Good to Know

Lent is over- Easter has come. We’re now a couple weeks into the Easter Season. Most people think of Easter as one great big Sunday. In the Christian church we think of  Easter as just the beginning of the Easter Season. The Easter season lasts for seven Sundays. Just as Lent leads to the Easter season, the Easter season leads to the celebration of Pentecost. I’m not wanting to get “in the weeds” about Christian calendars or religious traditions, I just wanted to explain why I’m still in this Easter mindset. I shared a lot of thoughts about Lent over the last couple of months and I want to wrap that all up. My focus during the Lent season was taking an honest look at the idea of darkness (sin, negativity, pain) and how it infiltrates our lives so thoroughly that we have a hard time recognizing it. You know how life is, you set out on a journey or a time or reflection without ever knowing what’s going to happen along the way, even if you hit your desired destination. There’s always something to learn.

How does Easter change things? Let me start off by saying Easter changes everything. Easter symbolizes new life, new beginnings, new starts. Just as winter, seasons of loss, and all types of endings are necessary and natural, new beginnings sometimes brings relief and renewal. Forced new beginnings don’t always feel good. When I’m forced into a change I didn’t choose to make, I am often resistant and resentful of it. That’s how life rolls. The one thing I try to always be thankful for is the opportunity that comes from new starts. While I don’t always like the changes that life forces me into, I try to be thankful for the opportunity of change, the dynamic nature of life, that fact that opportunities for restarts do exist. I get challenged to think differently, see things from different perspectives, many times getting reacquainted with the maturity and humility required in learning to be a cheerful giver and a thankful receiver. These universal life lessons cycle around over and over.

I want to say just a few things about Easter. It’s not my intention to get into a big theological conversation about why Easter “had to happen,” or “did Jesus have to die.” There are other places where that is discussed and frankly there is plenty of wisdom to be found in all parts of the story. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God, he came to earth to show us what God’s love looked like in the flesh. I believe that Jesus made a lot of people uncomfortable with his teachings and people plotted against him to “shut him up.” Jesus was seen as a threat to the government and the church that he considered himself a part of. Jesus did lots of good things for many people and he taught about God’s love. Jesus was betrayed and denied by people he considered friends and he died from a horribly painful execution. Believers in Jesus hold dear the belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead 3 days after his execution, and that is the bedrock of the Christian faith. It’s the reason why most Christian churches worship on Sundays, because that was the day in which Jesus was raised from the dead.

There are a lot of details to the Easter story. There have been countless retellings, reenactments, songs, poems and stories around this. There are many key lessons that I’m glad that I’ve learned.

  • It’s good to know that the Lord understands how I feel when loved ones betray me. It happens to us all.
  • It’s good to know that the Lord understands how it feels when I’m distraught, and despite their best efforts, the members of my support system aren’t always enough.
  • It’s good to know that the Lord understands how I feel when I’m begging and pouring out my soul in hopes that a heart-breaking situation will just disappear.
  • It’s good to know that the Lord understands what it feels like when others dislike me because they view me as a threat to how they believe, and they do deliberate things to hurt me.
  • It’s good to know that the Lord understands the agony of when I cry out and feel like I’ve been abandoned by Him.
  • It’s good to know that as I visit with a loved one with an unsure future that the Lord understands the feelings humans have when facing death and can comfort them.
  • It’s good to know that when I’m confronted with my bad deeds, I can look into the face of God and say, “I don’t deserve forgiveness, I’ve done so much wrong, but please have mercy.” Then I hear back from him, “You’re worth it to me, and I’m going to redeem you.”
  • It’s good to know that though my body will be one day committed to a grave, it doesn’t have to be the end of my story. The way I lived and loved will continue to dwell in the hearts of others long after my heart ceases to beat.

