Friday, March 2, 2012

Repost: Fasting

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Matthew 6.16)

Gravity and Joy

“Saints, it’s time we turn our plates over, set our wants aside, and seek God,” the pastor would say and the church would answer, “Amen!” The room would fall into stillness as believers listened intently to the pastor’s instructions. Sometimes the fast lasted a week. At other times the minister called us to fast one day a week for the indefinite future. Sometimes it was called without protocol, leaving each person to decide what, when, and how long he/she would practice self-denial. Whatever the fast’s form, what I recall most from my youth was the galvanizing mix of gravity and joy it produced. We rigorously obeyed its command to make more room and time for God’s presence in our lives. Yet we entered the prescribed test with high hopes, knowing we’d be stronger, richer, and purer when we came out.

After my need for a more affirmative faith environment led me to a “mainstream” church, I found a very similar, if less demonstrative spirit arose as the people prepared for Lent. Prior to that, since my family’s tradition didn’t observe Lent, the little I gleaned about it from friends and colleagues jaundiced my perceptions. From what I heard, Lent was a 40-day obligation to “give up” something they could easily do without (chocolate, alcohol, red meat) or shouldn’t do at all (cursing, gossiping, fibbing)—more about self-discipline than self-denial. I didn’t realize my exposure was limited to Lent lamenters, however, people whose hearts weren’t in it and apparently understood it no better than I. Once I met believers who greeted the season with the same gravity and joy I associated with fasting, Lent came to life. It was a deeply personal, yet significantly collective experience, an intensely sacred testing period begun in hope and ending in renewed strength and fervor. What’s more, I learned this mainly by observation because, unlike Lent lamenters, authentic Lent fasters don’t wear their sacrifices on their sleeves.

A Curious Business

Fasting is a curious business. Its primary focus—clearing distractions to make way for prayerful contemplation—must be preceded by prayerful contemplation of what distracts us. The verb “to fast” is interesting and enlightening in itself, as it derives from the gothic German fastan, “to hold fast.” Thus, the benefits of fasting aren’t in what we’re rid of but what remains. That’s why sacrifice is secondary to experienced fasters. Their attention literally fastens on spiritual priorities. They go into fasts having already considered what they can and can’t do without, and they concentrate on the former by denying the latter. This transforms fasting from obligation into opportunity. It becomes a season of joy and growth rather than one of angst and deprivation.

Many misconstrue fasting as a means of honoring God by voluntarily refusing to indulge in things they love. They think fasting denotes commitment and piety, and approach it as a sort of holy drudgery. By no means is fasting easy, but neither is it intended to impress God with how tough it is to give up what we don’t truly need. That’s Jesus’s message in Matthew 6. “Don’t look somber as the hypocrites do,” He says. “For they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (v16-18) Jesus’s logic completely checks out with what fasting actually means. It’s a sifting time that gets us back to what really matters. The opinions of others don’t merit the effort to make a big deal of what we’re letting go. The reward comes when what we decide to hold fast in our hearts pleases our Maker.

Essentials from Non-Essentials

Lent gives us time to separate the essentials from non-essentials. What needs to go so what remains can resume prominence in our lives? If only it were as simple as surviving from Ash Wednesday to Easter without a candy bar or tasty morsels of gossip! To get the most from our fast entails much introspection. It asks us to undertake the trial fully aware of any weakness that loosens our grip on virtues and aspirations we hold dearest. And whatever that is (or they are), that’s what we must sacrifice. When we understand what fasting is really about, we realize Lent is sacred, not somber, joyful, not lamentable. It isn’t about giving up what we’d love to keep. It’s about holding on to what we'd hate to lose.

Fasting is a sifting time. We let go of what we can’t use to hold on to what we value most.

Postscript: Question 9

Is fasting a lost art?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Delayed Reaction

“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—He said to the paralytic—"I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." (Mark 2.9-11)

Through the Roof

Mark’s Gospel tells a great story about a paralyzed man whose friends are so bent on helping him they destroy a house to do it. Many of us first heard this tale during childhood, when climbing on roofs and tearing stuff up sounds really exciting. When we return to the scene as adults, however, we’re not so sure.

