When I was a younger Christian and I would hear sayings like “New levels, new devils” I would get in my head a picture of my Christianity as kind of like a video game. If I could only reach the next level then I would have to deal with all these things I struggle with now. If I could just reach that next level then I wouldn't have any doubts or fears. I’d be stronger. I wouldn't be so mean to everyone. I might actually start liking people like Jesus does. I won't struggle with all this sin crap. I wouldn't say crap.
My problem in a nutshell: inconsistency.
There are days when I’m so up I feel like I could send mountains sailing into the sea, certainly on those days I feel like I have reached that next level.
On some days my faith is weak that I’m not even sure that I even believe in God anymore. Days that are so low that the best prayer I can even muster is a single weak “help”. I must still be on that first level, miles from becoming the man God intended for me to be.
I force myself to read my Bible. A good Christian loves to read his Bible. Then you can’t count me among “good Christians”.
But as I read I notice patterns. God’s people turned to Him, they followed Him. God’s people turned away from Him, they forgot their promises and followed other gods.
And around and around we go. The roller coaster goes up and people follow hard after God. The Roller coaster goes down and people abandon their faith.
I am them. They are me. We are just like them.
God in His wisdom tells us the same stories over and over again of death and resurrection. Just as surely in our everyday we experience that same death and resurrection. Everyday we choose where our passions lie. Some days we fail miserably, other days we revel in personal victories so sure that they will last for the rest of our lives.
We die…We are resurrected.
Then I read of Elijah. A man called holy. A prophet. A man who hears the words of God.
I read how he sets up a showdown with four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. I read how he taunts them as they cry out to their god and cuts themselves hoping for his attention.
I read how he speaks a few words and fire falls from heaven. How he then slaughters four hundred and fifty men in a day. That he then “full of the power of God” out runs a chariot on foot.
That’s some next level stuff right there.
The very next verse Jezebel threatens him and Elijah runs away and hides.
An amazing victory followed swiftly by a crushing defeat.
This pattern of life and death and life again spills over to the New Testament too. The disciples follow Christ. They denounce him. They make his name famous. They go to prison. They die for him. We read their words even today.
What’s my point?
Our struggles aren't new. Our failures aren't shocking to God. There’s nothing new under the sun.
This up and down roller coaster…it’s called being a human. You aren't broken and you aren't a failure.
Everybody falls. Everybody.
The only thing that matters at those times is whether or not you're going to get back up.
Lately when I have been reading the Old Testament a pattern has stuck out to me that I had never really noticed before.
Can I be honest with you? I’m sure that I can.
I kind of hate reading the Old Testament. I know, I know, it’s all God’s word and I’m supposed to devour every single letter.
But the fact remains I am so culturally removed from the original writing of these words I know that so much of it is lost on me. When the temple and all the treasures are being described or the seemingly endless genealogies are going on…and on…and on… Or the different descriptions of sacrifices and who gave which offering at such and such an amount. And then there’s the different types of offerings (grains, absolutions, etc.) It all goes right over my head and quite frankly I find it all…well…boring at best, completely irrelevant at worst.
Pray for me, maybe I’ll get better. At least I’m honest.
The pattern I noticed was every time God stepped in to save His people He would command them to do something in order to remember it. Whether it was to build a memorial or create a specific yearly festival there was always some activity to remember what happened.
Why did He do this?
I’m glad you asked. It’s because we all have terrible memories. It’s an offshoot of living a linear experience. We only live in the now. We don’t have anything else available to us. Simply the now.
Ever since I've moved to Illinois I've noticed the pattern in my own life. The summers are so great here that you completely forget the long hard cold winters. And the winters are so brutal here you forget everything. Everything is cold, frozen and bitter. All the trees look dead. You forget that just a few months ago everything was green and growing. Everything was alive and thriving and in just a few months it will be again.
In our experiential linear reality we can only see what’s directly in front of our eyes. Life is hard. I hate my job. I’m struggling financially. It feels like God has forgotten me.
…It feels like God has forgotten me…
This is why it is so important in our own lives to set up monuments. It’s important to remember those traditions that say “remember”.
Remember when God came through for you. Remember when that unexpected check came in the mail and it totally met all of your needs and then some. Remember when you were so full of life and joy that you felt like you were about to burst.
Remember when everything was green and growing…it will be again.
Winters can be long. They can be dark and feel like they last forever. But they will end.
Every winter has its end. Spring will come again if you can last through these bitter cold months. The sun will rise on you again just as it has in the past.
You just need to remember.
