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How do I accept loss and start a new journey?

This week someone asked: How do I accept loss and start a new journey? The pandemic changed some of his life plans and expectations and seemed to steal some precious opportunities. My friend didn’t want to be sentimental and stuck in the past, angry or bitter about missed opportunities, but he wasn’t really sure how to imagine the future and move forward in this new reality, either. In many ways, the losses keep coming with covid and the future is uncertain! He was wondering if he should just move to a new place to launch himself into some newness. I think he was facing the difficult challenge we all face: how do I start a new journey in my real life, as the person I am right now, with my same old problems and relationships and surroundings? Is it possible for me to do something new and exciting in my life right now?

We all know that changing our circumstances can be helpful sometimes, but wherever we go, there we are. I love the SNL clip with Adam Sandler playing this Italian tour guide trying to temper people’s expectations: “If you’re sad here, you’re going to be sad in Italy!” Lasting change and transformation comes from a deeper place than moving to another neighborhood or state, or starting over with a new partner, or getting the new dream job. We are not defined by where we are or who we’re with as much as what we’re going after with God. 

There’s a guy in the Bible who shows a path through loss to real transformation and abundance. It’s not a pretty story, it’s super real, but it ends so wonderfully that it might give you hope as it gives me. And it might be the oldest story in the Bible, too, beyond the creation story, so I wonder if it’s meant to be a compass and a roadmap for our journeys through great loss and change.

Job is very successful with all the things we could want: great wealth, family reputation, and a loving relationship with God. The Bible names him as the greatest man in all the East. Three thousand camels, a thousand oxen…you get the picture. He has a bunch of kids that love to get together and celebrate the goodness of all of their lives. 

The enemy goes to God and suggests that Job only loves God because of how great his life is going. So God permits the enemy to take it all away, but not lay a finger on Job’s own body. Job’s children are killed; all of his property and possessions are destroyed. He is devastated and he grieves. He shaves his head but he falls to the ground in worship in his grief. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed by the name of the Lord” as he sits in ashes.

The first answer to the question “how do I accept loss and start a new journey?” seems to point to grief. It’s not fun to grieve, but it is the only honest response to loss. Emotions are meant to move through us; even the root of the word suggests movement. When we don’t grieve consciously, the sorrow and anger can get stuck in us in the form of bitterness and other disease. And it ends up “coming out” on those around us in damaging and unconscious ways.

Grieve with God

This is a daily spiritual discipline for me because I don’t want to feel any negative feelings. I’d rather deny them, repress them, numb them, avoid them, spiritualize them, anything to just feel good. But that always comes back to haunt me. So I’ve learned that I must reckon with what’s really going on in me and in the world. What am I sad about? What am I disappointed or angry about? What or who has hurt me? I’ve got to look at that with God so I can move through it eventually. I need to sit with it and cry and be in for a moment. I need to acknowledge it in order for it to lose its power over me. 

Covid has given us many reasons to grieve on top of the reasons we already had. Kids doing over a year of online school, missing proms and sports and other milestones, all of us missing connection and direct communication with others has taken a toll. Some marriages are really on the edge. Some parents are really on the edge after not having enough help or breaks from the caretaking, because it really does take a village to raise a child and we haven’t had the ability to be the village in our regular ways. Some misunderstandings in the church have spun out into big conflicts now. What are we going to do? We need to grieve with God. We need to acknowledge our heartbreak and let God be with us in our grief.

But hat doesn’t mean that things will get better immediately. What happens next to Job is even worse, but God begins to speak out of Job’s lament, and that begins a turnaround.

What happens next is that Job gets physically afflicted, and he’s still not cursing God but he takes the sorrow in on himself. He curses and blames himself. That’s not good because this gives his so-called friends an invitation to do the same. And they pile it on for like 30 chapters in the Bible. Surely Job must have done something terrible to be in such a terrible situation. That’s not true, but when we underestimate God’s presence and activity in the world, we go there. We see human beings as completely responsible for their own problems, and we conclude with shame and blame and condemnation.

Thankfully God finally jumps into the conversation with a bigger truth (in some beautiful, sarcastic poetry)

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

    Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

    Who stretched a measuring line across it…

while the morning stars sang together

    and all the angels shouted for joy?

