Seeing Jesus

“Jesus Himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing Him” (Luke 24:16)

The Risen Christ is at work in the world, but do we see Jesus?

 

 

 

Reaction and Response

The deepest part of every human being longs for his or her life to make a positive impact in the world. We all want, to borrow a phrase from my friend Jimmy, to be a love spreading difference maker. We want our presence to be a force for good. We hope that truth and love come into the world in and through our being.

I find that a great barrier in our pursuit to spread love is not the absence of desire, but rather a lack of capacity. We easily get stuck reacting to life because we haven’t yet learned the art of making a prayer-soaked response to life.

A reaction is automatic, quick, and instinctive. It feels good to react, even when it also paradoxically feels bad. A reaction comes from an unconscious, shallow, and primitive place within us that is concerned with keeping our image intact. When we react, we want to be right and make the other wrong.

A prayer soaked response, on the other hand, comes from a place of depth. When we respond to life, we consciously live in the tension of being part of the problem and the solution at the same time. There is nothing automatic about a response, at least not initially, as a response often feels like we are stepping into a place where a part of us does not want to go (see John 21:18).

What then is the main difference between a reaction and response?

When we react we call down fire from heaven in the hopes that someone else will be consumed (see Luke 9:54).

When we respond to life we find that the fire consumes nothing but our part of the problem, which of course also happens to the solution the world most needs. 

Glorious Monotony

Most of our days, our jobs, and our lives are filled with monotony. This is a fact. At work and at home, we often find ourselves engaged in tasks that we are all-too-quick to label as boring, rote, routine. These are tasks we regard as unimportant, insignificant, and boring.

I’ve noticed that most of us resist the monotonous aspect of our lives in one way or another. We feel contempt for the aspects of our work and our life that lack excitement–the filing of reports, the laundry, the petty conflicts we’re asked to sort out, the traffic, grading papers–tasks that are expected of us and that need to get done, but that only serve to maintain the status quo.

Oftentimes the Church unwittingly reinforces our disdain for the monotonous in the way we speak of vocation. We ask about people’s passion, what they love, and what energizes them. Their answer to these questions we name their vocation, their calling. We bless whatever people say feeds them.

Such questions are certainly important, but they are only half the story. There is a dark side to thinking of vocation only in terms of our passion. Aside from reinforcing our addiction to positive emotion, equating vocation with passion loses sight of God’s Presence in the small, passionless details of everyday life. Mother Theresa is on point when she says, “We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”

Is much of your day spent doing something that lacks vigor and excitement? Perhaps God is calling you to leave, to find your passion, and to pursue a different task. But consider that your vocation might not be a call to a different task but rather a call to learn the art of doing your tasks differently. 

A Tale of two selves

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

Jesus is clear: there is a self that we must lose. There is also a Self that we must find. Thus, a Christian must know the difference between self and Self.

Our self fears other people and is committed to being separate from them. Our Self treasures its distinctive role in the Body and understands his healthy dependence on others.

Our self puts up walls. Our Self has good boundaries.

Our self thrives on past and future. Our Self lives in the present.

Our self identifies with mind and emotion. Our Self identifies with spirit and soul.

Our self is a starter kit: our role, name, achievement, report card. Our Self includes these external identifications, but also transcends them.

Our self is boringly common. Our Self is fabulously unique.

Our self seeks control. Our Self is relinquished to God.

Our self wants to win and believes that the stakes are high. Our Self knows that she has already won and is deeply at ease.

Our self is reactive and defensive. Our Self acts freely, for there is nothing to defend.

Our self clings and clutches. Our Self is an open hand.

Our self is a disguise. Our Self is disguised, “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

Our self pretends to be an adult. Our Self delights in being a child.

Our self flees from God, a Consuming Fire. Our Self runs to God, a Refiner’s Fire.

Jesus speaks to the self: “I never knew you.” Jesus speaks to the Self: “Come ye blessed of my Father.”

In short, selfishness is our problem and Selfishness the solution.

The nonreality of failure

Can one fail at being a Christian? If God has indeed reconciled all things to Himself–past, present, and future–does failure exist at all?

Speaking about failure can be useful when it helps us see our sinful nature more objectively (note: to say that we are sinners is a theological judgment and not a moralistic one). Speaking of failure is also useful when it increases our dependence on God and the joy we experience in God.

