Saturday, March 2, 2013

Unique? Yes. Special? No.

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10.13)

The Compulsion to Feel Special

Because I work mostly from home, I’m privy a universe that many daytime commuters may never discover. It’s the world of afternoon television, a thing wholly unto itself. On the chat shows, smug has-been and not-quite celebrities bemoan the peccadillos of more current and famous stars. On the judge programs, ex-lovers, former friends, and fractured families drag each other into court demanding redress for slights and slander. On “Dr. Phil”, regular-looking folks lay their dysfunction at the good doctor’s feet for all to see. On the news stations, prattlers and howlers truck in hyperbole and speculation.

To the bank teller at home with the flu or the snowed-in schoolteacher, picking through TV’s midday buffet can be an eye-popping experience. It’s a feast of every kind of crazy. What could possibly induce people to behave so ridiculously in front of millions? Anyone regularly exposed to afternoon TV knows why. Celebrated or unknown, TV’s workaday denizens think they’re special. They believe their woes and outrage set them apart. At first, that would seem to be the case. But over time, a more sorrowful reality emerges. They are not special. For every betrayed spouse, there are another hundred queued up with similar stories. Every neighbor suing for property damage falls between dozens who’ve already been there and dozens more to come. Every star break-up boils down to the same foibles that have ruined relationships since the dawn of time. Today’s political kerfuffle will make way for tomorrow’s flap. In this regard, the surest way to prove how ordinary you are is to broadcast your “specialness.”

I paint this picture not to lament the pathetic state of daytime TV. It is what it is. Rather, the armchair sociologist in me is fascinated by how accurately it mirrors the compulsion to feel special. We’re all driven by a desire to set ourselves apart. Many of us set out to accomplish this in a constructive manner that can lead to overachievement and false pride. Just as many of us are convinced that our tests distinguish us from everyone else. Either way, these self-portraits we create are striped with the supposition that God should somehow love us more for being “special.” Sunday’s readings, particularly the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10.1-13) and Gospel (Luke 13.1-9), issue reality checks that charge us to recognize we’re not as special as we may suppose. While we may not be pleased to hear it, when we absorb what the texts say, they deliver really good news.

This Notion of “Deserving”

In 1 Corinthians, Paul revisits Israel’s wilderness trek, noting though the people’s needs were met, their grumbling caused many to be destroyed. Jesus picks up this destruction theme in Luke, where he recalls Roman atrocities against the Galileans and the deadly implosion of a tower. “Do you think these things happened because the victims were worse sinners than you?” He asks. “No,” He answers, saying, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” When we unpeel this onion down to its core, we uncover a message of sameness. We all cross dry deserts. Any one of us can be random targets of violence and casualties of disaster. Our tests aren’t reliable indicators of our singularity, as victors or victims.

These texts yank this notion of “deserving” off the table. We neither deserve special favor because we’ve done well nor special consideration because we’re unable to do better. Whatever we’re dealing with, good or bad, opens avenues for God’s grace to reach us. Individuals who appear to have everything going their way need God’s grace. Those who can’t seem to buy a break need it, too. This is the crux behind Paul’s admonition that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10.13) Whatever we face, we are not the first to confront it. Nor will we be the last. No one is singled out to suffer. No one is selected to succeed. Tests come to everyone. And they are given for one purpose only: to teach us our God is faithful.

What’s Unique About Us

This is a tough idea to digest. We want whatever we go through—whether the price we pay for success or burdens we bear at great personal expense—to say something extraordinary about us. But what’s extraordinary in this context is that God remains true regardless what we go through. Our specialness isn’t defined by our circumstances. What’s unique about us is located in our making—in the specific gifts and flaws placed in each of us to engender reliance on God’s grace. Because I was born gay doesn’t entitle me to harbor resentments or indulge in self-pity. Because someone else is burdened with wealth doesn’t grant license to feel superior or exploit privilege. Wherever we fall on life’s continuum, we will be tested. And the only way to survive our tests is by turning to God. “Unless you repent…” Jesus says.

