My post last week about my struggle to stop taking other people’s stuff created some fun conversations. Thank you for reading, responding, and engaging. I realized that I’m perhaps taking on other people’s stuff because it’s largely preferable to tackling my own stuff, which is buried beneath a pile of self loathing and deflection. I am starting to learn to sift through what’s preferable to get to what’s essential for my own wholeness. This isn’t particularly fun work, but I feel like I’m onto something huge, and that it will lead me to an expansive place of freedom and joy. But first, some work.

I have found it freeing to stop and consider whether or not I’m taking on someone else’s struggle when I’m actually with them, versus simply sitting with them as they struggle.

But what I’ve found to be especially challenging is later, when my mind begins to bubble and churn. All of a sudden, I have a handful of pencils again, even though the person isn’t even there. I can have an imaginary conversation for several minutes before I’m even aware that I have a handful of pencils again. This is making me crazy.

So I’m trying this experiment. When someone’s face comes to mind, or someone else’s issue shoves its way into my consciousness, instead of immediately turning it over and interacting with it, I imagine myself smiling at that person or that situation, leading them to a room in which Jesus is sitting. When we get to the door, I look at them, and I say, “grace and peace to you, my friend,” and then I leave them in the room with Jesus, shutting the door and walking away.

Now, I’m quick to add this does not mean that I’m dismissive of people when I’m with them. It just means that when I’m with them, I’m trying to bring a different quality to the conversation. Instead of providing an empty backpack for them to insert their own issues, or an empty hand into which they can keep putting pencils, I’m trying to picture myself sitting in a room in which Jesus is sitting with them and me. Because it turns out Jesus is far more patient, joyful, and able to carry their particular burdens than I am. This is much more loving and much more helpful than me trying to fix them or provide empty solutions when I myself have a backpack full of my own stuff that needs transforming.

This is helping me to listen with less judgment. It’s helping me to be hopeful and trusting versus straining to be something for somebody which I am fearful that I cannot be. And when judgment creeps in – and it does – “grace and peace, my friend.” 

As I do this, I am finding that Jesus is imminently more patient, joyful, and able to carry my own burdens than anybody else is.

In it together, my friends.

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Lately I’ve been seeing a counselor, mostly because I am starting to see some deep cracks in my life, and I am wondering if they can be healed. The counselor I see is hilarious and crusty, wise and deep and trustworthy. Even though I feel the same mixture of not wanting to go/feeling like I have nothing to say before every single session, we always end up filling the time. He is really helping me.

After a deeply painful loss in a relationship that was very important to me a few years ago, I said this to my crusty but wise counselor: “My deepest fear is that I was the one that screwed everything up.” I may or may not have used a more colorful word, but you’ll never know, because it was my counseling session, and it’s a secret.

He laughed out loud.

Then he looked at me and said, “Of course you screwed it all up. I’m sure you made some horrible mistakes. Okay. Now what are we going to do together?”

That single sentence – Of course you screwed it all up – was one of the most freeing things anybody has ever said to me.

Recently we were talking about my propensity to take everybody else’s issues and make them all about me. I’m not sure why I do this. It’s like I have a backpack that’s wide open in every conversation that I have, and I invite people to put their stuff in it, and then I promise to walk around with all their stuff in my backpack. I’m pretty great at intuiting what everybody else is feeling and what everybody else might need, but I’m horrible at figuring out how I’m doing or what I need.

This is not a great way to live. It’s exhausting. Plus, I’m a pastor, so I’m in lots of environments where there is an expectation that I will come to meetings with my backpack, and people will feel better once they’ve deposited their caca (is that still a word?) in it. The problem is that it gets heavy, and it really smells.

So my counselor got crafty with me. He moved over next to me, grabbed a handful of pencils, and started telling a story. Every once in a while, he would just randomly give me a pencil. After the first one, I didn’t think much about it, I just took it and held it in my hand. When he handed me the second pencil without explaining what he was doing, I started to feel a little silly. They weren’t even cool pencils. They were the dumb, plastic ones where you have to click the eraser and the tiny lead pops out, then immediately breaks again with the slightest pressure.

When he handed me the third pencil, I didn’t take it.

Then he smiled.

He said that most people just keep taking the pencils, until he asks them, “Why are you taking those pencils? Do you want them? Did you ask for them? If you didn’t ask for them, why are you taking them?”