"I think I'm going to start blogging again." I said to her over our morning coffee date. "That's good!" she replied because she's awesome and supportive. "Why'd you quit in the first place?"It was a valid question that I hadn't even asked myself yet. The fact was I was frustrated that I had worked so hard on every post. Prayerfully considering every word. Searching my soul for hope and truth. Dredging the mud and mire of my heart hoping to produce good art. And my last post had a grand total of 30 views.I was just frustrated that no one seemed to be paying attention to what I felt was solid writing. I was frustrated that other blogs that I had deemed inferior got thousands of views and that blogger received sponsors and book deals and launched a lucrative writing career. While I felt like just another useless voice in the crowd. So I quit.Feel free to judge me if you like. I'm judging myself. This is a confession of sorts. I'm showing you my weakness and letting you decide what you want to do with it. Denounce me as an insincere jerk or relate with my honesty. Either way I'm cool with it.After I had expressed these frustrations to my wife she looked at me for a moment, making sure my selfish rant was over and she asked me one of those questions that I hate and love because they mean more than what they seem on the surface:"Well, what's your point in blogging? Because if it's to help and encourage people then you're already doing that..."One of the reasons I love her is that she said the positive and left the accusation unsaid. ...if your point is becoming known, if it's getting a book deal and ignoring the people that read and need encouragement...then you're missing the point.The problem was that I had caught the western disease of wanting so desperately to be a hero. I had confused being "known" with being good. I felt this pressure to do "great things" for God and when I tried and failed it felt like I must be a bad writer or God doesn't love me enough to use me to reach a massive audience. This crooked way of thinking had permeated my cells. Confusing being known/popular/famous with being good/talented/loved.I recognized that grossness in myself and so in reaction I stopped blogging for a few months more. I had to try to suck the poison out. I have always known that a humble life lived before God isn't a bad life...I just had to kill that western cancer that told me otherwise everyday.There is a difference between being a hero and being a saint."We want to be heroes, we don’t really want to be saints. The difference between the heroic vision and the saintly vision is a fundamentally different way of viewing the purpose of life." -Brian Zahnd
So as I sit down to write online again I have to ask myself: What's the point?My hope is to spread hope. To remind folks that feel less than perfect, that probably won't step inside of a church that they are not alone. I try and fail everyday. Sometimes the most saintly action is getting back up and trying again.I hope to connect with a loving Creator by trying to create...and reminding others that they can too.Even if it's just to an audience of One.Sorry if that was corny. Here's an intelligent quote about the difference between heroes and saints. Thanks for reading.“For the hero the meaning of life is honor. For the saint the meaning of life is love. For the hero the goal of living is self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it. For the saint, life does not so much have a goal, as a purpose, for which each human being is responsible, and that purpose is love, and the bonds of concern and care that responsibility for one’s fellow human beings carry with it. These two paradigms, the hero and the saint, and the way of life that descends from each, are really two fundamentally distinct and genuinely different visions of human society as a whole, and even of what it means to be a human being. They are two distinct and different ways of asking the question of the meaning of life.”
-Francis J. Ambrosio, Philosophy, Religion and the Meaning of Life
Not too terribly long ago I experienced my first bit of "online controversy". I suppose that's par for the course for most people and seems to be a rite of passage for most bloggers, but personally I don't care for it.
My personality type tends to avoid conflict, it stresses me out. Besides I actually like most people and see no point in getting bent out of shape because of words on a screen.
My personal adage has always been the only way to win an argument online is to not engage.
About a month ago I tweeted something I thought was innocuous. Something that basically said "We should stop calling people that are different from us "Sinners". Instead we should reach out with love." Something to that effect and I included a Link to a blog I like.
I had pressed send and actually completely forgot that I tweeted anything, when suddenly my phone started buzzing incessantly. People were calling me a heretic, others were defending me by calling that person a moron.
The hatred and name calling escalated and I tried to cool people off by extending grace, Tweeting things like "Calling people a moron doesn't help, show him grace, I was once angry too." or "I'm sorry you disagree with me, I still like you though." but these soft spoken words were lost in the anger and indignation. I turned off my phone remembering the only way to win an online argument is to not engage.
When I read the bible I notice that the devil is called "the accuser of the brethren." Most everyone will agree with me on this. What upsets me most is that he seems to be having allot of help with his job by people who call themselves Christians.
When we accuse each other we are doing Satan's job for him.
When I read someone say Mark Driscoll is a bully and an uncultured moron, that person is accusing one of the brethren.
When I hear someone denounce Rob Bell as a heretic, that person is accusing one of the brethren.
Christians are doing the devil's job for him and it breaks my heart. On Social media sites people get so angry, so quick to denounce a human being. One of God's own children. The name calling grows far toovicious for me. Especially when politics are involved.
