Tag Archives: spirituality

Trying to Be Good Is Way Overrated

I was talking with a friend a few nights ago who told me something I have heard from many other people: “I don’t need religion to be a good person.” Of course, this is based in the widely-held presumption that the purpose of religion— and my purpose as a pastor— is to help bad people become good.

I have to admit that in years’ past, I would have attempted to push back on statements like those with some version of, “You know, no one can truly be good without God.” Or if I was feeling more gracious, I might have said, “You know, the church at its best takes good people and makes them into better people.” Isn’t that clever?

But I found myself saying something like this to my friend: “I don’t need religion to make me into a good person, either. In fact, that’s not why I am a Christian.” He didn’t respond to that, so I didn’t elaborate. (Lucky for him!)

Later on, our conversation got me to rethink something rather odd that Jesus said. The more I dwell on it, the more relieved I am that he said it.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Luke 18:18-19

Christians tend to do some creative tap-dancing around this problematic response from Jesus. Was Jesus claiming he was not good? (“Of course he wasn’t!” we reply. “He was just pointing the man to God.”) Oh good… Whew! Moving on.

Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler”, 1889

But what if Jesus was trying to say something deeper than that? What if he was trying to edge us out of the moralistic goodness mindset altogether?

This may sound strange, but what if Jesus was really saying, “Stop trying to play the game of being an upright, good, moral, righteous person. Your striving to be good is way overrated.”

Now I know why that may sound strange, even heretical. The church’s predominant approach to human beings has typically been sin management and growth through moral goodness. We’re the moral police… or so we think. So, through Christ, confess your sinfulness, and by grace become less prone to sin, more morally upright using the rules we give you, keeping in mind the whole time that we are nothing but sinners. That tends to be the Christian message.

However, we Christians were not the first ones to take this sin management and growth through moral goodness approach to God and life. The man who approached Jesus, a fellow Jew, asked Jesus what kind of good must be done in order to live eternally. That was his way of asking, “How good do I need to get? What specific good do I have to do to get what I want?” And he presumed that Jesus, being a good teacher, would have known the formula.

Yet the man in the story and most of the rest of us have been unable to grasp this goodness of God that Jesus pointed to and where it is to be found. The rest of the conversation which you can see here was an elaboration on that point.

So what happens when our prime goal of becoming good people is by means of rule following and moralistic perfectionism? Without fail, ego steps in, especially when we believe that goodness is something we don’t have and must acquire from somewhere external— a set of rules, a holy text, a God who is watching and judging us. So we strive for it. We try to change up our behaviors in conformity to the rules and expectations. We throw out and squash what we perceive to be bad. If we’re successful, we feel like we’re better people!

Then the comparisons begin. We reference our goodness against others.

Often, we pride ourselves for being better. Remember Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee praying in the temple? The self-righteous Pharisee thanked God he was not like other people, especially that awful tax collector praying next to him (Luke 9:1-14).

Or, we shame ourselves and others for not being good enough. God knows I’ve spent too much of my life loathing myself for not measuring up to what others or I have claimed I should be. Too often I have felt like Paul who called himself a “wretched man” because no matter how hard he tried to be good, he failed (Romans 7:14-23).

When worthiness in the eyes of God, ourselves, or others becomes a measure of how well we behave and how morally perfectionistic we can be, then we are drawing upon the worst of ourselves, which is our fragile sense of ego. The results are horrific— pride, shame, critical and judgmental attitudes, walking around with squinty eyes estimating the goodness of ourselves and others with a measuring stick that no one can possibly live up to.

Jesus is right. God alone is good. No one can succeed at being good enough.

Let me suggest something to you that is changing the way I look at myself and others:

Goodness begins with the recognition that there are things inside us all that are perpetually good because they are a gift from God, who alone is good.

Within each of us are two things which are good gifts from God— our soul and God’s Spirit. Please allow me some space to try to define what I mean from a biblical and experiential understanding. And keep in mind that these thoughts are thoughts in process!


My understanding of “soul” from the Hebrew and Greek sense is “our essential self.” We rarely see it. It’s often hidden away within us. The soul is like a blueprint from God that defines our very best self. It’s the divine schematic for who we really are. Our soul hums and resonates with peace and joy when we live into being who we were created to be, which is always wonderfully good. It guides us into our vocational and relational purposes as a child of God, and let me tell you, there is no greater satisfaction than living from within the very soul of who we are.

God’s Spirit is that divine essence which was given to Adam when God breathed into his nostrils, giving him life (Genesis 2:7). Within each of us is God’s presence, infused into our very being, enlivening, prompting, loving, nurturing, healing, speaking, guiding us into all goodness. When we tune our full awareness to God’s Spirit within us, we truly come alive. Soul and Spirit work in tandem to love and live in full communion with God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Thus, our goodness is a gift from God, not a merit badge to be earned. It’s already within us to be treasured and lived into. This goodness is our true self. If we intentionally mine into this essential goodness within ourselves and our neighbors, we take on the humility and compassion of God. We rejoice in goodness wherever we see it, recognizing God’s good presence within all created things. We draw upon and and encourage that goodness from within them.

“What of sin?” you may ask. Isn’t there sin within us, too? Oh yes. Sin is our purposeful disconnection from God’s goodness. For some reason, we simply have a hard time accepting pure goodness and love abiding in us. So we choose what we think is safer and more accessible. We settle for power, pride, and hate, while seeking cheaper, flimsy forms of false goodness apart from the God-given treasure within us. That choice distances us from God, our soul, and others. This self-isolating, lonely distance is the true tragedy of sin.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we could only bring ourselves to accept that the presence of God conjoined with our God-fashioned soul is there all along, we would simply fall and rest into that pure goodness, reclaiming the very likeness of God.

