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 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...

Summer Reading

Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash

The first time I encountered a summer reading list was the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was transferring to a new school, where I knew no one and wasn’t sure if anyone would like me. And more significantly to me, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like them.

Sometime around April or May we got our instructions for the summer. Our instructions were to pick a couple of different books to read during the summer. Then on the first day of class, which was for me the first day at this new school, we were supposed to show up and discuss the book in our assigned group.

Back then the depth of my reading extended to Sports Illustrated and not much else. I had no idea where to begin. When it reached the point where I couldn’t possibly put it off any longer, I went upstairs and asked asked my mother, the resident reader in our house, which two books I should read. My mom, in what was not her best moment, picked two books that she had read and loved. Figuring those were as good as any on the list, I read the books, and then in August walked into my first summer reading group.

My first clue that listening to my mom was a poor idea came when people made their way into the room and I was the only guy in the group. That, in itself wasn’t a problem. But I was pretty sure that being known as the new, dorky kid who didn’t say anything in a room full of girls was not the start I was looking for.

But, let’s be honest, it wasn’t exactly an aberration for the rest of my high school experience. Thank God there is life after 17.

I had nightmares about that the other day after a friend asked me for a reading list for the summer. And it got me to thinking about what a summer reading list for church types might look like. Here are some of the books I’ve read or want to read soon. I’d love to hear from you about what’s on your list.

Fiction:

A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash: A great debut novel about small-town church in Appalachia and the way it can provide meaning and also lead people astray. Critics have called Cash a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Good enough for me.

Exit West, Moshin Hamid: One of the year’s most timely books, a novel that centers on the journey of and sacrifices made by refugees.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: So, I have become a history nerd. An imaginative novel inspired by a grieving Abraham Lincoln. Written by George Saunders. I bought this for my dad for Father’s Day – my greatest temptation every time I am home is to run up and steal it for myself.

House of Spies, Daniel Silva: I got hooked on this mystery series a few years ago. I’ll be hauling the latest installment with me on my summer vacation.

Swingtime, Zadie Smith. When Zadie Smith writes a book, it is an event. I heard her speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. Her words on creation and writing good sentences still ring in my ears every time I write.

The Vacationers, Emma Straub: A classic family on the edge of coming apart tale. But written with sympathy and empathy. Emma Straub is one of my favorite fiction writers.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter: Quite simply one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read. Weaves together stories of loss and betrayal, hope and redemption.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead: Winner of the Pulitzer. Imagine the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad. Whitehead is an incredible writer who can tell a great story.

Non-Fiction

The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin: Ok, so it’s 900 pages – about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. And I only made it through 300, but those 300 were great. If you have the chance to go off the grid and not be bothered for a month, you might finish the book and would be glad you did.

Originals – How Nonconformists Rule the World, Adam Grant: I don’t read many leadership books. But I do read and listen to Adam Grant.

Strange Glory, Charles Marsh: Skip Eric Metaxas’ better known book and read the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer.

The Cubs Way, Tom Verducci: Who doesn’t want to read more about the Cubs from the best baseball writer on the planet?

Spiritual Reading

Found, Micha Boyett: Readers of the blog know how much I love this book. A memoir of experiencing God again in the Psalms.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Eugene Peterson: A collected work of sermons. Peterson says it’s his last book. It’s one worth reading.

The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien: The Examen has become the spiritual practice that teaches me again and again how God is already at work in my life and in the world around me. This is a great introductory guide.

Original Blessing, Danielle Shroyer: Shroyer argues that Christians have misread Genesis and misapplied its lessons in the doctrine of Original Sin. A better way to talk about it, she insists, is to talk about God’s Original Blessing. It’s a provocative book with implications about how we relate to God, one another and the world around us.

Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren: I’ve known Tish since college. She writes about how we see and experience God in the every day things we do, things like brushing our teeth and making our beds.

Happy Reading!

Photo Credit: Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Keep Knocking

Some words just stay with us. No matter what we do or where our lives take us we just can’t get rid of them. They appear out of nowhere and find us in the middle of the night, only to stay for a while in the times when we would rather think about anything else.

You can read some of the words that like to torment me in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.  They interrogated me all those years ago when I first considered Jesus and they have returned with a vengeance lately:

“I beg you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

It’s hard out there for everybody, it seems, and certainty for those of trying to lead in and through the church. People are angry and overwhelmed. We see it most clearly online around politics, but that’s far from the only place. People are generally scared and overwhelmed. And so we lash out and we tell people what they have to do. We long for a better way but we also seem to have given up the belief that such a way is possible. We once believed in exceptionalism. Now we settle for inevitability.

I, like seemingly everyone else, am anxious too. I wonder what it means to take on a ministry of reconciliation in a world that gets more fractured and pulled apart every day. I search for answers as I read and pray in a sea of problems that seem too large for me to solve. I keep looking for a way beyond despair from powers and principalities that seem much too large for me to influence or confront.

What does it mean to be faithful to the Gospel I trust right now?  Indeed, those old words are back. What is required of me to live a life worthy of the calling I have received?

Jesus once told a story to explain prayer and action. He talked about someone going to a friend’s house late at night in search of bread. The moral of the story was this: keep knocking.

