Monday, February 27, 2017

the end is praise

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

                                    ~T. S. Eliot


It seems that each year I approach Lent with a sense of heaviness and dread, as I enter into the season where I contemplate the cross, as well as all of my sin that made it necessary.  This is a good and fruitful (and necessary) process. I mean, after all, you can't know how good the Good News is until you have faced the bad, right?  But this little piece of poem by T. S. Eliot gave me a little hope; a little silver lining of the sun rising on the other side of the dark clouds.  For the end of this season is not the cross, but the resurrection.  And if somehow, as I go through the hard season of Lent, fully aware of the fact that the end of the story is resurrection, then it gives me hope and strength and life to persevere through the difficult reality of the sin that I must face.  But I always must remember that sin is not the end of the story; forgiveness is.  Death does not have the final word; life does.

Years ago (many years) I was doing a program for a ski camp at Windy Gap with some friends of mine from Knoxville.  The camp was for a Florida group and began on New Year's Eve.  The downside was that Tennessee was playing Miami in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's night and we would have to miss it.  Well, being the huge Tennessee fans we were, we asked a friend who was the Area Director of YL in Asheville at the time (Howie Burkhalter) to tape it for us and bring it up late New Year's night so we could watch it when our program responsibilities were over.  Howie kindly agreed to do just that and brought the tape up around 1:00 AM.  This was way before the days of cell phones and there was no TV reception on the property at Windy Gap in those days, so it was pretty easy for us to NOT find out who won the game before we watched it.  The only thing Howie said when he gave us the tape was, "Don't stop watching it."  Well, we all settled in and began to watch.  Miami was a huge favorite and could possibly win the national championship with a victory in this game, so none of us were very hopeful, though Howie's comment at least gave us hope that it might be close.  Miami received the opening kickoff and drove straight down the field for an easy touchdown and it seemed like we were in for a long night.  I'll have to admit, we were already exhausted from camp and the prospects of staying up until 4:00 AM to watch us lose didn't seem appealing to any of us.  But Howie's words gave us a glimmer of hope, so we kept watching.  Well, long story short, from that first touchdown on, Tennessee put the beatdown on Miami and won one of the most storied games in the history of UT football.  And if not for a little word of hope from Howie Burkhalter, who had seen the end of the game, we would probably have turned it off and gone to bed.

I've been reading through the Psalms lately.  I am also reading back through a book called Answering God by Eugene Peterson (which I would highly recommend).  And the book of Psalms ends with a section called "The Halel."  It is a section of psalms of praise.  The book of prayers and songs that are the Psalms end in praise.  This is no accident.  The Psalms know the whole story.  They know how it ends.  They are full of doubt and desperation and questioning and lament and confession and struggle and a constant battle with enemies, but they end in praise.  And they end in praise because the Story--God's story and our story and the story of a broken and hurting world--ends in praise.  Therefore, since we know the end of the story, there is hope and strength and perseverance to endure through the times where things are tough and look pretty bleak. 

This seems especially appropriate as we enter the season of Lent; as we journey to the cross with Jesus, which takes us right through the valley of the shadow of sin and death and darkness.  But sin and death and darkness are not the end, so he travel through this season of Lent with hope.  Yes, reflect and confess and repent, it is necessary and good.  But do so knowing that the end is praise.  In the end Jesus is raised from the dead; and because of that, so are we.  Thanks be to God!  Have a rich and wonderful Lenten season!

Friday, February 24, 2017

given

Jesus: "You give them something to eat."
Me: "Again?"
(He smiles tenderly)
Jesus: "Yes again.  Have I not been faithful to feed you?  Have I not continually provided food for your soul; more than enough to sustain you?  Don't you yet realize how this works?  The food I give you is not just for you alone, it is to be given.  That is part of the dance of life, faith, and ministry: taken, blessed, broken, and given.  The food I give you is ultimately to be given away.  Once you have done that, it will return to you and take on life in you and offer you the nourishment you desperately need as well.  Somewhere along the line--most likely in the breaking--it will be multiplied, so that you have much more at the end than you did at the beginning.  That is the way of the Kingdom.  So always know that even though this continual giving of bread can be tiring at times, it is also how life flows in and through you.  So, you give them something to eat.  Yes, once again."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

