Tag Archives: spiritual discipline

Paths Through the Desert

In Job we get to see something interesting about how God uses suffering to reveal what is in the hearts of humans. Job, a righteous man, suffers immense tragedy at the hands of Satan. While God ultimately restores Job, his “friends” keep coming around telling him he must have done something. His friends are saying God is not protecting Job because he must have messed something up in his relationship with God. “You got your troubles by your own mistakes Job, because God would have protected you if you were really righteous,” they argue.

A while back we went through 1st Peter, another book that reveals how God uses suffering to refine us, to identify us with the sufferings of Christ. God sometimes uses fiery trials to re-form us closer to the image of Christ, the God who suffered for us and suffers with us. This book was written for an audience who was experiencing intense persecution and yet, it kept pointing them back to the example Christ. This experience was not lifted up as something God would protect them from and help them escape, it was seen as an opportunity to be refined.

The fact is God can use suffering, and does use suffering. He uses it to refine us, and every now and then it’s actually good for us. It can shake us out of our complacency and turn us back to God. It can purify our motives. Suffering can draw us closer to God in ways that comfort can actually get in the way of. As John of the Cross reminds us, when we are comfortable, often the first thing to suffer is our relationship to God because we begin to forget how much we really need Him.

The truth is, God seems more likely to use suffering to refine us than we are comfortable with. God is not in the business of handing out golden parachutes, but in raising up true disciples who like Job can weather even the biggest storm this life can throw at us and have our relationship with God remain intact. We might freak out a little bit, but the center holds. God holds us together though the mess. Sometimes God draws us to a desert experience so that we would thirst for Him…to show us we have been drinking from other places than the water of life. Like Jesus in the wilderness God sometimes calls us to travel the way of the desert: The way of trusting God on an unfamiliar path.

God’s grace sustaining us on the desert way—puts us in a place to see things as they really are: We see ourselves, and our relationship with God with new eyes. We see the end of ourselves. We see our dependence on God. We see our utter need, but we also see God sustaining us in ways we never believed were possible. God doesn’t just give us new eyes to see ourselves, He gives us eyes to see our tethers (the things William Penn called cumber). We see the things that control us for what they are…and as they are unmasked we learn to be free of them once again.

Like the children of Israel before the exile, we can limit God. We can mentally trap Him inside a building on Sunday morning, we can even trap Him inside the Bible, if we read it in unbelief that the Spirit is still moving and still leading us today. The children of Israel had a way of seeing God that was bound to the land. It was bound to the Temple, the monarchy. It was bound to the shadow of mount Zion. They would point to the promises of God, but their actions were no longer rooted in the character and nature of God. They no longer depended on God, but on external things. They pointed to the blessing God promised them, but they ignored the warnings about their own part of the covenant. All their encounters with God were past encounters, because they had long since gotten comfortable with their sin separating them from God.

So God called them to Babylon. He would no longer protect them from themselves. He would strip it all away to show them something new. He would show them how as Creator, He was unfettered and free. He would keep His promises on His own terms, not on their terms. He would show them that outside the protections of their armies. Outside the protections of the Promised Land. Outside the elaborate Temple system and blessings of the priests. God was there, even in Babylon. God was not limited by the limitations they tried to put on Him…

God is still trustworthy to sustain us. The same God who parted the Red Sea would also make a way through the exile. After all these things were stripped away, the one thing they would know they could count on would be the promises of God. They would one day get back these blessings they were about to lose. They would one day return to the land they knew, but first a lot of chaff would be stripped away. God had to make them thirsty for the right things once again…

Isaiah writes:

“Look, I am about to do something new. Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it? Yes, I will make a road in the desert and paths in the wilderness.  The wild animals of the desert honor me, the jackals and ostriches, because I put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness, to quench the thirst of my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so they might praise me.” (Isa. 43:19-21)

After a long experience of God stripping me down, revealing the good and the bad motivations for ministry still kicking around within me, revealing the parts of my mind still needing to be held captive by Christ. I went through a long process of letting go all control, and trusting God to lead me once again. It was a process that brought me here, and a process still at work within me in some new ways. Maybe you’re in that place. It is messy to watch something we love fade. To mourn it. And to wake back up to the hope of God resurrecting something new in its place…

We have been through quite a time of testing these last few months at College Avenue. It has been hard to lose so many people we love and walk with them through various trials. These last few months I feel as I have come to the end of myself, and yet broken through to that place where God’s presence floods back in, bringing beauty to the brokenness. God’s Spirit has sustained me recently in ways I could never begin to describe. And as Isaiah reminds us, we can come out the other side of a desert experience with hearts filled with praise. I long for that, for me and for you. I long for God to bring about something new and wonderful, bearing fruits only He can bear in us. We bear these fruits only through being connected to the Vine. Sometimes nothing reveals that like the desert. May our many trials make us thirsty for God, and help us trust Him to satisfy our thirst as only He can. May we learn to trust Him in these uncertain times. May we be grateful for His streams in the desert, filling our hearts with hope and even wonder at the journey. God wants his people to be freed from slavery, and sometimes that means trusting God through the desert, and then finally to the Promised Land beyond it. Let us keep walking, keep hoping, and keep dreaming for the new things God wants to do among us.

