Category Archives: Spiritual Growth and Practice

Inner experiences of God, growth, and faith expression

Christian Music from the Dark Side

I once had a seminary professor who described the vast majority of contemporary Christian music as “la la la fluff”. It’s lots of smiles, joyful praise, beautiful strains of melody, uplifted hands, etc., etc. Of course, music is meant to be uplifting and inspiring. The power of music stirs within the deepest crevices of our souls. Even the most simple melodies can lift us into a near-heaven euphoria.

(I’m convinced there are several earthly things which give us the greatest foretaste of heaven to come: stirring music, savory food, and being loved by another human being. I’m going to be partial here and say that Mozart and Bach, Indian and barbecue, and a child’s hug and kiss bring the veil between heaven and us to its very thinest membrane.)

So it’s no wonder that most Christian music aims to be beautiful, to stir us towards joy, a passionate love of God, and the peace of his embrace. It’s happy music- lush, melodious, and beautiful. The problem, however, is that in some seasons of life, this kind of music sounds all too bland, sappy, and shallow.
Psalm 137Life is not an unbroken chorus of harmonious melodies. There are dissonant times- more often than we care to admit- in which the journey of faith is jagged and broken. We live with grief, anger, depression, confusion, betrayal… the darker things. Indeed they are painful to talk about, much less sing about in Christianity, but they exist. And we ignore this darker side to our peril.

The book of Psalms stand as a constant reminder that worshipping God is not always a pretty affair. One third of all the psalms are lament psalms. These psalms of lament push us to bring our darker, doubting, confused selves into worship, too. It’s not nice. In fact, this kind of worship is rough and ragged and seemingly impolite among mixed company who would rather us focus merely on the good, lovely things, meanwhile ignoring those parts of ourselves not yet healed and reconciled to God, to others, and to ourselves.

Again, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to our darkness with any kind of integrity.

Take, for example, one of the more ugly, disturbing Psalms. It’s Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Try putting that into an average contemporary praise and worship song! It can’t be done. Why? By and large that genre of music doesn’t allow for despair, anger, and thoughts of revenge. A prayer for vengeful infanticide doesn’t quite fit into a nice Sunday morning song of praise, does it?
But psalms like this must be sung. At least I thought so.
Over the last three years, I’ve suffered from two bouts of depression. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know that the serene “la la la” music doesn’t always fit where you are. In fact, it can be quite grating.
As I was recovering from depression, I turned to writing music that captured some of where I had been and the determination I had to get better. Here is one example of that:
http://youtu.be/9mthCkZiJNU
But I also wanted to capture the jarring feelings I had of feeling stuck in “the pit”- the feelings of despair, feeling displaced, hopeless yet longing, humiliated, worthless, silent but wanting to rage out, and just raw. For this, I had written some music, but couldn’t find a suitable text. Then, I stumbled upon Psalm 137, and with a little adjusting, the music and the Scripture became a perfect match:
http://youtu.be/mplW1JzwrYU
Aside from sharing some of my songs (and I thank you for taking the time to listen!), I also want to encourage all of us who call ourselves Christian or any other people of faith to not be afraid of bringing our whole selves to God. There is room enough at God’s altar of worship for every part of us of us– the good and pretty as well as the dark and “unpretty”. Not only can music capture the more rapturous side of faith, but it can also powerfully affirm a faith that sputters and struggles in our brokenness.
We can bring our wounds to the nail scarred hands of God who walks with us on nail scarred feet. In our pain, we walk side by side with a God whose side was pierced and whose head bore a crown of thorns. This God, Jesus Christ, welcomes my pain and my wounds, especially in music.
Only when we’ve been honest with God, with ourselves and others, can we take those next steps to healing and wholeness. As we do, our praise and worship of God will be that much more authentically deep and riveting. It will be unstoppable.

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Grappling with Disappointment

disappointment valleyI recently received an e-mail from someone who listed off a whole list of grievances detailing things I had done or failed to do that angered and disappointed them. The e-mail concluded with a statement to the effect that I have failed to live what I preach. (My first gut reaction to that last statement was, “I could have told you that years ago and saved you the trouble!” Look hard enough at me, spend enough time with me, and yes, you will find that I am riddled with inconsistency and flaws, just like everyone else. I only strive to do what I preach, praying one day to get it right, in the mean time living by grace with myself and with others.)