A couple weeks ago in church our worship leader sang an old song called “I Don’t Know About Tomorrow.” It made me think about the idea of “tomorrow.” For most of us in the congregation tomorrow was Monday, we had to go back to work. But there was someone in the world who tomorrow would be facing surgery. For others, Monday would be the court date for their divorce. There were some who tomorrow will bury their father. Others will be finalizing the paperwork for their bankruptcy. Someone would undoubtedly lose their best friend that day. Monday would be someone’s best day and someone else’s worst day. Whether your next new beginning/new start/personal Easter is forced on you or chosen by you, it’s good to know that the Lord understands rejection, grief, attack, betrayal, and abandonment. The promise of Easter is no matter how cold and lonely you find yourself as you’re trapped in a tomb, in a little while God is going to open the door and then you will have the option to walk out.

“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” (Luke 24:36)

Faux Theology, Theatrics and Shenanigans

Lent is in its last week and I’ve been focusing on how the darkness (negativity, evil, hardship) around me impacts my world view and my thoughts. About a month ago I was embarking on a challenge to quiet the exhausting emotional noise in my life. That’s been very hard, when I would have thought it would be easy. You see, I don’t have kids, I live alone, I have 100% control over what is played on TV or radio, or the internet, I didn’t think it would be simple but I surely didn’t think it would be as hard as it is. I was more successful with becoming quiet when things were going “smooth.” I guess that’s normal too. But when things get into an uproar either because of work, or emotional stress or illness, instead of a discovering gentle calm, I felt like I was having to fight to find quiet. So now I see that finding a place of quiet and focus as a discipline. That’s what I think I’m learning. Right now, I’d say I’m averaging about a C or C+ in turning down the emotional noise. Nights are the hardest for me. I think that’s true of many people. When there are no distractions it seems like lots of life-long negative thoughts and insecurities come out to play. I’m moving toward things that make me feel strong and healthy, so sometimes when unpleasant thoughts come to my mind I’m able to shut them down. Those thoughts and insecurities are kind of like a playground bully, the more you stand up to them the more quickly he or she will leave you alone. But like bullies, haunting thoughts are persistent.

One thing that gives me strength is my understanding (although limited) of God’s love. I’m being serious now. I’m not trying to sound like a “holier than thou” amateur prophet. Surprisingly, although I was active in the church pretty much from birth, it took decades for me to mature and get to where I was able to really believe in God’s love for me. I know that sounds crazy- maybe. I knew God was love and had committed to memory many Bible verses and stories about God’s love but arriving to where I really believed in God’s love for me was a long journey. Maybe it’s everyone’s journey? I don’t know. The leap from knowledge to belief wasn’t easy for me.

I’ve come to learn that many people I’ve encountered either don’t believe that a personal God truly does love them just as they are, or they believe that God is this divine aloof being who likes all of us just about the same. (You know like, “I like the french fries at Cracker Barrel but the ones at Longhorn are just about as good.”) I have many theories about this but I’m just going to focus on a couple core beliefs about this right now. I believe that many people can’t really accept the idea that God loves them because they either don’t think they’re worth it (because someone along the way convinced them of that) or because they don’t really believe such a love is real or possible.

The words real, authentic, and sincere are popular concepts now. I think there is a huge revolt against the idea of fake, false or insincere motives, as there should be. There has been so much corruption in the world and so much opportunistic manipulation that we’re sick to death of it. That cynicism carries over to our thoughts about God. That’s not the only factor. Just like in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we so infrequently see true examples of God’s love that we think the bankrupt theology and careless ethics we so often see in self-identified “Christians” is representative of the Lord. (If Plato hasn’t been on your mind lately, here’s a link of a quick video that will remind you about this story. It’s worth watching.) https://youtu.be/1RWOpQXTltA 

