Against Empire

urban meyer
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer

“The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’  He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.  When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests.  It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, NIV)

King Solomon was wildly successful.  He expanded the kingdom of Israel in every way: more land; more gold; more buildings; more wealth; more wisdom; big temple; big family; more and big of everything.  We do not have an account that anyone called out Solomon on his big expansive government and lifestyle.

Methinks the reason for letting King Solomon go unchecked was that he was surrounded by people who enjoyed and participated in his success.  Even though he was often operating well outside of the Deuteronomic law which was right there in black and white, Solomon’s subjects only saw that he established peace, security, and a high standard of living for the nation.  Solomon acquired a massive amount of horses, wives, gold, and everything the law warned against.

Solomon was very humble and wise at the beginning of his reign.  He did everything his father David asked of him, and more.  But his wild success as king gradually brought Solomon to acquire more stuff, more wives, and to fudge on the responsibilities and requirements of the king.  Solomon established an Empire and denied himself nothing when it came to the perks of power.

There is always a dark underbelly to the outward display of power, success, and wealth.  As time goes on, the Empire becomes a god and people begin supporting the system instead of the Deity who makes it all possible to begin with.  Pride replaces humility.  Foolish ignoring of evidence becomes the norm.  Optics arises as supreme.  Solomon basically enslaved a large swath of Israel’s population to get things done in the Empire.  His success was on the backs of a lower class of people.  But, hey, who cares, as-long-as there is no war, the borders are secure, and the nation’s coffers are getting filled beyond anybody’s wildest expectations?

When the Empire becomes supreme and brings in the money, no one questions the leader.  Yes, I understand all of this happened thousands of years ago.  However, even though times change, people don’t.

It doesn’t matter the context of the Empire’s power; if it exists, it operates eerily the same.  Whether it’s Bill Hybels as the leader of a wildly successful megachurch; Urban Meyer as the leader of a crazy successful football program at Ohio State; or, any government leader overseeing immense wealth; the same ignoring of evidence among constituents, congregants, citizens, and fans exists.  In other words, people tend to look the other way when things are going well.  Whereas the leader may have once started out as wise and humble, the eventual wild success changes them.

bill hybels
Willow Creek Church founding Pastor, Bill Hybels

But things are never really going that well.  The dark underbelly hides realities of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and all kinds of other abuses all in the name of maintaining the success, that is, the Empire.

Show me a wildly successful leader of an Empire, no matter what that Empire is, and I’ll show you an entire coterie of sycophants who continually look to cash-in on that success through recognition, power, and money.  In the case of Hybel’s context, Willowcreek Community Church, the elder board (eventually) did the right thing in resigning – once they got clear-headed enough to see that they were complicit.  Ohio State still seems to have their collective heads in the sand – not seeing the situation for what it is.  Meanwhile, abuse is not squarely dealt with because the system of Empire churns along with impunity.  Unquestioning support of a human leader, whether it is in sports, in church, in government, or in a business corporation because the Empire has such incredible success is a recipe for disaster.  People will get hurt and abused; and, the victims will have no one to believe them on the inside.  Too many other folks are benefiting from the Empire.  They don’t want to see the dark underbelly.

Personally, I always come back to Jesus.  He is the ultimate example.  The Lord Jesus was humble, meek, gentle, loving, and always used his emotions and abilities toward the ends of healing others, not hurting them.  Jesus did not build an Empire.  Yes, I understand an argument could be made that the Church is an Empire (and it did exist as one in Medieval Europe).  Yet, Jesus Christ purposely and deliberately eschewed Empire.  He often told people to keep quiet about his good deeds of healing so that the seeds of Empire could not even germinate.

What’s more, Jesus did not surround himself with sycophants.  He chose the most motley crew of people one could imagine.  Christ’s original twelve disciples were such an unknown and diverse bunch of rag-tag Jewish men that nobody could mistake them as Empire building guys.  They were about a movement, not an Empire.  They were concerned for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of their own making.