I told him I was way smarter than that. I’m not going to keep taking your stupid pencils, I said with a smirk. Then he pointed at my backpack, bulging with other people’s stuff, and politely asked me what was in there.

I told him to stop being so rude and that we should play more games with pencils.

There are some things that really are yours to own, apologize for, talk about, and move towards healing. These are the things that are in your backpack because you put them in there. Maybe it’s time to start dealing with those things.

It’s not the other person’s fault if you keep letting them give you pencils or fill your backpack.

You can choose.

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I read the Scriptures primarily because they paint expansive pictures of what’s happening in my own soul, which sometimes soars and sometimes plummets. They help me make sense of the Bigger Story when I myself have lost the plot. They remind me that I’m not the only human being that has gone through whatever confusing thing I find myself going through. They paint pictures of a God who at times overwhelms me with love, at other times eludes me with silence.

It’s the landscapes – the mountains, the deserts, the gardens, the rivers and the caves – to which I am drawn; they tell my own story of hope and doubt, of climbing and falling, of searching and losing. They rise to meet me and they stoop to find me, they lead me and they follow me. They surround me and I inhabit them, and they inhabit me.

When it is time to learn something new, I climb mountains and like Moses, I receive sacred words on tablets of stone; I hold them, I break them.

When I sense the tides of change beckoning me, I wade into rivers, and like Jacob, I leave behind what I was and swim towards what I might be.

When I cannot bear it any longer, I escape to the wilderness, and like Elijah, I lay down, I sleep, and I am nourished.

When I am exposed and need covering, I look for the garden, for shade and for hope, and like Adam and Eve, I search for new beginnings.

And sometimes I find myself lost in caves, like David. Spittle covers my beard, and Light plays a cruel game of hide and seek, only I cannot find her.

Long enough, God—
you’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.*

* * *

You walked and then you ran. Gasping, you slowed.

You stumbled, you fell.

You hid, you mumbled.

Your tears escaped, of course they did; the breach let them out.

The damn breach.

You saw it coming. But when it came, it was violent, and it knocked you down. It’s what you had been running from, but it outran you in the end. Of course it did.

You got up again, knees buckling and bloody from the fall, and you kept walking. You didn’t know how you did it, how you dragged your body through another day, another moment, another breath. Your feet kept moving. Your hands kept grasping.

It was your heart that stopped, there in the cave.

Your companions in the dark were the smells of earth and water, on either side of you, underneath you, hovering over you. Somewhere in the distance, the drip-drip-dripping whispered a tale of emptying, and you knew it whispered for you. Your chin rested on your knees, you were folded up and small, so distant from that day when you were chosen, on that bright, shiny day, so long ago.

Did it even happen?

You were anointed, in front of them all.

King.

King of nothing, it turned out.

Long enough, Lord.

* * *

You may be in a cave, and if you are, you can hear the drip-drip-dripping and you wonder if you’ll ever see Light again. Everything feels heavy; every conversation weighs a thousand pounds.

Hold on.

Sit in the dark and notice what rises up around you in the dark.

You will hear the whispers, those specters of shame, and those ghosts of failure. They are there in the cave.

But those whispers will not last.

No, they won’t.

You will see that they are only echoes, words spoken long ago, bouncing around the rock and the earth. They will stop.

In the cave, you must also notice what else rises; the new whisper, the new Word. It will come.

Yes, it will.

You are not alone in the cave.

Take a good look at me, God, my God;
    I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
    or laugh when I fall on my face.

I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
    I’m celebrating your rescue.*

* Scriptures taken from Psalm 13, The Message

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Here’s today’s question, posted by my brilliant sister Lisa: What’s the right balance between my action and God’s action? Where do my dreams and God’s dreams intersect? 

There are those who believe God is a drill sergeant who enjoys giving really horrible assignments to us. The harder they are, the more they make us suffer, the better, because that’s how God is glorified: we become less, and God becomes more. So we put our boots back on, heave our packs on our already sagging shoulders, and press on.

It is possible that this view of God is true, at least to some extent. But I’ve mostly seen it make tired people even more tired. Then they give up on their dreams and on God. And then they assume God moves on to fresher recruits.

There is another view, one centered around the greek word eucharisteo.

Eu means good; charisteo comes from the root word charis, which means thanksgiving, grace, or gift. The Great Thanksgiving. The Good Gift. When Jesus broke bread the night he was betrayed, first he gave thanks. Before he was handed over, he eucharisteo’d. What does it mean to give thanks before enduring a broken body, before watching your blood pour out?

