The Shrinking Gap

It’s currently seven degrees outside – yes, 7.

That’s what happens when you head north between Christmas and New Years Eve.

Thankfully warmer weather awaits us at home – and we will get there. But we’ve got about ten hours in the car between where we are now and where we want to be.

That’s what the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year are often about – the distance between our current location and our desired destination. We make resolutions – even if we don’t call them that. We set goals – even if that’s a phrase we don’t like to use. We might not make a big deal about it and we might not even say it out loud, but what we want is to shrink the distance between where we are and where we would like to be.

I, like everybody else, have some things I’d like to do a little differently in 2018 than I did in 2017. I’d like to write more and dawdle on the Internet less. I’d like the elliptical machine to function more like a piece of exercise equipment and less like a decorative piece. I’d like to spend more time doing the things that matter to me and a whole lot less time caring about the things that don’t.

I’ll probably write more about that early next week, once the calendar officially turns. But first, I want to celebrate at least one place I saw this gap narrow in 2017.

One of the prayers I’ve been praying for a long time has been for God to show me how to make more room for God in my life. I work in church and spend a lot of time figuring out how to help other people grow in their faith. But I know all too well the pressures and distractions that push and pull me away from what I need most.

So, like a lot of people, I’ve been asking God for a while to help me prepare the way of the Lord – to show me the way to clear out what I need rid of so I can receive what God wants to give me.

The truth is that there is so much more to the life that God wants to give than what I make room for. Jesus wants to abide, to find plenty of room in my life to fill me up for what I was made for. But it has been too easy for me to pack my life full of so many things that there isn’t a whole lot of room left for anything or anyone else.

Thanks to God, and with a lot of help from the Jesuits, I actually learned how to carve out a bit of room this year.

One of the spiritual practices that I’ve wanted to try for a long time has been the Examen, a way to pray that comes from the spiritual exercise of Ignatius of Loyola.

I finally decided to try it during Lent this past year. I received plenty of gifts praying this way during Lent – reviewing and praying from the experiences of the day – but the most significant one was noticing all the ways God was present in the ordinary moments of my day.

Or, as Ignatius might say, I began to notice how God was in all things.

Midway through the year I picked up a book I had ordered a while ago – Kevin O’Brien’s The Ignatian Adventure. It’s a year-long journey through the Spiritual Exercises. I had been reading about Ignatian Spirituality in a variety of places the last couple of years. It was as if God had been dropping me a hint and I finally decided to see where the hint led.

What I discovered by following the hint was how much the structured prayer became the anchor I desperately needed.

What I had been missing wasn’t a desire to pray or the knowledge of how to connect with God. It was the structure and the consistency in the guide that helped me remain rooted and disciplined in the practice of prayer. Each morning’s reading grounded me in Scripture and invited me to consider how my story is intersecting with God’s. I’ve had the opportunity to pray in new ways and to take stock of how God it at work in my life, my family, my job and my faith.

Some of what God is doing has yet to reveal itself. But there is one easy way to note how that gap I mentioned earlier is shrinking – I’ve almost run out of room in my morning prayer journal.

One of my friends challenged me a few months ago with a simple question – “Daniel, how do you celebrate your successes?”

“I don’t.”

“Well you better figure something out then,” he said.

I know that the progress of the last half of 2017 is relatively small. There’s still plenty of work to do and many more gifts God wants to give me. I know there’s still a lot of clutter to get rid of and many choices to make in order to become the person God wants to shape me into becoming.

But any progress in the spiritual life is worth celebrating. Any grace received is worthy of gratitude.

 

Practices For Making Room

If you want to make more room for God in your life, here are a few spiritual practices that helped me make room in 2017.