Here’s what happens. Jesus returns to Capernaum from a ministry trip and when word leaks that He’s there, people rush the house and spill into the yard. Friends of a paralytic bring the man to Jesus, but they can’t reach the Lord because of the crowd. They get the bright idea to tear open the roof and lower the sick man into the house so Jesus can cure him. Maybe it would be okay if the house belonged to one of the friends. But we assume it doesn’t, since Mark doesn’t comment on who owns the place. So they’re taking a huge risk—and probably breaking the law—when they tear apart a neighbor’s roof. In fact, the whole thing is risky. Ancient Palestinian roofs are flimsy affairs, comprised of reed mats thrown over crossbeams, with a thin layer of mortar applied to protect against rain. That’s why the friends can take the roof apart quickly. But they also risk falling through, hurting themselves and/or Jesus in the process. What’s more, raising their friend to roof-level will require looking to others for help, which most of us would be hesitant to provide, given the liabilities we’d assume by pitching in. But, apparently, people do come to their assistance, because the disabled man makes it from ground level to the roof, and from the roof to Jesus.

Once Jesus Lifts the Stigma

Let’s go into the house for a minute. Jesus is talking and stops when He hears a lot of commotion outside. It sounds like it’s coming from the roof. Big chunks of ceiling start to fall. Everyone scrambles for cover. No doubt a disciple or close friend tries to pull Jesus out of danger. But Jesus sits tight and watches as the paralytic is lowered into the room. He looks up to see the friends who have taken great risks to make this happen and Mark 2.5 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

A bit of comedy ensues—one reminiscent to Monty Python’s send-up of the Sermon on the Mount in Life of Brian. Everyone settles down and someone asks, “What did He say?” Another replies, “’Your sins are forgiven.’” A nearby group of legalists hisses, “Who does He think He is? Only God can forgive sins!” Jesus senses their alarm and replies, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—He said to the paralytic—"I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." (v9-11) The man steps into the yard to show everyone he’s been cured. Onlookers praise God and say, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (v12)

Mark ends the story there, as if to say, “The rest you know.” So let’s play with that for a moment. What happens next? In all likelihood the man’s friends gather around. There’s a lot of joyful laughter, pats on the back, possibly even a happy jig from the healed man. Realizing they’ve just disassembled someone’s roof and interrupted Christ’s conversation, they may scoot off to celebrate out of earshot, saying, “We’ll come back and clean up later.” And as they walk off, the healed man stops, taking a moment to absorb everything that’s happened. “Wait a second!” he says. “I’m forgiven! Do you know what that means?”

Of course, they know. In their world, disability is linked to sinfulness. Living in a climate that dreads God’s wrath, it’s automatically assumed anyone felled by disease has angered God. So Jesus not only cures the man’s condition. He frees the man from shame. More than that, He refutes the notion that physical anomalies signify God’s displeasure. If that were the case, Jesus would tell the man what He tells others who subscribe to harmful thoughts and behaviors: “Go and sin no more.” But Jesus doesn’t say that. In two quick steps, He frees the man—from stigma and then disease. And since He addresses the sin question before the curing the illness, He leaves no doubt that erasing condemnation is His first priority. Healing comes once Jesus lifts the stigma.

Everything We Need

I imagine a lot of you, like me, have heard this story plenty of times, preached and taught in many ways. It’s a spectacular example of faith in action, a noble instance of high-risk compassion, and a telling portrayal of how easily we succumb to religious dogma and common myths that impede faith. But for those of us wending our way down Lent’s road there may be something more here that we can reach for.

Whether we come to Jesus on our own—as so many in the Gospels do—or, like the paralytic man, loved ones are instrumental in bringing us to Him, what we experience on arrival is multilayered and complex. What draws us to Him may actually be secondary to a deeper need. It’s unlikely the man or his friends ever consider that, without forgiveness, the healing is incomplete. Yet Jesus recognizes that and He takes care of first things first. In our little post-healing scenario—a midrash based on the story of the cured leper who returns to thank Jesus—the man’s acknowledgement of what’s happened is typical of delayed responses we often have. Repeatedly, awareness that Christ makes us whole sneaks up on us. We have to stop and exclaim, “I’m forgiven! Do you know what that means?” It means the stigmas that paralyze and make us sick have been removed. Misguided opinions of why we are as we are have been dispelled. Not only obvious limitations that cripple us—but also the unspoken ones that bore deep into our psyches—no longer confine us. We are free.