Ann Voskamp writes about this word in her fantastic book One Thousand Gifts. Rob Bell speaks about it here.

The body of Jesus breaks, and his blood is poured out, for the healing of the world. Some of us come together on Sundays to “celebrate” that broken body, that blood poured out. This is traditionally called the Eucharist. Why do we celebrate? Isn’t that a bizarre word to describe something so horrific?

We celebrate because many of us partner with God in the healing of the world. We suffer and we create. We give and we offer and we march and we go beyond. We love so that others might be healed. Single mothers do this every day, all day. Supervisors who really love their employees do this. Parents, coaches, teachers, CEOs, pastors, professors, garbage collectors… anyone who is giving anything of themselves for the healing of the world is partnering with God.

And when you partner with God in healing the world, your body gets broken and your blood gets poured out.

You become empty.

It hurts when your body is broken and your blood is poured out. It takes something out of you to serve and give so that others might be healed.

And that is why we need to come back to the Eucharist table – the communion table – to mend our broken bodies, to pour the blood back in. We cannot heal the world by trying hard. We give and pour and create, then we stop to remember that we cannot heal the world. We partner with the work of Jesus. We are not Jesus.

So where do my dreams intersect with God’s dreams? Is what you’re doing contributing to the healing of the world? Then do it and be at peace. Augustine of Hippo wrote,

“Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”

And when you’ve done that for a while, and you become empty, go back to the Great Giver to be filled back up. Because the Great Giver was emptied all the way out and didn’t run out, we can go back to that table any time and any place and we can be filled.

Read other posts in this series here.

I wrote this post a little over a year ago, but it seemed like a good one to repost. I keep needing to work on this. Perhaps you do, too. Happy Thursday, friends. In it together.

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You don’t realize there are rules about how people behave in public spaces until one of them is being broken. Sociologists call these social norms. I know this despite the fact that I bitterly failed my first Intro to Sociology exam as a freshman in college.

I was having lunch at the Maple Grove Byerly’s last week by myself, because I apparently enjoy paying $9 for a salad. Between bites of arugula and mushrooms, I noticed that an annoying radio station was blaring overhead. An angry woman kept raining down rant after rant, and I thought this was odd for Byerly’s. Michael Bolton set to musak? Not odd for Byerly’s. Angry, petulant female shock jocks reflected perhaps an expanding target market for this gritty grocery chain.

Then I noticed it wasn’t a radio station. It was an actual woman, sitting in this actual dining room.

She was across the room, and one of her shopping bags was sitting in front of her face, so I couldn’t see her. She was on her phone, and she was livid. So I did what everyone else was doing: I pretended to keep reading my book while simultaneously trying to hear every word she said.

Though there wasn’t space for the person on the other end of the line to speak, she kept saying, “I swear, you better let me talk, or I will hang up on you right now.” She must have said this a dozen times. There was mention of lawyers, and it was all just really, really loud.

The rest of us in the dining kept awkwardly looking at each other, as if to say, “Doesn’t she know where she is? Doesn’t she know this is our place, too? Doesn’t she know that she’s being completely inappropriate? Doesn’t she know she should leave?”

It went on and on, and I finished my salad and decided to go get a flu shot. You can do this in Byerly’s now. Soon we’ll be able to book a room for the night, as God intended for us to do in grocery stores. When I was filling out paperwork and waiting, I kept thinking about this woman. And then I thought about my reaction to her. I noticed something:

When people act inappropriately, my first move is to judge them. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they know they can’t do that here? I wish they would leave! They’re ruining my lunch!

I almost never realize how incredibly lame I am being when I think those things.

Steven Covey writes about a father with young kids on a subway car. The kids are wild, racing around, being loud and inappropriate. They’re clearly bothering the rest of the people who are trapped in the subway car, while the father just stares off into space. Finally, an exasperated person next to him says, “Sir! Get ahold of your children, please!”

This breaks him out of his trance, and he says, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. It’s just that we’re just coming home from the funeral of their mother, and I just have no idea what I’m going to do without her.”

We really have no idea what everybody else is up against.

After I got my flu shot, I started walking back towards the dining room to see if the angry woman was still there. I had resolved to try to talk to her if she was done with her phone call. This scared me to death because it was certain to be a conversation that was quicksand, sticky and messy and never over. I was relieved when she was not there, so I went to the bathroom and drove back to work.

