Tag Archives: suffering

In this world you will suffer: The Lord’s unloved promise

Each personal defense system was built to avoid or alleviate suffering inflicted by our family and then inflicted by the world, as soon as we stepped into it. When I called my contractor the other day, his kids were sheltering in place in the background and beating one another up. He said, “They hit each other one minute and love on each other the next until you can’t tell the difference.” One of them had just come up to say, even though dad was on the phone, “But Dad, he hit me!”  We feel powerless to defend ourselves against our suffering but spend most of our time trying to access enough power to stop it and get through to love. Something or someone is always supposed to be fixing the injustices and afflictions of the world so we can get loved.

Or so we think. My friend’s dad got drunk every week for who knows why. It would seem it was because he felt bad about his life and had found a way to get relief. But his sons experienced his relief as terror, since he often came home angry. Their lives were uncertain when the thing they needed to feel most was certainty. Now that they are older, they struggle with anxiety, since everything feels uncertain and they feel left alone to get it under control.

Or so they think. The pandemic threatens to push them over the edge. As they are hypervigilant to avoid the disease, feelings from their deep memories are triggered. They’re trying to keep off or clean off the latest manifestation of the dis-ease they have faced their whole lives!

I Have Overcome The World" | Efisio Cross - YouTube
Click for “I Have Overcome The World” by Efisio Cross

How do I feel OK with suffering?

Now that these friends are Christians, it seems even more evident that God should be taking care of them and helping them to avoid suffering. God should be that something or someone who is supposed to be fixing the injustice of the world. The logic seems clear, “If God loves me, shouldn’t he be a better father and spare me this pain?” Sounds good to me.

But Jesus plainly says: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I don’t think he meant to speak only to his first disciples when he said that, either. He meant to speak to you and me, too.

People want peace in the middle of their mess and they can’t get it. One of the reasons is because they have always been certain that their brother should stop hitting them! (And he should!) But he probably won’t. And the 1% probably won’t stop trying to make the economic depression we are headed into be anything less than as profitable as possible for them, either!  There will be trouble. And there you go. Do you say, “But I don’t like trouble; trouble triggers my deepest fears; is Jesus going to save me or not?”

The Greek word thlipsin is translated a number of synonymous ways in John 16:33: trouble, tribulation, trials and sorrows, suffering, oppression, distress, and affliction. We can’t go one day without feeling these things. I called to cancel Direct TV – it was trouble; I forgot my mask when I went out; the contractors broke a ceiling fixture in the hall; the microwave fell off the wall and broke the stove; I hurt my back – and that was just one day! Then there is the perennial stuff: my friend was going to call and they forgot, my mother won’t speak to me, my father lost his memory – and I lost my job when they made us all shelter in place and then the unemployment compensation system crashed.

“Be of good cheer,” Jesus says, “be en-couraged, be filled with courage.” Other translations say, “Take heart, cheer up, be brave, have confidence,” because, Jesus says, “I have overcome the world.” Well, that is the problem! People believe Jesus when he says that but they don’t always feel it.

There are a lot of reasons we don’t get the peace

Most of the reasons we don’t get the peace Jesus promises have to do with how we see things. Jesus makes statements like the famous line above to his disciples because they fundamentally have to change their view of the world.

  1. We have to admit the world is a problem every day.
  2. We have to accept the world, including myself, is not a problem I am condemned to fix (or not) every day.
  3. We must come to feel mysterious, beautiful and loving forces beyond our control and even understanding are at work on our behalf. We we can trust Jesus to bring things to right.

How you see yourself, others and God starts out as part of the problem. But Jesus says, “Cheer up! You are going to overcome with me!”

Changing my point of view is all there is to getting peace? No. But if the “eyes of your heart are dark, how great the darkness!” If we follow around the anxieties of our unen-couraged selves and overlay them with habits of control or aggression or despair, we are going to prove impervious to peace. Saying it is God’s fault my brother hit me, or making sure my Dad knows it is not my fault, or just accepting being hit won’t end up in peace. We have to live the new life that comes with overcoming the old:

  1. Don’t rely on the passing away world,
  2. Bring what you have to the dying world and let your truth and love bear whatever fruit in bears
  3. Don’t just see, but trust the goodness of God Jesus has won for you.

Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné – Iconic Photos

Part of the big trouble we will always have in the world is not getting moved along by the trouble — getting used to trouble instead of suffering it. We’ve got to respond to Jesus when he is teaching us, not just know about his teaching. We need to overcome with him. In his memoir Albert Schweitzer recounted hiring doctors for his hospital in the jungle of Gabon. He said he never hired anyone who thought he was doing something grand and heroic. He knew the only doctors who would last were those who thought what they were doing was as ordinary and necessary as doing the dishes: “There are no heroes of action — only heroes of renunciation and suffering.” He heard what Jesus was saying. The Lord’s own suffering overcomes the world, not just his resistance to it and surely not his resentment of it.

We need to train for peace

We may not suffer with Jesus because we can smell hardship a mile away. But to get peace  we will need to train ourselves to change our views and our habits to match the way to peace that leads through suffering. Sticking with Jesus in peace is not a spontaneous flowering of good character or the fruit of excellence, it is doing what we are trained to do. It manifests not in those whose training spared them hardship but in those whose training embraced hardship and taught them to overcome it. Gwen and I have been doing some reminiscing this week as our house is sold and our stuff is moved. The house itself taught us to overcome, since it was a constant problem to master. But, even more, it represents an era in which we both took on the suffering and trained to be our true selves. Gwen’s quest is represented  by her education for psychotherapy and my quest is represented in spearheading the planting of Circle of Hope. Facing the troubles has been a sweet suffering all along the way, and it has been accompanied by an ever-deeper peace.

Some people are happy this moment in history, marked by coronavirus, may launch a change in the way we raise and train all our young, at all ages. It may exorcise the tide of “safetyism,” which has gone overboard. The grandiose people of the empire float on their high tide thinking they can control their destiny and prevent anything that can go wrong. They are either in denial and a menace to others, or deep in guilt and a menace to themselves. The virus is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.

That’s a big part of what Jesus was saying when he said, “Be of good cheer!” You are OK whether there is trouble or not! On the one hand, you have strength beyond yourself to create goodness out of rubble. Even more, on the other hand, Jesus is a living promise that your suffering is not useless, even if it is just reminding you that you need to be saved. Like the Lord’s suffering resulted in new life wherever he walked and resurrection after he died, so will ours.

That piece of logic might not help you feel peace even if it works wonders for me. One of my friends texted me: “If I can learn to trust an uncertain promise from the Lord I might just be saved.” I replied, “Yes. You may come to know another certainty that is free of the former manacles. You’re on the way.” At this point in my life, I don’t think it would be great if Jesus prevented all my suffering. I don’t blame God for the uncertainty of every day. Even at my age, I am looking forward to the unpredictability of what will happen next in love. I will have trouble, but it is trouble that is being redeemed, and then the fullness of overcoming!

Just listen: We hear love better than words

The book of Job in the Old Testament is the story of a man who lost almost everything – his children, his house, his possessions and his health. Early in the book, we read about three friends who came to support him. If you re-imagine the scene, it could be a small cell group, or a spiritual direction group or our pastors’ weekly meeting. Any one of us might be Job at a given time, and any one of us might be one of his friends struggling to help – and failing.

Before we get to the failing, notice what the friends did right. They were intentional. They went to some effort just to show up. They managed to sit with Job for seven days and seven nights, without saying a word (Job 2:13). Some commentators say they were just respectfully “sitting shiva” in mourning for Job’s loss. Others see those silent days as an amazing act of restraint that most of us would have interrupted in some way, like, “I know I shouldn’t be talking, but let me just say…” Regardless, these are good friends coming alongside their friend in his distress.

Job's friends listen
Job on his dung hill

Eliphaz: “Listen. Here is what I think”

Eliphaz was the first friend who spoke after the seven days. “If one ventures a word with you,” he said to Job, “will you be offended? / But who can keep from speaking?” He apparently had been given enough time to think and could no longer contain himself. He goes on to “comfort” Job with his observations, which he is sure will relieve his suffering.

  • As I have seen… (Job 4:8)
  • Now a word came…to me…(Job 4:12)
  • I have seen…(Job 5:3)
  • As for me, I would…(Job 5:8)

He capped it off with “See, we have searched this out, it is true / Hear, and know it for yourself” (Job 5:27). In other words, “Here is our message. Apply what we think to your situation.” Sounds a bit like a sermon, both formal and informal.