As we travel Lent’s desert, I pray we walk humbly, yet confidently, with songs of praise interrupting our prayers of repentance. May we see our journey to the cross as a return to the source of all that is good in us—the place where our forgiveness, healing, and most of all our freedom from shame and stigma are revealed in a Savior Who understands and provides us with everything we need.

However we come to Christ—whether on our knees or on a stretcher lowered through a torn-up roof—we leave the experience in astonishment that Jesus sees to our every need.

Postscript: Question 8

Can you share an example of delayed reaction in your own faith, when you realized there was more to what you received from Christ than you initially thought?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Practice Stillness

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in God, and God will act. God will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently. (Psalm 37.5-7)


Every Lent, our church reads and discusses a book together. By design, the titles aren’t directly tied to the Lenten process. Instead, they hand us great big theological concepts to contemplate during our time of consecration. This year we’re reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins—a controversial book that invites us to question nearly every traditional view Christians hold about overarching concepts like grace, inclusion, Heaven, Hell, eternity, judgment, and so on. In other words, many of the hot buttons that have sparked firestorms within the Church for centuries will come under scrutiny as we study together.

Since we’re comfortable wrestling with questions at our church, last evening’s first study group focused on questions that challenge faith. Several perennial stumpers made the list, including why an all-powerful, loving God allows human suffering. It’s a question we’ll never answer as long as we remain addicted to self-inflicted sorrow. We’ve never asked God’s permission to make war, incite violence, ignore poverty, or squander life-sustaining resources on weaponry and wealth production. We've done this on our own. Therefore, before asking why God permits suffering, we should ask why we create it.

Still, the question gains traction in times like these, when economic inequities, social unrest, and overall uncertainty feel like too much to handle. We’ve done such a fine job of endangering ourselves we don’t know how to undo what we’ve done, let alone how to make any progress toward improving our condition. Naturally, we want God to do something. Psalm 37 is written to people like us, with questions like ours, living in times very much like our own. Yet the poem, attributed to David, emphasizes what we should do—not on a grandiose scale, but on an intimate level that opens our understanding. David doesn’t put the “where’s God in all this” question to rest; he suggests we figure out ways to discover God in the midst of our messed-up, stagnating, and doggedly unrepentant world.

The Whole Burden of Life

The psalm portrays a society at war with itself. Listen to verses 12-14: “The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them; but the LORD laughs at the wicked, for God sees that their day is coming. The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly.” Throughout, David stocks the poem with reassurances that God will deal with perpetrators of injustice. But he also counsels those who suffer at their hands to be patient. God’s retribution will be certain, though not necessarily swift. Their day is coming. And that begs a question: until that day comes, what are we to do?

“Commit your way to the LORD,” verse 5 urges. I so love how the 19th-century Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, paraphrases David’s advice. “Roll the whole burden of life upon the Lord,” he wrote. “Leave with [God] not thy present fretfulness merely, but all thy cares.” The commitment David calls for is one of total surrender. It’s the conscious decision to rest when chaos reigns, to trust despite trepidation—to depend on God in the absence of concrete direction. “God will act,” David insists, speaking from experience and by faith.

“God will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday,” verse 6 promises. Vindication is a big word that often gets confused with vengeance—and they are not the same thing. To vindicate someone is to validate his/her choices and actions. It confirms the moral fiber and character of the person whose inner light won’t bow to darkness. Yet David surprises us in the next verse by describing how we should respond in circumstances that press us to abandon our knowledge of what is right. Rather than push our agenda or defend our stance, verse 7 says, “Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for God; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.” Confidence in our choices invites us to step out of moral chaos and into the stillness, to forsake rushing to judgment and wait for justice, to quit worrying about powers that be and start trusting God’s supremacy. “Don’t get swept up in the mess,” David says. “Roll the whole burden of life upon the Lord. Be still.”

Hiding Place

Lent provides a ready-made reason to practice stillness. We enter its desert to escape chaos. We find quiet and distance we seek from the constant assault of unprincipled, wicked behaviors. It's very easy to enter Lent’s stillness and solitude hoping for some type of epiphany. And we must never overrule the possibility God will transform our pursuit of quietness into a revelatory, transfixing experience. Yet if that’s all we seek in the stillness, we may be disappointed. The timing may not be right—we may not be ready for it. And a mystical moment may not equip us to deal with the world once we reenter its madness. On the other hand, having learned (or relearned) how to practice stillness will prove extremely useful wherever life takes us.

