Journey Through Brokenness – March 3

Speaking Truth to Power from Within

In 2000, I led a small group to Germany and Austria for a tour that included two days in Oberammergau, Germany, for the decennial Passion Play. The local citizens of this village have performed the passion play commemorating the last week of Jesus’s life since 1634. It began with a pledge made to God after half of the population died of the bubonic plague in 1633. After they made the pledge, no more of the villagers died of the plague, and the villagers have been keeping to their word ever since. Soon after their pledge the play would be performed on every zero year of the arriving decade. With only a few exceptions (including the pandemic year of 2020 … the play is now set for 2022), the people have faithfully performed the play as have their ancestors.

It is performed in German, and the non-German speakers are given a script that has the play in German and in the chosen native language of the audience member

Oberammergau Passionsspiele

The thing I learned about the passion play is that the script is rewritten and tweaked during the decade before its performance. The story we tell of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection is based on various passages of scripture, which are pieced together. Much of it is based on John’s gospel, but to tell a more comprehensive story is to (1) interpret the various passages, and (2) fill in the story with educated assumptions.

During the last half of the 20th century, Germans spent a great deal of time seeking to understand how being complicit to evil had placed their country at the heart of two World Wars. One of the key things that emerged was the innate antisemitism contained in the interpretation of John’s gospel that Jesus was killed “by the Jews.”

A critical reading of John’s gospel does place Jewish religious power and leadership at the heart of the conflict with Jesus, and the passion play does follow John’s gospel by focusing on the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. If we look closely at the name, “Judas” (in Greek, Ἰούδας), we will see that the name means “the Jew” (in Greek, Ἰουδαῖος). Adolph Hitler cited this theme found clearly in the passion play as he created what would come to be known as “the solution to the Jewish problem.”

The people of Oberammergau (and many throughout Germany) began reflecting upon how the play itself contributed to the Holocaust and the genocide of six million Jews under the tyrannical reign of Nazi Germany and its leader, Adolph Hitler. The writers of the play decided it was time to change.

In 2000, the script included some interesting things. First, we saw a heightened role for members of the Sanhedrin who were secret followers of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. They wanted to let it be known that there were forces from within Jewish religious leadership who sought to speak truth to power.

The other piece of this was the revised role of Judas Iscariot, whose role lended credibility that he may have thought Jesus to be the militant messiah who would violently overthrow Roman rule if he were only pushed into a corner. Just before Judas’s suicide, he had a long soliloquy where he grieved his actions, owned up to a complete misunderstanding of who Jesus was, and spoke so as to keep the audience from flattening out Jews into only one dimension.

The play was revised even further for 2010, but one thing had become clear.

The people of Oberammergau saw that they had to speak truth to power from within. They saw that they were part of a culture and nation that was easily corruptible. If they were to be Christ-followers, they had to speak truth into the structures of privilege and power to which they belong.

This lengthy history finally boils down to one simple truth. It is something I have heard clearly in this last year, and it was most profoundly spoken at an event required of all clergy in our conference of the United Methodist Church. The online event was a Be the Bridge event led by the author of that book and founder of the non-profit that goes by the same name. Her name is Latasha Morrison, and she is all about bridge building. You can find out more about the organization HERE.

The truth we learned is that it is time for white people to speak the truth about oppression and injustice to other white people. It is time to speak the truth from within. I heard the call to take off the blinders of privilege and speak the truth about how we continue to marginalize people. Sometimes that place is in the church itself … locally, regionally, and globally.

So where are you called to speak truth?

In my mind, our answer may require us to speak truth in some uncomfortable ways. But we are called to base our decisions on the challenge to fulfill our baptismal vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.” In this season of brokenness and repentance, God is calling us.

Speak the truth from within.

Lord God, you have called us to follow Jesus and learn to speak the truth. Give us the courage to follow this radical messiah. Amen.

Journey Through Brokenness – March 2

Speaking Truth to Power from Without

Speaking truth to power is key to understanding the life and ministry of Jesus. It sounds confrontational, and it often moves us beyond our comfort zone. The truth is that, if we read the gospels carefully, we will find that Jesus likely makes his followers uncomfortable. My guess is that anyone who felt too uncomfortable about challenging the status quo did not stay with Jesus for long.

