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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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.

 

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An Old Rule and A New Rhythm

The most important question Methodists have asked for years is a simple one – How is it with your soul?  The question caught on years ago and is still asked today because it addresses a truth that too many of us know deep in our hearts and our minds and our souls.

So many people want, almost more than anything else, for someone to ask us this kind of question, a question that makes it possible to unburden our souls, to admit that things are, in fact, not well and then to have the chance to to see if someone, anyone, has unlocked the secret to a different kind of life than the rushed and frantic one so many of us have been suckered into living.

We truly want a new way of life, but we aren’t sure how to find it in the midst of everything we have to do – sprinting to work, hurrying to appointments, scrounging for dinner and then figuring how we are going to do it all over again tomorrow.

A spiritual life might be nice, but we just can’t fit it in. 

This isn’t a new problem.

An Old Rule

Sometime in the Fifth Century, Benedict wrote the Rule of St. Benedict, the rule that has guided monks and monasteries for centuries in living and keeping their vows.

It wasn’t written to guide monks and Christians committed to a specialized way of living their faith. Instead, it’s initial purpose was to help ordinary people discover a way to work and pray so they could live more faithful and holy lives where they were. 

There is plenty to say and write about Saint Benedict and the power of the Rule, and plenty has been written and said – Joan Chissiter’s book is one of the best.  But the heart of the rule is something we already know – living out your faith apart from a holistic way of a life and a community of accountability is a recipe for spiritual disaster.

The despair that too many people know comes not from the fact that we aren’t trying, but instead from trying to live our faith apart from the full spectrum of discipleship that Jesus invites us to.

In short, to experience a true connection with God we need a coherent framework that has stood the test of time. The key to growing in faith isn’t a set of isolated spiritual practices but a unified rhythm and way of life that points our whole lives to the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. 

Learning a New Rhythm

What we believe matters.  But lived Christianity is less a series of truth statements than it is a rhythm of life that flows from what we believe. If we want to live an authentic and real spiritual life, we need a rule that points us to the right rhythm. 

The problem with the frantic and hurried rhythms that run our lives is they do so much more damage than simply leading us to the brink of exhaustion. They stunt our spiritual growth, prevent us from experiencing Resurrection faith and blind us to gifts that God is trying to give us.

This is the wisdom of Benedict’s Rule. If we want to receive the good life and experience the gifts and presence of God, we have to adjust our lives into the right rhythm. We call this repentance.

And the rhythm we need is one we find again and again in the Bible and that we see most clearly in the practices and patterns of God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. Their experience provides the basic pattern for true life; the rhythm we long for revolves around five movements –  confession, forgiveness, repentance, celebration and rest.

Confession reveals our sin and calls us back to God after we realize there are serious consequences that come from going our own way. 

Forgiveness frees us from our need to be right and reminds us that true life doesn’t come from what we can produce but from the gifts we receive. 

Repentance calls us away from the habits that got us in trouble and sends us toward the God-filled life of holiness and faithfulness. 

Celebration invites us to worship God and praise the One who matters most – the source and provider of all that we have. 

Rest summons us to cease our doing if only for a moment to enjoy everything we have been given and leads us to embrace humility as we discover that God can manage the world just fine without us.

A Unified Life

We won’t experience the joy that comes from a connected and real relationship with God by trying one new thing or another.  The search for the spiritual life is the search for the unified life.  A spiritual life divided, like a house, cannot stand.

Instead, we need to commit ourselves to living according to a rule and experiencing a holy and holistic way of life.  We won’t get where we hope to go by trying to squeeze in a spiritual practice here or there. Instead, God longs for us to create the margin and the space to live by a new rule and find ourselves in a new and more faith-filled rhythm. 

It might seem old fashioned or out of style – but that old Methodist question won’t tolerate shortcuts.  Instead, it asks and invites us to receive gifts that might seem hard to accept but are the only way to experience and receive the life we truly want. 

In the end, the rules and the rhythm aren’t a burden, but instead are the ways that enable God to free us from the idols that fuel our despair and invite us to a new and better life that we desperately need.

 

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Rerouting

I’m not even here yet, and this is already a disaster. 

I’m on my way to a neighborhood I know at least somewhat well – it is down the road from a gym I used to frequent on the rare days when sleep didn’t win the morning battle with my alarm clock.

I’m not sure how the two dots on the navigation app could be any farther apart. And that annoying voice – well, usually it is annoying but now it has reached four-alarm ready to chuck the phone out of the car. 

Rerouting

I can feel my blood pressure rising.  More concerning is that I am fairly certain that my heart is about to explode through my chest.  Breathe, I say, more as the necessity for survival than a practice of serenity. 

