The Way Ahead

It’s been days now since news spread that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 in favor of same sex marriage being the rule of the land. In the hours and days following the decision, social media was full of memes, pictures, and posts from everyone on every side. Both love and hate were prevalent on my walls. Harsh words were exchanged, lines were drawn, and there was both rejoicing and lamenting.

For those who were pleased by this decision, this was a decision that was a long time in the making. They were pleased at how it felt like the beginning of equality to them. They were glad to be recognized rather than marginalized. They were grateful to be able to share things together that had once been reserved for others.

Now, I get this, and to be honest, I am grateful that the way has opened up for people to share things and benefits together, primarily in difficult and stressful moments in life. In situations at end of life and other significant moments along the way, everyone deserves to be able to share moments together.

Aside from this, my heart was still heavy after the SCOTUS decision.

I have friends who are gay, I have friends who are straight, I have friends who are liberal, I have friends who are conservative, I have friends who are Christian, I have friends who are atheists. Somehow, through it all and despite our disagreements, I have managed to stay somewhat connected with all of them. With so many differences, there have been times that I have felt hate, from all sides. Chances are that there were times that I came across with a less than stellar and Christ-like attitude and approach. When there were points of misunderstanding, I did my best to address them with my friends personally, privately, and appropriately. In fact, some of the dialogues that came out of those disagreements stand among my favorite of the past few years.

Despite my friendships and associations, my beliefs and convictions stand in opposition to this decision. In this, I understand the anxiety and even fear that has risen up among many conservatives. You see, for some reason, my disagreement and division over the definition of marriage has always been labeled as hate, it has always been interpreted by those with whom we disagree as bigotry. This saddens me greatly. How is it that we have come to a place where anyone with whom I disagree is labeled a bigot, a racist, a hate-monger, or worse? How has this language arisen from a situation in which we simply don’t see eye to eye?

As I reluctantly continued to maneuver through the vast waters of social media, I began to realize just how deep of an issue we have. We have begun to operate in generalizations rather than in facts and real information. We have ceased to have dialogues and conversations and have exchanged them for digital hand grenades, hurling them at one another with no consideration for feelings and emotions other than our own. We have not sought to find out what lies behind the labels that we place on each other but rather have swallowed whole those generalizations, assuming that the ugliest and most extremes of those generalizations are representative of the entire group.

We assume that the labels we hold to and the labels which we use are all encompassing and that they define a person. But labels don’t define people, people define themselves, but they can only define themselves when they are given voice to express their beliefs, their opinions, and even their reasons for disagreement.

As we come to situations in which we find ourselves at odds with each other, in which we are in disagreement, we need to answer some fundamental questions. Is it possible to disagree with one another and to still love one another? I certainly hope so, otherwise, I would be at odds in every single one of my relationships in life. Can I disagree with you and not hate you? I certainly hope so, otherwise, this world would be an incredibly hateful place. Jesus disagreed with many people. He spoke his viewpoint and spoke truth and then let it go from there. He did not hate to the bitter end of his life on earth, even when those with whom he disagreed nailed him to the cross.

We need to ask ourselves how willing we are to engage in intelligent and respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree. Are we willing to engage in those conversations even when they’re messy, even when they’re tough, and even when we come to the end of them and still don’t agree?

There is still fear and anxiety over future possibilities. There is still fear among those of us who hold to specific religious convictions that the religious freedom on which this country was formed and created may be stripped away from us simply because we cannot agree. It will be stripped away from us as a freedom to be able to disagree. It will be stripped away unless there is compliance, removing that very freedom which has just been provided and afforded to so many others. There is fear that the freedoms in our country to voice our opinions and to hold to varying and diverse viewpoints will be stripped away in the name of freedom and justice. It’s not a guarantee, but it certainly stands in the minds of many who fear what may take place in the future.

Despite these fears, I still find hope and I still have faith. I don’t find my hope in people, in organizations, or in decisions, but rather in Christ and Christ alone. I find faith. Some of that faith is in humanity and my fellow human beings who, regardless of their beliefs or our disagreements, are created in the image of God. My faith remains in Christ and his promises.

My hope and my prayer is that we can, in this country, fully understand, appreciate, and practice the idea of bi-partisanship and that we can do it with grace. We need to find a way forward where it’s acceptable for us to disagree but we can do so while still loving each other and working on so many of the ills of society together. That is a fundamental ideal on which this country was founded, the ideal of freedom. Freedom to think. Freedom to choose. Freedom to disagree.

It seems possible to me, but it’s not going to happen if we continue to generalize, judge, and hurl digital hand grenades at one another. I’m hoping we can do this one conversation at a time.

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A Fellowship of Differents – A Book Review

Fellowship of Differents

In light of recent events in the United States, both recently and in the past few years, there can be no denying that there is a struggle when it comes to our differences. When we differ in our ideology and our beliefs, what do we let that difference do to us? Are we motivated to bridge those differences and find commonality or do we simply seek sameness?

In his book “A Fellowship of Differents,” Scott McKnight examines the differences between us. He looks at what the church is supposed to be and what the church has become. McKnight presents a salad bowl as imagery to what the church should be. We are to be mixed up, combined together into a glorious mess, a conglomeration of different working together with their similarities.

McKnight presents his own experience of church as well as the experience presented us within the biblical narrative. He reminds the read that there has never been a “golden era” of church despite the fact that many will try to convince you that the church in Acts and the early 1st century was perfect or near perfect. He asks questions to get us to look at what we see to determine whether or not it is what we should be seeing. Carrying out the salad analogy, he wonders whether we have smothered our differences and become ingrown, rendering invisible, ignored, shelved, or AWOL any who don’t fit into the norms that we present.