But in my experience our speech around failure is less than useful. We typically talk about failure as something we repeatedly do, so much so that failure becomes something we are–a part of our identity that causes us to feel shame.

The Bible tells us that Jesus once invited Peter to step out of a boat and to walk on the choppy waters of the sea. Peter heeds Jesus’s call, takes a few steps, but he quickly starts to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand to save Peter from drowning and then asks him: “Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).

We are tempted to read Jesus’s question as a criticism of Peter, as confirmation that Peter tried something and failed. But what if Jesus’s question is not rhetorical, but rather an invitation to self-examination? What if Peter’s “failure” was an important part of his spiritual development–a mere note in the grand symphony that God is creating out of Peter’s life?

If that is true–and I believe that it is–the only failure is to play life safe and to stay in the boat. And frankly, even that choice would have been a non-failure that God the Potter “worked for good” (see Rom 8:28) into the clay of Peter’s life.

 

The idolatry of self-hatred

I find that regardless of how loudly and passionately we sometimes speak about the unconditional love of God, we routinely beat ourselves up. One minute we profess a belief that God does not condemn us for our sins, and the next minute we lose ourselves in a litany of self-flagellating thoughts, emotions, and mental fictions over our mistakes, failure, and sin. Whether it is a big blunder or a minor faux pas, we tend to condemn ourselves for just about anything. I even condemn myself for my inability to stop condemning myself.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy desire to grow in emotional and spiritual maturity. In fact, much of the pain we unconsciously, mindlessly, and repeatedly bring to ourselves and others can (in some circumstances, but not all) be unlearned.

A dog can certainly learn new tricks, but what a dog cannot do is change the fact that he is a dog.

The analogy is imperfect, but what I hope to convey is that no amount of self-improvement will ever change the fact that we are sinners loved by God and that our capacity as frail humans is limited. We cannot make ourselves whole, and the Gospel message always remains that God loves us, not in spite of our sin, but in our sin, weakness, and fragility.

Self-hatred is idolatry. When we are hard on our self we elevate our word above God’s Word. God’s Word spoken over us is always and everywhere a loud, fantastic, joyous, unconditional, and all-knowing YES (with a fist pump thrown in! ~ see 2 Cor 1:19). Why, then, do we not sing a YES over ourselves?

Do you want to love your neighbor as yourself? Consider that this is impossible until you first learn to love your self. 

 

 

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shame and pride

Much ink has been spilled in recent years on the topic of shame, in large part due to the wonderful research, writing, and advocacy of Brené Brown. A fresh understanding of shame has seeped into the fabric of church culture in a way that has been overwhelmingly positive. We are keenly aware of how counterproductive and spiritually harmful it is to use shame to modify human behavior, and one cannot overemphasize how transformative this conversation around shame has been for how the church understands spiritual formation and mission.

However, I do believe that a glaring hole exists in how we understand shame theologically: namely, the manner in which shame is really a subtle form of pride in disguise.

According to Brené Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame is not the heart’s conviction that humanity as a whole is unworthy. Shame believes that I am unworthy, that I am uniquely flawed in a way that others are not.

The essence of pride is to see one’s self as separate, distinct, and superior to other people. Pride is therefore competitive. Pride takes no pleasure in being rich, but only in being richer than one’s neighbor. Pride takes no pleasure in one’s achievements, but only in the felt superiority of one’s achievements relative to others.

But what happens when we find ourselves on the losing end of the world’s game? Pride does not go away; it just disguises itself as shame: the felt sense that we are superior in our inferiority.  

Efficiency and Fruitfulness

Social scientists observe that once a technology fully enters the fabric of a culture, the values of that technology will slowly replace the values of the people. What is the mother of all values for machines and technology? Efficiency - a value we have swallowed hook, line, and sinker.

The Bible does not hold up efficiency as a Christian virtue, and yet our drive to be efficient is at an all-time high. When one is efficient, one acts with speed and accomplishes many tasks in a short period of time. Efficient people check items off of their list and they get a lot of things done. Efficient people often view relationships instrumentally. People are a means to an end. The end game is always the completion of a task.

Efficiency is not bad if you are doing your taxes or if you need to run several errands and find yourself in a time crunch. However, when it comes to matters of life and faith, we must make a distinction between efficiency and fruitfulness (see Colossians 1:6).