Last week I had a reason to talk to almost all our staff in the course of a few hours about a particular project I was concerned about. Maybe I was not looking like I was sitting on a dung-heap enough, but almost everyone spoke from their own experience to solve my problem and a couple actually argued about what I said before they even understood where I was coming from. There was much truth in what they told me, but their comments didn’t always speak to where I was at the time. It was an educational couple of hours, since I am often unrestrained myself, when among my intimates, and offer my perspective on someone else’s experience before it is asked or required. Listening long enough to respond well is quite an art form!

Bildad: “What did you do to deserve this?”

It is possible that Bildad blew any chance he had to be helpful as soon as he opened his mouth. “How long will you say such things? / Your words are a blustering wind” (Job 8:2). It is never great to be blamed for your problems. Bildad was sure that if Job shaped up, God would relent and reward him: “If you are pure and upright, / surely then [God] will rouse himself for you / and restore your rightful place” (Job 8:6).

Most of us probably don’t come right out and say such things, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we looked over someone’s sufferings and counted the many ways they are to blame for them. If only they hadn’t done something or would get busy and do something else, all would be well. We’re all set up for such a reaction, since most of us feel totally responsible to avoid pain and have all sorts of strategies to do just that. We apply our strategies, no matter what they cost us!

If we hope to actually listen to someone, we need to start with compassion, not judgment (and that includes listening to our own inner dialogue!). We must acknowledge both the pain and mystery of human suffering. And we must support people as they seek to believe there is some grace in the midst of their trouble. “My grace,” God said, ‘is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is so hard for anyone to hear that, we may need to sit a long time with them. We certainly don’t want to derail the process with condemnation – exercising ours or solidifying theirs.

In a group session I recall, a man was particularly angry and some members were becoming tired of him lashing out. He even criticized them for being uncaring while they were, in fact, caring for him at that very moment! He eventually talked about the disrespect he felt. He talked long enough to discover that he had always carried this feeling and it came from a deep, family-rooted place. His problems were not solved that day, but they were not heightened by getting blamed back when he blamed. He had friends who would listen.

Zophar: “Cheer up, I can tell you what God wants”

Job’s third friend continues on the track laid out by the others. He pontificates on the mysteries of God and then says if Job devotes himself to God he will soon forget his troubles: “Your life will be brighter than noonday; / its darkness will be like the morning” (Job 11:17). In other words, “I know what God is thinking, and I predict that if you think like me, things will improve.”

A long time ago, a great number of Christians gave up following Jesus for getting Christianity right. Part of the “rightness” was to never suffer, since, the logic goes, if you are suffering, you must not be right, or right with God. When I lived in the homeland of such “entire sanctification” thinking, I would greet my bishop with “How are you today?” And he would invariably say, “I’m on top of the world.” Now that I am as old as he was then, I find that even harder to believe, since he must have at least awakened with a few aches and pains. But he was living a Zophar life, denying his troubles and presenting a faithful life brighter than noonday.

Once we were in a meeting together and I did not resist questioning this theology, since I could not get Jesus, the Suffering Servant, out of my mind. One fellow pastor was quite upset at my lack of orthodoxy. As I kept arguing my point (probably not too gently) he got angrier and louder. I finally said, “You are angry, aren’t you?” He got my point, but I did not get his friendship. Arguing someone out of their spiritual bypass rarely works. Like God, we need to stick with them in their suffering, supporting the, and perhaps finding a way to challenge them, until they get over their impossible task of being on top of the world.

Circle up to listen

Just listen!

Job finally got fed up with his friends. “All of you are worthless physicians. / If you would only keep silent, / that would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5) In chapter 21 he says, “Listen carefully to my words; / let this be the consolation you give me.”

Don’t we all feel like this quite often? We will ask when we need answers. Most of us will ask when we want help. But before we get to either of those places, we mostly want someone to listen to us. Being heard, even more, understood, is like a balm for our wounds. Listening breeds trust and intimacy.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I had a spiritual director who was not quite my father’s age, but he was old enough to feel parental. He listened to a lot of my father issues. I can still remember the few times he offered some advice on how I could address them. But I was never ready to take his advice and it would not have been good to do so; I knew that. But mostly he listened; even more, he was just there as a fatherly figure who cared about me. His listening presence was what I really needed.

