Random Thoughts

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Wisdom is painful.  We think we really want it, but often it means seeing others make horrible mistakes, recognizing those mistakes while they’re happening, and not being able to do anything about it.  

Finding the balance between being open to what others believe and being committed to what we believe is difficult.  

When people say they want to reconcile with you but they really desire to convey, again, how you were wrong, that is not reconciliation.  

It is 100 times easier to see the splinter in someone else’s eye than remove the plank from our own.  Or maybe 1,000.  That’s why even though this sounds like obvious instruction–“first remove the plank from your own eye and then you’ll be able to see to remove that splinter”–we disregard it.  Frequently.  

If God is present all of the time then a lot of my prayers don’t make sense.  

If God is present all of the time, then praying more and worrying less would make more sense.  

Never say anything about yourself that Jesus doesn’t say about you.  

Jesus doesn’t call you “dipshit” (or whatever your personal self-insult of choice might be).  

If we are punished by our sins, not for our sins, then the idea of “getting away with it” becomes absurd.  

The discipline of not valuing people for the wrong things and not judging them for superficial things requires the long-term breaking of lifelong habits.  

Being vulnerable is a choice that gives people the opportunity to see God’s grace.  As one of my students said, “the more they see our atrocities, the more God’s grace can show through.”  That means when we act like we have it all together, we aren’t just being a little misleading, we’re actively covering up what has saved our lives and what can save others.  

If this is true, then “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?” may mean something more.  We think of “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” meaning showing people our good works to help them see God.  It does.  It may also mean letting them see my darkness through which God’s light shines.  

Advertising works.  We are persuaded by things we imagine have no influence on us because we’re too smart for that.  Our imagining we’re too smart is part of what allows it to work.  

Studies show our thinking changes and our logic falters when we are faced with facts that conflict with our political views.  We read these studies and nod our heads and think they are talking about other people.  

I think humility is the characteristic that God most desires to see in us. 

I think true humility is a right view of ourselves before God.  

I think comparing myself to others causes about 60% of my problems.  

Usually the difference between having compassion for others and judging them is my–or your–insecurity.  

“Everybody is somebody’s weirdo.”  We are all an acquired taste and we’re not for everybody.  If we’re committed to kindness and trying to love others as we love ourselves, that is enough.  Some people won’t get us, or ever like us, and we’re just their weirdo.  

This last one isn’t mine, but I read it this morning and really liked it:

“Forgiveness might be the most complicated and difficult aspect of Christianity. And yet without it, we have no hope of living a joy-filled life. Generally speaking, we perceive ourselves as much better people than we are, much less in need of God’s forgiveness than is true. This distorted self-perception makes us quicker to judge and less likely to forgive. If we have a hard time forgiving people, we need to run to God for a good dose of humility, a reality check and a softening of our sick hearts.”  Pastor Chris Rattay, Words to Walk By

Sometimes We DO Know

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A while ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Because We Really Don’t Know,” which made the point that we have no idea how our actions or words impact others.  I like that one.  I told some good stories and I think it’s an awareness that can change how we treat people and even how we see people, if we let it.  

I have two friends whom I love.  I haven’t seen them in some ridiculous number of years.  They’ve been through a lot.  Actually, they’ve been through hell.

 My friend Dan says that the homeless guys he ministers to will all go to heaven because a)they have cried out to Jesus, and b)they’ve already suffered hell on earth and God is just.  Nobody can ever really grasp or quantify another person’s suffering.  After our son Isaac died, I did a whole lot of thinking about grief and suffering and loss and concluded that you can’t really compare.  Is it better to lose your son at 8 hours or 8 years or 28 years?  Who suffers more?  

We were staying in the Ronald Mcdonald House,* just in the aftershock of Isaac’s death, when a woman there started telling us about her child.  Her little boy was six.  He had third degree burns over 80% of his body (believe me, that wasn’t a number I could forget) including his face, from a reaction to something he’d been exposed to that would never bother the rest of us.  She described his skin, the efforts to feed him, his process of healing.  They had been in the hospital a long time.  

We were stricken with grief and most days just numb and quiet.  Our daughter was not yet two, so we spent time with her and wandered around.  We weren’t chatting with a lot of folks.  But this woman had wanted to talk to us.  Afterward, it came home to me so clearly: death is unbearable, but sometimes life is too much, as well.  

If you’re still tracking with me, I have these friends.  They are godly, hilarious, ridiculous (in all the best ways), quasi-saints who walk among us and brighten lives everywhere they go.  They have loved broken kids for years measured in decades.  And one of them is now on hospice care and nearing the time to leave this earth.  They’ve been through so much, for so long, and with all that we’ve suffered I look at them and cannot understand how they’ve endured this, much less how they continue to be wonderful people.  I don’t get it.  Except I do.  

You can’t compare suffering.  It just doesn’t quantify that way.  But the real mystery is that God is present in our suffering.  He doesn’t make it go away.  He doesn’t fix it or solve it or wave his magic wand.  He does heal people sometimes.  I believe in miracles.  But sometimes people are healed and they live in God’s miracle for years and then, for reasons so far beyond my grasp, they go.  I mean, they die.  Our sister-in-law, my cousin’s wife, my friend Fred, all of them had years beyond what they were “given” by the doctors–doctors don’t actually give or take years; life and death are not in their hands, but God’s. They merely give estimates–and those gift years were all miracles, though sometimes life is too much, as well.  

In all of it, God is present.  God does not abandon us in our suffering.  Sometimes God is hardest to perceive when we are suffering; that’s how I felt in my grief.  God had not left, but I couldn’t experience his presence with me for three years.  But other times, in our suffering God is closer than ever before.   Fred described this to me as he was dying, in his final months and weeks.  I could see it in him, even as he was leaving us.  The barrier between him and God was lifting.  Fred knew it.   He told me, “I wish you could experience what I’m experiencing but without the cancer.”

Your ways are not my ways and your thoughts are not my thoughts, God says to us in Scripture.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so far are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.  

I have no explanation of suffering or how God works through it.  I certainly cannot “solve” the problem of evil; I stopped trying a long time ago.  I can give you my best explanation of how I think all of this works, but let’s be clear, my thoughts are as far below God’s as earth is below heaven–and I don’t even know how far that is!  

What I have are stories of people who know God through suffering, who have found God in the midst of suffering, who continue to cling to God when there is nothing else but suffering.  My story is that I rejected God because of my suffering and God would not be rejected.  I told him to F— off and he wouldn’t go away.  And when I finally was able to see him again, there he was, right where he’d been the whole time, with me in the deepest pit.  With all due respect to those footprints in the sand, God just sat next to me in my pit while I screamed and flailed and called him horrible names.  He didn’t carry me away, he didn’t go away no matter how many times I told him to, he just stayed by me.  I couldn’t see it then and no one could see it for me, but I’m now certain that Jesus suffered with me.  When I tell you the story of why I follow Jesus, the cornerstone is he loved me through my own hell.  

So now this is Lent and what does this have to do with my friends?  

Sometimes we really don’t know who is paying attention, who is watching, who is being influenced or helped or given the tiny sliver or hope through our mere presence.  God answers people’s prayers through us without asking us or mentioning it later.  We are the answers to prayers that we never knew were prayed.  I know that because I know that’s how God runs his Kingdom.  

But sometimes we do know.  Sometimes we’re depressed and discouraged and stop doing what we were doing because we’ve lost hope that it matters, that it makes any difference to anyone.  Those are lies but they don’t seem like lies when they’re shouted so loudly in our ears.  A few quiet words of affirmation, a gentle thanks for our efforts is easily drowned out by the thunder of those lies.  

