Friday, December 18, 2009

Our Divine Distortion

Our Divine Distortion
We can't see God clearly without Jesus. O come, Emmanuel.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Come, Lord Jesus

Come, Lord Jesus 
Oh wait, He's already here.
From the October issue of Christianity Today 
posted online 10/12/2009 

I was a guest musician at a church in Winnipeg, engaged in the familiar liturgies of a pre-service prayer huddle. One person prayed for the congregation's safety in inclement weather, another for the technical aspects of the service, and a third kindly remembered my family back home.

When my turn came, I must have used a phrase like, "God, we invite you here among us." I clearly recall the minister's prayer, which followed mine: "We know we do not have to request your presence, because there is nowhere you are not. So we celebrate the fact you are already here with us now."

My head stayed bowed, but my face burned. This guy is correcting my theology with his prayer!

The service went as planned. But throughout the evening, I was mentally defending my choice of words. Of course I know God is everywhere—I've read Psalm 139! I was requesting an extra measure of his presence, an outpouring of his Spirit. Or, if you want to be more precise (and clearly you do), I was praying that God would help us to be open to him. Aren't we just arguing semantics?

I never articulated any of these thoughts to the minister. But the dialogue I've had with him in my head ever since has gradually refined my thinking—a case of iron sharpening particularly dull iron. I now believe that pastor's gentle correction was necessary.

If the psalmist is right—that there truly is nowhere we can go to flee God's presence—why do we act like his attendance is intermittent? And why do we assume it's dependent on us?

"Halfway through the retreat, God showed up," we say. As if he wasn't there before we were, drawing us to that time and place.

"Lord, we welcome you to come," we pray. As if he needs us to usher him into the world he created. As if we do not "live and move and have our being" in him alone (Acts 17:28).

In the Gospels, Jesus makes a simple proclamation with seismic implications: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 4:17). For those of us who grew up in the hot, scary shadows of brimstone pulpits, the command to repent causes an involuntary shudder. But the Greek word is metanoeite,* which is more invitation than threat. It means "change your mind" or "reconsider."

Reconsider what? According to Jesus, everything you thought you knew about reality. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven is near.

Most of us think of heaven as somewhere out there, the place where God watches from a distance and we will one day join him. But for the biblical writers, heaven is close. In fact, the "first heavens" is a term used to describe the earth's atmosphere. So when Jesus describes the invisible (but very real) realm that God inhabits, he lets us know it's not only out there, but also as near as the atmosphere surrounding our bodies and the air we breathe.

That Winnipeg minister was calling me to repent—to reconsider what I thought I knew about reality and the way God pervades it. I don't have to invoke God's presence. I only have to attend to it.

This change of heart and mind alters the way I approach discipleship. I suspect I have sometimes unconsciously used spiritual disciplines as smoke signals to get God's attention. Now I am learning that they are simply ways of letting him capture mine.

A similar change has occurred in my orientation toward evangelism. I don't have to give a nonbeliever something I have that she doesn't. I need only invite her to open herself up to what God is already doing all around her.

The other day I was trying to describe this shift in my understanding to my friend Roy Salmond. He ran to pull out an article he'd read in Time magazine more than a decade ago. It's an eloquent piece called "The Game of Catch," by Roger Rosenblatt, about baseball, parenthood, and the wordless communication between a father and son tossing the ball around. While the article is in no way religious, one thought in particular has permanently changed Roy's view of life with God.

"They do not call it a game of throw," Roy quoted, grinning. "They call it catch."
Oddly enough, I understood exactly what he meant. Spiritually speaking, I've been preoccupied with throwing the ball; this turns out to be a case in which it would be better to receive than to give.

God is the initiator. We love because he first loved us. We're here because he thought of us and welcomed us into his world. Yes, he stands at the doors to our hearts and knocks, but we need only let him in. We don't have to summon him from another country or galaxy. The kingdom of God is already near.

Repent. It's time to play catch.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Matter Matters, August, 2009, CT

Lessons learned between the couch and a 10k race.

It seemed I was watching a series of dismemberments, as the infomercial's editors divorced body parts from their owners in order to direct attention to deficiencies in quality and trajectory. I was struck by how tragic it is that millions of humans—impossibly complex in neurological makeup, fantastically unique, and almost unbearably freighted with potential—walk around obsessed with perceived appendage inadequacies (or superiorities).

