Monthly Archives: April 2019

The Abundance of Self-Emptying

More, faster, richer, bigger. Go for the win. Those are the highest aspirations of our Western culture. It’s what drives a capitalist economy in which you and I are most valued, not for who we are, but for how much we buy and consume. And as consumers, we look for prosperity and happiness in the acquisition of material wealth.

That’s the reason why we Western Christians tap-dance around some of Jesus’ central teachings. When he talks about denying ourselves, losing our lives in this world, emptying ourselves, being content with being last and lowly, personally identifying with the marginalized, and bearing our cross, we have a very hard time even imaging what it would look like to embody those principles. I think some of us admire these qualities in the “super saints” we idealize (the St. Francis’s and Mother Theresa’s of the world), but we simply cannot fathom taking on these traits as our primal way of living. It turns out it’s much easier and less costly to idealize than to emulate.

That brings me to a Holy Week story from Jesus’ last days. He’s in the Temple courts with his disciples, and Luke tells it like this:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Luke 21:1-4

Let me just say right off the bat, preachers just love this passage. Oh my, do we love it. It’s a favorite go-to Bible story to turn to when we’re trying to fill up the offerings plates. Even if you’ve never sat through a “stewardship sermon”, I’m sure you can figure out how we preach from this passage.

“Now, everyone,” says the preacher, “if this poor, poor widow who had nothing else to live on could give her last two cents for the work of the Lord, then really now, what more could you give?”

After a final amen, the sermon is followed by the singing of “Take My Life and Let It Be” which contains this little gem: “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite [the widow’s mite!] would I withhold.”

Isn’t that brilliant?

You might be relieved to know that this typical approach glances off the more significant meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

Let’s look again at the timing of this story of the widow’s offering. Jesus is mere days away from his death. On that day, Jesus would demonstrate once and for all what it means to give up everything he had to live on. He gave away his entire life. Put the story of the widow’s offering in that context, and what more is he trying to say to us?

Jesus and his cross are teaching us a counterintuitive truth about life and abundance: self-emptying always leads to abundant life.

Let’s be clear, this is not abundant life the way our Western capitalist culture defines it. It’s far more profound than that. Abundant life is a pattern of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Abundant life is an intimate connection with all created things, subject to subject, enjoying it all for its own sake and inherent beauty. Abundant life is a life without ego, control needs, power-trips, self-centered wants, judgmentalism, and non-forgiveness.

The more we cling to things— to anything, really— as our private possession, the more separate we are from the rest of the world. We must then assume the stance of having things to protect, to compete for, and to differentiate from everyone else’s. It’s very difficult, it not impossible, to love unconditionally within protective, “me versus them” dynamics like these.

While shielded within our self-protective silos, giving of ourselves becomes a metered, tempered and calculated risk assessment based on merit and return instead of an ongoing, unlimited and abundantly gracious outpouring of our very best. Which of these modes do you think most resembles Christ?

Jesus was indiscriminate towards those whom he healed and gave to. He never turned away anyone (if you don’t believe me, look again), never judged anyone’s worthiness, and gave to each whether the recipient was grateful or not. The ultimate expression of this outpouring of unconditional graciousness was his death on the cross.

And just days before, an anonymous poor widow whose name we would never know, whom everyone would have missed save for Jesus, epitomized all of this in a humble act of giving.

So the rest comes down to our response. At every moment we face a choice. Will I consume and protect or will I let go and give? Will I live in full embrace and communion with all things, or will I fence off myself in the name of self-preservation? Will I judge or will I love? Will I live in the “system’s” false understanding of abundance or in Christ’s? Will I give life or withhold it (while losing it eventually anyway)?

Holy Week teaches us some invaluable, timeless human and divine truth about what it means to live, die, surrender, and thrive. We would do well to be students of the One who revealed himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), not merely as a religious precept, but as a total way of living and being. Then we will discover the abundance of self-emptying.