Unlike efficiency, fruitfulness is messy and depends upon factors outside of our control like weather and soil conditions. Fruitfulness is slow and nonlinear. There is typically a gap between the sowing of a seed and the reaping. Oftentimes one person sows while another person reaps. Thus fruitfulness, unlike efficiency, assumes the context of a larger community. No one can be fruitful alone.

All one needs to be efficient is expertise and skill, but fruitfulness requires trust. One buries a seed and waits in prayer with his or her community for the harvest to come.

Do you fear being inefficient? Consider that a truly fruitful action oftentimes appears inefficient in the moment and that one can be highly efficient and yet horribly ineffective.

Two ways of waiting

Everyone I know is waiting for something or waiting for someone. I believe that there are two very different postures of waiting in life. The most common form of waiting is worldly waiting. Worldly waiting is a disease that God’s Spirit seeks to diagnose and heal in a person. A second and less common form of waiting is spiritual waiting. Spiritual waiting is the fruit of a life that is surrendered to God.

Worldly waiting is of the flesh. The roots of worldly waiting are a deep insecurity coupled with an unrealistic belief that something “out there” can save me or make me whole. When stuck in a pattern of worldly waiting, nothing we have and nothing we are ever feels like enough. As a result, we crave: a new relationship, a promotion, validation, respect, money, a second home, anything.

Spiritual waiting is much different than worldly waiting. It is the default posture of a heart that is surrendered to God. Spiritual waiting is Abraham waiting for Sarah to conceive, Moses looking at the Promised Land and waiting to enter, and Jesus on the cross waiting for resurrection.

One who is skilled in the art of spiritual waiting knows that God’s promise is both already and not yet fulfilled. Those who wait spiritually have tasted something of God’s goodness, but they eagerly wait for the banquet. Spiritual waiting is a readiness of heart, an active expectancy, a watching for God to appear, a listening for God to speak, and a willingness to say yes to the call.

Put differently, the former is a waiting for something and the latter is a waiting for Someone. “I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame” (Is 49:23). 

Vulnerability and Faith

I can honestly say that I haven’t a clue as to how anyone survives the difficulty of life without faith in God. Not only has my faith helped me survive difficult times, my faith also helps me use difficulty and challenge to become more resilient as a person. I take solace in my belief that God intends to restore all that is broken in our world and that God can work all things for the good of those who love Him.

However, it would be wrong to say that my faith always offers me solace and comfort, or indeed that it should. Consider the foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the call of Abram. God asks Abram to leave his country and kindred, the safe and familiar, and to journey to a new land with nothing but a promise. God invites Abram not only to faith and obedience, but also to a life of vulnerability. In saying yes to God’s call, Abram is at the same time signing up for a life of risk, uncertainty, and prayer as he daily rumbles with the fear and doubt that always accompany our choice to leave the safe and familiar.

We do people a great disservice when we speak of faith as something that always offers us comfort and solace. Biblical faith is not lived within the walls of the Temple where paid clergy offer sacrifices meant to stabilize our life. No, Biblical faith is always meant to destabilize us as we learn to become a living sacrifice, die daily, and leave Haran.

Should our faith comfort us when times are tough? Alleluia, amen, YES! But let us not neglect to speak the full truth about the cruciform life: our faith should also discomfort us when times are easy.  

The mathematics of Faith

What mathematical symbol best expresses the Gospel?

We instinctively and unconsciously gravitate towards viewing our faith through the lens of addition. Consider the axiomatic belief that God wants us to grow in our faith. Growth is a metaphor of addition. We grow when we add new capabilities, knowledge, and habits of character that we previously lacked. Similarly, the prosperity Gospel is about addition. We engage in certain behaviors and God adds His blessings to us in response.

We also talk about multiplication. God, we say, wants the Church to multiply. After all, Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations. This is a spiritual reinterpretation of God’s command to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Addition and multiplication are important in the Christian life, but neither constitutes the foundation of Christianity, which is a heart posture of subtraction. We become less and less only to discover God, and our true Self, more and more. According to Richard Rohr:

The counter-intuitive nature of the Jesus-journey shows it is not at all about getting, attaining, achieving, performing, or succeeding (all of which tend to pander to the ego). Jesus' spirituality is much more about letting go of what we do not need anyway. It more often involves unlearning than learning. 

Paul tells the Philippians that Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave, only to exhort the Philippians to get busy learning the same math. Subtraction is about letting go, relinquishment, kenosis, surrender, and taking the lowest place. John the Baptist put it best: “He must increase, I must decrease.”  

