AMAZING GRACE? OH, OK
I remember sitting in the living room of my friend, mentor, and pastor, Bob Smart. There were about ten of us sitting in a circle for a Koinonia Group. Koinonia is the Greek word that is roughly translated as “fellowship” in English. He asked a simple question, “What is grace?”
I answered quickly because I knew the answer!
“Grace is unmerited favor, Bob!” I said.
“What’s so amazing about that?” He said.
I sat dumbfounded. Silenced by a simple question that demanded more of me than an intellectual response.
Bono of U2 once wrote about grace this way,
She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name
It’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that
Changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness
She’s got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She’s got the time to talk
She travels outside
Of karma, karma
She travels outside
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty
She carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
Grace finds goodness in everything
This paints a picture well beyond something cold like, “unmerited favor”. I am struck by the emotion of what Bono has written.
At the time that I responded to that question by my friend, Bob, I don’t think that I understood that emotion. Grace hadn’t made it down from my head to my heart.
There’s an ancient story that resonates deeply in my soul.
One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”
Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh? Tell me.”
“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
“That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”
Then he spoke to her: “I forgive your sins.”
That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!”
He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50, The Message)
For a really long time I thought of myself as good. If I’m really honest with you, I thought of my self as being really, really good. So, while in some sense I knew that I needed grace, I was much like Simon in the story above. I didn’t realize that my shadow, my sin, my own brokenness was deep.
I don’t really know when it happened that I began to get it.
Perhaps it was with the birth of our first child and I began to see the deep seated selfishness that reigned like a tyrant only to be demolished by a toddler tyrant supreme?
Perhaps it was beginning to see how I responded to various stressful situations where my go to was anger and rage (heck, that happened yesterday!)?
Perhaps it was acknowledging that my sin-sickness was not somehow less than any other person’s?
As my own need for grace moved from head to heart it stopped being an intellectually rooted concept. It became something else.
Grace had become the thing that “makes beauty out of ugly things.”
What is grace? Grace is the fundamental reality that we are loved, accepted, embraced, reconciled, and cherished by a sovereign and good God because we simply are.
There’s nothing that we do to earn the love. There’s nothing we can do lose the love.
The only thing we bring is ourselves and God loves us.
God chose to love us by lavishing a grace on us that is overwhelming when begin to think about it.
It truly is amazing.
As I meditate this morning on rest I am struck by the fact that I don’t do it well.
My inclination is distraction. To turn on the television and watch something. To fill my ears with sound. To give my mind a distraction away from whatever is happening inside it. Some turn to drugs or alcohol, for me it’s shows.
Distraction and rest are not the same.
Rest, a true rest, I’m learning is a quieting of the mind and an unburdening of the soul. This can’t be done, for me, with the screen running. I am learning of my need to be present to my story and not simply getting lost in the telling of another’s.
It is amazing what happens when I turn to the quiet the numerous thoughts that fill my mind. The weight of my calling comes fully to bear and a near sense of panic drifts in. If I can press through the initial moments of this and then turn my attention toward the Divine and offering the weight of life to the Divine.
It is in the offering that I experience rest.
IT’S A NEW YEAR!
I’ve been thinking about the New Year, a bit. In so many ways we often start the New Year thinking about shortcomings.
It’s the “I‘m nots…”
So, we make resolutions to try and “fix” whatever it is we are “not.”
I read a book last year about habit forming, Atomic Habits, and one of the things that has really stuck with me is the importance on setting my mind on the kind of person that I desire to be. But not with an “I hope…” or an “I should…” but with an “I am…”
What if this year we chose not to make resolutions but to identify one or two aspects of who we are?
Here is what I’ve been thinking about as I stare into the face of 2023:
“I am the kind of person who takes care of his body.”
“I am the kind of person who is present in the lives of others.”
Yes, those statements are broad. But, they help make hard choices easier. The pursuit of these “I am…” statements are beginning to create in me a desire “for” and “to be”.
Do you have any “I am” statements that drive you toward a sense of becoming?
COMMUNION, IT AIN'T WAFERS AND WINE
The Pub and Coffee Shop
Tuesday night I wandered into my pub, Tap Room, for Tap Room Tuesday with my crew of people. Justin, our waiter, smiled and waved as I walked in. Justin knows my name. If I roll in early enough he asks about my family and week.