Many times I’ve heard people quote Paul’s admonition about life’s trials and stop at “God will also provide a way out.” That’s magical thinking that ultimately defeats the purpose behind our tests. To accept this teaching, we have to ride the text out to the end: “so you may be able to endure it.” God’s faithfulness is proven in times of testing, not in helping us escape them. It’s who we are—not what we deal with—that makes us unique. Our trials are fundamentally no different than everyone else’s. The good news about not being special is found in the discovery that, regardless who we are, our God is always the same.

Tests and trials offer no indication of how “special” we are. In fact, they confirm we’re no different than anyone else. Our making—the gifts and flaws specific to each of us—is what’s unique.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Love Fast

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10.27)

In the faith tradition of my youth, it was not uncommon for pastors to call impromptu fasts. He/she would urge congregants to “turn their plates over” and devote time ordinarily spent preparing and eating meals to prayer, Scripture, meditation, and other spiritual pursuits. These fasts were less about self-denial than carving out space in one’s day to commune with God.

That's really what fasting hopes to accomplish. It turns our attention away from our personal wants and needs so we can realign our lives with the things that God requires of us. But how can we know what those things are? The Great Commandment gives us the best place to start. “Love God with all you’ve got,” Jesus says. “And love your neighbor the same way you want to be loved.” In theory, that sounds fairly basic. In practice, however, it gets complicated very quickly, because the actions that Jesus commands us to take require us to make time to do them.

So we look at our days and evaluate how much of them we spend on ourselves—not only the “nice to have” moments of relaxation and pleasure, but also the “have to have” times that require concerted effort and sacrifice to make room for God and others. Can we surrender an hour’s sleep to spend it in loving communion with our Maker? Can we let go of a task that feels so urgent to us that we build our day around it and, instead, devote that time to helping someone else?

And what about our hearts? Can we consciously set aside our need for love and all of its trappings long enough to put God first? Can we harness our soul’s emotions to draw satisfaction from sacrifice, instead of searching for gratification—in some cases, going so far as avoiding emotionally fraught situations—that makes us feel good? Can we reorient our thoughts to realize the love we offer to others is every bit as important as the love we seek for ourselves?

These are hard questions that require vigilant attention. They insist on conscious awareness of opportunities to “turn our plates over”—not merely in the literal sense of a nutritional fast, but in the figurative sense of carving out time and space for God and neighbor. As we continue our Lenten progress, it’s vital that we remember God gets no glory in our sacrifice. The fast is meant to open windows to express love for God and those around us. A love fast that turns away from our needs and desires creates a love feast that will nourish and sustain us long after we depart Lent's season of consecration.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me, and let the one who believes in Me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7.37-38)

One of my favorite Taizé chants repeats this simple verse:

By night we travel in darkness, in search of the living water
Only our thirst leads us onward
Only our thirst leads us onward

The original Spanish of the chant’s last phrase, sólo la sed nos alumbra, actually translates as, “only the thirst lights us,” indicating that a deep inner desire to taste Christ’s living water somehow illumines us even though we often can’t see our way. In our driest, darkest hours, Jesus’s promise to quench our thirst becomes the lamp that draws us to Him.

If we’re feeling parched, possibly even a little listless and disoriented, at this stage in our Lenten journey, we’re actually in good shape. It means that all the other refreshments we rely on—good intentions, determination, and religious pride, for instance—are starting to evaporate. We’ve reached the point where our thirst can only be satisfied by raw faith in Christ. And the grand irony of this venture is manifest when we discover that we carry rivers of living water within us. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,” Jesus says. But we can’t release the rivers of life and satisfy our thirst until we reach Christ. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me, and let the one who believes in Me drink.”

Only our thirst leads us onward
Only the thirst lights us

Lent’s desert imagery encourages us to frame it as a daytime activity. (Advent is the nocturnal quest.) Yet if we’re looking at vast, unmapped, barren expanses, traveling by day is much the same as traveling by night. We are at place where all we have to go on resides in us. Now is the time when we let go of intellect so that instinct can take over. Our heart, full and overflowing with life-giving water that quenches our deepest thirsts, guides us. It will lead us to the place where our longing for Christ will be met.

In Philippians 3.13-16, we hear Paul’s famous “onward and upward” admonition: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.”

The water we crave is already there, waiting for us to reach the place where we’re truly walking by faith and not by sight. Once we cross that tipping point, we will be satisfied, refreshed, and renewed. Right now, we have to remember that our thirst leads us onward.

Only the thirst lights us