I am spending two days to this week to specifically look at how we speak truth to power … from without (meaning outside the institution/organization/community) and from within (from those belonging to the institution/organization/community).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had come to Birmingham, Alabama, to aid in the fight for racial justice and was subsequently arrested as the marchers stood in non-violent protest against law enforcement. While in jail, he happened to come upon an open letter written to him in the local newspaper. It was signed by eight religious leaders, including two Methodist bishops, Nolan Harmon and Paul Hardin, and the letter challenged him as being an outsider who was instigating violence by encouraging the African-American citizens of Birmingham to stand up to the white oppressors.

The letter asked Dr. King (along with others) to stay out of the conversation in order that the citizens of Alabama could respectfully talk about their differences while also respecting “law and order” (parenthetically noted because we hear that same phrase used today).

You can read the full text of both the Clergymen’s Letter and Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail here response here.

For the purpose of this reflection, I am focusing more on Dr. King’s response as to the nature of his presence as an “outsider.” He compares himself to the Apostle Paul who is called by God and the newly emerging church to go to places as an “outsider” himself in order to bring the power of the gospel to bear in each situation.

Dr. King came speaking this truth from outside that community while demonstrating a solidarity with the oppressed through non-violent resistance that was intended as a gift to both the oppressed and the oppressors.

We divided our nation and the Methodist denomination in the middle of the 19th century over slavery, and even today, we southerners don’t care for people from the north making proclamations about our politics or our religion. Even more, we Texans don’t like having people outside of Texas influence ANY PART of who we are as Texans (which accounts for why we have a power grid separate from anyone else in the USA).

But as we follow Jesus to the cross, it might be helpful to understand that, while he was a Jewish rabbi, he was from the north (Galilee) and he was meddling in the religious affairs in the temple, which happened to be in the south (Judah). Jesus was considered an outsider.

There is an interesting exchange after Peter has been told that he will deny Jesus three times on the night before Jesus’s execution. He is sitting around a campfire near where Jesus is being interrogated, and the people sitting around the fire with him said, “You are certainly one of his followers; your accent betrays you.” (Matthew 26:73). We may well have said it, “Y’all sound like you from the narth.” (I am told I only talk that way when I meet up with people from my hometown or my family … sigh).

Jesus himself was an outsider who came to meddle in the affairs of religious leadership in Jerusalem, and when he turned over the tables of the money changers, he was immediately targeted because he was not someone who lived in Jerusalem … and he certainly never served in the temple.

So as Jesus confronts us in our complacency and our comfort, he often comes in the voice of the “outsider” … the one who speaks from “without” the institutional structure we hold so dearly.

Some have heard me tell the story of my angel that hangs in my office. This angel (pictured below) was given to me by someone who could easily have been labeled as an “outsider.” He was someone who attended the large church where I was on staff, but he never joined. He was always in the margins. Fortunately for me, I had been told by a wise mentor that the best insight I could ever have about how the church was doing was by asking someone in the margins to tell me the truth.

Mike was that person. He was a recovering alcoholic who had a deep distrust of the church. He had been harmed by the church early in his life. He had watched the church destroy the lives of his friends, and while he knew that there was truth in the message of the church, the messengers were often very untrustworthy.

He was willing to speak truth to power even at the risk of being considered an outsider … a rabble rouser … who didn’t take care not to offend the largest givers or keep the peace with key decision makers in the church. He just spoke the truth … and by the grace of God, I had the good sense to listen.

As he realized that I was willing to listen … to share a relationship with someone who could easily tarnish my image as a “good pastor” by giving credence to his critiques and his perspective on the truth … he and I developed a deeper friendship. He then gave me this angel.

But there is the truth about the angel that perhaps leads us to an even deeper insight. Mike made art out of discarded toys. The angel herself is a discarded Barbie doll that was partially dismembered, and Mike found her by accident when he noticed her in a neighbor’s trash.

You see the truth that Mike knew was that, even as an outsider, he could speak a truth that might feel like a dismembering … a breaking apart … and yet he trusted, like Dr. King, that there was something greater yet to come. When we speak truth to power … even from the outside … there is this implicit faith that God will take that which falls apart and make something beautiful and new!