Agape,

James

 


Sacrifice Made Alive

turkey-sacrifice-feastI once heard a friend describe how his experience following Jesus seemed to require two conversions, in one Jesus became his savior and in another, Jesus became his Lord. I had never heard it described that way before, but it fits with my experience too. I came to Jesus on my own terms, and despite knowing I needed salvation, I was not in any big hurry to give Jesus all the keys to all the doors of my life. I still had some skeletons out there. I still had some places where my prayers, though unspoken, were like that of St Augustine who famously described the misery of an inappropriate relationship and his wrestling with God’s call in his prayer, “Lord deliver me, but not yet!”
For me, accepting Jesus as Lord was a call to obedience, to integrity. It called me to look at my actions, and look at what I said I believe—what I wanted to believe—and the reality of my falling short. The reality of where there was a disconnection between what I said and what my life had to say I really believed. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12 puts this kind of spiritual growth where we step out into faith and learn to walk in the ways of God like this:
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I may have come to God on my own terms, but eventually I began to grasp his mercy. I started to see my story in light of God’s gospel story, and the Holy Spirit frustrated me with a kind of Holy frustration. I came to God on my own terms, in a way, but faith started to get a hold of me and meddle with my life. I knew I needed a Savior, that was the easy part. The hard part was dying to my rebelliousness and submitting to Jesus as my Lord.
I think a lot of us like the gray area. We like to have Jesus be our Savior, but we hold back. We do not want to submit. Instead of letting God get a hold of us and have His way in us, we approach life through the lens of what I like to call Jesus+. Jesus + what I was already going to do anyway. Jesus + the career I had already chosen… Jesus + a wife and 2.3 kids, and a comfortable life in the suburbs somewhere. I will follow Jesus, but only if it leads me to where I already want to go. Instead of letting our minds be transformed, we try to transform the things we give God permission to tell us. We want to have it both ways, Jesus as Savior…but not really Lord.

But Jesus+ doesn’t cut it; we need to live a God first life. There is no real growth until we give God all of us. Paul describes it in the form of offering our bodies. It is not how much money you put in the offering plate; it is whether your life is in the offering plate. It is whether your hopes, your dreams, your actual body, are completely in the tank for Jesus. Someone once said God gives where He sees open hands. I think that is true. At the end of the day, God gives us what we really want, not what we say we want… but what we really want. If we want to serve Him, we will find our lives reflecting that. If we want to put on a mask and have a faith that is only skin deep—and not much use for God, we will find that too.

And there is no growth without sacrifice. Jesus calls us to put on his easy yoke, but he also calls us to daily take up our cross and follow him. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice was meant to represent your very best. Not the animal that was going blind, the animal in its prime. It was costly. There are all kinds of stories that show us this, Eli’s sons offering strange fire… Malachi rejecting the people giving sick and lame animals as sacrifices, Ananias and Sapphira wanting the glory of giving it all while lying about holding back… God doesn’t want our leftovers, our leftovers are not worthy of God, He is worthy of our very best. He gave his very best for us. He gave us blessings to his dying breath, and beyond. He offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that paid the ultimate price… and in response to that we are to set our lives apart for him as a living sacrifice. We may die for Jesus…but he asks that we live for him instead.

I know some of you may feel differently than I about prosperity. I believe there are many benefits to righteous living, but there are also dangers. Jesus calls some of the righteous to suffer persecution in his name. I think a lot of people think being a Christian means God will be on your side and give you everything you want. That following God is nothing but rainbows and lollipops, if you just put God first in your life. I believe that is only half true. My experience felt more like Jesus wrecking my life until I understood what God was trying to do!

I think the closer we walk with God the more he changes us to want what he wants, to care about what he cares about. I think when we give our lives to God he takes it and gives our lives back. He takes our plans and then shows us his plan. Our lives become more about sacrifice and service, than about bucket lists and our already decided Jesus+ plans.

This is what worship was always meant to be, not just going through the motions in empty ritual or kept in the box of what happens on a Sunday morning. Worship takes your whole life, not just a few hours one day a week. We have to worship God with everything, our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength.
Only when we put some skin in God’s game do we begin to know the heart of God and his desires for us and our world. Only when we hold our plans loosely, and submit to God’s will… do we truly become a living sacrifice. Sacrifice has to be made alive in how we live our lives.

There are a lot of people who live as though their bodies are their own, as if there can be a disconnect between their behavior and their beliefs. I know it because I did it myself. Sometimes we want a savior, but still want to be masters of their own destiny. We would rather “reign” in hell, so to speak, than “serve” in heaven. But there is a part of faith that is more than simply knowing the right answers; it is about living into the truth. There is a part of growing deeper in God where we have to say, like Isaiah in response to God’s call, “Here I am Lord, send me.” Where we let God renew our minds… where our every action can be an acceptance of Jesus or a rejection of Jesus… where we come to the end of ourselves and humbly come before God as an empty vessel asking to be filled.