We can’t help everybody. We can’t jump into people’s messes and expect to fix them. But I wonder if a warm smile, a touch on the arm, and maybe the gift of a vanilla latté might have gone a long way for this obviously hurting woman.

Let’s notice when our first move is judgment, and let’s see if we have it in us to do something different, even if it’s small.

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Today’s question is a doozie, from my friend Jenny:

I dare you to talk about healing and what happens inside a person when they don’t receive the healing they were hoping for. It’s a risky topic, but very real.

I will, Jenny, but you’re going to help me.

A man in my church is dying of cancer. I saw him yesterday, and he is very near the end. His breathing is labored, he has stopped eating, and his face is drawn and shrunken. He is in his early 70’s, and his cancer progressed very rapidly. I prayed with him, anointed his head with oil, and sat with him while his body spasmed with pain. He can no longer talk. I whispered in his ear that he is ready for this journey. When he dies, his wife will have buried three husbands.

One of my college friends, a pastor, father and husband in his early forties, also has cancer. It is spreading, and the treatments are not working. If you read his Facebook posts, you’ll see that many people are praying for him. I am one of them.

I believe God heals some people’s bodies, and not in a glamorized, fainting while a man in a white suit prays for you on television way. I have prayed for healing for quite a few people over the years, and while many have not been healed, some have. One woman’s eyes had been going cloudy with cataracts, and she believed God asked her to ask me to pray for healing for her eyes. And so I did, and her eyes cleared up. I don’t know how to explain that. I didn’t feel special that day. I just prayed for her, and she was healed.

I also believe that not everybody who prays for healing gets healed. I have thought about this for many years, and the conclusion that I have come to is simply this: I do not know why some get healed, while others do not.

I also believe anybody who claims to know the answer to this question with utter certainty does incredible damage to people who are already hurting so very badly. It is excruciating to believe that God is good when it seems God is withholding healing for some, while pouring out healing on others, for no apparent reason, other than perhaps whim.

I will say this: I believe God’s character is most clearly demonstrated while dying on a cross, suffering with us to the very end.

I have seen a courageous few begin to find a different kind of healing, other than physically, on this dangerous journey of faith. My friend Jenny Hill is one of those people. She is the one who asked today’s question.

Jenny wrote a beautiful memoir that attempts to answer her own question, and she does it beautifully. She was born with Cerebral Palsy, and her book is called Walking with Tension. It is unflinchingly honest, very well written, and full of hope. She was taken to faith healers over and over again as a child, but her cerebral palsy was never healed. On that journey, however, something else far deeper inside of her began to heal, and that healing continues to this day. Jenny is one of my heroes. She asked me to write the foreword to her book, which I will share below, in part because I haven’t found anything new to say on the subject, but also because I hope it encourages you to read Jenny’s book.

If you are a Christian who is experiencing the disappointment and disillusionment that comes with unexplained pain and suffering, you have most likely received two kinds of responses from fellow Christians. Neither one of them helps, and yet you hear them with such frequency that you wonder if everybody’s reading the same faulty instruction manual entitled, “How to Simultaneously Dismiss and Offend Those Who Suffer,” which nobody has had the decency to burn, or at least rewrite.

Response number one involves people who seem to be more concerned with defending the character of God, rather than walking alongside you in your pain. Their opening arguments begin with the insistence that God is all-powerful, all knowing, and all good. God both initiates and allows your suffering because a greater plan is in the works. They will carefully remind you that even though you can’t see it, and don’t know it, God must have a reason for your pain. God, after all, is in control, and your job is not to understand, but to simply shrug your shoulders and wait until God’s plan finally unfolds.

Response number two involves pressure to follow an immediate action plan through which your suffering will stop. This involves following a formula which, if followed exactly, will relieve you of your pain as soon as you simply put it to action. You hear stories of people who were “just like you,” and now are completely healed. Your hopes are raised and then dashed when these formulas fail. You feel betrayed by God, horribly defective because nothing “works” on you, and perhaps your friends have even given up on you because you must not have enough faith.

In Walking With Tension, Jenny Hill follows neither path. Instead, she blazes a new trail entirely. She tells her courageous story of learning to live with Cerebral Palsy, wrestling and engaging with God all along the way. Her story is captivating because it is raw and in some ways, disappointing. I cried my way through this manuscript, at times yelling at characters in her life that responded to her in ways that were damaging and unhelpful. Jenny writes poignantly and honestly about her struggle to make friends in junior high school while maintaining her identity through excelling in academics. She tells of her relationship with a Christian “healer” who promised results that never came. She writes passionately about both her belief and her unbelief. She teaches us that becoming fully alive in God is a course in which we all must enroll, whatever challenges our life may present.

