Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It's not the future I'm worried about.

My friend recently admitted to me that after decades of faith in Christ (and almost as long touring the country to inspire others) he isn't sure if he can go on. He isn't sure if he wants to live. He isn't convinced of anything.

He told me that there are secrets in him that haunt him every night. Things that he has done in his past that literally, after nearly thirty years, still have him in a state of subtle expectation that the police will soon be coming to collect him. He shared a couple of these stories from his past with me, watching my face for disgust and my body for unnerved tension. But I didn't flinch. I'd heard worse.

He then went on to say that, after all these years of teaching others of the grace of God (the hardly believable reality where nothing we can do or destroy disqualifies us from divine love, and that no one's sin is stronger than God's forgiveness), that he fully anticipates hearing on Judgment Day,

"Nope. Not you. You're too bad."

I tried to help him understand the inadvertent arrogance in that. I also tried to help him understand the toxicity in believing in a loving God that holds grudges more tightly than he holds grace. He agreed. Cognitively he agreed. But he still looked like a man only intellectually aware that he was eating his favorite meal because the greater concern was that it was his last before being executed.

After our meeting, I texted him Paul's words in Romans 8:38-39. It reads "I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Paul, the man who before becoming a follower of Christ, stood by and held the coats of those that killed Stephen with rocks for saying words he wasn't allowed to say. Paul, the man who had made children orphans if he found out their mothers and fathers were followers of Jesus the blasphemer. Paul, a first century religious terrorist by many definitions. This Paul was now ready to confidently assert that neither death or life, or presumably those that cause those things, or spiritual forces or their seemingly powerful effects, nor anything going on now or that will be later, or anything else in creation (which pretty much covers every thing) can detach us from the unfathomable love of God revealed in Christ.

But there's a glaring oversight in this text.

Why doesn't Paul mention the past? Angels, demons, life, death, today, tomorrow- But what about our yesterdays?

There's a couple reasons I can think of. One might be that Paul didn't consider including something that no longer exists. The past is gone. It therefore has no more power. It wasn't worth bringing up, because something that is nothing certainly wouldn't have any power of our relationship with a God that is currently, presently, with us.

But this only works philosophically. My tired friend, aware of all the texts about grace and forgiveness and can quote them as well as anyone, still feels his past and all those he hurt in a very real way. It still feels like something that costs him divine affection. Like an amputated arm that still feels ghost pain. It's the arm that's not there. But the pain, even in the absence of the limb, is still a very real experience. It's not accurate to say that what was no longer has any affect on now.

How many people sit and stare, incapacitated by shame, for things that happened a lifetime ago? How many of us have missed out on today, because yesterday's demands for rehashing overtook us yet again?

The past, for a thing that no longer is, has an enormous amount of power and influence in our life. Good or bad. If not, there's no reason to pretend to benefit from reading Romans 8 or any other scripture. It was written millennia ago.

There's another reason I can think of that Paul didn't write, "I am convinced that neither the present nor the future nor the past ... will be able to separate us..." It may have everything to do with Paul saying "I am convinced". The Greek could be translated "I am persuaded." Perhaps Paul couldn't write about the past not having separative power with any integrity because he wasn't yet persuaded that it was true.

He could speak of the power of demons being thwarted. He could talk about power systems that everyone assumed had the last word on everything, being made finally impotent. He could talk about even death itself getting mocked by resurrection. But at night, in his bed, perhaps those became mere ideas compared to the harsh reality of what he'd done. At night in bed he replayed his past, still hearing little boys and girls crying and begging him not to take their daddy away. He could still smell blood in the air as the rocks thudded into Stephen's skull. He could still feel the shame of giving enthusiastic agreement to the complete destruction of so many beautiful lives- and doing so on authority of God. Sure he'd repented of all that and had done a lot of good since. But it's far easier to bury a martyr than the shame that comes with making one.

If Paul was as human as my friend, and as you and I, then it was probably a long time before he was "convinced" that grace was stronger than regret. The other stuff is easy to write. But the past is often the last frontier within us that love and grace are allowed real, final access to. It's such a counterintuitive thought that we could be loved and embraced, despite our pasts, that many of us are unconsciously insulted by the idea. Nothing good could be applied to such bad! So we keep them apart. And we go on agreeing that grace and forgiveness and love are beautiful things, but only for sermons and for inspiring send-this-to-seven-others-emails and for anyone other than ourselves. We're just not persuaded. And so we're condemned.

I wonder if Paul, in the absence of the distractions we all use, distracted himself in his restless nights by writing letters to people until he couldn't hold his eyes open. Letters about grace that we would someday call the New Testament. Letters about grace that he mentally ascribed to, while his heart remained for too long, shamefully unpersuaded by. I wonder if the thorn in his flesh was his unrelenting memory.

Below find my version of Romans 8:38-39. You are invited to use these words as a way to more fully entrust yourself to God. A God powerful enough to handle anything we throw at him. Or, like Paul and I and my exhausted friend have done for years, I guess you could dismiss the words and continue believing God just can't handle our pasts. The future, demons, death....sure. Bring 'em on. But our pasts are just too much for him.
I hope, like I'm certain Paul finally was, that you and I can be persuaded by the greater God.
Here's to living in an even greater Love. And here's to the peace that comes from finally accepting it.