But who is the Father of Lies?  And what is his word next to the word of a quasi-saint?  

This is for you, my beloved and long-missed friends.  Sometimes we know that someone is paying attention, and we just have to hand this hope we share back and forth between us.  I wish I could alleviate your suffering, but I can’t.  I’d explain it if I could, but we both know that wouldn’t change anything.  I am praying and I am giving you this meager gift I have, trusting that the God who holds us together will make it into the treasure I wish it were by breathing his Spirit through it.  

None of this can be explained, but we’re beyond explanations now, aren’t we?  

Soon you will see face to face.  

 

 

 

 

 

*I’m no fan of McDonald’s, but the Ronald Mcdonald House ministered to us in our first weeks of grief, letting us stay there as long as we needed.  I will always testify to their kindness.

The Danger of an Ahistorical Faith

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There is a song that was popular at one point which has lyrics that go something like this:  “What have you done for me lately?”  The title is “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”  The song, if I understand correctly, poses the question “What have you done for me lately?”  It’s actually bemoaning a disintegrating relationship in which a previously considerate, attentive partner has slacked off and become selfish.* 

I’ve come to realize that I sometimes live ahistorically.  By this, I mean that I lose sight of where I have been and the process through which I’ve gotten here.  I think of today’s challenges and struggles as in a vacuum.  

I’m not going to take sides on Ms. Jackson’s song.  She may have a reasonable complaint.  But for those of us who follow Jesus and seek to treat others as we would have them treat us, this is dangerous territory.  

C.S. Lewis wrote, 

“Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.”

In this sense, we are not resting on our laurels, we are not assuming that we have so much faithfulness in the bank that we can slide.  Relying on God is difficult because we don’t like to be dependent; it offends our pride.  Of course, our pride needs to be offended, and badly.  In fact, it needs to die, and it won’t go quietly.  

This needs to be our mindset as we approach God each day: today, I need you.  The guy who, in the A.A. meeting, said, “I pray every day to remember that I’m sick” got this.  

So in this sense, faith begins new again each day.  But in the sense Janet sings about, asking God what he’s done for us lately becomes dangerous ground very quickly.  

 Many years ago, my friend Jon recommended to me the practice of reading a Psalm or Proverb each day and cycling through them.  Since that was about 30 years ago now, and since I actually managed to take that good advice (okay, almost every day), I’ve read the Psalms a lot.  Over and over, the psalmist is struggling with his current reality which, in the King James version, sucketh, and then declares something like this:

 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

You might say that a Lent series on encounters with God is simply this: remembering the deeds of the Lord.  Telling about my Miracle Girl daughter is remembering your miracles of long ago.  

Nevertheless, I struggle to keep this in mind.  

When I get discouraged, rarely do I think, “Man, how many times has God picked me up when I’ve been discouraged?  How did he do that again?”  More often, I think something along the lines of, “Damn, I’m discouraged!  Where are you, God?”  

I think I tend to move toward a Jacksonian theology when this happens.  “Sure, you used to be all that and show up when I needed you, but what have you done for me lately?”  By lately, I mean within the last few hours.  

Now, so as not to be too self-deprecating here, when the crisis comes, it’s hard to remember the past.  The not-funny thing about pain is, it blurs everything except right now.  When discouragement or depression or anxiety or despair hits, keeping a head above water becomes almost all we can handle.  It feels like God moves very slowly and acts a bit deaf.  I think that’s exactly why we have these Psalms:  to teach us how to respond in our day of trouble.  

This week I’ve been discouraged.  This week, I’ve been severely discouraged.  Is it internally or externally triggered?  Rooted in reality or just my warped perception?  I don’t know.  I know when it hits like this, prayer becomes exceedingly difficult.  The saying “When it’s hardest to pray, pray hardest” is sound wisdom but no easier to apply for being so wise.  

When I felt the discouragement start to cascade upon my head, I asked God for a small sign I could see.  I was not able to perceive any answer.**  That made things harder because then I felt discouraged and had tried to pray and God seemed to be ignoring me.  I’m not claiming this as an accurate theological or spiritual statement, but it’s what I experienced.  

It took me two days to get my head above water again.  During a prayer walk, I was discussing with God how I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t answer a simple prayer when it would have made such a huge difference to me.  That’s when this struck me full force: I was angry at God because he hadn’t done for me lately.  When I asked for an encouragement, I wanted a new one.  God has sent me many encouraging signs in my life, and during our time in Nicaragua, and this calendar year.  

But I wasn’t reviewing God’s faithfulness.  I wasn’t remembering the deeds of the Lord.  I felt like I was drowning so I wanted God to throw me a line.  A reasonable request for a guy going down in the water.  BUT, here is the key, I was only taking the line that I had in mind.  That’s not how it felt, of course.  Like I said, I felt God was ignoring me.  

He hasn’t ignored me, though.  I am committing to remembering.  I am writing myself notes of remembrance.  I am going to keep the deeds of the Lord closer at hand, so that when I feel myself slipping, I can grab onto them immediately, rather than when I am in drowning-guy-thrashing-around state.  

There’s a bigger picture here, of course.  Having an ahistorical faith is a serious threat to understanding our unity in Christ and our partnership as people of his Kingdom.  Just as an example, I sometimes hear evangelicals reject “the Catholic church,” as a blanket statement.  But how many centuries before the Reformation were they simply “The Church?”  We do ourselves harm when we cut ourselves off from God’s faithfulness and his work throughout the life of our body.  But this is a longer conversation and a post for another day.  That’s the macrocosm. 

Today, I am recalling that God, who is faithful to complete the good work he’s started in me–no small thing, that–has done a lot for me.  A good bit of it, he’s done lately.  I should probably write a song.  

 

 

 

*Or a very spoiled partner doesn’t like not being spoiled anymore, take your pick.  

**I could have missed whatever God might have sent me.  Still, there I was. 

Do You See Her?

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I’m a member of Servant Partners.  We’re an organization of crazy folks.  We actually take psychological evaluations (most of us) to be officially accepted into the organization.  We like to say we need to be crazy to do this, but not all the way crazy.  Just the right level of crazy to be willing to do stuff that a lot of people consider…insane.  Or at least not smart, safe, or lucrative.  

I’ve already talked about God’s wisdom and human wisdom.  Let me say again that I don’t consider us more righteous than anyone else for what we do.  Honestly.  I’ve lived here almost six years and probably failed more here than in the rest of my life combined* (that’s too easy of a shot, don’t take it) and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that we all have our challenges and shortcomings and God measures our faithfulness individually.  He’s not judging me by his standards for you nor you by his standards for me.  For someone fighting a heroin addiction, faithfulness might be a day of staying clean.  For me, sometimes faithfulness is keeping my head above water for another hour.  God has us all and none of this would be possible, for any of us, except by God’s grace.  None of it.  

With that as my starting point, I’m going to tell you that we are trying to 1) follow Jesus and 2)see her.  

How many people live in poverty in the world?  Is that your problem?  Would you say that God considers it your problem, or partly your responsibility, or nothing to do with you whatsoever?  

The lawyer who came to debate with Jesus how to be righteous and get into heaven asked that famous question, “And who is my neighbor.”  He probably expected Jesus to start in with the dialectic about precisely how far someone must live from you to fall within the boundaries of being your neighbor, and from there they might have debated specifically what responsibilities one bears for one’s neighbor in God’s eyes: when, how, why.  

