Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lessons From an Usher

Lessons From an Usher
What I learned about humility from a gentle greeter.
(In the December issues of Christianity Today, posted online 12/27/2011)

A seminarian recently told me about the time he was chatting with a high-achieving classmate after they had both completed a difficult final exam. "You know that question on humility?" his friend asked. "I nailed it!"

The irony got me thinking about my friend Jimmy.

Jimmy is an usher at a church I used to attend; he takes his duties seriously. Every Sunday, Jimmy is a reliably warm, bespectacled, suspendered presence in the church foyer, handing out bulletins, clasping hands, and sneaking candy to the kids. Knowing my interest in music, Jimmy is always keen to report to me (even now, when I come to visit) which gospel quartets he recorded off the radio over the past week. Once, he gave my young son a wristwatch he no longer needed, out of the blue, much to their mutual delight.

There is something unusual about Jimmy. I know nothing of his background—there may have been an accident in the past or simply a genetic quirk. I only know that he is what some people call "a little different."

At a New Year's Eve service several years ago, I discovered that Jimmy is different from most of us in the best possible way. The church congregation traditionally celebrates Communion together just before midnight, and then invites people to share some of the past year's triumphs and trials. That particular year, there was a moving mix of thankfulness and heartache—cancer healed and cancer raging, jobs found and lost, relationships mended and some still up for prayer. Eventually, Jimmy stood up and asked if he could tell us about a praise item.

"This year," Jimmy started, with tears in his eyes, "I learned how much I can count on God. See, I promised him I would pray for a list of people every day. But when I started, I couldn't remember who I was supposed to pray for, and I got frustrated. So I asked God to help me remember. After that, all the names came to mind, every time. And I never could have remembered on my own, so I knew it was God!" And then Jimmy sat down.

That night, Jimmy taught me something important about humility. Richard Foster defines humility not as a "less-than" type of self-abasement, but as an ability to "live as close to the truth as possible: the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live." When we are humble, we are un-fussily realistic about our strengths and weaknesses—about what we are capable of, and what we are not. We are also clear on the fact that we are not God, and that we cannot heal or transform ourselves on our own. Thus, when growth or change happens, it is only in humility that we can identify God's care and provision for us.

When we are proud, we don't have an accurate picture of the way things really are, and we end up believing we are engineering our own progress. And then we wonder why we don't see God moving in our lives. This phenomenon might be another layer of what the apostle Paul meant when he told us we would best know God's strength in our own weakness.

A few weeks after that New Year's Eve, I found myself praying about a financial shortfall my husband and I were facing at the end of the month. Three days later, an unexpected check arrived in the mail, matching almost to the penny the amount we needed. My skeptical mind knew the money could have been purely coincidental, but in that instance I had the unprovable but resolute sense that it was God's answer to my prayer. I was of course flooded with immediate gratitude, but within minutes I was undergoing mental gymnastics. What if I hadn't prayed? I wondered. Would God have provided anyway? Do I really have to ask when he knows our needs before we do?

I don't generally hear the audible voice of God. But that particular afternoon, I could have sworn I heard a chuckle. Of course I would have provided, it seemed God was saying. But you wouldn't have had the joy of knowing it was me.

Jimmy has the kind of humility that allows him to recognize God doing what only God can do in his life. He may never go to seminary, but he has a rather advanced understanding of what James and Peter might have meant when they told us to "humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord." I have known for a long time that humility is required in order to acknowledge God's supremacy. But what Jimmy has taught me is that humility not only helps us in the offering of our prayers. It is also essential to recognizing their answers.

Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Power Washed By God (New CT Column)

Power Washed by God  
The blessings—and danger—of divine proximity.
(In the October issue of Christianity Today, posted online 10/17/2011)

Last summer, we hired a man with a power washer to clean our deck. As he blasted the dirt that had defied our feeble garden hose, I found myself wishing all the muck in my life could be dealt with so efficiently. Sticky kitchen floor? Messy relationships? Unleash the water pressure!

But not so fast. Two weeks earlier, a neighbor's teenager, Matt, was cleaning the driveway with a rented power washer when he felt an ant crawling on his calf. Instinctively, he turned the nozzle toward his leg, obliterating the insect—and, unfortunately, some layers of muscle and tissue. Matt's injury is not uncommon; an online search produces innumerable accounts of gruesome wounds and even fatalities related to the use of pressure washers.

So I decided to give my handyman and his potentially flesh-stripping machine a wide berth. I had to do some reading for a biblical studies course, so I sat by my kitchen window and kept one eye on my yard and the other on the Pentateuch.

I was making my way through Exodus, feeling a little jealous of my spiritual ancestors. It seemed they never had to wonder if God was there. They had only to follow pillars of cloud and fire, gathering up the manna served fresh daily from God's kitchen. At Sinai, Yahweh made his presence even harder to miss, clearing his throat with thunder, lightning, trumpet blasts, trembling mountains, and billowing smoke.

I wondered why the present-day actions of the immutable God sometimes seem so muted in contrast to the God of Moses. I wouldn't mind a pillar of cloud or fire when I need direction, or some manna on my front lawn when I pray for provision.