He knows my order.
He is happy that my crew and I are there.
In so many ways, Justin pastors me.
As I write this morning, I'm sitting here sipping on a coffee at my coffee shop. There is a sense of contentment that I feel when I'm here that I can't quite explain. The barista, Scott, knows my name. He's been my barista for a while now. I got to know him at Cream and Crumb and then at Cultivate (or maybe it was the other way around?).
When I walk in he knows my name.
He knows my order.
He knows about my kids and asks about them.
In so many ways, Scott pastors me.
Justin and Scott through their presence in these spaces create something in our neighborhood that is critically important. They create connection. They may not realize it, but they are building community. As we come in and out of their orbits we feel loved, cared for, and welcomed.
I don't know about you, but I know deep in my soul there is a longing for communion. Communion is defined as, "the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level."((Oxford Languages on Google))
If you ask a church goer what communion is they will tell you it's the "Lord's Supper." This is the time in worship when many churches will offer bread and juice (or wine) in accordance with the Scriptures.
But this isn't really communion, for most. It's usually quite individualistic and solitary.
We long for communion, the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings on a mental or spiritual level.
It's part of what makes us human.
I haven't done the deep dive into the research, but I wonder if the reason that so many of us struggle with depression and anxiety is our lack of communion. We are more "connected" than ever and yet somehow more isolated.
We are a lonely people.
There is little communion.
When I show up at the coffee shop or the pub, I get a taste of communion.
I hope that when people show up at my house on Sunday evenings that they get to experience communion. I'm realizing that this is the core of pastoring. It's not converting people or "preaching the Word." No, it really comes down to facilitating communion. It's helping people feel loved, welcomed, and cared for.
Where do you experience communion? How are you offering it to others?
HERE I WAIT
The last few years Amy and I have been picking a word to represent our year. The year of 2022 was the word "Wait (weight)" for me. I liked the word because it hit on two things that I knew I needed to do. On the one hand I needed to give some attention to my weight. I am happy to report that is going well (down 59lbs as of this writing). One the other hand I had a sense that this current season I was about to enter into was a season of "waiting."
This fall we took our youngest to college and officially became "empty-nesters." I'm not sure how we got this old.
As we entered into this season so many people asked us, "What are you going to do now? What's next?"
For the first time in my life, I didn't know what was next. I still don't.
So, I continue to wait.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,Luke 2:25-32
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
I keep thinking about Simeon. He is a picture of holy waiting. He was waiting for the coming Messiah. I think the assumption here is that he was an older fella.
Simeon was not only waiting, but he was waiting with a sense of expectancy. We might call this, hope.
There is something about waiting with expectancy that is holy.
As I continue to learn how to wait, I want to wait with expectancy. I'm hopeful that the waiting is doing something in me, that it is changing me.
It's not lost on me that Simeon in his holy waiting was aware of the voice of the Spirit. He heard the Spirit's voice and knew it was time to to go to the Temple to see the Christ. That is what a holy waiting can do in us.
As we enter into Advent and set our sights toward Christmas, this is a time when all of us have the opportunity to try and use our imaginations to enter into the sense of holy waiting for the coming Christ.
Perhaps this season of intentional waiting can be a time of change for all of us?
I'm still waiting on the Divine to reveal to me what's next. I'm learning a lot just sitting in the mystery.
So, here I wait.
The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn't pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, 'Pay up. Now!'
The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' But he wouldn't do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
The king summoned the man and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?' The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that's exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn't forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.
I regularly pray what is commonly known as, "The Lord's Prayer" or the "Our Father." I find that it is really helpful for me to slow down and meditate on each of the phrases.
One of the phrases in the prayer is super helpful for me, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." This is a reminder that extending forgiveness is something that is part and parcel of someone who calls on the Divine.
I desperately want my identity, the core of my being, to display the gracious, lovingkindness, of Christ. I am keenly aware of my sin-sickness. I have within me great capacity for radical unloving. My sweet wife knows and understands my capacity for falling short of gracious, lovingkindness. So do most of my friends.
Sitting in this prayer is teaching me that my capacity to forgive is tied to the depth of understanding that I have of my own receipt of forgiveness.
For so many of us the forgiveness that was wrought by Christ on the cross is nothing more than a concept, a theological idea, a simple transaction. Nothing more than someone picking up the tab at lunch. Sure, we're thankful, but it's just kind of abstract.