Jesus gave a really different answer than expected.  How is that for understatement?  Jesus told a story, a story about which  most people in Western culture still have some awareness, by which I mean if you talk about The Good Samaritan or call someone a Good Samaritan or use it as a reference, I believe for most there remains at least a glimmer of recognition, even if they don’t know the whole thing word for word.  

Who is my neighbor?  In one sense, that is the central question of discipleship to Jesus once we have recognized ourselves as having done things wrong (I sin) and asked for help (forgive me).  Jesus’ claim on our lives, a claim which we voluntarily give–or refuse to do so–comes down to two commandments:  love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.  

Who is God?  Who am I?  Who is my neighbor?  

I’d say if we spend the rest of our lives answering those questions and digging ever deeper into the answers, we will have lived well.  We will have invested our precious days wisely.  I’m teaching a class of seniors about who God is because they have no idea, but I have no idea, either, compared with the actual answer.  I know a tiny sliver of a hint of a notion of this Almighty, Eternal being who is three “persons” in one, and not for lack of effort or interest.  I believe when we imagine that we have the plumbed the depths of God’s mysteries and know all the answers, we have committed to our blindness by pretending that we can see everything.  

Love God,

Love myself,

Love my neighbor.  

To do any of these, I need to know whom I am loving.  To love well, we must know the beloved.  Otherwise, we are simply loving a projection we have of the other, which often ends up looking a lot like doing only what we find convenient for ourselves.  Other times, we go to monumental efforts that leave the beloved feeling loved not at all.  This is also not fruitful.  

One of the more profound truths I’ve learned about Christianity is this: my neigbhor must be a specific individual.  I can’t remember who first told me, “If everyone is our neighbor, then no one is.”  When we imagine that we love the entirety of humanity but never narrow that down to the person who needs a ride to the clinic or someone to watch a runny-nosed child for two hours or  simply a non-judgmental ear to listen to how horrifically the ex- (whom we may have suggested they not marry in the first place) is behaving in the custody battle, we are absolutely fooling ourselves.  Jesus does not tell a story about feeling love for everyone, he tells a story about active, costly, inconvenient and potentially dangerous love for an assumed enemy.  Jews hated Samaritans, and it doesn’t take that much being hated to hate right back.  

Who is your neighbor?  

Here’s what makes Servant Partners our own special degree of crazy:  we move to find our neighbors.  We move into poorer neighborhoods.  We live in some sketchy places.  We practicesome audacious hope that these poor, sketchy neighborhoods might be transformed by the power of God’s love.  We even came up with 9 signs that this transformation might be taking place.  Those signs all relate to seeing the miserable conditions of the neighborhood improving for those living there (here).  

I don’t know how you should go about loving your neighbor, nor even whom your neighbor is.  I do think, maybe even know, that you would do well to ask those questions and seek to receive the answers with an open heart.  Jesus had a “bad” woman, a woman categorized as sinful by her not-neighbors, come and express her love for him with an outrageous action: she cried on his feet and wiped them off with her hair.  I’m guessing his feet weren’t clean.  The host of the party thought, “If Jesus really were a prophet, a man of God, he would know what kind of vile woman this is and not allow her to make contact with him.”  

The guy was wrong on all available counts.  Jesus knew exactly who and what this woman was and not only would he “allow” her to express her adoration for him in this manner, he held her up as an example of gratitude,  of love in action.  First Jesus asked a simple question about two forgiven debtors, one who owed a little and one who owed a ton.  Which would be more grateful?  

 “Do you see this woman?” Jesus asked. Basically, Jesus said, “These are the things one does as a host; you did none of them.  She, on the other hand, went over the top (in a good way) with her actions.  Why?  Because the one who is forgiven little loves little, while the one who has been forgiven much loves much.”  

This is a teaching both about love and about sight.  True forgiveness, given and received, leads to deeper love.  If we think we’ve done nothing or very little wrong, then we have no sense that an enormous weight has been lifted from us, no sensation of having dug ourselves into a pit deep beyond our ability to escape and then being lifted out.  “I thought I was going to die down there, but now my feet are on level ground.  I’m free.”  According to Jesus, the woman felt forgiven and wanted to express her love extravagantly.  Because she was forgiven much, she loved much.  

The host saw none of this.  If I read his tone correctly, he didn’t particularly like to have it pointed out to him.  “Do you see this woman?”  Nope.  Not in the way Jesus saw her.  

Do you see your neighbor?  

When we lived in the mountains outside Wenatchee, Mileydi and Juan Carlos were not our neighbors.  Their daughters Ansieliand Kristine were not our neighbors.  We didn’t have vague, fuzzy love feelings for them because we didn’t know of their existence.  They’re our neighbors now.  They may be better neighbors to us than we are to them, but I (even I) don’t think that’s a competition. We don’t have a lot in common with them. Our backgrounds are extremely different and we have vastly more resources available to us than they do or likely ever will.  

Likewise, though we don’t live in the same city here, we are neighbors with Juan Ramon and Amada.  We are invested in each others’ lives.  They, especially, have made living in Nicaragua possible for us in more ways than I can list.  We have been able to be part of their going forward with God’s call for them.  My life would be drastically poorer if I didn’t know them. 

We’re their neighbors because we moved here; we moved here to follow Jesus.  They weren’t going to be moving to Wenatchee.  We didn’t move here to help or fix or even save them.  But we moved here, it now seems clear to me, to be their neighbors and to have them become our neighbors. There are many more reasons, of course, not all of them so obvious, but this is a big one.  

Who is your neighbor?  What say do you give God in answering that question?  Will you ask God to give you eyes to see the answer? 

Servant Partners, long before I joined them, decided that people living in poverty in the world’s inner-cities are our neighbors.  These are not obvious neighbors, but the decision came in response to Jesus’ commandment to love “the least of these” (those society deems as least, values the least) and to this simple statistic: One out of every six people in the world today lives in an urban slum, with very few churches among them.**

Again, this doesn’t make us more righteous or godly than anyone else.  I’m describing our corporate decision to seek Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  I tried to describe in my last post some of how we, Kim and I, got here/how we became the people who would do what we’re doing now.  Another big part of the answer is that we have friends in Servant Partners and felt that God wanted us to seek our neighbors the way they do.  Even saying that, we’ve done Servant Partners very differently than most members, trusting that God is directing our time and energy here, trusting that God is giving us eyes to see our neighbors and directing us which ones to love with our time and attention.  

I’ll end with this: it’s possible that your neighbor–the specific one for whom God intends you to offer active, costly, inconvenient love–lives right next to you, or down the street, or has kids in your kids’ school (or is in your class in school) or works alongside you.  He or she may take the bus and live twelve steps below you on the socio-economic ladder. You might be doing an awesome, faithful job of loving this neighbor.  Or the neighbor God has in mind for you to love might live halfway around the planet.  Or might have fled that place and lives near you now.  

 Our neighbor is not everyone, but it could be anyone.  Obviously your neighbor is not just one person and I’m simplifying here.  But Jesus’ story, Jesus’ answer to the question, is radical.   

Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”***

 

 

 

*Trust me, I’m not being falsely modest or humble here.  Plenty of folks in Servant Partners could verify this…and love me, anyway.  

**Obviously I’m not giving the exhaustive history of Servant Partners here. It’s a much better, and messier, story than this.  

***Remember, the views expressed above reflect my personal opinions and are not intended to express the official position of Servant Partners and may, in some instances, be downright embarrassing.  