The people we surround ourselves with, no matter whether we’re high mucky-muck leaders or lower-class invisible persons, or anyone in-between, is vitally important.  We all need loving persons around us who will tell us what we need to hear in a spirit of love and grace.  Speaking the truth in love is not optional equipment for any of us.  None of us do well with success unless we have humble and wise persons close to us who have the gumption and the grace to speak into our lives to help us, not hurt us.  When we don’t have that, things go sideways in a hurry.

If a guy like King Solomon, who was the wisest person who ever lived, can ignore his own nation’s God and Holy Scripture to get whatever he wanted, then how much more do we, who have less wisdom, need the grace of loving people speaking truth to our hearts?

Exposing the dark underbelly of Empire will always be fraught with the risk of people not believing and, worse, not caring.  That’s why the Christian New Testament liberally uses the word “light” to describe what kind of people we are to be.  Just as Jesus is the Light of the World, shining himself into all the dark and shadowy places of our lives and the systems of this world, so his followers are to be his flashlights, shining in such a way that is righteously persistent and gracious.

It isn’t our job to build a great Christian Empire to ensure prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, and manger scenes everywhere at Christmas.  Rather, it is our responsibility and privilege to fully embrace the status of poverty of spirit; grief, lament, and mournfulness over the sin of the world’s Empires; meekness toward others; hunger for right relationships; mercy for all; pure relations with everyone; and, peacemakers who shepherd people to the green pastures of forgiveness and harmony with God and humanity.

Today we all have the opportunity to build something greater than ourselves – a legacy which invites accountability, openness, and vulnerability which blesses the world and doesn’t seek its accolades.  It’s not always how you start; its often what motivates you and how you end that matters most.  Just ask Citizen Kane.

So, may you know the grace of caring relationships; the mercy of hearing hard things; the joy of being above board in everything you say and do; and, the humility to admit when you’ve gone off the rails.

Before We Chose God, God Chose Us

living bread

“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever….  For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” –Jesus (John 6:57-59, 65, NRSV)

It would be weird if someone insisted that they chose to be born.  I think most of us would respond something like, “Um, wait here just a moment,” then go and call the local psych ward.  That’s because we have no problem understanding that well before any of us were born, the love of two people conceived us.  Our choices within our family of origin are ours to own.  Yet, the initial choice to be a person on this planet was not ours to make.  We, rather obviously, are delusional to think otherwise.

The same is true on the spiritual plane.  Just as life is a gift given to us, so to be born again and have eternal life is a gracious grant given to us by God.  Yes, if we are Christians somewhere along life’s journey we chose Jesus.  Yet, long before our own individual choices were made, before the foundation of the world, God himself conceived of us and decided to give us the gift of faith to believe.

Before we get in a huff about the perceived lack of control on our part, stop and consider what a crazy hot mess of an apocalypse there would be if you or I were in charge.  Whatever issues people might have with God, having someone else in the driver’s seat is a bit like putting Homer Simpson as the sentinel guarding the donuts.  Probably not the best of ideas.

I would rather stick with Jesus, even when his words seem edgy and scandalous.  After all, telling folks they need to “eat me” could really go sideways in a hurry.  It’s no wonder that the early church often got accused of practicing cannibalism at the Lord’s Table.

God in Christ chose us so that we could enjoy an incredible restored relationship with our Creator.  Jesus, the Jew that he was, often spoke with deep layers of meaning.  What on the surface might seem super-strange is meant to convey things in a much richer and fuller way.  If it confuses some people, then maybe we need to sit with Christ’s words for a bit before simplifying them into some mish-mash of blither that ends up having no real meaning at all.

Beyond the sheer literal description of eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood, and merely flattening it out to mean Christian communion with wine and wafers, it could just be that Jesus wanted us to grab hold the grace of discovering the following five realities of his merciful passion up close and personal.

  1. Participation

To ingest Jesus is to participate in him.  It is to have a close, intimate connection and union with him.  Jesus identifies with his people so closely that it is as if we have absorbed him into our very being as much as any food nutrients.

I once lived near an old fence line.  The fence was long gone but one lone fence post remained.  A tree had grown up alongside and then around the post.  The post remained because the tree assimilated and engulfed it.  The only way to remove the fence post would be to cut down the tree – they were that much a part of each other.