That, friends is real goodness! Goodness is not some exterior virtue apart from us that we must acquire. It’s a treasure within— our truest self— into which we ground our mind and heart.

If you’re still not convinced of all this, look back at the story of Jesus and the ruler for a moment. Jesus’ final invitation to the man seeking after eternal life was a call to step down from his elevated social status, sell off his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Jesus. That was Jesus’ way of challenging the man to strip away his pride, riches, religious accomplishments and social pretentiousness. Abandon the false ego self that struggles to achieve goodness, value, power and distinction, and learn the way of self-giving, self-emptying love. That would have forced the man to part ways from everything false, and to live from within the goodness of God already planted within him— his living soul and the Spirit. If only he had made that choice!

After all, that’s the way Jesus lived. He emptied himself. He became nothing except a lover and servant for the sake of the whole world (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus learned great love through trust and suffering, and from the very depth of his being, he shows us what it means to live in full loving communion with God and all people. For me, Jesus is not just some outer authority to conform myself to; he is a way of life— the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)— to emulate within being.

Again, that is goodness. And it’s a far cry from the morally perfectionistic goodness game that too many of us try to play. It turns out, God had made us good all along. It’s time to claim it and live it.

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#GreaterLoveAnnapolis

268FA8B7-F952-49BB-B0CB-2EC1AE6C4608A week ago today, a man armed with a shotgun walked into the office of the Capital-Gazette newspaper, opened fire and murdered 5 people, wounding two others. This kind of atrocity is unthinkable for a warm, charming town like Annapolis.

Annapolis is my hometown and the place where I now serve as a pastor. Violence like this quite literally- emotionally, spiritually- hits home deep within me.

And it got me to do some soul searching.

For far too long, most people would chalk up our societal challenges as cultural or political struggles. In a way they are. However, on a much deeper level, our problems are spiritual problems. I’ve always known that, but in the last week, I’ve relearned that powerful truth.

Spirituality centers around four main questions: Who are we? Whose are we? What is our purpose? What’s our destination?

To simplify things even more, I believe that spirituality centers on our ability or inability to love and our ability or inability to do good and avoid evil. Increasingly more of us are at a loss for how to do these things. We see our shortcomings, not just in the physical violence some people commit, but in the verbal violence, self-centeredness, and apathy many more of us struggle with.

The answer to our dilemma, quite simply, is love.

Also running in the soundtrack of my thoughts has been a deep desire to connect with people to talk about deep things and to do meaningful life together, but so often barriers like religion (I’m a Christian and a pastor) get in the way. Cultural and political differences throw their weight around, too.

While we cannot whitewash those differences or pretend they don’t exist— they most certainly do!— could there be a common ethic which could form new community for the purpose of inner- and interpersonal change and transformation? Could we learn to recognize and treasure our differences and diversity, all the while sharing in the greatest yearnings of our common humanity?

I firmly believe that the answer is yes– a resounding YES. That yes is the basis of Greater Love Annapolis.

With Greater Love Annapolis, I envision the establishment of a network of neighbors committed to something I call “the ethic of Greater Love”. That ethic is centered on four main principles:

  1. Unconditional Love
  • Living by the Golden Rule: loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and expressing that love in thoughtful, intentional, practical, and ongoing ways
  • Seeking to build relationships of cooperation and friendship with all of our neighbors, regardless of culture, race, nation of origin, sexuality, economic status, religious or political affiliation
  • Offering our neighbors the gift of deep listening for the purpose of understanding and empathy
  • Striving for forgiveness and reconciliation wherever there are broken relationships
  • Operating out of a profound respect for the dignity and worth of every neighbor, recognizing in them our shared humanity
  1. Personal Integrity
  • Safeguarding ourselves from self-harming behaviors and addictions while actively seeking healing from any of these personal defects
  • Nurturing a spiritual life that leads to personal growth, wisdom, and greater integrity of character
  • Honest dealings with ourselves and others, both publicly and privately
  • Making our lives fully accountable to a network of trusted friends
  1. Humility
  • Considering the dreams, aspirations and welfare of others before ourselves
  • Speaking only that which builds up all of our neighbors, refraining from language that tears down and belittles them
  1. Solidarity with Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors
  • Raising awareness of the attitudes, systems and powers that marginalize and prey upon the most vulnerable members of our community and all those whose voices are not heard.
  • Peaceful, loving, and persistent confrontation of those attitudes, systems, and powers.
  • Establishing new community and systems that protect and empower our most vulnerable neighbors

From here, I anticipate conversations and discussions about what our network would look like and do. I see an organized effort to create community Greater Love Annapolis groups for the purpose of hanging out, conversation, learning, accountability, and planning for advocacy/community organizing. I see a movement of transformed and transforming people of mercy and justice, lived not in tribalism and self-righteous anger, but with loving passion and fearless strength for greater equality, dignity and opportunity for all people.

I see an Annapolis community with a deeply spiritual, shared conscious.
I see awakening and revival, rooted in love.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
‭‭John‬ ‭15:13‬

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Jesus in the Nitty Gritty

dirty handsThis has been a tiring, at times deeply frustrating week of moving, unpacking, cleaning, and adjusting to a whole new home, routine, and neighborhood. If you’ve made a recent move, you know the feeling all too well. I feel like I’ve been treading in a sea of bewilderment and disorientation, moving from pastoring a church to being “church-less” in a new position in which I’m resourcing lots of churches. And of course, switching from one set of comfortable digs to something altogether dissimilar shakes up all those subtle routines and environments I had come to unconsciously rely on.