Perhaps this is why so many of us who claim Christ as our savior, the forgiver of our sins, the reconciler of our souls, are so unloving, ungracious, and unkind?
So many of us are just like that servant in the story. We beg forgiveness and then refuse to extend it.
One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee's house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him."
Jesus said to him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."
"Oh? Tell me."
"Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?"
Simon answered, "I suppose the one who was forgiven the most."
"That's right," said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, "Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn't quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn't it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal."
Then he spoke to her: "I forgive your sins."
That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: "Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!"
He ignored them and said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."
SEASON OF SUCK
Yesterday, I had the privilege of offering a few devotional thoughts to a few other pastors. For many pastors, election season is brutal. Then on its heels is Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas. In so many ways, it is the Season of Suck.
What do elections, Thanksgiving, and Christmas have in common? They peel back the hurt in people's lives.
When people are hurting they often turn to their pastor for guidance or to project the emotions they have that they can't share with the person that they really need to talk to.
So, all in all, it is a hard season for people and pastors can find themselves feeling a bit exhausted and at the end of their rope. Some of this is from entering in with folks. Some of it is because pastors are people too. They experience the same struggles during this season as everyone else, but sadly they do so often in isolation.
As I was considering what to say to these colleagues I came back to something that Paul of Tarsus wrote a couple thousand years ago that has shaped me to my core.
"I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it." (Philippians 3:10-11, The Message)
Paul says that all the stuff that made him appear successful, he gave up. He got rid of it. Why? Because all that mattered, ultimately, was to know Christ and to get in on the resurrection.
I shared with these pastors, that for us this is the calling. We get to pursue Christ and his resurrection all the time. Our vocation is to live into this and to model it for those we serve.
Gain It All...
What a privilege it is to be a pastor! What a privilege to be able to fully and totally give our lives to this thing of ultimate importance. We get to live out Philippians 3:10-11 in all its fullness. There is nothing that has to compete with this.
As we walk through the Season of Suck, our first responsibility is to know Christ and his resurrection.
Read that again.
This is our high calling. This is our privileged calling. This is our joyful calling.
The hard stuff is part of following this Christ and knowing Christ in fullness. The Christ-way is not easy. The Christ-way includes suffering. But, the suffering leads toward knowing the resurrection.
Even in the Season of Suck we can choose to identify with Christ and his resurrection.
This encourages me. I hope maybe you too can find some encouragement in it.
THE DIVINE MYSTERY
I was sitting in one of my theology classes in seminary and we were discussing some theological argument. I don't remember which one. Honestly, it doesn't really matter. But there was heated discussion from different folks in the class who held differing perspectives. They had sound biblical reasoning to support their position. Both absolutely believed that they were right. Both considered the other to be a "heretic" for holding to the other position.
These types of discussions were normal. Whether it took place in class or the student lounge. At seminary most everyone thought they were the smartest and the most right of anyone else there. I was chief among them. My theological leanings were different from my seminary and so I was always ready for a debate, I always had my antenna up, and I was willing to squash the intellectually weaker classmates.
I had enough salesmen in me to not come across as a total jerk (or at least I thought I did, perhaps some of you reading this were my classmates and have a very different recollection of me). In my mind, at least, I was quite winsome in my arguments. I was always very certain of everything that I believed.
This would, however, change.
The Death of Certainty
As I left seminary and finished by ordination process, I was at the height of my certainty. I knew all the things. I had answers for everything. The Westminster Confession of Faith was my guide and I loved it. In my circles, I would have fit in as someone who was Truly Reformed or a "TR." I used to quip, "I'm not a five point Calvinist, I'm a six pointer."
"What's the sixth point?" someone would inevitably ask.
"I believe in burning heretics," I would chuckle. This always got a laugh.
Something happened as I began the process of planting a congregation, I can't put my finger on when exactly.
I would sit in meetings and began to see the inner workings of churches and the denomination. I noticed more and more in the certainty of others a lack of grace. Then I noticed the same in myself. I began wrestling with the reality that perhaps, just maybe, I wasn't right about everything. Then, I began thinking about the Divine differently than I had before.