How I Got Here/Why I’m Like This

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Everyone’s journey is full of crazy twists and turns.  Sometimes these are the result of sudden events, like the death of our son, or the miracle birth of our daughter.  Sometimes they are longer-term but just as wild, being raised by a loving but bi-polar father or stumbling into a community of radical Jesus followers while trying to pursue success and fame.

I doubt I could even retrace all the steps or identify all the decisions that ended up leading us here to Nicaragua.  I’m guessing that someday God will show me the map (picture either a Family Circus cartoon of Billy’s travels or the Marauders’ Map, depending on your generation) and we’ll laugh and laugh.  But I’ve been thinking about my encounters with God that brought us to this point in our lives.  Here are some big ones:

In 1987, I started college in Claremont, California.  I hoped to get my English literature degree, then get a graduate lit degree at UCLA or whatever prestigious program would take me, and go on to write best-selling, impacting novels that would do people some (vague) good and make me rich in the process.  I did study English literature at Pomona, but a funny thing happened on the way to fame and fortune: I ran into Jesus.  Specifically, I ran into some radical Jesus followers named Lisa and Lindsay.  They invited me to Bible study and, fool that I was, I went, thinking that I knew all the Bible stories anyway.

But at the end of the Bible study, they talked about “applying” the Bible, which I’d never heard of before.  How do you “apply” the burning bush or Noah’s ark?  They were taking these stories awfully seriously.

So I hung out with this crazy community of folks all excited about Jesus and I didn’t know who God was or how God felt about me, but I knew that I was unhappy and they had something I didn’t have.  I knew that they were the only people around campus who were kind to this culture shocked small-town Midwesterner who thought he was all that but wasn’t.

Lisa invited me to join an intensive manuscript study of the Gospel of Mark. For reasons I still can’t fully explain, most of which probably had more to do with being lonely and stressedout at college than wanting to learn the Bible, I joined the study.  The other students in it immediately bugged the living crap out of me (Hi, Trish) because they clearly thought they knew everything while it was even clearer that I was the one who did (Hi, Trish).

Then a funny thing happened.  I was going along each week,spending our three hours studying these words on the page, looking at Jesus.  We had doing the study for about two
 months.  I remember sitting in this room in the library, looking at this paper with all my marks and scribbles and questions all over it, when suddenly I knew Jesus was looking back at me.  He was alive and everything I’d been studying about him was true.  I also knew I was a mess and he wasn’t very impressed with me.

That was my “conversion.”  I told God I had made a mess of my life and, if he thought he could do any better give it a shot.  Fortunately, God took me up on it.  Something shifted and, though it’s been a rough and, at times, hellish ride, that something never shifted back.  Until then, I would go along trying to remember to pray, sometimes forgetting about God’s existence for days and weeks at a time,  and it felt like I was trying to convince myself that this fairy tale was real.  Since that moment, God has been real in my life and I’m always aware of God (even when I’m not obedient).

Those crazy Jesus followers had us study the Gospels.   We studied Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor and the poor.  They introduced me to teachings by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tony Campolo.  They taught me that  if you need healing you pray for healing and that God revealed in Jesus Christ loves all people and commands us to care for the poor and oppressed.

“People, I want a church that changes the world, not from a position of power but from a position of love. I believe that we have to change the world but the weapons of the church are not the weapons of the world.  We have another style, another way: it’s loving servanthood, it’s giving ourselves, it’s moving in, it’s caring, it’s loving, it’s redeeming not destroying.”

I heard Tony Campolo say this in 1988.  Young and naive in my faith, I thought all Christians believed this and tried to live it.  I thought all Christians understood following Jesus as this non-violent revolution of love and redemption to change the world.  This was going to be an insane adventure!


The priest at the Episcopal church I worked at right after college would take homeless people into his home as house guests.  Hundreds of them through the course of his life, and he was married with four sons.  At the time, this seemed to me a normal things one might do to be with the poor.  The church also fed hungry people, shared food and clothes, and sought other ways to show compassion.  They called it “Matthew 25 ministries.”  Made sense to me.  


I went to Fuller Seminary and studied the Old Testament and the New Testament and Hebrew and Greek and preaching and communication and family systems.  I took a great class called Women, the Church, and the Bible.  I studied a lot and met many people who were putting together what following Jesus means.  The challenge of seminary is to grow closer to God in the midst of learning about God.  Fuller strengthened my understanding that God is concerned with both body and soul; any theology that seeks to save souls while letting children or the elderly go hungry does not reflect Jesus.  


My first pastoring position, working with young adults in Colorado, would begin the hardest period of our lives, but I didn’t know that going in.  Mine was a classic first year of pastoring: you make all the mistakes and find out what you don’t know.  I thought it was pretty difficult.  Then my  father and our infant son died three weeks apart and the world went dark.  

One of the few bright glimmers I have from time is meeting Danand Lynn.  They love homeless people and help them get off the streets by developing long-term friendships with them.  They call their ministryBlanket Coveragebecause they often begin
these relationships by covering up people sleeping out on the streets.  We took a couple of trips to work with them in Portland.  They were with the poor in a way I had not seen anywhere else. My story
, Floyd, was inspired by my friendship with them.


I was pastoring a church in Wenatchee, WA.  Well, not pastoring it, exactly, not in the sense that verb usually means.  I had been hired part-time to help with the preaching in an elder-led church.  I was recovering from the death of our son and my father and just returning to ministry after the dark years, my version of a dark night of the soul, the train wreck I refer to sometimes.

It was a church full of loving people, all of whom had deep relationships with God.  We started preaching through the Gospel of Luke.  I was very excited about this, because I thought this would be a great springboard to move us into ministry with those suffering and struggling.  But it didn’t.  My understanding of Luke was not shared by a significant portion of the congregation.  When I tried to preach on Jesus’ teaching about wealth or discipleship, I was corrected.  I didn’t know how to lead the body toward working with people in need, and I didn’t really have a position of influence to do that.

Authors of the Bible Amos

The Prophet Amos, by Laura Kranz

Then one of the elders, who was a dear friend (most of these people with whom I was disagreeing were good friends), suggested that I look at taking a course at Regent, which is the seminary at University of British Columbia in Vancouver.  I decided to take a two-week intensive on the prophet Amos.  Oneof the other elders generously loaned me his VW camper van.

The class was powerful and unlike anything I’d done before.  The professor taught it in the rough part of Vancouver.  I had never had so many people offer to sell me drugs in my entire life did in that two-week stretch, walking to and from class every day.  We were given a tour of that part of the city that was very different than any tour guides would offer.  We studied how God had Amos prophesy against Israel because of how they’d treated  their poor:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;

 

Bud Osborn

I heard a poet/social activist/prophet named Bud Osborne share about living on the streets, surviving heroin addiction (he’d been in recovery for many years) and knowing Jesus there.  Words I’ll never forget from Bud were, “We want to save people from addiction and the street, but for we’re not saving them for Suburbia.  That’s just as lost.  We’re saving them for the Kingdom of God.”

God used the class to drive two things home:  God really does love people in poverty and I needed to make changes in my life to follow Jesus in this area.  I was still talking about how I believed this part of the Gospel but I wasn’t doing anything. Faith without works is…what’s the word?  Dead.  After the class was over, I spent one more afternoon in Vancouver so I could sit and pray and try to listen to God.  I prayed, “Help me either to lead this fellowship toward ministry with people in poverty or get me out of here so I can obey you.”