We are in union with the Lord Jesus.  No one is snatching us out of his clutches.  We participate in his life.  We live because he lives.  We make choices because he first chose us.

  1. Provision

When we eat, what we eat, how we eat, and whom we eat with are anything but ancillary issues to the ancient Near Eastern mind and practice.  Food is a gift, a gracious gift given to us by a merciful Father who has our best interests at mind.  At the very heart of God is a hospitable bent that invites the misfit person, the misunderstood, the misanthrope, the miscellaneous, and any other “mis-sed” person into his wonderful provision of food.

Eating meals for most people around the world isn’t just about food; it’s about offering the acceptance of hospitality and communicating encouragement and recognition through lively conversation with the dignity of listening to another.  We severely truncate the power of meals when food is just gobbled quickly down alone by ourselves to satiate our growling stomachs.

Christ’s words about himself being the living bread that comes from heaven is chocked full of meaning.  On the heels of just having fed the five-thousand with bread, Jesus not only connects himself with the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert, but also lets his followers know that he is the only provision that will truly satisfy the most intense hunger.  “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he explained in his greatest Sermon, “for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6, NIV).

Through the provision of food, God invites us into his life.  What’s more, we are ushered into the realm of those who are recognized, seen, and accepted – regardless of our glaring warts, quirky idiosyncratic ways, and shadowy sins.  That’s because when God creates, he provides.  And when he provides, he graciously gives his blessing.

  1. Protection

Maybe it goes without saying that, by now, God will protect those whom he engrafts into his very life.  Yet, it still needs to be said with deliberate unction: God protects his own.

Getting back to the food thing, God’s meal-deal includes a generous portion of protection.  To come under a person’s roof to enjoy a meal together is to come under the owner of that home’s protection.  God never intended to save us, feed us, and provide for us without giving us everything we need for life and godliness in this present evil age (2 Peter 1:3).

All the implements we need to both defend ourselves and move forward with offense are graciously given to us.  The helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the shoes of peace, and the sword wielding Word of God are all for our protection.  We only need to put them on, pick them up, and use them (Ephesians 6:10-20).

  1. Profession

The nub and the rub of Christ’s discussion about being living bread is that people need to eat him, that is, him only.  In other words, you only get to God through Jesus.  Period.  No exceptions.  Understandably, this was a hard teaching.  It was so hard that, when his followers grasped what in the heck he was saying, a big chunk of them left.  They didn’t sign up for this kind of exclusive rhetoric and crap about only being one real bread.

It has always been the scandal of Christians throughout the ages to insist that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6).  But there it is.  And no amount of watering it down makes it go away.

I love and adore a variety of people.  I have many friends from different faith traditions and belief structures.  I would die for every one of them.  I would come to their side at any time they call me.  And I believe they need Jesus.  I believe everyone needs Jesus.  I understand that not everyone wants Jesus, or acknowledges him, or believes he is who he claims to be.  Nevertheless, to try and mitigate or diffuse or minimize Christ’s very hard words is doing a disservice and an injustice to what Jesus was truly saying and claiming.

To profess Jesus as Lord and Savior is a gift that is being received from a gracious and merciful gift-giver, who is God.

  1. Perpetual

The simple observation about eating is that you don’t just eat once, never to eat again.  Nope, we continually eat every single day, most of us doing it multiple times in the day.  We in the West have refrigerators full of food, some of which ends up getting moldy and no good.  Maybe we stockpile food because we don’t connect it with Jesus.  If God is the One who truly gives the grace of a decent meal, perhaps we would feel less prone to buy food and eat it like it’s going out of style.

We are to eat Jesus.  Not once.  Not twice.  But continually.  Every day.  Christ is the perpetual feast.  We are to come to him day after day, receiving his gift of sustenance for us in every sense of the concept.

We can choose to come to Jesus because he has first given himself to us.  Before we chose God, God chose us by giving us deliverance from our misguided ways through the merciful work of Jesus.

You Are What You Eat

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Come, O children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Which of you desires life,
    and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
    and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
    seek peace, and pursue it.