Proverbs 18.10 tells us, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.” In contrast, verse 11 says, “The wealth of the rich is their strong city; in their imagination it is like a high wall.” Faith in a just, all-powerful God ushers us into the stillness. When chaos erupts and confusion descends, we run for safety that can only be found in stillness. And notice how Proverbs’ writer flips the equation. Assurance and peace of mind we discover in the stillness are real; insanity that drives us into God’s strong tower is illusory. Wealth, the power it brings, and the will to oppress fashion a false, fleeting sense of security. It offers no hiding place from a God Who will act justly to vindicate those who follow God’s ways. During Lent we practice stillness so that we can take shelter when moral confusion threatens to overpower us. Practicing stillness is how we keep it real.

We not only find safety when practicing stillness. We enter the true reality of God’s justice and power.

Podcast link:

Postscript: Question 7

How do you practice stillness?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Remembering to Forget

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and God’s ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. (Psalm 34.15-16)

Emotional Landfill

Although Lent’s wilderness is a metaphor, if we pursue the experience properly, much of what happens to us reflects a desert existence. The journey’s demands foster a kind of primal instinct that seeks to conserve energy by eliminating unnecessary burdens. Many have compared Lent to a refiner’s fire, suggesting the desert’s heat and sandblasts burn off impurities so that we stand pure and unmasked before the cross. I believe this is true. There are moments during every Lent—whether it’s our first or fiftieth—when we become aware that we’ve been relieved of detrimental thoughts and habits by force of nature. But if Lent is nothing more than voluntary exposure to the elements, our participation in the process becomes incidental. If all we must do is show up and allow Lent to work on us, then what do we learn?

I prefer to think of Lent as a parallel process during which the Spirit does Its work on us, while we also work through various conflicts and cycles to discover what we no longer need. I see it as a seasonal adjustment that rejuvenates our growth, so that we can leave the desert stronger, healthier, and freer. Without a doubt, the Lent pilgrim quickly discovers her/his trek will require dropping things along the way. The journey is too arduous for excess baggage, and by all means, we should travel light. Yet the wilderness is, above everything else, a wasteland—a place where we can consciously discard encumbrances that impede our future progress. Some things we can carry into Lent with the express purpose of walking away from them. We might think of these burdens as emotional landfill. And, though it may sound unkind to put it like this, much of what we need to lose revolves around people and relationships that weaken our lives.

Tainted and Deadening

We’ve heard so much about “toxic” relationships and people that we give the notion little thought. “Toxic” has become a sort of grab bag we keep handy for tossing away what we don’t like. How many of us have friends who abandoned relationships before they even got off the ground, saying, “He was toxic,” or “She was deadly? We’ve become such efficient toxicity diagnosticians that we objectify who and what’s going on in our lives as if we’re daytime TV therapists. Maybe I’m just blessed to be an exception to the rule. But my dealings with authentically toxic people and deadly relationships have been few and far between. What I’ve come across more often have been tainted people and deadening relationships—people whose negativity and warped views make me toxic, relationships whose chemistry numbs me to God’s touch and the gentle flow of human affection. While I would never judge folks who trigger these responses as “evil,” what they do to me most certainly is evil and, in the end, I am accountable for allowing that to happen.

It’s the fabled frog-and-scorpion scenario, isn’t it? Our desire to show kindness exposes us to risks of getting stung. And when we ask those who sting us why they did it, their only answer is, “It’s my nature.” If we’re wise, we’ll recognize that these people—and the relationships they draw us into—do evil to us. Not because they hate us, necessarily; indeed, we’re more likely to be harmed out of twisted love than outright hate. Not because they take pleasure in hurting us; indeed, most people who habitually infect others with poisonous ideas and emotions live in states of perpetual remorse. Not because they’re morally bankrupt; indeed, most people who visit evil on the world act out of a sense of moral superiority. (Does “love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin” ring a bell?) Yet our awareness that much of the pain and sorrow we endure comes from tainted people and deadening relationships that unintentionally wound us doesn’t change the fact that the harm they do is evil. And Psalm 34 can teach us a valuable lesson—as well as offer us invaluable advise for our Lent journey—if we recognize evildoing that poisons and numbs us.