  1. Slow Down. Almost every spiritual teacher I read this year stressed that one of the most important things we have to do to grow in our connection with God is to slow down. Slowing down allows us to pay attention to ourselves – our bodies as well as our emotions, other people and the creation that God has given us. Making room in your schedule to slow down will likely lead you to make more room for God.
  2. Be Quiet. A teacher in graduate school once told me that the best way to pray was to stare at a wall and not talk for a long time. The practice would almost force you to listen and hear from God. I don’t know about the wall, but a consistent practice of silence in prayer is a great gift, particularly for those of us who talk a lot. I’ve started with just three minutes at a time. This is something I am going to try to be more consistent with in my spiritual practice in 2018.
  3. Create a Routine. I’ve often thought this was overrated, but I now know it’s not. Getting to work a little early so I can read and pray first thing in the morning has been a game-changer for me.
  4. Turn Off The Internet (and Cable News). Learning how to limit time on the Internet (except when reading and sharing my posts) can be a way to focus on what is happening in your life and how God is at work.  Spirituality doesn’t mean being ignorant of the issues of the day or how what’s happening in the world affects people created and loved by God. But particularly right now, the way we consume and experience news can do a lot to lead us away from God.
  5. Pray. Repeat. One of my friends invited me to participate in a challenge where people of all faiths prayed sentence prayers one thousand times per day. One example would be the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner). It changed the way I experienced my day to pray and remember God that many times. It reminded me of the goodness of God as I went about my day – in meetings at work, while walking the dog, in preparing dinner, and as I relaxed at the end of the day. It felt a whole lot like growing toward praying without ceasing.
  6. Start The Day Right.  Instead of turning straight for your phone when you wake up, what if you began your day with the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed or by praying over what you expect to be the significant events of your day? The Beatitudes or Psalm 23 could also help you begin well.

 

Guides For Making Room

We all need guides to show us the way. Here are a few of the guides who helped me close the gap this year. You might find them as one part of God’s grace for you as well.

1. The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien

2. Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton

3. Pilgrimage of a Soul, Phileena Heuertz

4. The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner

5. The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith 

6. Wearing God, Lauren Winner

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

The Light is Coming

Last Christmas Eve I found myself sitting in an unfamiliar place – in the pews.

It was the first time in a while I hadn’t been asked to deliver a Christmas Eve sermon. It was the first time in more than a few years I didn’t arrive early at the church to shepherd a community through experiencing love, joy, hope and peace in the gift of the promised Child. It had been some time since I hadn’t sprinted to church from a quick family dinner to make sure that when we lifted the candles and sang Silent Night we knew for sure, if only for a moment, that all is calm and all is bright.

Instead, my wife and I spent part of our Christmas Eve a year ago listening to one of our friends lead his congregation. We did our best to find our way through the hymnal, singing those old songs in a strange place. We prayed with our friend as he prayed for people like us, those struggling to find the joy of Christmas in the midst of the pain that December sometimes brings. We made the walk down the center aisle, feeling the stares trained on us as we walked to receive the grace we needed more than ever in bread and a cup. We nodded with our friend as he announced those bold words from John’s Gospel – The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Christmas Eve 2016 marked the 17th day our daughter had spent in the NICU. 17 days of highs and lows. 17 days of doctors and nurses. 17 days of rigorous hand-washing. 17 days of rising in hope and falling with despair in the digital reading of a hospital monitor.

A year later we know we are the lucky ones, blessed with a healthy daughter thanks to the skill of a trained medical staff and the generosity of a gracious God.

And as I prepare to make up for last year with morning and evening sermons this Christmas Eve, one of the many things I now know first-hand is the depth of hope packed in that phrase that has become central to the church’s Christmas message.

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it – the words both announce how God has come to be with us and the life-shaking implications of such a gift. The truth that God comes into our world in a child, moves into our neighborhood as Eugene Peterson has put it, runs so much deeper than we have imagined.

God’s entrance into our lives is more than just the light waiting to outlast whatever forces darkness can throw at God. Instead, the story of Christmas is the story of the Light on the move. The gift is nothing less than God coming to overwhelm the darkness with a force it cannot endure. Christmas comes not just as an inevitable victory against an enemy determined to do battle, but as a forward march of the Light on a mission to defeat the enemy in every way, shape and form it dares present itself.

The Light has come into the world to break the will of the forces that hold us and our neighbors in bondage. Christmas comes to break through the pain that prevents people from experiencing life. The child comes to show people wandering in the darkness the way of the Light. The angels sing the song of God’s inevitable victory over fear, hatred and injustice. Joy to the World is no sentimental song of the status quo but a victory anthem of those who have experienced the power of light freeing them from the darkness that had bound them for far too long.

Christmas isn’t reserved for those who can’t wait to sing the songs of the season. The Light comes into the world to restore those paralyzed by worry. God comes here to heal those bound by anxiety. The Child comes to lead those home who have lost their way. The gift is that God is coming to blast through every bit of the darkness with the power of light and love.

The good news is that God isn’t going to wait. Love is coming for us at Christmas. The Light is coming to shatter the darkness so we can see and love again.

