understood yourself as messed up, why did it occur to you that you needed grace? I’m not talking about as a comparison with others, but simple self-awareness. God offers us grace because we’re self-destructive, conflicted, confused creatures who make bad choices even when we know what the right choices would be (Romans 7).

Jesus loves us. I believe Christmas is Jesus loving us. Christmas is wild and undignified grace. God comes spinning into our world, not as the somber wise man but as the baby–my nephew gave a glimpse of that, too. The child we’re celebrating today is a lot closer to my nephew than to the image we’ve created of Balthazar.* Grace comes to us because Jesus, too, spun in circles until he got dizzy and fell down, as kids do. Grace comes to us because God chose not to stay back and observe effed up from the outside but to step in and make this home–that’s what we mean when we say “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

I’ve long since stopped having the debate with people who think God is offended by cuss words. When you feel like your insides are going to implode…then find yourself wishing they would…expressing your condition with strong language is not God’s big concern. Jesus did not become flesh and dwell among us to tell us to clean up our language. Jesus came looking for effed up people who knew they were effed up.

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

That’s what I mean when I say if you’ve never understood yourself as effed up, why did you even consider grace? Grace states categorically that only the sick need a physician, that only a sinner needs a grace-giving, loving God. A Savior. If we’re already righteous, why would we need help?

I’m grateful that you read what I write. It matters to me. I feel this is my calling and I hope–and even pray–that reading this encourages and entertains and helps. I love that people who struggle with feeling effed up find solace here. If I could be the apostle to the effed up, I’d take that as the highest compliment.

You don’t have to be effed up to read this. I’m not the guy who will try to convince you that you are. I disagree with that approach to telling you God loves you. I’m the guy who will say “If you feel that way, I get it; I’ve been there, too.”

My best understanding of the world at the moment is that we’re the love God sends into the world. I don’t know why some seem so bent on attacking and criticizing in God’s name. I can’t understand or change that. I’m trying to learn to love myself and that only works with grace. As Jesus shows me grace, I grasp that attacking and criticizing myself–even in God’s name–does not help. Forgiving myself and trusting that God loves me, in this exact condition right now, changes me. I can offer that grace to others. That’s how I can love my neighbor as myself.

I want to spin more. I want to be less concerned with dignity and appearances and more interested in fun and joy. Like my nephew, like wise people, and like Jesus. I want to love and support effed up folks and those who aren’t. I want to tell you the truth when I’m effed up. I want to believe the grace Jesus offers us. I hope you will, too. Spin more and believe God’s grace.

*According to tradition, Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar are the names of the three travelers who brought Jesus gifts. Balthazar’s gift was myrrh. Meaningful and symbolic, but not a fun baby toy.

Seeing Wonder

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I believe we choose to see wonder. We can also choose not to.

In the closing scene of The Polar Express, the narrator describes how only those who believe in Christmas can still hear the ringing of Santa’s silver bell.

“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

It’s cute and sentimental, bittersweet and intended to pull heart strings–and I think it happens to be true. Figuratively if not literally. I would say they are describing wonder and they neglect to tell how this deafness, this loss of wonder, comes about.

Practice.

We can practice seeing wonder. We can practice ignoring it. Either way, we’ll improve. That’s what practice does. It doesn’t “make perfect” but it does make better by training our hearts and literally forming our minds. Those neural pathways get deepened or else atrophy while we deepen others.

I know, discussion of wonder and neural pathways don’t seem to go together. I mean, unless you’re able to remain amazed at the workings of the human brain, which frankly, are pretty bloody amazing, aren’t they? Your brain is turning these squiggles into words and these words form ideas, in your head, maybe even in my voice, or what you imagine would be my voice. Just because we’re used to it doesn’t make it any less wondrous. Do we still see that?

We’ve all heard the saying that “it’s not those who have everything they want who are grateful but those who are grateful who have everything they want.”

Seeing wonder may work the same way. It’s not because our lives are especially exploding with miracles and bedazzlement that we see wonder. Rather, because we choose to see wonder, our lives begin to overflow with moments that amaze us. Some of them leave us breathless.

Right about here, I have to say if you’ve not read my other writing, I walk this teensy thin line between wide-eyed sincerity and “Oh, my gosh, why does the world suck so much and when will we open our eyes and deal with it? Seriously!” All from the perspective of faith in Jesus and a bedrock belief in grace. I can go about two hundred words before I need to point out that I’m not Pollyana.

But I’m serious. I’ve thought about this a lot and I’m concluding that tiny miracles abound. Yes, two days ago, a friend described the brutal indifference of a man whose wife is dying of COVID. Choosing to see wonder doesn’t make the world stop sucking and people don’t suddenly become glittery angels, sparkling like Twilight-style vampires. (I’ve seen the memes, okay?). You can keep your cynicism about the human race if you need to. But if you keep reading, I’m going to tell you something hopeful, anyway.