We Can’t Quite Cut the Cords

In verses 15 and 16 we read, “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and God’s ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.” God is watching us, all of us, good and bad. God sees that our goodness creates vulnerabilities to others’ diseases. God hears our cries of pain and heartbreak. These situations and symptoms are commonplace in Spirit-led lives. In verse 17-19, the psalmist says, “When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and rescues them from their troubles. The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” We accept that good we do will sometimes be returned with evil, and we look to God for rescue and relief when that happens. But it fascinates me that before the psalmist expounds on God’s care for us, he pauses in verse 16 to remind us of God’s response to those who do harm. God turns away from them, the poet says, and cuts off their memory. Before seeing about us, God remembers to forget those who’ve injured us. That doesn’t mean God no longer loves them. It doesn’t say God’s decided they’re not worth saving. It means as long as they persist in their tainted, deadening ways, God pays them no mind.

Lent opens us to the possibility of leaving tainted people and deadening relationships in the wasteland. It’s as much about remembering what we must forget as what we must always keep in mind. There are tainted people who make us toxic. They are how they are and will remain so if they choose not to repent. There are deadening relationships that numb us to God’s presence. They will continue to do so as long as they survive without God’s intervention. Many times we detach ourselves from unhealthy people and relationships, yet we can’t quite cut the cords of memory. But we must. If God can do it, so can we. Remembering to forget is part of God’s rescue protocol. If we’re earnest about traveling Lent’s desert in search of God’s ways, we should remember to forget anything that poisons and anesthetizes us to God’s guidance.

Lent enables to us bring unhealthy relationships and people into the desert with us for the sole purpose of leaving them behind.

Podcast link:

Postscript: Question 6

Pop psychologists like to talk about “addictions” to “toxic relationships”—but I think the question is more basic (and hence more complex) than that. What compels us to think we must indulge poisonous personalities and situations to prove we love someone? Are we trying to prove we’re stronger than they? Or are we stronger when we remember to forget unhealthy individuals and relationships?

Monday, February 27, 2012

A God Who Believes

God is faithful; by God you were called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1.9)

A Deep Breath

Movies bring out my cynical side. I take a jaundiced view of how 99/100 of them boil human emotion down to cheap glue that holds their slapdash stories together. So a morning like this one, following Hollywood’s “biggest night,” saddles me with a cynicism hangover. (Watching a coddled class congratulate itself and act like regular folk can be intoxicating—toxic being the operative word.) Like millions, I mist up when winners acknowledge parents, mentors, and colleagues who believed in them. But the cynic perched on my shoulder is also quick to remind me these are the same people who manufacture mist for a living. They’re the ones behind the violins that saw away while the coach tells the underdog to get in the game and the understudy to step into the spotlight—the ones who exploit our insecurities by stacking the odds against the hero and then raising someone who assures her/him, “I believe in you. You can do it!”

From our earliest endeavors until our dying day, we crave belief in our potential and abilities. How many times do we turn to those we trust and ask, “Do really think I can do this?” How often do we pray someone will come along to bolster our self-confidence? How quick are we to tell ourselves, “That only happens in the movies.” So when I opened today’s readings, 1 Corinthians 1.9 kicked me in the head. God is faithful, it said. God called you into the fellowship of Christ. I took a deep breath. Could it really mean what I think it means? Does God have faith in me? Can I say with confidence that my Creator honestly, truly, wholeheartedly believes in me? I pulled up the Greek translation, half-expecting to learn my hunch was off. Guess what? That’s exactly what it means.

In Black and White

The word Paul uses to describe how God regards us (pistós) is one we’d normally use for how we view God. “Faithful” is a broad translation to emit a number of nuances—loyalty, trustworthiness, constancy, etc.—that grow out of unshakable belief. The term’s etymology is rooted in the Greek word for “persuasion,” meaning God sees something in us that convinces God we’re worth believing in. Processing this idea requires us to stretch a bit, as our relationship with God is preponderantly focused on our belief. We’re so easily consumed by faith’s demands that we stay loyal, trusting, and true, of being fully persuaded God is worth believing in, that it never occurs to us: God believes in me. But we have it in black and white: God not only can and will, God does believe in us. And lest our cynical side press us to dismiss Paul’s statement as a linguistic anomaly, we see pistós repeatedly attributed to God in the apostles’ writings.