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From Judgmentalism to Compassion

It’s the comparisons game. At least that’s where it begins. I see differences between myself and you and then assign values to those differences— good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse. Often, these value-weighted differences tip the scale in my favor, putting myself, at least in my own eyes, in a position of moral, intellectual, or spiritual superiority to you. That is judgmentalism.

We do this all the time. It’s our way of making distinctions between ourselves and others in some vain effort to validate ourselves. At the root of all this self-validating judgmentalism is pride, which many of the the ancient spiritual masters say is at the root of every sin. I would carefully dig down a step deeper and say that at the root of pride itself is fear and insecurity. If not that, then why harbor pride at all?

I was thinking about all this again after meeting with a small group of folks who are about to take on the momentous task of working with a person for a whole year, to transition this sister or brother out of homelessness. It’s a coordinated effort with The Lighthouse, a local homelessness prevention charity, and The Open Table. (Take a moment to read how another local church is doing this work. It’s really amazing!)

To prepare themselves for their work, they went through an exercise in which each member was invited to take personal stock of their judgmentalism. How judgmental are they in general? What kinds of “trigger” behaviors in other people set off their judgmental attitudes? It was a fascinating discussion, and I was struck by how gut honest everyone allowed themselves to be with each other. They wrestled with how to walk the line between evaluating someone else’s behavior and being judgmental. How fine is that line? Does that line even exist? I have a feeling they will continue to wrestle through these crucial questions through their year-long journey with a homeless brother or sister.

As they were discussing these things, an oft quoted and badly misunderstood teaching of Jesus came to mind:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:1-5

“Do not judge!” I could probably write a whole book dissecting this teaching, addressing the various popular conceptions of what it means to judge versus what Jesus meant. (I’d probably drive myself crazy trying to figure it out, too!)

For now, however, what stands out to me is the second part of this passage addressing the speck and the plank. As I read it again, it has occurred to me that Jesus was an absolute genius of human psychology. He’s talking about what Freud would later call “projection.”

According to Wikipedia Almighty— don’t judge me!— psychological projection is:

…a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.[ For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.

Another way of saying it is this: we despise in others what we most despise in ourselves. We see this negative thing acutely in others (the speck in their eye) because we struggle with it so intensely within ourselves (the plank in our own eye). Otherwise, why would we care so much? And, considering the full range of things we could choose to judge within others, why else would we consistently judge certain things within other people?

Ouch. If that steps on your toes as much as it does mine, that’s because it’s meant to. If we want to grow and mature as people, we must stop in our tracks long enough to look within at our shadowy side, the part of us we of desperately try to avoid and deny.

This is why Jesus gives us the admonition to spend all the time necessary— usually the span of our lifetimes— to call out our own shadows, to remove the plank from our own eye. Then we’ll possess the unfiltered clarity see our neighbors more clearly, fairly, and compassionately.

This leads me to my other revelation about judgmentalism. In addition to addressing our own shadows, the best antidote I know of for judgmentalism is compassion, which I understand to be the ability to see myself reflected within another person, both my strengths and my liabilities. Compassion is a mirror. Within my neighbor I see a mirror of my strengths and liabilities, and I can choose to humble myself and offer that same mirror to them. Then we no longer stand apart; we are siblings.

How does this work?

Let me share a rather painful, personal example. I tend to despise arrogance in other people. My gut reaction to it is, “How dare they carry on like that? Who do they think they are?”

Why do I respond that way? It’s simple. We’re competing for space! For all the recognition and attention they soak up, I feel like that’s less for me. I don’t want someone to be overly recognized while I sit in their shadow because then I won’t be as deservedly noticed and appreciated. Shame on them for taking up what is rightfully mine!

Here is the plank in my own eye: it’s my “shadow self’s” need to be appreciated and recognized for the good which I self-perceive I am and do. Through years of painful shadow work, I have learned that this is a fundamental insecurity within me. When I choose to cast a light on this shadow and expose it for what it is, in other words, remove the plank from my eye, I then have the ability to “get over myself.”