In seeking to come together as a fellowship of different, McKnight calls the church to this its biggest challenge. In seeking to become this salad, this fellowship of different, McKnight calls the church to six themes that are to be central in order to live out the Christian life: grace, love, table, holiness, newness, and flourishing. He divides the book into these six sections and thoroughly unpacks them.

McKnight writes that, “Christians are too often addicted to stories of dramatic and extraordinary grace. We love the big story such as Paul’s – but grace isn’t just found in the dramatic.” He explains that grace is meted out in the everyday miracles, in the transformative affect that is seen in the common and mundane. Grace is God’s love reaching us because of what he has done rather than what we have done. It is God’s big “Yes” to us.

Beyond grace is love, a love that has been distorted in our societal definitions. There is the love which is thrown around in our everyday language and then there is the love of which we read in Scripture, the two of which are distinct and different. Love is simple when we are called to love those like us, but what of live when we need to love those unlike us?

Since our culture dominates the definition of love, it is no wonder that Christians within the church struggle to understand it in their marriages, their families, their relationships, and in their salad bowl churches. Love, as described in our dictionary, “has no final goal other than perhaps the personal happiness of the one loved or the one who loves – as long as that lasts. But Christian love has direction.” Christian love is both directional and sacrificial and, as C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” Love is seldom easy and it seldom comes without a price.

When it comes to the witness of the Church in the world, McKnight asks, “Is the lack of power in our witness because the church is so divisive, so un-unified, so out-of-step with Jesus’ prayer? Is it because we’ve spread out the items in the salad onto the plate in separate piles instead of living together as a mixed salad in God’s salad bowl of unity?” Are we missing the blessing of our differences because we are seeking to accomplish what we are accomplishing in our own strength rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit which has been given to us? We come together with our differences, not eradicating them, but embracing them, “for difference is the vitality of our fellowship.”

Many point back to the Constantine’s conversion and decision to make Christianity the public religion as a momentous occasion in the life of Christianity. While that momentous occasion may have held some positive aspects, it is more often than not pointed at as a misstep that elevated Christianity in ways that may have led us to this place of comfort, norms, and homogeneity. Knight points to Roger Williams and Henry David Thoreau as two other influencers of what Christianity in the United States has become. These two individuals, McKnight posits, have contributed to the individualism and “Me” centered ideology of the American church. This individualism takes away from the “We” language that we see throughout the New Testament as the Church was established.

The individualism of Christianity in America has changed our focus and tainted our views. As McKnight writes, “We are given in America the power of choice, and religion has become a smorgasbord to choose your own church based on its ability to live up to your own preferences.” In seeking to truly become a fellowship, we need to remember that we are simply called to share life with one another. Sharing life with one another does not simply mean that we find those who look, think, believe, and act like us and circle up the wagons. McKnight asks whether or not our churches are representative of our communities, or whether or not they are mono-ethnic

McKnight delves into a discussion of holiness and how that word garners fear and criticism from many. He cautions to not turn the grand idea of holiness into a legalistic list of “Don’ts” while leaving off the “Do’s.” He adds that, “Holiness cannot be reduced to separation or difference.” Holiness is not something that we make ourselves into but something that we are made into by God. We seek to live lives that avoid sin and is devoted to God.

McKnight enters into a discussion on sexuality because it is hard to engage in a talk about the modern church without addressing this issue. In my opinion, he presents well the argument in favor of biblical marriage and promotes the ideas of celibacy and faithfulness which Paul supports. McKnight makes it clear that love is not based on whether or not you do what I want nor is it based on toleration, leaving one another alone. Love, he suggests, involves presence, advocacy, and companionship over time, it is a long-term commitment.

McKnight proposes a third way when it comes to sexuality, suggesting that our salvation and sanctification are processes which we will not complete until we have fully arrived in glory. We must seek to allow ourselves to be transformed by grace and in holiness in order that we all might become what God wants us to be. He says, “We are washed, we are waiting, and in the meantime we are striving to be holy and loving.” While much more could have been said about the subject, I understand that McKnight was limited within the context of this book. However, his brief discussion is helpful to stir up conversation and pondering rather than to act as a gauntlet thrown in victory and defiance.

We seek liberty which does not necessarily mean license. Instead, liberty of the Christian kind is constrained by love. Knowing that we are all in a process and that are redemption is not complete until the kingdom, we look to love one another not as we are but as we will be made when we are in that kingdom together for eternity. As I see it, it’s not a statement of passive toleration from McKnight but rather a call to embrace each other as we walk together towards sanctification and transformation.

We, as the Church, need to be a people who are counter-cultural in our lives because we are led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We only live and serve as an example when we are led in and by a power that is not our own. McKnight challenges the church to expose themselves to the Holy Spirit because the single biggest influence in our lives is that which we expose ourselves to the most. Exposure to the Holy Spirit helps to birth the fruit of the Spirit within us.

Ultimately, as followers of Christ, we are called to suffering and trials. Being a culture and fellowship of different may very well mean that we are called to those sufferings and trials of which Christ spoke and which Christ, Paul, and many others have experienced. But those sufferings and those trials actually give us opportunities to exhibit a counter-cultural love, a love that is sacrificial, a love that calls us to look at others before we look at ourselves.