Grace is a wonderful thing, and God’s grace abounds, but that doesn’t mean we can have a faith that asks nothing of us. I think it is easy to make fun of people from bible times that worshipped statues made of rocks or sticks. To wonder, why would anyone ever do that? I will tell you why. Rocks and sticks ask nothing of us. It is easy for us to fall into a kind of empty Christianity, where we go through the motions… show up and listen to preaching or hear the songs, or just sleep in… expecting that we can come to the living God, and yet hold back—to be warmed by the fire of his holiness and yet not let ourselves be fully consumed. To pray that prayer of Augustine, “Deliver me Lord, but not yet.” I will follow you later Jesus, after I have made my life everything I want it, and all the big decisions have already been settled. Like the rich young ruler, our comforts sometimes are too heavy to drag with us after Jesus…

But let’s get real, where do you hear God asking for sacrifice? Where is God getting your best? Are you holding anything back, and if so… what is that anchor, what is that chain God wants to break you free from? There can be no real growth without all of you on the altar, your whole life in the offering plate. There can be no real growth if your faith has no room for sacrifice.
Agape,
James


Resolving for More

newyearseve1

It has become traditional for many of us to reflect on our lives in the twilight of one year fading and the next approaching. Often most of what guides that thinking is regrets we want to learn from, or goals we want to strive for. Unfortunately for many who have reflected on their lives, despite the best of intentions, New Years resolutions often burn out before winter even begins to thaw. The Quaker view of simplicity as I understand it has a lot to say about how one might approach this time of reflection. At its core it is about evaluating what produces addiction in us; what controls us. Often we find that we can bend who we are around how we want others to see us, or what pleasures we might lose ourselves in. But the goal of simplicity is not merely sin management, pleasure seeking, or knocking things off our “bucket list,” in short it is more about getting in touch with our truest convictions, and living from them, than it is about “resolving” to add something new to our lives.

One of my growing convictions is that I was made to tinker and create. This does not mean I am not called to be a pastor, but it does profoundly shape how I approach serving as a pastor and how I spend healthy time at play. When I say creativity is one of my convictions, I am not saying creativity is something I value as much as I am saying that I “cannot not” create. The way my mind works and my passions are orientated necessitates I do the life giving work of creating, whether than means writing, building a project in the garage, or developing new skills that help me grow to my potential. Lately I have been playing with metal casting, building a forge, designing an anvil, and learning French. But none of these endeavors have anything to do with resolutions for a new year. They each in their own way, fit into my convictions about living a simple life, as surprising as that might be to hear.

My hope and prayer is that each of you makes space in your life for your convictions to thrive. So much of our lives can easily become more like slavery to a multitude of obligations than growing into who God is calling us to be. As Christians, we have a robust theological understanding of being the body of Christ, and this understanding means our strengths come from our unity and diversity. Indeed we were created to be different on purpose, and yet were each made to work in unison to the glory of God. As our lives lose touch with the wisdom of simplicity, instead of saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things, we often say yes to too many things and only say no when we are drowning. Yet God has a much saner and life giving way for those who would take on the yoke of Christ. If we are hoping to attract others to the way of Jesus we must first demonstrate that the way of Jesus has something more to offer than the hurry and stress of a secular life! As Jesus said, we must examine the plank in our own eye….

While I find myself disagreeing with John Piper about a great number of things, he has an interesting understanding of doing what we were made for he confusingly calls “Christian Hedonism.” Piper defines that as briefly in his statement “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” What Piper means is that as we grow into who God is calling us to be and take on the mind of Christ we will naturally enjoy good Christian things. These things are not limited to prayer and bible study or regularly attending worship, though those are all good things. What I mean is that God will create in us desires for good things, and also a deep satisfaction in doing the things we were made to do. At its core, I think this speaks to the heart of simplicity.

As we approach a new year, let us do more than settle for fleeting convictions fast forgotten. Let us go deeper into the lessons this last year has been trying to teach us about how to be satisfied, not as an end to itself, but as a byproduct of living out our calling and finding the freedom of desiring the will of God to reign in our hearts and minds. A simple life is a life seeking righteousness, earnest faithfulness, and the Holy Spirit convicting us not only of our sins, but of about righteousness (John 16:8). While it may not be the soundest argument about the overall thrust of that verse, I do believe God brings convictions into our lives about how we are to live free from sin, but also how we are to let the righteousness of Christ shape how we live our lives. Paul describes his way of living out the gospel among the Thessalonians as one stemming not “simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). May we strive to live out our faith to those around us in touch with God’s leadings, and in touch with the truest things God is creating in our hearts.

Agape,
James


Failing Forward

potters-handsJesus said to the church, as he left this world, to “go and make disciples.” He said more than that, but for a second I want to wrestle with a little of what that means. A few quick points up front though: ancient people often gave more weight to what was said at the end of a person’s life. This means there is good reason to think this should be taken as the most important thing Jesus wanted to impress upon us. Next point, though it is often called the Great Commission, in the original Greek this is clearly a command. It is not a suggestion, it is not to be seen as one option among many. This is something God has not only revealed from His will, but something He expects our wills to conform to. And the last thing to get out up front, is that the word for disciple, mathetes, has at its root the idea of being a learner. Being a disciple at its core has to do with learning the way of Jesus, literally doing the things Jesus would do. This requires the heart, a deep commitment and passion for growing in the way of Jesus and being led by God’s Spirit. It requires the mind, an openness to taking the word of God into ourselves and letting it change us. And it requires our strength, there is work to be done. It requires us to live differently, to grow some spiritual muscles and respond with spiritual reflexes. It takes all of us. God will settle for nothing less.  