Who shut up the sea behind doors

    when it burst forth from the womb,

when I made the clouds its garment

    and wrapped it in thick darkness…

Have you ever given orders to the morning,

    or shown the dawn its place?”

Listen for revelation

God takes Job on a little tour of the expanding universe, so vast and complex that Job sees that who God is and what God does is ALOT bigger than he knows or can know. And Job is humbled to trust God. If God can do all this, if he can hold all this together, then surely there is some good end in sight for Job. And even if not, he’s part of a wonderful, bigger story with a Creator he can trust. 

Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things;

    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’

    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,

    things too wonderful for me to know…

My ears had heard of you

    but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I repent…”

He repents of needing to know and understand. He is satisfied with trust in God. That is the beginning of the new journey.

How has God spoken to you in your lament this past year? Can you identify some moments of truth and hope, that God revealed to you in the midst of your sorrow and confusion? The revelation from God that we need for the new journey often comes out of our lament. It might not be a direct answer to our questions, but we glimpse ourselves held in a bigger picture by God.

Trust and forgive

Job’s story has a very surprising ending that speaks to our question. His new journey moves from trust to forgiveness. And I wonder if it is forgiveness that thrusts him forward into new abundance.

God asks Job to pray for his friends who had been so condemning to him. God is angry at those friends on Job’s behalf, and says that if Job will pray for them and love them, God will show mercy to them.

Well, WOW. That’s a big ask: “pray for your friends who are so unloving and I’ll forgive them.” But Job does, and that opens up rivers of abundance in Job’s life. All of his stuff is restored. And he builds a new beautiful family, incidentally where only the daughters are named, and they have an inheritance along with the sons, which seems like a beautiful prophetic detail of the kingdom of Jesus to come. And Job has twice as much as he had before, as an outpouring of his willingness to keep trusting God first and forgiving those who misjudged him.

Is this a word for us or what? Real transformation and change begins inside us, relating to God, growing trust in God’s power and provision, and our willingness to forgive. The new journey is not so much in the new job, the new school, the new partner, as it is in what we do with God. Will we be honest enough to grieve our losses and tell God our sorrow? Will we be patient enough to hear God speak? Will we trust God enough to forgive those who hurt us? If we do, we just might open ourselves up to a world of renewal and revival right here in us and among us. And may it spread out into the streets around us.

What is the Christian response to police violence?

Our compassion teams asked the question this week and here’s my answer.

I grew up surrounded by military ideology, and from a very young age I sensed that it did not match with the way of Jesus. Jesus raised people from the dead, and was raised himself, so I came to know God as the life-giver and sustainer. That matched with everything I knew from creation, even in my own body. The military, on the other hand, used the power to kill in order to protect national interests, which were mostly about property and other economic resources building and maintaining American supremacy. However well-sounding the interests were sold to me, like my own “freedom,” the loss of any human life did not seem comparable to those interests. Life is an irreplaceable gift from God for all people.

Policing in the United States was developed, trained, and weaponized for essentially the same purpose as the military: to protect the economic interests of those in power. Even many history texts reveal that more than crime control, a system of social control was needed to maintain an orderly work force for business and commerce. From slavery in the American south to the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution, policing was a response to protect mercantile growth and the inequality in labor it required. The construct of whiteness and patriarchy seemed to be tools of the economy in many ways, and the system was maintained under a guise of moral superiority, triumphalism, and exceptionalism. The violence of it was mostly hidden from white Americans.

Unfortunately, police with military training and weaponry to protect wealth results in a government quite literally at war with its own people, especially with those who have been closest to the means of production. This means that Black and brown communities and individuals have been disproportionately affected. The ideology of racism that literally legislated the abuse of BIPOC has been enforced by policing for centuries, and in spite of some new laws it still seems to be perpetuated by implicit bias.

So the Christian response to police violence is first an acknowledgement of this unsafe reality for our Black and brown siblings. It is not a condemnation on individual police or military personnel; it is a recognition of the purpose and function of the institutions. From recognition comes grief: we grieve the loss of life, and the fear that our siblings regularly endure. And finally, we take action together as a church community. That includes protest and lobbying toward change, as well as solidarity and advocacy for our siblings and their families in our neighborhoods. And of course, prayer! Sometimes all together in front of police headquarters.