It almost goes without saying that this has been a test on my walk with Christ and on my closest relationships. (I have to confess: poor Blairlee has at times been the undeserving victim of my tattered patience and sensitivity! Please forgive me, Sweetie…) Far from the mountaintop of mystical bliss with God, I’ve been in the trenches of sweat, boxes, dirt, and discombobulation.

But God is all about timeliness, God’s time, of course, and so– lo and behold!–  I found a daily devotional reading from my hero Brennan Manning, a man who knew all about God in the messiness of life. Here’s what he wrote. Read it carefully:

Am I unjustly criticized, rejected, betrayed by a friend? I can touch the life of Jesus who faced the same things and can will myself to respond as he did. The power of his Spirit passes into my spirit… Christ is formed within me not just in peak moments of transcendental bliss but in the nitty-gritty of daily life. I am confined to bed, sick, nauseous, racked with pain, utterly incapable of prayer. I have only to whisper, “It’s yours, my Friend,” and it is no longer I who lie there, it is Jesus Christ. And so it goes. Jesus slept. I can unite my sleep with his. I’m having a rollicking good time at a Cajun barbecue in New Orleans. I shout with them, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll), and connect with the Jesus who multiplied the wine at Cana to keep the party going.
-Brennan Manning, Reflections for Ragamuffins (HarperSanFransisco: 1998), 166 (bolded italics mine)

I love that. It’s another reminder of the truth that the Word of God (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus will not confine himself to church services within the walls of a beautiful sanctuary. Jesus moves with and pushes beyond my solitary moments of prayer and devotion. Jesus is truly with me and in me throughout the nitty-gritty toils of daily life. That’s a far cry from the way we are prone to compartmentalize faith and religion to one “holy” segment of our lives, relegating God to the diminishing vestiges of piety and religion. (Isn’t it true that we usually only talk to God during the day when we need something we can’t handle on our own? See what I mean??)

Why can’t there be something tremendously holy to the menial things of unpacking boxes, throwing out the trash, the rigors and struggles of family life, the daily grind of work and study, as well as our times of leisure and rest? If Jesus is real and is truly with me, then it follows that I can find him, obey him, and experience his Spirit within my spirit, even in the throws of the most exhausting, frustrating things of dirt, grime, sweat, and tears.

So you can bet that I’ll be pausing to remember and follow Jesus in the moments of nitty-gritty living. I think it’s there that we can truly experience the powerful presence of the Holy. If not there, where else?

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My Journey through John’s Gospel- Day 4

Day 4: John 4:1-42 “Finally Quenching My Soul Thirst”
It was the heat of day in Samaria, located in what is now central Israel. Depending on the time of the year, it could have been upwards of 90-degrees F. In any case, it was rugged land, and when Jesus and his disciples arrived in Sychar in Samaria, he was worn out. Resting at Jacob’s well at noontime, the last thing one would have expected to see was someone coming to draw water. That was hard work reserved for the cooler early morning or late evening hours.
Something was odd about a Samaritan woman coming by herself to the well. Surely she didn’t expect to find anyone there, least of all a Jewish man. It was equally odd to find someone like Jesus there. John even points out the obvious: “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) That was an understatement. It was every bit of a long history of mutual resentment and exclusion between these two peoples.

So when Jesus asks this Samaritan woman for a drink from the well, her incredulity-laced response was well put. [Paraphrasing a bit] “How on earth can you ask me for water? Don’t you know who I am– who you are??”
Then Jesus gives an invitation she could have never expected. He offers living water. That’s an image surely even a Samaritan would have gotten.

Living water was a well known image for God’s gift of life, healing, and salvation. (See Isaiah 44:3 and Jeremiah 2:13) But I think the shock of what Jesus said and her own defensive animosity got in the way. Jesus doesn’t have anything with which to get water. What is he saying– that he’s greater than the patriarch Jacob who gave them this well?

But Jesus persists. Water from even the best of wells will leave people thirsty again. But the water he gives will be more than a cup of water. It’s a real spring of water that makes a well of eternal life, he says.
I remember once drinking fresh water from a spring. It was on the downside of Mt. Baldy in New Mexico while on a Boy Scout backpacking trip. We had just climbed with full packs thousands of feet to the top of the mountain, and equally as difficult, went down the other side with tired legs.

At the bottom was a fresh water spring. To this day, I have never had water more clear, fresh, and naturally cold than that. That more than quenched my thirst.

Then we learn about some scandal concerning this Samaritan woman. She had been married 5 times before and was now with a man who was not her husband. Jesus revealed that. Somehow he knew, and it explained why this woman, obviously the loose woman in town, used and thrown away, came to the well by herself to get water alone.

Alone… unloved. I have felt that way so many times. It’s even worse to feel that way surrounded by other people. Nothing I know of makes me feel more alive than to know that I am loved and embraced for who I am, not just what others want me to be, project onto me, or want from me.
This Samaritan woman had tried and failed so many times to be that alive. Six men later, and she’s still at the well by herself to be unnoticed at the heat of the day. She was thirsty. Oh how thirsty she was.

*******

Why is it hard to pray? Why is it hard to worship? Why can I go so long and realize that during that whole time, I’ve neglected to pray? How can I go through the motions of worship for so long only to realize that it was only words? I know I’m not the only one who could admit this. How is that possible?

Answer: It’s because we’re not sure of who’s on the receiving end of a prayer or a praise. If we were, we’d be all about it! If one of my favorite musicians was in the same room, it would be hard to not strike up a conversation, ask a bunch of questions, and tell him how much his music means to me. (Prayer and worship?) I know who this is and their value.

But God… Yes, God is infinitely huge and God’s ways and thoughts are beyond our full comprehension. We understand as much of God as an ant does of a giant oak tree. But probably the most mysterious, fearful thing of all is what this God thinks of me. Does God want to bother with me anymore? Does God like what he sees? Does God really have my best in mind? How well does God tolerate all those doubts and quibbles I have?