But still, that e-mail was a painfully jagged pill to swallow. It was hurtful and embarrassing.  I did not want to launch into hyper-defense mode and make a tit-for-tat counter argument that deflects any responsibility and throws back all the blame. On the other hand, I didn’t want to issue a half-hearted blanket apology laced with sappy remorse against a backdrop of woe-is-me self-crucifixion. Either extreme would have been a failure to own up to reality. If I was going to respond, I needed to carefully take responsibility for my wrongs, ask forgiveness, clarify things, and yes, state my own case for their wrong done in this situation, free from anger and innuendo. Tall order… But with God, all things are possible.

Of course, even my best efforts at a fair e-mail will most likely do nothing to satiate the person’s anger with me. E-mails never do that, so I can’t put unrealistic expectations on it. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do except give it to God and let it go, trusting that in time there may be more room for peacemaking. Or there may not be. Either way, I can only do what I can do.

Still, I have been anguishing the fact that I could let someone down like this, no matter how the blame or responsibility should be doled out. “You let me down…” Of all things that could I could bear to hear, that is among the absolute worst. I failed.

Admittedly, some of the anguish I feel stems from one of my incessant liabilities: my need for approval and affirmation. In other words, if you like me and what I do, I interpret that to mean that I’m worthy. However, if you don’t like me or what I do, I interpret that to mean I’m a failure. I’ve come a long way in my adult life to identify and diffuse this liability, but in situations like these, it always attempts to rear its pathetically ugly head. This ugly monster only knows two lines of fire: angry rebuke or playing the martyr, depending on what works best. Part of my response has been putting this monster back in its place.

Personal liabilities aside, I still grieve the situation and grieve my own failures. I have apologized, asked forgiveness, and am prepared to make whatever reasonable amends I can. In all reality, it comes down to accepting that this will have to do. It’s good enough for now.

I’m learning again that a primary key to peace is learning how to live with disappointment– with others, with myself, and even with God. The only remedy I’m aware of right now is grace. Grace is the key to forgiving myself, allowing myself to live with the reality that I have, I can, and I will fail. Others will, too. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). If only all people in a conflict could love like this, there would be enough will to diffuse even the most raging forms of anger.
God's RagamuffinMaybe I could carry around a business card to give people when I first meet them. Under my name, it will say “God’s Ragamuffin” followed by a disclaimer. “Warning: at some point I will frustrate, disappoint, and fail you. I ask your forgiveness in advance.” Then perhaps they will give me their card, identical in every respect except for the name. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

All in all, I am indeed a ragamuffin. I’m a patchwork of success and failure, faithfulness and unfaithfulness, gifts and liabilities,  strengths and weaknesses. This crazy patchwork is sewn onto the fabric of God’s love by a God who daily shows me what it means to forgive the many times I fail, not because God is obliged to, but because my Abba Father truly, deeply loves me.

After all, I am a beloved child of God, more than the sum total of my life’s victories and defeats. I just need to keep reminding myself of that, and perhaps it will give me the confidence and wisdom to avoid putting all my life’s stock in either my strengths or my weaknesses, but in Christ who resurrects me above and beyond mere flesh and blood. Of course, the same reality applies to others, especially to the person who sent me that e-mail!

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Living Terminally

(This post is written in honor of my dear friend and brother in Christ Alvin Dickerson who is in his last stages of terminal brain cancer. Brother Alvin, you have shown me the truth of what I’ve only begun to understand in the words that follow…)

Once in a while I pick up one of those books that is impossible to put down until I’ve plowed through the whole thing at once. In this case, it was Ed Dobson’s Seeing through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls ApartFar from a moralistic treatise on how to find hope, the impetus of Dobson’s book is his deeply personal story of being diagnosed and living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was a stunning, captivating story right from the beginning.
Seeing through the FogA healthy, successful 50-year-old pastor is diagnosed with ALS and effectively given a hideous death sentence of slowly dying to a witheringly painful disease. How does one truly live in the shadow of death? Where is God and what is God up to? How can we honestly pray for healing when we’re all but certain of the inevitable outcome? How can we discover hope and gratitude when each day brings about a further symptom that pushes us closer to death?

