Friday, February 19, 2016

Maybe there's something deeper than the struggle going on

Maybe it's my line of work for the last 36 years (pastoring and then as a healthcare chaplain) but I have become very familiar with a quote that I've heard attributed either to the Dalai Lama or Ian MacLaren: "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Perhaps you've seen the videos of people walking around with cartoon balloons over their heads full of comments like "Just been told he has cancer," "Recently divorced," or "Lost her job."  Such a message of compassion is sorely needed in this self-focused harsh world of today.  It could help us take a breath, give each other some space, or even close the gap.

But a thought occurs to me.  Is there a way to acknowledge this universal struggling but do it in a way that doesn't leave our pain and loss as our answer to our existential Final Jeopardy question?  Your struggle isn't my struggle so how can I really resonate with you apart from sharing a mutual sadness or frustration?  What is the point of this "battle" that engages everyone?  If we could discover that, it might fuel not only our compassion but also our hope. 

It makes a great difference which preposition we use here.  We can "struggle in," struggle about," "struggle with," and "struggle over."  If we stop here we are left as a kind of victim of circumstances.  We're just caught in an ennui in which the best we can do is distract ourselves with entertainments or deaden ourselves with numbing substances.

The great movements of humanity have spoken of a "struggle for."  If there is no for we might thrash against our pain but there is no purpose.  It was written of Jesus that it was "for the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising its shame." (Hebrews 12:2)  Jesus did not believe in the noble inevitability of pain.  He believed in what lay on the other side of his struggle against sin, the flesh, and the world.  The pain was a necessary part of redemption.  The gain was worth the pain.

And so I have started telling myself a different mantra: "Be hopeful.  Everyone you meet is fighting for a dream."  Some of us pursue this more wisely than others and too many of us settle for something far less than our heart's true desire (the dream God put there as a part of His image), but each of us is in the midst of a monumental effort to take hold of what Gary Gunderson has identified as five "leading causes of life":
  1. That my life would make sense (Cohesion)
  2. That my relationships would be fulfilling (Connectedness)
  3. That I can effect necessary change (Agency)
  4. That I can receive and impart life (Generativity)
  5. That I (and what matters to me) will continue in some way, some where (Hope)

I am finding that this perspective helps me connect with others with greater urgency and joy.  My brother's life may be incredibly hard right now.  I can feel sorry for him and give him my time to listen.  But what binds us at a deeper letter is the determined hope that this is not how things were designed to be.  That there is a profound hope that gives meaning to the struggle.  The Apostle Paul testified to this when he wrote "I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.."  He was willing to suffer "the loss of all things compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

The next time we meet, you may be in a good moment or in a hard place.  In either case, I will do the best I can to "Be hopeful.  He is fighting for a dream."  I hope you will do the same for me.

Friday, February 5, 2016

We become that which we love

I'm taking my cues for this post from two contemporary writers and one ancient tome.  The contemporary voices are James R. A. Smith (professor at Wheaton College) and Timothy Keller (Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NY).  The ancient wisdom comes from Augustine (a 4th century Christian).

I look back at how I have become the kind of person I am today and know that the journey is not yet complete and that there have been serious missteps along the way, yet the product does look promising.  Whatever progress there is in me has come about because through it all the One who is Love has relentlessly pursued me and turned my face gently toward his in all circumstances, lest I give myself to that which would destroy me.

Augustine believed and taught that all people seek happiness and they attach themselves to things they believe will make them happy.  That attachment is experienced as love.  The main human problem arises when we misidentify what will make us happy.  This is what he would call the fact of sin.  We either love what we ought not to love, or we fail to love we we ought to love, or we love more what we should love less, or we love less what we should love more.  For instance if a business owner loves making money more than doing justice, she will exploit her workers or employees.  If a man loves his career more than his children, his family relationships will break down.

Augustine knew from experience that the source of all misery is that we and those around us do not love God supremely.  If we love anything at all in this world more than God, we will crush that object under the weight of our expectations and eventually break our own hearts.

Which brings me back to my experience.  I have loved many unworthy things in my life and it has cost me.  I still find myself attracted to that which doesn't deserve my devotion.   The Apostle John categorizes these doomed love trysts as "desires of the flesh," "desires of the eyes," and "the pride of life."  Pleasure, accumulation, and acclimation.  To love any or all is to doom myself to eventual dismay and loneliness.

John's fellow Apostle Paul once testified, "I don't fool myself into thinking that I have already attained this, but I press on to take hold that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me."

Someone I deeply care about has told me that he can no longer believe that the God he grew up hearing about really exists.  My mind went to all the things I have preached on to convince others of God's existence.  But all I could do in that moment was to speak out of my experience.  "All I can say is that I believe that the bottom line of the universe is that there is a God who loves us and wants us to know Him."