In the end, Walking with Tension is a story of beauty and redemption. Jenny is learning how to honestly grapple with the disappointing reality that some things are not healed, but she’s also learning to gratefully and eagerly accept the gifts that God has given her in her unique journey. God’s gentle friendship, healing, and consistent leading has marked Jenny in deep and profound ways, and her journey blazes a new trail for those of us who are struggling to find God in our suffering.

If you are a Christian who is experiencing pain and suffering, this book is not the answer for you. But it is the story of a very courageous person, who is learning that God accompanies her in her pain. That God is partnering with her in discovering how her redemption is helping other people to grow and heal. And that healing is sometimes found as one learns to walk out one’s pain and suffering without resolution, but with tension.

I will also point you to my brother-in-law Joel Hanson’s song Either Way. It is also beautifully written, and offers a satisfying response to this difficult question, at least for me.

In it together, friends.

The Parking Ramp

March 12, 2015 — 9 Comments

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It was a rookie mistake.

Last Saturday morning was warm for early March in Minnesota, and I was about to run my first race of the season – a 10 miler. The race started at St. Anthony Main, the quaint cobblestone riverfront section of Northeast Minneapolis, and parking spots are a little tricky anytime after 8:00am on race days. There was a surface lot, as well as on street parking, if I was patient enough to circle a few times, which I wasn’t. So I pulled up to a six story parking ramp on the corner, blithely entered its treacherous maw *, snaked my way up to the fifth floor, and finally found a spot.

It was a beautiful day for a race, and I did fairly well. By fairly well, I mean I finished and wasn’t in too much pain. I ran with my friend Brad, and the sun grew warmer and warmer as we chatted and ambled along. At the end of most races these days, you get a free beer, which is a little odd when you think about it. But hey, free beer! So we chugged our beer, and said goodbye.

I walked the stairs up five floors of the parking ramp, because I was trying to prove something to someone while my knees cried out in displeasure. By the time I finally got up to the fifth floor, the beer had worked its way into my system, and I was vaguely aware that I needed to pee. I was only 20 minutes from home, I thought. It can wait.

Oh, sweet Lord.

I saw the line of cars winding around as high and low as I could see, and they weren’t moving. I thought that was weird, but I climbed into my car and waited for them to move.

Only they didn’t move. Not even a little.

I began to get panicky. My head darted around, trying to make eye contact with the other victims. Is anybody else panicking? Is there something I don’t know about? Why aren’t we moving? What if I’m stuck in this car until the next Presidential election? And then, I realized: I really needed to pee. Why aren’t we moving? We should be moving! That internal monologue continued for about seventy years.

Then the cars moved! And the Jeep who could have let me in didn’t let me in. 

I then thought some thoughts that are unbecoming to a pastor. Four letter thoughts filled with venom and fury. I wanted Jeep guy to pay. I strongly considered keying his car, or slashing his tires, or demanding his first-born. The next car, a slightly used blue Toyota Corolla, let me in.

I cried. Sweet tears of gratitude, joy, rapture. **

It had been 31 minutes of waiting in my spot before I could back out of my spot. And friends, at this point, I really had to pee. And still, we hardly moved. I glanced down at my water bottle, the water bottle that I loved. The water bottle that traveled to Israel with me. The water bottle that is pink, which is my son Ben’s favorite color, and with which we have a kind of solidarity. The water bottle with a wide mouth, perfect for easy consumption. Or for other sinister purposes, the ones you consider when you’re stuck in a parking ramp and really, really have to pee.

We slowly circled down the ramp; finally moving in fits and starts. My angry bladder had moved past rage and into a kind of despair, and I heard it softly weeping as it realized I wouldn’t desecrate my favorite pink water bottle. Everybody began letting everybody else in, because that’s what you do when you move through the stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and letting people go in front of you while driving.

After sixty-seven minutes, I was on the open road, racing home, sometimes coaxing my bladder, sometimes chiding it.

Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, free at last. ***

I realized a few things in that parking ramp:

1. It is remarkable how little it takes to make me feel like I’m suffering.

2. It is remarkable how much I want people to defer to what I want.

3. It is remarkable how generous people are in times of crisis.

4. It is remarkable that I didn’t pee my pants.

And now, a benediction: May you find yourself stuck this week; in a rabbit hole, a dead end job, a frightening layoff, or with a screaming toddler, and may you see remarkable things about this world that you would not see any other way.