Without the slightest disruption to the writers’ thought, we can substitute “believes in you” for “faithful” in text after text. First Corinthians 10.13: “God believes in you, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” First Thessalonians 5.24: “The One Who calls you believes in you.” Second Timothy 2.13: “[Even] if we are faithless, Christ believes in us.” Hebrews 2.17: Jesus “had to become like His brothers and sisters in every respect, so that He might be a merciful and believing high priest in the service of God.” First Peter 4.19: “Let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a believing Creator, while continuing to do good.” By now, you get the idea. But I beg your indulgence to do one more, since it’s a personal favorite: “If we confess our sins, God Who is just and believes in us will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1.9)

Seeing God’s belief in us plastered across the New Testament in bold letters, how is it we’ve turned faith into a one-sided love affair, where we do all the believing and God only gets to reward our loyalty and trust? Reducing God to a Being Who’s eternally grateful for our belief turns faith into a farce about our arrogance and God’s insecurities. Faith in a God Who believes in us dignifies the relationship. It intensifies our awareness of how loyal, trusting, and constant our God is.

Self-Doubt Contradicts God’s Belief

Faith in a God Who believes changes everything. It assures that God comes to us and wants us to come to God. Our mutual belief in one another cements our bond. It extinguishes any doubts that God remains faithful—that God wants access to our lives, that God is always there, looking beyond our failures, seeing what we can’t, or refuse to, see in us, placing confidence in us that we can’t muster on our own. And when we ponder this idea, it makes a whole lot of sense. Why would a God Who creates and loves us as we are not believe in us? To doubt us would require God to question God’s own judgment and handiwork. And who wants to believe in a god who’s unsure of his/her wisdom, power, and abilities? Thus, for our God to be all we say God is, we must accept and rejoice in the fact that God believes in us. What’s more, if we are to trust God’s judgment and power fully, we must believe in us, too, because self-doubt contradicts God’s belief. (Take a moment and let that sink in.)

One of the most magnificent aspects of Lent’s wilderness comes to fore in the enormous room it provides to break away from narrow perspectives of God and self. In the desert we find solitude to commune with faith’s realities, free from inner doubts and silly fears spawned by religious dogma and coercion. God’s love supersedes pity for our flawed condition. It’s driven by the persuasion we’re worth believing in—that our making speaks for itself and needs no alteration to merit God’s attention or acceptance. The desert puts much-needed space between us and those who are unconvinced we’re worth believing in. We know better—and we know God knows better. Because God believes in us, Paul says, God calls us into fellowship with Christ. When we enter Lent’s desert with our faith secure in a God Who believes in us, that’s what happens: we find fellowship with Christ.

Faith in a God Who doesn’t believe in us makes no sense.

Podcast link:

Postscript: Question 5

How does faith in a God Who believes in us change what we believe?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

One Long Teachable Moment

Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all day long. (Psalm 25.4-5)

The Best Way

People look at me like I’m crazy when I say I can’t remember the last time Walt or I drove. We own a car on the off chance we’ll want to drive it somewhere. Living in Chicago makes driving an unattractive option, however, since it’s quicker, easier, and cheaper to get around on foot or via cab and mass transit. Consequently, I know next to nothing about GPS devices. But I like idea of them. It amazes me that we’re able to consult a satellite to tell us how to go. Perhaps more amazing, it helps us when we’ve gone wrong. When we've missed a turn or misunderstood its direction, it remaps our course. It even gives us choices. Do we want the quickest or shortest route? Would we rather take surface streets than highways? Are we more comfortable dealing with traffic on main thoroughfares, or do we prefer less-traveled roads? I like that.

Since I don’t regularly use a GPS, I’m always amused when riding with friends who do. They seem to have a relationship with their devices and talk back to the voice as it tells them what to do. When it advises them they’ve gone too far, they’ll say, “I know! I know!” When it steers them down an unfamiliar path, they’ll ask, “Are you sure?” When its directions aren’t clear—when what it says and what’s on the map don't appear to match what they’re looking at—they’ll moan, “I don’t know what you mean.” Sometimes, when they let the gizmo lead them despite their consternation, they’ll exclaim, “Oh, now I see what you’re doing!” Much of the time, however, they seem to express more frustration with the system than appreciation for its guidance. I asked one my friends about this once. Why even bother with the thing, if it gets you worked up? “The GPS isn’t the problem,” he told me. “It knows the best way. The problem is me. I’m the one who doesn’t do what it says.”