“Just listen! When you’re tired of listening, listen deeper.” At least that is what I need to keep telling myself. I make the mistakes of all of Job’s friends, even when I feel like Job himself! We all have a lot to learn about grace, and how the silent attentiveness of God is the basis of most of the healing we need. God is best known in love, the words can come later.

Joy in one hand and suffering in the other

“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:

The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love

It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.

Related image
St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass CO — Keating’s home for many years.

They make Lent sound so easy

Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding  in the other.

If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.

While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim.  They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.

Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder

Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by  someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.

No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?

I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.

Some days of this Lent WILL be easier

Happy lottery winner.

I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of  us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.

Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”

As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”

Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.

I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.

I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.

How to deal with natural opposition: Five proverbs

Every Cell Leader, when they get to know the typical cell member, is going to run up against opposition. I’m not talking about Trump-like antagonism, but the natural opposition people feel when Jesus calls them to follow, even more when He leads them to form  a community centered around Him.

Don’t we naturally resist the supernatural? Don’t we naturally avoid the unaccustomed? When a person seems oppositional in a cell they should not automatically be tagged “bad;” they just have baggage like the rest of us. They are loaded with large societal pressures and they have the habits formed by their life experience.  They have assumptions about how life works and they instinctively desire the cell to conform to them. They are not likely to automatically change their mind and habits to conform to our vision of what following Jesus is all about!  They feel understandable opposition. Who would not be a little bit reticent? Stimulating dialogue should ensue.

softening up opposition with chips
A good cell does not require chips. But they can help.

One of the blessings of my work is the luxury of having stimulating dialogue quite often (and often with chips involved!). Sometimes I am in the middle of a fascinating “issue,” but often I am just sorting out the intricate issues of being a Jesus-follower in an ever-changing, ever-falling world. I love the dialogue, since revelations are best received face-to-face.

Christians often assume that because their beliefs or teachings are true for everyone they must be intelligible to everyone. But as Christians, we’re part of a story that has its own language (the language of the people of God). As Stanley Hauerwas has argued, we can only really understand ourselves and our place in that story if we are trained in the language of the Church. Our mates don’t seem intelligible half the time,  a diverse church is that much harder. So we must patiently share the language of the Church, particularly Circle of Hope,  if we want to have a fruitful dialogue with other Jesus followers — much more if we hope to include people who don’t follow Jesus yet! Our common language reinforces our awareness that we are part of a common story and teaches others how to become part of it, too.

In the past few weeks, I have had some deep conversations that have me thinking about the main issues we face when we try to form cells and face opposition. As a result, I have some “proverbs” forming in my mind that speak to the regular issues I discuss with people as they try to make sense of life in Christ as a cell. Here are five assumptions I think cell leaders should have when they are doing their work of nurturing a circle of people coming to know Jesus and coming to know how to live as the body of Christ. You might see them as basic building blocks of our our language — the language people are learning as they learn faith in Jesus these days. Here goes:

Progress is more about being known than processing data.

Wisdom is revealed and received more than extracted from precedent or “the research.” When I say that, I mean that wisdom resides with God and is primarily revealed in Jesus. Nevertheless, a lot of people expect to discover God by endless data processing, since that’s what we do. Processing means progressing to them.

As a result, many people will assume that more knowledge means more progress, and progress is what we are all about. If the cell does not provide data, they may not think they are getting anywhere. If you bring up the Bible, they may be nervous, because the Bible is old data. They think that the present state of science, democracy and probably capitalism, is much smarter than everyone who ever lived before; humankind has progressed. They are also likely to think that the future will be even better; they might feel like they’ll be left behind if they attach to Jesus .

Christians certainly believe we are coming to a good end, so we like progress. And we believe individuals and societies can and should get better. But we know God has always known better; knowing God in every era is knowing better, and being known by God as God promotes our discovery of our eternity is best of all. So there might be opposition.

Blindly applying the latest “best practices” may flip vulnerable people “out of the frying pan and into the fire. “

People often tell me I will be on the wrong side of history if I don’t adapt to what’s coming around. I am trying to be adaptable. One night I actually suspected I might be TOO adaptable, even downright avant garde. Students from Ohio came to the meeting and thought they had arrived at a different spiritual planet! One of them said, “I think one of my friends went to a church like this once,” as if they were visiting Sea World and saw whales doing tricks. That was kind of scary! I like to be on the edge of what is next, but I don’t want to befuddle Ohioans!