You know how kids seem to get in a rut where they deem chicken nuggets to be the only acceptable meal choice? No matter how much marvelous food they are exposed to the only menu item that matters is the humble chicken nugget. I think we go through that spiritually. We get to know enough about the spiritual knowledge that is appropriate and acceptable in our specific part of the universe and we either lack imagination or are discouraged from looking further to see if there’s more. Most anyone who knows me well is aware that I am very frustrated with the obscene lack of love, compassion and humility found in many Christian churches. They are quick to sing and speak about a loving and graceful God, but they behave in a way that will make anyone watching closely wonder if it’s all just an elaborate fairy tale. Weekly church services have devolved into a litany of faux theology, theatrics and shenanigans. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, I’m not trying to launch a “Get sold out to Jesus” campaign or “you need to be sanctified holy” sermon. I don’t want to confuse my message with any fancy doctrinal words. What I’m saying is that I am a follower of Christ, but if people who encounter me don’t start getting a glimpse of God’s love, I’m not following Christ very well.

I know I’m far from perfect. Even as I’m writing this there are pictures of people going through my mind who I’ve failed miserably when it came to showing love. I’m sharing this to you in humility. I know if people are going to believe in and know God’s perfect love, people who claim to be followers of Christ need to be true examples of it. I’ve got to know it and show it. First, I have to know it, know what it really is. I can’t tell someone that I know that God loves and accepts me so they should accept God’s love for them too, if it’s not true. Like I said when I started this conversation, people are very quick to call out BS when they see it (and I think we’re better for it). So maybe purpose of this whole Lent journey I’m on is to become more purposeful and disciplined in accepting and reflections God’s unconditional love. That means at night when my memories play to the tune of “epic failures, short comings and just flat out looking stupid” like an orchestra in my mind, I’ve got to challenge it with ideas and the truth that I have chosen to believe about God’s love for me. And when it’s time for the orchestra’s second number, “People who hurt others and don’t deserve to have any good thing happen to them because they suck,” I’ve got to challenge that by praying for grace for them and compassion for me. Maybe it’s time to take another leap from knowledge to belief and begin to understand that my reflecting God’s love can’t just be a hobby that I try on special occasions. Maybe I can grow into a person who sees reflecting God’s love for others not as an obligation, but as my joy. Wow- I’ve got my work cut out for me.

As I’ve been reflecting tonight, I’m encouraged by the story of Saul found in Acts 6:8-9:31. He lived out some pretty bad theology. He did terrible things in the name of the Lord. God got his attention and because of love shown to him by people he once considered enemies, he was transformed. Take a closer look at the story.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+6%3A8-9%3A31&version=NIV

Wherever you are- know that the Lord is crazy in love with you and you are precious in his sight. God’s love and acceptance of you is real. Give God the chance to convince you of that.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:0)

Dancing with Darkness

From the time we take our first breath our dance with darkness begins.

From the time we take our first breath our dance with darkness begins. In utero countless biological processes happen that work together in a systematic way to bring about a beautiful perfect life. Between then and now lots of different things have happened. Our shared human experience is that we all encounter the darkness of this existence. When considering darkness in this context, I’m not content to just label it as “evil” or “sin.” I think we try to frame darkness as an abstract spiritual concept so that we can ignore the real impact it has in our daily lives. We like to reduce things into easily classifiable categories because it gives us an illusion of control. In this circumstance, darkness including all things sinful, evil, negative, things that makes us feel unsafe, unhealthy or less than. I want to us to discuss the things that make us feel damaged, or as if we’re not “whole.”

This past Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent which is a season observed by Christian churches each year in the weeks immediately preceding Easter. It’s a time where Christians are to reflect, repent, and confess. It’s a “Get real with God” time. Most people are familiar with what has become a watered-down tradition of giving something up for Lent. That’s when you deny yourself some pleasure (chocolate, social media, TV) so that you can use that time reflecting on your spiritual life. Whether you’re a Christian or not, and even if you don’t consider yourself a person of faith, I think it’s good to routinely have a season where you are dedicated to examining your inner life, your behaviors, habits and the direction you’re moving toward. During this season of Lent I’m focusing on my battle with darkness. For the next 6 and a half weeks I’m committed to recognizing, owning and doing what I can to transform the negative influences in my life. I’m choosing to deliberately lean into these levels of unpleasantness because I’ve become preoccupied. I’ve grown numb, and aloof. I’ve developed a “tolerance” for pain, evil, and suffering, in myself and other people. I remember a patient I once cared for. He had a terrible wound on the bottom his foot that wasn’t showing any signs of healing, (which is the reason he became my patient). The wound was big and gross. Guess what? He couldn’t even feel it. He had nerve damage and no longer had a sensation of pain in his foot anymore. I could have done anything short of amputating his foot and he would have never known. In a similar fashion, I think many of us have “soul neuropathy.” We get things done, pay our bills, meet our social obligations, and we don’t really feel a thing. We hardly have time to care, and certainly have no room for passion in our crowded minds.