O God, who comes to us speaking truth from the outside: Speak your word into our world and our structures that we might discover the beauty that you have for us on the other side of brokenness. Amen.

Journey Through Brokenness – March 1

Collective Brokenness

In some sense, we believe that we live in unprecedented times, but I am a student of history. I don’t think that the times are unprecedented … they are, however, unsettling.

When I was in seminary, we was told a word to remember would be antidisestablishmentarianism. It took us a while to figure it out, but since it contains a double negative, it kept us guessing and never quite sure we had really figured it out. What we did know was that we were experiencing fundamental shifts in societal institutions that had begun a generation earlier. If we were honest, these institutions had been going through dramatic shifts for centuries.

It was as if we knew we were on a long train that was going through various landscapes and terrain, yet it seemed different for us as our own train car was going through the same things in our own time.

And it continues.

We have experienced shifts at the global level that come as a result of a global economy and global connections in a world made ever-smaller with modern technologies in communications and transportation. We have witnessed (first-hand, for some of us) political turmoil in other countries … economic collapse … war … poverty … and massive migrations as refugees have sought hope in an increasingly inhospitable world.

We have experienced breakdowns in family systems as family structures continue to change. We have experienced brokenness in religious communities, even as we have in our United Methodist Church.

Then, as if this level of brokenness wasn’t enough, we have experienced an assault on American democracy in the very recent past … culminating with the siege on our nation’s Capitol Building. As I said, all of this, while present in world history, is very unsettling when it is happening to us.

Brokenness defines so much of what we experience at the collective level. It is institutional brokenness that challenges some important foundations upon which we have stood and are trying to stand even now.

In the midst of this, Jesus comes to remind us that the one thing that remains certain is God. Jesus recognized the frailty of human institutions whether he was talking about friendship, marriage, religion, or government. Jesus recognized that sometimes the frailty exists due to decisions and power structures that are beyond our control. Yet Jesus also recognized that often we are the ones who break the very structures over which we exert influence.

More than that, Jesus comes amidst the brokenness and the frailty of our institutions to offer a word of hope. As we have experienced God at work in our own brokenness at the more personal parts of our lives, so we are invited to experience God in the brokenness at the level of institutions and and organizations. God reminds us that we are people who need each other … we need human community … yet God also knows that our various expressions of community can harm as much as they can heal … they can destroy as much as they can build.

So where is God in the midst of brokenness at these corporate levels?

God is in people who take a stand for those who are being crushed by brokenness at that level. As we have celebrated Black History in a season when we have to keep reminding ourselves that Black Lives Matter, we have again heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that taking the middle ground is not an option. We are called to be more than lukewarm in our opposition to injustice for injustice finally to be defeated. This is a time to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or oppressed in any way. It is a time to speak truth to power.

God is in people who practice forgiveness. The greatest images for me are images of forgiveness that do not act like nothing happened, yet which continue to speak the truth and offer love in a new, more accountable way. In reading Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness written with his daughter, the one thing that stands out for me is that the commission in South Africa was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It wasn’t a “forgive and forget” kind of reconciliation. It was a time of naming the wrongs and harms perpetrated by the White leadership under the system of apartheid, and it was a time of reintegrating into a new culture.

And God is in people who seek a new normal. As we see our institutional structures fall around us where, as Jesus says, “not one stone will be standing upon another,” we who are Christ followers are called to seek a “new normal.” This is a new way of imagining human community, knowing all the while that each system or institutional structure we create will itself become frail and broken over time. We are called to see the God to whom these imperfect structures point.

When we see ourselves and our institutions as vessels, we will have discovered the God to whom all creation points. It is about relationships, it is about grace, and it is about love.

God, we offer ourselves and our institutions to your love and care. Speak to us amidst our collective brokenness, and remind us that you are the God who calls us to the place of wholeness and hope. Amen.

The Journey Through Brokenness – February 28

Singular Focus

As I have written about liminal space, the one thing that stands out for me is that, when I find myself in that liminal space, it forces me to focus on what is most important in that moment. We know those people who are considered to be so important that they don’t have time for fun … for family … for self-care … for others. There are many times that people assume that about me. There are those who say that they hate to bother me because they know I am so busy … and there are times that I am tempted to let that be the story I tell myself.