Availing Ourselves to God’s Direction

By now you probably know where I’m headed with this, because the parallels between how we use GPS technology and engage our living God explain themselves. Aside from the metaphor, however, the relationship similarities interest me. Even when we rely on God’s guidance, we’re not fond of being told we’ve missed a turn, turned wrong, or gone too far. There are many times—often long expanses of time—when we hear what God is saying and we see it in God’s Word, but what we’re told doesn’t seem to resemble what we’re actually looking at. Sometimes we move ahead without a clue where God is taking us and it takes a while to understand what God is doing. And I think we need patience with ourselves if we’re going to let God work in our lives, as our problems with God’s guidance rest with us—our distrust, inattention, and resistance to do what God says.

In Sunday’s readings, geared to reflect Lenten themes, we hear Psalmist David pray, “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all day long.” (v4-5) Teach me Your ways. Tell me how to go. I trust You to save me. I wait for You to show me what You’re doing. All of that sounds terrific on paper. We ask the same of GPS devices; it’s why we buy them. Yet availing ourselves to God’s direction can quickly fall to the wayside when what God says and where God leads doesn’t jibe with our ideas and desires. We’re sure we’ve found a better way—a shortcut, maybe, or a scenic route, or a less problematic path. We’d rather steer clear of heavy traffic and construction. We like to believe we’re too smart and experienced to get lost. We prefer to travel what we’re told is an easier road, one with lots of rest stops and restaurants and pleasurable distractions. Teach me. Tell me. Save me. Show me. We’re good with all of it, as long as God teaches us what we want to know, tells us what we want to hear, saves us when we want to be saved, and shows us what we want to see. The moment God’s guidance detours from the map we’ve drawn for our lives, it’s not as simple or easy as it sounds.

Lives of Non-Stop Learning

In Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1.9-15), we read that after God declares Jesus to be God’s Son, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (v12) Surely this is not the route we’d want to take if we were in Jesus’s shoes. After all, none less than God has just confirmed that we are divine—“the Beloved,” God calls us—which makes us really, really special. A parade to City Hall, invitation to the White House, if nothing else, a trip to Disneyland would seem more appropriate. But to be driven into the wilderness, dropped off in the middle of nowhere, with no entourage or provisions to survive until we’re picked up 40 days later? That’s just nuts! And get this. The Spirit doesn’t even show Jesus the common decency to drop Him in a safe neighborhood. Verse 13 says He’s “tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on Him.” Having angels on stand-by isn’t much consolation when you’re staring evil in the face and sleeping with wolves and scorpions. We'd pass on the whole “Beloved” thing and find a decent hotel. But Jesus goes because Jesus knows. He knows that what’s on the other side of this wilderness ordeal will require more strength and wisdom than He presently possesses. This is God’s teachable moment with Jesus—and what Jesus learns from it will prove invaluable from Day One of His ministry until the day He dies.

Our faith ancestors, in a flash of holy inspiration, instituted Lent as our annual opportunity to rekindle the desire to be taught, told, saved, and shown. It’s a back-to-school exercise that strives to fix our problem with following God’s guidance. That is, it strives to fix us by reminding us God sees each of our lives as one long teachable moment. In the wilderness we learn ours can be lives of non-stop learning. We can allow God to lead—to teach us God’s ways, tell us God’s truth, save us from our losing ways, and show us what God needs us to see. When God guides us, it doesn’t matter where we are. We can stare evil in the face without submitting to its temptations and lop-sided logic. We can outlast beastly predators and danger. We can wait to see what God is doing in us, because in the wait God’s angels wait on us, providing us the grace and stamina to get through our wildernesses. Teach me. Tell me. Save me. Show me. We may not always like where that takes us. But if we’re open to God’s guidance, we’ll learn there’s no better way to go.

Lent’s wilderness lesson teaches us that when we trust God’s direction our lives become one long teachable moment.

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Postscript: Teach Me, Oh Lord

We take a Sunday departure from our “40 Questions” to channel our weekday pondering into prayer. While working on the post, this recording rang in my ears. With apologizes for not having better video, I invite you to pray along with Vanessa Bell Armstrong as she sings, “Teach Me, Oh Lord”.