Holy subtraction. Not only is it the foundation on which healthy addition and multiplication are built, but subtraction alone can prevent that dreadful cancer that Jesus prayed would not destroy the Church: division. 

Touchdown! Jesus?

You have undoubtedly noticed that football players often take a knee, point to the sky, and give the credit to God when scoring a touchdown. I’ve seen golfers do the same when they make a putt and basketball players when they sink the game winning shot.

Countless times people have expressed to me their disapproval of this behavior. “I think it is so stupid that people believe that God won the game for them, or that God caused the touchdown to happen.” Most of us have said or thought something along those lines at least once.

What strikes me about such comments is the way they reveal our ingrained need to feel spiritually superior to other people. The ego loves pointing out what it perceives to be spiritual superficiality in other people. It’s a clever strategy we all use from time to time to avoid facing our own fragility, insecurity, and spiritual confusion.

So: is it ridiculous to believe that God helped my team win? That God orchestrated a weather pattern that shut down an entire school district so that I could take an extra day off to get things done? That God is the reason I got the full asking price for my house?

Maybe, maybe not. I really don’t know.

What I do know is that it is spiritually healthier to thank God for these things and mean it than to stand alone and pray: “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). 

Prayer: to God, or through God?

I recently had the privilege of praying at a family gathering. After I finished my prayer, my father jokingly expressed his disappointment in what he perceived as my lack of reverence. “When you address the Most High God,” he sarcastically chided, “it is important to use words like humbly, beseech, art, thou, dost, meet, majesty, and, when using a pronoun to refer to the Almighty God, Thee.” Translation: “you are a peasant and God is a King. Your words should reflect that reality when speaking to God.”

Most of us imagine prayer solely as an exercise in speaking to God. Furthermore, our image of God shapes how we speak to God. If God is a King, we speak in one tone; if God is our Friend, we speak in a different tone. But consider that prayer as speaking (or listening) to God falls short of the fullness of the Biblical call vis-à-vis prayer.

When we pray to God, we are present to the gulf between humanity and God. Prayer to God can easily leave us with a relationship to God that is distant and easy to compartmentalize. It can lose sight of the Gospel truth that we are in Christ now and that the gulf between God and man has been forever closed. How do you pray to what, or to a Whom, that lives inside of you? How do you pray to the One in Whom you live and breathe?

Jesus told us to pray to God. I speak to God, and I listen to God. However, our prayer life must also honor what the Bible actually teaches; “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Or as we often end each prayer, “through Christ our Lord.”

Daily Bread

The human mind finds the present moment to be intolerable. When not preoccupied with the past, our mind dwells on an imagined future. I have noticed two things about my mind when it begins to ponder future scenarios. First, there is always a big problem for which I do not have the solution. Second, my mind unconsciously accepts the future scenario created by my mind as inevitable, and I worry that I won’t have the resources I need to deal with the scary future when it arrives. In the midst of my worry, I lose touch with the Present–with this very moment that God sustains and gives me as a gift.

There is a story in the Book of Exodus about how God feeds the Israelites in the wilderness with manna, a flaky bread-like substance that daily falls from heaven as food. Moses commands his people to gather a one-day supply and to trust that God will send more bread the following day. Those who disobey Moses’ command find that the extra manna they gather turns to worms because they don’t trust God to send more the next day.

Faith is a deep heart-knowledge that God only gives a one-day supply. Perhaps God laughs when we ask Him to give us today whatever we fearfully imagine we will need tomorrow. “Can any of you by worrying,” Jesus asks, “add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27) This is an ironic question in an age when doctors tell us that worry and anxiety only serve to shorten our life.

Give us this day our daily bread, we pray. Give us our one-day supply.  “For I AM the Bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “I give My Self to you afresh each day. This very moment.”

The problem with truth

Truth is a tricky concept. Often people most passionate about the truth–whatever their truth happens to be–are the most difficult people to be around. Hence the timeless question that Pilate asked Jesus: what is truth?

Truth is not an idea, no matter how good a particular idea happens to be. Yes, varying degrees of truthfulness exist in the realm of ideas and concepts. It is certainly truer to say that God is a Father than it is to say that God is a spoon. But God is not a Father. God is like a Father in the way that God cares for us. “God the Father” is an idea, albeit a good, orthodox, and useful idea. But God alone is Truth, which means that even the divinely revealed metaphors we use to understand God fall short of Truth.

