The Calling of Pain

For more than ten years I’ve worked with young adults – as a Sunday School teacher, as a pastor and as a retreat leader invited to help them make connections between faith and service.

Although the technology that houses their screens has changed plenty, one thing that hasn’t is the way these conversations always turn to vocation. Whether we are talking beneath a steeple, in a circle around a campfire or over a cup of coffee, these emerging adults want to know about how the faith they talk about on Sunday mornings connects with what they do the other six days of the week.

They often don’t locate the question within the deep tradition of vocation. But even if they don’t know the word, many of them, especially the ones who have been turning it over in the hearts and living with it for a while, know well the call of Frederick Buechner. They know it so well they can give it to you from their hearts:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The quote, which comes from his book, Wishful Thinking, has become a popular touchstone for people trying to discover just what they are supposed to do with their lives. You will find it’s text set next to pictures of open roads on the internet, taped onto mirrors, tacked onto walls and flowing out of the mouths of mentors like me when people ask how they should invest the most precious resource they have – their time.

The answer, at least according to Buechner, comes at the intersection of personal joy and human need.

In wrestling with my own call – a statement that doesn’t involve the past tense – I have discovered that it isn’t difficult to take seriously either of the sentence’s two phrases. However, binding the two together is a harrowing and holy endeavor.

It is, Buechner wants us to know, about more than finding your joy, because responding to God’s call has something to do with the world which God loves so much. But it is also about more than simply doing something that needs to be done, because that work, while admirable, might not be work assigned to you.

Discernment, then, is found when the place the two come together is revealed in a connection between what sparks joy within you and what helps heal the creation.

 

Aly Raisman’s Heavy Burden

But what if there is more to calling than the intersection between joy and healing? What if pain, and the wounds that have pierced us, aren’t separate to the calling of God but are instead integral to it? What if calling is discovered not where two paths come together but three? Not to argue with Buechner, but it might be that who we are to be and what we are to do are linked to the scars that tell our pain and bear witness to our healing.

That’s one of the implications of Mina Kimes’ stunning profile of Olympian Aly Raisman in ESPN The Magazine’s July edition. Raisman is familiar to many as a member of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team and as a gold medal winner in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

But she has recently returned to our consciousness as one of the hundreds of victims of sexual assault by a former team doctor, Larry Nassar, and demands our attention as a fierce advocate for change in the hopes of ensuring future generations of athletes won’t ensure the trauma and suffering that she has.

As she reflects in the article on the path her life has taken – a road that diverged from her plan with a powerful and staggering victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing – Raisman does so in the language of calling.

This wasn’t the work she set out to do or the way she had planned to invest her life. It is work that flows out of tragedy and trauma that no one should ever have to endure. That work comes in response to a call she is committed to answering – for herself and for others.

“There are so many people out there that are survivors, but there are few that have a voice,” Raisman told Kimes. “I know that I’m one of the few being heard, so I just want to do right by people. I felt when I was younger that I was going to go to the Olympics. And now I feel that I’m going to help fix this.”

For some, calling is discovered at the intersection of personal fulfillment and making a difference. But Raisman’s story reminds us that for others, that intersection is a luxury they will never know. Their life’s work is forged out of their own tragic pain, and their survival, healing and witness summon them to a call they did not choose but somehow find the strength to embrace.

 

Pain Shows The Way

The tradition is filled with stories of people of all ages who listened and responded to God’s call.  I’ve often been drawn to the way John’s Gospel describes the calling of the first disciples.

It’s a simple pitch: “Come and see.” You don’t have to know everything today, Jesus promises. Just stay close and see if you are compelled to keep coming back. What he knows, of course is that, in the language of fishermen, they are already hooked.

But there’s another story that is instructive. It comes not at the Gospel’s beginning but at it’s end. It is the story of Jesus and Thomas and how Thomas only finds his way after Jesus lets him see and touch his wounds.

By his stripes, we are healed. By his wounds, we are freed. By his pain, we discover our way.

When someone wants to talk with me about vocation – or what they should be when they grow up – what I want to tell them is to breathe and find a way to release the pressure. Once you think you know, I reflect when considering my own experiences, it will probably change anyway.

I want to tell them that their life’s work will emerge from their experiences; that this isn’t a riddle they have to solve but instead is a gift to be observed. I want to tell them that I hope they will find the place of meeting between personal gladness and healing the world.

I hope, of course, that they all experience the world as liberating and freeing. But I know that likely won’t be the case. There will be pain and loss and grief and wounds.

And so, I’ll pray that they can discover what they need to find healing and peace – and then strength and courage. To keep going and to answer the call – to live with purpose for themselves, to show others the way out of darkness and to bring healing to a broken world.

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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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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.

 

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We Will

On Sunday morning our family walked up and stood in front of the church I have been called to help lead. Me, I’m used to that. In fact, it’s expected. It is, despite my serious introversion, a job requirement.

My wife doesn’t enjoy being up front; she avoids it at almost all costs. My daughter, at least so far, is happy as long as there is somewhere to sleep and a pacifier nearby. And yet, there Erin and I were, standing with our daughter and our parents while everyone else stared at us as we prepared to answer some questions from a preacher.

They weren’t just any questions either, but questions about our faith. We were asked what we believe is most fundamentally true – about God and the world that God loves. We were asked about life – particularly the kind of life we believe is worth living, the life we want for ourselves and the one we want for our daughter. We were asked about our commitments – what we were willing to do and what we weren’t willing to do.

Question 1: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?

We do.

Question 2: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

We do.

Question 3: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?

We do.