(Psalm 34:9-14, New Revised Standard Version)

you are what you eat 2 

You’ve likely heard the phrase “you are what you eat.”  Of course, this doesn’t mean that when you look at me you see a delicious strip of bacon.  Rather, it’s meant to convey that the kind of food we ingest, whether it is physical groceries or spiritual sustenance, is of great importance and significance.  Eating unhealthy stuff makes you unhealthy.  Conversely, ingesting healthy things helps one to maintain proper health and vitality for functioning and thriving in life.

The psalmist encourages us to seek the LORD because in going after God we will be filled with goodness.  Using our tongues for good and not evil; our words for encouragement and not for forming lies; our constant verbiage for uplift and support and not with the poison phrases of evil; and, our voices for pursuing peaceful relations and not for disharmony; are all beautiful buffet foods of health and goodness to fortify our souls.

Back when I was in seminary (in a galaxy far, far away) it was difficult to keep up with the bills.  Finances were tight in our young family.  Despite working sometimes up to three jobs at a time, our budget had no budge to it.  In one unusually and particularly hard month, we were down to our last groceries.  In fact, on one summer evening we all had a bowl of Wheaties for supper.  The refrigerator was empty.  In our bedtime prayers with our girls, my wife and I voiced and expressed our need to God.

As Mary and I readied ourselves for bed, it was raining cats and dogs outside.  At 10pm, we heard a knock on our back patio door.  We looked at each other as if the other would know that we’re expecting someone.  We weren’t.  As I pulled back the curtain, there stood a sweet little Puerto Rican neighbor holding two large bags.  I quickly ushered her into our little apartment.  Her next words to us I will never forget:

“I went to bed at 9:00 and quickly fell fast asleep.  At 9:30 the Holy Spirit woke me up and told me to fill two bags with as many groceries as I could get in them; then, go and give them to the Ehrhardt’s.  So, here I am.”

All my wife and I could do was look at her and each other slack-jawed and simply say, “Thank you.”  No one knew our need.  We told no one about it; only God.

My family learned an invaluable lesson that stormy night, one you can’t learn any other way but being in a place of desperation.  The spiritual food that we eat is so important that Jesus put it this way:

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Many years later after that rich spiritual feast, I told this same story in a congregation on a Sunday morning.  Afterwards, a middle-aged man came up to me and said something that initially took me aback: “So, how do you justify being in such a state of deprivation and not taking care of your family?”  After gathering my thoughts, I gave him this retort:

“You have asked me an honest question.  I will ask you one before I answer yours: Have your teenage kids, you, and your wife ever been in a situation where you needed God and cried out to him for something?”  Long pause…. “Well, no, not really.”  “Then, sir,” I replied, “I like the lessons my encounter with want and privation taught my kids better than the lessons your kids have never learned.”

You see, my friends, you are what you eat.  This obsession we have with being independent, self-sufficient, and our compulsions about money has spawned an entire generation of folks who just don’t know they need God.  Then, parents wonder why their kids abandon God.  God is simply irrelevant to them.  After all, why serve a God who has never touched my life in any significant way?  If we eat from a table of our own making, then the Table of the Lord becomes only a dusty piece of furniture in an empty church.

When we come and eat the bread which the Lord offers us we find satisfaction and fulfillment.  When we allow God to serve up a delicious spiritual meal we discover hospitality and joy.  When we accept the invitation to seek the Lord we find that little is much when God is in it.  In God’s upside-down kingdom, the poor are rich, and the rich are poor.

Good days of plenty don’t come because we ingeniously orchestrate it all.  Yes, of course, planning is both necessary and important.  Yet, all of our best laid plans are just that.  The outcomes belong to God, not us.  We have because God gives, and not because we figured out how to work harder, or smarter, or better.

you are what you eat

The one who truly fears the Lord has learned to first receive from Him.  Open-handed reception can only result from a heart posture of humility and need.  Close-fisted folks only know how to figure things out on their own and are not in the position to receive anything.

Whichever way you slice the Old Testament bread of poverty and the New Testament teaching on being poor in spirit, the rich are typically not in the best place – the poor are.  Being a spiritual beggar who recognizes his/her need for God, and who is desperate for Jesus is the one who has found the narrow entrance to where the Lord dwells.  And, upon entering, finds a lavish spread that is worthy of the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Poverty of Spirit

A beggar in BelÈm, Lisbon. He sat there for hours without moving.