Living water is not mere religion. The living water Jesus mentioned is himself. It’s God. It’s the gift, as he goes on to explain, of being a beloved worshiper not bound by any human cultural or religious categories. Jesus demonstrates that in his willingness to be in the “despised” land of Samaria, patiently engaging and accepting of this Samaritan woman. Then Jesus was welcomed by the other Samaritan town folk and stayed with them for two days. That kind of fellowship and hospitality was completely unheard of in that day. That’s the refreshing power of living water.

These Samaritans embraced Jesus as Savior because of what he taught and because he demonstrated what he taught by being with them as their Savior. Oh God, let this truth sink into me even more.

I am so thankful that living water is not a religious formula, a program, or a book. It’s not dogma or ritual or rules. Sure, I have found I have drank in living water from the sacraments, from the company of other believers, and from the traditions of the church. But living water is not confined to these things– not at all. Living water is the embracing, transforming presence of God in Jesus Christ in my heart.  Drinking the water is simply my opening up to receive Jesus again and again. Anything that communicates and affirms his love, truth, and way can indeed quench my deepest thirst for love, for meaning, for joy.

Now… to not settle myself on “water” that still leaves me thirsty. It greatly comforts me to know that even then, Jesus is there at those wells to offer something much, much more. He offers me– Christopher David Owens– himself. I am truly never alone or abandoned to myself!

Jesus, Living Water, continue to teach me what it means to take in the life you provide. Continue to show me how through simple worship of prayer, praise, listening, seeking, questioning, you quench my deepest thirst, welling within me life that has no end– life for today and into the ages to come. That is enough for me.

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Sometimes I Truly Question

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog… too long, in fact. But that’s life, at least for me. Other things take priority, or I find other avenues to write and connect with people. But for whatever reason– and I’m sure the Holy Spirit has had something to do with this– I have felt compelled to wrestle with something in the forum of this blog. Of course, that makes the wrestling public and thus open to scrutiny (by all 5 people who might read this!), but that’s okay. If I can’t be publicly honest about where I struggle, then am I being sincere with myself or with God?

Tomorrow, I’m preaching on the reign of Christ. This theme fits within the liturgical calendar on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before Advent begins and a new liturgical year begins. Mind you, I’m not married to the supposed preponderance of the liturgical calendar, but the theme of the reign of Jesus Christ is a good one. So why not share with my congregation the meaning and significance of this crucial theme in our theology?

Then it hit me like a loud thud, and the struggle began in earnest. It was doubt. Do I truly believe in the reign of Christ? Do I believe that at this very moment Christ reigns over all things? That old adage, “God is in control”… Do I honestly believe that, not just as a theological maxim but in my heart of hearts?

To be honest, I’ve been seriously questioning. That’s not to say that I doubt God’s existence or the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that I disbelieve the gracious power of God manifest in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And that’s not to say I disbelieve Christ’s return and hope of a new heavens and earth. Those convictions run deep within my being.

Right now, I’m struggling with how these realities play themselves out in the here and now, not just on a personal level, but on a systemic, macro, global level. Sometimes I even wonder how much of the reign of Christ is active within me, especially when I stand back and notice how out of control and chaotic my life can be. The world and my life seem more like a whirling dervish than an orderly kingdom in which Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, reigns.

At this point I can anticipate two distinctly different responses.

One response, the typical Christian response, will begin to say, “Well, Chris, of course everything seems out of whack. Everything is going to get a whole lot worse before Jesus returns, and then he’ll set it all right again.” In other words, ignore the violence, disease, broken lives, families, communities, schools, and political systems, and the ever-growing economic disparities in the world. Just keep holding out for “the great by and by in the sky.” I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work for me– not one bit. For one, I cannot ignore suffering and evil, and I have a hard time believing that God does, either. How can God sit in heaven far away, awaiting the opportune time to jump in? Meanwhile his creation decays and dies. That’s not the God I trust and live for.

The second response, the atheist/agnostic response, will begin to say, “Chris, Chris, Chris… Why do you keep clinging to your god and your religious system of belief when the painfully obvious truth stares at you right in the face: there is no god, or even if there is, it’s not the kind of god you say there is. As for Jesus, hey, he was a great teacher and role model, but this stuff about his death and resurrection has been a Pollyanna-like religious projection at best.”

Really? I’m not going to argue with skeptics here because it’s fruitless. But when I consider the countless number of people who have laid down their lives over their conviction of a crucified and risen Lord who defeated the powers of sin and death, I know there is something going on there worth my shared conviction. When dispirited disciples of Jesus became passionate, energized apostles who preached about a Risen Lord and built the church all around the known world at a whirlwind pace, something other than a delusion had to propel them.

So I find myself somewhere between these two poles of shallow faith propositions and sheer disbelief, somewhere in the shadowy wilderness of doubt. I want to hold onto what I know to be true, but I struggle with that belief, too. I want to believe that Christ does reign and will reign forever, but I’m not sure how to apply that belief in a plausible way, considering the state of the world, the church, and even my own life.

One middle ground approach that has worked for me in the past is the “already but not yet” proposition. This proposition says that the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ is both an “already” but “not yet” reality. In other words, we see evidences and sparks of Christ’s reign and the presence of his kingdom, but so much more is yet to come. This description fits the ambiguities, but how is that anything worth getting excited about? How is that a highly motivational vision for us disciples of Jesus or for anyone else?

“Hey, come join this movement called the kingdom of God! It’s not a whole lot to talk about now, but just you wait…” Hmm… That’s not the tone the first apostles took in their preaching about Jesus Christ.