This year has brought new awareness in our country and renewed grief and passion in our church. We feel the pain and the fear as well as the longing for change. At times, the differences in our experiences and knowledge and communication adds to the pain. I pray for a way to carry each other’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ, which is a bond of love in action. Lord, bring an end to police violence and all violence among us. We don’t want one more life to be lost.

Broken and Shared

I’m writing to respond to some of my friends who are legitimately asking: How can anyone talk about God when the world is so f’d up right now? Let us have our feelings!!!

Well, I think everyone should go ahead and have their feelings today and every day. That is part of how I came to faith: realizing that God cares so much he came to meet me in a real person with real feelings. I don’t have to stuff or ignore mine anymore.

So when I woke up to the presidential news this morning, I wept. Even though I don’t put my hope in the government, the slap of the misogynist, elitist whitelash was painful. My 13-year old son asked, This guy molested women and bragged about it and now he is our president, Mom?  Yes. This guy has also labeled and demonstrated hate toward people based on the color of their skin, their sexual desire, their paperwork and their socioeconomic status. My daughter curled up in a fetal position on my bed and asked in all seriousness if we could move to Canada. Apparently they’re not too young to sense the real leadership chasm here.

What keeps going through my mind are the words of Jesus that we repeated last night as we broke bread: this is my body broken for you. Broken. I do not follow a God who has not experienced the pain and injustice of the world. I follow a God who is experiencing it right now with me and billions of others. I am going to die and rise with him today and tomorrow and the next day. My pain is known and touched. How can I not know and touch others, and see what we can build together to transform this mess? That’s what Jesus is doing, as far as I can see.

The government of the United States, or any government for that matter, has never been a transformative system. I hoped and fought for that in graduate school when I was just angry about all the injustice in the world. I still get angry now, but I have received the grace and mercy of God, and I need to keep receiving it. The brokenness of Jesus guides me to use and release my anger now through love and service.

We will really have to take care of each other now. Not just in a polite way, but in an open your heart and your home and your wallet kind of way. That has always been the purpose of Jesus and the church — love one another as I have loved you.  But now perhaps with the illusion of the US-government-care falling down we will see our importance in the process a little more clearly.  A few hours before my friend Karen died last year, she whispered to me that we should “Strengthen our feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with everyone…” I knew that she was quoting the writer of Hebrews, who was talking about taking courage and having spiritual discipline in difficult times. As a black woman who gave up a lucrative career in private law to be a public defender for the city, she knew what she was talking about.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heartHebrews 12

It would be easy to grow weary and lose heart right now. But we are called to take heart. We might do that by considering him who is with us in all disappointment and fear, bearing it with us with great love. If you can’t muster up any faith today, maybe you can let yourself be carried by the faith of others who love you. That’s part of the process of transformation.

 

Radical means root

I was glad when we talked about this last week during our Doing Theology time. The modern meaning of “radical” has come to suggest something extremist or beyond the intensity of its predecessor. But the word actually comes from the Latin radix “root,” and even means root in math and linguistics and botany.  The radicle is the the embryonic root inside the seed that breaks out first and grows downward into the soil to establish the plant. It becomes its primary source of sustenance. So a radical is basic, expressing the heart of the matter, vitally connected to the source.

I have this tattooed on my arm because I think this organic meaning of radical says a lot more about who we are a Circle of Hope than the extremist one. Our root is Jesus who establishes us in love. There’s no need to complicate this too much. He breaks through the wall of death to call out the new life in us…to allow us to be planted, fed and nurtured toward spiritual reproduction.

This week in my cell meeting we got to the root again. Hannah brought the story of the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned by the mob of religious leaders.  Jesus gets down in the dirt with her. He breaks through the wall of judgement and challenges them to only throw a stone if they haven’t ever sinned. One by one, they leave and he poses the obvious question to the woman, “Does no one condemn you?” There’s no one left with rocks in their hands, and he affirms, “Then neither do I. Now go and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus breaks through the law to create the safe place for new life to emerge and get planted. He sees the opportunity for this woman to get established and cared for instead of blown around by bad choices and judgement. He embodied the grace she would need to get into something new. It was a rather mysterious, simple, calming scene. Jesus quietly de-escalated a violent crowd by his presence and identification with the transgressors.