While I have not read all of McKnight’s work, I have read enough to have constantly marveled at his gift of communication. I find myself nodding my head in agreement with him as I read through what he writes. I find myself challenged by what he writes in a way that convicts and spurs me on, not leaving me bristling because of his gracious way of asking questions and challenging.

As I read “A Fellowship of Differents,” I felt myself being stirred within. Much of what McKnight has written aligns with where my heart has been in recent months and years. I am grateful for McKnight’s gift if challenging while sharing of his own challenges in a humble manner.

If you have struggled with the sameness which seems pervasive within the evangelical American church, “A Fellowship of DIfferents” is a must read. You will be challenged, you will be encouraged, and most importantly, you will be changed and transformed.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Still Turning

Life has been interesting over the last few weeks. My two oldest children finished their school year and the next day, I had nose and sinus surgery. The recovery hasn’t been awful, but trying to slow down for recovery in the midst of a busy life is always a challenge.

The denomination of which I am a part hosts their annual gathering every year in June. As it is a national organization with churches from around the 50 states (and beyond), they try to change the location up every year to accommodate for everyone. Last year, it was in Knoxville, Tennessee. This year, it’s in Orlando, Florida. They also try to make the gathering family friendly, providing opportunities for the entire family during the time together.

So, this year, we decided to take the whole family.

We also decided that we would take two days to get down to Orlando, although we could do it in just one. Last year, we came down for a Disney vacation and we took two days getting down and it seemed like it worked out well.

So, after church on Sunday, we set off on our way.

As I was still recovering from my surgery, I hadn’t contributed much to the growing list that my wife had been making for the trip. I was feeling a little out of it still and I was a little overwhelmed with other stuff that was happening around me. So, my wife had done a lot of solo planning as the day drew nearer for our departure.

With three young children, it’s not unusual for us to turn back home for something that’s been forgotten as we start our trips. It’s actually one good reason that we need to use checklists when we go on trips like this, it helps us save time in the long run.

It wasn’t a surprise for us then, when we made it two blocks and had to turn around. It was a little bit more of a surprise when we got just north of the City of Richmond and we headed home for the camera. I’ve made enough trips in my day to begin to be a little bit more patient with myself and with my family for forgotten items. Some things can be replaced at Target or WalMart for a limited price, but others just require you to turn around and go home. I thought that the camera was one of them.

When we finally got on our way the third time, I settled into the driver’s seat and called a friend who is contemplating a move to Richmond. As we were talking, I noticed smoke in my rearview mirror that seemed to be coming from our van. I also noticed that the van was revving much higher than normal.

I excused myself from my phone call and pulled off the highway. As I made my way into the gas station that was conveniently located at the end of the exit ramp, I smiled to myself as I pulled out of my AAA card at the fact that I had actually looked at that same card weeks earlier and asked myself, “Does it really make sense for us to keep paying for this?” Little did I know!

A tow truck came in about 20 minutes and drove us back home. Because of our multiple false starts, we were actually closer to home than we would have been had we not forgotten cameras and other things. I also realized that my rebuilt transmission was most likely still under warranty.

I was remaining surprisingly calm despite the unexpected and unpredictable circumstances, fairly uncharacteristic of me. Our tow truck had his wife with him and they were both very cordial to my family.

While I was more calm than usual, my kids were panicking a little bit. They didn’t really know what I was going to be up to for the majority of our trip, all they knew was that the trip would end with them at Lego Land. My youngest was the most distraught, not completely understanding that other options were available for us to get to Florida.

One thing that my wife and I have said multiple times in multiple circumstances over the nearly eight years that we have been in our community is that we have never experienced anything like it before. Having had two of our three children in those eight years as well as finishing seminary, losing both of my parents, going through a church split, and experiencing various other events, we have always, always, always experienced the grace and generosity of the people with whom we are closest……and even some who we haven’t really had the chance to get to know well yet.

Within an hour of getting home after being picked up at the mechanic from my lead pastor, we had four different offers for vehicles to take to Florida. Four.

Four.

Different.

Offers.

People knew where we were headed, and they still were willing to let us take their various vehicles on this Griswold-esque road trip.

While three of the offers were from closer friends, one was from a friend who I’ve only begun to get to know. He has actually gone through a lot himself in the past year or so, yet his willingness to be so kind and generous had left me speechless. He was willing to give to our family to get us out of a bind.

Like so many things in life, there’s way more to the story than just that, but the bottom line is that less than 24 hours after being delayed, we were back on our way. Another 24 hours after that, I received word that our transmission was indeed still covered under the warranty.

As I made my way towards Orlando after that phone call, I recounted the past days of events. Detours and delays. Acts of kindness and generosity. It all made me smile and I found it hard to believe that someone might think that there was no such thing as God.

A Thorn

thorns-1What is the nature of our identity? How do we know what’s inside of us? What if what we feel inside seems different than what’s outside? It seems that these questions continue to come up every day as we read the news. While it would be nice to say that we’ve wrestled with them, I have a tendency to think that we’re not wrestling with them as much as we are simply assenting to the voices of the majority.

As headline after headline tells us of people following their heart’s desire and inner passions, I grow more uncomfortable every day. While some of it might be just a general discomfort with change, some of it seems like more than that to me. A common criticism of Christians and believers in Jesus is that they check their intellect at the door, refusing to wrestle with tough questions, not providing answers but simply believing.