In it together, friends.

* Foreshadowing. Plus, anytime you can write the word “maw” in a 600 word blog, you must.

** Hyperbole. I didn’t really cry. But I could have. And probably should have. 

*** Yes, I just compared my one hour stuck in a parking garage to MLK’s life’s work. Entitlement is subtle.

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So we’re diving into all the questions.

Last week, I wrote about God, sin, and choice. I loved reading your comments; I could sense the gears in your brains and hearts whirring and popping as some of you took the conversation further. These posts, remember, are meant to be conversation starters, not stoppers.

This week’s question, from Maria: How do we know, without a question, without a single doubt, that God is real? And above all, how do we know whether or not we will be with our loved ones in heaven, and will we go immediately after death or after judgment day? 

Well that’s it, isn’t it?

If there is a God who put everything in motion, in whose image we were created, and who will eventually restore and redeem all things, would it be so hard for that God to make things a little more obvious? The suffering we experience – in our own lives and in the wider world around us – tends to suggest that perhaps God isn’t real. If God is real, how could God possibly sit by and endure such violence? If God is real, shouldn’t things be better, or at least be getting better? Since they don’t seem to be, we’re left to believe in a God who could do something, but doesn’t (in which case God is aloof, which feels uncomfortable at best, unconscionable at worst), or we’re left to assume that God is a monster who somehow revels in seeing people suffer. If God isn’t real, that at least explains all the pain, suffering, and evil we see and experience. We are not seeing the reality of the actual world if we do not at least wrestle with this agonizing question.

Well, here’s the thing of it: we can’t know without a question, without a single doubt. The nature of faith itself makes that kind of certainty – without a single question, without a single doubt – impossible. In fact, I would argue that certainty in many ways undermines a faith that dares to be risky (what if I’m wrong?) and gritty (can this hold up to all the humanness that we obviously see)? Having faith that God exists does not necessarily equate with having utter certainty about that God which you believe exists.

Let me explain.

When we read the harrowing story of Moses leading God’s people out of slavery and into the Promised Land, we find lots of faith in God, but almost no certainty. Will God eventually lead them out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land? Will the Red Sea part? Will the children of Israel ever stop complaining? Will Manna appear again the next day? If BBC could have interviewed Moses around year 16 of their 40 year wilderness wandering, I don’t think they’d encounter a smug leader. I don’t think he would have exuded a breezy confidence. I think they’d find a sometimes desperate man who nevertheless believed (most days, anyway) that somehow, God was leading them somewhere, and that some way, they would eventually find their way through that desperate chaos.

And the followers of Jesus had no certainty. They were convinced until the very end that they were going to be the kings of a new revolution. They never accepted that their journey was going to end with Jesus dying on a cross. Their answers to his questions confounded Jesus, and he walked away wondering how they still didn’t get it. Yet, they remained the ones in whom he placed his faith to start his church.

What trips so many of us up is that we think we need to believe in all of it before we believe in any of it, and we just can’t, so we give up and move on. If you can’t believe a story about a man in the belly of a whale, or an ark that could hold all of those animals, or a good God that would drown everybody else except for a few people and those animals, then we can’t believe any of it. And while I understand that, I just don’t think that’s a helpful way to start.

Here’s my suggestion: Start with what you can believe in, however small. If you’re wondering where to start, my suggestion is that you start with Jesus (the man). Whatever else you believe about God or Jesus, it is generally agreed upon that a man was born in an obscure middle eastern city in the First Century, and despite the fact that he never traveled far, married, wrote anything down, or lived past 35, he remains the most talked about human being on planet earth. He started a movement that continues to this day, despite hundreds of years of unimaginable cruelty done in his name (Crusades, etc) that should have put an end to it.

Start with an assumption: If it wasn’t true about Jesus, it isn’t true about God; and if it was true about Jesus, then it is true about God. If you believe what the bible says about Jesus (and I’m aware that not all readers of this blog do or will), then you believe that Jesus is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3) and the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Now, I realize that raises 525,600 questions (including how can you believe that Jesus was the exact representation of God)?, but let those questions linger while you get to know Jesus, the one whose best friends included tax collectors and zealots (sworn enemies of each other), and who was despised by religious leaders but embraced by disgraced prostitutes and dying criminals. And I’m not saying “get to know Jesus” in a kind of smarmy, blue suit and big hair on T.V. kind of way, I’m saying it in an inquisitive, bring all your questions, all your doubt, all your uncertainty, all your unbelief kind of way. Jesus is the most talked about human being in human history. The bible claims that he’s the picture of who God is. Just come and see. That’s the invitation he gave to some of his earliest followers, so I am going to assume it’s still a good invitation today.

