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Archive for December, 2008

2008 ends tomorrow, and I’m crawling across the finish line.

Too many goals.  Too many obligations.  Too many interests and hobbies.  Too many, too much…too tired.

As early as junior high, my teachers warned me: don’t spread yourself too thin.  You can’t do it all, be in every club, serve in every office, play on every team — and be any good at any of it. I always saw it as keeping my options open.

But here I am.  I have grown up to be the consummate jack of all trades and master of none.  It’s the result of always propping doors open, but never walking through any of them.  Looking back on my almost 30 years, I’m not sure I can say I’ve ever really tried my hardest — really focused — on any one thing for any meaningful period of time.  Ever careful not to foreclose another opportunity, I hold enough of myself back just in case. In my wake is a record of pretty-goodness, sprinkled with specks of both excellence and lousiness.  This is the result of a life lived timidly.

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”  Proverbs 19:21.

How shockingly true.  Langston Hughes asks:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Does it fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over —

Like a syrupy-sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In 2008, my answer, for my dreams deferred: yes.  All of it.  They dry up.  They fester and run.  They crust  over.  They weigh you down.  They explode in your face.  All of it– I’ve experienced all of it in 2008.  Never thought it would happen to me.

Ah…”but the LORD’s purpose prevails.”

——————————————————

It was Wednesday, November 5, 2008.  Jenny and I had just arrived home from choir practice, heated up some leftover Chinese food, and watched “Friday Night Lights” on television.  After the show, I went back into the kitchen to put my dishes in the dishwasher.  A leftover fortune cookie caught my eye.  For some reason, I unwrapped it, cracked it open, removed the fortune, and ate the cookie.  The fortune said, “Be prepared for an opportunity on Thursday.”  I chuckled to myself, but at the same time, I thought about that silly fortune cookie, for when you are in the midst of depression, any sign will do.

I spent the rest of the night in a funk – the same general malaise that has remained with me, at differing levels of intensity, for most of my 20s.  I have likened this period of malaise to the “The Great Sleep,” as described by narrator, Jack Burden, in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Jack describes The Great Sleep as a period of time in his life when he was “hiding from the present,” more or less freaked out by the seeming meaningless of existence.  I felt like I had been in a my own Great Sleep since – when?  The beginning of college?  Graduation?  The broken engagement?  Law school?  I wasn’t sure – and still can’t be sure – when it really started, or if something like that has a real beginning (or a real end, for that matter).  But it was very, very real.

That evening, I drifted around on the internet, on the same news sites that I always read, though I wasn’t in the least interested in reading anything.  The entire time, I hated myself.  I hated my indifference toward my job – I had spent most of the day at work not working, just as I had spent the entire week, much of the last month, and pretty much the entire year to some extent.  But most of all I felt totally numb, which is really the worst feeling in the world.

When I got up from my chair to climb the stairs to go to bed, something — boredom — led me to take a look at my bookshelf in the den.  And for some reason, I pulled The Purpose-Driven Life from the shelf.  I had bought it a few years before when I was trying to help my little brother through a difficult time – I had proposed to him that we would both read the book and discuss it.  As it turned out, we both bought the book, but I don’t think either of us actually read it, at least not more than a few pages.  But I pulled the book down on this night, and read the first chapter, which simply established the idea that God created everything for his purpose.  I nodded in agreement – I fully believed as much on an intellectual level – but it couldn’t break through my funk.

As I lay in bed that night, I remember wanting badly to talk to Jenny about what I was feeling — but when you don’t feel anything, what do you say about it?  I lay there flat on my back, and I tried to start a conversation with her to convey somehow my desperation.  I said something that was totally cryptic – I can’t remember exactly what – and she responded, but I just couldn’t follow up.  We both eventually just fell asleep.  My last thought was that I wished that I could stay asleep for a long time.

The next morning, I went to the gym.  I listened to Christian music that morning during my workout.  I was just feeling very blue, very numb, wanting something, anything, within me to bubble up to the surface.  When I got back home, I ate breakfast and read the second chapter of The Purpose-Driven Life, and I tried to really meditate on it.  But I remember this feeling like there was something in the front of my head, of my brain, that was clogging everything up.

But I did something different that morning – I prayed in earnest.  I really prayed.  Pretty much out loud.  I remember thinking that I didn’t know really what to say.  So I started my prayer by saying the Lord’s Prayer, out loud.  When I finished saying the Lord’s Prayer, the words just came.  I told God about my numbness, my utter lack of purpose and direction, my despair.  I told him I was so sorry for my sins, because I had this feeling that it was my narcissism, my subconscious rebellion against God, my obsession with my own dreams, that had led me to this point.  And I asked God to unclog me, to make me whole again, to show me the way.