Many of us have accepted, “This is my life, it’s not going to get any better than this.” After all, we can’t destroy the immense darkness. Many of us have embraced a learned helplessness and are taking a passive role in our mental and spiritual well being. Our souls are dying way before our body’s expiration date. We may not be able to completely escape darkness but we can certainly limit the amount of darkness we’re exposed to. We surely have a say in how much it influences our behavior.

Real life example: Most of us, to some degree, are trying to be healthy or healthier, right? When I visit the gym a few times a week and walk across the floor, do I start having negative thoughts creep into my mind that are very similar to the thoughts I’ve had all my life since middle school? Yup. Those feelings that make me wish I had stayed home hit me every time. They play over and over again until I actually turn my music on and get to work. Is that darkness? Yes, that’s part of my darkness. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, where it comes from, or the scores of memories I have that reinforce those feelings, it’s darkness. It pours negativity into my mind, makes me feel discouraged and diminished. I’ve got to own that. I can’t make it disappear or erase all the bad memories, but I can choose to fight past it and stay on track. You can’t transform things until you recognize that they exist. I need to be honest and point out that a lot of times I do give in and don’t push through. This is a very common type of struggle that I know many of you understand. We are attacked constantly by negativity, insecurity, and just bad stuff. It spirals to where life is reduced to acting out assigned roles where darkness is the director of the play. Darkness dictates what we wear, where we go, who we associate with, whether we take risks, and it has a profound influence on our relationships.

Does this really matter?

Yes it does. The darkness we’re taking about here isn’t just a condition that makes it hard to see what’s on the top shelf of a closet. Darkness in the form of evil, negativity, and pain doesn’t play well with others. It crowds out all the good things in our lives. It slowly infiltrates all parts of our soul and we end up living an existence instead of a life. We were created for more than that. We’re capable for more than that. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1. 4-5) Like I said earlier, we are dancing with darkness from our first moments of life. Pain and struggle are universal. We will confront them every day. Another truth is that the Lord is not afraid of the darkness. (Hang in here with me evangelicals! Don’t switch over to autopilot.) If you were raised in the evangelical Christian church, you mind is getting ready to flash back and quote the Roman Road to Salvation or verses about calling on the name of the Lord so that you’ll be saved. That has a place in the story but I’m reaching beyond it. My insecurities in the gym, or at work, or my tendency to feel anxiety, jealousy and anger doesn’t mean that I’m not a Christian. It doesn’t mean I don’t have faith. It means that I’m human just like you. God is cool with that. The Lord longs to be in a real relationship with us where we’re honest and not afraid to confess our struggles. God is crazy in love with us and we’re precious in his sight. God’s not waiting to see a flawless performance, but instead is yearning for a real conversation. Darkness has limited our understanding of our belovedness to God and has distorted the perspective of our place in of creation. We must recognize it, own it, confess it, and ask for help.

“These addictions, compulsions, and obsessions reveal our entrapments. They show our sinfulness because they take away our freedom as children of God and thus enslave us in a cramped and shrunken world.” (Henri Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? pg 98)

My friends, we are already at the dance with darkness. Why don’t you join me out on the floor and we’ll make this a shindig? We can work past the callouses, bruises and scars and unleash the child of God who was created to soar, not shudder. Wherever you are, remember you were created in God’s image and the Lord loves and accepts you right now.