I have spent a lot of time reaching out this year. I really appreciate the Quaker understanding of “released” ministry, which often has released being used in a financial sense, but I also truly believe a pastor should not be “chained to a desk,” but should be out where the people are. I know that reaching out is a crucial thing, something that is a part of the calling of every person in any every church. It keeps us sharp. It helps us see where God is at work. As clear as the importance is of reaching out is, discipleship is more concerned with what to do when that reaching out actually grabs someone.

God has revealed to us that He is seeking disciples. This is not the same as converts. It is not the same thing even as church attendance. Jesus is offering far more than a regular opportunity for weekly worship. We, of course, DO want people to come and be a part of our fellowship. We do want people to worship with us and be a part of our Sunday morning community. Church attendance alone, however, is not the only metric of discipleship. It probably isn’t even the best metric. It is completely fair to ask the question, if not that, then what is?

I think a person who has embraced becoming a “learner” of the way of Jesus, is primarily concerned with relationships. Relationship with Jesus is first and foremost, but this can’t just be a “God and me only” thing, growth in Jesus happens personally, but also corporately. It is a corporate, not private, faith to which we are called.

Three kinds of corporate relationships are commonly emphasized in discipleship: First there are mentors. Who do I see as a mentor in my life? Thinking in terms of age may or may not be appropriate here. A person could be older and not spiritually mature. But a mentor is not necessarily older as much as more mature spiritually, but even that isn’t quite there yet. The person has to be growing and sharing the wealth of that experience. A mentor is someone who is actively investing in others, concerned about their development. Often this is a “Barnabas,” a person who encourages and challenges people to grow. So who is that person to you? Who is your Barnabas? If you don’t have one, who would make your list of people to ask? Often we have more to lose by not asking, than we do by asking. Who wouldn’t be flattered someone else saw maturity in you they wanted to seek out for themselves?

Next are peers. Peers are people actively growing but who are much closer to the same place of maturity. Small groups and accountability partners are intentional forms of peers, but there are unintentional peers as well. Peers are the easiest kind of relationships because we feel like equals. We often have the same affinities and interests. We feel the most comfortable around our peers, because they are the most like us. Peers walk with us. They are like a “guide alongside.” Perhaps the biggest problem with discipleship in the church is that we are content with surrounding ourselves with peers, but the truth is that God has more growth for us than we can get purely from people who are like us and we feel secure around. It is to “poke the bear” to say it that pointedly, but some things just need to be said.

Lastly is relationships with the people WE are mentoring, people we are actively investing in. To be a disciple is to embrace becoming a disciplemaker. Jesus had the three, the twelve, the seventy, and the multitudes. Imagine how much stronger the church might be if we each had even two mentees in our lives? Again, this does not have to be a physically young person, but a spiritually young person. It would go a long way toward making disciples if each of us could do a bit of soul searching about who we would choose to invest in.  Jesus had twelve he was actively investing in, people he took along with him. He chose them specifically for this purpose. This means choosing is a part of it. We can’t invest in all people equally, so we might consider striving for some old fashioned Quaker simplicity. We have to learn to say no to the right things, in order to say yes to the right things that God is calling us to do. Sometimes that is people in our own families. Sometimes it might be someone with similar interests, or similar spiritual gifts, or just people we see potential in. Sometimes we might need to prioritize “chemistry,” people we find a kindred spirit in. Sometimes it might be simply a burden we have for another person. Sometimes it might be the person to whom we feel a call to simply try and do the most good we can.

Discipleship is not a formula, some kind of “one size fits all” kind of deal. Human relationships are messy things. I do want to offer some wisdom that has stuck with me about the changing roles involved in discipleship:

1) I do, you watch

2) I do, you help

3) You do, I help

4) You do, I watch

There are various things this process could be applied to, but at its core it is about empowering others by passing on opportunities for growth in the way of Jesus. It could be used just as easily in a bible study setting as in a stand alone project together. Too often we just throw people in the deep end and see if they drown. We ask someone to take over a responsibility and we step back, but we offer very little of the middle two roles. The trick is in letting go of control. We want to short circuit the whole process by stepping out too quickly. This is, whether we realize it or not, just throwing people in the deep end of the pool. They need to be guided through this entire process. They need to be invited along and empowered. We have to be very intentional and put the time in in each of these roles, or we will never get to see the torch actually get passed. It might just be a fumble that burns both the parties involved.