And then everything changed.  The numbness vanished.  I began to weep, and then to sob.  And the tears fell down my face onto the hardwood floor, and I just let them fall as I talked to God, and thanked him for what he was doing right then and there.  And the fog lifted.  Almost immediately, I felt a purpose, a calling in my life.  I got up and went upstairs, and my wife saw a different person.  I was happy as I got ready for work.  I played a CD of hymns by Alan Jackson and sang along.  And I knew right then that everything had changed, that God was revealing a plan for me, and that I would follow that plan and fulfill His purpose.

————————————————

As I mentioned in the opening, I am crawling across the finish line of 2008.  Even as God has remade me — a “new creation” — I am struggling to…let…go…of some of my old ways, my selfish dreams and desires in life.  I still want to do it all.

But God didn’t create me to be a flake, a flighty dabbler.  I am made in His image.   And what is God if He is not the model of intensity, of focus, of passion, of inexorable, unstoppable Will toward the single purpose of establishing His kingdom, of reconciling ALL CREATION to Him, once and for all?

The name of this blog is derived from two places — an essay from one of my former students, and from 2 Corinthians 1:20: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”  Both are about redemption — God’s reclamation of us for His purposes, despite all of our past attempts to make it ourselves, and His promise to walk with us, to empower us, as we adjust our eyes to life in the Light and out of the darkness.

May we learn, in 2009, to trust God and His promises.  May we live with a spirit of boldness as we abandon our old dreams and let them die, once and for all, and instead “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus….”  May we dedicate 2009 to Him which is Yes.

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More than a feeling

Last week, I heard a pastor say that “we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the details of Jesus’s birth, but what matters is the feeling we get from the Christmas story.”

Ah, Christmas in the mainline.  Spiritually hungry?  Well, we’re serving up heaping ladle-fulls of magic mush — the thinnest of gruel.  Just close your eyes and pretend it’s whatever you want it to be, and — voila!  Come and get it!

Appetizing, huh?

For non-believers, the Christmas story may be about one’s “feelings,” to be treated no differently than It’s a Wonderful Life or The Polar Express.  They can take this approach only because they do not believe that Jesus was who He said He was.

But for Christians, the story of Christ’s birth matters: it was the moment that heaven met earth, that God himself finally set in motion His divine plan to redeem Creation, that God became “one of us.”  We celebrate the birth of this child not because it is a great story, or because this child grew up to be a profound teacher or philosopher.  Nobody celebrates Confucius’s birth.   We celebrate the birth of this child because we say that Jesus was the Son of God — the Way, the Truth, and the Life, whose death and resurrection have made it possible for us to be reconciled to God.  It’s not a mere story, but the ultimate history-changing event — the point of everything.

It’s become taboo in some circles to suggest that there is anything that is foundational to the Christian faith.  Many self-identified “Christians” unfortunately equate Christianity with their own personal search for meaning or truth — that any idea or belief they dream up must be “Christian” because they consider themselves “Christian.” No.  Your personal search for meaning may be deep and mystical, and who knows — it may lead you to something you believe is truth.  I do not know.  But I do know that unless you can answer Jesus’s question — “Who do you say that I am?” — the way He himself answered — “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” — you are not a Christian.  (What that means for salvation is a more complicated question — one that I don’t address here.)  We don’t get to redefine it.  It is what it is.

I’m reminded of the Episcopal priest from Seattle who recently claimed to be both Christian and Muslim. This was too much even for the Episcopal Church, which suspended her from the priesthood for a year (she still teaches at a Jesuit seminary).  No word yet on whether she has declared jihad on herself.

None of this is to say that all Christians must believe all of the same things.  Not even close — Christians have disagreed on a wide range of doctrinal issues for centuries.  This is not a call to strict doctrinal rigidity; after all, I am a Methodist.  But to be a “Christian” must mean something about who we believe this child, Jesus, was — and why His teaching should be followed, and why His death and resurrection mattered.

Christmas is more than a feeling.  Put another way, it’s “the greatest story ever told” only because of who Jesus was: the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

The late Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Heschel understood: “Jesus Christ is of no importance unless he is of supreme importance.”  Would that more Christians grasped this “detail.”

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Bringing back belief

Like most mainline congregations, my Methodist church has experienced a steady decline in active membership over the last few decades.  Recently, I served on a committee to address issues of church health and growth.  Our task was to define a compelling vision for our congregation by identifying “what a disciple from our congregation should look like.”