Nor is it the tone of someone like Mary in her stunningly beauitful Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.

Mary says all this after she knows she bears the Messiah and when her cousin Elizabeth acknowledges it, too. Notice the verb tense Mary uses. It’s the past perfect tense. She’s talking about a reality that has already happened, the effects of which are still reverberating in the present. I interpret this to mean that God has already made due on all his covenantal promises to Israel, and by extension to the rest of world, within this embryonic Messiah in her womb. Nothing seems to have changed. (In fact, our world hasn’t seemed to improve at all over Mary’s ancient world.) Yet Mary has the audacity to speak as if all the wonderful things Messiah will accomplish have already happened.

I just wish I had the faith or the wisdom to be able to see and believe the way Mary did. She was no fool. She was not deluded. I hardly take her for having a shallow, “God said it– I believe it– That settles it” kind of faith. After all, she struggled before and after this moment in her life. Mary sees and knows something absolutely powerful that celebrates the reign of her unborn child. I pray I can see what she witnessed.

In the mean time, I’m taking the sage advice someone once gave John Wesley when he struggled with his own faith: “Preach faith ’til you have it.” That does not mean talking oneself into submission to a belief. But I do believe it means that in sharing the faith, it just might help me to see and understand a truth I can’t currently see. If I can get there, it will be better than shallow, propositional faith or disbelief.

It will be faith that has been tested and tried and seasoned into something worth staking my life upon.

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The Ragamuffin Gospel– An Online Journaling Project

Well friends, it’s been far too long since I’ve posted on my blog, but part of that could be explained by the contents of this post. Basically, I’ve allowed layer upon layer of stress, obligation, and conflict to shroud my soul. Of course, that leads to a withered self-esteem and the frightening realization that I find myself distant from God, even though nothing about God’s proximity to me or his love has changed one bit. Keep in mind, I’m not crumbling apart or in the funk of depression; thank God for that, at least.

Much of what I’ve been enduring lately is seasonal in nature, and like all things, it will pass. But, the difference is that I want to come out stronger on the other side of this nasty season. In other words, I don’t want to simply survive this season. I desperately desire to thrive because of it. There’s a world of difference between the two– the numb complacency of mere survival or the joyful triumph of thriving in abundant life. You take your pick!

In times like these, I find myself coming back to the words of a man who has been my soul’s companion during times of darkness. The writings of Brennan Manning have been a blessing to me in every sense of the word. His writing is far more than just comfort or encouragement. (One can always turn to Hallmark or the latest 2-dollar “Words of Daily Encouragement” book for that.) Brennan’s writing launches a radical readjustment of my life back to the unconditional love and grace of God.
I first encountered Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel when a church member, a dear, dear lady who had an uncanny love for God, gave it to me. She said, “You will love this book. It changed my life.” Well, whenever someone hands me a book she claims changed her life, I’m hard pressed not to read it. From the first words of the book’s introduction to the final chapter, I could not put this book down. Never before had I read someone so passionately articulate the love and grace of God for me in such an honest, often gritty, earthy way. I mean, at times, Brennan Manning’s pronouncement of grace got close to scandalous, challenging me to ask, “Does God’s grace really go that far?”

And just as I asked, he would provide a Scripture and a story to answer my question with a resounding YES.

Brennan Manning is an interesting guy. He’s a former Franciscan priest whose work took him all over the world, often to the poorest of places. In the 1970’s he left the priesthood to confront his raging alcoholism. That began a season of writing and teaching which lasts to this day, although he’s slowed down quite a bit in recent years. What most captivates me about Brennan is that he is the botched, highly flawed, at times unlovable ragamuffin he writes about. There’s an honesty and sincerity about his own brokenness that makes his description of God’s grace that much more compelling. In other words, he’s not sharing theory, but reality— both his reality and our reality, if we choose to trust the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

But my story with Brennan Manning didn’t stop there. Several months later in March of 2004 , I went with my church’s youth group to Ocean City, MD for a youth conference. This conference also provides a speaker for adults. It so happened that the adult speaker for that year was none other than Brennan Manning. Talk about perfect timing! His public teaching was just as mesmerizing as his writing. I clung to every word he spoke to us. Clutched in my arm was my copy of Ragamuffin Gospel, and I had hoped meet Brennan to share my appreciation and to have him sign my book.

Chris and Brennan- March 2004

Brennan is a very quiet, humble, non-assuming person when he’s not on stage. I approached him, spoke with him, and he graciously signed my book. He then told me that if I liked Ragamuffin Gospel I ought to also purchase his Abba’s Child, which I did. He signed both of these books to me, and posed with me for a picture.

The night I got home from that youth conference, the storm of my life began. My former wife informed me of her intent to separate. Three days later when I came home from the office for lunch, I discovered that she had left me, taking Grace with her, which began the long, excruciating season of separation and divorce. For anyone who’s ever been through this, you know that the first thing to get flushed down the toilet is your self-esteem. Depression, self-loathing, anger, sorrow, desperation, and fear come right along with it.

To this day, I thank my Lord for the safety net of family and friends he placed around me during those perilous years. And also, right there in those quiet, lonely times were the writings of Brennan Manning, particularly his Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child, both beautiful pieces of writing that poured grace and love into my emaciated soul. Today, I find myself coming back to Brennan when I need a lift. Recently, it began when Blairlee bought me a copy of Brennan’s latest book Patched Together: A Story of My Story.

