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.

The Church

the-church

What is the Church’s identity?

Who are Christians?

What is the Church all about?

Why is the Church important?

Maybe you have wondered what in the Sam Hill this church thing is all about, or what it is supposed to be about.  It could be that you have abandoned the notion of “church” altogether, opting for a more private spirituality free from the machinations of power people in a broken system.  Let’s face it: there just may likely be more unhealthy churches in America than healthy ones.  After all, in a chaotic topsy-turvy world, folks end up making church in whatever image they’d like.  It seems to me this points to a great need to recover a more historic and robust understanding of this practice of “church.”  So, let’s explore how church ought to be and seek to live into it’s distinct vision for believers in Jesus everywhere.

The Church’s identity:

            The Church is made up of people who have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and brought to new life in the Spirit.  This special relationship that followers of Jesus enjoy with their God is a covenantal relationship, and, so, the Church is a covenantal community.  That is, believers in Jesus are receiving the blessings first promised by God’s covenant relationship with Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith.  God’s covenant with his people means that God has graciously committed himself to acting on their behalf through election, predestination, adoption, and redemption.  The new covenant community, the Church, receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things.  The Church is not a voluntary society, like every other human institution, but is the divinely called community of the redeemed whom God has joined together through his Spirit to Christ.  Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

BeChurch

The Nicene Creed* describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from God’s covenant people being in fellowship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.  This unity is expressed through the bond of love and a common worship that includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments.  Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth.  As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do.  Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together.  The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is Apostolic means “to be sent.”  The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who remain in darkness.  Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that the gospel is spread to all nations.

The Church’s mission:

  1. The Church is called to love God. The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the house where God dwells.  The Church exists to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  Christians are to develop intimacy with Jesus through the Spirit.
  2. The Church is called to love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ and is to be a haven for saints.  The Church exists for community and is the place where believers are strengthened in faith through the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament.
  3. The Church is called to love its neighbors. The Church is the people of God, being a hospital for sinners.  The Church exists to serve the kingdom of God so that God’s benevolent and gracious rule might extend to all creation.

These three dimensions define the Church as being a “missional” community of redeemed persons who are concerned and focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ.  That is, the forward direction of the Church is to come ever closer to Christ through faith, be strengthened in that faith together through the Word of God, confidently stepping into the world to engage it with the love and grace of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

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The Church’s importance:

  1. The Church is a Trinitarian community, birthed as a free expression of God’s love through Word and Spirit. As people created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed for his purposes, believers reflect the image of the triune God.  The Church was important enough for Christ to die for.
  2. What the Church “does” flows from its identity as a redeemed community, being the people of God. So, then, the Church’s mission is not so much about establishing evangelistic programs so much as it is to listen to the Spirit of God and live in the power of the Spirit as it rubs shoulders with unbelievers.
  3. Just as the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Church is sent into the world armed with the grace and love of God as if believers were ambassadors for Christ in a ministry of reconciliation.
  4. God has moved in a “downwardly mobile” way in order to bring reconciliation to all of creation. God has gathered the Church on earth to be sent as witnesses of Christ’s person and work through humility, meekness, and gentleness so that God’s mercy and peace might become realities in this world.

Therefore, the Church is to glorify the triune God by embracing its missional identity and mandate by making disciples of Jesus Christ through worship, community, and outreach.  The Church is to aim its love toward God, one another, and neighbor through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

ibelieve

*The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,

            the Father, the Almighty,

            maker of heaven and earth,

            of all that is, seen and unseen.

 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            the only Son of God,

            eternally begotten of the Father,

            God from God, Light from Light,

            true God from true God,

            begotten, not made,

            of one being with the Father;

            through him all things were made.

            For us and for our salvation

                        he came down from heaven:

                        was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

                        and became truly human.

            For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

                        he suffered death and was buried.

                        On the third day he rose again

                                    In accordance with the Scriptures;

                        he ascended into heaven

                                    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

                        He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

                                    and his kingdom will have no end.

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

            who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

            who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,

            who has spoken through the prophets.

            We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

            We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

            We look for the resurrection of the dead,

                        and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

The Need for Lament

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24, NIV)

Lament is painful and lonely, yet, necessary and the only true agent of healing.

Every single one of us face situations at some point in our lives which cause us to grieve.  In fact, grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss.  Bereavement, divorce, major surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, terminal diagnoses, missed expectations, bitter disappointments, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events that bring grief to our lives.  They are all cruel episodes we would rather not face.