There is so much more to say, but I’m out of space and out of time. And I’m sorry, Maria, we’ll have to leave the questions on heaven and the afterlife for another post.

For those of you who would like to read more, I’d suggest Benefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd, and/or Who is This Man? by John Ortberg. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton should most certainly be on your list as well.

Next Tuesday, we’ll examine another delicious question. This Thursday I’ll be back with a post I just couldn’t not write. In it together, friends.

Read all other posts in this series here.

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So let’s get a few things sorted out before we dive in:

1. This is the beginning of a blog series dealing with questions about God, life, joy, pain, sex, doubt, Satan, the church, forgiveness, regret, hatred, and my own inability to quit a troubling late night nacho addiction. It is meant to be a thoughtful exploration and an ongoing conversation; the first word and not the last word. 

2. Questions are not dangerous. Questions are good for our souls. We can breathe when someone finally asks the question, the one that’s been lurking around the edges in whispers and shadows. Questions lead us somewhere; something good begins when we honor each other by asking them. 

3. Questions require tension for them to take us where we need to go. I love what someone said, “Answers before questions do great damage.” Let’s let the tension linger and see where it takes us. Questions help us to move towards God, who is best understood with a healthy dose of mystery versus mastery. Mystery asks “what if?” Mastery demands to know exactly how we’ll get out of this mess. Both are good, but in most matters, mastery without mystery is dangerous (besides plumbing, of course, and perhaps algebra, neither of which I have any mastery over whatsoever anyway).

4. These posts will be relatively brief. I cannot possibly cover every nuance of such difficult topics. Hopefully my thoughts will lead to conversations and more questions.

So, let’s go. These are actual questions that actual readers have actually submitted. We’ll start with any easy one, submitted by my old friend Sara, who is feisty and funny and deep.

Question: If God is the source of everything, we cannot escape the fact that God created evil. He created Lucifer, an angel, who I always assumed never had free will, yet he chose to desire to be like God, thus casting him away from God. Satan provides us with the free will or choice. Is there true love without choice? Do I really love my husband if there are no other men that I am not choosing? God desires us and our desire for him. Does this even exist without the choice of evil. Thus does God love evil/satan?

Ok, to be fair, there are quite a few questions lurking within this paragraph, and all of them are delicious. Perhaps the biggest one is this: If God is love, how can evil run so rampant? And if God is love, what is the nature of that love? How are we formed by it and how do we participate in it?

So let’s answer a question with another question. When is love first mentioned in the Scriptures?

It may surprise you to know that love is first mentioned in Genesis 22, in the troubling story where a father is asked to sacrifice a son. “After these things,” we read in Genesis 22:1-2, “God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham! Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”

The very first time love is mentioned in the Scriptures, it’s in the context of a father loving a son, and having to make a terrible choice. Can you imagine it? Taste the salty tears that must have flowed that day, collecting on Abraham’s beard. Watch him avert his eyes while explaining to his son’s mother what he is about to do.

What is a test? And why is God testing Abraham? Why does love put people through tests?

A test is designed to bring out something that is already inside. If what’s inside is evil, it will come out. If what’s inside is good, it will come out.

Love, by its very nature, invites reality to come forth. And the only way reality can come forth is when a choice is given. It is Love, not Satan, which provides human beings with choice. Satan also offers choices, of course, but is not the author of choice.

Love asks you with whom you will trust your future. Love gives you the opportunity to see what reality is, and to turn from evil and towards good. Love helps you to see. Love always gives you the opportunity to see what actually is, to bring it to God, and allow God to transform it into something beautiful.

What will you do when what comes forth is covered in hatred, jealousy, and death? Only Love is big enough to absorb all of that and transform it into something good, even beautiful.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, yet when he was released, he led a movement of freedom and reconciliation (it was equally possible that he could have led a movement of cynicism, bitterness, and revenge). To the degree that it is possible for Nelson Mandela to choose what he chose, it must by necessity also be possible for Kony to imprison 66,000 children as soldiers and sex slaves.