I confess that I have not resembled this God at times.  I spent too long loving my work, my reputation, my pleasures, my privacy, and my resentments even as I preached and taught of Jesus. God's grace ameliorated much of the damage, but sadly, my misshapened soul failed to consistently reveal the true beauty and magnificence of the One whose image I bore and who I wanted to become more like.

I'm 58 now and I am grateful that God continues to woo and win.  He faithfully gives taste after taste of Himself and I am learning at this late season that He alone is worthy.  That the only love that lasts is for Him who is eternal.  That not even death will interfere with this ever deepening relationship.

Augustine got it right seventeen centuries ago: "You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Truth is Still Out There

Tonight marks the return of X-Files in the form of a six-episode mini-series on FOX.  To get ready I watched the last episode of the ninth season, originally broadcast on May 19, 2002.

F.B.I Special Agent Fox Mulder spends nine years (at least the nine we are privy to) believing that “the truth is out there.”  In the end, he does the only thing that makes sense.  The final scene shows him in a hotel room with his best friend in the world, Agent Dana Scully.  They have traveled to every corner of the globe, encountered the best and worst in people, and had their cosmic worldviews irreversibly altered.  The two of them are frightened to the end of hope by what they have experienced.

Scully asks him if he has learned that all he suspected was actually true, then what was it that he believed.  It is then that Mulder reaches for the necklace Scully wears and takes her Christian cross in his hand.  Dana speaks the last words of the epic series: “Maybe there is hope.” 

If Fox Mulder becomes a believer in Jesus Christ it will be a truly genuine conversion.  It will not be a “things go better with Jesus” faith which is popularly marketed to today’s religious consumer.  It will be a faith that has been fought for and worth dying with, where the tough questions of reality are wrestled with in light of Christ’s claim to be “the way, truth and life.”  It is the faith that God wants us to have.  It is the kind Jesus promised when he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

After nine years, Fox Mulder knows that real life is terrifying and ultimately absurd if humans are on their own.  In the end, He takes up the cross.  He has the answer. 

I still don't believe that human beings resulted from a piece of Mars that crashed into the Earth, but I think somewhat better of Chris Carter now.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Let it Snow?

The weatherperson says that the mid-Atlantic coast is getting a blizzard right now.  We lived in WV for five years (1979-1984) and then Northern Virginia for five more years (1984-1989). It was October 10, 1979 when I looked out my window at our first nor'easter winter storm.  I looked across US Highway 33 at the little building belonging to the church I had come to serve three months previously.  It was wrapped up tight in about a foot and a half of the white stuff.  Smoke from scores of wood-fired stoves rose gently into the air of Brandywine, WV.  The regular train of turkey trucks disappeared as those semis couldn't get back to the coliseum-sized barns in which their treasure gobbled.  My 1967 blue  Camaro rested under a fluffy blanket.  We were content to sit it out, even though we had only one TV channel.

Nadine and I had arrived there in July to begin our first ministry.  Those 70+ souls were getting to know us and we them.  Next summer things would start hopping with the holding of our first Vacation Bible School.  We would discover that there were lots of kids in that little town and lots of parents trying to do the right thing by them.  Our kids wouldn't begin to arrive for another two years.

That was 37 years ago.  Somewhere along the way, I discovered something called the Johari Window.  It was created by a duo of psychologists in 1955 to help us understand how we relate with ourselves and with others.  In our marriage and in our church we were working to open the windows.  We didn't know how much we didn't know, but that's where the power of extended grace comes in.  It softens hard edges so the cuts aren't so deep.  It slows the rush to judgment and allows you to focus on what is right in front of you.

May God look after the people of Washington, Baltimore, New York and other neighborhoods especially if they are "out in it" tending the various fires that make human life possible these days.  When they get home tonight (or tomorrow morning) may they be greeted by loving faces looking for them through their windows.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

On the Threshold

Why do things we look long upon with disinterest suddenly zoom in and become priority to us?  How is that something we have discounted as improbable or impossible transform quickly into "want tos" and even "have tos"?

It's not time to pack our bags yet, but before Spring gets very old Nadine and I will travel to the center of the world and visit the land of Israel.  I could thank Mike Canny for sharing how traveling there deepened his walk with Christ.  I could thank Nadine for buying our tickets (it's her savings that makes this possible)!  I must thank God for giving us the health and opportunities over the last ten years that allow us such special experiences.