“A seeker, intellectually curious,” one person offered.

“Yes, yes,” came the unanimous affirmation from the rest of the room.  We recalled our denomination’s traditional commitment to open-mindedness.  Someone wrote “SEEKER” on the blackboard.

“A worshipper,” called out another.

“Of course, yes,” everyone nodded in assent, surely thinking about how well we worship at our traditional 11:00 A.M. service.  “WORSHIPPER” went up on the board.

“A servant, one who cares for ‘the least of these,'” someone else said.

“Yes, yes, yes!” came the overwhelming response.  Heads nodded vigorously as we remembered the acts of charity routinely performed by our downtown congregation.  Someone wrote “SERVANT” in large letters on the board.

Caught up in the moment, I blurted out, “What about … a believer?”

The room fell silent.  Blank faces stared back at me.  I was suddenly aware of the crickets chirping outside.  Finally, someone slowly said, “Yeah…a believer.”

How did we end up in this absurd position: earnestly worshipping and happily serving a God we are reluctant to believe in?

Surely, the causes are numerous.  Many of us distinctly remember that moment, probably freshman year at college, when we realized that the simplistic, overly literal understanding of God, Scripture, and faith of our youth could not withstand the battering force of dispassionate academic inquiry.  Duly chastened, we have since avoided any claims on absolute “Truth,” and have absorbed the post-modern tenet that objective Truth is either non-existent or unknowable.  Indeed, many of us have come to regard even the attempt to discover any objective Truth as silly, unsophisticated, and even offensive.

Others of us have become skittish when it comes to placing too much stock in any belief, for fear that it will be proven false by the next discovery of the Information Age.  And ditto for our unprecedented access into the private lives of some so-called Christian “leaders” who have proven to be deeply flawed hypocrites at best, and outright charlatans at worst.

So our aversion to “belief” is understandable – but it is not excusable.  Whatever our personal impediments to belief, Scripture makes it clear that there simply can be no meaningful Christian discipleship without some element of belief.  John flatly states: “Whoever believes in him [Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  (John 3:18 (TNIV)).  And who can forget Jesus’s pointed questioning of his disciples: “But what about you?   Who do you say that I am?”   (Matthew 16:15).

Simply put, belief in God through Christ is the foundation on which all of our attempts at discipleship rest.  Without belief, our worship is meaningless and our service is impotent.  So we must learn how to believe again – but how?

  • Put belief in its place.

The contemporary instinct against talk of “belief” may be rooted in a growing frustration with the still-dominant American theology that reduces Christian salvation to a transaction for “fire insurance”: “believe this and punch your ticket to heaven – rather than hell.”  (So-called “prosperity theology,” as preached by so many televangelists, is the smiley-faced cousin of this view of Christianity.)

Many serious disciples justifiably recoil from such a narrow-minded and self-centered view of salvation.  God’s saving work in us and in the world does not end with a simple profession of belief.  While we are “saved by grace” (Ephesians 2:8), we recognize, as James said, that “faith without deeds is dead.”  (James 2:26).

But we should be careful not to toss out the baby with the bathwater.  Belief may not be a sufficient condition for Christian discipleship, but it remains a necessary one.  Indeed, faith without good works may be hollow, but to do good works without a foundation in belief is to forfeit the awesome power of faith that, according to Jesus, makes all things possible.  (Matthew 17:20).  We should rightfully resist attempts to reduce the Gospel message to a simple “believe-in-your-heart-and-be-saved” bumper sticker, but we must not ignore Christ’s query: “Who do you say that I am?”  Without belief in God’s saving work through Christ, Christianity is reduced to just another do-gooder philosophy.  And that is not the Gospel message.

  • Understand that Christian belief does not require the suspension of your mental faculties.

Our intellectual abilities are gifts from God, and surely God does not expect us to ignore them.  Christian belief does not, for example, mandate a “young earth” view of the origins of life, outright rejection of evolutionary biology, or a blind eye to archaeological discoveries.

For those Christians who feel challenged by the modern advances of biology, I recommend Dr. Frances Collins’s recent book, The Language of God.  Collins – who led the Human Genome Project, which essentially unlocked the human genetic code – strongly defends the theory of evolution while maintaining an ardent Christian faith.  For those whose questions are more philosophical, Tim Keller’s The Reason for God provides honest, head-on responses to many postmodern objections to Christianity.  And any Christian who has not taken the time to read and absorb C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity should immediately stop reading this article and promptly obtain a copy of Lewis’s masterpiece.