This is no news flash: We live in a body-obsessed culture. Materialism—the conviction that only matter can be proven to exist and that belief in transcendence is at best a fond hope, and at worst a dangerous delusion—is the spirit of our age. Ironically, it leaves us with no spirit at all, just our bodies and their appetites, unbridled and insatiable. No wonder we approach the fridge—and each other—with a predatory eye. We're just trying to survive.

I believe that the only cure is to embrace nonmaterial reality as an integral part of the universe and ourselves. The conviction that we cannot be reduced to bodies is foundational to my worldview. It has also enabled me to justify avoiding any sort of consistent physical exercise for much of my life.

My husband is a kinesthetic person; if he goes too long without activity he gets restless. I, on the other hand, can be perfectly and indefinitely happy with a book and a comfortable couch. Although I often have felt a vague sense of guilt (and, lately, gravity), I have found a way to spiritualize my inclinations. I focus on soul things (books, ideas, music, relationships), not body things (exercise, nutrition). It's always seemed to me that exercising for exercise's sake is like wasting your life constantly fine-tuning your car rather than driving it somewhere.

Then, this past year, my parents got sick. Seeing how stress on the body—both theirs and mine—affects the well-being of the soul, I began reconsidering my position on exercise.

So I promised my 11-year-old son that I would run a race with him, and I downloaded a "Learn to Run a 10k in 13 Weeks" training guide. And I started to run.

Actually, run is a strong word. I began to shuffle forward in a continuous motion. But this was no small thing. I started rising an hour earlier than normal to jog before the kids got up for school. My friends said, "Who are you, and what have you done with Carolyn?"

I've been shocked by how spiritual an activity exercise has turned out to be. When I am running I am uniquely awake and open; it's not uncommon for me to wind up crying, laughing, praying, or praising. The neighbors must find this unsettling; I find it fascinating.

I suspect that my longstanding protest against materialism has made me susceptible to another time-honored heresy: Gnosticism, the belief that matter is inherently evil. Gnostics wondered how a perfect God could be defiled in imperfect human form. Gnosticism had to be struck down repeatedly in order to reach an orthodox understanding of the Incarnation: Jesus was fully God and fully human. The Word became flesh (John 1:14).

The Incarnation shows us that matter is not all there is. But it also shows us that matter matters. Jesus came a long way to take on our molecular structure. He pointed to other kinds of existence, telling his disciples, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about" (John 4:32). But he also fully inhabited our bodily reality, so much so that many of his miracles involved food, drink, physical healing, and even resurrection. One of his final earthly acts was to cook fish on the beach for his friends.

So maybe our bodies aren't the cars that drive our souls to the altar. Maybe they are an integral part of what we lay on the altar, and are up for healing and holiness with the rest of us.

After all, Jesus called us to love God with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. Just as his words disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, they call the overactive to stillness and activate the overly still. They restore the soul to those who overemphasize the body, and redeem the body for those who focus only on the soul.

"The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you," says The Message translation of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. "God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body"—even if that means shuffling forward in a continuous motion, one step at a time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Saying More Than We Can Say, June, 2009 (CT)

Saying More Than We Can Say

Why the arts matter even during a recession

At a concert in Erie, Pennsylvania, I sang a song called "In Good Hands." Afterward, the church's custodian stopped by. "When you was singing that song about Jesus' hands," he said, "the sun was setting behind you, and it was making them stained glass pictures of Jesus glow. The sound of your buddy's violin was bouncing off these stone walls, and, well, you was saying more than you was even saying."

In these tough times, I worry that violins and stained glass and folk songs may become extraneous. Many people are in a state of financial frostbite; just as blood flow to the extremities is restricted to save vital organs in a case of hypothermia, resources for less essential items must be diverted during an economic crisis. Who's going to buy tickets to a film festival, ballet, or concert when there isn't enough money for groceries?

What business do I have writing songs when there is practical work that needs doing? Do the arts matter? Are they expendables or essentials?

Karl Paulnack, director of the music program at the Boston Conservatory, tells the story of Olivier Messiaen, a French composer who was 31 when he was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Messiaen convinced a sympathetic prison guard to provide paper and a place to compose; in January 1941, his Quartet for the End of Time was performed for 4,000 prisoners and guards. To this day, it is considered a masterpiece.

Paulnack asks, "Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? … And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art … Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. Art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are."