But 10 chapters into Leviticus, I sobered up to the dangerous side of God's proximity to the Israelites. They had just set up the tabernacle, and two of Moses' nephews had been recruited for the priesthood. When they failed to follow protocol and offered "unauthorized fire" at the altar, "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (Lev. 10:1-2).

This seems a little harsh. Two guys make one mistake their first day on the job, and they get "fired." But other similar incidents had the same tragic result: Achan's stashed plunder (Josh. 7), Uzzah's casualness with the ark (2 Sam. 6), Ananias and Sapphira lying about their offering (Acts 5). In each case, God was inaugurating a new era in salvation history, and in each case, his holiness was underestimated with dreadful consequences.

These episodes remind me of a strategy employed by one of my schoolteacher friends. On day one, he sends the first unruly student into the hallway, knowing that an early show of authority makes the rest of the year go smoothly. It is tempting to think of the disturbing accounts of God's judgment as cases of extreme classroom management.

But as I struggle to reconcile Yahweh's apparent "zero tolerance" policy in these stories with the inexhaustible mercy we see in Jesus, I wonder if both the wonderful and awful aspects of God's power experienced at close range aren't more like the blasts of a pressure washer than the techniques of an irate teacher. God's holiness is the very thing we need to get wholly clean. But, unmitigated, it's too much for us. We can't survive it.

Maybe Yahweh's holiness (and its sometimes fiery consequences) became more visible at turning points in salvation history less because God wanted to set a stern example, and more because at those moments he'd drawn particularly near to his people in all his power. As envious as I might be of God's visibility to the Israelites, they clearly sensed the danger inherent in his proximity. In Exodus, they ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, so they can stay at a safe distance.

When I grasp that God's holiness is necessary for my cleansing but is also, by its nature, a vaporizing force, two things come into clearer focus. First, I begin to perceive God's judgment as no more malevolent than the blast of water from a pressure washer. It is simply God's holiness doing what God's holiness does. Second, this reality points to one reason we need a mediator. Jesus is the only human who could vicariously absorb (and ultimately survive) the cleansing we so desperately need. Because of him, we are washed not by a force so intense it annihilates us, but rather by the blood of the Lamb.

Just like I wish I could turn the power washer on all the messes of my life (without the resulting carnage), I still find myself longing for more visible manifestations of God's nearness and power. But in the final analysis, I am grateful that the God who once resided in a cloud on the mountain now lives in us, baptizing us not with an obliterating flood, but with his Spirit.

Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Both/And Path to Truth

A Both/And Path to Truth
Why the narrow way to faith is also expansive.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hardworking Sloths

Hardworking Sloths
Disguising Spiritual Laziness
Carolyn Arends
(In the June issue of Christianity Today, posted online 06/13/2011)

My family used to play "Where's Waldo?" with a three-toed sloth at the zoo; eventually we'd find him suspended like a hammock from a tree branch above us. I used to think he got a bad rap as nature's laziest creature. After all, I don't have the strength to hold myself upside down on a set of monkey bars for 10 seconds. Then a zoo volunteer explained that sloths have curved claws that allow them to dig into branches and hang without effort. Our sloth, it turns out, really was as unmotivated as he looked.

I found myself thinking about that lethargic critter the other day while listening to a recorded Eugene Peterson lecture and arguing with my MP3 player.

Peterson: Pastors are highly susceptible to the sin of sloth.

Me: What are you talking about? Pastors are some of the most overworked people alive.

Peterson: Sloth is most often evidenced in busyness … in frantic running around, trying to be everything to everyone, and then having no time to listen or pray, no time to become the person who is doing these things.

Score one for Peterson.

I'm not a pastor. But I am busy, like almost everyone I know. When Peterson declares that "the pastor's primary responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God," I can readily apply that job description to my roles as wife, mother, musician, and author. The mandate can be stated even more succinctly regarding my task as a human: Pay attention to God. If I don't, I'm guilty of spiritual sloth, no matter how hard I'm working. In truth, there is an inverse relationship between how overwhelmed I am doing things and how much energy I can give to being attentive.

But did I mention I'm really busy?

Part of the problem is that spiritual receptivity requires unglamorous practices like prayer, time in Scripture, and attentiveness to what God is doing in the people around me. Telling me, "Prayer promotes spiritual growth!" has as much wow-factor as announcing, "Reducing calories leads to weight loss!" I want something new—a development that will lead to breakthrough. Peterson observes that spiritual disciplines have "not been tried and discarded because [they] didn't work, but tried and found difficult (and more than a little tedious) and so shelved in favor of something or other that could be fit into a busy [person's] schedule."

Scheduling is no small matter. Attending takes time without offering quantifiable results. It requires stillness in a culture that rewards industriousness. It's inefficient in a world that considers getting things done next to godliness. A pastor who refuses to be slothful in the areas of silence and reflection stands a good chance of getting fired.