"I, Steve, am about 85% convinced that neither the present, nor the future,
nor our pasts...
will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Everyday is St Patrick's Day

As I arise today, may the strength of God pilot me,
the power of God uphold me,
the wisdom of God guide me.
May the eye of God look before me,
the ear of God hear me,
the word of God speak for me.
May the hand of God protect me,
the way of God lie before me,
the shield of God defend me,
the host of God save me.
May Christ shield me today.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit,
Christ when I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

 -St. Patrick

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It's OK that we're mostly wrong.

A few years ago, while on our family vacation, we started one of our days at the pool. My son was only just four at the time, and his swimming prowess was yet to be fully realized. With his blow-up arm floaties rendering him stuck in a perpetual scarecrow impersonation, Ian jumped in and climbed out of the pool in a non-stop circuit for at least an hour.
At one point, I decided to add to the thrill, throwing him from his armpits straight up into the air from the water. This helped him achieve far more altitude that his meager post-toddler jumps could pretend. He was hooked, which meant, of course, so was I. As the minutes ticked by, the principle of diminishing returns demanded that I throw him higher and higher and higher. Each time he came up out of the water coughing, burping and laughing through a web of snot. And always he came up begging for more. This, if you weren't aware, is what pure joy looks like.

After a toss that was aimed for the overhead lights of the indoor pool (a toss that had to wait until mom and other responsible adults were distracted with other things and looking away) Ian plunged into the water, coming up gasping and laughing. This throw was so much higher, even I thought I better check in.

"You okay buddy?"

"Yeah!" Ian hacked, smiling.

And that's when the most magical thing happened. Ian caught his breath, looking at me with his chlorine-reddened eyes and said, "Daddy, will you marry me?"

I started to laugh, but was fortunately able to stop at a smile.

I recently heard of a woman describing, in her self-proclaimed not-a-Christian way, that she had become aware of some "mysterious force" at work in her life. She was overwhelmed by it. The Christian she was speaking to was certain she was referring, in her own way, to the Holy Spirit, but remained quiet, never suggesting such, choosing instead to listen.

I watched a friend talking to someone that quoted a bumper sticker to express their view of their experiences and how they thought God was involved. They weren't aware of how ubiquitously known this bumper-sticker phrase was. The saying was so cliche that it bordered on trite. Additionally, it was probably untrue of God if you chased the thought down a few degrees. But however overfamiliar and potentially "wrong" it was to my friend, it was obviously loaded with fresh meaning to the other. My friend nodded and said "wow" as the person spoke his heart.

If Jesus had come to take the time to correct people on every errant view of God, he wouldn't have been crucified until he was old enough to be Yoda's grandpa. Instead he loved and gave his life long before he'd been asked to teach at a local seminary, consenting to tell stories by lakes without telling people what the moral of them even was. Think how many times people said something about God or others, and all the Christ would do was grin and listen. Think how utterly wrong everyone sounded to the incarnation of Wisdom. It must have been a daily, hourly occurrence. Think how often he had to let an idea slide, not because he was tired, but because he loved the person more than the exactitude of their theology. To give people the precise reality behind the anthropomorphic idioms men and women had been clinging too in order to understand the divine would have blown their brains out of their skulls. Jesus, it seems, was more interested in a messy life well spent than a precise doctrine well preserved.

Smiling at my son, I realized that he wasn't throwing out a random phrase for a laugh. He was overwhelmed in the moment with love. He couldn't conceive of life being any better than that moment in the pool with his dad. And on impulse, in his very young mind, marriage was the most connected, sacred relationship he could think of. Who it was for, when it was applied- all of that- he couldn't comprehend. He just knew he wanted to tell me he loved me, and always wanted to do so, in a way that couldn't be taken lightly. I hugged my son as tightly as his frame would allow and said, "how about I do even better; I'll be your daddy forever." He smiled, wiping snot from his nose, sturdying himself as I prepared to launch him toward the ceiling once again.

I'm convinced that though his expression was out of place and inaccurate, it wasn't wrong. And I'm convinced God sees both the religious and irreligious in their sincere attempts to grasp life and its Source the same way.

If faith in God is about precision, then it's always going to be about perfection. And perfection is unobtainable within something referred to as a "faith". The church becomes a holy fool's errand. This, I have found, is how religion becomes irrelevant to the world; it fixates on its own belief structure and exactness, obsessing in various measure about its adherents'  rightness, yet never achieving what it declares is its objective. It can't. Faith is an embracing of mystery, not the decoding of it. When religion doesn't get this, it chases its own tail ad infinitum at the expense of the messy reality outside its stuffy halls.

So take heart. The very life of Christ, un-argumentative as it was, (and only corrective with religious folks who say they had eternity cornered) is inviting you past the impossibility of ever being accurate, and to simply, walk humbly with him. With him, with each other.  We will learn, unlearn and be flat out confused by some things along the way. But we will love and be loved. And that's as precise a doctrine that we can expect to make.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When God pins us down and dribbles drool in our face.