It’s an old argument and one that I wouldn’t necessarily refute. I do think that there is a tendency for people within the church to simply hang their hat on traditions rather than wrestling through questions in a new way. At the same time, faith is believing in what is unseen, it’s an assurance of the things that are hoped for. While faith seems to have been relegated to belief in God, I think that faith is required for more than just that…..but that’s another post all together.

Yes, there may be a propensity of Christians towards simple assent without a wrestling, but the same can be said of many things. Crowd mentality can drive us towards ways of thinking that we simply assent to rather than really thinking through. I wonder how often we take things at face value versus digging beneath the surface to really think through all of the ramifications of our ideologies and beliefs. Regardless of your viewpoint or stance on certain issues, I wonder how often you’ve looked beyond the headlines and wrestled with what’s just beneath the surface.

Information is at our beck and call, within our fingertips. We have more information coming out us within minutes and seconds than some of the past generations saw in a month’s time. It’s nearly impossible to sort through it all, so I think that we may have a tendency to simply believe what we read without necessarily digging deeper.

Thinking about this challenge for myself, the challenge to wrestle with difficult questions, I’ve had to rethink a lot of things over the years, especially in the area of my faith. The Apostle Paul wrote of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, not as a means to earning it but as a means to personalizing it. As the son of a pastor who was immersed in Christianity from the moment of my birth, I still had to come to a place where I thought through what I believed and why I believed it. I had to make sure that I was not resting on the faith of my parents but that I really believed all of the things that I said that I believed.

I’ve also wrestled with who I am and what’s inside of me. Again, the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Roman church seem to resonate with me. He wrote, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Based on this, I would guess that Paul experienced some struggles with belief, identity, and temptation. He knew what things were supposed to be like but what was inside him seemed to contradict that. He wrestled with who he was inwardly and how that was manifested outwardly.

I can relate to Paul. If I followed through with every thought, notion, craving, or temptation that I felt inside, I would most likely not have the job that I have, the family that I have, or the life that I have. While the overwhelming emphasis among society is to encourage people to embrace who they are and what they crave, there are some limitations that have to be drawn for if we don’t draw those limitations, we will find ourselves at odds with something, be it relationally with others or legally with the law of the land.

This wasn’t Paul’s only mention of the inner struggle that he experienced. In fact, in another of Paul’s letters, writing to the church in Corinth, he spoke more specifically (although not as specifically as some of us may have wanted) about his inner struggle. He wrote of a “thorn” that had been given to him, something that he considered a weakness. He wrote, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul’s use of the word that is translated in English as “thorn” does not occur anywhere else throughout his letter or in the Canon of Scripture. It’s what scholars call a hapax legomenon, a fancy way of saying that it only occurs once. Scholars and theologians have speculated for years on what Paul’s weakness actually was. Some have considered it to have been something physical. Could his eyes have been weakened after his Damascus Road experience? Did he have a speech impediment? Others have thought that it might involve something spiritual. Did he struggle with inner demons? Did he have a temptation that seemed overwhelming to him?

As much as we would like to have an indication of the specific struggle that Paul had, we don’t. But it’s interesting to me to think about Paul’s weakness in terms of his own context and then the context in which we are living today. In Paul’s time, there was no means by which he could change his weakness, he had to live with it. There was no getting rid of it, no removal of it was possible, and regardless of the specifics of this weakness, we know that it served as a distraction to Paul. It was a distraction enough that he pleaded not once, not twice, but three times to God to remove it from him.

I don’t know about you, but something’s got to be a pretty big deal for me to ask God for its removal three times. Paul’s response to this weakness, this thorn, should be enough to give us a clue that it was a big deal. He wanted to move on past it, he wanted it to be removed from him. He didn’t want to have to think about it or deal with anymore. The best thing that he could have hoped for was to have God remove it from him.

But that wasn’t God’s response to him. In his weakness, Paul’s sense was that God was telling him that it wasn’t his strength that he should be relying on, that he needed to realize that in the midst of weakness, in the midst of powerlessness, Paul’s reliance needed to move off of his own strength and on to the strength that God gave him.

Paul did not have the chance to do something about his weakness. He couldn’t change it. It simply served as a constant reminder to him that he was weak. Some might criticize God for not removing the thorn from Paul. How could a loving God do this to one of his most faithful servants? Why would he not just answer him this one, simple request?

We like to feel adequate, don’t we? We like to feel that we can accomplish anything? Most of the time, we want to make sure that everyone knows that we can accomplish everything on our own. Spend some time with a toddler when they are entering the independence stage and count how many times you hear them say, “I can do it myself. I don’t need help.” Asking for help and acknowledging our shortfalls, that shows our imperfectness, doesn’t it? We don’t want anyone to see that, do we?

But Paul writes that the distinct answer he heard from the Lord was that in his weakness, he was not to be reliant on himself. He had already found out that a reliance on this weakness would end up in failure. No, instead he was to rely on a strength outside of himself, he was to rely on a divine strength that would come to him in the midst of that weakness.

Paul, throughout his letters, speaks of a change, a difference that takes place in those who are in Christ. In fact, earlier in this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” While we might not look different or even always feel different, when we are in Christ, we are different, we are changed, or more to the point, we are changing and being changed.

How was Paul to live with something that was so difficult for him? How could he go on with this thorn in his flesh, this distraction? Somehow he did, didn’t he? He continued on and it served as a constant reminder that his accomplishments, his feats and successes were not through his own strength, but through a strength outside of himself.