Israel is a place we have spent our lives learning, teaching and (in my case) preaching about.  We have walked spiritually with Jesus since we were children.  Like the bards of old, we have sung the songs of Zion and told the tales of the Fathers across five states and to uncounted audiences of children and adults.  It's the Story that brought us together and that we have sought to live into for forty years.  Now we get to walk where Abraham, Jacob, David, Ruth, Mary and Jesus walked.  We will eat as they ate (no dairy and meat at the same table), but our accommodations will be beyond their imagining.

I referred to Israel as "the center of the world."  Look at any typical world map. 

The Middle East (and Israel in particular) sits right in the middle, at the joining of Asia, Africa and Europe, with the Americas shoved off to the left side.  Over thousands of years the Christian faith has spread across the world, yet unto today millions of believers have made their way to Israel/Palestine to visit and even to live.

Now it is our turn.  I don't know what we will sense when we set foot on the ground in Tel Aviv, or when we sail across the Sea of Galilee, or climb Mts. Carmel and Moriah, or when we wade into the Dead Sea, or sit on the Mount of Olives.  Our group will spend time each evening reflecting on where we have been that day.  I believe that the One we have taught about, believed upon, and prayed to will reveal Himself to us as we best need now.  That's true regardless of wherever we are in His world.

Monday, January 18, 2016

An essay I recently wrote for the local paper

In an attempt to re-energize my blogging, I offer this sample of what is to come . . .
Many people knew Donald Jarvis over the sixty-seven years of his life.  He was the first-born son to my grandparents Grace and Jerrie.  Seventeen years later he became a fellow Marine among the few and the proud.  He was a skilled machinist most of his work life.  He was a crafty euchre player and an artist who worked beauty on canvas and with precious stones.  Three different women knew him as husband (the second being my mother).  Six of us knew him as father.

The night before his crucifixion, John remembered Jesus saying something that has caused no little controversy since then: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  (John 14:6)  At different times, Jesus made it clear that the life God calls us to is neither simple nor easy.  He spoke of a needle’s eye and a narrow way.  He called his followers to denial of self and hatred of life in this world.  On first glance, his words on this last night before his crucifixion seem to draw a severe line in the sand that excludes many who never hear of Him or who are not inclined to follow.

We need to note what occupied Jesus’ thoughts that night.  “In my Father’s house . . .” “Show us the Father . . .”  The word “Father” in reference to God appears forty-five times in these three chapters (John 14-16), mostly from the lips of Jesus.  Maybe Jesus’ urgency was not that we just find our way to heaven when we die or believe in “God” as we might imagine Him.  But that we “come to the Father.”

In his last night with these men who will soon launch His Church, Christ wants them to always remember that the kingdom of God consists primarily not of a destination or a dogma or anything we can claim to own and keep in our pocket, but of an eternal relationship that produces everything of worth.

Whether then or now, people present themselves as on good terms with “God” through spiritual systems of their own making.  Jesus knows this.  He also knows where He has come from and where He is going (John 13:3).  And so He says that if they want to know the Father, they must pay attention to Him.

You can view my father’s paintings that adorn the walls of my house.  My wife often wears rings he made for her.  But only his children can share with you what life was like with him as a father.

This is where my personal analogy falls short.  My father died twenty years ago.  He left no letters behind that explain his thinking.  His surviving sister and brother’s memories are fading.  My siblings and I have mined all we know of each other’s experience and our recollections of him are as imperfect as he was.  Full appreciation of his story awaits the day when we will know perfectly, even as we are perfectly known (I Corinthians 13:12).

In contrast, Jesus offers a way to the Father that is unerring.  His truth about the Father is complete and His life with the Father is unendingly full of joy.  Jesus wants to share this intimacy with us.  This is what Christians stake their hopes upon.  This is what fuels their love and renews their faith.

Jesus offers a quality of relationship that until now only He has known.  For three years the disciples observed this living relationship. Their interest may have started with amazement at his miracles or a hope that Jesus would lead Israel to a new era of greatness or even a selfish clamoring for places of privilege.  In a few hours they will witness his absolute trust in His Father’s will.  Over the years they will grasp how necessary it was that he be crucified and raised again so that the Father and his estranged creation be reconciled.

John records Jesus’ words in the negative: “no one can . . . except . . .”  They could just as well had been phrased “everyone can come to the Father through me.”  Are these words a line in the sand or an invitation?  I believe that it’s not enough for our Maker that the whole world bows before him in submission.  He’d rather have us climb into his lap like those little children of whom Jesus said the kingdom belongs.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Around the World

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the WorldGrounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World by Seth Stevenson

A fun read.  Just enough detail without feeling bogged down in another person's over-fascination with place.  The key is the author's experience of places and people along the way.  Just the right amount of "protest" against modern life's fervency and superficiality.  What a challenge to dare to jump into the world's otherness with both feet!  You don't come back the same.  A journey doesn't have to be that far to be that good for you.

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