I like having conversations with people… most of the time.  Yet, I don’t like being in a discussion where I’m wondering if the person has an agenda.  That causes me to have my antenna up concerning his/her motives or attitude.  Maybe, like me, you’ve had that moment either within a conversation or afterward where you realize, “Gosh, that dude was a real schmuck.  He was just preening and posturing to get something.”  Most of us aren’t schmucks.  You are probably reading this because you want to do what is right, just, and good.  When it comes to Christian spirituality and discipleship, we would like God’s stamp of approval on our lives.  We want to walk in the words and ways of Jesus, and not be “that guy” who is obnoxious or contemptible.

The Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-12) tell us what being “blessed” by God looks like.  The Beatitudes were countercultural to the prevailing religious milieu of Christ’s day, and, even today, are often not the kinds of characteristics which a lot of people embody.  In other words, the Beatitudes are not really on a lot of folks’ radar.

God cares not only for what we do, but why we do it.  Our attitudes are just as important to him as our actions.  Obeying God, honoring your parents, submitting to a boss, or listening to a teacher might be actions we do, but if we do them with a begrudging spirit which believes that we could do everything better than all these other persons, then pride has reared its sinister head.  In such times, we are more in league with the ancient Pharisees than with Jesus.

But I am confident of better things in your case.  Pursuing true righteousness – a right relationship with God and with others – is what brings real and lasting joy.  Whereas the Pharisees based their righteousness on outward appearances and pious behaviors, the true follower of Jesus adopts inner attitudes of humility which result in outward gestures of genuine love.  Being a conformist to a prevailing form of outward Christianity is useless, because our standard of righteousness as Christians is not what everybody else is doing, but what Christ has done.

The bedrock attitude of a Christian is humility, and this is what the first Beatitude establishes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Christians are spiritual beggars, the ones who acknowledge their great need, and are desperate for Jesus.  A beggar begs because he/she cannot simply meet their own need, and they have no means to reciprocate and give anything in return.

John Chrysostom quote

In saying that the poor in spirit are blessed, Jesus is saying that his followers have an awareness that they are spiritually bankrupt before God and stand in stark need of him.  An urgency of longing for God is at the heart of a spiritual beggar.

It isn’t hard to notice a person who is poor in spirit because true humility stands out in a culture of pride.  A spiritual beggar:

  • Doesn’t try and make slick deals with God, because they have nothing to bargain with; instead, they are content with unconditional surrender to a God of grace and mercy.
  • Doesn’t complain, because they realize they don’t deserve anything; instead, they incessantly praise God for his incredible grace to them.
  • Prays a lot, because a beggar is always begging; they pray, not because it is an effective strategy to get what they want, but because they are destitute without God.
  • Takes Christ on his terms, without acting like a peacock to get noticed, because a beggar has no position or pedigree to rely upon.
  • Realizes that the more they learn, the more they don’t know; therefore, they rely completely on God without being stubbornly independent – they listen to Scripture rather than talk all the time.
  • Knows no enemies because having lots of stuff and superior status only engenders defending turf and maintaining position.

The late Henri Nouwen once said: “Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends.  We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.”  Those who are poor in spirit are not anxiously clinging to their stuff, their money, their good name, or their supposed right to be in control.

Only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven.  The way is narrow, and only a few are willing to truly humble themselves before God and take the posture of a beggar.  To think we do not need to bow to such a lowly activity of begging belies that we believe we are above such things – which is the broad open way of destruction that many will find.

The only way to enter God’s kingdom is through humility.  The Lord’s realm is populated with those who are lowly.  Many times we might think that the most spiritual among us are those that give.  Yet, it could very well be that much of the giving is meant to maintain personal independence, an inordinate position over another person, and the status of not being in need.  Receiving with open hands can be a much harder thing to do, because it communicates to another that we are in need – and our pride doesn’t like that.

So, it is my hope for you today that you will know the blessing of being a spiritual beggar.  May you realize that your poverty of spirit is a blessed narrow way toward the wealth of imputed righteousness.  May you enjoy the kingdom of God, bask in the grace given by God, and receive all God’s good gifts with gratitude.