What’s more, grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life:  moving to a new house in a new area; the empty nest; getting married; having children; a beloved pastor leaving a congregation; or, beginning a new job.  These all result through some sort of loss, even if that loss were chosen and necessary.

The worst possible way to approach any of these kinds of situations, for good or for ill, is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, and just move on.  It is, believe it or not, unbiblical to take such an attitude because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.  In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss: The Old Testament book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem.  And not only was Jeremiah to proclaim a very unpopular message, he was given the promise that the people would not listen to him and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile.  The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long and extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach.  God’s words came true.  The people did not repent of their empty worship and wayward lifestyles.  They persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment.  The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of this once great city with its grand temple.  It’s only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.  Jeremiah (much like the biblical character of Job) lost everything but his own life.  He had much to grieve over.

Without exception, none of us can have the hope of love, compassion, and new life apart from the need to first lament our losses.  There is a popular phrase in our culture that I would caution us to use very sparingly in our conversations with others who have experienced loss: “Get over it!” is often used much too quickly and can short circuit the grief process and put grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope.

Far too many people in both the world and even the church remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move on because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful and now guilty on top of it for being sad.

I would like you to hear me loud and clear on this:  embracing lament is the only pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many if not most of the emotional problems in the church and the world today.

Jerry Sittser wrote an important book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  Sittser tells of the time when he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on.  In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes:  his mother, his wife, and his daughter.  If anyone knows the need and the power of lament it is Jerry Sittser.  And here is what he says:

“Catastrophic loss, by definition, precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones’ loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Yale philosophy professor.  In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident.  He has no explanations – just grief.  At one point he had a profound insight:

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.  It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live.  I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live.  But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

We all accumulate an unwanted host of losses over the course of a lifetime.  Many of them are small losses; some of them are devastating losses.  The death of children, disability, rape, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.  All these losses are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were.  We must push forward by grieving every loss as they come to us.  As we lurch ahead we cling to these words of Jeremiah:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?  Here is what Jeremiah did:

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses.  We need to avoid superficial repentance and forgiveness.  We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to offer a mature forgiveness.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love.  This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution/acceptance.  We rarely move neatly through each stage.  The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love for us – not only in-spite-of the suffering, but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering.  We must sit with our pain.  Do not sluff-off our loss by saying others have it worse, or that it is nothing.  Year after year many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments.  The result is a profound inability to face pain, and it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved.  His message predicted what Jesus faced in his Passion.  The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Okay everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people.  When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city, desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks.  On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!”  But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health.  Life does not always make sense.  There is deep mystery to the ways of God.  The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us.  While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating.  Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s reconstruction of a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it.  Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells.  The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden.  But you need to be willing to wait, in some cases, years.  Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan.  Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot.  They have a greater capacity to wait on God and be patient toward others.  They are kinder and more compassionate.  They lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.  They are comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.  They are humble, gentle, and meek.  They possess and ability to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but in the mundane, banal, and lowly.  They are more at home with themselves and with God.  People transformed through the power of lament are equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to outrun the painful grief which resides within.  So, please, my friend, slow down and let it catch you.  Let it do its deep and powerful work within you.

Abide with Us

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“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me….  If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” –Jesus (John 15:4, 7)

Today, as I look out of my office window, there are the signs of life everywhere.  A gentle rain is falling; the earth is slowly drinking the water; the flora of elm, maple, and oak trees support an animated fauna of robins, finches, squirrels, and the occasional white-tailed deer.  Evidence of the night stalking of raccoons, skunks, and possums are left in the soft mud.  Beyond what my eye can see, I also realize there is a vast unseen world of organisms thriving within that small patch of nature.

The ecosystem outside my little world is connected to the much larger world of massive earthly movements of seasons, weather, and people.  They are all connected in this immense and vast place we call “Earth.”  When we live and move and have our being in alignment and connection with God and his big world, we are truly blessed, enjoying God’s stamp of approval.

Perhaps we all feel some connection to this world because we originally came from the humus of the earth’s dirt.  In an impressive display of creation, God breathed into the people he made and they came alive to their Creator and the creation which surrounded them.

We were born for connection.  Inherent to our very design and nature, God made us in his relational image and his communal likeness.  We exist to have meaningful and enjoyable connection with God, his creation, and his people.

Yet, the world, as we also see evidenced in innumerable ways, is fundamentally broken.  Separation and anxiety rule far too many people’s lives and infect all kinds of human systems of institutions, corporations, and governments, and even families.  The current separation of immigrant parents and children on the U.S. border is not only reprehensible and morally repugnant, but serves as an overarching metaphor for a world that experiences a profound disconnect with their Creator.