So, why do we always feel the need to fix everything? We are a nation of “fixers” who like to step in and bring resolution, even when resolution isn’t the best thing. We want to fix things and move on, remove the distraction, get it out of the way. And Paul’s final words about the matter seem to sum up the approach that he takes, that he embraces. He writes, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Can we really be content in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities? Can we really leave a struggle to remain? Can we let it remain a lifelong struggle?

Is it possible that sometimes we are given circumstances not to solve or fix or remedy, but rather to live with in order that we can learn how to live differently? Is it possible that in the midst of us living in the tension of what is and what we would rather it be, that we can grow stronger, develop character, and even have the ability to minister to others who may have similar struggle, whose “thorns” may somewhat resemble our own?

Somehow the Apostle Paul was able to live in that tension and survive through the struggle.

Chaotic Reading

open BibleAs someone who grew up in the church, I was always taught the importance of reading my Bible but I wasn’t always given a clear plan as to how to do that. There were some helpful, little “read-alongs” that you could use, you know, “Read these verses” and then read the little warm and fuzzy devotional that went along with it. There were devotional books and devotional monthly magazines like Our Daily Bread, but those remained simply devotional material with kind of “feel good” messages. They never really did anything for me in regards to actually studying the Bible.

As I got older, I found solace and comfort in the Psalms. I could relate to David, he seemed like the kind of guy that I would meet and talk with only to feel as if we had been lifelong friends (I get the irony of that as my name is Jonathan). But I still never had any real precise reading plan. In fact, you might say that my approach towards Bible reading was more like a game of roulette, open up to the Bible index, close your eyes, point somewhere on the page, and go to the appointed book of the Bible. There was really no rhyme or reason to the approach that I took.

While I’ve adopted a Bible reading plan to read through the Bible in a year, I still struggle. Am I reading simply to check off the box? How effective is it for me? Am I getting anything out of it? Should I quit doing it and go back to the roulette approach? I’m sticking it out, but I’ve been known to take tangents in addition to my “required” reading plan.

As a follower of Christ, I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is his revelation of himself to his creation. It’s not a stagnant piece of work or literature, but an actual living document that continues to speak although it’s been years since it was originally penned. I believe that there is a process that takes place beyond a simple reading of words on a page and that reading the Bible is a spiritual act, an act that involves more than just eyes on pages.

At some point, maybe it was during seminary, I discovered something that took a considerable load off of my shoulders in this area. It’s an ancient practice called Lectio Divina, Latin for “sacred reading.” It’s an ancient practice that emphasizes a prayerful reading of Scripture. The practice is broken into four parts: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating (or living). The practice is far more in depth than what I will describe here, but a brief overview seems appropriate.

Reading

It sounds simple, right? We read things all the time: billboards, news tickers, junk mail, bills, emails, and the list goes on and on. But in our fast-paced and information saturated society, we have most likely found ourselves guilty of cursory reading. To be honest, I can’t even count the number of times that I have “read” things only to find out later on that I had missed some key points in my cursory reading. I have mastered the art of skimming. In fact, I have a friend who prides himself on the fact that he hasn’t actually read a book in a long time, he simply skims books.

This isn’t a criticism of my friend (he’s much smarter than I am), but we need to learn to slow down and one way that we can do that is by practicing lectio divina. We read through a passage multiple times, changing our inflections as we read it aloud. We stop and pause on words or phrases. It’s a completely different reading of Scripture than the “Check the Box” approach that I can too often find myself using. It’s slowing down and leading the words wash over us. It’s the difference between approaching our spiritual food like a quick snack versus a gourmet meal. It’s savoring every bite.

Meditating

It’s one thing to read something and a completely different thing to actually “chew” on what you’ve just read. I can remember back to studying engineering in college and those painful times when I would have to read a section of my textbook over and over again because I had zoned out while I was reading it. Sure, I could say that I had completed the reading, but had I really ingested what I had just read?

When we slow down and take a “gourmet” approach towards Scripture reading, we can emphasize it even more by actually thinking through what it says. Like I said before, Scripture is a different kind of document and the process by which we read it needs to be a different kind of reading. We have been given a helper, an assistant of sorts, in the Holy Spirit. He helps us as we read if we open ourselves up to what God is saying to us through his Word.

When we meditate on Scripture, we add one more step of assurance to our process, one more step that will help us move past a cursory reading of Scripture and move us to a more contemplative reading. We ingest and digest the Word that God has spoken to us.

Praying

Ever have a friend that never lets you get a word in edgewise? It’s never fun. In fact, I can almost guarantee that if you have a friend like that, your relationship can’t be too deep. They might think that the relationship is deep because you know a lot about them, but if you turn the tables and ask them whether or not they know you, chances are pretty good that they will be hard-pressed to answer questions about you.

Prayer can easily be misunderstood as just our communication with God, but prayer is dialogue, it’s two-way conversation. If it isn’t, then we aren’t doing it right. We need to engage in a conversation with God. We don’t necessarily expect that he will speak audibly back to us, but within our being, we may sense the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit as we open ourselves up to hearing. Like Scripture says over and over again, let him who has ears hear what the Lord is saying.

Contemplation

Some might term this aspect of lectio divina “Living” rather than “Contemplation.” It’s a practice of James 1:22-25, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”

If we have a propensity towards cursory readings, how much more will be have a tendency to forget what we have read and do nothing with it. If we read Scripture to simply check off a box, it won’t do the transformative work in us that it needs to do.