Other times, it might be better to befuddle people. Because in my search to share a common language, I am tempted to fit in with what everyone thinks is fitting at the moment. I am so sympathetic to the discomfort of someone who is not aligned with me, I solve their problem by not being a problem. If Jesus is a problem, I leave him out too! If people are committed to things that are killing them, I might not risk being opposed and let them die!

Rather than fitting in and waiting to be discovered, I might want to be honest about the revelation I carry and help someone fit into it. The loving negotiation we have in a cell when a new person arrives should be a highpoint of our week, not some awkward moment we fear, just because will might face natural opposition. For Jesus sake, we face opposition carefully and don’t just adapt to what’s coming at us because we want to appear nice.

What everyone has come to think is normal is not always our new normal. I am thinking of all the things scientists and pseudo-scientists have invented in the last 100-500 years, especially the last 50 years– what the latest thinking popularizes as “best practices.” As my mom said, “Just because someone is popular does not make them good” (that might have been Jesus, not Mom, not sure).  When the bandwagon crashes, the most vulnerable get most hurt. We have a better vehicle and just because it was not invented yesterday doesn’t mean it isn’t the best vehicle.

We must not underestimate just how unwilling most of us are to suffer.

There is a lot of pressure to make being ourselves feel good [just saw this] and to never suffer being disliked, disrespected or disabled. Dis is becoming a forbidden syllable. (And don’t dis me because I said so!) More and more, people believe we are not supposed to experience dis-ease, dis-comfort, or dis-appointment. If you are the cell leader that perpetrates any dis there may be instant dis-tance. Don’t be afraid, just keep talking about it. It is natural opposition.

Some things about us are not going to change this side of the age to come. We can be comforted, happy and stable, but we might not be perfect or perfectly related. Being saved is better than being perfect. Being who one is and letting God accept us and change us is better than demanding that society (or the church) supply a perfect environment for our perfect life. But that doesn’t mean people won’t think their idealizations are exactly what the church should provide and promote. Plenty of people thought Jesus would miraculously wipe out Rome and solve all their problems; He didn’t do it the way they wanted and we still don’t.

Expressions of faith change over time to match an era and its needs, but that’s not improving the faith, it’s trying to be clear.

We Jesus-followers have always adapted to whatever society we are in, most of the time for good, sometimes with spectacularly wrong results.  For instance, how did Evangelicals in the United States adapt so completely to the language of capitalism and nationalism that they consider certain conservative economic principles and gun rights as tantamount to the Gospel? How did the Roman Catholic Church become a kingdom? I think they adapted to what was “now” and got stuck there. They answered the wrong questions, which were more about power than grace — in the US we tend to have rich people arguments, assuming the whole world is like us (or would like to be!); in the Congo, our brothers and sisters are debating something else.

Our basic question should be, “What provides for redemption?” Not, “How can I make my religion adaptable to what’s happening now?” I’m not ashamed of Jesus. God does not need updating, as if he were a style. But God does speak the language of love to the beloved, and so should we. Sometimes that love makes us the opposition!

Being chosen is the beginning of freedom.

Most people seem to think that choice is the end of freedom. For instance: if Libyans get democracy, everything will be fine (just like it is here!). I don’t think many people consciously think this, but they act like they believe that endless choices, like consumer choices, make them human. Human rights is often a discussion of “choice.”

I agree that having rights is sure better than being dominated! But I hasten to add that the philosophy of choice is also a domination system, and being free from conforming to it is my right in Christ. Having many or few choices does not make me more human and certainly not more spiritually free.

This is a tricky argument to have while munching on a cookie during a cell meeting. But it will undoubtedly come up, because a lot of people think morality is about rights. Since Christians are all for morality, then we must be about rights. It is surprising to people when we go deeper than that and talk about how losing our right to be “free” of God has given us freedom to be our true selves back in relationship with God.

All this over chips?

How many giant issues can one person fit on a page? Thanks for getting this far. My life feels like a lot of giant issues squashed into a little brain — my days have been full of stimulating conversations that can’t get finished in a short amount of time.  It is also like a cell — full of fascinating people with more issues to consider than there is time in a meeting.