The work of Jesus on this earth was to reset the brokenness; restore the dignity of humanity; renew and revive body and soul; and, redeem lost persons from the bondage of misguided ways resulting in agonizing separation, division, and disunion.  In short, Jesus came to heal his treasured people through helping others to reconnect with God.

To abide with Jesus is to remain with him, to be present with him.  God took the initiative to foster healing by sending his Son to this earth.  Jesus, in close connection with his Father, enabled and established a vital re-connection with God.  The Father and the Son graciously sent the Holy Spirit to help us abide with Jesus and know the joy of genuine healing and spiritual health and vitality.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.” (John 15:16)

Think about what you need most today, perhaps even this moment.  Give some feeling to what they world is in desperate need of.  Maybe you are in physical pain.  It could be that your heart is broken over a severed disconnected relationship.  Perhaps someone is abusing you verbally, or neglecting you.  You might be separated from a loved one through geography or death.  Or, you might just know in the depths of your soul that something isn’t right – that your banal mundane existence in the daily grind lacks any real meaning or connection to the earth and its people.

Peace in the world, if and when it ever gets any traction, is little more than two groups of people not verbally decapitating and/or killing one another for awhile.  The earth is sick with dirty water and soil erosion, mirroring humanity’s erosion of internal virtue.  Love is sought in all the wrong places and lands lonely people into spiritual brothels of pain and disappointment.

In all kinds of ways, we each experience some sort of issue(s) that are askew, askance, and twisted.  We long for the ability to be a human Gumby who can bend back into some kind of normalcy.  We hunger to be noticed in a world of division that seems to notice nothing.

The good news of Holy Scripture is that the satisfaction of basic human needs will come through abiding with Christ.  Remaining with him enables one to ask and receive because God has conspired within himself as Father, Son, and Spirit to grant us deliverance from disconnection, and establish a loving kinship with those who have experienced the unlovely and ungracious elements of this world.  Jesus said:

“You are my friends….  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is laboring behind the scenes to make things right one human being at a time.  We look for miracles, yet the work of God is mostly to be found in the spiritual flora and fauna of the unseen ecosystem of the soul.  There, in the depths of our heart and our gut, the Lord does a wondrous work of connection which heals and restores to life.  In turn, we become Christ-like, being a mini-Jesus who points others to the re-alignment of body, soul, spirit, and all creation.

Based upon how Jesus interacted with others, and how he deals with you and me, we are to bless the individual who is right in front of our face in three simple ways:

Acknowledge the person through being fully present with them.

God blesses us, and we bless others when we affirm the sacredness of the people around us.  This enables us to provide focused and curious attention to the person God has before us.  We are to be “present” with them, giving our full devotion to listening, asking thoughtful questions, and being okay with hearing their musings on life.  As we abide with Christ, we learn to abide with one another.

Affirm the person’s inherent worth of humanity through validating their feelings.

Emotions are emotions.  Feelings are feelings.  You will not find an account in the New Testament Gospels of Jesus dismissing another’s feelings and telling them they shouldn’t have certain emotions.  To invalidate someone’s feelings is to shut them down and create an even wider disconnect and separation from the source of Christian healing and wholeness.  Instead, the human virtue of compassion sinks-into an abiding relationship when we affirm feelings as windows to the soul.

Act with the love and grace of Jesus toward the person through giving them the gift of fellowship and friendship.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, people just want to be heard.  They want to know that someone is listening.  They don’t want to feel forgotten, neglected, or dismissed.  They want a friend who will give them the time of day.  We all need friends.  We all need love.  The problem comes when too many persons have such a severe love deficit in their lives that they can’t give anything to anyone.  When we are all just trying to take, we are on survival mode and we end up hurting others instead of healing them.

One of the reasons we have burned-out people is because too often 20% of the people are doing 80% of the relational work.  Proper boundaries and a greater awareness of self and self’s needs is a much needed discipline today.  Spiritually healthy people bring hope and healing.  Spiritually sick people trying to do more is only a recipe for more separation, division, and disconnection because they’re running their engines with no oil of blessing on what they’re doing.

Abide with Christ.  That is our first and foremost task.  It isn’t our job to fix or save the world; that’s God’s job.  Our work is to remain in love and obedience, and simply point others to the vine of life through the blessing of respectful acknowledgement, emotional affirmation, and gracious action.  When our desires align with God’s desires, prayer becomes an organic response to basic human need, and those prayers will be honored.  The garden of the soul can hold and sustain life.  When it is shared with others it brings integrity and joy to all creation.