What happened next is a long story and I will give you the short version:  I started a young adult discipleship ministry.  The folks at Wenatchee Fellowship were strongly supportive of this move.  We started taking groups of young adults on short-term trips to Nicaragua to work with House of Hope, a ministry rescuing women and girls out of prostitution.  That was a big step in the right direction

.

Our little teams built a couple of homes for women at the ministry.  We developed some relationships and loved some kids.  We raised significant money to help House of Hope.  It also had the limitations that these short-term trips do: they are a step out of regular life, instead of integrating into our daily world; we are more visitors (or, worst-case, tourists) than neighbors; it’s easy to do this work, which takes serious time and planning and energy and money, and feel like “Check! I’ve done that.”

Some people are now against short-term work like this.  I’m not, I just think it’s crucial we recognize what they are and what they are not.  Most people who commit to long-term international work working with people in poverty begin with a short-term trip.  But it can also be a very expensive self-indulgence that makes us feel like we’ve followed Jesus to serve and develop relationships when we’ve mostly just had a travel experience.  My prayer was always that our people would be changed by the experience and invest themselves both in House of Hope’s work and local ministry to people in need.

Keeping the short story short, after our 7th trip to Managua, I felt God say “It’s time to stay.”  My wife, being the most amazing person in the world, responded to my suggestion (with fear and trepidation) “What would you think if I said God might be leading us to move to Nicaragua,” with “Great!  When?”

I will add one more anecdote that might fill out this picture.  I’m not including all the amazing works God did to get us here or the nine signs he gave me.*

I remember walking in a poorer part of Wenatchee, where i didn’t want to live because it felt dangerous to our children and I was fearful and protective after Isaac’s death.  I was talking with God about this.  Kim had expressed interest in moving into one of these neighborhoods and I was discussing it with some of our ministry partners.  I asked God, “Why would anyone do this if it’s optional?”  And God responded, very clearly, “It’s not optional.”

We now live in a much poorer place than that.  It probably isn’t more dangerous, though that depends.  There is a whole separate conversation to be had about how God protects us when we follow Jesus.  I’m not naive on that count and we are cautious here…and I do believe God protects us.

Kim once said, “I understand that God doesn’t call everyone to live with the poor, but isn’t it strange that every Christian feels called to live exactly as far as they can afford from the poorer parts of town?”   That wife of mine…

These are my encounters with God that helped form my understanding of discipleship and led us here.  I offer them in case they help.  Honestly, I am striking a balance with this post. God works with each of us individually and I am not suggesting that my journey with God is better, more righteous, or a “higher standard” than anyone else’s.  Grace doesn’t work like that and I am all about the grace.  At least I want to be.  

AND, Jesus tells us that he is present with the poor, he identifies himself with them, and teaches his followers that we will always be with them.  This can look many different ways in our lives; there may be limitless possibilities to how God can make us partners in the Kingdom.  But I don’t understand discipleship to Jesus without some active response to our neighbors in poverty–the two billion or so of them.

I’d love to hear your story and where you are with God in your journey to know Jesus in his distressing disguise.

 

 

*Seriously.  Nine.  Counting Kim’s response, which was one of the two clearest signs of confirmation to me.  I’m a slow study and require a lot of encouragement.  God is patient with me.

Matthew 25 and loving Jesus

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We say we want to be closer to Jesus and have a personal relationship. He says who he is and where we can find him.


I think I don’t talk about poverty and injustice so much these days for several reasons.  

First, no one likes to hear from someone who sounds self-righteous. I certainly don’t.  When someone boasts about being the best, or gives any impression of bragging about superiority, I immediately question everything that person says.  To me, credibility plummets.  So now we live in an impoverished community, which is very different from where most of our (other) friends live.  I’m trying to find the balance of speaking what I know without coming off as saying, “NO ONE understands poverty like I do!”  

Second, I constantly feel like I’m failing here.  That’s the truth and I’m not seeking pity or even correction for this.  I’m doing my best to be faithful where God has put us, but neither my insomnia nor my feelings of failure have budged in the time I’ve lived here.  Thus, far from feeling like I’m an expert, I second-guess myself about everything I say concerning the conditions and the people we live next to here.  

Third–and this is not a good reason–people don’t seem to like to hear it.  I totally relate that we don’t enjoy reading things that make us uncomfortable, especially when there is some suggestion we should do something about it.  I have noticed that when I try to write about things for which I think I have a reasonable level of competency, those are less popular posts.  I’m never quite sure what to do with that.  I write this blog as a way to love others with the gifts I have.  I’m very pleased that the vulnerable, bleed-a-little-in-front-of-people posts resonate, that someone may benefit when I talk about my own issues with depression or doubting God.  But offering insights from my strengths is a lot less popular.  So I shrug and keep praying.

That brings us to Matthew 25.  Christians, the evangelical ones certainly, proclaim that we have a personal relationship with Jesus, that we want to know Jesus more, to be closer and more intimate with him.  If you scan the lyrics of “contemporary” evangelical worship songs, they talk about this stuff (and seeking for God to be with us in our trials) more than anything else.*

 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

If we say we want to love Jesus and Jesus says, “Here I am,” it makes sense that we would try to be there, too.  If we mean what we say.  

There are other ways of encountering Jesus.  Of course we seek those, as well.  I’m talking about all the ones I can think of in this Lent series.  

But nowhere else in the Gospels, which give us the direct words of Jesus, does he describe his immediate presence like this.  I experience God more in nature than in anything else; stick me on a mountaintop and I will certainly “see” God, every time.  That’s just how I’m wired.  God gave us five years of living in the mountains where I could walk out my door, turn right, and immediately be hiking up into the hills.  It was beautiful and I loved it and felt that God was giving me an extended (albeit challenging) retreat.  Then God led us to move to Nicaragua and into a poor community.**

Why would God take me out of the place where I most easily and readily experience his presence?  

Well, two obvious reasons quickly come to mind:  it’s where Jesus said he is present and Jesus’ Kingdom work is about bringing justice and transformation–we needed to be closer to Jesus and have him transform us so that we could be more part of his work.  Though I struggle with feelings of failure here every day, inarguably God has transformed us through our years in Nicaragua.  

Mother Teresa described this as 

“Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening; This is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. Seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

Jesus is present in the distressing disguise of the poor.  He says so.  One of the worst dangers of Christianity, and one we all fall prey to and from which we must repent, is picking and choosing which of God’s truths we like and follow and which we’d prefer to ignore or explain away.  There are some passages we’d prefer to use our lowlighters on, just dim them right down so we don’t have to deal with the discomfort, the distress they cause us.  

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?  I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.  That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.  But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

But following Jesus means following what he says, especially what he says to do.  Yep, this is the grace blog telling you that.  Grace is meaningless if we just do whatever we feel like and expect God to bless it.  That isn’t grace.  Grace is that, by God’s love and kindness, he forgives us and makes it possible for us to live our lives to the fullest.  God’s grace means that, instead of leaving us to destroy ourselves, God makes us partners in this work of restoration and redemption that we call his Kingdom.  We get to be part of lives becoming whole and so full of God’s love that they become contagious–beginning with our own.  

I am friends with people here who I would never have known if we had stayed on our mountain in Washington.  God has changed us through these relationships, through our encounters with him here, exactly where he said we would find him.  As I write this, there is a little girl with a cough and a runny nose who is resting on our couch on our back patio.  She loves me, in the way that sometimes almost-two-year-olds just decide they love you, whether you deserve it or not.  She starts calling my name almost every time she sees me and sometimes when she doesn’t see me.  Today she is feeling awful and has been screaming a lot because she’s miserable…and almost two.  

