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.

Blessed are those who mourn

My friend Tim asked me to speak at his church yesterday about mourning, and how it can be a pathway to God.

It got me thinking that we Americans don’t make a lot of room for mourning.   Unlike some other cultures, we don’t have embedded traditions that make space for grief and loss, besides the brief funeral.  We are generally entitled to happiness (is that entitlement related to our high rates of depression?) and we generally expect ourselves to keep moving.  Stoicism and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is part of the fabric of our national history.  I recently watched an old movie with my kids called Seven Alone—a true story about a family on the Oregon trail.  When both parents died on the way, the caravan stopped briefly to bury them and unsuccessfully tried to send the children back home with relatives.  The self-determined children set off on their own, (with their infant baby sister, of course) and miraculously made it to Oregon in the dead of winter, barely alive.  The message about loss was: just keep movingeven if you’re 5 years old.  Now that’s American!

Somewhere along the way, I internalized the expectation of stoicism too.  But being a follower of Jesus is freeing me to be fully human, as Jesus was, able to grieve and connect with God’s longing.  Most of us are inclined to try to fix ourselves or distract ourselves from pain, and try to get on with it.  But the call to a follower of Christ is different: it is a call to a softened heart, a heart that is pliable for God to shape.

It’s like the story of the student who complained to his Rabbi that he was just tirelessly memorizing words and concepts, and not being transformed.  The Rabbi assured him that one day his heart would break, and then the words would fall in.

MLKDr. Martin Luther King tended to his broken heart, and put it to work.  He let it bleed for others.  He quoted the prophet Jeremiah in his journal:  Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is grievous; but I said, ‘Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it.’  He stressed that the most important resolution to disappointment is to refrain from rationalization.  Like the Psalmist cried, deep calls to deep.  God’s longing for the restoration of the world is reflected in our own longing.  Jesus demonstrated it when he grieved the rejection he was experiencing in his own country: “O Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

GazaAlive with God’s longing, Dr. King was motivated to press on in hope for a world that could reflect the love and mercy of God.  He grieved not just individual prejudice, but the national sin of greed that created systems of racism, militarism, and materialism that lead to economic and soul poverty.  He urged people in power to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.  Unfortunately, it seems that our commitment to materialism is stronger today than it was in Dr. King’s time, with dire implications worldwide.  The over 125 armed conflicts we’re involved in around the world (mainly to protect our economic interests) reveals our ongoing commitment to militarism.  Racial tensions smolder across the country in reaction to entrenched systems.  We long for the kingdom of God to come in its fullness.

I think that all of our longings—for love, security, honor, peace, sex, intimacy, adventure, rest, success, wholeness—are at our core a longing for the fullness of God.  God is present now to us, but we walk by faith and not by sight through the death, decay, and separation we experience.  That’s why Paul says things like as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  While we are in this tent (this body), we groan and are burdened because we wish to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.   We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed.  Even in suffering and loss,  we are being made alive in Christ and embodied with the good news of redemption and resurrection.

If you want to grieve with Dr. King today, go ahead and don’t rationalize it. You’ll be gathering yourself under the wings of a God who lifts up the needy, and doesn’t hold back from expressing the fullness of love.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.




When you’re not enough

Modern life can be demanding.  For some of us, it’s a challenge to get the dishes done and enough clean laundry in the drawers to get to work every day (if you’re lucky enough to have a job in this economy).  Add kids or other committed relationships and you might be over the edge.  Additionally, do you have the latest upgrade?  Have you switched from Facebook to Ello yet?  Is your job meaningful and fulfilling?  How about that thing you said you’d do before you turned 30?  How’s your savings account shaping up?  Do you need another college degree? How can we stop global warming, since the walruses are coming ashore in Alaska?

We live in a fast-paced world.  Americans, in particular, get sold the idealist expectation that we should have it all and do it all, which seems to translate into the impression that we must “be” it all. Less feels like not enough to many people.   Many of my friends live with an underlying chronic case of disappointment in themselves and others, or anxiety that sometimes feels debilitating.

The apostle Paul thought it was normal to not be enough.   He writes to the Corinthians, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters.  Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God choose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is lowly and despised—things that are not—-to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who is our wisdom from God—our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.”

That seems like enough for me.  Jesus reveals that possessing and achieving are not prerequisites for being.  There are no prerequisites.  Period.  We are the beloved of God.  And having Jesus in the midst makes us a lot more than enough, especially together.   Having Jesus in the midst gives us the opportunity to comfort and be comforted.   I saw it in the church—in my Circle of Hope cell group—this week.   A friend told me she asked God for something that sounded rather impossible to me.  Her request had a deadline too: her birthday.  I wondered if she’d be able to hang on to the faith she was struggling to keep if God didn’t answer her specific prayer.  A few days later another friend called and said he felt led to pray for this person and give her an anonymous gift.   The gift was more than enough to meet the need, and just in time for her birthday.

birthday cake

Our problems don’t always get solved like that, but go ahead and be “not enough.”  Reach out to someone in your struggle and let them in.  Pray and be prayed for. Your not-enoughness may be just the place that Jesus wants to show up in your life and lead you into something new.