The Christian faith provides an explanation for the resilience of the human creative impulse. Consider God's first revelation about himself, the first five words of the Bible: In the beginning, God created. When we help make something—when we participate in bringing "cosmos out of chaos," as writer Madeleine L'Engleput it—we affirm the fact that we are made in the image of the Creator. No wonder we can't help ourselves. We are made to participate in the arts.

There are a thousand arguments for the usefulness of the arts in the church. Paintings and plays let us say things that we could never express in direct conversation, giving them great evangelistic potential. Poems and visual icons can be powerful discipleship tools, and Scripture mandates the use of song. Music and poetic liturgy have long been essential mechanisms for communal worship.

But the arts are also important for less obvious reasons. When we witness the transformation of raw material into something beautiful, we are encouraged to remember that other new realities can be made—that perhaps justice can be created where there is injustice, wholeness can be wrought where there is disease and poverty, and community can be made even from discord. Beauty not only suggests these ideals are possible, but it also awakens a longing for them.

When songwriter Sara Grovestold International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen that she wanted to quit music and become a lawyer in support of the cause, Haugen told her she must continue in the important work she was already doing to move hearts and minds toward justice. The arts are not in competition with efforts against injustice; they are an essential part of the fight.

But the arts do even more than help us believe in transformed realities: they kindle faith in unseen realities. My own sense of transcendence is nurtured primarily by beauty—in the created world (mountains, oceans, wildflowers) and in the world we help create (poems, songs, sculpture). By convincing us that there is something more than the material realm of atoms and synapses, the arts open a vista to belief in God.

And when we meet this God, our creativity becomes one of the ways we delight in him. The Message translation of Genesis says that we were created "reflecting God's nature." When we are lost in some endeavor—consumed by singing a song, dancing a jig, building a presentation, or telling a story—people say we are "in our glory." In truth, we are in God's glory, participating in the beauty overflowing from the Creator himself.

Those are the times we wind up saying more than we are even saying, and knowing more than we could know any other way.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Benefit of the Doubt- May/June, Faith Today (Cover Story)

The Benefit of the Doubt

God wants us to wrestle with him

Doubt is a much maligned reality of a living faith. If you have it, don’t despair – most of the people in the Bible were ”a questioning lot” writes Carolyn Arends,
an evangelical author and award-winning musician from Coquitlam, B.C.

Sarah is a deep thinker. She wishes she could just accept things on the surface, but she can’t. A theological question about God’s sovereignty began to haunt her in her early 20s. She took her question to the spiritual experts available: her pastor and a local “Bible Answer” radio personality. They both told her it was arrogant to question God. But she found it difficult to be dishonest with God. So she stopped talking to God altogether.

Jenny grew up in the church and laughs that she’s saving her “rebellious phase” for her upcoming 40s. She’s had many faith-building encounters with God and loves to share them. What is harder for Jenny to talk about is the long, dark season after her first pregnancy when she had a colicky baby and a whopping case of post-partum depression. Worse, she had an agonizing sense of being cut off from God. For several months she begged God to break through the haze of her exhaustion and hormonal desperation with some reassurance of His love. The breakthrough didn’t happen. Gradually, she stopped feeling so desperate. But she also felt a little abandoned. Even now, when others testify about the times God met them in an hour of need, Jenny’s eyes well up with tears.

Richard was a minister but he’s not anymore. When a bridge collapsed unexpectedly in his small maritime town, so did his faith. His teenage son was on that bridge and drowned. After that, Richard couldn’t think of anything to preach about.

I’ve believed in Jesus since I was old enough to believe in anything. I can barely imagine a world or a life without God. And yet, now and then, I find myself sitting in a church service suddenly struck by the thought that perhaps the whole thing – faith in a personal, knowable God and all the creeds and prayers and the relationship that follow – is only a lovely dream, a benign fabrication that gives meaning to an otherwise achingly futile human existence. I refute these ideas as quickly as I can but I’m troubled by the fact that even now, after all these years of discipleship, such thoughts are possible.

I have questions about … doubt.

My research on doubt is informal. I’ve simply listened to my own heart and the half-whispered confessions of other pilgrims. But I’ve become convinced that most Christians experience doubt at least now and then. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, of believers who seem never to falter. I often wonder (as I fight back my envy) if perhaps they have received the particular spiritual gift of “faith” the Apostle Paul says has been given to some (1 Corinthians 12:9). Whatever the explanation, these unflappable Christians seem to be the exceptions who prove the rule. The rest of us eventually (or periodically) run into some set of variables – tragic circumstances, theological quandaries, physical or mental illnesses, or our own reflective temperaments – that leave questions welling up inside us.