It reinforces an "Us versus them" mentality.
I honestly believe we were never meant to live this "Us vs. Them" lifestyle. But people feel so justified in their own righteous indignation.
There is nothing righteous about indignation.
The worst person in the world can say things are terrible. It takes a prophetic people to look at the bad in society and see the good. It takes a prophetic person to see the gold in another human being.
It takes faith to find hope in a hopeless situation.
Instead we fall back to accusing, hiding behind our own labels: republican, democrat, liberal, libertarian, gay, straight, black, white, us, them.
The bible calls Jesus our advocate.
Satan accuses. Jesus advocates. When we stand up for someone we are being like Jesus. When we accuse each other we are being like Satan.
It really is that simple.
Look to build instead of destroy. Please. In that way we are most like Christ.
Sometimes we get stuck. We run a hundred miles an hour doing everything and anything we can for God. We work our fingers to the bone, trying our best to please Him knowing that "faith without works is dead". We read the book, we follow the rules, we share with others when suddenly...
We get stuck...
Suddenly there's no big event on the horizon to work towards, there's no conference to plan, no mountain top experience on the horizon. Nothing.
And we hear that still small voice in our souls tell us It's time to slow down, not work so hard, be patient. We hate it.
God, how we hate it.
As I'm getting older and questionably wiser I am becoming more convinced that God is more interested in the person we are becoming rather than what we are doing.
He is attempting to prepare us for eternity, make us into the kind of people that would enjoy it in Heaven.
An example is tithing:
I honestly think He cares less about the fact that we would give ten percent to the church and more about making us into generous people. The kind of people that would gladly give money to a need because we are accustomed to giving away a whole ten percent and we have never gone hungry.
When we fight the "ten percent rule" looking for ways around it, we are missing the point.
When we ask "yeah, but gross income or net income?" we are missing the point.
The point is God wants His people to give generously, to meet needs where we find them. Not follow arbitrary rules.
When God makes us slow down it isn't because we're useless or because we are terrible sinners. It's because He wants to make us into the type of people that are completely comfortable in our own skins. The kind of people that are satisfied no matter what life throws their way. The kind of people ready in season and out.
When I read the gospels this is what impresses me most about Christ. He seems so comfortable in his own skin. Not shaken or thrown to tantrums (I know the whole temple thing, but that was ONE time and it was because poor people were being taken advantage of.) He doesn't seem anxious or needy.
It's because he knows who he is. And he knows that he is the "beloved son in whom God is well pleased".
If we could get a glimpse of our own belovedness this anxiety and posturing would disappear. We could love others unconditionally, not worrying if there would be enough for us. We would stop fighting and striving to be better, to be more like someone else because God seems to love them and bless them more.
This is how we become more like Christ. Understand that God loves us just the exact way we are. Not some idealistic future version of ourselves. But the people we are....right now.
When we understand our own belovedness then those other fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control, all those come much more naturally to us.
In this my hope lies: I am the beloved son of God. Warts and all. And in this hope I can change my world.
March on Washington. August 28, 1963
"I dunno, man, I mean what's the point?" my friend said to me as he took a long drag on his cigarette.
"What do you mean?" I asked him as he mindlessly flicked the smoldering butt away and reached for a fresh one.
"Well, you say try to do good, try to make a difference. But there's too many problems in the world to solve. There's too big of a gap between poor folk and rich folk. There's too many people sleepin' on the street goin' hungry and nobody gives a *blank* because there's not *blank* we can do about it. If we were super rich or crazy famous then maybe we could start feeding kids in Cambodia or where the *blank* ever. But just regular Joe's like you n me? We can't make any kinda difference in this craphole world so why even try?"
I thought about his words for moment before responding. I let silence hang in the air, the pause pregnant and heavy with his despair. Finally I said to him "You're right, there's no point trying to fix the world. That's too big, one man can't bear the weight of the entire world. You can't control others and the way that they behave. But you can look to your own sphere of influence. You can look at the people around you and ask 'Is there any need that I can meet right now that makes a bad situation better?' Make things better as best you can and hopefully inspire others to do the same."
He looked at me for awhile and said "You're right. We can't expect the world to be a more positive place if we do nothing but make it more negative."
* * *
Yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's march on Washington DC.
They were facing down injustice on a grand scale. They faced hatred and looked the evils of bigotry in the eye. What amazes me about Dr. King's legacy is that he called people to return hatred and injustice with love.
He could have said these problems are far too big to ever change, so what's the point? Instead he attacked hatred with love. Which is exactly what Christ has called each and everyone one of us to do. Christ said of his followers that we would be known by our love.