A few months ago I found myself teaching nearly 30 pastors and leaders in Michura Kenya about church leadership. All through a translator, mind you, because my Luo is only a couple dozen words thick. We were packed in a small, windowless building of about twenty by thirty feet and constructed out of wood, mud and dung. I started to make a joke just now about how going to a crappy church is not always a bad thing, but I'll resist.

We covered numerous topics. Theological. Sociological. Anywhere they wanted to go, we went, for two half-days in a row. It's only the second time I've ever gotten to do something like that, but I can say I already know I love it.

One topic of conversation that came up was particularly striking. One of the pastors stood and asked about a difficult issue that they apparently get together and wrestle with often. It's a phenomenon where the people in their congregations begin to mistreat or neglect their leaders when their leaders fall ill. He said that no matter who the leader is, if the pastor or others in leadership get sick, the people go cold and even accusatory. Rather than finding care during sickness, they find a spirit of disdain.

He went on to say that the understanding is when someone gets sick, they aren't right with God. So, the people in their congregations see the illness of the leaders as evidence of divine disappointment over some hidden sin in their life, and so the pastor is only getting his or her just desserts. And the negativity is compounded by the fact that they are in leadership, not just lay-members of the church, ostensibly living in hypocrisy as they tell others how to live as a matter of vocation, while simultaneously sinning in their own private life.

"Can you help us with this?" he concluded with pain on his face.

I addressed it two ways. One, I told them that this belief is top down. As humbling as it was and is for leaders to admit this, if people are constantly told that God punishes people for their missteps, then when calamity strikes, they are only being faithful to the message that has been told them when they assume God has, for reasons unknown, gotten out the paddle. When bad news strikes, God must be punishing some sin. "If the congregations believe this," I suggested, "they were taught this." Our little dung hut full of leaders was suddenly quiet.

My second point was this. I asked if they had a flu-season in West Kenya. They all responded together; "May and June!" You could tell there was a communal dread about this particular time of year. I asked if that was when pastors mostly got sick. Without hesitation, they concurred. I asked then if people in the congregations got sick more during that time of year. Another resounding yes. It was at this point the two older men started laughing spontaneously. They looked at each other, and even though they said it in Luo, I could tell that they were saying that they knew where I was taking this train of thought. I asked then if they perceived people to be more sinful in May and June than the other ten months of the year. After a reflective pause, they all wrinkled their brows and said no. "Equally sinful all year," responded one with a smile.

So then I asked if they believed, based on what they had just told me, if getting sick is a result of God punishing sin, or if it's a case of disease being suffered rhythmically- even predictably- apart from the goodness or badness of the person.

No kidding, they stood up and clapped and cheered. They just needed a little help seeing things from an outsiders perspective I guess. The translator yelled over the din that I had, in just minutes, solved a years old problem. It was a good crappy-church moment.

Fast-forward two months. I was down in the creek adjacent to my neighborhood garden, getting water for my peppers and 'maters. The neighbor boy, Sean, was doing the same for his family's crop. He said he had a hard time walking down the rocks in the creek bed to get water, and wondered how I seemed to have such an easy time. I explained that you simply look and step on the flattest rocks with the widest bases and keep moving. Carrying my bucket over to one of the deeper swirling pools, I began to jog down the rocks to demonstrate what I'd said. Being Irish, this could justifiably be called a river dance. But I was moving far faster than necessary in order to give a good show. I misjudged one rock, which teetered and tripped me up. Unprotected in flip-flops, my feet were gouged and scraped on jagged stones and my toenails were immediately painted red. My face got hot but I protected my cool-quotient by only thinking in high-pitched screams. My foot was on fire, and no one knew but the river dancer.

There were two immediate, simultaneous thoughts underneath the intense sting of pain as I stood in that creek:

1. Did Sean see that? (He didn't, which I was grateful for and disappointed by. He didn't even have the attention span to watch? Kids...)

2. God is punishing my cockiness. Shaming me for showing off.

It came to me so fast I was unable to believe anything other than it being true.
In an instant, I proved that I have the exact same work cut out for me as my brothers and sisters in Michura. The guy they applauded for his illuminating their minds also still believes that God is a bully. A mean-spirited older brother that will de-pant me at my own party if I enjoy it too much. A conniving troll that lurks beneath the surface of an otherwise good life, showing us who really owns the bridge whenever he sees fit. I call him Love. But I, on instinct, and perhaps even out of a self-protective, be-careful-letting-your-guard-down-or-it-will-cost-you, still hold on to the idea that God is more like me than he is like Christ.

I probably have more to say on this, but this morning I've been thinking this mantra-like phrase and so I'll close for now by sharing it with you;

If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.

When things fall apart, you get sick, you go broke or you cut your foot in a creek because you wanted a grade-schooler to think you're a ninja... even if you lose a foot or your grade-schooler dies.... We must believe that God, who is not a galactic ego with an angry axe to grind, is not punishing or picking on you to make a point. Crap happens. Crap is part of life. Crap is even part of the construction of the church. Crap just happens, whether we're good boy and girls, or not. But God is not mean. Because...

If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.
If God is mean, God is broken. God is not mean.