Understanding Easter

I didn’t get Easter for a long time.

Sure, I spent plenty of Easter mornings at the church as a kid and even went once to the Sunrise Service over my parents’ sleep-deprived wishes. The Youth Director told me she needed me there and when she said you needed to be somewhere, it really wasn’t a request.

But I don’t think I ever really got it until seminary. It wasn’t because I had learned some new theology that straightened out all the questions Resurrection demands. It was something more basic. When it came to the promise of new life, it was there I found myself in need of one.

It had been one of those weeks, actually this week had been a few weeks coming. Holy Week – the first one and every one since – exposes things, and in my experience, it exposes people, too.

The light of this Holy Week’s dark exposure was brighter than I could handle. It was showing me, maybe for the first time, what I didn’t want to face. And what I was facing was what other people, friends who cared for me and loved me even though they hadn’t known me that long, had been trying to tell me for some time.

My life had become uprooted, I was barely holding it together and I was a long way away from living a life any preacher would call abundant.

For The People

And so, the alarm went off on Easter morning and I made my way to the chapel, hoping that some how or some way, the Easter Gospel could find its way in and begin to clean up the mess I had made.  In all honesty, I probably chose to worship there because of the guest preacher. But, to my credit, if you are in search of Resurrection, there are few preachers with a better chance of helping you find it than Barbara Brown Taylor.

Mark’s Gospel, she announced, ends suddenly. The Gospel has two endings – and the short one ends with a messenger telling the women to go back to the disciples. Go back, he tells them, and tell the disciples to head to Galilee and wait for Jesus.

Wait for him there. On Easter morning, God’s messenger tells the first witnesses to go back into the world because that is where Jesus is headed. Resurrection isn’t over and done with at the empty tomb. No, Resurrection will be experienced and realized in the world, the world God loves and with the people who need it the most.

Just Getting Started

Easter is both a declaration and an anticipation of life. That’s what I learned that Sunday. The empty tomb declares that life is stronger than death and it anticipates love heading back into the world to give life to people who know all too well the power of death. The Easter witness of “I have seen the Lord” is the confident declaration of those who know that God’s redemption is on the way.

That confidence comes from knowing that Resurrection is the guarantee of the promise God made in a covenant with Abraham. It’s the joy that comes from learning to trust the word of the God who promises that nothing can separate us from Love – not even death. The liberation of Easter comes from a God who led a captive people through the water in the Exodus and has promised to rescue all of us us from the people and the systems that hold us captive.

And so, the good news of Easter isn’t just about a party in a graveyard. It is found in the promise of a God who is coming again for those who desperately need to find salvation – or for salvation to find them.

It is good news for the family on the edge of breaking apart because the God of Easter is the God who heals what is broken. And it is good news for the victims of repeated racism and systemic sexism because the God who made the empty tomb possible is the God of the oppressed.  Easter is good news for those who have been beaten down because the God of the Resurrection is the God who inspired Mary to sing praise to the One who lifts up the lowly and smashes the thrones of the arrogant.

If you had a hard time celebrating on Sunday, don’t worry. You aren’t alone and you didn’t miss it.

You just might be waiting for Resurrection to appear where you live. But Jesus is coming to Galilee, and according to the Gospel of Resurrection, that’s where we all live.

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Beyond Distraction

My usual response to people who want to get a hold of me is simple – call me on my phone, it’s always on my hip. That answer has started to change, however, because what I’ve learned is that one of the keys to actually living life is to leave my phone in another room.

I know better than I would like to admit the addictive power of my phone. There are few forces better at demanding our attention than the mini-computers we carry in our hands. Whether it is calling or texting friends, posting on our platform of choice, or encountering the world through the lens of our camera, our phones demand our attention.

And that demand comes with a high price. Being locked into the world of our phones leads us to miss the gift of God’s glory in the world in which we actually live. Giving our families the view of the top of our head teaches them that they aren’t as important as whatever we are experiencing in our news feeds. The connectedness our devices make possible often serves to disconnect us from what we most want and need.

Sin and Distraction

I used to think that distractions were neutral, things that might pull us away from productivity but weren’t filled with malice. The more I’ve learned about the spiritual life and how distractions prevent us from paying attention – to God and the people who matter to us – I have come to the realization there isn’t much difference between the negative influence of distractions and the insidious destruction we call sin.

The classic evangelical definition of sin calls it anything that separates us from God. That separation from God leads to division and alienation from other people. When our mutual separation is brought to bear the tragic result are systems and structures that menace people by denying the presence of God within them. This is what leads the Apostle Paul to name the fundamental work of the Cross as reconciliation – both between God and humanity and between groups of people.

Regardless of its source, our inability to remain focused on who and what truly matters leads us away from God and summons us to build walls between one another. Transformation, the kind that leads us back to God and inspires us to build bridges, doesn’t happen by paying attention for a fleeting moment in between the experiences that vie for our attention. Growing in our relationship with God and experiencing the reconciled life requires sustained attention these distractions serve to undermine.

We are changed as we grow in the ability to notice the signs of God’s activity in the world. We grow in grace as we respond in gratitude to the gifts God is giving us. We experience the joy of new creation as we learn to pay attention to the things God wants to show us.

Greater Things

In the opening of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael that if he stays close he will see greater things than he has seen before. In short, Jesus is telling Nathanael that if he can learn to pay attention he will experience life in a way he never has before.

But Nathanael will learn what I know pretty well, and I bet you do too – wanting to focus on what matters and finding a way to do it are two different things.

One of the most important questions to ask, then, is how we are going to reorder our life so we can actually see these greater things Jesus wants to show us. How do we structure our days so we don’t miss the glory of God when it walks right in front of us? How do we learn to spot the signs of reconciliation and new birth that break through when people who once hated each other sit down together as friends? How can we remove the blinders and begin to see the Kingdom vision that starts with the choice you make as Jesus invites you to “Come and see”? How can we say no to the temptations of the distractions and yes to the one thing we know we need?

One of the answers I’ve come up with is to remember that it is possible to live without my phone attached to my hip. The phone – and all the things that come with it – isn’t the devil. I don’t long for us to go to back to a world without them – we’d just replace them with some other way to avoid what really matters.

But I do know that I’ve discovered a whole lot of time that I couldn’t seem to find before. I’ve noticed I spent way too much time on that phone and not enough spotting and celebrating real life. I’ve also made room for other things that help me see – listening in silence instead of insisting on my own way,  reading my Bible for myself and not just as fodder for a sermon, and paying attention to people instead of racing past them in a rush to get things done.

What is keeping you from seeing and experiencing greater things? My prayer for you is that you can find one thing to push aside and begin to receive the gift that comes from paying attention to what truly matters.

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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