God for me was something that was easily defined, sure I knew when and how to drop the idea of mystery, and the like. But, all in all, I had a nice, neat little box that God fit into. God was a thing that I could put my hands around. If someone else's understanding of God didn't fit into my box, then their God was a false god.
But, something was happening as I read more broadly. I was reading outside of my tradition and the "safe" authors. I had relationships with people from other faith traditions. Soon, I was looking at the box that I had created and it wasn't working any more.
The Divine Mystery
This box that was so helpful for so long became too small. Slowly, ever so slowly, I was beginning to grasp that the Divine was so much more than my box. My box was very helpful for a season. I needed the certainty that came with it. It was identity forming and gave me structure. If it wasn't for the box that God was in, I never would have been able to comprehend that there was a Divine mystery awaiting me.
For every this-or-that, there was a formulation that included and transcended. For all of my this-or-thats there was a both-and.
The Divine mystery is awe inspiring.
As I leave the land of this-or-that for the world of both-and, I find that I'm more fascinated with those around me and the world is becoming an unlimited source of story and real mystery.
One of my favorite songs is called, Faith My Eyes, it was written by Derek Webb for Caedmon's Call. The chorus goes like this:
So keep on coming
These lines on the raod
Keep me responsible
Be it a light or a heavy load
Keep me guessing
These blessings in disguise
I'll walk with grace my feet
And faith my eyes
Do you notice the lack of certainty in these lyrics? More and more that little line, "Keep me guessing," has become something that I want to lean into. For much of my life I have tried to eliminate the guessing. I wanted it all to be certain, a simple equation that gave me a clear output.
Now? I'm coming to see that to "walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes," I need to keep guessing.
The Divine mystery continues its call, further up and further in.
THE DO NOTHING CHURCH
The algorithms on social media are an amazing thing. On Facebook for "occupation" I dropped in there, "pastor." Because, well, that's what I am. As a result my newsfeed is flooded with stuff about "church growth."
Every day I see another post about how to grow your church. I take a few minutes and give each one a look and it's the same stuff.
"Here's a can't miss marketing plan..."
"Here's a service where the best writers will craft your sermons for you..."
"We can create for you a website guaranteed to bring people to your church..."
It's all the same.
The other day a "Church Growth Guru" (what even is that and how do they have enough money to financially boost EVERY single post?) asked a question, "How do you get more people in your church engaged in the life of the church?"
I thought, "Finally! This will be well worth my time." I dropped into the comments section to see what was being said. Almost every single comment was something like, "We have created this program/campaign/preaching series to get more people to do things," or "Instead of referring to people as 'volunteers' we refer to people as 'leaders' and 'co-ministers.'" Almost every comment of was some variation of those two ideas.
When all you have is a hammer...
One of the things that I noticed from working for a building-centric congregation was that the building was considered one of the most significant, if not the most significant, tools in our ministry tool box. As leaders would plan for the different seasons of ministry we were implicitly trying to figure out how to use the building.
Have you ever heard the saying, "When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail"?
The church building is often a "hammer."
To be fair, I haven't ever heard anyone say explicitly that the building needs to be the center of our ministry planning. But, what happens is that it is this overwhelming tool in the toolbox and you can't escape it. Every ministry question becomes a nail and the building is the hammer.
So, how do you leverage it? You create programs. You think about how to get more people to the building. You realize that to get more new people to come to the building, you need more of the people you already have to bring them. Which means that you need them engaged in the programs that you create to draw people to the building.
Annually, there's a conversation that gets had in many congregational leadership teams, "Our folks are exhausted!"
It turns out when people are running around doing stuff every single night they get tired.
So many people in congregations around the country are trying to be deeply involved in the life of the congregation, but also have kids involved with school activities like sports, service clubs, and a host of other things.
Many times, these come into conflict.
I can't recount for you the number of conversations that I have had with colleagues that say, "I tell our people all the time, you must choose attending the church event over that other <insert non-church event here>."
There is much lament that occurs with pastors and other church leaders about the fact that people will allow their kids to participate in sports or other things instead of coming to youth group. And this is just one example.
Do Nothing Church
What if we could put the hammer away? What if we could engage our imaginations just a bit? Could we take a different perspective to what engagement looks like?
I believe that we can.
When we decided to create a local congregation that was going to intentionally not have a building, we also decided that we would intentionally not have programs.
You could say, we were going to be a "do nothing church."