If we are intentional about taking what the Holy Spirit says to us through Scripture, than we will not be like the man or woman that James describes here. We will take what we have seen and do something about it. To look in a mirror and see flaws and then walk away and not address the issue is irresponsible. When we see what needs to change in our lives, when we sense what has to happen, we need to take action and this is what we do here. We take what we have read and we begin to put it into practice.

Like I said, this is merely a scratching of the surface of what this ancient practice is all about, but it’s a practice that I have had to go back to and remind myself of time and time again. While I am not a perfect practitioner of lectio divina, even a derivation of the method can be helpful and freeing.

There are moments of our lives when we need to simply slow down and rest in a particular section of Scripture. In the days and weeks leading up to my mom’s death and in the time afterwards, I spent most of my time in the Psalms and in Romans 8. The day of her funeral, I drove to Williamsburg by myself, reading aloud Romans 8 three times to let the words penetrate my wounded soul.

If you have found yourself simply going through the motions or checking off a box in the area of Bible reading, I would encourage you to find out more about this ancient practice. It’s not a magic bullet, you won’t do it once and think that you have “arrived,” but it may be just the thing that you need to free yourself from cursory readings and skimmings of the Word of God.

Try it out, and if you’re so inclined, let me know what you think. I’m always up to hear a good story about a change that’s taken place in someone’s life.

A Trip Around the Sun – A Book Review

trip around the sunHow do you approach your life? Does it seem as if every day is drudgery as you go about your work and responsibilities? Are you sleepwalking through and missing things along the way? Are you living life to the fullest or is your life so full that you barely feel like you are living at all?

Each year in our lives is one more trip around the sun, another part of the journey towards something. We have a choice of how we’re going to live and what we will do during that trip around the sun. We can simply exist, collect stuff, and move inevitably towards our own demise, or we can look at things differently, seeking adventure and experiences, seeking to inspire and encourage along the way.

In his book, “A Trip Around the Sun,” pastor, speaker, and author, Mark Batterson, writes that he has, “reoriented almost all of my life goals so they involve someone besides me, because I don’t want to cross the finish line by myself.” In keeping with that, he takes a different approach towards this book as each chapter is composed of two parts: Mark’s story and Dick Foth’s, his mentor, story. They talk about their various journeys apart from each other and also how their relationship has intersected and influenced the other’s.

Batterson writes, “Adventure doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be intentional.” We don’t stumble upon adventure, it’s a choice that we make, it’s one decision at a time. The overall theme of not only seeking adventure but also of collecting experiences rather than stuff is pervasive throughout this book. People are the things in which to invest, not stuff or things to be discarded and disposed of when we are gone. We want to live on after we are gone and we do that when we invest ourselves in other people. As Batterson writes, “Our lives are not just measured in minutes. They are measured in moments – moments when the minutes stand still. And it’s those defining moments that define our lives! Life becomes an adventure when we start seeing the miraculous in the mundane.” We accumulate experiences rather than stuff because experiences, “are the currency of a life well lived.”

Throughout the book, as both Foth and Batterson share their stories, they write about how they have shared so many experiences with each other, but also with their children and others, people whom they have met along the way in their journeys around the sun, people in whom they have invested. One of the key aspects of this book is that they both understand the importance of not only the relationships that they have with others, but also the relationship that they have with God. Staying connected to God and continuing to deepen that relationship will result in dreaming bigger dreams, having grander visions, seeking more adventure. There are moments when some might fear that the authors are heading off into an existentialistic New Age philosophy of life, that they are simply promoting a positive psychology, health-and-wealth, everybody feel good approach towards life, but they always reel it back to what’s important and why we need to live this way. They always reel it back towards the importance of God’s place in the story, or our place in the story of God.

The theme of collecting experiences is weaved through the various relationships that people have in their lives with their spouses, their children, their co-workers, and their mentors. The authors stress the importance of finances and how we spend our money, of learning and the need to be constantly working on the “five-and-a-half inch world between our ears.” They talk about the fact that people are “books with skin on them” and how important it is to invest in people, seeing their potential and sometimes pushing them to be what you can see they can be.

Having read multiple books by Batterson, I have always been fascinated by his story. There are so many times while reading this book that I thought, “I could hang with this dude.” His solid and engaging writing style often left me feeling as if he had just expressed some of my own thoughts and had somehow expressed it the exact way that I would have had I put it on paper. Both Foth and Batterson are engaging writers, but Batterson has an uncanny way of inspiring me to do more, to be better, to try more, and to live fuller, not because of who he is, but because of the One that he keeps pointing to. He shares his spiritual insights in a very humbling and authentic way, admitting that even he has felt that he hasn’t been ready to do the very things that God called him to do and saying, “don’t wait until you are ready. If you do, you’ll be waiting for the rest of your life!”

As I look at my next trip around the sun, I will choose adventure by continuing to change my perspective of people. I will see them as books with skin on them, I will see them as investments, I will see them as a legacy. As I journey around the sun this time around, I will seek to collect experiences and find people with whom I can share those experiences.

If you want to rethink the way that you look at your next trip around the sun, then this book is a must read. If you want to choose to collect experiences rather than stuff, then Batterson will inspire you to do just that. Go ahead, rethink that next trip, choose adventure, choose experiences, and see just how different your life will be.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The Tragic Story of Bruce Jenner

I grew up in the 70s, and like any good, old American household, our pantry was stocked with the typical food staples found in American households: Kraft macaroni and cheese, Campbell’s soup, Wonder bread, and other items. When it came to breakfast, especially in the year when the United States of America celebrated its bicentennial, the only choice that was both American and remotely healthy was Wheaties.Bruce_Jenner_Wheaties_pole_vault

Back then, when there were special offers on the side, back, or bottom of cereal boxes, they were usually worthwhile. Sure, there were still those crummy, cheap plastic toys at the bottom that you ended up tearing open the box to find, but there were also the forms that you had to fill out. If you filled out the form, sent some postage and handling money, and were willing to wait eight to ten weeks, you would have a nice surprise waiting for you in the mailbox one day when you came home from school.