We must determine, it seems to me, if doubt is always destructive or if it is potentially helpful. Are doubts the enemy of faith or, as American author Frederick Buechner puts it, “the ants in the pants of faith,” the very things that keep faith “alive and moving”?

The Bible encourages us to move toward faith and away from doubt. And yet, the “Hall of Fame” believers held up as examples in Hebrews 11 were almost unanimously a questioning lot. The point seems less that they never doubted and more that they came to God with their doubts. Some of them argued with or even hollered at God. But they didn’t walk away.

My favourite example is Jacob. Genesis 32 describes a mysterious encounter with a stranger whom Jacob eventually understands to be God Himself. Jacob wrestles with God all night long and tells Him “I will not let You go until You bless me.”

In the morning Jacob gets his blessing and a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel [‘God-Wrestler’], because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28). Imagine that. God names not only Jacob but also His people, His nation, His church: Israel. God-wrestlers. It seems God wants us to wrestle with Him, to fight for Him, to grapple with the Mystery, to hold on tight and refuse to let go.

The more I read the Bible, the more I am convinced that God has empathy for our situation. I don’t think our doubts offend God. But I do think He is concerned when we swallow our doubt, when we pretend He is not beyond our understanding and when we attempt to hide our true feelings from Him (as if we ever could!).

So how do we let doubt be a fire that refines faith rather than consumes it? In my own experience, the following four principles have been extremely helpful.

Expect Some Turbulence
The other day I grabbed a cup of water from the kitchen table. It turned out it was not my water but my daughter’s lemonade. I like lemonade, but the tart flavour was so unexpected I did a classic cartoon “spit-take.” Expectations are powerful.

Many Christians expect a doubt-free walk with God. When trouble comes, we must contend with not only the questions themselves but also with the stress and shame at having the questions at all. Our panic will be significantly minimized if we understand that the majority of believers who have gone before us (from biblical heroes and Early Church Fathers to more recent saints like Henri Nouwen and even Mother Teresa) have encountered seasons of doubt.

I suspect a great number of Christians discover as they journey with God that the more they believe (the more they perceive of God) the more doubt springs up as a natural response to the gap between what is and what is understood.

To have real faith – faith that hopes for things that are not yet seen – we have to be confronted at least occasionally with a keen and painful awareness of just how unseen some of those things are. That awareness often manifests itself as doubt.

The author of Ecclesiastes claims “I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

The Bible is wonderfully candid when it refers to this incredibly good news (that we bear something of the eternal right at the deepest part of who we are) as a burden. The truth is, if we flesh-and-bone, finite creatures really do house something infinite, we can expect to feel at odds with ourselves a good deal of the time. Accepting that tension can go a long way toward helping us do something constructive with our doubt.

Don’t Forget to Remember
Every time I hold a friend’s new baby, I’m shocked by how much I’ve forgotten about my own kids’ infancies. When they were tiny, I thought every precious (and not-so-precious) detail would be etched in my mind forever. Now I can barely recall what they looked like back then. If we don’t actively remember things – by writing them down, taking pictures, and telling and retelling stories about them – we forget.

You’d think it would be easy to remember our spiritual epiphanies – answered prayers, Holy Spirit insights and touches of God through circumstances or special perceptions of His presence. In reality, spiritual encounters are particularly difficult to recall precisely because they belong to another realm that seems to vaporize when we get bogged down in our material existence.

The Old Testament prophets understood this problem. They had a habit of marking milestone moments with rocks and altars (they called them ebenezers) so that later, when it all seemed like a hazy dream, they could go back and touch something tangible and remember what God had done for them. It is critical that we do the same. Journal. Write a song. Tell a friend. Take a picture. Read the stories of other believers as a way of accessing the collective memory of the Church. Memorize Scripture. Remember.

Focus on the Who Question
Slowly, I am coming to accept the fact that if God is really God, and I’m really not God, it only makes sense that there are aspects of Him that are beyond me. This awareness allows me to see mysteries that once threatened my faith as actual grounds for belief.

At the same time, there is much that God has chosen to reveal about Himself – through creation, through His Word, through the faith community and, most wonderfully, through Jesus.