Yes, you read that right.
Do nothing church.
We gather intentionally on Sunday evenings for a meal and scriptures and prayer and communion. Beyond that, we don't do anything.
As I look around my community I see lots of organizations that folks can serve with. Almost all of them are in desperate need of people to help. So, instead of re-creating these important organizations through the auspices of the church, the people in our congregation go and serve "out there." And, as their pastor, I try to think about I can encourage and support their efforts.
I am utterly amazed by the depth of connection that the people whom I pastor have within our community.
They are taking with them grace, compassion, empathy, and love into a world where those things are desperately needed. They are freed up to live as ambassadors for Jesus all over the place.
It's amazing how much the people in my congregation do being part of a do nothing church.
A New Score Card...
If you're a pastor or church leader reading this, I challenge you to consider a new score card.
What if you tracked engagement not by how many people show up to your programs or building throughout the week? What if you tracked engagement by what the folks in your congregation are doing out in the community by being involved and engaged in local organizations?
I'm telling you, it's beautiful.
RELIGION, IT'S NOT WHAT WE THINK
I was pretty excited about my faith. I had become completely and utterly given to pursuing Christ. Paul's statement, "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)" had become my own personal life goal.
Do you know what happened? I became a pretty horrible person.
No really, I was a total jerk (the real word is inappropriate for a pastor's blog post).
Paul had walked through a lot. He had faced death for his faith. Paul was someone who knew what it cost to follow Jesus.
I didn't. My world was relatively easy. Hardship? Not really. Hurts? A few. Persecuted and abused for my faith? What a laughable idea. When Paul wrote this, he had known all these things and then some. I had to create a persecution complex and build some sense of suffering. You read that right, I created my own sense of persecution, suffering, and hardship.
How did I do that?
By being an absolute jerk.
My heroes were men who tore other people's "worldviews apart." These were men would leave people in tears in their airplane seats because they "obliterated" their belief systems so they could see their need for Jesus. These were my heroes. Culture warriors contending for Jesus in the public square with a devotion-filled ruthlessness.
I learned well and was soon tearing people apart, metaphorically, on college campuses and beyond.
One of my opening gambits was that I was not contending for religion but for a "personal relationship" with Jesus.
I Was Right!
There are few things more correct than what I said I was doing back then. I was definitely not contending for religion. Everything I was doing in those early days was decidedly the opposite of religion.
Our word, "religion", comes from Latin. Cicero is credited as coining the term. Originally, his usage was re-legere, which would have meant something like re-lecture or re-read. But, it was not long before the concept was tied to religare, meaning, re-bind (ligare is where we get our word, ligament). ((The etymology of religion can be found here))
I was definitely right. I was not someone who was helping to re-bind. There was no bringing people to together. By and large I understood my responsibility was to separate people from their false views of God. Only then could I even begin to possibly help them re-connect. But, if I'm honest with myself I don't think that I ever got there. The vast majority of my own life was spent finding the ways that I was wrong to correct and then help others find the ways they were wrong.
Religion was lost on me.
In Greek the word that translates to religion carries with it a sense of devotion or piety. The most famous passage about "religion" in the New Testament might be from James 1.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.James 1:26-27, NIV
As I've dug into the word a bit, I don't really like the translation. I think I like the word devotion is better.
If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.James 1:26-27, Common English Bible
In our world, devotion and religion are pretty clearly separated. Religion for many of us is rooted in institutions, rules, and systems. But, that's not really the heart of it. Religion, best understood is the bringing together of people with one another and with the divine. Devotion is an aspect of that. I was devoted to God. But, my devotion was pretty worthless because it was about doing the opposite of what a pure and faultless devotion would have been.
It's interesting that pure and faultless devotion according to James was one that was caring for orphans and widows and keeping the world from contaminating us. To care for orphans and widows would have meant bringing them in from the fringes of the community and incorporating them into the whole. It would have been, in a very real sense, practicing religion.
Do you know what isn't there? Pretty much all of what we consider to be important stuff in contemporary Christian faith. It fascinates me that there's no mention of budgets, butts, or buildings. There's no talk of converting people. What was pure and faultless was bringing the outsider into solidarity with the larger community.
Religious is Spiritual
It turns out that the idea of "spiritual but not religious," isn't really accurate. Most of the folks that I know who are "spiritual but not religious" care for those on the fringes deeply. They are practicing the art of religion all the time.