My reward came in a long cardboard cylinder. Feeling like Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” I would rush home after school every day to find out whether or not that cylinder had arrived that day. They claimed it would only take eight to ten weeks, but in the mind of a young child, that seems like an eternity. But the day finally came, and it arrived!

When I opened it, there stood the picture of physique and fitness, the Adonis of America, the Champion: Bruce Jenner. There on a poster about 18 by 24 inches was this athlete poised with his javelin, not only making his mark on athletic history and in the process making a mark on the minds of every aspiring young athlete who dreamed of some day being an Olympian, just like Bruce.

Fast forward nearly forty years and that same Adonis is no longer gracing the cover of a box of Wheaties. Instead, he’s now on the cover of Vanity Fair. His name is no longer Bruce and, in fact, he is no longer a he but now a she. In this issue of the publication, she has announced that she will now be referred to as Caitlyn. It’s not the attire and outfit of an Olympian that he dons but rather a minimal corset which accentuates part of his body that didn’t look that way all those years ago.

But how did he get here? How did Bruce become Caitlyn? What’s the story that none of us knew?bruce-jenner-cover-vanity-fair

Leave it to Diane Sawyer to provide us with the answers in an exclusive interview. And answers were just what she was seeking to find when her exclusive interview aired on ABC on Friday, April 24th.

I missed the interview when it originally aired. I caught bits and pieces on the evening and morning news that weekend. It wasn’t until much later that I watched it. In fact, I thought that the hype that the media had made of Bruce Jenner and his gender transition had mostly blown over until I saw the cover of Vanity Fair and the Annie Leibovitz picture that graced its cover.

To be honest, I was hoping that it would all blow over. I still struggle with the fact that our country has such a warped sense of importance in that we make a bigger deal over celebrities and their personal lives than we do about the injustices that are happening around the world. I find myself caught up in this ALL. THE. TIME. I want to care more about stuff that’s important but I get sucked into reading the gossip rags while waiting in line at the grocery store.

But this wasn’t blowing over and in some ways, I felt like in much the same way that Jenner had been lauded as a hero back in the 1970s because of his Olympic feats, he was now being lauded as a hero once again because of the decision that he was making after what he described to Sawyer as a lifelong struggle. According to Jenner, he had been hiding what he was really feeling inside for the majority of his life.

Jenner’s story is moving. Regardless of your viewpoint, it’s hard to hear someone talk about the struggles and discomfort that they’ve had for their lives. It’s hard to hear about the loneliness, the confusion, the brokenness, the struggle, and the general feeling that he was living a lie. No matter what you think about the issue, I don’t think anyone ever wants to hear someone talking about a point that they had come to when they thought that the best thing to do would be to walk into a room, grab a gun, and end the misery that they had been experiencing for a long time.

As one interviewee during the program said, “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.”

Story.

We are storied people and when we hear the stories of others, they move from being anonymous characters in a drama played out before us. They are no longer nameless, they are no longer faceless, they are no longer generic. When we know their story, we can’t so easily disassociate ourselves from them. No, we can’t hate anyone whose story we know, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will always agree with them simply because we’ve heard their stories. We might understand them better, we might know their hearts and their passions, but understanding and agreeing are not the same.

In the midst of hearing Jenner’s story, I have more questions than answers. I wonder what distinguishes an issue that if confronted and faced becomes a courageous act from an issue that if confronted and faced simply becomes just another issue. What is the determining factor for us in deciding where we draw the line on issues? How do we know whether we are being courageous or if we’re just going through the motions of following our heart? What determines when our response to an issue makes us pioneers and spokesmen for “millions living in the shadows” versus simply just standing up for what we believe?

I honestly struggle with the fact that the words of the Declaration of Independence have become distorted to us. The inalienable rights that we speak of, that the founding fathers wrote about, those rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they have been skewed. Is it possible that the order in which they are named were in order of importance as seen by our founding fathers? Somehow, it seems, we have elevated the pursuit of happiness to the highest order of the land and we are willing to sacrifice anything and everything in order that we can pursue that happiness. Jenner’s kids just want their father to be happy.

Jenner’s words seemed to parallel Lady Gaga’s when he said, “I was made this way.” At the heart of who he is, in his soul, as he states, he is a woman. Forget the fact that he has lived his life as a man, as an impostor of sorts. He even goes so far as saying that this is how God made him and that, “God put me on this earth to deal with this issue.” Jenner believes that God made him to have the body of a man and the soul of a woman.

Jenner said, “this is not an issue that you can just walk away from.” I agree with him. The world is changing and there is no longer an option of doing nothing, of sticking our heads in the sand and wishing that everything would go away. As those who follow Christ, we can no longer simply spout out rules and regulations, carefully choosing the ones that conveniently fit our comfortable ideologies and casting away the ones that don’t. We need consistency.

In the midst of it all, we can’t forget that things are not the way that they were intended to be. Yes, we may have been born this way, but the way that we have been born is not necessarily the way that God intended us to be. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, their decision was more far-reaching than they ever could have imagined.