We often don’t have answers to so many of our questions. Why does God seem to intervene in some situations and not in others? When will there be ultimate justice? How will God bring it about? But we always have the answer to the Who question. If we wonder who God is, if we need to know if God truly is about justice and mercy and a love for us that cannot be exhausted, we only have to look at Jesus to get our answer.

Knowing who Jesus is allows us to trust God’s character even when our present emotions or circumstances lead us in other directions.

Don’t Stop the Conversation
Pray. Even when you seem to be talking into the void. Even when you have no words. Pray.

One of my favourite prayers is recorded in the Gospel of Mark. A father brings his very ill son to Jesus for healing. He pours out his heart to the Healer, crying, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “ ‘If you can?’ ” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

I imagine the father standing there in the middle of the chaos – his epileptic boy twitching on the ground, the voices of others crying out for healing, the crush of hundreds of people jostling for position – and sensing that this is the defining moment of his life. He swallows hard. “I do believe,” he says. And then he adds instinctively, “Help me overcome my unbelief!” The father is too desperate for charades. He comes to Jesus believing just enough to trust that Jesus will help him with his unbelief. And that, it turns out, is enough faith to move the heart of God.

I will not let You go until You bless me. I do believe; help my unbelief.

These are prayers God blesses – the prayers of honest people who understand that doubt is sometimes normal and that faith is worth fighting for.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What's So Good About Good Friday? - March/April, TCW

What's So Good About Good Friday?
Learning to see darker days in a different light
Posted 04/09/09 at TCW

I love Easter Sunday. I love the way my church's normally casual congregation takes everything up a notch (or three)—the girls in new linen dresses and the boys in once-a-year ties. I love the jubilance of the music, and the preacher's grin when he urges us to turn to one another and say, "He is risen!"

Easter Sunday is the Christian faith's gold medal victory lap and its raison d'etre. It's the Happily Ever After to end all happily ever afters. Easter Sunday shouts: "Death where is thy sting?" and "Love wins!" and "God is alive!"

But here's the rub: I dread Good Friday. I dread the images of torture and suffering. I dread the somber music and the awful remembrance of the violent death of a loved one—of Jesus, the Loved One. I dread the smothering grief and the inescapable remorse and the terrible recollected cry, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Left to my own devices, I'd probably skip Good Friday. But I suspect that if I did, Easter morning would become increasingly hollow. I'd forget how much my salvation cost.

What's more, I'm pretty sure my Good Friday avoidance would cause me to lose touch with certain realities about the way the universe works on this side of eternity. I'd start to believe that you can have victory without sacrifice. I'd convince myself that you don't have to die to live the resurrection. I'd buy the lie that Christ's ultimate victory over death—and my decision to follow him—means life on this earth will be trouble-free.

The biblical writers warn us repeatedly that the Christian should not expect a life exempt from Good Fridays. They encourage us to consider every hardship pure joy because suffering is an opportunity to identify with Christ and become more dependent on him (James 1:2-4). They repeat Christ's plainspoken invitation to "take up his cross" (Mark 8:34-35).

And yet for many of us Easter Sunday Christians, when the job is lost, or the tumor is malignant, or the friendship is betrayed, we grieve not only the wound but also the fact that we can be wounded. We feel that either we're not doing faith right or that faith—that Jesus—has let us down. We don't consider it "pure joy" when our faith is tested. We consider it failure.

I'm beginning to think our expectations are not just unrealistic, they're anti-gospel. But our confusion is hardly surprising. According to some experts, we're bombarded with more than 3,000 advertisements a day, telling us we're entitled to (and must pursue at any cost) an easy, ageless, worry-free life. When we meet and accept Jesus, many of us can't help but distort his promise of abundant life into something that resembles the illusion advertisers sell us every day.

So how do we become Easter Sunday Christians who truly see (and even embrace) the good in our Good Fridays? How do we resist our sense of entitlement and the distorted expectations that are so deeply ingrained? I've found the following four principles helpful.

Check the Definitions

When I read that God "works all things together for good," I can't help but think of the marketers' definitions and assume that "good" means "easy," "youthful," "desirable," and "wealthy." But when I read the Bible, I discover that God defines "good" in entirely different terms.

New Testament Christians seemed to believe the greatest good is to become more like Jesus. They took it for granted that this process wouldn't be easy.

"What do people mean when they say 'I am not afraid of God, because he is good?'" asked C.S. Lewis, musing on this idea. "Have they never even been to a dentist?"