Merry Christmas.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Declutter

Our house has to be cleaned before it can really be cleaned – it’s that bad. It’s probably always been that way, but it’s a whole lot easier to notice after a year of accumulating all the stuff new parents do. As my wife and I were lamenting the state of our house the other night, one of us said to the other, “Our biggest problem is that there are a whole lot of things in rooms that don’t belong there.”

Clutter, of course, isn’t a problem reserved for the kitchen counter. Clutter is one of the biggest obstacles to growing in the spiritual life.

Advent, this season of preparation, is a great opportunity to evaluate our lives and determine what is essential to life with God and what is an extra that prevents us from experiencing the gifts God wants to give us.

One of the easiest places to see how and where our lives have gotten cluttered is by taking stock of what grabs our attention. One of the most difficult things for anyone in 2017, and particularly for those of us trying to live in a connected relationship with God, is to stay focused on the things that keep us connected with God and with one another.

The opportunities for distraction come before our coffee is made. By lunch we often find ourselves becoming experts on whatever topic has trended. By bedtime we often know much about plenty but little about what we most desperately need.

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, then, is what is it that grabs our attention. It’s a conversation that Jesus had again and again with his disciples – probably because they, like us, had a whole lot of trouble keeping their attention trained on Jesus even when he was right next to them. They didn’t have college football to take up their time, but they did struggle to make sense of politics, they did get tempted by the allure of comfort, and they spent a lot of time spouting their own opinions instead of listening to the One who had come to show them a better way.

The uncomfortable truth is that the topics which grab our attention are the topics that shape our lives. We can know a lot about the new coach at Tennessee but that doesn’t do much for us when we lose our job. We can have passionate opinions about the President’s latest tweet but they don’t help us sit in silence to hear a word from a holy God. We can spend a whole lot of time finding the perfect gift and still miss the gift of the presence of the ones we love.

The church, at least those churches that follow the liturgical calendar, often begins Advent by listening to Jesus call his disciples to watch and pray. Last week we listened to the words of Jesus from Luke 21 in which he told the disciples to focus their attention on learning how to spot the signs of his second coming. What he wanted them to learn was how to focus their attention on what truly mattered.  What they really needed wasn’t to marvel at the beauty of the Jerusalem temple but to pay attention to the signs of God’s work in the world.

In many ways that is what this season is all about – learning how to retrain our eyes to see what really matters. Advent is a chance to make room in our lives to receive the Lord who will come again. These four weeks are an opportunity to clean out the things that aren’t essential so we can notice when God moves into our neighborhood. It is an invitation to recommit ourselves to finding the life that is found in receiving the gift God wants to give us.

During the course of the last couple of months I’ve been journeying through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius with the help of Kevin O’Brien’s beautiful book, The Ignatian Adventure. There is plenty of wisdom in these pages. And yet much of it can be distilled into this – learn how to repent of the patterns that separate us from God and live into those patterns that help us spot God’s presence in our midst.

We have been created for the purpose of loving, worshiping and serving God – and the key to such a life is, “to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free us from them to the extent that they hinder us from it.”

What is it that prevents us from loving, serving and worshiping God? Once you know that, get rid of it. What is it that helps us see all that God wants to show us? Make room for that.

Get rid of clutter and make room for light to shine. This isn’t just good advice for a cleaner kitchen. This is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

 

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

The Church In Exile: Following Jesus In A Strange Land

I went to a concert a few weeks ago where Blowing In the Wind, the classic protest song, was the first song out of the gate. The crowd, filled with longing for any bit of hope they could find, erupted into sustained applause.

All I could think about was how Blowing in the Wind is a pretty good description of the church these days.

We find ourselves searching for the right soil to root and sustain a Cross-shaped community in rapidly changing times and a constantly shifting landscape. It isn’t easy to pass on to our kids the faith that has carried us for so long and through so much. It’s a challenge to bless a world that’s been on fire for so long it’s forgotten how to recognize the healing that can come in a cool breeze.

That’s what happens when you dare to seek truth in an old story that promises good news in a world captivated by anti-heroes and held captive by fake news. That’s what happens when you try to speak when fewer people want to listen, often as a result of others who have spoken for you. That’s what happens when you seek to live into a calling to be a light to nations who wonder if your light hasn’t been out for a while.

And so today, we are haunted by the question of whether the words we know and the stories that shape us are enough. We’ve tried to use different words and mold our stories into other ones. We’ve walked the path others have trod before, seeking comfort in cultural standing and security in political power.

Because that’s the natural response when you are faced with insecurity and vulnerability. That’s what you do when the ground beneath you shifts.