Indeed, Christ himself invited us to examine the underpinnings of our beliefs, rather than to stop merely with the literal words of Scripture.  When several Pharisees criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus responded, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?”  (Luke 14:5).  Likewise, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly went beyond the literal words of Scripture to reveal the deeper lessons behind those words.  (Matthew 5).

My point is that modern Christians should not feel that they must choose between faith and reason.  To be sure, all religious belief, including Christianity, requires some element of faith, a willingness to accept as true certain things that simply cannot be proven – or disproven – by science or reason.  But so does non-belief.  As Keller skillfully illustrates in his book, “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs.”  All of us believe in something, some “truths” that cannot be completely verified empirically.  Christians should take comfort in the fact that countless first-rate Christian intellectuals have thoroughly examined the foundations of their Christian beliefs, and we should acquaint ourselves with their compelling defenses of the faith.

  • Accept that belief does not mean the absence of all doubt at all times.

Finally, we should accept that doubt is a natural symptom of belief.  Here the Webster’s definition of “belief” is instructive: “partial or full assurance without positive knowledge or absolute certainty.”

Recall the story from Mark 9, when a distraught father brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus to be healed.  The father pleaded with Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Jesus retorted, “‘If you can’?  Everything is possible for one who believes.”  The father’s response is golden: “I do believe!  Help me overcome my unbelief!”  This was enough for Jesus – he healed the boy.  (Mark 9:14-29).

That should be our prayer to God: “I believe – help my unbelief.”  Christian discipleship requires faith, but we should not be ashamed when we experience doubt.  Nor should we feel as if we must go it alone: in the spirit of the searching shepherd, the expectant father of the prodigal son, God rushes out to meet us more than halfway.  God has provided us with the comforting words of Scripture, the tradition of the Christian saints who have shown us faith in action, the awesome power of our personal encounters with God, and the intellectual ability to examine the evidence of Christ’s ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection.

Despite our understandable aversions to talk of “belief,” we continue to recite the Apostles’ Creed, or some variation of it, every Sunday.  We should take those words seriously, always remembering that belief is the crucial foundation of discipleship.  And then, we can seek, worship, and serve a God and a Savior in whom we actually, you know, believe.

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Inertia

Confounded

Concerned

Confused

Conflicted

Heart and soul repressed by mind

Alive and aloof
Selfless and selfish
Lucid and lugheaded
Visionary and visionless

Here is the temporary, there is the eternal…maybe
I have a choice.
Where is courage?

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To Him which is Yes

As the bell rang, I shut the classroom door and sighed deeply.

“Your assignment is on the board,” I said loudly, trying to rise above the din of junior-high horseplay.

The assignment was to write a “credo,” a personal statement of belief, like Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  I thought it was a good assignment because it would keep the class – especially Trevor – reasonably quiet for forty-five minutes.

I propped my elbows on my desk and massaged my temples.  What a fraud you are, I thought, giving them an assignment you wouldn’t dare attempt yourself.

How had I gotten from there to here?  “There” was success: the awards; the scholarship; the acceptance letter from Teach For America; the diamond ring; the girlfriend who became a fiancée on that February night, on the front porch of her grandparents’ old house in our hometown.

“Here” was failure: the phone call; the sleepless night; the diamond ring again; the sobbing, the mourning its death, the pushing all of that down, down, deep inside, to be dealt with at another time, another place, because I had “a very important job to do.”

So I had showed up that first day in my coat and tie, ready to pour everything into the task at hand, to lead these poor kids to literary enlightenment.  Now, five months later, that dream, too, had been shattered by reality.  On one wall was “Billy Grammar,” that cartoon missionary I had invented “to spread the gospel of good grammar to 7th graders around the world” – he was now missing an arm, an ear, and half a leg.  At the front of the room was the bulletin board that had once displayed our “class mantra,” a creed that in the beginning we recited every day.  It was a quote from Paul “Bear” Bryant: If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride – and never quit – you will be a winner.  The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards. Now, graffiti obscured most of the words and the red background was ripped in several places.  We rarely recited the mantra now – several days would pass before a student would mention it.

I looked up to check on the class.  Everyone looked busy – except Trevor.  He sat upright in his desk, looking straight ahead, rarely blinking.  He had not so much as taken out a piece of paper.  I strode to Trevor’s desk and hovered over him.

“You can either begin your essay right now or you can leave my class,” I whispered, a little more hotly than I had intended.  Trevor’s eyes met mine, and I saw… pain?  Without looking down, he deliberately took out his notebook and gripped his pencil.  I strutted back to my desk, surprised by how effective I had been-but a little shaken by what I saw in Trevor’s eyes.  It seemed so familiar.