If you want to be a radical, stay close to the root of love. Receive it from God for you. If the radicle decays, the plant never gets to maturity. It is easy to identify all the people who seem to be making bad choices or picking up rocks against others — especially in an election year — and it’s tempting to throw rocks back. Instead, let God protect the safe place for you to be seen and accepted in order that the best in you can grow. God knows it’s there, even if others don’t see it.

 

Our healing is gradual, too

Last night in our cell meeting we considered a moment when Jesus healed a blind man. The guy’s friends brought him to Jesus and begged Jesus to touch him. Jesus responded to their request. He led the man out of the village by the hand and touched his eyes. At first his vision was fuzzy. So Jesus touched his eyes again and he could see clearly.

We thought about our own journeys and how God relates to us like this too. Many of us were brought into the community of faith by a friend who saw that we needed God’s touch. We didn’t get to God by ourselves. Someone was praying for us, or invited us, and we came on their elbow or at their suggestion.

Like this man, many of us had an encounter with God that sparked something new in us. We were changed, but not all the way. It was just the beginning. Our vision was fuzzy and remains fuzzy. We have to keep going back to Jesus in the community for the next phase of our healing.

Sometimes in this fuzzy phase we get impatient, though. We’re tempted to latch onto the easiest answer. We think we’re seeing clearly even though we’re not. Or we forget that we’ve been touched at all, and that we could go back for more.

Going back for more is the way to be healed. It is true that our salvation is complete, but living like saved people takes a lifetime of exposure to the grace of God. Availing ourselves to a conscious process over and over again is the only way to get from here to there in faith. The miracle of God’s work in our lives is more quiet and incremental than it is an instantaneous spectacle.  That’s why we meet weekly and seek to know one another well enough to bring each other to Jesus. We’re forming a Circle of Hope that is committed to the long haul with everyone who wants a restored relationship with God. Restoration yields real, live, far-reaching results, but the results usually come slowly and quietly.

One example of the gradual nature of healing in my life: in my 20s I became aware of my desire for discipline and my struggle to have it. Specifically I wanted to wake up early in the morning to pray and meditate so that I could let God direct my path instead of reacting to everything that came down the pike. On most days, I couldn’t adjust my habits to get to bed early enough to wake up and have this time. At one point I went out west on retreat and found myself waking up early naturally to pray. I thought I’d been instantly healed, until I realized it was just the the time-zone difference:) The real healing has come much more gradually. I’m waking up to God’s desire toward me and toward all people.  And that has tuned my heart to it’s Source more steadily than anything else.

God will keep clearing up our vision as we reach out in faith and trust. It is a group project, and I’m glad to welcome more friends to the Healer among us.

Six Months In

I’ve been the pastor of our congregation for six months now, and it’s been a good beginning. I’m always learning, and here are three things I’m sure of right now:

1. I love our people. I knew this, as I’ve been part of our congregation for 14 years and leading within in it for almost as long.  But, really. We have different qualities on different days but we are a deeply faithful, generous, & welcoming people. I am thinking of the partners who’ve been around for a long time as well as the new friends I am just getting to know in our meetings — all whom God may be calling to build this movement of the Spirit. All 255 of us and beyond! I see us making room for each other on days when we are hurting, angry, doubtful, fearful, and otherwise jammed up, too.  I am committed to us, and my love keeps growing. It is an honor to lead alongside of so many others who want to do something real with Jesus.

2. Leading as a team is strengthening. That may sound obvious to you, but I was raised to be a fiercely independent citizen. (Like those patriotic posters that say “Eagles fly alone but pigeons flock together.”) While there are leadership lessons to learn from the eagle, it’s clear to me that the gospel of Jesus Christ calls people to flock together for good reason. There is power in unity and mutuality that is not possible alone, no matter how capable or passionate one is. Leading as a team with the other pastors is an iron-sharpens-iron situation. What a gift. Collaboration is not always efficient, but it grows our capacity to understand and communicate the heart of God. It is growing our capacity to get into God’s ambition and imagination for the world. It teaches us love. Leading as a team with all of our leaders and all of our teams is expanding and deepening us. I’m not afraid to fly like the eagle, but I want to be like the pigeons and the sheep who flock together.