I know many people in the church are diehards who would “go down with the ship” if need be. They have served faithfully for years, shouldering many burdens and responsibilities. Out of love for the church they have kept tight control—quality control—over the work of ministry. We justify this with a lot of fears, perfectionism, and talk of the Lord’s desire for us to strive for excellence. But let’s get real, the work of discipleship is intentionally “working ourselves out of a job.” Quality control, at many points, prevents discipleship. It is disempowering, because we are not raising up disciples and passing on experiences that help others grow. We are hogging them to ourselves because that way we don’t have to be afraid. That way we minimize risk. That way we can feel needed, important, busy, and indispensable.

But whether driven by fear or laziness, self serving motives or a sincere desire for excellence, if we do not share the power we have and give people room to fail, and help them pick up the pieces and learn, we are not only not being obedient to the very purpose of the church; we are ensuring a big storm will come that will bring the steeple down in a thunderclap. In not taking others along, and not doing the hard work of empowering others, we are setting up the generation after us to be “in over their heads” even more than we are. The way the world works today, young people are fragmented, disconnected, and unstable in many ways. There are few mentors, few mentees, and a whole lot of peers trying to pretend they have it all figured out. But young people today are not being taught things many older people take for granted, things as basic as how to manage a household, balance a checkbook, even cook a meal. No one has time for this, because it is easier to just do it ourselves so we know what we are getting, and it is faster to do it ourselves anyway.

Our society is very much a society where we throw people into the deep end. But Jesus is calling us to more than this. How can the church through God’s grace offer something better? Jesus invites us to a deep and abiding relationship, and he is inviting others through us to the same—and really, he has used others to bring us this far all along the way. How can our lives live into this reality? How can we be people who God uses to do for others what those who came before have done for us? How can we invite people into relationships where we can share Jesus? Where we can connect youthful, reckless passion and seasoned, hard-won wisdom? How can we let go of control, and use our power to bring others along, and bring them up in the wonderful things God is doing through a church at its best?

These are important questions, questions I will be wrestling with the rest of my life. But make no mistake, it is not about who shows up to worship as much as it is about God, and where God is at work. Weekly worship is a wonderful thing, but it can’t be the only thing. Jesus did not say, just before ascending to heaven, “Come ye into the sanctuary once a week, sing a few songs, listen to some preaching, and try to drag others along kicking and screaming if need be.” Jesus said “go and tell” not “come and see.” Jesus said make disciples—life-long learners of the way of Jesus, not converts—people who gather once a week to say hi to their peers.  Jesus does not ask us to squeeze a bit of God time into our overflowing lives, as they are bursting at the seams… he invites us to become like him. He wants us to grow in being responsive to the call of God. He wants us to be open to letting others speak into our lives. He wants us to play a part in investing in the spiritual lives of newcomers, novices, and even “nowhere to be seen’s” on a Sunday morning. Sometimes God is at work on the front porch, while we are inside biting our lip about the wrong slide popping up and wrecking our favorite worship jam.   

As a pastor, my job is not only to “go” myself, but to send others, and to take others along with me. To use my power to empower others, and share experiences that help each of you to grow. I admit, this is really, really hard and every fiber of my being fights against it. Like everyone else, it is all too easy to neglect the work of empowering others. It is all too easy to play to my strengths and keep control, and do what I can to avoid mistakes and keep everyone happy. But I can’t let you do that, and you can’t let me do that. The truth is, Jesus never intended that for us. To be disciples—learners—means to fail at times. It means “amateurism.” It means risk. It means letting go of control, even watching others fail to help them pick up the pieces and become learners. But this is what being the church really is. It is not a production. It is not what gets printed in the church bulletin. Jesus disrupted the expectations of people in worship one time and the congregation tried to throw him off a cliff. We too can put our expectations before what God might be trying to do, if we are not careful.

I am not asking you to find faults in me. I am not asking you to help me grow into some kind of super hero pastor with a cape on, who can do all things perfectly and never needs anyone else to lift a finger. Sure, I could improve on a lot of things, from preaching to time management to making sure my lawn gets mowed or my kids don’t destroy the house before you come over to visit the parsonage. But the look of squeaky-clean, polished perfection is actually a sign of death, not a sign of life. It is the pristine of the graveyard, not the messiness of a playground where life abounds and maturity is forming. Jesus calls us to the schoolhouse. Jesus calls us to fail at the small things, and to help others “safely fail” at the small things, that we might win at the big thing: making disciples. This is not checkers, this is chess. Jesus is the King, and as his pawns we need to make sure we are playing the King’s game. We each have our power, but not so we can cling to it. I have played chess with many people more concerned with losing their queen—the most powerful piece on the board—than with how the game will end. What is your endgame? To make disciples as Jesus commands us to, we must begin with the end in mind.

Agape,

James     


On Going Deeper and the Bleeding Edge

growthMysticism, or direct and unmediated spiritual experience, has long been a foundational element of what it means to be a Quaker. We, along with Christian brothers and sisters of many stripes, believe strongly that God IS already at work. God is at work both through the church and beyond the church. We also do not believe works and good deeds in any way earn our salvation. Somewhere in the tension of these two realities we find what is often referred to as spiritual formation. Christian spiritual formation is not a way of controlling God or manufacturing spiritual ecstasies, but it is a discipline—really a disciplined approach to life—that trusts that God is at work and seeks to assist in that work. It is trying to put one’s self in the best position so that the work of God would carry on unhindered.