Ed Dobson struggles through each of these questions in a humbly convincing way that left me both haunted and closer to the God of life and healing. I want to share and briefly reflect upon a few of my favorite quotes from the book. I hope they are also a blessing to you, too.

…I find there is a vast difference in being grateful for something and being grateful in something. In the midst of my struggle I can still be grateful.

I loved Dobson’s honesty and realism concerning thankfulness. We don’t have to be thankful for crap. Thank God for that!

I once pastored a faithful, godly woman who often said of her terminal cancer, “This really sucks.” It certainly did. Cancer still sucks. (I’ve since found other choice words to describe it, which I’ll withhold from sharing here.) And at the same time, we could laugh and smile over the good things she still enjoyed. Sometimes, that’s enough.

There is nothing noble, high or holy about giving thanks for bad things. But, there is always cause to give thanks in those bad things for the gifts and blessings we do have. That perspective keeps us real about our pain while rescuing us from being victimized by it.

I needed to shift my focus from myself to my creator. And I shouldn’t focus on God’s power to heal me, either; I should focus on the all-around wonder of God and spend more time with Him each day without the goal of receiving healing for my good behavior. I needed to trust Him with my life not because I was sick but because I should trust Him that way always.

Dobson addressed a dangerous strain of unchristian thought that says if I have faith enough and am good enough, God will deliver what I want. Conversely, if I don’t have what I want, it’s because I’m not faithful or good enough. This is theological travesty at its worst. The reality is that the Bible is filled with stories of God blessing people whose faith was lacking at best and in the same breath saying “no” to the most holy, faithful people- the prime example of the later being Jesus.

So rather than egocentric prayers, Dobson learned to focus himself and then fully immerse himself within God’s wonder. That led to trust, assurance, and an affirmed identity of being God’s beloved child, no matter the outcome of his life or death. All of this reminded me that above all other things, you and I were created to be loved by God and to love God with our worship.

On healing:

The Bible seems to indicate that there is a vast difference between being cured of a disease and being healed of it. It is possible to be cured, but not healed. And it is possible to be healed, but not cured.

The difference between healing and curing may seem like a clever game of Christian semantics. It’s not at all. The Bible describes healing as wholeness, peace, and reconciliation. So yes, a person could be cured of a disease but still need true healing. And a person may never be physically cured of a disease but could die, having been fully healed.

Lastly, here is Dobson’s beautiful definition of healing:

So we see healing is made up of finding peace in three areas of life: with God, with others, and with yourself and your circumstances. This is very similar to the definition of the Hebrew word shalom, which would substitute the word wholeness for peace. Shalom is wholeness with God, with others, and with yourself.

More compelling than Dobson’s definition was his personal story of how he found this healing- between God, between himself and others, with himself and with his painful circumstances. It’s one thing to offer a definition of healing. It’s quite another to illustrate it with his arduous journey into healing.

It’s often been said that the best sermons are stories. I agree. I know I’m not always in the mood to be preached to, most especially when I’m feeling beat up and bedraggled. But an authentic story is always good preaching. For these reasons, I highly recommend Ed Dobson’s book, no matter the season in which you find yourself. There is always more room to live, most especially since we are all effectively terminal. Perhaps it takes a story like this one to encourage us to live, love, persist, and worship more passionately and intentionally.

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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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Purging Away the Stuff

piles of boxesI am currently in the midst of my fifth move in ten years. Through life changes and the itinerant ministry system I’m a part of as a United Methodist pastor, periodic moving has become part of my lifestyle. I always hear people complain about the pain and hassle of moving, and I’m feeling that pain pretty badly right now. If it wasn’t for all this stuff, moving would be so much easier, of course.

Last night I went through one of the more painful aspects of our impending move: purging. I have stuff boxed up that I haven’t gone through since the last move. Some of it has been boxed up for several moves. Then it dawned on me that I can’t keep schlepping around boxes of unopened stuff. All that stuff has to get moved and stored and most likely, eventually moved again. Why keep doing that? So… it was definitely time for a good purge, a major downsizing of the stuff I’ve got.