Is it possible that our feelings can betray us and that our pursuit of happiness can actually run contrary to our pursuit of what God really wants for us? Is it possible that the idea of taking up our cross daily really means sacrificing our wills for the sake of following Christ? Is it possible that, like Paul, we all may have been born with a thorn in the flesh, something that we constantly struggle with that can never be quenched, with which we can never feel fully comfortable in our own skin?

My heart breaks for Bruce Jenner. He hopes that his transition will bring him peace. Some hope that his transition brings him happiness. But that peace and that happiness will never be fully realized, will never be fully felt unless it comes from an indestructible source, unless it’s a peace that surpasses all of our understanding. I hope that Jenner can find that peace, and more importantly, know the One who provides it.

Swimming In Grace

When we started our church more than two years ago, we knew that name was important. We knew that when you name something, it can be a powerful instrument in signifying identity.

Over and over throughout the Bible, people’s names mattered. Often, when they would experience a life-changing event, their name would be changed. Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul.

Names matter and we knew it.

As we poured through Scripture to see what possibilities there might be for us, we kept coming back to one word: restore. Among the verses that come to mind is Joel 2:25, “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.” After much consideration, we knew that we had to have the word “restoration” in our name.

But we also knew that any time that you have something in your name, you had better expect that your identity and who you are would deal with that specific thing. We knew that putting “restoration” in our name would involve more than just a trendy or hip sounding name, but it would mean that we would be involved with the restoration that the Gospel brings to people’s lives…..at least, if we really took seriously the name and the task set before us.

Over that time since we first launched out at a middle school, I have been awed by the many ways that God has worked to make that happen and humbled by the fact that, at times, he has used me as an instrument of his grace and a means of pointing people towards the life-changing power of the Gospel which brings restoration.

Yesterday was one of those days.

There are moments when I show up on a Sunday morning and I am dangerously close to “phoning it in.” My attitude isn’t always the greatest and I’m watching the clock to see when we’ll be done. That’s the attitude with which I come in with at times.

In the process of the morning, though, I find my heart being changed. I find that my attitude starts to improve. If it doesn’t, I usually look back and marvel at the fact that God was still able to use me, despite my bad attitude. Usually I’m feeling a slight twinge of guilt knowing that I was wrong from the beginning.

But there are other times when I show up and I’m ready. I’m ready for God to do something special. Not because I’m special or gifted, but because he’s God, because he wants restoration to take place in the lives of his people and in the lives of those who have yet to meet him and know him.

That’s how I showed up yesterday.

I recently retook the StrengthsFinders test to see my top 5 strengths. This being the third time that I have taken it over the past 14 years, my strengths had changed slightly again. Making its debut appearance among my strengths was “Self-assurance.” A brief description from the StrengthsFinders 2.0 book, “Self-assurance is similar to self-confidence, In the deepest part of you, you have faith in your strengths. You know that you are able – able to take risks, able to meet new challenges, able to stake claims, and, most important, able to deliver.” I have confidence, even more so because of who I am in Christ. I know my strengths and know that I can be used by God if I am diligent and faithful in what he’s given me.

It was with that confidence that I came yesterday morning. I had done my part to study and prepare a message. I had leaned on God in the midst of that preparation, seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. Now I needed to have confidence in what he had given me and confidence in who he was, the author and perfecter of our faith. As I came, I came knowing that God was going to speak to someone just as strongly as he had spoken to me all during my preparation.

As I sat in the front row with my fellow pastor, we whispered to one another as the dots were connected and themes seamlessly weaved themselves through our prayers, the music, and the message.

Afterwards, I knew that God had done the work. I leaned on his words in Isaiah 55:10-11, ““For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Afterwards, I was swimming in grace, knowing that God had used a simple, broken, imperfect vessel like me to bring a Gospel message to a dry land, a place in need of restoration.

The thing about Sunday nights and Monday mornings for pastors is that they can be lonely times. They can be letdowns, of sorts. After pouring your heart and soul into preparation and delivery of a message, you feel tapped out, emotionally, spiritually, physically.

That’s why I needed the reminder of grace, and there’s nothing better than swimming in it, immersing myself completely in it, to better understand and appreciate just how powerful that message is and what it means to me. When I take myself out of the picture, or at least put myself in the second chair where I belong, it’s much easier to avoid the disappointment. When I allow myself to sit in the first chair, then of course I will be disappointed because, in and of myself, I am unable to sustain things in the same way that the Giver of Life does.

After multiple conversations with people afterwards and then some additional words of encouragement in message form later on, I was able to rest in the grace of God that had sustained me and had used me, not because of who I am by myself, but because of who I am in Christ.

And just as I had started the day swimming, I ended it swimming as well. My family and I took a trip to the pool and spent a few hours there. I was immersing myself in a different kind of grace at that point, the grace of God to use me in the simple situations as well.

As I waded into the water, with kids hanging on my arms, I looked up to the sky and smiled.

Grace comes in different forms and at different times. Yesterday, I saw a bit of the gamut of that grace and it brought a smile to my face.

If there is any encouragement at all, it is this, that God can use one such as I to be an instrument of that grace despite my imperfections and my flaws. Every day I make new mistakes, often I make the same ones, but God’s grace works through those mistakes and picks me up, humbling me, changing me, and transforming me to be who I need to be in him.

Today is Monday, but when I start with grace, it doesn’t feel so much like a Monday at all.