If you’re looking for tightly constructed, even-keeled writing, you won’t find any of that in Brennan’s work. Reading Brennan Manning is like walking along a thick garden path that takes you into unexpected landscapes of wild colors and contours. You have no idea what to anticipate next, some of the sights more beautiful and desirable than others, but nonetheless a sincere work of art. Brennan weaves his own reflections, stories, and Scripture together to immerse the reader into a world of God’s grace. Sometimes he whispers followed by a shout. At times I find myself laughing, crying, cringing, and soothed. It’s funny… All this describes the nature of a life in Christ, doesn’t it?

So, every few days, I’ll journal on a portion of each chapter from Ragamuffin Gospel, finding something that speaks to me while briefly reflecting on it. I’m doing this for my own sake, but I also truly hope that it would be a blessing to you, too, especially since you’re kind enough to read these ramblings of mine! I look forward to some conversation together.

These posts may not be as earth-shattering as others I’ve done, but I think they may prove to be some of the most important ones I write, at least for the time being. If for nothing else, we’ll learn more about each other and how we each experience the love and grace of God.

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Reunions… Dreamscape and Beyond

Dreamscape back then

Dreamscape back then

This past weekend a ten-year dream of mine finally came true. I got to join up once again with the guys from Dreamscape, the band I played in during my college years. In the mid-90’s, we were all high school and college-aged guys with the whole world in front of us. We worked hard at our music, played all over the Annapolis area, and had the time of our lives. We became the best of friends and the best of combined musical talent. Looking back, those were definitely the “wonder years” of my youth.

Leading up to Friday night, the five of us spent a lot of time hashing up memories of the band days– the events that led to the creation of our band, crazy gigs we did, songs we used to play, people we remembered, etc., etc. And while it stirred up a lot of joy to recall those stories, it led us to the realization that we’re far gone from being the kids we were back then. While I don’t consider myself “old”, the experience elucidated the fact that indeed we’re all getting older.

However, the first hint I was given that perhaps we’re no longer the young guys we used to be came from my daughter, of all people. After the band agreed to get together, practice, and do a show, I got very excited and gleefully broke the news to my family. I thought they would be elated! But immediately, my oldest daughter began to laugh…I was crushed!

Disappointed, I asked her, “What’s so funny?”

She replied with an innocent smile, “Daddy, you all are old!” Hmm… That was a sobering dash of cold water. Needless to say, I tried to not ponder that thought for too long.

the guys from Dreamscape

the guys from Dreamscape… now!

Well, after a few months went by and a handful of practices, the Dreamscape reunion finally happened, and in a nutshell, we had the time of our lives! Playing music with guys who were my dearest of friends and listening to the cheering of the crowd who came to see us was simply electric.

Another nutshell word to describe the evening: surreal. Here were the five of us from Dreamscape, after eleven years, playing all of that familiar music in front of many familiar faces, some of whom we hadn’t seen since high school. It felt like deja vu. I looked around and found  that not only was the evening a band reunion, but it also shaped up to be a high school reunion of sorts, too.

And then somewhere in one of our sets of music, it hit me… My daughter was right. I am getting older.

I realized that when we were ten years younger, we got together to have parties, concerts, gatherings, hang outs, and all of that. That’s what young people do. But what do older people do? They– and now, yes, we in their company– have reunions. Reunions are all about the joy of nostalgia, memories, recreating former bonds, and reminiscing on the effects the years have had on us. Young people don’t do that, but older– dare I say old!– people do it all the time.

So would I take part in another reunion like this again? Absolutely! In a moment’s notice I would. There are few pleasures in life that surpass the deep satisfaction times like these grace upon their participants. Yet as inspiring as the music was, the experience went well beyond notes and instruments. It was the human bonding that struck deep chords within me. If for nothing else, the hugs, the smiles, the surprises, and the conversations were well worth every one of our efforts to put on that Dreamscape show.

Late that night as my wife Blairlee and I drove home through the rain, Blairlee fell asleep, and in the quiet of our ride home, I got to thinking. I began to understand why people who are maturing in years look forward to things like heaven. Older people don’t see heaven primarily as an escape from life’s pains. That’s how young people tend to view heaven.  But heaven, properly understood, is a reunion– a reunion with God and with those who have gone on before us. Even in a noisy bar setting where my band played and people knocked back drinks through the evening, as people shared the joy of their reunion, perhaps way down in their souls, God continued to do some tugging, whispering to us all, “If you think this reunion is great, I have an even better one in store for you, if you’ll only listen, believe, and follow me.”

The Apostle Paul, always keenly aware of heaven’s imminence, once told an ancient church,

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

I love this passage. It’s comforting, beautiful, and quite powerful, too, especially if we can draw ourselves to believe the promise Paul points to. This, after all, is what all our earthly reunions foreshadow. Paul paints a picture of the Great Reunion in which both the dead and the living are caught up together into one final, eternal gathering. And it’s all made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who gave his all that we would never be estranged from God and from one another ever again.

What could possibly be better than to know that God has provided a way for us to never be parted from himself or from one another, even beyond the shroud of death?

Looking at life and eternal life this way, I have an even greater desire for reunion now. Call me crazy or maybe too far gone, but I pray that one day Dreamscape and all those people who came to see us would be reunited again one Final Day. Only this time, the music we play will be in praise of the God who made us, loves us, and died for us. And our hands would be clasped together and with the Lord’s nail-scarred hands in a great celebration of God. And this time, there would be no one to yell at us, “All right, it’s time to close up and go home!” For our Lord would be the host.

The food and wine would be served from his own banquet table, and the party would never end…

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Learning How to Vacation

As I write this, I’m in the first half of a much needed two-week vacation here in sunny Florida. My family and I drive down this way every summer to stay with my mother and step-father who both work for Walt Disney World and live almost right next to the Magic Kingdom. (We can hear the train whistles blowing from the Walt Disney Railroad and fireworks exploding at night.) Of course, with family who work for Disney World, we have the added perks of getting into all the parks for free!