During one of his talks at Barclay College, Fil Anderson, author of the book Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers, gave a wonderful metaphor for how we approach  this “work” we do. He likened it to the “work” of working on a tan. When we speak of “working on our tan,” it is really the sun that does the work; our work is just putting ourselves in the best position to soak up the suns’ rays. We are changed by our encounter, yet we recognize right away that in no way do we for one second control the sun.

We do not earn the rays. But there is a truth that our little part matters. There is a relationship between how we live and how available we are to God, and the fruits God grows in us. It is not a one to one correlation. We are finite, God is infinite. But we can to some extent, when it comes to the spiritual life, have the faith that the sun will shine and live into the truth of that reality. We can grab the spiritual equivalent to some oil and a towel. We can look for a sweet place to put ourselves before, and appreciate the warmth of, the Shekinah glory of God that is always shining to those whose eyes are open to take it in.

You might not realize it, but the sunflower is not called the sunflower because it looks like the sun in its way. The sunflower is called the sunflower because it turns its face fully toward the sun, and follows it across the sky all day. Like sunflowers, you and I, were created to point our hearts in God’s direction and always be slowly moving along with God in obedience, however small and unnoticed by others this work will often be. We do not do this physically, but it is at times just as subtle, just as secret, as a sunflower doing what it was created to do.

I don’t know about you, but I want to go deeper. I want to chase the mystery of God on the bleeding edge of faith. But this is not the work of one person who–like a Green Beret jumping out of a plane knife in mouth–pulls themselves up by some kind of spiritual boot straps. We cannot manufacture the work of God in ourselves. We are more like a plant than we want to admit. But even just looking at how living things are—finding the wisdom of the plant if you will—can tell us a lot about what is within our small sphere of work in the spiritual life. Like many things in life, it is not the responsibility of a pastor, spiritual director, mentor or any other kind of guru to see that this work is being done in your life. The work is your own to do. No one can do it for you, only with you. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 3:5-8, servants serve in obedience to and in accordance with the plans and purposes of God, they are just co-laborers with Him. They “manufacture” nothing:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

I think it is fair to ask the question, “to what extent is a plant complicit in its own growth?” I think a lot of the work we do to further our growth is simply to keep God’s perspective before us. It is only in this perspective of faith that we recognize the truth that God is the source of life, not us. It is only through eyes of faith that we can recognize the fruit God has blessed us with. It is only through the eyes of faith that we can have a transformed perspective on what is happening within, through, around, and beyond us.

There is however the work of “letting” God work, and don’t let anyone fool you; letting is a lot harder than it looks. But unlike plants, we do have the choice of what we are soaking in. We have choice of the soil we absorb our nutrients from. “Garbage in, garbage out” is not God’s governing purposes for us. But it can easily become a metaphor describing our spiritual life. At the same time, not all that stinks is garbage. Sometimes the things we do not like are actually fertilizer, catalysts of positive change in our life. I have seen my share of pasty white computer geeks logging countless hours in places that do not prioritize the light. We too have the choice of entertaining ourselves to death rather than pursuing the spiritual life. We too, to some extent, make the choice of our priorities, of where we are planted so to speak. We do some of that work of soaking; it is good to ask ourselves now and then, as a spiritual query, “What have you been soaking in?”

The soil around us, when it is good soil, gives us context. When we are grounded in God and God’s words of life, we also become aware of the edges around us. They may not seem like bleeding edges necessarily, but there is something God does in us when our focus begins to look outward as well as inward, for evidence that God is at work. The soil around us gives us a sense of “placed-ness,” rootedness, grounding. We notice opportunities for loving service. We notice where God is at work in those around us, and we begin to seek Him out and join Him there. We even notice places we desire that work to be strengthened. We notice those planted next to us (people), and the ways we are connected.

Some varieties of bamboo, to the outward eye, seem pathetic and disappointing in the early stages of their lives. Even after a few years only a small sprout and a few leaves are all that can be perceived as evidence of growth. But often, beneath the surface has been forming a massive root system. Like bamboo we often must grow depth before we can grow height. Since we are so easily focused outwardly we can miss this truth, it really doesn’t matter which way you are growing. The invisible work God does to prepare us for outward work is every bit as important. Often I think we spend our time looking for growth in the wrong places. We level our frustrations at the one or two things that can be seen, and fail to notice the importance of all that is needed to grow. We forget that often we must practice growing and trusting God down in the earthy darkness before we can follow Him in the places of blinding light.

The sequoia, a giant among trees, looks strong and mighty but its roots are shallow. Other trees have about as much going down as they do up, but the sequoia does not. One thing its shallow roots do however is wrap themselves around one another. This is the secret to the sequoia’s strength, on its own a windstorm could push it over and bring about down, but because it’s roots join together with others its own deficiencies do not hold back its noble grandeur. It is in community, not in isolation, that our growth can push beyond the limits of our own roots. It is here that reaching our true potential can do so in safety, that our upward strivings form the true bleeding edge; the corporate canopy of a community stretched out to catch all the grace God rains down upon us.