The problem with intellectual truth is our tendency to form emotional attachments to ideas we consider true, especially about God. Our sense of self is bolstered by ideas we believe to be true, and thus when your idea of truth contradicts my idea of truth, I feel threatened and I want to crucify you.

We are masters of self-deception. We say that we are defending the truth, but really we are protecting ourselves and the ideas that constitute that self. The Truth is never threatened. It is always I who feel threatened.

Truthful ideas about God are essential in the spiritual life. But at some point truth must cease to be something we fight for and become something we live. Truth is a Living Presence. Jesus is Truth, a Force we are aligned with only to the extent that this Force leads to our crucifixion, and not someone else’s. 

The Church Really Only Has One Job

Why would anyone attend church these days? Is church even relevant? Yes, but only if a church is doing her primary job.

We often assume that the church’s job is to teach people the right way to live, as if what humanity most lacked was a clear knowledge of right and wrong, or perhaps the necessary motivation to choose the good. However, we know the difference between right and wrong and, as far as I can tell, most people want to be a good person. We know the difference between moral and immoral. That is not our problem. Our problem is that we lack the capacity to consistently choose the good that we want to choose. “For I have the desire to do what is right,” Paul confessed, “but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18).

Desire? Check. Knowledge? Check. Ability? Nein.

A church has one primary job. That job is not to tell people how to do God’s will or to motivate them to live in a more humane way. The church’s primary job is to mediate an experience of forgiveness, grace, and unconditional love for people coming to terms with their lack of ability to choose the good they desire.

Think about it. Christianity is a faith with forgiveness as its basic tenet. I marvel that a faith that requires us to confess our sins and faults is now associated with self-righteousness and a fear of being judged. How did this happen?

Maybe the church has forgotten her primary job. Maybe a church is not a community of good people getting better, but a hodgepodge of sinful people coping with their utter inability to be good. Maybe that is where grace enters people’s lives and how community and Divine Encounter happen.

On Being an Ethical Person



“I just want to be a good person.”

For many people, and I don’t say this critically, faith really is that simple. We want to be ethical.

It is conventional to think that ethics is primarily about what we do. For instance, consider the homeless person you pass on the way to work. She reeks of alcohol and is smoking a cigarette.  She is not doing well and you feel a divine tug to help. She asks you for money. Should you give it to her?

If you say, “I’m sorry, but I cannot help” you will have told a lie. If you give her cash you may reinforce her dependency. If you drop everything and do whatever it takes to get her healthy and off the streets you will neglect your responsibilities at work and home. Is there a clear right thing to do?

If we pay close attention we will find ourselves in multiple ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. If ethics were primarily about what we do, a mere matter of making the right decision, we would have no chance of being ethical.

Jesus did not think that ethics was primarily about what we do, but rather about who we are. For Jesus ethics is a matter of the heart, of learning to cultivate a character that makes us a conduit through which God’s love flows from us to other people in the midst of the many wise and foolish decisions we make. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.”

Do you want to be an ethical person? Consider that ethics has little or nothing to do with the decision and everything to do with the decider.

True Religion

What is the essence of the Christian religion? What does it mean to be a “religious” person? “Increase in us true religion,” we pray in the Episcopal Church. True religion: what is that?

The word religion derives from the Latin “ligare,” which loosely translated means to “bind” or “connect.” Re-ligare (religion) means to re-bind or to re-connect. The essence of true religion is, therefore, always a re-binding or re-connecting to God.

Most people assume that the central purpose of Christianity is to give people a set of practices and a fair amount of motivation to help them re-connect to God. It’s our job, we think, to re-bind ourselves to God. Hence the massive guilt and shame we experience when confronted with the feeling of God’s absence. “It’s my fault,” we say. “I need to work on my relationship with God.  I need to read the Bible. I need to go to Church. I am responsible for re-binding to God.” This, we assume, is the essence of true religion–our willingness to put forth the effort that is required to re-connect with God.

But what if we have the whole thing backwards? What if the Gospel is the good news that God has already and is always re-connecting and re-binding God’s Very Self to us? What if we are not the hunters but the hunted? “For however devoted you are to God," Meister Eckhart reminds us, "you may be sure that God is immeasurably more devoted to you.”

It’s a good thing to want to re-connect to God, but it is far better to experience a deep and overflowing gratitude that flows from the knowledge that God is always re-connecting to us. This is the essence of true religion.