He said that if you keep knocking the door will be opened. He said that if you keep knocking someone will listen to you. He said if you keep knocking even though someone’s first instinct is to keep the door shut and pray the knocking will end, if you keep at it the door will eventually swing wide open.

Living a life worthy of the calling means to keep knocking. So even when it feels like it doesn’t make a difference, we are going to keep gathering people to read our Story that says God is preparing a table for all the children of the world. When it seems like no one is listening we are going to keep telling the truth as we understand it. When the shouting is only getting louder we are going to make space to listen because we know that God hates a divided world and is making a better one. When we are hungry for a better way we are going to gather around a Table because we know the one thing we have in common is a desperate need to be fed. When we wonder if there is anything we can possibly do to make a difference we are going to work and pray because we’ve come to believe that without God’s help, it might be impossible.  But we have seen that when God gets involved justice does roll down like waters even if the water hasn’t reached everybody just yet.

To trust in the God of the Bible is to trust that truth – that God is with us. And so as followers of Jesus we trust that the best way to transform the world is to do the things Jesus told us to do. After all, he said he came not to condemn the world or even to leave it alone but to transform it and renew it with love.

It is because we know that we aren’t alone that we can keep knocking. We can keep knocking because we know we don’t have to take on the powers all by ourselves. We can keep working at reconciliation because we know God is at work in it with us. We can advocate for justice again and again because we know that we aren’t working on our own. We can do the seemingly innocent but actual radical work of reading and living in this Story because we know God is still writing it in and through us. After all, Jesus told us that we were to be his witnesses, and that God was giving us the power and the wisdom to do it well, despite ourselves.

It is easy to get discouraged and to feel overwhelmed. It is easy to believe that your work and your life don’t have the power to make anything change.

But you aren’t doing this stuff on your own. You can live a life worthy of the incredible calling you have received.

Don’t give up. Keep knocking.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Deep Roots That Bear Fruit

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group of young adults.

They were mostly recent college graduates who had committed to giving the next year of their lives as urban missionaries. They had gathered on a farm for their orientation, where most of them were both excited and terrified about the year ahead of them. Only a few of them had ever spent time in America’s cities and so they knew that while the upcoming year was going to bring beautiful experiences it would also bring problems and challenges with the potential to overwhelm them.

I was the opening act, so sometime in the morning, with one extra large coffee finished, I began the talk that I, if no one else, was convinced might have been the most important they would hear all day – on spirituality as a fuel for mission. I shared the lessons countless world changers before them had learned, that bearing long-lasting fruit in mission was impossible apart from the spiritual resources God has given them – including but not limited to prayer, Scripture, and maybe most importantly, one another.

I was reminded of that talk the other night.  Because to survive 2017 and its Attention Whiplash we are going to need some help.

Every hour of every day seems to bring with it another issue to become educated about, another protest to participate in or ignore, another call to speak or be silent, another petition to sign or let go by. Each minute brings another article or post about who has it figured out and the requirements of earning residence on the right side of history.

The early days of 2017 feel like a continuation of the chaotic air we breathed in 2016. And if January has anything to tell us about the rest of our year, the chaos isn’t going away any time soon.

To live an engaged and informed life in 2017 requires dodging plenty of pitfalls. Many of us are tempted to dive into every event of every day while others want to bury our heads and let someone figure it out.

It seems clear that to do the right thing – to live the kind of life that we want to live, one that both values our friends and family as well as those whose names we don’t know yet – we’re going to need some help. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and find the perspective to live the engaged and constructive life that feels both holy and necessary, we’re going to need wisdom and power that’s deeper than the latest post on Facebook and more enduring than the breaking news alert on our screen.

Roots and Fruit

The term Jesus used for living an engaged and committed life that flows from what you believe was bearing fruit. That sounds churchy, but bearing fruit really is just another way to talk about loving one another. Scripture, as well as our experience, confirm that we can’t do that on our own. We get too mad. We become defensive. We find our worth in the idolatry of being right.

In a message to his disciples recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus said that with his help, by staying close to him and doing the things to receive his gifts and power, we can bear much fruit. Put another way, with his help, even in 2017, we can love one another well. But without it, when we rush to do things in our wisdom and power, to stand on our own opinions and understanding, love goes by the wayside.

The only way we can effectively love one another well, in good times much less hectic times like these, is to root ourselves in something that will last. And so for me, it means that before I dive into the latest analysis I need to dive into the story of God, the story that tells me who I am and how I should live. It means that before I commit to another email list I need to commit to spending time in silence to let God work in and on me. It means that before I rage against the machine I need to spend time in confession to understand the ways I am complicit in the same machine.

Our charge hasn’t changed. It might feel more urgent today but the work and the call is the same – love one another. Love can be controversial. Love can be uncomfortable. Love can cause divisions. But it is the response and requirement of faith.

Love one another. Apart from me you can do nothing. But with me, you can bear fruit that lasts.

I’m taking Jesus at his word. So let’s root and ground ourselves in love. Let’s trust the Psalm and believe that rooting ourselves in a deep reading of Scripture is what we need to remain anchored and live with wisdom in the storms of our day. Let’s ground ourselves in the spiritual practices and ways of life that have nurtured so many.

Let’s take the help God wants to give us to love well. Because we know we need it.

 

Thank You So Much For Sharing...