3. We are becoming more accessible.  The way of Jesus is narrow in some ways that we are not going to change. (Giving up our lives in order to find them is not necessarily easy.) But as we relate with friends who are spiritually hungry and increasingly isolated we are understanding the universality of God’s invitation to ALL people. The mosaic on our wall of the sunrise here is a good symbol. It would behoove us to not become a boutique-y secret society. The light is shining for everyone, and the world would be better to know that there are no regional, socio-economic, educational, moral, or political requirements with Jesus. We want to demonstrate that radical acceptance and opportunity to connect and to act for redemption. That’s why our stakeholders were considering last week how we can better communicate this love—from the signage in our windows to the posts on our facebook walls.

This is just a beginning, and I am looking to keep learning, growing, studying, and connecting with many of you. Let’s see what God can do with us this year together.

 

The ridiculous hope of Christmas

In many ways the struggle is real right now in Philly. More murder, racial tension, and hate crimes happened in our neighborhoods this week. Terrorism is no longer an overseas problem: there’s been a mass shooting in the United States for every day in 2015. The economy has not recovered from the 2008/9 wage recession; the jobs that have been recreated are paying on average $14,000 less than the ones we lost a few years ago. Philly’s “deep poverty” rate (people with incomes below half of the poverty line) is almost twice the national average, making us the poorest big city in America.  (Our sister Camden’s rate is 3 times the national mark.) Sixty thousand of our children live in deep poverty.  The Philadelphia School District at one time had 176 professionally staffed school libraries; now there are 11 left.  If that’s not enough, many types of cancer are being found in younger people, and scientists are predicting that we’ll experience dire consequences to global warming in the next fifty years or less. It’s no wonder that political candidates can find a lot of anxious and angry people to incite.

Fear is real, as might be expected.  People are into self-protection and self-medication. Many of us know someone who overdosed recently or is caught in the addictive cycle. Families are fragmented, and loneliness is not alleviated by social media or hook-up encounters.  Smith & Wesson’s profits have tripled in the past 4 months. Many of our friends with mental health issues are having a tough time right now.  Heck, many people are having a tough time right now, period.

What IS totally unexpected is Christmas. The more I understand it, the more surprised I am. The prophet Isaiah who predicted Christmas was part of the tiniest nation surrounded by the largest and most brutal military power the world had ever known. It was an terrifying situation, but he foretold the birth of a baby (of all the seemingly powerless and insignificant things) who would rule with mercy and change the world. Poor young Mary was totally surprised by God’s favor and the announcement of the impossibility inside her. The no-name shepherds were not expecting the sky to light up on their lonely hillside, and to be gifted with the news of the incarnation before anyone else more reputable and religious would know and have a chance to meet him. John the Baptizer was shocked when Jesus asked to be baptized by him, and his theology of judgement and law was upended by love and identification and mutuality. The whole story is full of ridiculous reversals, impossibilities, and unexpected grace in the midst of tension and conflict.

I see these miracles among us too, regularly, in our Circle of Hope. Sometimes it’s a cool “coincidence” like someone telling me they have a bunch of handmade blankets to give away right before a refugee comes to our cell meeting with that exact need. Or two young mothers looking to donate breastmilk on the same day that my new 4-week old foster niece arrives underfed. More often, though, it’s an everyday thing: leaders rising up with faith, compelled through their own struggle to share hope with others. People not withholding themselves from God and others, even though relationships can be scary. People learning to pray because they are hungry for change. People freed up by forgiveness. People making space in their already busy lives to serve because they are compelled by something greater than their limitations.  People sharing their limited money and resources to build something amazingly generative together. People trusting God in the church and forming it together even though “religious” groups are suspect.

In our uncertain times, fear makes sense. It’s the default norm, for obvious reasons. But the surprising message of Christmas comes to us again… quiet, small, out of left field, but spot-on. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people. A Savior has been born for you.”  It’s still as surprisingly personal and indwelling as Mary experienced it, too: God has been mindful of me. He lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things. May God surprise you in midst of your struggle this season too. May we be humble and quiet and open enough to receive the word, even if all our fear impulses seem louder or even more sensible than Jesus. 

 

 

Wanting what is given

I am on retreat in the Clare hermitage, and so I am taking inspiration from one of my favorite sisters in faith.

Clare of Assisi is a contradiction.  She gave up feminine assets (beauty, wealth, family connections, eligibility) as eagerly as most women longed for them. She fought for the ‘privilege of poverty’ like others protect stability and success.  She upended accepted values by choosing a life that looked like restriction and enclosure and daily hardship.