That was easier said than done. I had been putting off the dreaded purge for months now. I was not looking forward to the physical energy it would take to go through it all. But even more, I dreaded the enormous emotional energy it would take. I didn’t want to know what I would find. And I feared having to make the hard choices of what to throw away and keep.

With a bulk trash pick-up scheduled for this morning, the purge had to be done. And so, I spent the evening on into the early morning hours opening boxes, sorting through the contents, throwing away or deciding to donate most of it, and boxing only the essentials. There were things from every stage of my life- infancy, childhood, teen years, and my young adult years. A good portion of those things were from former seasons of my life that no longer reflect where I am now. Those things were a bit easier to let go. Some things had been with me my since my childhood, like school awards and pictures, scouting memorabilia, projects I had done. Most of that I was able to tenderly let go when I realized that the lessons, honors, and memories they represent are already within me.

*******

This morning, I looked at the large pile of garbage bags and boxes sitting on the curb waiting to be picked up, and I felt a heaviness in my gut, thinking that this pile represents so much of my life. But then again, that’s not the full picture. My life is me, the person looking at the curbside pile. Just as important, my life is the web of relationships I have with Jesus, my family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. I leaned quite heavily on that reality as I sorted through my stuff, and leaned on it again when I turned away from that pile.
Jesus said,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

There are a number of ways to understand what Jesus is saying. In our context, Jesus’ teaching is used most often to rail against our consummate materialism and obsession with accumulating and hoarding things. For me, Jesus’ teaching navigates my heart towards where my treasure really lies. And it’s not that pile of boxes and bags on the curbside. My best treasures will never end up moth-eaten, broken or discarded; they will be with me now and always. They are my experiences with Christ in and through myself and others.

The gift of purging reminded me yet again of my true keepsakes. While it was a painful lesson to have to re-learn– the best, most enduring lessons always are!– I’m grateful for yet another treasure to accumulate that will follow me straight into the life to come. This time, it’s the treasure of perspective and of course, a lot less clutter to worry about…

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The Beautiful Beloved

I just saw a YouTube video produced by the makers of Dove soap. It was an experiment conducted with several women which focused on self-image versus the way others image us. This video was one of the most breathtaking things I’ve seen in a while.

In case you didn’t watch the video, here’s how it worked… A woman was asked to come into a large, empty studio apartment and sit down. Seated on the other side of a curtain was a forensic artist. Neither the woman or the artist could see each other. The artist asked the woman to describe her facial features in some detail, and based on what she described, the artist drew up a portrait. Once the interview and portrait were completed, the woman was asked to leave, curtained from seeing the artist or the portrait.

Then she met with another person, and they interacted for a while. This person then went to that same studio apartment and described this woman to the forensic artist who was still hidden behind a curtain. A while later, the woman would go back to that apartment to view both portraits.

The results were astounding. For every woman, her self-described portrait was shockingly unattractive, scarred, often older, and disfigured– an utterly unlovely picture of herself. But the portrait described by the stranger was altogether lovely, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. You could see the woman begin to melt with affection, gazing at the second portrait. Meanwhile, when ruefully glancing up at her own self-described portrait, she affirmed her need to work on her own self-image– that she is indeed, beautiful.

The simple message: you are more beautiful than you think.

As a pastor, I am all too familiar with the kind of poor self-esteem and outright self-loathing that plagues most all of us, myself included, to varying degrees. We’re brought up in a hyper-critical world bent on success, strength, and beauty and reminded regularly of the ways we don’t measure up. The harsh judgments and descriptions others make of us unconsciously become the labels with which we image ourselves.

What’s the net result? It’s a severely deflated understanding of ourselves that cannot be strong, courageous, or loving enough to become all that God shaped us to be. Or, we fashion a hyper-inflated persona of ourselves to woo and wow the people around us, craving their approval and whatever else we can get from them. In either case, we mask the wounds and painful scars we so desperately try to hide.

It’s no wonder then that we cannot see and love ourselves for who we are. And, even more egregious, we cannot understand, fathom, or receive the ways that our God sees and holds us. We think we are ugly, small (or too big!), hopelessly flawed, unlovable (if they really knew me!), and hopelessly limited. What would God want with this mess of a human being?