Let It Out

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Courageous, brave, bold, and strong – it seems most people do not characterize themselves this way.  I suppose it makes some kind of sense in our minds as to why this is: Every one of us can readily recall a time or several events in which we wilted with fear; did not speak up; or, were not assertive.  The many conversations we will never have that take place in our heads are testament to our supposed withdrawal in the face of adversity.  In other words, we have far too many discussions with ourselves of how something should have gone and way too many brave retorts for someone whom we really have no intention of saying those words toward.

If this all sounds like the convoluted musings of a wimpy kid, that’s not far off the mark.  When we get bullied, even as adults, it can be easy to wilt, or to take it, or to simply find a way to avoid the bully.  With some folks, we even create elaborate internal reasons why it’s our fault someone is upset with us.  In such times, bravery and courage seem a long way from our true selves.

Faced with a daunting task at work, at home, or at school, we may wonder if we really have the internal stuff to pull it off.  We feel that maybe someone else would be better suited to do it.  What’s more, given a set diagnosis with some disease looks a whole lot like a circumstance that is way above our emotional pay grade.  It isn’t only the added hard situations of life that make us look fearful; it is the crippling losses that can leave us feeling anything but strong and brave.

Yet, what if I told you that you are, indeed, brave, strong, and confident?  What if I insisted that courage resides within you, even if you yourself cannot see it right now?  And, what if I told you that bravery isn’t something you must go on a quest to find, but that it’s been in you all along?  If so, you only need to let it out.

You intuitively know I’m on to something here.  After all, the most common exhortation and assurance in the entirety of Holy Scripture is to not be afraid because God is with us….

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9, NIV)

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6, NIV)

“So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NIV)

“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6, NIV)

Believe it, or not, the Bible tells us 365 times to not be afraid.  Maybe that’s not a coincidence that we can quote a verse every day of the year about our own fearfulness in the face of so much of life’s cruel junk.

Yet, the tack I want you to take in the great litany of fear we daily face is that bravery is not something that is so much commanded as it is a calling forth of something which is already within you.

Parker Palmer

Now, before you go thinking I’m some New Age huckster, hear me out.  Right from the beginning of the world, in God’s creative activity, the LORD did it all by calling forth from within himself.  What I mean is this: God did not simply command everything into being; instead, he said, “Let there be…”  God let out what was already there in his very Being.  It was almost as if God belched-out from the great depth of his Being and let out all this wondrous creation.

I also find it interesting that when it comes to fear and bravery God does not so much command us to be courageous, as he wants us to draw from the great reservoir within.  That is, he has already created us strong, as creatures in his image.  We just need to get in touch with what is already there.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus to his disciples because he knew his followers had it in them to walk in his way without fear (John 14:6, NRSV).  “Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful,” said God to the prophet Jeremiah in the face of a terrible destruction that was about to unfold against Jerusalem because the LORD knew that his servant could face what was going to happen (Jeremiah 51:46, ESV).

When it comes to genuine Christian spirituality, we can act with boldness because Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation.  He is the One which enables us to draw from the deep well of courage….

“So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:14-16, NLT).

When I say that you are brave, you are strong, you are good – those are not words meant to make you believe something which may or may not be true, as if I were trying to convince you to take some panacea to feel better.  No, I say it because it is true.  You really can face the immense mountain in front of you and climb it.  You can actually surmount the adversity you are in the middle of – not because of some words I say, but because you were created for courage.

So, how do you let out the bravery and let the boldness shine?  That seems to be the million dollar question.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you already know the answer to this.  Yes, you possess the answers to your own questions.  You have all the knowledge you need to face your problems.  So, the real question is this:

Will you let your bravery come out to play, or will you keep it hidden beneath layers of insecurity?

It’s a whole lot easier to let me tell you what to do than to draw from what you already know deep down how to handle that troublesome something.  So, I’m not going to give you a simple three-step process out of fear and into courage because you already have been endowed with the process.  This certainly isn’t a sexy way to end a blog post, but it just might be the most effective and lasting.