Evidently, early Christians also assumed that the "good" God is working toward is much more expansive than one individual's personal circumstances. God is establishing his kingdom, doing nothing less than "reconciling all things to himself" (Colossians 1:20), and the ultimate good for the believer is to be included in that process.

I'm immensely comforted when I remember that the God who cares deeply and personally about even a fallen sparrow is watching over me. But I've been a parent long enough to suspect that my heavenly father knows more than I do about what I need and where I'm going—and about what's best for the whole family. So it's a safe bet that his definition of "blessing" is different from mine.

When I'm expecting Easter Sunday and I get Good Friday instead, I'm trying to remember that God's definition of "good" undoubtedly confounds and far exceeds my own.

Re-evaluate Death

Almost all the new beginnings in my life have come from what felt at the time like terrible endings. So I know I need to re-examine my concept of "death." Frequently, what seems like a small (but devastating) death is actually a chance at new life. I can point to dozens of "dead ends" in my career, ministry, or relationships that turned out to be opportunities to change direction.

Nature gives us vivid examples of this principle. Like seeds, we must be willing to be broken in order to grow into what we were made to be. Like reptiles, we have to shed old skins. Like caterpillars, we must be entombed so we can emerge as completely new creations. When I think of all the energy I've expended resisting endings and change, I wonder what new life I've missed.

Jesus tells us to die so we can live. He invites us to surrender all the illusions we have about what makes a life good and worthwhile so we can discover real life. And then he walks with us, every step of the way, as we die a thousand deaths in the process of letting his life go deeper and deeper into us. Until at last we really and truly physically die, only to live forever.

The rumors of our demise, it turns out, are greatly exaggerated. With God, the end is the beginning.

Keep Time

In my non-liturgical church tradition, a "church calendar" is a list of youth group meetings and members' birthdays, not an ancient rhythm of days and observances. But I've been learning that many branches of Christianity throughout the centuries have used liturgical time as a way of keeping believers connected to the realities of both life and death in the faith.

Cycling through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and back through "ordinary time" to Advent again, Christians are reminded that suffering is an expected part of human life, and, more important, that God is constantly redeeming that suffering through his resurrection power. I'm just beginning to discover how helpful the church calendar can be in correcting and realigning my own expectations.

Lent, in particular, is a fascinating season. A few years ago, when I became aware that some of my Anglican and Catholic friends went through an annual ritual of giving up some creature comfort for 40 days every spring, I responded with what I thought was a clever line: "This year for Lent I'm giving up self-control." My friends would smile but challenge me to give Lent a serious try.

This year, in my desire to more fully embrace Good Friday, I'm observing my first Lenten season. It's an experiment to see if denying myself one small but habitualized comfort (in my case, a certain kind of food) prepares my heart to more fully enter into every part of Easter.

My Lent-experienced friends tell me that disrupting even one routine can expose the crutches and illusions and substitutions that keep us from authentically participating in the life Christ offers. Lent, they claim, can facilitate a small death to self that becomes an opening to new life. I aim to see if they're right.

Expect the Unexpected

Endings that are beginnings, death that is life—God will always confound our expectations.

A couple years ago, during a jubilant Easter service, our pastor said something that stopped me in my mental tracks: "The world offers promises full of emptiness. But Easter offers emptiness full of promise."

Empty cross, empty tomb, empty grave-clothes … all full of promise. If I were writing the Easter story, I don't think I'd choose emptiness as my symbolic gesture. But then, I also wouldn't be talking about strength being made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), foolish things confounding the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27), the meek inheriting the earth (Matthew 5:5), or the poor in spirit getting (in every sense of the word "get") the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). And I certainly wouldn't be talking about dying in order to live.

What is it about God that makes him so favor this kind of paradox? I guess this is what we should expect from the Servant King—the God who decided that the best way to save the world was to let it kill him. I don't understand the way God thinks. But on those days when I feel hollowed out and broken—half-dead, even—it makes me glad to remember that for Easter people, even death is full of promise.

The world makes a lot of promises. Smoke and mirrors, mostly. Frantic, cartoonish attempts to distract us from the gaping holes in the middle of our souls (or to sell us the latest product in order to fill them). There's no life in those promises.