So we go through life hyper-critical of ourselves, naturally assuming that others around us and God are just as critical and judgmental. We find subtle, yet harrowing ways of forging others and God into ugly, critical versions of ourselves. This reality alone may very well be the primary source of all the depression, anxiety, boredom, addiction, violent and stupid acts of desperation, and relational brokenness and infidelities we see all around us.
My BelovedSo what if we began a journey of self-definition beginning with how God, our Creator sees us? I looked at the biblical word “beloved” and was surprised to see how often this word was used to describe us. We are indeed God’s beloved (1 Thess. 1:4), uniquely created in God’s uniquely divine image (Gen. 1:26, 27). When we’re lost, God desperately, relentlessly pursues as that one lost sheep, then tenderly, joyfully carries us home on his shoulders (Luke 15:4-6). Even when we purposefully reject God, he patiently, longingly stands there as our Father who cannot wait until we come home, runs to embrace us, and brings us in to a warm, grand feast waiting for us in our honor (Luke 15:20-24).

This is just a snapshot of the biblical images that describe God’s tender love for us. I believe that not even all the words of Scripture can fathom the way God cherishes, adores, and longs for us. God knows our beauty and worth, no matter the ways in which we and world attempt to trash what God has made. God rejects the hyper-critical ways we see ourselves and others.

In short: we need to see the portrait God has made of us. It is strikingly more beautiful, handsome, and captivating than the ugly, scarred self-portrait of ourselves. Seeing God’s portrait indeed melts us and keeps us forever within the passionate embrace of our God and Father.

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Squinty-Eyed Grace

It seems like we human beings have an ingrained  “too-good-too-be-true” barometer in our systems.

Let’s say I walk into my favorite restaurant, sit down and pick up the menu. Then moments later, my server walks up and says, “Ah, Mr. Owens. You are most welcome! Order anything you like. Today’s meal is on the house.” Most of you, like me, would immediately snap back, “What??” Our hackles would go up. We’d demand to know the catch. The deal must rigged. It’s too good to be true.

After all, nothing is ever free. Everything has a cost. There are limits to all things. The piper always comes piping. And on and on our “too-good-to-be-true” barometers expand, squeezing our spirits us into a squinty-eyed, furrowed brow scrutiny of anything that glows too brightly or tastes too sweet.

It’s no wonder then that we have a hard time accepting something like grace. Grace stands in sharp contrast to the eye-for-an-eye, fair-is-fair, you-get-what-you-pay-for kind of world we live in. That’s because grace says, “No, you don’t deserve this good thing, but you’re getting it anyway, and even more than you would have dreamed to ask.”
GraceFor us Christians, grace is at the very center of our faith. We dare to hold this truth that God has reconciled us and the whole world to himself, forgiven us and gives us all an abundant, eternal life through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. It is a freely given gift from God with no strings attached. We can’t earn it, work for it, or otherwise show ourselves worthy to receive it. God has already given us this gift. It’s gratis.

It’s grace.

I did a concordance search on the word grace in the Bible, and I was astounded at what I saw. Over and over again, the grace of God was presented as this wildly extravagant thing, uncontainable, unlimited, shockingly expansive, exhaustive and inclusive. Here are a few samples (with a few words I have bolded and italicized):

From [Christ’s] abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. (John 1:16, NLT)

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man,how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Romans 5:15)

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. (1 Cor. 15:10)

…in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace,expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved,through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:7-9)

I just got that “wow” factor again, typing in these verses. This grace of God is huge, uncontainable, almost inexpressively good. Dare I say, it even seems scandalous.

And speaking of scandal, one of the most scandalous stories of the New Testament is the story of the near stoning of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus came to her rescue, ruled out her condemnation on the grounds that no one has a right to condemn her, and forgave her. There was no punishment. She didn’t even ask for forgiveness! God’s grace incarnate forgave the woman, turned away the wall of ungraciousness that demanded her death, and invited this daughter of God into a new life free from sin. (John 8:2-11) By religious rule, she should have died. Grace– grace she did not ask for!– intervened to set her free.