This isn’t some moment of lighting-flash revelation, some epiphany.  If she feels much sicker, we might give her mother and her a ride to the clinic.  Because we have some partnership-friendship-neighbor-family relationship with them, we look out for each other.  I don’t mean we just provide for them or pay for things; it doesn’t work like that.  They watch out for us as much as we watch out for them.  I can’t fully explain how it works, but it does work.  I can’t explain how Jesus is present in refugees and prisoners and this little girl, but he says he is.  I call him, “Lord, Lord.”  

By his grace, I’m doing what he tells me. 

 

As I said in yesterday’s post, guilt bears rotten fruit.  Conviction, in which God helps us to see what needs to change and gives us the power to make those changes, that brings life and joy and freedom.  I have no idea how you are responding to Jesus in this area and I’m certainly not judging or serving as travel agent to send you on guilt trips.  

But it’s Lent and I believe Jesus is who he says and does what he says and means what he says.  So I will ask you: 

Where do you find Jesus in his distressing disguise?  Where is he asking you to join him?  Where does he want to be with you?

 

 

 

 

*I’d be curious if anyone else sees this differently.  

 

**That, of course, is a longer story.  

Poverty and Justice, Part 1

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I didn’t write yesterday.  Sundays are not counted in Lent, but Mondays are.  I just couldn’t put it together.  I committed to writing about justice and injustice this week, but when I tried to start…I didn’t start.  

I used to talk about justice a lot.  I had many opinions.  Then I moved here, where I see injustice every single day, and now I am a lot quieter.  

I do still speak of it.  I feel it’s our responsibility to bear witness to what we see. Many people help make it possible for us to do our work here.  This is not a part of the world, or a standard of living, most of them have experienced.   One aspect of living here is being the eyes of our community from there, to give them a glimpse of what we experience and how God is at work. 

I am quieter because I don’t know how to solve anything.  I see horrible problems every single day, living conditions that it’s unlikely any of you reading this have experienced or maybe even been exposed to.  Twelve people living in a tiny, one-room hovel with scrap-wood walls, scrap-metal roof, and a dirt floor, sitting downhill so that, when the rainy season comes again, the water will spill in.  

I remember a conversation I had once with a young adult in my group who was somehow arguing that, though yes, the people here are poor, there is “less burden on their income.”   I think he meant that there are fewer things in their lives competing for each dollar.  I would call that an example of being right in the specific while terribly wrong in the general.  

True, their meager income of $3-$4 a day–or less–has no insurance premiums for their home or health or vehicle.  Most of the bills that come into your home are not payments they ever make.  So true, they don’t have to make $90-$120/month cover everything middle class U.S. people pay for.  “Less burden on income” is itself a sign of poverty, because having health insurance and receiving decent health care, for example, are two indicators of not living in poverty.  

The household I’m thinking of eats rice and beans for every meal, every day.  There isn’t any health care other than for extreme emergencies, when they go to a public hospital which offers care so rudimentary that patients lay on cots in the hallway with sheets that haven’t been changed from the previous patient–or in the hallway with no bed at all.  Of course they don’t have a car.  They don’t have a refrigerator nor indoor plumbing.  

Alcoholism is rampant in our barrio.  So is teen pregnancy.  Abusive fathers have multiple children who don’t go to school or drop out very early and must find some means of helping support the family (and the addiction).  Too often that means prostitution.  More fortunate children spend their days selling tortillas or sitting at an ice cream cart.  I’m not giving you generic descriptions here, though I’m not including names or photos, I’m picturing the people I pass every day on our street.  One little boy, probably five or six, spends his days collecting scraps of firewood that his father can sell.  

I know it’s better for us to live here and try to make a difference than to look away.  Every time we buy something from our friend’s fruiteria or any of the tiny pulperrias on our street, when i bought the five tortillas this morning for our family at 2 cordobas a piece and then a few more anonymously for the borrachos who hang out in front of our house, we’re part of the struggling economy of this place.  We put dollars into their local economy and it circulates here.  We have a little preschool and we try to help kids start their education so they have some chance to continue it.  

We try to provide a safe place for a woman who is beaten by her husband.  We support and encourage her in taking computer classes so she might have some chance of supporting herself and, if she is ever willing, getting herself and her children away from him.  

These are small things we can do because we live here:  A tiny loan which makes starting a new business possible, one that we can give because we’ve built trust with the family and we live right across the street; driving children to the clinic when they’re very sick so they don’t have to take unimaginably crowded bus; trying to network to find new employment and offering odd jobs   in the meantime.  


Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you and you can
help them whenever you will.”

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that Jesus had become a fatalist when he spoke these words.  If I were cynical, which I’m not, I would say someone realized that Jesus would be much easier to follow if he meant here that you’re never going to fix poverty, so you may as well accept it.  If you feel so inclined sure, help out, but it’s not like you’re going to solve anything.  

Of all the misinterpretations of the Bible, this one probably infuriates me the most.  

In context, a woman had come in where Jesus was eating with his disciples and broken open a sealed bottle of very expensive perfume or ointment, which she then poured on Jesus’ head.  She was honoring him.  

The disciples were indignant.  “That could have been sold and the money given to the poor!”  They had grasped some of Jesus’ words about caring for people in poverty.  Or, perhaps, Judas was stealing from the common purse the disciples shared and didn’t care about the poor at all.  

Here is Jesus’ response: 

 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

First, Jesus defends and advocates for this woman.  She is honoring Jesus and Jesus refuses to let her be shamed or rebuked.  He declares that what she has done will be remembered and, as is often the case, he is right.  Second, Jesus declares that it is for his burial.  “You will not always have me,’ in a physical, bodily sense, is certainly true, since immediately after this Judas went to arrange to betray Jesus to his enemies.  

But for our purposes, Jesus is in the home of “Simon the Leper.”  Jesus healed Simon.  If he hadn’t, Simon would not have a home, he would be a outcast and he certainly wouldn’t be having dinner parties because he would not be allowed to have contact with anyone else in Jewish society.  This supper is happening because Jesus had cared for Simon in Simon’s extreme state of poverty–a horrible, decaying physical condition, rejected from his society, no means of supporting or taking care of himself.  

We could just as easily take Jesus’ words to say, “You will always be with the poor; you won’t always be with me.”  Jesus meant exactly this: as my followers, of course you will be with the poor.  You wouldn’t be my followers if you weren’t.  

When you compare these two interpretations, 1)Which is more consistent with how Jesus speaks about–and treats–people in poverty? 2)Which is more consistent with Jesus’ tone overall, i.e. which one has Jesus, who speaks almost wildly hopeful (love our enemies? Pray for those who persecute us?), believing in the change his Kingdom proclaims, 3)which makes sense in its immediate context, where Jesus is affirming a woman and reminding his disciples of the moment at hand–he is about to be betrayed and crucified–yet even so speaking in the home of someone whom Jesus has raised out of poverty. 


I don’t believe we are the perfect model of faithfulness.  We live here because we responded to how we believe God led us.  I do believe that every follower of Jesus finds active ways to be with, care for, and empower people living in poverty.

God sees poverty as an issue of injustice.  Bringing justice to people living in poverty means taking their cause.  We will always be with them.  Jesus never asks us to judge whether they are lazy or if they’re hard working enough for our standards.  The Bible doesn’t address whether the poor are “worthy” of help, God’s or ours.  