spinning

it is so easy for me to get lost inside myself at times
to get stuck in a slow spiral of darkness and death
unable to break free
consumed
trapped in a maze ever deepening
a decaying orbit destined to crash in a dark land
void of light and life
stuck or marooned or stranded
seemingly unable to break free
from the gravitational pull

is it a choice that keeps me in this place
is it as simple as saying no
as interrupting the spiral
and turning back to a more beautiful way
of being and of seeing
is it simply a choice to return home
to my best and truest self
the one you whispered into being
to turn the ear of my soul
back toward your lips
to hear a more reliable voice
the voice of truth and love and delight
the only voice it seems
that can stop the spinning

only you o god can break the tether
only you can stop this spinning
and restore hope and joy and peace
to my desperate soul

Sunday, February 19, 2017

prayer and community

I've been thinking a lot lately about the communal nature of prayer.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Psalms.  A few days ago my Psalm for the day was Psalm 46, which is know mostly for its infamous line: "Be still and know that I am God."  But, even as great as that line is, there is a lot more to Psalm 46 than that.  In particular the Sons of Korah, whoever they may have been, used a lot of communal words, like our and we and us.  It is a psalm that was obviously birthed out of struggle and hardship and chaos and disorientation, but one that was attempting to find reorientation in God.  Therefore there are a lot of images of safety and security.  God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  God is our place of safety and security, he is our fortress.  Therefore we are able to "Be still and know that he is God." 

I don't know about you, but when I am in distress, or am struggling, it often leads me to isolation rather than community--which is exactly what the enemy is hoping for.  Because if he can get me separated from my community, he can get me believing all kinds of false narratives about my life and my world.  And, as someone reminded me the other day, we are all unreliable narrators of our own stories.  We need those around us to help us see beyond, or beneath, the deception.  So I love the emphasis that the Sons of Korah placed on community.  It is no accident that Ecclesiastes reminds us that "two are better than one" and that "a cord of three strands is not easily broken."  Just look at the Psalm.  It is not my refuge and strength (although that is true as well), but it is our refuge and our strength.  It is not I will not fear, but we will not fear.  These prayers were meant to be prayed in community; a place where we can remind ourselves, and one another, of this truth.  It is so easy to lose track of the fact that "The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress" if I am all by myself, apart from my community.

Philo of Alexandria once said: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."  Which is so true.  And the deepest truth of that statement is that we were never meant to fight these great battles alone.  Prayer and community--or rather prayer in community--is how we fight these great battles together.  Not just in a distant "Oh, I will pray for you," dismissive sort of way.  But in a way that truly enters into the battle with and for each other.  When we see one of our brothers or sisters in a time of great distress and struggle, we must simply refuse to allow them to wage this war on their own.  Instead, we enter into prayer with and for them.  We fight and we sweat and we groan and we weep and we beg and we strain, and we knock and knock and keep on knocking--for them!

To be quite honest, I'm not exactly sure how all of this is supposed to work its way out in my life and my community yet, but I do know that I'm excited about the prospects.  I'm excited about the prospects of what God might do in us and with us and for us, as well as the prospects of what God might do in me and with me and for me as a result.  Eugene Peterson once wrote: "We are never more ourselves than when we pray, but if we remain only ourselves, we are less than ourselves."  Somehow, in a wonderfully mysterious way, we actually become more our true selves as individuals when we learn how to become our true selves in the community of prayer.  Let's start today!

Monday, February 13, 2017

merciful

     Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
     Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
     He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1-6)


Looking for a reason to accuse is not a healthy place from which to live life.  In fact, the spirit it produces within us is toxic.  Yet it is so easy to get drawn into that particular way of seeing and of being, especially in this day and age.  Jesus, however, proposes another way.  Instead of looking for a reason to accuse, he wants us to look for an opportunity to show mercy.  After all, it was Jesus who said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." (Matthew 5:7)  I wonder where that leaves those who criticize and accuse? 

My guess is that if I was somehow able to use the energy I normally expend on accusation and criticism in a much more positive way--on showing grace and mercy--then the world would be a much better place.  It would certainly be much more kind. 