Our emphasis on external productivity over internal fidelity goes back a long way. Consider the case of King Saul, reported in 1 Samuel 13. Early in his kingship, Saul and the prophet Samuel had an understanding: Samuel would lead the people spiritually, and Saul would lead militarily. However, holed up with his troops facing a brigade of Philistines, Saul faced a dilemma. Samuel failed to show up on time to offer the sacrifice that Saul and his men relied on to keep them in God's favor. As typically happens when things go off schedule, disorganization set in. The longer Saul waited, the more restless his men became; he was losing them.

Saul did what any good manager would do. He took action. He offered the sacrifice himself.

If I were conducting Saul's job evaluation, I'd give him a bonus. He took initiative and solved the problem, saving time and boosting morale in the process. But Samuel didn't see it that way. He told Saul he had failed to keep God's command, and thus would be deposed by an incoming king—a "man after God's own heart" better suited for the job.

God is not looking for leaders who take matters into their own hands. He values faithfulness over efficiency. It's no good to organize the whole world yet be oblivious to the God who created it and holds it together. Yes, we have practical commitments we need to take seriously. But part of being responsible is being response-able: centering our lives in such a way that we can respond to the world around us with the mind of Christ. Such response-ability is impossible if our obligations crowd out any opportunity to get to know him better.

It makes sense that the sloth is the official mascot of spiritual lethargy. I've begun to see my incessant busyness as the set of claws that keep me holding on for dear life, dug in, hanging upside down, not getting anywhere. With God's help, I want to let go, trusting him to show me how to live right side up. My job is to pay attention.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Going Down Singing

Going down singing
Why we should remember that we will die.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Satan's a Goner (Lessons Learned From a Headless Snake)

Satan's a Goner
A lesson from a headless snake.
As a kid, I loved Mission Sundays, when missionaries on furlough brought special reports in place of a sermon. Sometimes they wore exotic, foreign clothing; they almost always showed a tray of slides documenting their adventures. If they were from a dangerous enough land, the youth in our congregation would emerge from our Sunday stupor and listen intently.

There is one visit I've never forgotten. The missionaries were a married couple stationed in what appeared to be a particularly steamy jungle. I'm sure they gave a full report on churches planted or commitments made or translations begun. I don't remember much of that. What has always stayed with me is the story they shared about a snake.

One day, they told us, an enormous snake—much longer than a man—slithered its way right through their front door and into the kitchen of their simple home. Terrified, they ran outside and searched frantically for a local who might know what to do. A machete-wielding neighbor came to the rescue, calmly marching into their house and decapitating the snake with one clean chop.

The neighbor reemerged triumphant and assured the missionaries that the reptile had been defeated. But there was a catch, he warned: It was going to take a while for the snake to realize it was dead.
A snake's neurology and blood flow are such that it can take considerable time for it to stop moving even after decapitation. For the next several hours, the missionaries were forced to wait outside while the snake thrashed about, smashing furniture and flailing against walls and windows, wreaking havoc until its body finally understood that it no longer had a head.

Sweating in the heat, they had felt frustrated and a little sickened but also grateful that the snake's rampage wouldn't last forever. And at some point in their waiting, they told us, they had a mutual epiphany.

I leaned in with the rest of the congregation, queasy and fascinated. "Do you see it?" asked the husband. "Satan is a lot like that big old snake. He's already been defeated. He just doesn't know it yet. In the meantime, he's going to do some damage. But never forget that he's a goner."
The story captured our imaginations then because it was graphic and gory—a stark contrast to the normally genteel sermonizing we were used to receiving. But the story haunts me because I have come to believe it is an accurate picture of the universe. We are in the thrashing time, a season characterized by our pervasive capacity to do violence to each other and ourselves. The temptation is to despair. We have to remember, though, that it won't last forever. Jesus has already crushed the serpent's head.

Recently I heard a message from theologian Gary Deddo that got me thinking about that snake. Deddo challenges the tendency many of us have to be dualists—imagining God and Satan as equal foes deadlocked in mortal combat. To be certain, Deddo acknowledges, there is an immeasurable amount of evil in our world. But compared with God's love and power, all the evil in the universe doesn't cover the head of a pin. Love wins. Satan doesn't stand a chance.

Thus, though we wrestle with the brokenness that plagues the world, and ourselves, we do so not with grim resignation but with hopeful defiance. We face both our addictions and afflictions not with a faint, white-knuckled hope that someday we will be healed, but rather with an assurance that we are living slowly but surely into the healing already obtained on the Cross. There is still a waiting. In some cases the healing may not come in fullness until we are face-to-face with our Victor—but come it will. Guaranteed.

I've been trying to figure out what all of this means with respect to the way we deal with evil and injustice in our world. In linear, human time, perhaps the safest thing to do is batten down the hatches and wait somewhere secure till the thrashing is over. But one of the mysteries of living in God's time rather than our own is that, although the end of the story has already been determined, somehow he is still using us to write it. Because Jesus lives in us through his Spirit, we are called not just to anticipate the overcoming but also to be part of bringing it to fruition.

And so we are called to fight poverty, oppression, greed, and malice—in the world and in our own spirits. We are invited to live in light of the reality that greater by far is the living God who is within us than the dead snake thrashing about in this world.