Having been been to Disney World numerous times over the past nine years, I’ve moved beyond a wide-eyed fascination with Disney magic to enjoy some things that first-timers might ordinarily miss, things like people-watching and tuning in to the finer aspects of Disney’s creative and marketing genius. There really is so much to see, take in, and enjoy. But being a people person, I’ve learned to enjoy watching how people behave when roaming around the parks and resorts.

As for the people here,  if you haven’t been to Disney World before, you might think that Disney’s guests all beam with smiles and merriment. At least that’s what you see in pictures and commercials. You do see some of that, yes. But I also see a lot of tension. People come here with great expectations and a desire to “do it all.” So I see people eagerly rushing around and even arguing with one another and with their kids. (My sister, a Disney World call center employee who has spent her last several years dealing with guests, calls Disney “the fight capital of the world.”) Or, I see flat, tired looks on peoples’ faces.  After their stay, many folks return home exhausted, feeling the need for another vacation to recover from the one they just had.

Why is that? I’ve found that there are two sides of a coin to Disney World. On the one side, Disney offers a complete escape from reality. From the moment guests arrive to their resort or a theme park, they enter an alternative reality, an exquisitely orchestrated fantasy world of play. It removes its guests from the outside world into an all-encompassing Disney-style imagination world. Disney weaves together everything guests see, hear, touch, smell, or taste to create this new dimension of happiness.

Caught up in the created euphoria, I see Disney’s guests stretching themselves to the limit in order to be fully immersed in the happiness Disney promises. That’s the flip-side of the coin. Unrealistic expectations slam against the reality that even Disney cannot satisfy the insatiable hunger guests bring with them to lose themselves in Neverland. Walt Disney World, for all of its wonder and fun, isn’t heaven… It doesn’t soothe the longings people bring with them– not by a long shot.

So for my family, we’ve decided to do things a little differently. En lieu of going out every day, we’ve taken plenty of time simply to relax. Instead of the normal running around non-stop from here to there, we’ve taken a much slower, leisurely place. I’ve gotten over the guilt of feeling lazy and non-productive to enjoy just sitting around. I read or work on some fun projects, help my parents around the house, play with the kids, or if I feel like it, hop on the computer to blog about it. I’ve resisted the temptation to worry about work or answer e-mails. It will all be there when I get back. World War III doesn’t appear to be breaking out. So why worry myself about things instead of taking advantage of the precious opportunity I have right now to rest?

I’m re-learning that vacation is a form of Sabbath, not an escape from reality. If I or anyone else needs vacation to escape reality, then it’s probably time to re-evaluate, re-prioritize, or make adjustments to that reality. Sabbath, on the other hand, has a plain purpose: it is God’s gift of rest, re-creation, and reflection. Sabbath offers new life and a deepened perspective to those who take it.

I haven’t come to Florida to escape the world. The inner issues I had when I left are still with me. The conflicts back home will still be there when I get back. But in seeking Sabbath, God has offered me the rest and renewed strength I’ll need to handle all those fires within and without.

So will my family and I be running around in Disney World? You bet! But for me it’s not an escape. I’m using the time to remember what’s most imporant in my life, specifically my relationships with my wife and children, and of course with my God. Can I see God in new ways throught the people I meet and the experiences I have? I pray so. Can my family develop some deeper bonds to sustain us through the stresses of everyday life back home? I pray for that, too. All of this is Sabbath.

And so, I’m going to get off the computer now and enjoy the Sabbath time God has offered me. I hope and pray for each of you that when you have those rare moments of time to enjoy vacation, that it truly becomes a time of Sabbath and not a cheap escape from reality. In reality, there is no such escape!

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Everyday Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers

IgnatiusHave you ever noticed that in the large, lucrative frenzy of Christian media, we rarely if ever hear from ancient Christian voices? Yes, we read biblical texts from the Apostle Paul, John, Peter, James, and the gospel writers. But what about the writings of those whom they mentored– the writings of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Century Christians? For the most part, they’ve been lost into obscurity, tucked away on the bookshelves of seminaries and church history professors.

Meanwhile, everyday Christians never get to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration that comes from the writings of our ancient Church Fathers. Foundational Church leaders like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Augustine, and many others have such wisdom and inspiration to share with us 21st Century disciples of Jesus, but so few of us ever get to hear from them.

So what awakened me to give them a second read?

I recently alluded to them in a sermon illustration by saying that we Christians often look to the saints of the past for direction and encouragement in the present. I then rattled off names of several prominent Christian saints, realizing right then that most of my congregation may never have heard a word from any of them or have easy access to their writings. To them, people like Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Francis of Assisi are just names and faces. What’s to learn from that?

Sensing a desire for their wisdom and inspiration, I felt drawn to hear from these saints again. Ministry can get downright draining and frustrating. Ancient brothers like Clement or Ignatius just might have something to say to me in my day to day struggles. I had studied a sampling of their writings while taking seminary church history courses, but since then, I haven’t  read those books again to read them just for myself, for my own benefit.
So today I dug up one of my seminary books: the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings. Not too long ago I finished reading Clement of Rome’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Clement was the presiding elder (traditionally “bishop”) of the church in Rome, writing out of concern for the divisions and factions he had heard about in the Corinthian church.

Apparently, some folks were trying to uproot and replace the leadership of their church. Clement wrote his letter to encourage humility, repentance, love, cooperation, and a respect for the authority which Paul himself probably appointed. His writings were laced with Old Testament scripture and allusions to numerous New Testament scriptures. Clement even referenced Paul’s first letter to them, what we now call First Corinthians, which had already become a widely circulated letter among the early church. (I thought that was way cool!) All in all, Clement was passionate, unquestionably thorough, sometimes less than perfect, but authentically sincere in encouraging this sister church of his to seek out Christ’s healing and reconciliation.