He looked at people that were denying his people rights, even attacking and killing them. He said people that were treating others as less than human and noticed that in doing so they were losing their own humanity. He was trying to save the racist white people from themselves as well as gain social equality for his own.
Things aren't perfect now, but I was talking to one of my friends yesterday about the march on Washington. He told me he was trying to explain it to his children and they couldn't understand it. The idea of segregation didn't make sense to them. It's a beautiful story that proves that children are born to love and not hate, and I never would have heard it if not for Dr. King because my friend is black and I am white. Because of the sacrifice of Dr. King and his peers my life is richer, my humanity more intact.
How do we respond to great sacrifice like that? We try to make the world a better place.
How is that possible when the evil is so great? We start with what's in front of us.
"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we're free at last!'"
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I've recently been reading the book of Leviticus.Can I be honest for a moment? Will you promise not to judge me?
I hate reading the book of Leviticus. I know as a Christian I'm supposed to love every last page of the Bible. I'm supposed to say "ah what I great love letter that God has written to us." But this book...I understand that I'm supposed to love it and glean wisdom from every word... But c'mon.
As I read these words written thousands of years ago it seems that nearly everything made you "unclean". And the rituals involved in making you clean again were long and bloody. Seriously bloody. Also no trimming your sideburns guys.
But here's where this gets interesting for me. As I read the gospels it seems that Jesus is breaking the levitical law all over the place.
Let me be clear: Jesus said he came to not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. The book says he was sinless. I believe it. Otherwise I am wasting my time.
But Jesus didn't avoid touching the people that would make a person unclean under the levitical law. He touched the twelve year old girl that died and raised her to life when you are never supposed to touch a dead body. He allowed the woman with the "issue of blood" to touch him and she was healed when you not to go near a woman during the "issue of blood". He laid his hands on the lepers (big no no) and spit in the dirt as rubbed it on blind men's eyes.
These are all actions that make you unclean.
But the thing is Jesus never caught the disease. He spread life. He wasn't made unclean by touching these people, but rather he made them clean. He spread the good infection.
It was almost as if he considered these people more important that following the rules. Like it was more important to him to spread life rather than fear death.
I don't know...
When I was younger one of my Christian friends would joke that as Christians "we don't smoke, don't chew, don't hang out with those that do." Meaning that we don't hang around with "those" people. They are unclean. We are clean. Christians are afraid to spend time and be real with "those" people because by hanging around with "them", we will be dragged down. Made unclean.
But Christ is our leader. Our head. We should do what he did, right? I want to believe that because of the Christ life in me I spread life to them that need it. Not that they bring me down.
I'm not perfect. Please don't think that's what I'm saying. But what I am saying is don't be afraid of "sinners". Don't be afraid of their "dirt". Those kinds of titles just separate us from the hurting rather than us going in with the healing power of Christ.
Get your hands dirty like Christ did. Let your heart break with the heart broken like He did. After all we are his body, right?
And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
In C.S. Lewis' literary classic The Magician's Nephew (book six in the Chronicles of Narnia series) there is an astoundingly moving scene that depicts the creation of Narnia.In this scene Aslan, who is an archetype that represents Christ roams the empty landscape and gently and beautifully sings the world into existence.
The scene begins in darkness. The land is void. I think the words of Mr. Lewis would be better than describing them:
"In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing…it seemed to come from all directions at once…Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful Digory could hardly bear it."
This representation of Christ, the God who sings over creation captures not only my imagination but also my heart. There is nothing quite like music.
There is something close to magic about music. A note layered on top of another note layered on top of another note that creates a chord. Chords move naturally into other chords. Sounds harmonizing with other sounds, rolling smoothly gently out of chaos and into harmonies. Vibrations and frequencies oscillating at just the right speed to create sound waves that echo into our ears. Electrical signals in our brains translate these vibrations into sounds and sounds into songs.
Our brains translate the vibrations but something deeper still happens. We feel something rise in our chest, our hearts begin to beat faster, falling into the rhythms. We say a song sounds sad or happy. We ascribe complex human emotion and feelings into these vibrations. The chaos becomes order.
The sounds ascend into something greater than its parts, something more than notes on top of notes. It rises into beauty. It becomes a masterpiece.
This is the magic that still exists. The wonder that appeals to the child in us all.
The Earth herself sings. Vibrating at a pitch outside of human perception. The beauty and magic and wonder leads me to believe the earth is singing to her Creator, the star themselves sing out in wonder and reverence.