It’s also enabled me to empathize with the same kinds of traits in others, the ones I happen to judgmentally label as arrogant show horses. So now when I spot what I sense to be arrogance in someone else and it triggers my judgmentalism, I can choose to turn off the judgment, empathetically gaze at that neighbor, and perhaps see a mirror of myself. And that allows me a degree of compassion. I don’t have to judge them for being right or wrong or good or bad. They just are who they are, as I am who I am.

If I’m feeling especially neighborly, I will seek out this “arrogant” person, and genuinely encourage them for the good I treasure in them. That’s my mirror back to them. Why would I bother?? It’s for one simple reason. It’s the way I like to be treated. (Love your neighbor as you would love yourself.) And if they genuinely share the same shadow I do— the need for appreciation and recognition— I might have met and soothed that same unspoken need within them. I could speak real value and love into their life.

That’s compassion. It’s the polar opposite of judgmentalism.

Now, please, please don’t hear what I’m not saying.

I’m not saying that this is easy. Along with forgiveness, and perhaps this is another form of it, choosing compassion over judgmentalism is one of the hardest things we can ever do. We cannot even begin to do it before calling out our own shadows.

I’m not saying that we throw out any sense of right and wrong. Of course, there is good and evil. There is right and wrong. There is righteousness and there is sin. We all do both good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness. But that’s not the point.

My point is that we must be honest enough with ourselves to ask why it is that certain things within other people stand out to us as more scandalous, evil, sinful and unforgivable than other things. Once we understand that about ourselves, we could approach the offending neighbor in a very different— hopefully much more compassionate!— way. We would be a whole lot more humble and happy, too.

So where would be a good place to start if we want to grow from judgmentalism to compassion? Start with Jesus’ warning that the measure we use towards other people will the same measure used towards us, either by God, by other people, or both.

Generally speaking, what comes around goes round. Genuinely compassionate, gentle people tend to invite that same compassion and gentleness towards them. Not always, of course! But certainly most of the time. What we plant is what we sow.

Sow the seeds of compassion, and more often than not, that’s exactly what you and I will harvest in abundance. If for nothing else, let’s allow this simple seed of truth to sink in, grow roots, and do its necessary work within our hearts, for our wellbeing and for that of our neighbors.


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When I Beat My Head Against the Church Wall

Sometimes I get to the point where I’ve had enough. I’m done. I just want to walk away, not look back, and shake the dust off my feet.

I’m talking about the church. On the one hand, I would not be where I am today without the church. It’s my home, especially this church called the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Try saying that five times really fast.) It’s my family, and as I’ve said before, to disown my family would be in a significant way disowning myself.

But… ugh… does it have to be so hard??

I was given my first church appointment in 2001, and since then I have served 4 congregations as pastor. I have worked with many more as a consultant and coach. In every situation, I walked into a declining congregation, or a congregation on the verge of decline and was charged with helping them to grow.

That’s the expectation. Grow the church! Bring more people to Jesus! Help the church get healthier!

Since 2001, I have taught, preached, coordinated, planned, visioned, pleaded, and even cajoled congregations to do what it takes to grow and thrive. I’ve read books and attended countless seminars on how to lead the church towards revitalization.

Nevertheless, aside from some anecdotal instances here and there of bold, Holy Spirit-led effort and times of growth, I can’t say that I left any of my congregations noticeably numerically larger or more financially solvent.

There may have been marginal instances of numeric growth, and there was always expansion in other areas than the number of people in the pews, such as the renewal of dying ministries, new, more diverse leaders, a new worship service, and new missions. Yet looking at the big picture, I still feel like I left those congregations in their trajectory of numeric decline, no matter how hard I worked to bring about the kind of change necessary to reverse the patterns I inherited.

I’ve known all along that everything always boils down to the heart.

Who do we love? What are our motives? Who or what do we trust? What are we willing to do to love and include people? What are we willing to give up? How receptive are we to change? What do we really want, and can we be honest about that?