Lastly, all living things do not stay frozen in time, they move and change. Where movement ceases, life ceases. All living things have cycles of death as well as cycles of reproduction. There is a journey with the bleeding edge that calls us to navigate change, to recognize our place in time. We enjoy the first fruits of eternal life, and look forward to eternity with God, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a hard look at where we are at in this journey toward maturity. Are we in a season of harvest, multiplication, or fallow? There is a story here, a history of God’s faithfulness. Salvation is best perceived with the hindsight of the past, with gratitude in the midst of today’s struggle, and with an eye filled with hopeful expectation for the future. Parker Palmer writes eloquently about different seasons of experience. Each part of the cycle of life has new things to teach us: there is a time for the bustling creativity of Spring, the tempering heat of Summer, the finishing work of Fall, and the life giving fallow that comes only through the path of a harsh Winter.

The bleeding edge will always point us to our need for God. It is always that point where we stop, and God begins, that God is at work. When I was a child I remember marking my age by half years because everything seemed so far off. It was amazing how big even a minute could be then. Now the years seem to whiz by before I even realize I blinked. Whatever season, whatever direction of growth, we face the same choice: reflective mindfulness or ignorance?  Actively chasing a fruit filled life, or passively coasting into the slumber of mediocrity? Will we be stuck on the past, or racing ahead of the future? Or will we be anchored in the present moment with God, aware of our bleeding edges; aware of what God is doing in this stretch of the journey?

There is a sacredness to the space life occupies. As we become comfortable being in that space, living into that space, and growing in understanding of ourselves, God and others… we would do well now and then to dare ourselves to risk going deeper: we would do well to find the life of obedience calling us to the bleeding edge of God’s sustaining grace at work within and without, above and below, inside our community and in that visceral place where we live in the moment with Him.

Agape,

James


Lenten Journey of Justice: “Holy Saturday”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read Matthew 12:38-45; 1 Pet 4:1-8

Devotion

In college I had the pleasure once of having a Greek Orthodox priest come speak in chapel. Though this was unique and had never been done before, some of the Quaker mystical tradition had developed friendships with mystics of the Greek Persuasion, as well as some who had been working with the Apprentice Institute. If memory serves the man who came was called Father Gregory, and he gave one of the most interesting and controversial homilies to ever echo through Haviland Friends Church. Seeking to correct against the Protestant excess with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement (a Law/Punishment paradigm), this priest told us the gospel story according to Origen’s version of the Ransom Theory  (an overcoming Death paradigm). While I an many of my classmates listened in rapt attention to this radically foreign perspective on the gospel story, I admit I had some reservations. But when it comes to the atonement, I think most of the theories are valuable and mostly help us see that the truth of the gospel in a multi-faceted truth.

Father Gregory spoke in some fresh ways about what was going on during this interim time, a mostly silent time in Scripture though it is hinted at what happens during this time in the Apostle’s Creed and writings of the church fathers. In Gregory’s Greek Orthodox view, this was the time Jesus battled death in a spiritual reality beyond the cross. As Jesus went went into the grave it was seen has him being swallowed by death, going down into the belly of the beast so to speak.  Spiritually, Jesus descended into the bowels of death just as Adam and Eve had, and when Jesus arrived he found them there. Adam and Eve were trapped in their sin and could not get out, but death could not hold Jesus. According to this view of the gospel what Jesus did was essentially to grab Adam and Eve and burst back out from the belly of death,  giving Adam and Eve a path to their freedom and reversing the work of the devil.

While this stretched our protestant lens a great deal in chapel to seemingly speculate so much about how Jesus did this work of reversing the curse, I found it a helpful way to think about Holy Saturday. I do not know what to make of Jesus’ pointing to the sign of Jonah, nor or what to make of 1st Peter’s concept of Jesus. But I do understand that what is signified by them is is more than simply Christ resting in death. What happened during this period is a mystery, but one worth chasing a bit as we celebrate the gospel story at work within us.

A. Katherine Grieb, in her book, “The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness” argues persuasively that as Paul is arguing for Jesus’ work on the cross in light of his role as a New Adam figure, that Paul is borrowing from Jewish Holy War theology the idea of a representative fighting solo for his people, something akin to what David and Goliath agreed to do: they could spare the cost of war by choosing a representative from each side to fight for all. I like how these ideas blend together in reflecting on Holy Saturday, like David at Ziklag, Jesus comes to rescue a people in bondage. As Isaiah pointed to, Jesus came to set the captives free and break the yokes of slavery. He may not have fought an earthly battle but in facing off with Sin and Death the Lord was a warrior who took the fight to the powers and principalities of our darkened world crying out for redemption. Though scripture is silent or even confusing about what was going on on Holy Saturday, I think the case can be made that Jesus kept on fighting and took the fight into the belly of the Beast. Jesus conquered death, undoing the curse of Adam and Even, and leading God’s people to freedom.

Take 10 to 20 minutes in solitude to ponder the victory of Jesus, both on the cross above and in the realms below. At the incarnation God came on an all out rescue mission for our sake, at the cross that rescue took the form of redemption and atonement, and in the grave we find Jesus conquering sin and death. As we await the coming Act of the gospel story–the resurrection, let us not lose the importance of Holy Saturday; where the seeds of our redemption germinated and began to sprout, ready to burst from the soil Resurrection Sunday with unexpected glory and joy.