Our existence is a song sung to the Heavens, with movements and majesty. Sometimes it is a slow and sad song, sometimes it is fast and happy and full of joy. Sometimes it swells and crescendos so greatly that we feel our chest will burst open with the emotion too deep for words.
And God sings back to us. Singing over His creation He loves so dearly.
Hear the music. Hear it, feel it in your own life. Hear it in the lives of others. Don't discount any movement because it's too sad or discordant because it takes every movement to create the masterpiece.
If you ask pretty much anyone what their favorite class was in school most would answer gym or recess. This was not true for me. I dreaded gym. I loathed the "free periods" in gym most of all. The source of my hatred for these classes was not hard to find. It was always towards the beginning of the class.
When it was time to pick teams.
Most everyone I know has a story about how tough it is to get picked last. How the rejection can eat at a soul. I was pretty much always picked last. Even more than twenty years later I can remember the "cool" kids arguing over who would be stuck with me on their team. "I got stuck with him last time, it's your turn!" "No way! He's the last one you HAVE to pick him!"
I would usually excuse myself to sidelines. I would offer to "sit this one out" so I wouldn't bring anyone down with my presence.
I understood why I wasn't chosen. I was never particularly athletic. I was slow and uncoordinated, I had terrible asthma that led to horrible coughing fits.
Still, understanding why I was left out didn't make it hurt less. It didn't make me feel less isolated. Less like a waste of space.
This is why I am drawn to Christ. He picks those that would be picked last, or not at all. When Christ walked the earth he picked dirty uneducated fishermen for his team. He picked those that would betray him, those that would pretend like they had never met him. He picked one that murdered Christians before being knocked from his horse. He picked the liars and the left out.
He chose to surround himself with prostitutes and tax collectors (traitors). People that were called notorious sinners. Those that the religious establishment wrote off as rejects, scum, losers, unclean.
He chose me for his team. He hasn't given me the option to sit from the sidelines and watch. He doesn't let anyone just watch. He knew my ups and downs. My shortcomings and failures, and still he chose me to be seated with him in heavenly places. He chose this uncoordinated loser to run the good race and fight the good fight.
And because he chose me I will go to my grave singing his praises.
*photo Credit Andrei Shailkhau
I believe in visions.
I don't have them personally but I believe in them. I believe God uses pictures to speak to His children. He is the consummate artist. The one true creative force. He uses images and actions to tell us stories, modern day parables to teach His children hungry for His voice.
Dreams and Visions are all throughout the Bible. Both Old Testament and New and He's promised us that in the last days He is going to pour out His Spirit on all flesh.
The old men are going to dream new dreams and the young are going prophesy like those of old.
All flesh...everyone. The saved and unsaved. The beautiful and the ragged. That'll be a day worth seeing. But I'll leave that for later.
The closest thing I've ever had to a vision was not when I was praying or reading my bible. It wasn't when I was at that perfect moment of the church service when the music swells and the preacher promises new life. It was when I was riding the famous Chicago El train.
One of the things I love most about the El train is that while you are on it you will see a real cross section of humanity. Young. Old. Black. White. Latino. Yuppie moms pushing strollers. Young gangster wannabe types rapping far too loudly than to be just for themselves. Street preachers. Hedonists. Businessmen in suits. Working stiffs just trying to get home after a long exhausting day.
I was riding the Green line going in towards the loop. Going to hang out with an old friend, maybe catch a movie. I wasn't praying or straining to hear God speak. I wasn't feeling particularly holy. Just going about my day.
I was holding tightly to the railing as the train jostled over the tracks and picked up speed. Images flashed unbidden through my mind. I was still present and still looking out over the tops of houses and apartments but inside I was watching a movie. It felt like strong imaginings but nothing I was thinking about or seemed relevant to what was actually going through my mind.
In my mind's eye I saw roots shoot of the bottom of my feet. They burst through the bottom of the train, weaving themselves between the tracks and ties. Snaking themselves down the old iron girders that had held up these tracks for so long. They broke up the concrete of sidewalks and streets and dug themselves deep in the Illinois soil.
And then it was done. I was coming close to my stop and was left wondering why on earth I would be imagining roots coming out of the bottom of my feet.
That was years ago but I'm still now coming to understand what God was trying to show me that day on the train. Since I moved to Chicago I have been wanting to move back to North Carolina, the state I had known my whole life. I was living with my body in Illinois, but my heart and soul in North Carolina. I was wrong to live that way. Unless you put down roots in your community, unless you live present in where you are, where God has you, you cannot make a difference. True change comes from love. And it's hard to love a place you only want to escape.
Sometimes you have to put down roots before you can love a place.
And you have to love a place if you want to make it better.