She had enjoyed a refined and privileged childhood. Her father was a knight and her mother was a charitable religious matron. Little Chiara and her sisters were raised in castle in Italy where they learned needlework and music, reading, and writing. She was turning out to be a very lovely young noblewoman until she began the secret, chaperoned meetings with Francis that watered the seeds of her faith at 16 years old.

Francis was 28 and had already founded the Friars Minor and astounded Assisi with his radical conversion and joy and preaching of repentance. Their admiration for each other was consumed in their mutual love for Jesus Christ. Clare was compelled to start an order for other women who were seeking to commit themselves to Christ. On the night of Palm Sunday in 1212, Clare took a vow of poverty with Francis and never looked back:  “I want only Jesus Christ, and to live by the gospel, owning nothing and in chastity.”

For the next 42 years, Clare slept on a straw mattress, fasted three days a week, wore a coarse brown habit, often did penance, and woke up throughout the night to pray with her sisters as they cared for the poor and changed the world. She and Francis rarely saw each other because he would not allow himself the pleasure of her company. He felt that the lovely Chiara belonged totally to his Lord. She was, in fact, sustained so well by the love of Christ that her reputation as a compassionate healer and wise spiritual counselor made her famous even in her time. Popes sought her wisdom and partnership and urged her to accept a more comfortable life, but she would not compromise her vow. She was content “in God, and for God” and she wrote:

“His affection holds one fast…His kindness fills one to the brim; his sweetness is in overflowing measure. Now, since he is the splendor of eternal glory and the mirror without spot, look steadfastly into this mirror every day, and see in it every time you look—your own face.”  She discovered the truth of Jesus’s promise: Abide in me and I will abide in you.

I am encouraged by her story again today because I talk with friends who want what they don’t have, and don’t want what they do have. I get this, too—the longing, the ache, the striving for that elusive thing or person or job or substance or future season of life that looks like it will scratch the itch.  The itch never goes away, and the illusions can be instructive in our development. But when they eclipse our view of what we do have right now, we are like cared-for whiny toddlers throwing temper tantrums, or gourmet Christians turning up our noses at the food before us. Clare reminds us that our deepest longing is for the eternal God who is here. We will not be satisfied by anyone or anything else. And that’s OK because the Giver himself has been given. People who want God get what they want! She was able to connect her wanting to its source.

Clare’s enclosure was liberating, too — another contradiction in her story. She stayed in the cloister at San Damiano (the church building that Francis restored) in service and prayer throughout her whole life. She took no pilgrimages or vacations. Instead she fixed the anchor of her soul in the house of God and God made his dwelling in her. She was his tiny house, and she grew in wisdom and grace. Through her and others, the cloister at San Damiano became a source of spiritual energy that radiated throughout the Church, even beyond the borders of her country.

In a way, all of us are cloistered within the boundaries of our lives—even if they are self-imposed—whether by geography, finances, relationship, jobs, recovery, children, illness, or aging. If we take wisdom from Clare, we could look as these “restrictions” as a holy container for God to fill. My first enclosure were the trees because no one would drive me to my friend’s houses—they were too far away. This was not a bad cloister!  Some of our enclosures may be toxic, though, and may need to change. But I imagine that many can be embraced like the enclosure of Mary’s womb, the narrow manger, the home of a carpenter, the nails to a cross. Meeting God in the limitations of what has not been given may be part of the journey to our own resurrection, the place where God saves us and reveals the expansive gifts of love.

3 Steps to Build Your Spiritual Fire

I learned how to build a fire before I could read—not with lighter fluid or paper or starter logs either! I learned that it’s more about process than explosion.