Rerouting

I am on my way to a spiritual retreat, a day to pray with pastors and church leaders. I am here because in my first year as a lead pastor I have discovered that leading a community called to be a sign of the Kingdom is exhausting. I am here because I am tired. I am here because a day apart to rest and pray seems like a great idea, an idea long overdue, actually. 

And I’ve failed before I can get there, wherever there even is.  It turns out that there is an event center that really is a guest house located behind another house, which just happens to look like every other house on this street in the middle of nowhere. 

I am here, finally – frazzled, haggard and in some seriousness need of extra strong coffee.  

As I reflect on the words of the morning Scripture we have been given – Psalm 23, it’s always Psalm 23 – I realize all of my ideas about why I am here have missed the mark.

The annoying voice on my phone was telling me exactly why I am here.

I am here to be rerouted.

I’m Still Here

I came to faith in a serious way for the first time in college.  Sure, I dabbled in church growing up, even speaking on Youth Sunday and participating semi-regularly in church – at least until I got a car. But college was where it happened for me. 

College is usually either the place you discard faith only to pick it up once you have a family or the place where you begin to enter into faith’s beauty and mystery. The first option is the stuff of coming of age movies. My story comes from the second one. 

With this development came a spiritual life unlike any I had experienced before. Sure, the preachers talked about prayer and I even read a book or two on the subject, but in college I reveled in a prayer life that was both uplifting and shockingly reorienting.

I was experiencing a beautiful connection with God – enjoying the hope that comes from speaking and listening to the Author of the universe, receiving direction when I wasn’t sure which way to go, and constantly being reminded that in all the hurdles and challenges of trying to become a full-blown adult, God loved me, even me.

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In my Methodist tradition, we make a big deal about assurance – the idea that God’s Spirit speaks and calms our spirit, assuring and reminding us that what we have experienced is true. We can actually count on it – we are beloved and redeemed children of God.

Looking back, it is pretty obvious that this early faith experience was an experience of God’s assurance.  I had responded in faith to God’s love and grace, and in my prayer life God was letting me know that this wasn’t a myth. No, this is real.

Like any person who seeks out God and shares their wants and desires, some of those prayers were self-delusions. It probably wasn’t much of a coincidence that the things I heard God say just happened to be the things I wanted to hear. But over time I learned to test the spirits as I grew in maturity as Christ was continuing his work in me.

But then something changed.

I kept trying to do the things that had nurtured my relationship with God, but nothing seemed to work.  It turns out you really can’t force God to do anything.  I wanted the clarity and the certainty of the Divine-shaped details. But the more I tried, the more I waited for a silence that never broke. 

Change is inevitable.  The prophets remind us that God is doing a new thing. But what do you do when the new thing disorients you and leaves you searching for the anchor you were certain you had already found?

The Pain-Filled Middle

God was trying to teach me one of the essentials – the content of our faith might be the same today, yesterday and forever.  But our experience of it, try as we might, never stays the same.

That’s our very hope – to experience sanctification, to learn to live and love more like Jesus, demands change. And the new thing God is up to, it will happen, regardless of whether you like it or not or whether you ask for it or not. 

What was happening in those post-college years was that I was in a middle place, sandwiched between the experience of God I had known and loved and the new place God was preparing me for.

I didn’t like it one bit, because one of the things they don’t tell you about growth with God is that it is always involves plenty of pain.  

As I I read books and stared at the walls wondering just what was going on, I couldn’t dodge the suspicion that God has abandoned me. When I turned to those familiar passages of Scripture hoping they would speak life into me one more time, I wanted to know what I had done wrong. When I just couldn’t connect with God any more, I kept wondering why faithfulness felt like an illusion and how connection became the struggle that never seemed to cease. 

It was a time of questions without a whole lot of answers, a place of darkness without a whole lot of light,  and a life full of seeking without a whole lot of finding.  

John of The Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul.  At the rate I was going, one night didn’t seem so bad. As the days and the nights piled up, I kept wondering what name they had come up with for months of darkness. 

The Spirit’s Place

Sunday is Pentecost – the day we celebrate the birth of the church and the sending of the Spirit. One of the truths Pentecost teaches us that real life confirms is that the middle – the anxiety producing, doubt-infusing, heartbreaking middle – is also the place where the Spirit lives and does its work. 

The middle is the place where God speaks the truth that we will never be left behind, no matter how many times it feels like God might have memory loss when it comes to that particular promise. On Pentecost the Spirit explodes into the middle, not in the comfortable place where they had come from or in the established church to which they will go.

Instead, the Spirit chooses the uncertain and never-wrecking middle as the place of creativity. The middle is the moment where the Spirit shoves us away from the familiar of what has been and into the new and better thing of what will be.