As I pretended to grade yesterday’s pop quizzes, my mind wandered to the book I had been reading: The Brothers Karamazov.  I had picked it up because I am one of four brothers, just like the Karamazovs.  The hero of the novel is the youngest brother, Alyosha, a seminarian with a sincere, but untested, belief in the goodness of God and the possibilities of redemption.

But I was the second-eldest, like Ivan Karamazov: the coldly analytical atheist who cannot reconcile the concept of a loving God with the intractable suffering in the world.  Ivan challenges Alyosha’s faith by telling the story of the five year-old girl whose parents delight in berating her, beating her, even filling her mouth with excrement — and then sleep peacefully as the little girl wails in her room down the hall.  What kind of God, Ivan asks, could think that “free will” is worth the cost?  “Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil,” says Ivan. “Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God!'”

Alyosha has no riposte, and neither did I.  In the thick fog of my own depression, where was God?  And if I found him or he found me, why would I want to have anything to do with him after what he had let happen to me?  So much for the “gift of life” – life isn’t a gift when it is nothing but pain.  The only gift, I thought, would be relief from having to face life every day.

I looked up to check on Trevor.  To my surprise, he was writing feverishly, as if his pencil could not keep up with his mind.  Suddenly, he threw down his pencil and walked directly to my desk.  Without saying a word, he placed his essay in front of me, walked away, put his head down on his desk, and sobbed quietly.

Trevor’s credo was entitled, “WHAT?!”, and this is how it read:

What is the basic [sic] for all life?  Life is like a pig and a farmer.  The farmer and his family love the pig, but as soon as they get a little hungry, it’s off with its head.”

Then I remembered that Trevor’s girlfriend, Lakeisha, had broken up with him earlier that week.  She sat just a few seats away from him in my class.  That was the pain I had seen in his eyes, and here it was on his paper.

“At any given moment you what?  You worry about the trials and tribulations in life and it makes you want to commit suicide.  You can’t prevent the inebitable [sic].  You die and that’s it … If life is so precious, why do I waste it?  If you have free will, why force yourself to do wrong?  It should be so evident what the right way is, but it isn’t.”

The despair in Trevor’s words troubled me.  He sounded like me.  He sound like Ivan Karamazov.

I flipped the page.

“But the Lord is my Shepard [sic].  And I will not be in want.

“If all you do in life is live day by day never accomplishing anything, you my brother should not worry about next day or this battle but it’s the Big Picture or the War you should stay focused on.  His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.  He watches me.  He cares about me. He loves me.  He keeps me in perfect peace.  Halelujah [sic] to God Almighty, to Jehova Jira [sic], to the Awesome Ruler.  To Him which is Yes.”

“To Him which is Yes”: the allusion to the e.e. cummings poem i thank You God for most this amazing day — which we had read in class — stunned me.

Trevor concluded:

“So, what.  What does this all mean.  Well, it means this.

Why

He

Always cares about

Trevor.”

And in a page and a half of wide-ruled notebook paper, a twelve year-old explained the meaning of life with the most profound exposition of free will, sin, redemption, and grace I have ever read or heard.  It took Dostoevsky 900 pages.

I wish I could say that everything changed for me that day.  Make no mistake: Trevor’s credo moved me – I knew, in that moment, that God had used Trevor to speak to me, and I listened.  But even as we lay our burdens, our sins, all of our miserable shortcomings, at the foot of the cross, it still takes time for life’s deepest wounds to heal.  Nor does grace immunize us from life’s future hurts.  As amazing as grace is, we have to re-discover it from time to time as we suffer new scars in places we never dreamed were vulnerable to attack.

The apostle Paul assures us that “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”  (2 Corinthians 1:20).  Grace is not a one-time transaction, but a constant process of redemption and renewal, as Christ takes on our hurts as they happen.  It has been almost seven years since Trevor taught me this lesson, and in that time, God has been faithful.  Those wounds that were so fresh and messy have healed completely; what is more, I am now married to my best friend, and God has blessed us with a little girl, who is expected to enter this world officially in April.  Alas, new “trials and tribulations” lurk around the corner – a financial crisis threatens our family’s security, the pressure of my profession (I’m now a lawyer) is an ever-present source of anxiety, and uncertainty seems like the only certainty ahead.  But because of grace, I can face those uncertainties with the confidence that God “watches me … cares about me … loves me … [and] keeps me in perfect peace” through it all.

To Him which is Yes, indeed.

this-amazing-day

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