What I have discovered, however, is that liminality … whether experienced in a profound religious experience or following the death of a loved one or even following a surgery … tends to focus me on what is truly important. I have observed over the years that people, no matter who they are, when gathered at funerals, discover that everything they think important in their daily lives suddenly is of little value as they sit and contemplate the mystery of death and the greater mystery that exists beyond death.

In Mark 8, as Jesus has told the disciples that he is moving toward Jerusalem and the suffering and death that awaits him there, it is Peter who takes him aside and rebukes him. Jesus then turns, looking at the other disciples, says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

As I have read and studied non-violent resistance as practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and others who fought for civil rights, what stands out for me is the singular focus of the leaders. Even when Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam War, he was chastised by others for diluting the message. His speech, Beyond Vietnam, made the claim that resources diverted for the war were resources that were denied Black Americans in their search for justice. While preaching global non-violence, he remained focused on the struggle for justice.

The pandemic has created a liminal space into which we have witnessed the deaths of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Javier Ambler, and others, and we have watched as the Black Lives Matter movement has called us back to that singular focus. We are people who are called to focus on the ways of God in this liminal space.

So as we hear the words of Jesus spoken to Peter, consider what it means to focus on the ways of God and not our human ways, I think perhaps this is an opportunity to discover how God might use this liminal space to focus our hearts and lives again on things such as care of the most marginalized and vulnerable people … the care of an increasingly vulnerable planet … and how we can create community as God envisions community.

When we focus our hearts in this way, I am convinced we will glimpse the Beloved Community … the Kingdom of God … that emerges from such singular focus. Just perhaps we will come face-to-face with God in this space.

God, you find us in this space where we are beyond what has been and what is yet to be, and you call us to the singular focus of your divine love and your divine ways. May we follow our Christ to the place of singular devotion that your kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven! Amen.

The Journey Through Brokenness – February 27

Encountering Doubt

This conversation has unfolded more times than I can count throughout my years of ministry. The most profound experience of this had to do with a family who had wanted me to have a conversation with their grown son. He and I were similar in age, and they were hoping I could help.

He had told the family that he was agnostic … that he might be heading toward outright atheism … and they wanted me to act fast to save his soul. So they introduced us and then helped coordinate a time when he would be home at their house during a time when I could stop by for a visit.

We sat down to talk, and their son, attempting to either test me or outright just drive me away, said, “Look, I don’t believe in your God. I am doubting whether there is even a God of any sort, but I am an atheist if all you’ve got is the God of the Bible.”

I then asked him, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.”

He began to tell me about a God of judgment … an angry God who slaughtered innocent children and who commanded faithful followers to completely destroy villages in the conquest of the promised land. He then talked about a God who was not described in scripture, but who was described in modern culture. This was a God who set the world in motion and then was removed from it, leaving all of us to our own devices.

After I listened to him for a period of time, I finally responded: “Well, we should get along great. Because that God that you don’t believe in? I don’t believe in that God either.”

Not sure that was where his parents really wanted me to go with this. But I knew that there was no other way go talk about it.

I have discovered that, for many people, it is best to start at the place of doubt. There are many people who struggle with doubt. If we are honest about it, we who find ourselves in the heart of mainline Christianity are pretty uncomfortable with doubt. We are the ones who sing, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” with gusto and confidence, and we are not sure we have a place for doubt. We don’t seem to have a hymn named “Waning Assurance” in our hymnal.

It is in this liminal space … this thin space … that we encounter our doubts. If there is anything that creates fear within us, it is the sometimes surprising onset of doubt. More than coming face-to-face with our sin … our brokenness … our grief, doubt feels like it can be our undoing.

What I have discovered, however, is that doubt can be a pathway to God. That is why I think I connect so easily with people who are honest about their doubts. I myself have been surprised by the deeper connection with God that has occurred as a result of my own brutal honesty about my doubts.

So as we journey through brokenness, our doubt often comes full force at us … as if to throw us off balance … or to move us farther away from God. But God is one who meets us right where we are. God is not put off or angry about our doubt.