But what you discover is that the powers and principalities don’t have what you need. What you find is there is a cost that comes from using the words of Washington. There’s a price to be paid when the Kingdom of God starts to sound a whole lot less about God and a whole lot more about kingdoms. Trading the vocabulary of sin and redemption for political action and demographic research opens up a void that can’t be filled.

What we’ve lost is the ability to speak words with enough weight to hold life. The price we’ve paid is in forgetting how to tell a story of a Kingdom of plenty. The void we feel comes from missing the vision of a God who is building a table big enough for anybody who wants to be fed.

Exile

The words and images evoke the opening of the Psalms as well as a story Jesus told about a sower. But the word from the Bible for this is Exile.

Exile stands at the heart of the Bible; you can’t understand the narrative of Scripture if you don’t know about Exile.

When Nebuchadnezzar scaled the walls of Jerusalem in 587 and destroyed everything in sight, Exile entered the Jewish vocabulary and imagination. But Exile is more than an event; it is a tragedy that forced people into a new way of life filled with questions about faith, a crisis of identity and a search for answers about what went wrong and how they were going to rebuild out of the rubble.

The prophets, of course, had warned that Exile was coming if the people didn’t turn from their wicked ways and return to the ways of the Lord. Disaster was looming, the prophets thundered, and it wasn’t too much for God to use someone outside of Israel for God’s purposes – someone, like say, Nebuchadnezzar. But hearing that Exile was a possibility and facing the consequences of its gut-wrenching reality were two different things.

Exile doesn’t end God’s relationship with Israel, but it does bring about hard lessons and new questions.

As people who had been evicted from the land, they were forced to reckon with the character of God’s promise. As those who have been ripped away from their families, some to never see their children again, they had to wrestle with their own identity and the character of the God in whom they had heard about if not always trusted.

They had to come to grips with whether God could be worshiped apart from a Temple that was once the center of their lives. They had to learn how to trust God again in a world where even Jerusalem wasn’t safe. They had to figure out whether their way of life could still hold, whether the patterns they had come to count on still made sense in a world a whole lot different than the one they thought they knew. They had to decide if God’s mercies were new each morning was a promise they could count on or whether those were just words that sounded good.

In sum, they had to do theology in the midst of trauma. They had to study and pray and, most importantly, they had to remember. They had to take note of their experience with God and remember the testimony of their ancestors. They had to remember that God had been on the move with them before there was a temple, that God has showed them the way out of slavery in Egypt and that God had not been confined to a building but had been mobile in a cloud.

They all don’t come to the same conclusion about the best way to proceed; the response to Exile isn’t uniform. Just like today, different groups proposed different solutions to the new reality. Some sought a military solution to overthrow their captors while others explored isolation in search of a place where they could practice their faith undisturbed. Still others advocated for some sort of assimilation that involved adopting the culture of their new home.

At their best they sought to be faithful to the God who had sent them into Exile but who wasn’t done with them just yet. In the end, the people came to realize they were paying the price for breaking the one rule you do not break, at least when it comes to being in relationship with God. Idolatry – seeking security in anything or anyone but the God of the Covenant – always leads to disaster. But they clung to the hope that their lived disaster wasn’t final because the God they knew was one whose mercy never ran out. Their hope centered on the truth they knew more firmly than anything else – they were still bound to God because God has chosen to still be bound to them.

Exile forced the people to figure out what they really believed about God and what being in relationship with God was going to look like in this new world order. It wasn’t just about how to sing the old songs in a strange land but about how to trust God while longing for home.

Discipleship For An Exiled Church

The first practice for following Jesus as a people experiencing Exile is confession. To live in relationship with God involves owning up to the ways we have traded radical trust in God for the allure of power and principalities. It involves taking seriously the error of our ways and acknowledging the price we have paid for chasing other gods.

The closer we get to Jesus the more we remember that life with God isn’t about the preservation of a way or life or relishing in the new opportunities other kingdoms promise. Instead, faithfulness is centered on radical trust in the God who has called us into being. That means placing our lives not in the hands of powerful people or institutions that have spanned centuries, but in the rock who has promised never to walk away or forsake us, abandon or leave us behind.

Confession, then, leads to repentance and reorientation. Exile reorients by teaching us that the words and stories we so easily gave up are actually the anchors of the life with God we so desperately need. Searching for a foothold in a shifting cultural landscape has shown us that the place we can put down roots is the old story told in words we’ve heard plenty of times before.