Now here’s what always happens. The moment we see or speak of grace, immediately our “too-good-too-be-true” barometers go off and we race to to put limits and rules to grace. “Well, there may be grace for us, but not for those people.” “Grace is only applicable in these circumstances, but not those.” “There may be grace, but you’ve got to believe in this doctrine, subscribe to this practice, and believe and do x, y, and z to get it.”

Preachers and teachers have been branded heretics for daring to suggest that grace expands beyond our prescribed doctrines, practices, rules and beliefs. Jesus, Paul, and a whole other legion of proclaimers of the good news of God’s grace were vilified for “making it too easy”, “dumbing down the rules” and opening the grace of God’s coming kingdom to too many “undeserving” people.

In other words, too many of us have found self-assured comfort with a squinty-eyed version of grace. And I would say that this squinty-eyed version of grace is no grace at all. True grace evokes a child-like, wide-eyed wonder and even wide-eyed shock at the loving enormity of the grace of our God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is grace!

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Thank You and Goodbye, Brennan Manning

Brennan ManningI just learned that yesterday, April 12, 2013, Christian author, speaker and evangelist Brennan Manning died. He was 78-years-old. He had been in severely declining health these past few years, so in one sense, his death isn’t a shock. But on the other hand, I’ve been in state of saddened joy today, pained at his parting but so thankful for Brennan’s life, his witness, and the huge impact he has had on me.

I first encountered Brennan Manning’s writing when a dear, sweet lady from the church I was serving gave me a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. She enthusiastically told me that this book had changed her life, and as a part of her ministry, she gave away copies to people she knew would appreciate it. Well, when someone gives a book with the preface this changed my life, I’m going to read it. And read it I did. I consumed it. It was a tremendously healing, landscape-opening book for me that invited me into the depth and power of God’s grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a way I had never seen before. It was rugged and gentle, uplifting and earthy, orthodox and un-orthodox all at the same time. The essential message is simple: Jesus came for ragamuffins, and we are all ragamuffins, tenderly and furiously loved by God, no matter the degree of our fallenness, self-loathing, doubt, or the damage done to us by the Pharisees from without and within.

But the most compelling aspect of Brennan Manning’s message was the reality that he, himself was the poster boy par excellence for the gospel of grace he preached. Of all the authors I have read and respected, Brennan’s life is one of the most enigmatic and scandalous. As a young man, he became a Franciscan priest and scholar. Then he succumbed to alcoholism. After entering into treatment, he left his ordination and got married. 25 years later he divorced, his life riddled before, during, and after by alcohol, depression, and deception. He was always a Roman Catholic, and yet preached an evangelical gospel of grace by faith. He was a priest with and without the cloth, a vagabond preacher, saintly, a desperate sinner, an outcast, yet loved and admired, a failure, and still an astounding picture of a life saved and kept by grace. That’s why I will always love and admire Brennan Manning.

Through all of this, Brennan struggled to affirm and preach that yes, God loves and embraces us ragamuffins just as we are, not as we should be. If anyone’s life was a testimony of radically clinging to this grace of God in the midst of pain, shame, victory and defeat it was Brennan Manning.
Brennan and meWell, the story continues for me. In March of 2004, just a few months after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel, I had the chance to hear and meet Brennan Manning. I took a group of youth from my church to a youth conference in Ocean City, MD. Brennan just happened to be the keynote speaker for the adult leaders. I soaked in every word he spoke, surprised at the sheer intensity of his demeanor. He spoke of God’s tenderness with such forceful resolve, hoping to crack through our calloused fortresses of an intellectualized version God’s love to the near total exclusion of truly knowing this awesome love for ourselves. He spoke of the tender, furious love of God. As he spoke, his voice captured the very essence of it, too.

Still, Brennan was a quiet, shy, yet open man. He took time to talk to me, sign my books, and even posed for a picture with me. I was so very grateful that God had led our paths together at that time, little knowing what was to come just days later.

Three days after getting home from that retreat, my wife Rebekah left me, taking our daughter Grace with her. That precipitated two of the darkest, most uncertain years of my life. If you’ve been through a divorce, you know the personal damage: a shattered self-esteem, self-loathing, guilt, anger, loneliness, regret, fear, and for me, depression. Through that hellish ordeal, I learned in the barest of terms that indeed I am also a ragamuffin loved and embraced by my Father God, whom I learned to trust as Abba.