To be truly spiritual we must be religious.
Maybe this is why we have so many problems caused by religion today? Perhaps it's because we have mistook devotion for religion? What if churches, synagogues, mosques, and other communities of worship decided to focus on religion in the sense of re-binding and bringing together? What if those of us who sought to follow Jesus or are wading deep into the divine mystery focused our attention on finding solidarity with all those around us?
The other I was driving along; and by "driving along" I mean I was sitting in traffic. The "expressway" was stop and go due to construction. This is pretty standard for Michigan about nine months out of the year. We have two seasons here, "winter" and "construction," as the saying goes.
So, here I was stuck in traffic. I wasn't frustrated, which is odd. Usually, when I'm in this situation, there is almost a sense of panic that sets in and I want to figure out how to get through the back up as quickly as possible. But, on this particular day I was just pleasantly sitting there. I had listened to a podcast that talked about how when we say, "I was stuck in traffic," we often fail to realize that we are part of the "traffic."
Have you ever thought about that? I hadn't, until this particular day. I just sat there and kind of laughed about it. Here we all are together as "traffic." Once I found myself as the "traffic" it freed me up from the frustration of fighting the "traffic." You know why? Because I've learned over the years that fighting myself is a bit of a silly thing to do.
I sat there, crawling along and recognizing myself in the "traffic." As I did, it got me thinking about how all these folks, like me, were heading somewhere. Everyone wanted to go some place and each of them had a story for why they were going there. And, even if I knew each of the stories for their travels, it would only give me a very brief snapshot into who they were as people.
The Gospels and Acts fascinate me. I love reading them. I am drawn to the stories of Jesus and his early followers. For a long time I thought of the Gospels as providing a full picture of Jesus. After all, these stories that have been preserved are really all we have about the man.
Sitting in that traffic it dawned on me, the Gospels represent only the smallest glimpse into who Jesus was. Tradition says that Jesus about 33 years old when he was crucified. That means he spent some 12,000 days on Earth. We know precious little about the first 30 years of his life. The Gospels focus on his "public ministry," that lasted about three years. And even then, they spill most of their ink on his last week alive.
This snapshot of Jesus we get in the Gospels leaves so much out!
We don't really get the complete picture of the everyday Jesus.
Even if we want to constrain ourselves to the public ministry that is mostly covered in the four Gospels, it's a thumbnail.
We don't get the everyday moments.
What was Jesus like when he woke up first thing in the morning? How did he respond when one of the disciples was late to get on the road? Were there foods he didn't particularly like? What was his favorite vintage of wine? Did he get blisters?
You get the idea.
We know bits and pieces of the story. The Gospels give us a sense of who Jesus was, but we miss out on the everyday Jesus.
So, what's left? I'd argue what's left is our imaginations. We can take what we know about Jesus from the stories we have and the stories of his earliest followers and imagine what he would have been like in the in between times.
Perhaps you're asking, "Why would we want to do that?"
As I think about my life, I'm realizing that it's not really the big moments that have to come to define who I am. It's the small moments. It's the moment where I realize that, "I'm the traffic."
In all truth, our lives are not made up of grand events. They are filled with moments. Each moment builds on itself. A small decision here and little choice there. When these small moments come together they are the building blocks for who we are. If we really want to know ourselves, we need to look at the small moments that we find ourselves in.
Because of this, I'm trying to imagine what Jesus would have been like in the small moments of life. The in between times that were not considered worthy to write down. What we have in the Gospels is the big picture of who the man was. To me, Jesus is the most compelling person that has ever existed. His sacrificial love, his perseverance, his strength, his wisdom, his wit, and so much more, draw me in. I am so thankful for what we have in these stories.
Now, I want to work my way backward, so to speak, and free my imagination about the everyday Jesus. I am beginning to believe that it is here in the "everyday Jesus" that we can find the Jesus of the incarnation, or as another author put it, the Jesus of solidarity. I think this is the Jesus that really does meet us in the junk and the messiness of life. But, to find him we have to delve into a bit of the mystery and let ourselves engage our holy imaginations.
What do you think Jesus was like in those small moments, the everyday moments? Do you ever think about the "everyday Jesus"?