We are learning that despite all the technology we can get into our hands, our lives still hinge on our fundamental relationships – with God and the people close to us. The Gospel is reconciliation – and new creation is still the balm we all need for the wounds that fester among us and within us. Sin that ravages our lives and wrecks our communities might have new hashtags, but what we most need hasn’t changed – sin for grace and redemption for brokenness. The hope for a day beyond exile still rests in the relationships that God wants to give us.

Confession and reorientation lead us to trust. It is the potential to rediscover the trustworthiness of God that redeems the bitterness of Exile. Exile isn’t pleasant and it isn’t without deep costs. But we can be restored through Exile if we learn once again that God can be trusted.

The path forward isn’t in doing it the way we used to do it and we can’t find it in a new system or a creative structure. That’s because the path out of Exile is the path out of the Wilderness and is the path that leads to Golgatha. The way forward is rediscovering how to walk with the God who is still here, even in the strange land. The gift is the presence of the God who still makes it possible to sing even when the ground seems unsteady. The life out of Exile is rediscovering how to depend on the God who delivers on the promise never to let us go.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Not Forsaken: Charlottesville, Faith and the Promise of the Psalms

Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

As I watched the news and tried to digest the images from Virginia on Friday and then again on Saturday, the words of Psalm 22 echoed in my mind.

It’s the Psalm we read in the church on Good Friday, the Psalm we pray with Jesus in the midst of his abandonment, the Psalm we hold on to in the midst of despair, and the Psalm that holds on to us as we contemplate darkness and death.

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me,” it begins, the words Jesus will later quote from the Cross. It’s a prayer from someone desperate for the world to look different. It’s a prayer from someone who feels alone. It’s a prayer from someone who wonders if things will ever get any better.  Ultimately, even on Good Friday, it’s a prayer of lament, a prayer of a person who both begs for God to act and trusts that God will show up and make a difference.

When the darkness rages, it’s always the Psalms. When the earth cries out in pain and anger, it is the Psalms that help me find a way to offer that anger back to God. When the sighs are too deep for words it is the Psalms that help me find a voice. When our lives lead us to demand, “How long, O Lord”, it is the prayers of the Psalms that remind me that the question isn’t a betrayal of faith in God but a testimony to it.

It is the Psalms because the Psalms are the best resource I know to remind me that what happens to the world matters greatly to God.

There’s a strand of Christianity that tries to teach us that the point of the Christian life is to escape the world. Such a view was declared inconsistent with the Gospel by the early church, but heresies have a way of sticking around.

You can’t really reconcile the idea that God doesn’t care about the world with the Bible. Genesis 1 tells us that upon seeing the world God had made, God called it very good. The most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16, which says the the gift of Jesus comes to us because, in fact, “God so loved the world”. The promised new Creation of Revelation contains the hope of no more tears and no more pain, because God actually cares about what you and I experience and grieves our pain. When we mourn, God mourns. That’s part of what it means to love, after all.

This is one of those foundational beliefs that shapes how we live, how we work and how we pray. It’s impossible to pray Your Kingdom, Your Will Be Done and live out a faith that avoids the pain of the world. You can’t live in faithfulness to the God who loves people and ignore the injustices that damage and destroy people that God loves and Christ died for. To love God is to love the world that God loves.

The Psalms both teach and show us how to be in relationship with a God who is not silent. Again and again the Psalms teach us how to pray in the conviction that we do not make our way in the world alone. We are not agents of transformation working by ourselves to make the world look the way God intended. The underlying belief of the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole, is that we are not striving against injustice on our own, but are fighting the good fight in partnership with the God who will not sit on the sidelines.

Consider the words of Psalm 31, which I received, appropriately enough, on Saturday.  “Praise be the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege.” Bible in one hand, screen in the other you might say.

We should stamp Psalm 33 on our doorposts, words we need to shout as loud as we can when we want to give up, promises we need to hold on to when evil never seems to stop and hate-fueled violence appears as the inevitable outcome of a world gone mad. “The Lord foils the plans of the nations, he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

The message of the Bible is that God will not be deterred. From Genesis to Revelation we read how God is working to unite the entire human family. The distinctions and differences that we hold on to are the things that no longer define people in God’s new creation. The walls are being torn down and God will not rest until everyone is together at the table.

So keep working for God’s justice. Don’t give up on the Beloved Community. This is the heart of God. And God will not be deterred.
Thank You So Much For Sharing...