Years later, I still turn to Brennan’s words. It’s funny. All of his books preach the same basic message, and yet he fills page after page trying to express it. If you’ve read one Brennan Manning book, you’ve read them all. Still, my bookshelf holds almost all of them.

In closing, I’d like to share some words found near the end of Brennan Manning’s last book All Is Grace: a Ragamuffin Memoir. These are some of the last words he penned:

     My life is a witness to vulgar grace– a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifsands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request– “Please, remember me”– and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

Amen, Brennan. May you rest in the arms of our Abba, enjoying for all times the embrace you shared with the world and with me, a fellow ragamuffin.

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The Things of Auld Lang Syne

2012-2013Auld lang syne… That’s a Scottish phrase that means “old long since” or “once upon a time”. It’s a way of introducing the things of the past. The New Year’s song that derives its namesake from this phrase assumes a wistful, nostalgic look on “auld lang syne”. I’m not so sure that’s the way people nowadays think of the year that’s just past.

In our cynical age, I see most people all too happy to slam the door on the past year while placing great expectations on the year to come. My thought has always been, How can you do that? How can you just sweep the past out the back door while predicting a rosy picture of the future? Didn’t you do that last year only to get the same result?

I guess that’s the reason I’m reluctant to set New Year’s resolutions. If I couldn’t or wouldn’t set and keep resolutions last week, what’s to say I’m going to be any more successful setting and keeping resolutions on January 1? January 1 is no different from June 18. It’s just another day. Now don’t get me wrong. I do set goals for myself and resolve to meet them. I’ve just learned that there’s no magic to January 1. The magic– the juice of a goal set and kept– is discipline, motivation and accountability. There’s no extra stock of those things on January 1!

Nevertheless, there is significance to January 1, 2013 being the beginning of a new year. It can be just as much a fresh slate as any other day, so why not? What can be different this year from the things of auld lang syne 2012?
There are things I’m going to leave behind in the darker, less dreamy shadows of auld lang syne, and things I will take up with greater resolve.

The Things I’m Leaving Behind in Auld Lang Syne

  • cynicism- I’m done with negative, downcast attitudes, talk, and expectations. Enough whining and complaining about the people or situations I can’t change or the people and things I’m tempted to manipulatively change to the way I want. No more framing things in worst case scenarios. I’m going to shut off and ignore pessimistic, gossipy, slanderous talk. I’m not going to stoke up my self-esteem by criticizing and deflecting blame to others.
  • anticipation– Good or bad anticipation is a crutch I don’t want or need anymore. Who can accurately predict the future? Pundits, weather forecasters, politicians, and doomsday prophets can’t do it. So why fool myself into thinking I’m any better? Instead of anticipating, I’m going to take things as the come, in the moment, one day at a time.

Jesus said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:27,34)

  • doubt- This would be doubt of myself, of God, and in those I love. Doubt can be an honest time of wrestling and deliberation. More often, doubt becomes a convenient escape. It’s a state of inertia. If I doubt myself, God, or others, I can stay where I am or retreat. But if I turn off doubt and turn on belief, I’m obliged to act on the best of myself, God, and others.

The Things of Greater Resolve
(No, I will not call them resolutions!)

  • hope- Because God is God and is mysteriously immersed in all things to bring about his good and perfect will, there is goodness that can abound in and through all things. No one and nothing is God-forsaken. Therefore there is always room for God-sized potential and possibility. This calls for the patience to wait in hope (versus the cynicism of panicky, got-to-have-it-yesterday impatience). Look for the best and remain grateful for whatever good that comes.
  • faith- This is trust, especially in the things I know to be true but can’t see right in front of my face. So, if I know that God loves me and is faithful, I’m going to trust in that reality, even if circumstances seem to dictate something completely different. (This is completely unscientific and foolishly irrational, I know. It’s also deeply human and divine– Christlike.) If I trust that my loved ones love and believe in me, even when this love isn’t perfectly manifested, then there’s no room to worry about that. In fact, there’s no room for worry, anxiety, or anticipation in the presence of faith.
  • love– Unconditional love for God, for others, and for myself. Love intimately links me with God, with others, and myself with more than just sentiment or emotion. Love is my choice to bless and cherish God, others and myself. In the words of the Apostle Paul,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

I know all this sounds pretty highfalutin and overly idealistic. But these ideals become reality when I make the conscious decision to let go of the lesser things and live into the best things. It’s a steady-streamed progression of fits and starts, humbling victories and glorious failures. But it’s possible!
Faith, hope and love… All the makings of an excellent 2013!