Any help you can give in how to state redemptive truths positively and not just join the flame-throwers on the net, in the Congress and on TV will be appreciated. Our cells are an antidote to what is dividing the world and making us anxiously alone. The better we get at teaching people the language of love, the better off we all are — especially those people who seem like opponents until they aren’t.

For those too broken to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent. Some of us long for Ash Wednesday all year, this is for those who don’t.

Even though the discipline of imitating Christ’s 40-day fast is an old one, each year it is new, as well. Because each year we are called out into the wilderness as a year-different person than we were the previous year: a year wiser or a year weaker, a year more mature or a year more undone.

As a new person who is the “I am” we are right now,
we are called out to meet the “I am” who is God.

We go in search of our true selves as we meet the one who makes us new and whole in a whole new way.

light in clearing

Every year we gather around the communion table to share the Lord’s death so we can share in his resurrection. It is just as mysterious as Paul describes it to the Philippians in the letter to them:

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

When Jesus, the great “I am,” welcomes us to the table, some of us will not want to go. This post is for you.  

Continue reading For those too broken to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

Disentangling from Addiction

When Jesus spent his “Lent” in the desert, I think he went into the wilderness to face the utter absence of anything that was familiar, to experience being saved in his vulnerability before he went back into a world fraught with attachments.

Old Foss Cemetery
Old Foss Cemetery

When I was pondering this after Ash Wednesday, I had a surprising image come up in my mind. I remembered visiting western Oklahoma with my family, the very towns in which my father grew up. Receiving that image was almost like the Holy Spirit drawing me back into the wilderness of my father’s life and the emptiness from which I came. My mind went back to the time we stood in Old Foss Cemetery. Our steps on the brittle grass invaded the hush as we explored. My father found a family plot enclosed by an old iron fence. The rusty gate creaked in the wind as big black storm clouds blew in. The place was silent, desolate, and I felt the ache of my silent, desolate  father. I felt his unmet yearning. I still feel his yearning like I felt my unmet yearning for him. I think Jesus was feeling that absence and yearning in the desert.

I think Jesus was in the wilderness to experience the yearning all people feel and to enter the ache of their wilderness, the pain of their emptiness. And in that vulnerable place he was tempted by the devil like we all are. He went there to do battle, like we all are doing battle in our most vulnerable places where we long to attach, to be loved and to love. Most of us will do almost anything to avoid going to that hurting place, so the devil often wins the battle because we don’t even show up.

Cross at St. Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo
Cross at St. Andrew’s Abbey, Valyermo

I have been to the geographic desert many times to try to show up, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Not too long ago Gwen and I made a return visit to St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo where Gwen, especially, had some significant experiences of grace as she battled her temptations with Jesus.  For most of us, spending time in the geographic desert can be rare. Our geographic deserts mostly take the form of temporary, silent, solitude in a simple yet comfortable retreat center or hermitage. For everyone, however, the desert of the heart remains unchanged. And we can visit it anytime we dare. It is not comfortable. I have visited parts in me that are like a desolate, abandoned graveyard in Oklahoma.

The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness are an intentional parallel to the Hebrews’ forty years of exodus. Lent is an intentional parallel to both. We are led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. There, while hungry and vulnerable, we are tempted by Satan. The three temptations Satan offers Jesus are all about desire, about yearning, and we will meet those same kinds of temptations ourselves. Because everybody has an inborn desire for God, whether you are consciously religious or not. This yearning is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. Some of us have repressed this desire under so many competing interests and fears that we are mostly unaware of it. Or we may experience it as a longing for wholeness, completion or fulfillment of our potential. Regardless of how we describe it, it is a longing for love. We hunger to love and to be loved and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of what people call the human spirit. It is the origin of humanity’s highest hopes and dreams.  (Read Gerald May’s Addiction and Grace, please).

We describe this desire as God given. So Paul says in Romans 5: “We boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” The Bible is full of people yearning for God and God yearning for his people. Because in an outpouring of love God created us and planted the seeds of this desire for love and loving in us. Then God nurtured this desire in us toward fulfillment of the two great commandments: Love God with all your heart soul mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

But something gets in the way of God’s desire. We don’t fulfill the commandments even when we want to. We are usurped by forces that are not loving; we are captured. Our desires get repressed and stifled. Repression is one thing, but something even worse happens, our desire attaches to something or someone other than God, something other than true love. We get addicted.