So I'm hoping that this Lenten season, I'll be a little more willing to die to that stuff. I'm praying I'll become more aware of the empty space within, and that I'll resist the urge to fill it with any old thing I can find. I'm going to wait, carved out, vulnerable, a cracked and crumbling jar of clay, on a life God's offered to deposit anywhere there's room. I'm going to believe that if I'll just leave my empty spaces empty, he'll fill them. That, I'm convinced, is a reasonable expectation.

I'm writing this article during a particularly long Good Friday season in my own life. My mom is battling cancer, and I'd be lying if I said I was able to watch her suffer and "count it all joy."

I pray for healing and hope desperately it will come here on earth. I ask all the questions people have asked at the bedsides of sick loved ones for thousands of years. I vacillate wildly between hope and despair, faith and doubt, openness and bitterness.

But I know that we do not suffer alone, because the God of the universe wore our skin and died our death and removed its sting forever. This is no meager consolation. And even when I'm desperately sad, I look at my mom and I remember: Without Good Friday, there would be no Easter morning. So I pray through the night, and I wait for the resurrection.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Hiding What They Seek, March, 2009 (CT)

In my desire to be 'seeker-friendly,' I'm often guilty of concealing Jesus.
A friend was involved for years in a weekly service intended to reach out to inner-city kids, the majority of whom had little church experience and no acknowledged relationship with Jesus.

If it had been up to me, I would have made those events "seeker-friendly." I'd have focused on building relationships, avoiding anything too religious or high pressure. But my friend went a different way. Every week, he led worship, one song after another, always unabashedly about—or to—Jesus.

I'm sure some of the kids walked away and never looked back. But hundreds stayed. Many made decisions to follow Christ.

Some ministry leaders were concerned that teens who didn't know Jesus were being asked to participate in worship. My friend would reply, "How else are they supposed to get to know him?"

It's a good question. People come to the Christian faith via many different highways, but the eventual crossroad is always an encounter with Jesus. I wonder if my attempts to keep my witness nonthreatening and accessible sometimes end up shielding the unchurched people around me from their own crossroad. Jesus can certainly meet them without my assistance. But I would rather be a help than a hindrance.

I was definitely a hindrance in Mexico. My husband, Mark, is a public high school counselor. A few years ago, a group of 11th graders asked him to coordinate a humanitarian trip. He contacted one of our favorite Christian organizations, and they agreed to facilitate an excursion to Mexico to build a playground in an impoverished area. Mark was careful to explain that the students participating were unchurched; should there be even a whiff of proselytizing, parents—and the school board—would feel betrayed.

There were 24 students and 4 teachers; my kids and I tagged along. Upon arrival, we discovered that the arranged accommodations at a local Rotary Club house had fallen through. Instead, we would be sleeping on the cement floor of a church basement in downtown Juârez, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. Mark could already imagine the parent phone calls he'd receive when word trickled home. Weary from a long day of travel, we set up sleeping bags and tried to ignore the exposed wiring, hole-ridden walls, and scurry of cockroaches.

In the morning, we drove to the site of our project. Jaws dropped and eyes welled as we observed the abject poverty around us. But we also experienced the sweet rush of doing something worthwhile. At the end of the day, we returned to our cement floor feeling good.

All was well until the nausea hit. Sometime around 3 A.M., the first wave of students became ill; by morning, there were clusters of miserable people draped on every available garbage can. Mark held his head and imagined a new wave of parent phone calls. Mostly he threw up.

Around 9 A.M., the two local women who were preparing our food arrived on the scene and surveyed the carnage. Despite the language barrier, their distress and concern were unmistakable. They had followed all the guidelines for cooking for foreigners, and we were still sick. Eventually, one of the women approached the only teacher who could speak Spanish and asked for permission to pray for us. Too ill to object, the teacher nodded yes.

As soon as the woman began to pray, I knew we were in trouble. I thought, Maybe everyone is so ill they won't mind the praying. But my hopes for a low-impact prayer faded quickly as the woman became increasingly emotional. She prayed for five minutes. Ten. Maybe more.

Gracias Padre, Gracias Jesús, Gracias Espíritu Santo, she wept, over and over. I began a prayer of my own. Please make her stop. I don't want Mark to get fired. I don't want these kids to be put off of religion.

When she was finally done, I took a deep breath and forced myself to raise my flushed face, dreading the reactions I knew were inevitable.

Things were not as I expected.

There was not a dry eye in the room. Students were hushed, visibly moved. "That was beautiful," whispered one teacher. Several people nodded. To them, the prayer had been not unwelcome proselytizing, but a heart cry—passionate, desperate, and utterly authentic.