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An iPad or Lots of Jesus for Christmas?

Over the last couple of years, I haven’t had much of a Christmas list. Of course that rendered the annual, “What do you want for Christmas?” conversation with family members a frustrating one. I’ve been told I’m difficult to shop for.

But this year was different. I experienced a conflict between my inner-child and my adult self. The inner-child Ralphiebegan to strangely resemble Ralphie from A Christmas Story. My internal Ralphie had his heart set on the impossible dream of Christmas gifts: an iPad. And believe me, the iPad ranked right up there with the “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time”.

No, an iPad wouldn’t shoot my eye out, but I’ve never received a Christmas gift that extravagant. That just doesn’t happen. At the same time, my adult, more sober self kept saying, “You have all you need already. And besides, just as you’ve preached and taught so many times before, Christmas is not about getting a bunch of stuff.” Yeah, I know, I know…

So all through Advent the Raphie side hoped on for the elusive iPad while the adult side looked for greater, more intangible, spiritual things. What  came next were memories of Christmas Days I had in the past. What lessons did I learn then?

What stands out most from Christmas Days in the past were not the presents I received but the relational gifts. I remember getting up first thing in the morning with my siblings before my parents were awake to wait for that magical stroke of 7 AM when it was okay to wake up Mom and Dad. I remember warm, festive family gatherings at my grandmother Owens’ small two-bedroom apartment packed with 15 people for Christmas morning brunch followed by Christmas  dinner just a two miles away at my grandmother and grandfather Henderson’s house.

When I became a Christian, those beautifully powerful Christmas Eve services complete with carol singing, candlelight, Holy Communion, and inspiring preaching of the Christmas story stand out in my mind. I have loved the anticipation of the Advent wreathe with its subtle message that Christ is coming. I am captivated by the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and born to a virgin within a manger stall.

*******

nativitysceneSo this year I found Jesus in some powerful ways:

  • My church hosted a Blue Christmas worship service at the beginning of Advent. Far from an Elvis thing, it was a time for grieving people to come to terms with the holiday season. I love this service because we discover how the joy of Christmas is more than the trappings and festivities of Christmas. All of that gets lost on grieving people. Christ was born into poverty and pain and can be born anew in our grief, too.
  • During the second week of December, my church once again hosted 30 homeless men. Over the years of this ministry, I have looked more intently for the face of Jesus in our guests. This comes from something Jesus said about how the things we do for the least in our world, we actually do for him. Yes, I saw and encountered Jesus in some powerful ways. Strange as this may sound, I enjoyed doing the guys’ laundry. Blairlee came home every day with a few loads of the guys’ clothes. They were often every bit as smelly and grungy as you’d imagine. But somehow I found it to be an honor to wash these guys clothes, dry them, and fold them up. I got to do Jesus’ laundry, after all. One night I got to stitch up a coat that had gotten badly ripped, and as I sewed it, I spent time talking with its owner.
  • My family went through some rough times in December with illnesses and some emotional growing pains to work through. It unfolded into an experience of the healing grace of Jesus.
  • A week before Christmas, a clergy woman I had been guiding and coaching died. Her funeral was one of the most awesome send-offs I had ever been a part of. Far from the gloom and doom that characterizes most funerals, this one was packed with joy, promise, and worship. Jesus was there and his resurrection was front and center.
  • All of this made for some meaningful Christmas Eve services. Having experienced the reality of Jesus as Emmanuel (which means God with us), I had plenty of juice to preach the good news of the birth of Christ.

And what of the iPad? Well, that will have to wait, unfortunately. But all that I received from God of Jesus in this season of Advent and Christmas well overshadowed what I didn’t get from this world. That is well more than good enough.

(Of course, the ever hopeful Ralphie side reminds me that there are still nine days of Christmas left! I’m not all that optimistic, but who knows?)

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