We usually want our lives to yield instant amazing results. We want to make a difference. This is good, because we can. The secret is in building your spiritual fire. Here are three steps in the process to apply:

  1. Gather your kindling.  Fires start small. In the woods, you need to find small, dry twigs to start your fire. The really tiny dry stuff called tinder is most important for getting started. The basis for your spiritual fire might seem small and hidden too. You might have to look for it underneath your responsibilities and fears and other distractions, but it’s there: the basic instinct to know God and to be known. Curiosity is good enough too. Gather it up and find some others who have it too, like in a cell or Sunday meeting. It’s ready for flame when it takes shape (like a teepee or log cabin formation) with other kindling.
  2. Feed your fire incrementally. If you put a big log on your little flame, the air can’t get to it. Oxygen is necessary for fire and we need to breathe  like that too.  We need to have our questions and bounce them off of one another. We need space to ponder ideas, try them out and see what happens. This is how we learn to hear God’s voice, and are led by the Spirit. Instead of trying to tackle the whole Bible, start reading the Daily Prayer or a book your cell leader recommends because they know you.  Little by little, you’ll put thicker logs on your fire. But don’t snuff it out with giant expectations.
  3. Tend your mature fire. When you start to notice some hot coals glowing at the base of your fire, you’ve got a reliable source of heat and light on your hands. But even hot coals will eventually go out if they are not fed. The way to feed your hot coals is by lighting someone else’s spiritual log. This can look a lot of different ways depending on how God is forming you, but serving others and sharing the light and heat that we’ve got is what fans our own flame. We are fed by feeding.

God bless you in your process—may we grow into a holy flame that warms up our corner of the world all winter long, and beyond.

Rise up, Lord Jesus, by thy life burning

Show to us beauty, wisdom and truth.

Send away death, send away sorrow,

With resurrection, bringing new life.

Words of comfort and conviction

Most of us have complex problems and relationships. That’s why it’s good to run into people with the spiritual gifts of exhortation (encouragement), prophecy, and wisdom. There are differences between these gifts but they all work toward the same basic purpose: revelation.  They reveal Jesus. They bring hope and clarity to the messy and the mundane. They demonstrate the gist of what God is doing: reconciling all people to himself and to one another through Jesus.

Paul was doing this with two men who met Jesus through him. One man (Onesimus) was a slave to the other (Philemon). Slavery was not based on race in Roman times but it was no less evil. Paul’s encouragement to Philemon was to forgive Onesimus, who had stolen money from him and run away, and receive him back as brother, no longer a slave.  Paul was appealing to the Really Real (as some people call the Holy Spirit) in them: that through faith in Jesus they were brothers already. And that this identity supercedes all history of offenses and cultural boundaries. It was possible to be reconciled and live a new life together as partners in mission. Onesimus risked his life and freedom in going back to Philemon with this letter.

People who get into the mess with others like this bring the facts of God’s presence and the facts of salvation to bear on the situation at hand. It’s not making a moral appeal to someone to “do what is right!” It is asking them to stand firm in grace because it is based on the saving power of Jesus. People who exhort stand with others and encourage their life of faith with words of comfort and conviction. Their words are based on the present and future acts of God, like God is with you in this and will lead you into what is best.  They are banking on the fact that salvation has been accomplished in Christ, and that that reality makes a difference for everything.

Some people are very artful about their words of wisdom and prophecy and exhortation, and that can be beautiful. But more than waiting to give our gifts perfectly, I think that God needs people to take the risks to step into the mess of people’s pain and isolation, stand with them, and offer the word of comfort or conviction that comes to them. (As our world leans toward the machine, we need this from real humans even more.) My cell tried it last night and it was beautiful. On the fly, we pointed out to one another how we see God working in each of our lives. It was good to see ourselves through one another’s eyes, and to hear the encouragement to keep going with Jesus together.

We’re not just animals, Rick Grimes

In our Sunday meetings, we’re talking about gifts of the Spirit—-ways that people express God’s nature. Spiritual gifts are more than personality traits or talents. They are basic ways we are empowered to do God’s work. They are signs of being regenerated through Jesus. When we exercise them we reveal God’s nature and ours. We strengthen others and expand God’s influence in the world.

The Bible mentions three gifts that embrace emptiness in order to be filled by God: poverty, celibacy, and martyrdom. The early church got a lot of juice out of these gifts.  They are given with the understanding that ALL is gift, and Jesus will satisfy us in due time. They express true spiritual freedom beyond a transactional relating with God and others.

Americans are taught to start with fullness and strive to get fuller. We are even entitled to it. The growing national deficit and perpetual war indicate the striving to fill up on more stuff and the fear around not having enough.  Entitlement breeds animalistic behavior—the desperation to do anything it takes to fill the emptiness.  We get into addictions and violence when the expectations aren’t met.  Rick Grimes starts off the first season of the Walking Dead with great moralistic intention to not kill any of the living and by the third season he’s doing whatever it takes to protect his turf.