Addiction enslaves the energy of desire to specific behaviors, things or people. The objects of attachments become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives. They become gods. The psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of addiction are actively at work in every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addictions to ideas, work, relationships, power , moods, fantasies and so on.

The temptations that the devil presents to Jesus in the wilderness or to us in our wilderness, in the  emptiness we choose or the emptiness in which we are stuck, or which we inherited, all have to do with desires being attached, being nailed to something else.

Throughout these temptations, Satan was hoping Jesus’ desire in his vulnerable state would lead him to attach it to meeting his own needs, using his own power, or relying on the material world. Satan was trying to lure Jesus into the “I can handle it” trap, and Jesus could have handled it. But instead of giving in to the massive power of temptations to convince him to attach to something other than His true self in the love of God, Jesus stood firm in his own freedom, in his faith and in grace.

Jesus was truly vulnerable, but the way he responded to Satan’s temptations reveals how people attached to God get through their deserts and get home. 1) He stood firm. He met the adversary, faced the temptation, and did not run away or rationalize. 2) He acted with strength: he claimed and used his free will with dignity. 3) He did not use his freedom willfully. None of his responses to Satan were even his own autonomous creation. He relied upon the truth that had already been revealed in love by quoting from the Torah. We are all working on being that free every day.

We go off into our wilderness of Lent to keep practicing being free, because we are still tempted. What’s more, like me realizing at a very young age out on a hill in Oklahoma, I have an emptiness in me yearning to attach and I need to be careful about what it latches on to.

It is an uncomfortable process to not merely avoid the pain. We have a proverb around Circle of Hope that speaks to that: We are all recovering from the sin addiction, expect conflict.

Recovering causes problems. It puts us in conflict with the whole society, which has notable addictions, en masse. I think, in general, the nation is addicted to fear, to carbon-based everything, to narcissism, to war, to radical self-reliance — even for poor people who aren’t allowed to be self-reliant, to freedom based on earning power. We live in a wilderness we did not choose in so many ways.

There is going to be trouble every day. As if where we live was not tempatation enough, we all have our own personal drugs. Some are substances or habits like alcohol or sugar or painkillers or porn or Facebook. Some of them we don’t even see as addictions yet, because our desires are so trained by them, we are so enthralled to them, that they just seem like “us,” nothing else.

We need to get disentangled. Lent is a great time to face it all like Jesus in the wilderness, a great time to talk back and act back. Lent is a great time to exercise some freedom as members of an alterantive society by going without addicted behavior we can recognize or to exercise some freedom by taking on new habits that come from grace, not bondage. Lent is for suffering the wilderness with Jesus, for aching. It is hard to show up for that battle, but losing by default is worse.

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Five assumptions that might tickle the bone of contention

Every Cell Leader, if they are engaged with their fellow cell members, is going to run up against opposition. Not necessarily antagonism, but the natural opposition people feel when Jesus calls them to follow, even more when He leads them to form  a community centered around Him. It’s supernatural, not the natural to which they are accustomed. They aren’t being “bad,” they are entering the cell deeply influenced by large societal forces and their whole history.  They bring assumptions that immediately pressure the cell for conformity. They are not likely to automatically change their minds and habits to conform to our vision of what following Jesus is all about!  It is understandable opposition. (Besides, the society might be more “conformed” to Jesus than the church, sometimes!). Stimulating dialogue should ensue.

Good cells do not require good chips. But it helps.

One of the blessings of my work is the luxury of having stimulating dialogue all the time (often with chips involved!). Sometimes I am in the midst of a fascinating “issue,” but often I am just sorting out the intricate issues of being a Jesus-follower in an ever-changing, ever-falling world. In the past few weeks, I have had some deep conversations that have me thinking about the main issues we face when we try to form cells.

As a result, I have some “proverbs” forming in my mind that speak to the regular issues I discuss with people as they try to make sense of life in Christ as a cell. Here are five assumptions I think cell leaders should have when they are doing their work of nururing a circle of people coming to know Jesus and coming to know how to live as the body of Christ. Here goes:

Knowing things and knowing ourselves is more about being known than processing data.