Yesterday, our neighbor Ron brought his snowblower over and cleared out our driveway. Random Act of Kindness?

Not exactly a miracle, right? Or is it? Is it a wonder? Is kindness in our world a wonder?

Maybe it is.

Standing at the top of Two Bears, my favorite local hike, between the bears, looking down at the coat of new snow (that no longer filled my driveway), gulping in cold air, then looking up to watch the clouds uncover the full moon. Just another hike on a trail I’ve done hundreds of times, literally. Is the sight still a wonder?

I’m not talking about faking it or pretending I am moved. I’m describing a way of seeing.

I don’t mean forced cheer. Here’s a crazy thing: you can be depressed as hell and still see wonder. Sometimes, in that moment, wonder helps. Sometimes not. You can still see it.

At this point, my writerly instinct (like my Spidey Tingle, but for writing) says I’m supposed to define, or give parameters, for “Wonder.”

“If you’re telling us to ‘see wonder,’ Mike, just what the blue blazes are you talking about.”

But telling you exactly what it is and isn’t would defeat the point. It’s not a thing to see but a way to see. Where can you see it?

Of course I feel great wonder at crashing waterfalls and vistas from mountaintops. But snowfall may be the ideal example of what I’m trying to convey. We lived in Nicaragua for seven years. During that span we visited the US during the summertime. I saw snow once or twice up in the mountains. Did I see snow fall even once during those seven years?

We moved back and, in addition to having lost absolutely all my tolerance to cold (read: wimpy), my sense of wonder for falling snow had reawakened. The snow didn’t change; I did.

I don’t love winter. I refer to it is “my fourth favorite season.” After three-plus years back, I have gotten tougher about being able to handle cold–I’ll run outside without a coat and even barefoot, like the fool I sometimes am–and I am trying, conciously, not to hate four-plus months of my life every year. Shortened days, twilight at 3:30 PM, and a touch of that old seasonal affective depression, don’t exactly help me to look forward to this season, nor does weather and temperatures that prohibit playing the sports I love most.

So I can hate snowfall. Like, hate it. But I don’t. That’s a choice.

Instead, I try to see it. Let it mesmerize me.

At the risk of paraphrasing the lyrics to “My Favorite Things,” here are a few for me: Sunsets. Sunrises. The cat sprawled out, front paw covering her furry face as if to say, “The world, it’s all too much.” My late octogenerian neighbor, Georgia, taking pictures of me and Corin playing basketball in the cul-de-sac so she can print them out for us.

When Kim sees me and smiles.

When I’m on the top of Two Bears, I breathe and pray and look down the river that disappears into the horizon. I’m not always in a chipper mood when I reach the top, though usually the exertion lifts my spirits. But even when I’m irritated or distracted or depressed, if I give it a chance, wonder can seep in.

We refer to “seeing the world through a child’s eyes.” Children often have a greater capacity for wonder than we do. Why? Cynicism hasn’t seeped in. They aren’t yet bored, disillusioned, calloused.

Don’t get me wrong. We may have good reasons and legit causes for those conditions. I’m not criticizing. But we don’t want to surrender to ennui or indifference, simply because we have good reason to sink into them. Speaking for myself, I don’t.

When Kim and I were parents of young children, which at the time seemed like our entire lives and even looking back still appears to have been most of our lives, she coined the phrase, “remember to see the wonder.” There is so much wonder to see when raising a small child–and the role of parenting is demanding, exhausting, and often overwhelming. It becomes normal to survive the day to day, the minute to minute, and we forget to step back and behold the extraordinary, happening right in front of us. “See the wonder” became our rallying cry, our encouragement to each other to take a breath, raise our heads above the fray, and truly see this wonder of a child, this growing miracle in (perpetual) motion.*

I believe seeing wonder is more than recognizing that something is beautiful. You can acknowledge beauty without letting it touch your soul. People are surrounded by beauty all day long and feel nothing. Seeing wonder means both recognizing and opening to that beauty, allowing it to move us, to move in us.

As I meditated on this idea–while hiking–it struck me that perhaps God intended for us to live in a constant state of wonder. I don’t know that we can–and for the love of grace, I don’t mean that we should feel guilt or shame that we don’t–but I could imagine God expressing love this way, offering us a world in which we could see wonder all around us, in each moment.

It would take practice.

Have a blessed Christmas, Everyone.

*Of course, it also became the comment when one of our children made an extraordinary mess. “Oh, look, they flooded the bathroom and it’s pouring into the basement. Are you seeing the wonder?” We have to find a way to laugh when we’re parents.