I was sitting with friends at our local hang out, Ram's Horn, affectionately referred to as "The Hole (if you've been in a Ram's Horn you will know why it got that nickname)." I was reconnecting with friends from high school after spending the summer in South Carolina on a mission trip. That summer I had learned about Jesus and God in a way that was new to me. It all felt real for the first time. I was a different person than I was twelve weeks prior.
As we were sitting there my buddy, Joe burst into the restaurant and said, "Your mom needs you to go home right now. Something's wrong man, you need to go."
I jumped in my car and headed home. I don't remember much of that drive. But, I will never forget seeing the cars in the driveway. Our pastor was there. Family was there. There were tears everywhere. My Mimi had died in a car accident. She was one of the most significant people in my life. Outside of my mom, nobody knew me the way she did.
That day, everything had changed.
It didn't make sense. I had given my summer to God. Why was this happening? It wasn't fair. Why did God let this happen? How was it that God could do this?
Looking back, I know now that I descended into what has been called a dark night of the soul. I questioned everything. I was depressed. I was in anguish. I struggled to believe.
The Thing Called Deconstruction
If this had happened today I think the process that I entered into would be called "deconstruction."
Everywhere you look people are deconstructing. For some, this looks like a total rejection of faith. Some question a doctrine here or there. Others walk away from "church" and hold on to Jesus. Loads of "Christian famous" folks are carrying out their deconstruction online for the world to see. Some are leveraging deconstruction for financial gain (yes, you can hire people to coach you through a season of deconstruction).
Then there's the response to deconstruction. Some celebrate it and almost evangelize it to others. Others point to it as a simply a way to disguise apostasy. Both seem to be missing the mark.
Dark Night of the Soul
What we now call "deconstruction" is nothing new.
St. John of the Cross is largely credited with coining the term, "dark night of the soul" in his 16th century poem.
Even before him, the concept is present throughout the writings of early Christians. The dark night of the soul often refers to seasons where the one who believes encounters in fresh ways the mysteries of the divine. This could be in good times and bad times.
As we look to the story of the people of God in the Bible we see this dark night of the soul or deconstruction all over the place. In particular, I think of the books of Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Jeremiah (honestly, almost all of the prophets show signs of this). One of my favorite parts of the Acts of the Apostles is witnessing the deconstruction of Peter and Paul's faith.
What strikes me is that counter to what some folks would have us think, deconstruction is normal for people seeking to follow in the way of Christ.
Maybe what it is...
I have been thinking a lot about this dark-night-of-the-soul/deconstruction for the last number of years. Something I am realizing is that I have gone through many seasons of deconstruction. So much so, that I'm not sure that the term is even helpful. For a while I thought maybe it was a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction. But, I'm not sure that's really it. I think that perhaps, something else is going on.
Last week I included a quote from C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, "Further up, and further in." It strikes me that this is really what is happening in my life and the life of so many others. Maybe, it's not de- and re- construction? Could it be that it's a vast spiral of becoming more and more of who we are meant to be? Ken Wilber in his text, A Theory of Everything, calls this the process of "transcend and include."
What if we could envision our lives progressing not along a linear line of ups and downs, but as a spiral that is driving us deeper and deeper towards reality. We learn what we need to learn where we are right here, and right now. Then that drives us ever deeper to new truths and a clearer sense of who we are and who we are to become. The mystery continues to beckon, "further up, and further in..."
I don't have a new word for this, but maybe an old word would do? Maybe the old word, "sanctification," is a better term. This process of becoming something new. When I read through the stories of God's people I see them constantly moving and growing and changing.
"Further up, and further in..."
It's not so much a deconstruction or even a dark night of the soul as much as it is being confronted with a current reality and the hope of something new before us. This something new is a version of ourselves moving towards greater flourishing.
I wonder if this sanctification is what Jesus meant when he talked about how he had come to give us life and life to the full?
What if, all the stories that are emerging of deconstruction are really stories of sanctification. Most of the time, from what I see, when people come out from the other side of this season they are more loving, more gracious, more given to mercy, and have a greater empathy.
What if, we need to follow the footsteps of the prophets and of the apostles and have all our assumptions about God challenged and broken, to truly find God in the deep mystery?
Have you experienced a dark night of the soul? Or have you experienced deconstruction? How have you changed? In what ways does your life look different as a result?
