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 what 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 mishapened 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."