Lenten Journey of Justice: Good Friday

 

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read Luke 23
Devotion
In Luke’s version of the Last Supper it ends in a cryptic dialog where, after fighting over who was the greatest, Jesus tells the disciples to go and by swords. Here Jesus performed a prophetic sign pointing to the meaning and significance of his death; He was to die as a Sufffering Servant, living out a vision of redemption envisioned in Isaiah 53. Another reason Luke include this is to foreshadow the actual way in which Jesus was to die: he would be numbered among the transgressors. It would be no shock to Jesus that he would die between two insurrectionists, but it was bitterly ironic for Jesus was not a Judas Maccab eus-style Messiah who came to raise up an army and drive out the Romans, he was a radically nonviolent Suffering Servant type, a type not on the radar of the Jewish paradigm’s land-centric focus.

He may have driven the money changers out this temple, but Jesus was not interested in building an earthly kingdom. He may have stood up to the self righteous and the status quo, but he was not as willing to kill for his beliefs as much as die for them. If one were left with any doubts about the humility of Jesus, we must recognize that the incarnate Creator of the universe here “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage, but rather poured himself out, taking the form and nature of a Servant (Phil. 2:6-7 translation mine). There is great truth in the Christian cliche that “it was love that held him on that cross” because staying there was not just a sacrifice but a choice. A choice of love he made for you and for me.

If Jesus hadn’t left it up to us I have my doubts that the day Jesus suffered through would have been called Good Friday. This rightly recognizes that this is the event at the heart of the gospel or “Good News,” but when I think of Good Friday I always recognize it was good for us, but not good for Jesus. And from the earliest days of Christianity it has been a day of sorrow, penitence, and fasting… something preserved in the German terminology for this day Kartfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday.

For Jesus this day would be a nonstop train wreck of pain, with Jesus fresh off his experience with betrayal to spend all night enduring three religious and three civil trials–none of which were as concerned about justice as they were with pleasing the court of popular opinion. Jesus endured a flogging severe enough it may have eventually killed him. He carried his heavy crossbeam through a mocking crowd hurling rocks, dirt, spittle, and insults. He had his hands pierced by cruel nails. And to make matters worse, while hanging on the cross the only way to keep breathing was to push his feet against the nail through his legs. The wooden footrest we see in pictures was considered optional and since they wanted to hasten the death and get things cleaned up for the the Passover Festival, it probably wouldn’t have been there.

Jesus had to earn every breath on a clock he knew he would never outrun. Near the end of this exhausting process his states of rest would be like waterboarding himself in a rapidly downward spiral of energy loss. Jesus experienced pain on a level we could scarcely imagine, he experienced the death of a criminal, a transgressor. It was a death reserved for those the Romans wanted to make an example of. It was a warning to all who would follow the path of this “transgressor.” It is a warning to us as we follow him that we are also on a journey of a cruciform life.

Good Friday wasn’t that good for Jesus, but it was exceedingly good for us. It was the culmination of a human life of suffering: Jesus grew up in a town that ostracized him for a scandalous birth, he fled a genocide as an infant, he was rejected in his hometown and nearly thrown off a cliff, he lived as a homeless man wandering the countryside teaching people about God, the very people who would reject him. He truly was, as Isaiah envisioned, a man whose life was well acquainted with hardship and sorrow. To die a painful death between two insurrectionists is the zenith of his suffering, but it surely wasn’t the beginning of Jesus’ many encounters with pain and brokenness.

The two insurrectionists who shared crosses with Jesus point us in two ways we can respond in taking up our crosses and sharing in the death of Jesus. One eased his pain by joining in with the mockers, rejecting outright the idea of a Suffering Servant. The other criminal recognized in this injustice that it was actually God at work through Jesus’ death on the cross; in sharing in the suffering of Jesus he recognized he was not innocent but that Jesus was. This latter path is the one where we earnestly share in the death of Jesus. We must recognize Jesus in his sinlessness, suffering the fate we deserved and ask to be identified with him. This man’s desperation led him to publicly identify with Jesus in the face of a mocking crowd. At times it can be that black and white… and when our chips are down in our suffering we see glimmers of where our identity is truly coming from. We face the same choice.

 

Friday Fool’s Challenge Prayer
Gather some paper and dark writing implements such as a sharpie or pen, and also a pencil. Spend some time doing your best to draw Jesus on the cross with a sharpie or pen. The drawing need not be very detailed, but if you have enough artistic ability to move beyond stick figures to a silhouette please attempt to do so. When you are finished flip the page over and look at where the figure of Jesus bled through the page. Next take the pencil or some other lighter weight writing implement and draw yourself onto the “bleeding through” silhouette of Jesus on the cross. As you draw prayerfully and artistically “identify” with this cruciform representation of Jesus, recognize the spiritual reality that your sin like, ink or graphite–where it falls on the cross– is identified with him and removed. It is forgiven, and you are free. Good Friday is Good News indeed!


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