 If you’ve read my blog at all, you know I don’t believe in using guilt as a motivator:  you might get results, but it bears rotten fruit.  People may respond to guilt trips, but soon they grow resentful and either internalize this or rebel.  Neither leads them to know God’s love more deeply.  

This is Lent.  We are acknowledging and seeking to repent of our sins, the ones we see and the ones up until now we have not seen.  Can we ask God to show us what we need to change?  Can we ask for open hearts to make those changes, even when they make us uncomfortable?  Can we move beyond guilt and respond to Jesus because his words are life for us?  

 

After Twenty-Three Years

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This one may sound self-indulgent.  It’s probably not what other people are writing for their Lenten reflections.  Please bear with me.  Or don’t.  There’s a lot of freedom in reading a blog.  You can stop here.  I’ll never know.  But I think I’ll have a spiritual insight or two by the end.  

Today, I played on a team that won an official ultimate tournament, which was my first time since I started playing ultimate.  I’ve been playing competitive ultimate for twenty-three years, give or take.  Add another seven years that I played the less-organized, barefoot, run around and have fun variety (of course, I was being competitive then, too, but we weren’t playing tournaments).  I started playing this game at 18 and I am 48 now.  I praise God that I can still play.  And it has been a big part of my life for thirty years.  

To say this was a bucket list moment for me does not begin to capture it.  I’ve shared lots of thoughts on competition and winning and ultimate on here.  They matter to me. I believe anything in which we invest our energy and hearts deeply, be it knitting or competitive Scrabble, bird-watching, gardening, or card collecting, rock climbing or chasing a piece of plastic up and down a field, becomes a part of us.  Further, 

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” Madeleine L’Engle

I just shared this quote with my senior Bible class.  I believe it (and I love Madeleine L’Engle).  Playing ultimate is a form of worship for me.  It is sacred.  I experience the joy of my Creator, of being his creation and being able to use my body that he’s given me.  

“God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. ”
― Eric Liddell

I’ve never been as fast as Eric Liddell was, nor as godly, from what I can tell, but my soul resonates with this quote.  That’s what I mean by “playing ultimate is body worship for me.”  I worship God by enjoying the physical abilities he has given me.  And as the years go on, my joy in this gift increases because I expected to be past my playing days by now.  

Most of my years playing ultimate were a means of outreach for me.  I was playing ultimate and hoping the people with whom I played could see God’s love through me.  I didn’t always do great, however we measure these things, but several of these people continue to be my dear friends and few of them became Jesus followers.  

Ultimate is still an outreach for me here in Nicaragua–and one of my stronger points of building relationship with Nicaraguans–but I play with a lot more Christians here than I have since my seminary days, which was pre-competitive (i.e. a long time ago).  I get to help coach the high school team, two members of whom are my daughters.  That’s pretty darned cool.  

In the old days, I was often the only Christian a lot of the other players knew personally, period.  I miss that.  It was fun to shatter their stereotypes and get to talk about spiritual things without their feeling any pressure or threat (if you have a forehand huck and will lay out for a disc, you are legit, whatever crazy things you might believe about God).  

For the most part (99%), playing ultimate has been it’s own reward.  It’s a secular thing that has become sacred to me.  Or, seen another way, there is no secular because God is present in everything and desires to be more so; this is my thing and a way I know God more deeply.  On a weekly basis, this is an encounter with God as, I hope, your thing is for you.  I’m not saying it’s always a mystical experience–sometimes I play lousy and lose and I’m grumpy–I’m saying I meet God on the ultimate field the way others might in church, in the mountains, at the beach, or under the stars.  

And today, we won.  I’ve played in something like 60 tournaments.  I told people today 35 to 40, but sorry, I was off.  When we lived in the States, Kim and I negotiated for about 4 a year, the balance between enjoying my passion and having it take over too much of my life (and time and finances and…).  So that’s a lot of times watching another team win.  A lot of finals I watched and heckled, which is a good-spirited ultimate tradition–one guy had a megaphone today! I could hear him clearly on the field–kind of the consolation prize for folks who didn’t make the finals.*

I didn’t play amazingly today, but I played well.  I ran as fast as most** of my team and I was the oldest player.  I had some really good throws, which is the most important thing since I’m a thrower these days–“handler” in ultimate lingo–and we didn’t have many handlers.  I did my part.  I contributed.  

Now here’s the thing:  I slept maybe three hours last night, possibly a few minutes more (it gets fuzzy after you toss and turn for hours).  I suffer insomnia.  I did everything I could think of to get a good night’s sleep and prayed and prayed–and spent most of the night awake, praying.  It’s bewildering, asking the all-powerful God to help me with such (seemingly) small thing as falling asleep and not being able to…for going on six years now.  I’ve had insomnia ever since I moved to Nicaragua, and didn’t have it before that…except that I’ve always had trouble sleeping before tournaments, because I get so excited.  But even then, not three hours.  And the night before that was almost as bad.  

It’s funny sometimes, how God answers prayer.  I understand that people who don’t believe in God, or at least in a prayer-hearing and -answering God, think we’re very imaginative in our interpretations of God’s answers.  Truthfully, sometimes these sound pretty creative to me, too, but who am I to say exactly how God works?  I can tell you what I experience.  

Today, I experienced having the energy to run hard up and down a field over the course of almost 8 hours, six games of 45 minutes each, on woefully little sleep.  Was that because I’m overcompetitive, a little insane, or because God gave me strength?  I don’t mean God “wanted” us to win.  That doesn’t work so well in my theology (and also would say something about my previous 59+ tries).  But I prayed to be able to sleep well so that I could play well.  I didn’t sleep well and I still played well in an exhausting sport under a hot Nicaragua sun chasing people half my age or less.  Yes, that strikes me as an answer to prayer.  To me, it’s a small example of God being strong in my weakness.  And somehow it feels more convincingly God’s answer that I could do that then that I simply got a decent night’s sleep and could do it on my own.  I also still suspect that there is something spiritual at the core of my insomnia, but other than surrender and learning to bear my suffering with grace, I don’t know what it is.  

 

On one level, it’s a trivial thing, and I do get that.  Bigger things are happening.  And yet, the small things we love that keep us sane and give us energy to face the bigger things, they really do matter.  

It’s funny:  I think when I wanted this in my younger, more athletic, less grace-oriented days, I wanted it to prove myself, to complete some perceived missing part of my identity, to show myself after other failures that I could be a “winner.”  No matter how hard I tried–and I tried hard; I wanted to be a great ultimate player so badly***–it never happened.  

I’m the guy with the really goofy expression and the wrong fist in the air.

Today, it meant something very different.  More about God showing up in my life in unexpected ways, more about seeing his generosity to me that I can still do this thing I love, more about enjoying my teammates and less about ME…

None of them knew that it was my first time to win a tournament until I told them afterward, to thank them.  They decided I should keep the trophy.  That was extremely cool of them.  My mouth kind of hurts from grinning so much.  

It was a good day.  It was the final 1%.  I am grateful. 

 

Having said all this, probably the bigger stories are that this was the first club tournament ever in Nicaragua, which is credit to my friend Chasen, who has been working hard to spread this sport (and the cool, God-connected things about it) here****, and that my girls’ high school team made the semi-finals and they were mighty!  

Like I said, this is not how I understand God’s involvement–I don’t think he takes sides (but come on, isn’t that an oxymoron, “how I understand God’s involvement”?)–but perhaps I really did need to wait until now to see it all this way.  To get it.  