Why I Do What I Do

Kierkegaard on life

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Soren Kierkegaard

Motivation matters.  What gets us up in the morning tells a lot about why we choose to do what we do with our day.  The spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life.  It’s grounded in the goodness of God and God’s good creation.

As a Christian, I believe that all spiritual care begins with the God of creation and ends with the God of hope.  The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of his creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting him in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).  Therefore:

All human beings on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. 

People also carry within them a nature, due to the fall of humanity, of brokenness, fear, shame, regret, and pride.  Thus, people are complicated creatures with the capacity for both great good and benevolent altruism, as well as great evil committed through heinous acts, and everything in-between in their culture-making and their civilization (Genesis 3-4).

I have personally found the resolution to these realities of the presence of both good and evil, are resolved in the person and work of Jesus.  In Christ, I was made aware of my own guilt due to things I have done, and things I have left undone; given grace through his redemptive events; and, thus, extend gratitude to God through living into his original design of creature care (this is the structure of the 16th century Reformed Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism).   Therefore:

My identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace. 

I freely give grace to congregants, patients, and others because Jesus Christ freely gave to me.  My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care.

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Furthermore, as a Christian, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus.  As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him.  For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver.  He entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and, the power of touch.  Christ was able: to listen to others because he first listened to the Father; to be present with others because he was present with the Father; and, to give love to others with the love he enjoyed within the Trinitarian Godhead (John 14).

This does not mean that I act as God acts; it means I love as Christ first loved me.  I am human, a creature.  God is divine, the Creator.  I do not have the role of God.  Rather, I emulate the caring practice of Jesus in his earthly ministry.  I embrace my human role to listen, establish empathic connection, and offer a supportive spiritual presence.

It is God who is active in giving the grace of healing and mending broken bodies, damaged souls, and fractured lives in his own good time and benevolence. 

In short, I embrace the process of care, and God brings about the outcome of transformation (1 John 4:7-21).  I am neither, therefore, responsible to change a person’s feelings nor involved to fix their broken body and/or spirit.  I am there to wed competency with compassion, detachment with support, and discretion with comfort.

Listening to, acknowledging, honoring, and inviting the communication of feelings is what I did, for example, with a healthcare patient named Esther (not her real name).  Esther was being surly and mean to staff and threw her food in defiance.  When I entered Esther’s room she yelled and complained of not being cared for.  I came and knelt beside her bedside, took her hand, and simply said, “Tell me what’s going on.”  A cascade of emotions came pouring out of Esther.  No one had the time (nor, perhaps, the desire) to listen to her.  Esther shared her frustration of chronic illness, a deep and hurtful wondering of where God is, and a profound pessimism that anything would ever change for her.

The only other words I offered Esther was: “I hurt with you.”  I was present, I listened, and I sought to live into what the Apostle John said: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action” (1 John 3:18).  When I left Esther’s room, after I had stayed with her until she was calm, another dear woman was waiting for me, sitting in her wheelchair, outside of Esther’s room.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said with heartfelt declaration, “You are my Pastor!  A few weeks ago, when I was sitting alone after an event, you came and asked me if you could wheel me back to my room.  That’s not your job, and I know you are a busy man.  You didn’t have to do that, and I am so thankful you are here and giving kindness to an old woman like me.”  And she began to break down and cry.

In these visits, I believe I am emulating the compassionate presence of Jesus because:

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. 

Patients in need, residents in care facilities, those with disabilities of body and/or soul, and all who are the other side of the spiritual tracks may not be able to fully give themselves to their own motivations; yet, they are still full-time human beings who need the emotional connections which a caring and supportive person can provide.

Christ’s very pastoral response to nearly everyone he encountered was not to explain evil and trauma, but to confound and confront it with love. 

Christ with others

Jesus did not walk around performing unsolicited healings, but dignified people with asking them what they wanted, and if they desired to be made whole. “Do you want to be made well?” discerns that others need to explain their situations and their stories and does not assume that someone wants a change in identity (John 5:1-9).