God knows the middle. And no matter how dark and cloudy it may seem, God knows how to bring the light through.

Restoration

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That’s what I was reminded in the back yard of that long-searched for house behind the house.  Watching the ripples spread across a sun-soaked pond, I remembered and prayed those words I’ve said so many times before.  Usually I say them at the graveside, words of comfort and hope for other people.  

But today they are for me. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.  

God never promised it would be easy and painless, but God always promises to restore and renew. The same God who promised never to leave me is the same One who now assures me that I will make it through.  

In the longing and the waiting, God is present. In the wrestling and the crying, God is right here. In the hoping for something more, God will see this through.  In the hunger for life and the thirst for connection, God will fill my soul with the nourishment it longs for.

Even in the middle I can say it – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  The Lord is my portion, I lack nothing.  

I walk inside to the final reflection of the day, with a serious case of sunburn. The mark of a day that began with brooding darkness yet somehow is ending covered in light.

I don’t mind it though, I need the reminder.  God’s still working on me.

The light leaves it’s mark. God’s not done with me yet.

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Survival Guide: Four Strategies For Thriving in a Summer of Discontent

The counter in the fellowship hall serves as the de facto water cooler in my church. It is the place where we talk shop – where the teenagers inform me of my latest fashion missteps, where the old men taunt me with ghost stories about the Cubs’ impending collapse (not going to happen this year), and where everyone seems to want to find anything to talk about but the upcoming election.

A study of our zip code would lead you to assume that we are a pretty reliable voting bloc for the Republicans, but we’ve got some blue dots in an otherwise solidly red district. In some cases, blue and red even manage to live under the same roof.

None of us are political or cultural experts, but we have come to agree on one thing – we are dreading the summer.  With both major party’s candidates sporting higher negative ratings than any in recent memory, we are battening the hatches and preparing ourselves for a summer of negavity, a prolonged season of personal attacks, and a stretch where locating hope and inspiration will require an exhaustive search.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Christian call to resistance.  Although the easy access to information and the daily drumbeat of analysis and criticism won’t make it easy, it is possible to resist the trap our broken political culture wants to set for us.  It is possible, even in an election year, to love God, love people and shine God’s light in a hurting world all while keeping your sanity.

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Here are four practices that can help us do just that.  I’m going to do my best to embrace them. You might find them helpful too.

  1. Seeing God’s People: Although the candidates and their teams will segment people by voting bloc, zip code, priority issues and other data points, we know that for God everyone is funneled into another category – people God created and loves unconditionally. No matter how strongly we might disagree with someone or think they are wrong about the direction of the country, God thought enough of that person to send Christ to die for them.  When we keep that in mind, it becomes a lot harder to divide people in ways that are sinful and reject the words of Genesis – that male and female, God created them in God’s image.
  2. Citizenship Matters: Although I vote in a particular state and county, in my baptism I received a citizenship in another country and a charge to serve another kingdom – the kingdom of God. That citizenship and that commissioning come with a higher purpose and higher stakes than those of any interest group or political party. In short, the most important commitment I will ever make is to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  If we can remember that, we can avoid the temptation to forget our life’s purpose and the One who is the true source of our hope and salvation.photo-1456409977730-84bb5dbf5503
  3. Thy Will Be Done: One of the implications of Incarnation, that in Jesus God became human, is that God cares about what happens in the world.  For God so loved the world, John 3:16 begins.  As Christians, regardless of our political preferences, we believe in a different kind of politics that leads us to pray in every part of life that God’s will be done. Although we do take the election seriously and we do earnestly study the candidates and make the best choice we can, our ultimate prayer is that these events would reflect and bring about God’s will for our families, our nation and the world.  After all, Paul reminds us in Romans 13 that political rulers and authorities are ultimately servants of God, and the Bible is full of examples where God uses secular rulers and authorities to achieve God’s purpose and mission. 
  4. Tuning Out: God called us to work for six days and on the seventh day rest.  Citizenship isn’t for wimps – it requires us to pay attention, to grapple with issues and leaders, and to listen and talk with wise friends about the kind of leadership we need.  Like life, sometimes citizenship can be overwhelming. That’s where sabbath comes in. The practice of sabbath – resting from the drumbeat of the process – can restore perspective, provide needed rest, and remind us of the truth Christians believe about any aspect of the world – that God is still God and we are still not. Sabbath isn’t just a day apart, but is a way of life. We can practice sabbath and receive holy rest by letting go of things that are consuming us – our phones, our fears and in this season even our politics. So, eat lunch with a friend, enjoy a good book, or go for a walk in the woods.  In short, do whatever you need to do to relax. You can take a break, it will be OK. Sabbath is God’s way of reconnecting with us and healing what ails us.
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