Or maybe it just took me twenty years.  

 

Next week, I’m planning to reflect on some issues of justice and injustice.  The week after, I’ll be talking about my experiences of God’s absence.  Of course, sometimes my plans change.  

 

*I’ve played in a finals once before. I played well, as a role player, and we didn’t win.  

**There are a couple guys who are faster than I ever was and a couple gals who are probably in better shape than I’ve ever been.  

***It’s my fantasy someday to be inducted into the ultimate hall of fame (yes, of course there is one) sheerly for my love of the game.  I haven’t done great things in the game nor for the game; I just love it.  I don’t think they let you in for that.****http://breakingborders.org/

 

What You Say about Yourself

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God spoke to me while I was walking and praying on our driveway, which is about a mile long, back when we lived out in the country in Washington.  

I was in the process of berating myself for something or other and God spoke very clearly, one of the clearer times I’ve “heard” God’s voice.  

“Never say anything about yourself that Jesus doesn’t say about you.”  

Simple.  

That changed my life and is still changing my life, because I am still learning to follow those simple instructions.  

Implications: we need to know what Jesus says about us.  We need to know the words Jesus spoke in the Gospels.  We need to spend time with God to learn how he speaks to us now.  

This is a big can of worms that I’m barely going to open, but I’ve discovered that some people experience God speaking to them daily, almost as in an ongoing dialogue, while others, faithful life-long followers of Jesus, tell me that they have never heard God speak to them in their lives.  From what I can tell, they are all talking about the same God, but they have very different personalities and God seems to interact with each of us uniquely.  I think that bears further discussion another time.  

Next implication: If we speak more harshly or critically to ourselves than Jesus would speak to us, we need to stop that. It won’t make us more godly.  Some people think they need to be very strict and stern with themselves.  Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat things, and sometimes he speaks truth very directly and bluntly, but remember, that’s truth. “You suck!  You’re  a failure!  You’ll always be a failure!”   Those aren’t truth nor do you ever see Jesus address people this way.  He never calls names, except when he tells the hypocrites that they are hypocrites.  

Final implication: God wants to align our view of ourselves with how Jesus sees us.  Jesus loves us.  He delights in us.  He chose to absorb our sins into himself rather than have us suffer their full consequences, the complete damage they would do to us (we would do to ourselves).  He returned love for hatred and gave his life for us while we were still his enemies.  He hates to see us hurt ourselves and he wants us to experience joy to the fullest degree we possibly can.  He like us better than we like ourselves.  And he isn’t calling us those nasty names we’re calling ourselves.  

We are walking through Lent to examine ourselves, to let God reveal our darkness and our self-destructive tendencies, to be free from these sins that damage us and others.  One of the sins many of us practice without a second thought is self-criticism, self-condemnation, even self-hatred.  Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said.  We must learn to love ourselves.  I have learned to love myself better as I let Jesus tell me who I am, instead of trying to tell him.  

 

Pendulum

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A particularly ardent–and strident–soul once questioned my faithfulness because I had shared about getting angry at God after our son died.  With one of those questions that isn’t a question the person asked, “But wouldn’t it have been better to just trust God.”  Period question mark.?

Well, I believe in grace; one piece of evidence I can produce is that I responded kindly.  I tried to discuss the difference between teaching people what our ideal response is and being honest about our real response.  Another answer I could have given: “You should probably put those shoes on and walk a ways before you tell me that.” This isn’t one of those “I wish I’d said–” for me at all.  I’m glad I was kind.  I think perhaps now, this many years later, I could give the latter answer and speak it kindly, but certainly not back then.  

I  spent my early twenties believing that I could respond faithfully to every situation and judging those who couldn’t.  I spent my late twenties driving myself insane by trying and failing and judging myself.  Then my father and our son died, three weeks apart, and my life became a train wreck for about three years or so.*  When I could finally return to something resembling a relationship with God, everything looked different.  Everything was different.  I had to relearn everything about my faith, because at it’s core I had misunderstood how it “worked.”  Maybe phrasing it that way best reveals my mistake: I thought it “worked” a certain way, when in truth faith is being, not doing.  

In this post, I’m considering how our lives of faith tend to swing back and forth like a pendulum.  One of my young adult Bible studies came up with the description “undulation happens.”  When I’m considering how to grow in areas that we find challenging or overwhelming–from living justly in a viciously unjust world to acquiring the Spanish language–I’ve learned to take small steps in the right direction.  That’s faithfulness:  small steps in the right direction.  

Speaking truthfully, if we can keep taking those steps and not go backwards, we are exceptionally faithful.  The more common pattern, for all of us, is the pendulum arm.  We realize we’re not praying much, or at all, for weeks, or years, and we recommit to prayer.  We spend time with God and feel alive again.  The proverbial scales fall from our eyes and we see through the lies we’ve been buying into about ourselves and others.  We laugh at Satan and ourselves that we could ever have been fooled that way and resolve that we will never miss our prayer time for a single day, ever again.  

It lasts.  For a while, while the memory of being off-track and deceived is fresh, it lasts.  But things happen.  Life happens.  Maybe, if you’re one of our more disciplined types, the practice continues a good long time.  But even then, the eagerness for God, the hunger for truth and change, those fade.  Other things get louder and demand more attention.  “Okay, I only have 15 minutes to pray today, but still…”  

Sometimes we get bumped off track all at once, other times we slowly, almost imperceptibly, drift away.  We might still spend the exact same number of minutes, but we aren’t there.  Those sins we had identified and eradicated from our lives get downgraded to “bad habits” and hey, everybody falls into a bad habit once in a while.  Or semi-regularly.  Or every day.  

In my experience, almost all areas of my spiritual life work according to these patterns.  I try to take small steps in the right direction.  I can’t stay focused and passionate about everything at once.  I drift.  Sometimes my disciplines lapse, other times my heart strays.  

Now the person I mentioned at the beginning would say, “Don’t teach them that this is okay!”

This is okay. 

By “okay,” I mean God has us.  I mean we all pendulate this way at times and God has grace for our inconsistency.  I mean that’s life.  

I don’t mean that the pendulum is the ideal.  I do mean that living by “the ideal” is a bit like living by the law: it leads to depending too much on ourselves and not enough on God.  It gives us the illusion that we make ourselves holy.  We don’t.  

Someone may feel inclined to use the word “compromise” here, as in, “You’re settling for a compromise instead of…”  I’m pretty sure Mike in his twenties would have.  

I’m not saying we aren’t trying.  I’m saying this–the pendulum–will be the result of really trying hard, and God knows this.  He knows us.  We’re not sitting back and waiting for all this God stuff to happen to us.  Our lives simply move through cycles.  

I’m also saying that trying “our hardest” sometimes pulls us off the target.  If life is a journey to know God more deeply and learn to live by grace, trying our hardest may move us toward trying to impress God or, more dangerously, trying to live up to our own (arbitrary) standards, our own self-designed requirements for holiness.  Both lead us either to pride or self-condemnation. We do not find God in those places, except when he rescues us out of them.

Why do we know God more deeply through our failures than our successes?  Why do we have forty days every year during which we focus on letting God show us our sins so we can turn from them again?  And what is the difference between “doing” and “being” in our relationship with God?  

I’ll leave those questions for you to ponder.   But I’ll end with this: having tried both doing and being, I am now learning to be a child of God.  I would never have found my way back from the train wreck if I had clung to doing.  

 

*Give or take a year.  My wife taught me a lot about grace during that period.