The craft of caring for others is not only objective clinical-like work directed toward another person; it is also profoundly, personally, and subjectively transforming for the caregiver.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  The personal journey and discovery of God-likeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking.  Perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from: mutual seeing and being seen; reciprocal speaking and listening; granting one another mutual assistance; and, doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.  Barth used the German term Mitmenschlichkeit (co-humanity) to communicate that we are not human without the other.  In other words, human flourishing requires mutual giving and receiving.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people.

Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey.  Thus, any kind of care-giving, for me, is a symbiotic relationship between the care-seeker and the caregiver, within the foundation of Trinitarian love, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift.  This is the reason why I do and feel what I do and feel, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ.

You Are Free

“Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, New Living Translation)

tiger

We think a lot about freedom when it comes to this time of year.  Freedom is wonderful, glorious, and a grand privilege.  With it, we enjoy life.  Without it, we long for un-ended days of immunity.  Yet, like the proverbial ladder on the wrong wall, our conceptions of freedom might actually be keeping us in self-slavery.  True freedom is there, ripe for the picking, hanging on the low branch of grace.  It is free, but not cheap; available, yet not readily seen.  Freedom, as a good God intended, is meant for everyone.  Taking a bite of this fruit will change your life forever.

When I was a kid, I thought of freedom as being free from the constraints of parental and adult expectations; of doing whatever the heck I wanted to do; spending money on stuff that I desired; and, having the ability to satisfy all my wants and pleasures.  Yes, it was a very selfish construct of freedom, but it sure worked for me as a kid fantasizing about the golden ticket to adulthood.

I discovered pretty quickly that adult stuff could be a whole lot more enslaving than the kid stuff.  In fact, there were times when I wanted to be a kid again, free from the constraints of bosses, social norms, and time demands.  There was still the continued lack of money, even though I was working my ever-living butt off.  If only there was freedom….

That’s a common understanding of freedom.  It is defined by being delivered from something you don’t like in order to do what you want.  And when we don’t get what we want, isn’t it funny how it’s always somebody else’s fault that we don’t have the freedom we desire?

I always thought the tiger represented my dream life.  When I first saw a tiger in the zoo, I was hooked.  This big ol’ guy gets to sleep all day, gets fed red meat to eat, and hangs out with lady tigers.  Dude, I thought he had it made.  But then one day I was at the zoo and there was a huge crack in the three inch thick Plexiglas wall.  One of the zookeepers said that the big ol’ male tiger ran full tilt and head-butted the wall trying to get out.

It was then that my thick-headed Plexiglas brain took a crack to it.  Mr. Tiger, having been satisfied with all the hedonistic pleasures of his little tiger kingdom, was behind bars.  He was not free.  He wanted out.  Mr. Tiger was never going to be free until he was out in the wild doing what tigers do: stalking and hunting prey and roaming the vast outdoors.  Having everything handed to him only made him crazy.

God understands freedom a different way than giving us all our personal desires.  He has created us in such a way as to find our ultimate satisfaction living into his design for us.  When we are truly free, we are actively experiencing the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

To be free is to have grace permeating your life.  It is to do what humans were meant to do: thrive and flourish together through working in the garden of this world by participating in the very life of God himself.  Just as the Father, Son, and Spirit exist together in fellowship and harmony, so, we as people created in his image, join the Trinitarian dance and discover that life is only meaningful if we serve, love, and be gracious for the benefit of the common good of all persons.  In other words, you are free to be the human being God wants you to be.  Don’t get tied up in knots trying to get to some state of being you think is going to make you happy.

There is an old southern gospel song that says:

“I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in
And then a little light from Heaven filled my soul
He bathed my heart in love and wrote my name above
And just a little talk with Jesus made me whole.” (Just a Little Talk)

To be lost is to be bound in the sin of being caged like a majestic tiger.  To be free is to live in the vast untamed wilderness of God’s expansive grace, unshackled from the bars of the law, and feeding off the wild fruit of God’s Spirit.

Fellowship with God always results in a concern for one’s fellow human being.  We are not whole by satiating our wants, but through letting God in Christ give us new desires – ones that have an abiding appetite to serve humanity, and to advance the cause of justice and peace for all.

May the celebration of our freedom be lived with the grace of Jesus as our flag, the love of God the Father as our backyard barbecue, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit as our fireworks.