A QUESTIONING FAITH
I remember sitting in Calculus during my senior year in high school. It was Spring and the windows were open. I could hear the birds chirping outside and the fresh, cool, Michigan Spring air was blowing gently through the room. Mr. Near, our teacher, was busy writing on the board and excitedly explaining some new equation. As he was teaching he said something that made my face flush and hands get sweaty, I could feel a sense of panic and anxiety rush over me.
"As you know by now..."
I wanted to scream, "No, Mr Near, I don't know by now! I don't understand any of this. I don't even comprehend half of the vocabulary that you're using!"
Yet, I looked around and saw my friends nodding their heads and following along with obvious understanding and clarity.
School was always easy for me. It was a source of pride that I was one of the "smart kids." My grade point average was a significant piece of my identity. That feeling of not knowing and definitely not understanding was sickening. This was particularly true because it seemed like all of my friends understood everything with complete clarity.
It's Kind of Like This...
Many of us feel like I did in Calculus when we hear people start talking about religion, faith, and spirituality. The leaders in these spaces typically speak with authority and certainty. We look around the room and everyone is nodding along. One of the most often used phrases is, "The Bible clearly says..."
Some of us want to scream, "No, it doesn't seem 'clear'! I don't understand any of this and I don't comprehend half the vocabulary you're using!"
If you've grown up in "the church" when you have these thoughts you likely feel some of the things that I felt, and probably even more intense. So often when these questions and doubts rise up in us we experience shame and guilt. We feel like we are the only ones that are wrestling with these kinds of things. As a result, we can isolate ourselves from those around us who seem to have absolute certainty about it all.
If you didn't grow up in "the church" then you too may have felt these things. Particularly, as it relates to someone who feels like they're constantly on the outside looking in. The "church people" seem to be part of some insider club and as you look on, you see the holes and the hypocrisy. You may also have a sense that questions are not welcome there because of the way that people speak with such certainty and authority.
I'm beginning to learn that certainty is the opposite of faith. When us religious folks speak as though we have certainty about all this stuff, it points, not to the strength of our faith, but to the weakness of it.
With great faith, comes great doubt.
There's a story about Jesus where he meets a dad whose son is possessed. The son is often thrown into seizures and when this has happened he has fallen into fires or pools of water. The dad wants to see his son healed. He's at the end of his rope (who hasn't been there?) and says, "If you can help, please help!"
Then this happens:
Jesus said, "If? There are no 'ifs' among believers. Anything can happen."Mark 9:23-24
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, "Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!"
Jesus does the Jesus thing and heals the boy.
I think that this dad is one of the most honest people in the Bible.
"Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!"
Jesus meets him right there. He heals the boy. He doesn't chastise him for his doubt.
In my own life I'm resonating more and more with this dad. My frequent prayer is his prayer. "I believe, help me in my doubt." The questions I struggle with are real. The doubts are consistently present. The sense of certainty that I had in my younger days is long gone. Yet, I believe more deeply than I ever have before.
There's a picture that an I artist I like drew and I think it sums up some of my journey well,
I have to tell you, joining people on the journey of seeking together is a lot of fun. There's so much beauty in it all. We get to ask questions and struggle together with the mysteries of the divine.
As we seek together, there's a lot of taking Jesus at his word. Grace and mercy and hope are becoming words that mean something more than theological short hand in a religious sales pitch. These ideas are becoming a context for which I see and experience other people and myself.
When we lean into doubt our faith grows and deepens.
I am also learning that the questions that I wrestle with are questions that other people wrestle with.
I am not alone and neither are you.
During the first week of October I will be launching a new Facebook Group. The Pastor Next Door group will be one where, together, we can say, "Help me with my doubt." You need not walk this journey alone. I know that I don't want to. Over the last number of years the conversations with friends about their wrestling with mystery, the universe, and the divine have sparked my imagination and a deepening of my faith.
Together we can call one another "further up and further in!" ((C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle:
"It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this.You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking-glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different–deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean.
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right forehoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”))
If you'd like an invite to the group drop a comment and let me know! This group will be invite only and is private. That means what's posted there is not something that can be found or read by people outside of the Facebook Group. I set it up this way, so that we can talk honestly and openly there. I hope that it becomes a community, a neighborhood, where you can build relationships around seeking the deeper questions of life.