Wisdom is revealed and received more than extracted from precedent or “the research.” When I say that, I mean that wisdom resides with God and is primarily revealed in Jesus. Nevertheless, a lot of people expect to discover God by endless data processing, since that’s what we do. Processing means progressing to them.

As a result, many people will assume that more knowledge means more progress, and progress is what we are all about. If the cell does not provide data, they may not think they are getting anywhere. If you bring up the Bible, they may be nervous, because the Bible is old data. They think that the present state of science, democracy and probably capitalism, is much smarter than everyone who ever lived before; humankind has progressed. They are also likely to think that the future will be even better; they might feel like they’ll be left behind if they attach to Jesus .

Christians certainly believe we are coming to a good end, so we like progress. And we believe individuals and societies can and should get better. But we know God has always known better; knowing God in every era is knowing better, and being known by God as God promotes our discovery of our eternity is best of all.

Blindly applying the latest “best practices” may flip vulnerable people “out of the frying pan and into the fire. “

People often tell me I will be on the wrong side of history if I don’t adapt to what’s coming around. I am trying to be adaptable. Last night I actually suspected I might be TOO adaptable. Students from Ohio came to the meeting and thought they had arrived at a different spiritual planet! One of them said, “I think one of my friends went to a church like this, once,” as if they visited Sea World and saw whales doing tricks. I like to be on the edge of what is next, not “out of this world.” We need to reach into what is coming and reach back into what was.

However, we don’t need to blindly adopt whatever the scientists and pseudo-scientists invented in the last 100-500 years, certainly not the last 50 years, certainly not what the latest movement popularizes as best practices — as if that should be a new normal.  As my mom said, “Just because someone is popular does not make them good” — that might have been Jesus, not Mom, not sure.  When the bandwagon crashes, the most vulnerable get most hurt.

We must not underestimate just how unwilling most of us are to suffer.

There is a lot of pressure to make being ourselves feel good and to never suffer being disliked, disrespected or disabled. Dis is becoming a forbidden syllable. (And don’t dis me because I said so!) We are not supposed to experience dis-ease, dis-comfort, or dis-appointment. If you are the cell leader that perpetrates any dis there may be instant dis-tance. Don’t be afraid, just keep talking about it.

Some things about us are not going to change this side of the age to come. We can be comforted, happy and stable, but we might not be perfect or perfectly related. Being saved is better than being perfect. Being who one is and letting God accept us and change us is better than demanding that society (or the church) supply a perfect environment for our perfect life.

Expressions of faith change over time to match an era and its needs, but that’s not improving the faith, that’s just being clear.

We Jesus-followers have always adapted to whatever society we are in, most of the time for good, sometimes with spectacularly wrong results.  In the US we tend to have rich people arguments, assuming the whole world is like us (or would like to be!).  In the Congo, our brothers and sisters are debating something else.

My basic thought about everything is, “What provides for redemption?” Not, “How can I make my religion adaptable to what’s happening now?” I’m not ashamed of Jesus. God does not need updating, as if he were a style. But, at the same time, love speaks the language of the loved one.

Being chosen is the beginning of freedom.

Most people seem to think that choice is the end of freedom. For instance: if Libyans get democracy, everything will be fine (just like it is here!). I don’t think many people consciously think this, but they act like they believe that endless choices, like consumer choices, make them human. Human rights is often a discussion of “choice.”

I agree that having rights is sure better than being dominated! But I hasten to add that the philosophy of choice is also a domination system, and being free from conforming to it is my right in Christ. Having many or few choices does not make me more human and certainly not more spiritually free.

This is a tricky argument to have while munching on a cookie during a cell meeting. But it will undoubtedly come up, because a lot of people think morality is about rights. Since Christians are all for morality, then we must be about rights. It is surprising to people when we go deeper than that and talk about how losing our right to be “free” of God has given us freedom to be our true selves back in relationship with God.

All this over chips?

How many giant issues can one pastor fit on a page? Thanks for getting this far. My life feels like a lot of giant issues squashed into a little brain — my days have been full of stimulating conversations that can’t get finished in a short amount of time.  It is also like a cell — full of fascinating people with more issues to consider than there is time in a meeting.

Any help you can give in how to state redemptive truths positively and not just join the flame-throwers on the net, in the Congress and on TV will be appreciated.