Jesus exposes the limitations of moralistic and animalistic law by offering a way of living that is even more potent.  Instead of working harder, faster, and stronger, he goes out into the desert—a place of lack and limitation and emptiness—to be empty and receive the strength of the Spirit to fulfill his mission. After 40 days without food, he is tempted to relieve himself with physical comfort, ego recognition, and a shortcut to the suffering he will face.  He chooses hunger over satisfaction, obscurity over glory, and costly obedience over the shortcut. He chooses love for God and others. He chooses the unexpected, hidden way of trust and relationship. His victory is not just some moralistic lesson for how we can win our battles with temptation; he is literally doing it for us. He is conquering death and slavery to animalistic law so that we might live in the fullness of the Spirit. In him we are more than animal urges for sex, power, and survival.

Most of us will probably be spared the honor of dying for our faith, the married among us didn’t choose the gift of celibacy, and many of us have a lot of stuff to give away before we claim poverty. But all of us can practice the emptiness that makes fertile ground for relating to God. Louis CK alludes to the emptiness in this clip but doesn’t get to the fullness and power of meeting God in that emptiness and allowing God to fill us.  When Jesus emerged from the desert in the power of the Spirit it was enough to save the whole world. His Spirit filling our emptiness enables us to do that, too.

Born to be wild: the power of serving

We have an award culture.  I don’t know if I go so far as to agree with Jerry Seinfeld that “all awards are stupid” but it is remarkable how communities cultivate the hunger for extrinsic motivation in children by handing out awards for almost everything, including participation. The hunger for recognition seems to translate into competition in almost every industry, and the media becomes a platform for heroes and anti-heroes alike.

Jesus’s disciples were not immune to the competition for recognition and power. James and John asked Jesus if they could secure a spot on either side of him in his glory. Jesus had been alluding to his impending glorification and rising, and they imagined Jesus rising to power like a wealthy king and saving them from their political oppressors. They wanted to share some of that power and recognition and rule the world with Jesus, from either side of his throne.

The fly in the ointment was that Jesus’s concept of glory was in dying.  His entire purpose and mission — the very nature of God — is revealed in this description: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God was coming to serve us, not to rule over us from the iron throne.  He was bearing the death of the whole world, so that we might be free to not conform to the world’s systems of hierarchy and power. He was upending the world with service.

jesus on the crossThe word ransom implies being liberated beyond ourselves.  God’s service to us frees us from bondage to our false selves, and our service to God for others expresses that wild regeneration in us. It is not like a person obligated to doing the dishes because they have low self-esteem or their roommate is a jerk.  It is more like untamed love not withheld. It is doing to the dishes to defy the rules of the world and love your roommate. It is like Jesus giving up his equality with God to become a servant.

The gift of service cannot be reduced to a role or a task or a job—it is way too wild. It is not “volunteering.” It is more like coming into your fullness as a Jesus-follower, and you can note its power.  People cry when the Pope kisses babies and handicapped children because people do not walk around doing that all the time. Mother Theresa influenced world leaders by relentlessly caring for the poor and dying. St. Francis got locked in a closet by his father for trying to give all of his money to the church.  Chris Mintz took bullets in his body to protect other students in Oregon last week, and his story went viral.  Serving is powerful.

Our own serving might not feel powerful all the time.  But in the way of Jesus it is the path to greatness, and it does make a difference.  Here are three traits of a servant to encourage your gift:

  1. Servants reject natural estimations of worth in people, time, and money. Instead they express the new pattern of relationships Jesus institutes. They invest in people that others have given up on. They share their resources instead of saving for that bigger vacation.
  2. Servants are practical, like love is. They burn to get it done. They don’t get stuck in sentimentality and they’re not worried about who else should be doing it.
  3. Servants focus on God. They don’t do it for the affirmation from other people.

Servants suffer the loneliness or whatever it takes to go where Jesus is leading.  It’s not Joel Osteen-esque where everything is promised to work out bountifully if you have enough faith or something. Everything will work out bountifully in the end with Jesus, but those who follow the suffering servant will suffer too.  They will also accomplish great things, like the redemption of the world.  And they are often bubbling over with the love and nearness of the Servant.