All this came to a head recently when at a Church Council meeting someone asked the question, “What can we do to get more people into the church?” As soon as the question was asked, I inwardly groaned, and then braced myself for what was to come. Slowly, the tension and frustration began to rise in the room and within me. And then the same kinds of playbook questions got asked:

“Why don’t we do [this and that] anymore? That used to work.”

“That church down the street— they do [this and that]. Why aren’t we doing that?”

“We need to do things to get the young people here. How do we do that?”

“If we don’t grow the church, how can we keep solvent?”

“If all you do is focus on those outside and don’t pay attention to the folks inside, you’re going to lose the people we’ve got. And they pay the bills.”

So… after 20 minutes of spinning our wheels over questions we can never answer, I tried to make the case I have repeatedly made: we’ve got to get ourselves out of the “attraction” mindset, worrying about trying to attract people to our worship services and our events. That’s not to say that we stop trying, but we’ve got to accept the reality that a growing majority of people just aren’t interested in Sunday morning religion and church life. So we must focus our efforts on going to our neighbors and relating to them where they are, as they are. Don’t go with a self-serving agenda. Just go to love, bless, and be community with them.

I was met with blank stares.

Of course, I get it, and I can’t really fault them for it. The kind of “missional” mindset and behavior I’ve been espousing by no means resembles the way we’re used to thinking about church. For so long we lived with the expectation that if we build it, the crowds will come. Advertise the event, and folks will check it out. Hang up the welcome sign out front, and people will come. Yet that’s not the world we live in anymore, and church folk are having a hard time accepting that.

As expected, the whole discussion went nowhere.

And there I was, once again beating my head against a church wall, something I’ve done far too many times now. My head is aching, my heart hanging heavily. Trying with all the wisdom and creativity I can muster to change the culture and heart of the church, I’ve come to see that I simply cannot do it.

That leaves me with four options: 1) Keep trying new tactics and strategies to bring about change while exacerbating my pounding headache; 2) Shift my role to hospice chaplain for a dying church; 3) Walk away to find something more fruitful to do with my life; or 4) Do something I have never seriously considered during all my struggles to change the church: change myself.

******* ******* *******

It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, the groundbreaking film The Matrix hit the big screen. It was a movie-making breakthrough whose philosophical implications were riveting. (I can’t say that about its two sequels, but I digress.)

There’s a scene in The Matrix where Neo, the lead character, goes into a strange living-room style waiting before his fateful meeting with the Oracle. There on the floor in front of him is a boy who appears to using telekinetic powers to bend spoons.

Neo sits down with the boy who hands him a spoon.

“Do not try and bend the spoon,” said the boy. “That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.”

“What truth?” asked Neo.

“There is no spoon,” said the boy. “Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

From The Matrix (1999)

Perhaps I’ve spent the better part of 20 years doing the impossible task of bending spoons, when all along I could have been bending myself. I’ve been kicking the same immovable goad of trying to change the church. Now I think it’s time to apply that same effort towards changing myself.

In the contemplative world, how we choose to see reality defines everything. Changing how we see God, the world, and ourselves awakens alternative forms of consciousness, and that in turn alters the behavior and the relationship between the seer and everything else.

So, what if my presupposition that the church is a problem to be solved was the wrong way to begin seeing the church? Instead of trying to fix people and things, what if I shifted my motives to loving people and things in their entirety? What if the church is simply a people to be fully loved, not an institution to be fixed?

What if my self-imposed expectations of trying to meet the expectations of my supervisors while simultaneously trying to keep the congregation happy with me have been poor motivations? What if it’s more about seeing God within the people I serve and the community in which I operate, doing all I can to connect with God all around me and within myself, subject to subject, heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul?

Lastly, what if I trusted more fully that the health and the wellbeing of the church is Christ’s primary concern, not just my own? If Christ the Good Shepherd is truly head of his church then I am simply following his lead by asking all these contemplative questions, seeing with his eyes, and then living obediently to him.

It’s taken me nearly 20 years to learn that bending spoons is impossible. But now, hopefully, prayerfully, I can learn to bend myself. It’s all in how I choose to see. It’s always been that simple, and at the same time, unlearning is always so difficult!

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