If I am honest, God uses my own doubt to clear a pathway for greater connection … and a greater community … as I deepen my relationship with God and with all of creation, which includes the children of God.

Embrace the doubt. Then take the next step in faith. It is there that God will be waiting.

Lord, you give us the Psalm quoted by Jesus crying out with the question of why you have forsaken us in our time of suffering. You let us freely speak our doubts, and in that freedom, we soon discover a new pathway that leads us to your arms of grace. Amen.

The Journey Through Brokenness – February 26

Losing Our Lives

In Mark 8, as Jesus as talked to his followers about what it means to take up their crosses to follow, he says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35) As I have written about brokenness, I have compared it to this idea of “being poured out.”

I think Jesus perhaps is thinking something similar to that, as well.

As I have addressed issues of brokenness throughout my ministry, there is a truth I have discovered. So many of us are afraid of brokenness … talking about brokenness … admitting to brokenness … because we are afraid that brokenness will be our undoing. As I first began to unpack the role of such brokenness in in the life of clergy, I quickly came upon the fear that brokenness would certainly mark the end of ministry … possibly an end to their own identity or self-worth.

But perhaps there is another way to understand suffering. Perhaps it has a value deeper than we might imagine.

One of my colleagues who helped me discover a different way of thinking about suffering was someone who had experienced such a devastating time in ministry that he had all but shut the door on ministry. The church had hurt him so badly … his superiors had been unsupportive and blamed him for all the stress he was feeling (which added even more stress) … he had fallen into what felt like a vacuum. Well-meaning Christian friends had told him to suck it up … to be strong … and, in one instance, described this as the cross he had to bear so he would have a closer connection with Jesus.

He was done.

The isolation he felt was overwhelming, and I was the first person who had reached out to him to invite him into a group whose sole purpose was to sustain one another in our brokenness. It required a great deal of vulnerability on the part of every person in the group, but it taught me one thing.

Community offered a new way to think about brokenness. When brokenness was experienced in community, it became the pathway that led to an even greater sense of community. In more recent years, I would learn that brokenness became the key tool for practicing empathy with others who had experienced brokenness themselves.

Brokenness, when brought into authentic community, brings so much more than annihilation. It becomes a cornerstone upon which we can build character … relationships … faith … hope … maybe even love.

In a conversation I had with my colleague, he said something that I would never forget. He told me, “Just when I thought I had lost my ministry and even lost myself, you helped connect me to a group of people where I could lose myself in a way that brought healing and hope.”

I wonder if Jesus had this in mind when he asked us to take up our crosses, follow, and then lose ourselves to God and one another. I don’t think losing ourselves is always about dying (though that could certainly be an outcome). Just perhaps this is about losing ourselves in sacred community … in relationship with God and God’s creation … where we experience healing and hope.

Lose yourselves to God, my friends, and perhaps you will discovered that you have gained everything!

God, who calls us to be lost in you: Beckon us forth to the precipice of your immense, amazing grace … call us to sink into sacred relationship … that we might find ourselves abiding wholly in you. Amen.

The Journey Through Brokenness – February 25

A Space for Grief

I was on staff at a large church where I did regular hospital visitation every Friday. I would often see as many as 30 people across four cities and two counties, so it was inevitable that I would, on occasion, come upon people who were facing end-of-life moments. On one such occasion, I came into a hospital room where a man in his seventies had just been told that he had a stage four cancer and that there was nothing that could be done.

His daughter was there with him, and she was talking to him. Their conversation was very superficial. He had long since been active in the church, but he was glad that a pastor from the church had come to visit him in this critical time in his life.

As soon as he began to tell me about his diagnosis, I could tell he was still in shock and expressing deep grief at the news. I asked him what he might want to share about his feelings in that moment and how I might be able to help him. I made every effort to create for him a safe space for our conversation.

But his daughter grew increasingly agitated as we talked, and I finally discerned that maybe I was not there at a good time. I had a prayer, and as I left she followed me into the hallway. “What was that all about?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure I followed her. Guessing she was talking about our conversation about his grief, I told her that it was customary to make space for people to talk about the harsh realities in their lives, if they want to talk about it. She snapped at me, “Well, he might want to talk about it, but we aren’t going to let him get down about it. I spent all that time distracting him from it, and then you walk in and just let him go right to the topic! Please know that we don’t want you or anyone else who comes to visit to talk to him about his cancer. That is strictly OFF-LIMITS!”