Love cannot create beings that do not have choice; that would go against the nature of Love. Love asks the question, whom will you trust with your future, even when faced with devastating circumstances?

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Perhaps the most defining and unique reality of Christianity has to do with a father having to make a terrible choice about a son. And this is love: the son willingly goes. Love walks up the mountain and chooses to sacrifice itself, rising again so that everything that comes forth might be transformed. What else could Love do?

Next Question, for next Tuesday: How Do we Know, without a question, without a single doubt, that God is real? 

Very juicy. Can’t wait. In it together, friends.

Read other posts in this series here.

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I have heard thousands of sermons. Except for my four years of college, when I went to church less than a handful of times, I have been hearing sermons for my entire life. And when churches started making sermons available online (for us all to consume any time we wanted to, as God intended), I listened to even more sermons.

I remember very few of those sermons.

When I was 23, I heard a pastor begin his sermon by describing a Jimmy Buffet concert that he had attended, and enjoyed. I was immediately delighted, not because I liked Jimmy Buffet, but because I was used to pastors talking about our kind of people (those who attended prayer meetings, punctuated only by the occasional game of Uno or viewing of Little House on the Prairie) and those kind of people (the ones who attended Jimmy Buffet concerts). I’ll never forget that sermon. It was a small thing, but the main question I was asking at 23 was, “Can I be a Christian and also enjoy life?” It mattered to me.

Does the sermon still matter?

I am writing this post to pastors, because I think the sermon really still does matter, and I want to encourage pastors to preach really great sermons, ones that leave people hungry, not full.

These are some of the things I try to do as I prepare to preach. I don’t do all of them every week. Last week, I barely had any time to finish my sermon, but it was enough. I hope these are helpful.

1. Start With Questions.  My text for a few Sundays ago was Mark 1:14-20, the one where Jesus says his famous line about making his followers “fishers of men.” I asked: “Why is it important that we know right away that John the Baptist has been arrested? Why is it important that they’re fishing in shallow waters? Does it bother anyone else that we bait fish and then eat them, and is Jesus really calling us to do that to people?” Questions help us get underneath the text, where the good stuff is.

2. Capture your ahas Immediately. The best ideas come when you’re doing something else – showering, driving, running, even talking to someone. You need to have a place to jot down your ideas/ahas/inspirations as they come. Many people use Evernote. Some people use Reminders on their iPhone. Some even have a little notebook they carry around. If you are trying to write your sermons all at once, they’re probably going to be shallower than you’d like them to be.

3. The Lost Art of Longhand. Our heads and hearts have time to catch up with each other when we write things out longhand. I used to use post it notes for this part of the process, but now I have a huge black glass dry erase board that I use to start capturing ideas, questions, ideas, and quotes – it all goes up there, and then I start erasing as I start focusing. Don’t start on your laptop. A blinking cursor and a blank screen is not inspiring. I dare you to try it this week. Even if you still do your final draft electronically, writing things out longhand will help your creativity and thought process.

4. Create when you’re at your best. Block out times for sermon preparation when you’re at your best, and be okay with saying no to people who want to meet during that time. Certainly, emergencies are the exception to this rule, but you need time to create, to sit with your questions, and to let the text become fresh in your mind. It’s okay to say no to some things because you have to prepare a sermon.

4. NO B.S. Have you explored and navigated the questions that the text raises, or have you jumped right to the answers? Nothing creates a stale, unbelievable sermon more than a trite, though well meaning phrase (examples: God is in control, God’s ways are not our ways, God will never give you anything that you can’t bear). These phrases are usually taken out of context, and they are conversation stoppers. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be trite.

5. Let it sit on Saturday. Play with your kids on Saturday. Don’t look at your sermon. Go for a walk, or a run. Don’t endlessly tinker with it. You’re wasting your time. Get up early on Sunday morning, give it one more pass, and print. You’re ready.

6. When you’re actually preaching, commit fullyIf you’ve decided to say something a little controversial, assuming you’ve prayed that through and talked to the right people, say it. If you’re going to go there, go there. Your whole sermon can’t be redlined, but you do need to fully inhabit moments and be passionately all in when it matters. This video is a great example of committing fully.

Sermons matter. They’re not the last word, they’re not the only thing. But I believe teachers have the great privilege of helping people “come and see” where God is dwelling in their lives and in the world, and then inviting them to embark on a journey with God that will take them somewhere we never could.

In it together.

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