Question 4: Will you nurture your daughter in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly and to lead a Christian life?

We will.

Serious questions these are, questions that require serious answers. There’s nothing that forces you to come to grips with what you really believe is important quite like trying to raise a child.

My wife and I were raised in two different church traditions, particularly when it comes to baptism. She grew up in a tradition that prefers adult baptism and infant dedication. I grew up in one that practices infant baptism and mostly teenage confirmation.

Before our daughter was born we had plenty of conversations about the sacrament– when and how it would be offered if we had a child, why each tradition made sense and what it all meant to receive the waters and blessing of being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And so we made the walk from our seats to the front of the church Sunday not in respect to tradition or out of some ecclesial obligation, but because of what we have come to believe is true about the way God works in our lives and in the world.

We looked at each other and smiled as we heard a friend pronounce the words over our daughter:

I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Because this we believe – these questions are impossible to truthfully answer yes to on our own.

Sin and evil lurk around every corner and find their way into our lives when we are looking and when we aren’t. How could we possibly reject them by ourselves?

Rejecting evil, injustice and oppression is a supersized task, even if the freedom does come from God. There isn’t a day that goes by when we aren’t aware – even as privileged and relatively comfortable people – of the injustices and evils and oppression that friends and neighbors face on a near constant basis. Rejecting these is God-sized work.

The very nature of faith is trust and yet we are keenly aware of how easy it is to place trust in other things – reputation, money, popularity, and comfort just to name a few. And while the Gospel breaks down every barrier, many of which we don’t name in the liturgy, I admit that I’m still pretty good at clinging to the old identities and ways of being.

And then there’s the real tough one – that our lives are to be examples to our daughter that will lead her to Christ. We’re supposed to live in such a way that she will reject the idolatries of the world and find freedom from the sins that bind us and might bind her. It isn’t our intellect or powers of persuasion that we are being asked to affirm, but the integrity of how we try to follow Jesus.

How could anyone say yes to these questions?

And yet there we were, declaring with boldness and confidence that we will resist evil and oppression, that we will  live in the freedom of God, that we will put our whole trust in God’s grace and that our lives will bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We did it because we know that the same grace our daughter was receiving in the water – the power to resist sin and grow in grace – was at work in our lives. The same grace that was drawing her to God before she is even aware of it is the same grace that is sustaining and pulling us forward in our life with God as well. Our own strength and faith commitments announce a dreary No. But with God’s grace, working in our lives and the lives of our faithful friends and community we can shout a joy-filled Yes.

Christ is alive. Grace is ever-present. God is at work.

Will you follow Jesus and show your daughter how to do the same?

Without reservation – We Will!

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Beyond Fear: The Shove of Resurrection

For some people the Resurrection stories are some of the hardest in all of the Bible to believe. After all, it’s never been easy to make sense of Resurrection. But in some ways they are among the easiest to believe, because it doesn’t take too much imagination to identify with what we read there – people overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed by worry and struggling to find a clear idea of what it all means.

It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read, because this is what we encounter in almost every story that involves Jesus appearing after Easter morning. It is probably most vivid, however, in Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb.

We don’t find her laughing or celebrating, but instead John tells us that she was weeping. She didn’t know what to believe. She didn’t know what had happened. She assumed the worst – that someone had stolen his body – maybe the one thing that could make a terrible week even worse. The event that gives us hope and faith had reduced her to fear and anguish.

And yet, that’s not how she left the tomb. Because Jesus was there and he helped her make sense of it all. He showed her that there was more to this story – and hers. Because she had a role to play – go and tell your friends what you have seen and what you have heard.

At the tomb on Easter morning Mary experienced a journey from fear to mission – from where have you taken him to I have seen the Lord.

Mary isn’t the only one to experience the Resurrection in this way. In Luke 24 we read how a walking Bible Study with Jesus helped two men get to a place where they too could say we have seen the Lord. It was on a beach that Peter had the conversation and received the forgiveness he desperately needed.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, once for each time Peter had betrayed him, of course. This is the moment Peter received the forgiveness he needed and this is the moment Peter discovered the purpose and mission Jesus has for his life.

Because in a post-Resurrection world, forgiveness always leads to discovering your purpose and receiving your mission.

That’s why this story matters so much.  We know, with Mary at the tomb, what it is like to be assaulted by grief. We know, with the men on the road to Emmaus, what it is like to walk away in despair. We know, with Peter on the beach, what it is to desperately need forgiveness.

And so we rejoice after Easter that the worries that threaten to stop us in our tracks don’t. We celebrate in the light of Sunday the possibilities for new life that come when we begin to understand how God’s story is still unfolding in us, even now. We experience joy in Resurrection when we realize the purpose and mission for our lives that comes from receiving and experiencing God’s forgiveness and grace.

The Resurrection matters because we have become convinced that there is a power within us that is strong enough to break the bonds of fear. We live by the grace that is stronger than judgement and rest in the forgiveness that frees us from anything that would prevent us from living in the light of God’s love. We cling with everything we have to the promise of Romans 8 that because of all that has happened we trust that there is absolutely nothing with the power to separate us from God’s love.

Resurrection matters when it becomes the reality that lingers every day of our lives as we live into the new mission we have been given. God’s victory over death invites us to tell when and where we have seen the Lord. The light that shines out of the empty tomb calls us to bear witness to God’s love in a world that desperately needs a glimpse of it any way it can get it. We experience the joy of new life by getting to participate in the new thing God is doing in redeeming and restoring the world.

A journey that begins in fear ends in becoming partners with God to change the world.

That’s why Easter matters.

 

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