Forgive me, O Lord, when my stubborn and insecure heart causes me to seek ways to accuse and criticize rather than to show mercy and grace.  For when I seek to harm rather than to love, to attack rather than to engage, to tear down rather than to build up, I have ceased to be merciful.  And thus, I have ceased to be like you.  Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

new wine

Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins. (Mark 2:18-22)


All too often I find that the new life God is trying to grow within me simply will not fit into the same old containers I try to put it in.  The life of the Spirit is dynamic, not static, and our practice should be the same.  Oh that is not to say that old practices aren't useful in the life of the Spirit, because they definitely are.  In fact, some of the best ancient practices have not been practiced for so long that they have a lot of new life to them. 

What Jesus seems to be saying here is that our practice should always be determined by the life and movement of the Spirit, not vice versa.  The practices of the faith (or the spiritual disciplines, or means of grace, or whatever you want to call them) are intended to make space for the Spirit to move, not to constrict or control it.  Therefore, it seems that our spiritual practice must be constantly adapted to what God is doing in our souls and in our community.  Holding on to old, lifeless, duty-filled, performance-based forms of spiritual practice (as in Mark 2:18-22) does not give the room that the new, vibrant, growing, expansive, spacious work of the Spirit requires for the current season.  And when we hold on to ritual, simply for the sake of ritual, it is like putting new wine in old wineskins.  When we are hell-bent on always having to do the same old things the same old ways, the soul actually begins to shrivel and die.  It becomes more about what we do than about what He does.  Not that these practices and rituals are always bad, there will probably be a season in the future where they will serve us well once again--or should I say where they will serve God well as he does his work within us.  Therefore, we must constantly examine our souls and our practice to try and make the best possible space within us for the Spirit of God to do his work. 

What is the state of your soul these days?  What is God's Spirit doing within you?  What is the state of your current practice?  Is it producing good fruit?  Is it making good space for the growth that is going on within you?  If not, what will make good space for the movement of God's Spirit in your heart and life?  And how will you make those things a part of your normal rhythm and practice?

I also wonder if this parable might not contain a vocational truth as well.  I wonder if there are times when the beautiful things that God is doing and growing within us (the new wine) do not adequately match the vocation (old wineskins) we currently find ourselves in.  A new season of our soul has arrived, and God is doing a new and beautiful thing.  But this old container is not sufficient to give room to the expansive work that God desires to do.  A new container is required; one that is big enough to hold, and give room to, all that God longs to do in and through us.  Unfortunately, letting go of the old and comfortable in favor of the new and unknown takes a whole lot of faith and even more courage.  Fear keeps us trying to pour our new wine into an old skins, but it simply will not fit. 

At the very least this parable calls us to continual awareness and reflection.  Awareness of what the Spirit of God us up to, both within us and around us.  And an reflection on our current spiritual practice (or vocation) and how (or if) that practice is giving us the space our soul needs for the growth and expansive nature of this new wine. 


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

specks and logs

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but fail to see the log that is in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)


Jesus: "Do you want to know why you tend to see the speck rather than the log? "
Me:  "I'm not sure, but I'll bet you are going to tell me anyway."
Jesus:  "I certainly am.  I love you too much not to."
Me: "I was afraid you were going to say that."
Jesus:  "The reason you see the speck rather than the log is because of your fear and insecurity.  You have such an overwhelming need to be right, because somehow you think that being right proves to the world that you are worth loving.  You need to have your opinion valued and respected because you're worth and value are so tied to it.  When you begin to let go of that neediness, then I can begin to do a transforming work in your soul.  It is all a part of the process of growth and change.  Seeing the log rather than the speck is the beginning of that process.  That's because seeing the log in your own eye produces humility, and humility produces compassion.  And compassion is the best indicator that you have been truly and deeply marked by my love, which allows you, in turn, to truly love others." 
Me:  "Thank you for loving me that much!" 

Monday, February 6, 2017

seek first

"Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?' For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6:31-33, NASB)


I don't know about you, but it is so easy for me to get derailed from "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness."  It takes so very little for "all these things" to creep in and begin to take control of my heart in a way that it determines the mood and direction of my life.  No wonder I worry.  I'm pretty sure the answer to this dilemma is prayer, whatever that may look like.  I must learn how to make prayer the default mode of my soul, rather than activity, effort, and anxiety.  For God is continually calling me--calling us--to seek him first.  O Lord, my God, may I (may we) seek you first this day!