I was ashamed, of course, and humbled. The Holy Spirit had been moving, and I, one of the few mature believers in the room, had missed it.

I wish I had prayed different prayers in Mexico. These days, in increasing measure, I do. When faced with potential encounters with the living God, even among the uninitiated, I am learning to pray Yes and Thank you rather than Stop. After all, how else are any of us supposed to get to know him?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

There Goes the Neighborhood, January, 2009 (CT)

There Goes The Neighborhood

Do I have to love my neighbor if he breaks the law?

We used to live on a street in Surrey, British Columbia, we called "the Mother of All Cul-De-Sacs." The space between the houses was large enough to accommodate a dozen parked cars or a spirited soccer match. Our daughter learned to walk in that cul-de-sac, and our son shot his first basket into a full-sized hoop there. (Granted, he was on his father's shoulders at the time.) Every night, a dozen kids would spill onto the street with bikes or hockey sticks, and we would congratulate ourselves on having selected the perfect neighborhood.

A year after we moved in, the street's complexion changed. Several of the young families moved away, and we had a hard time getting to know our new neighbors.

We heard nasty rumors that certain residents were using their homes to grow marijuana. "Grow-ops" were a rampant problem in our area, but my husband and I doubted we were sharing fences with criminals. Our friendly neighbor to the right, "Van," had recently arrived in Canada but was working hard on his English. Our neighbors to the left, an older couple who gardened relentlessly, seemed reserved but agreeable.

One afternoon, my kids and I noticed a flurry of activity. We watched as our neighbors on both sides were chased and cuffed by police, and truckloads of plants and equipment were pulled out of each of their residences. A sign declaring the area to be the site of a successful drug bust was proudly displayed—in our driveway!

My husband arrived home and intercepted one of the officers walking across our lawn. Our four-year-old eavesdropped on their conversation and ran back to me. "Our neighbors were arrested for throwing dough," he said, confused and troubled. "Why aren't you allowed to throw dough?" I wasn't sure whether to clarify that the officer had actually said "growing dope."

That night, the more I wrestled with how to explain the day's events to our kids, the angrier I got. How dare those people invade our neighborhood and expose our children to dangerous criminal elements?

I was still fuming the next day when I left to perform at an event called "Love Surrey." Area pastors had organized a multidenominational outdoor service in an effort to reach out to the community—just the sort of thing I love to support. But my anger boiled backstage as some friends warned me that grow-op owners are often quickly released and face minimal repercussions.

I returned home to see Van standing in the middle of our formerly kid-friendly cul-de-sac, holding a Coke can and chatting with my husband. I was seething when Mark walked into the house 30 minutes later.

"I can't believe he's a free man," I hissed.

"Yeah," Mark shrugged. "The laws are pretty weak. But …"

"But what?" I asked, incredulous.

"Van feels terrible." Mark sighed. "He's been out there pulling tiny weeds from the cul-de-sac garden, stuffing them into that Coke can. He's trying to show everyone how sorry he is. He keeps promising it will never happen again."

As Mark told me some of Van's story (a sad tale of personal tragedy, poor choices, and exploitation by people higher up the criminal food chain), I had a sudden epiphany.

Van was my neighbor.

Of course I knew he lived next door, but I realized with a start that Van was my neighbor in the "love your neighbor as yourself" sense. It dawned on me that if I had been the lawyer trying to define the law in Luke's gospel, Jesus could have told me a story about a pot grower in Surrey.

I looked down at the new "Love Surrey" T-shirt I was wearing and winced, remembering Charles Schultz's ironic words: "I love mankind; it's just people I can't stand." I had known—preached, even—love of neighbor in the abstract. I had believed that the point of the Good Samaritan parable was that my neighbor is anyone who needs my help. But I had been thinking more of innocent victims in Africa than of drug-producing villains on my street.

I hope the kindness we eventually decided to show Van helped him change half as much as he changed the way we see the people around us. The driven professional with the BMW, the retiree with the yappy dog, the new immigrant too shy to make eye contact—these are our neighbors. And if we love the God who made them, we will love them as we love ourselves.

C. S. Lewisobserves, "There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal." There are six billion residents on this cul-de-sac we call home, each of them bearing the image of God, each of them a neighbor to be loved. We might as well start with the immortals next door.

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