Here’s a sample from Clement’s letter:

If there is true Christian love in a man, let him carry out the precepts of Christ. Who can describe the constraining power of a love for God? It’s majesty and its beauty who can adequately express? No tongue can tell the heights to which love can uplift us. Love binds us fast to God. Love casts a veil over sins innumerable. There are no limits to love’s endurance, no ends to its patience. Love is without servility, as it is without arrogance. Love knows of no divisions, promotes no discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship. It was in love that all God’s chosen saints were made perfect; for without love nothing is pleasing to Him. It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of the love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave blood for us– His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives. (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapter 49)

Did you hear echoes from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter”? That was intentional on Clement’s part. He pulled his Corinthian listeners back to those all-too-familiar words of Paul in order to address their present crisis.

There’s also an allusion to 1 Peter 4:8.

Clement’s entire letter reads like this. It was really a joy to wipe the dust off this book and give it a fresh read. I can’t wait to dig into the letters of Ignatious and Polycarp, too!

One more thought: as I was reading, I kept thinking how fantastic it would be for an influential Christian publisher like Zondervan, Tyndale, or Thomas Nelson to re-translate and publish these ancient Christian writings into a book for contemporary Christians. It might create a new surge of interest in the early Church Fathers who would provide far more biblically based wisdom and inspiration than much of the popular tripe that passes for Christian teaching these days. Otherwise, these ancient writers will only stay buried on academic bookshelves while we miss the priceless treasure they offer us.

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The Power and Passion of Simplicity

The more complex and scatterbrained our world gets, the more frequently I hear people voicing the need for simplicity. Simple offers a solace that resonates throughout the most iconic symbols of our day. For example, Macintosh found new life as a formidable challenge to the once-thought impervious Microsoft by offering a whole line of “simple” computers and MP3 players like the one button iPOD. The haircuts and fashions of our decade are more plain and simple (as opposed to the flashy, poofy styles of the 80’s.) Wal-Mart, capitalizing on our American love for bargains, has dominated the retail world with a rebirth of the general store, their simple one-stop shop appeal and their “Save money. Live better.” slogan. Even in a surging health craze, McDonalds thrives by their simple value meals and $1 menu. (By the way, each of these three companies has done more than survive in the current recession!)

simplicity + focused excellence = a new birth of passion and power

I’ve been reminded of this principle twice now in the last two weeks.
This past Christmas, my in-laws gave me a little known instrument called the Xaphoon. (My spell-checker doesn’t even like this word.) At first glance, the Xaphoon rarely makes a strong first impression. It’s a simple one-piece bamboo stick with burned in finger holes. But the difference lies in the mouthpiece. It is meticulously carved and sanded to hold a tenor sax reed and ligature. And the combination of that tenor sax reed with the warm resonance of bamboo offers an instrument with a complete 2-octave chromatic range capable of jazz, middle-eastern, Celtic, Gospel, or any other style of music one can imagine. The Xaphoon’s lilty, esoteric tone sounds oddly similar to a clarinet, soprano sax, or even an alto sax, depending on how it’s played.

The simplicity and soul-grabbing sway of this little instrument has created an indelible mark on me as a musician. How can this unpretentious instrument wield such an enormous diversity of musical voicing? The answer lies in two places: its careful craftsmanship and the humble demands it makes upon its player to focus upon drawing out its most expressive potential.

Then this morning, I heard U2‘s new song “Magnificent.” I was drawn into it almost right away and began to wonder, “How and why does this song live up to its title??”

On a surface appraisal, “Magnificent” is four or five chords continuously repeated with a handful of phrases for lyrics. But as always Bono‘s words are carefully chosen, balanced, and deeply personal thoughts that resonate universal themes of love, worship, relationships, healing, and life. Musically, The Edge accomplishes his usual masterful blends of stirring guitar arpeggios and tastefully layered keyboards. When Adam Clayon and Larry Mullen add their reliably standard drive of bass and rhythm, the total result is that unmistakable, virtually unchanged U2 sound that fills stadiums with fans no matter where they go.

How has U2 pulled off their enormous popularity and riveting sound for well over two decades? The answer, much like the story of the Xaphoon, is in combining painstaking excellence, sincerity, and authenticity into an uncomplicated form. This unleashes an unlimited freedom of expression, passion, and power. If there was ever any hope of Rock n’ Roll changing and uniting the world, U2 would be the only act to ever accomplish it.

simplicity + focused excellence = a continual surge of passion and power

As for me, I’m looking to redefine my life, ministry, and church with this same principle. You and I make life and faith far more complex and busy-bodied than it has to be. It’s simple to understand. When we take the energy and opportunity God has given us and disperse it among lots of things, the result is a lot of things done cheaply. But when we channel that same wellspring of energy and passion into no more than a few things with lots of excellence, the world benefits from an undeniably divine power and passion.

Take another look at Jesus- a poor, Jewish rabbi from Palestine. How did his short span of life on our planet forever alter the shape and direction of humankind? It’s simple. He surrendered himself to do one thing only:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself: he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19

In other words, he gave his all to mirror God the Father, and so though Jesus, God poured out the totality of his love, power, and authority. From himself, Jesus gave away this same kind of obedience to his disciples, who in turn have discipled others.

simple obedience + focused excellence = the outpouring of God through one human being creating a global movement

So, I only have one hope for each of us: that we will not allow our compulsion to be overly complex and multi-tasked get in the way of God unleashing his full potential through each of us. A divided world dying from its own separation from the purity of God’s love depends on it!

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Music, Spiritual Growth and Practice