It was a difficult encounter, and I ended it by asking her to please consider that being able to grieve and process himself is important. Her final response to me was, “In our family, we don’t grieve! We get over it and move on.”

Her father died over the weekend. We never heard from the family again.

Sacred spaces. Safe spaces. Spaces where we grieve our own human frailty. Spaces where we grieve our brokenness and the pain we experience in this life. Spaces where we grieve death … both for those we love and for our own losses … for our own death.

When we find ourselves in this liminal space, we often find that we come face to face with our own grief. What I have discovered is that, when I choose to gloss over grief or treat it only superficially, it becomes a wound that will not heal. The healing I have learned to seek is better defined as wholeness.

When we lost our son-in-law in 2016, we discovered what deep grief … heavy grief … feels like. We discovered the importance of the sacred and safe space required for us to grieve well.

When we had landed in Honolulu and had been transported from the airport by one of our daughter’s friends, we took a deep breath as we walked into their house that day. As we broke down in tears while pulling our daughter into that long hug of pain and grief, I whispered to her: “Don’t let people tell you that we will move day by day or even hour by hour. We do this breath by breath.”

As a dad who was trained as a pastor and pastoral counselor … and trained as an end-of-life and grief coach … I knew that the one job I had to do was to draw the circle around our family and to stake the claim on our sacred space where we could walk without judgment through the time of grief. There would be no time limits, and healing would not look like going back. We were headed toward a “new normal,” and this would require space to grieve and grow. It is a process of years, and there is no time limit on how we grow in this.

What was confirmed and what I continue to practice in ministry and coaching is that grief has a way of seasoning us and instilling in us a wisdom that we would not otherwise have. It is this wisdom that I associate with the authentic self of which I have written.

As we journey through brokenness and human suffering, we will discover that God is also in the midst of our grief. The theme of the incarnation that we talked about at Christmas is here made real for us as we experience a God who has suffered our pains, borne our sorrows, grieved our losses, and died our death.

When you find yourself in that thin place of grief, know that this is also a place where God comes to meet you!

God, even though it is sometimes difficult, we look for you in our grief and in our sorrows. Remind us that you are the one who has created the safe and sacred space for grief that leads us to the new normal of hope and life. Amen.

The Journey Through Brokenness – February 24

Subtle Awakening to Who We Are

In Genesis 17, we see Abram and Sarai, who have followed God as nomads … wandering through the land of promise. They are not sure why they are there. They believed themselves to be beyond the childbearing years. And in this image of wilderness wandering … this thin place … it is here that God calls them to a transformative moment and seals it with a change to their names. Abram will now be known as Abraham. Sarai will now be known as Sarah

As we can see, the changes were subtle. So what was the difference?

The name “Abram” אַבְרָם(Avram), which is composed of two Hebrew words, av and ram … roughly meaning “exalted father.” The new name Abraham אַבְרָהָם (Avraham), on the other hand, derives from the words אַב (av) and הֲמוֹן (hamon), which roughly means “father of many nations.” The addition of one Hebrew letter made a huge difference.

The change from Sarai to Sarah is even more subtle. “Sarai” (שָׂרָי) and “Sarah” (שָׂרָה) are different forms of the same Hebrew word that basically means speaks to royalty and strength … think “princess” or “woman of strength.” The subtle difference here is that “Sarah” is the possessive form of the noun as in “my princess” or “my woman of strength.” It is this notion that what she ultimately bears to the world is none other than the gifts of God. Through her, all nations … all people. … are royalty and endowed with a divine strength. The DNA of God is infused into all of creation.

Subtle, yet profound!

So as we journey with God, we become aware of our own limitations … our own brokenness … God comes to us and reminds us who we are. We are called to do greater things than we have ever thought possible. And it starts with that encounter with God when, if we will only listen, God may just tell us who we are.

May you discover your most authentic self in this season!

Lord, we trust that you know us better than we know ourselves. We pray in this season of introspection and renewal that you will reveal to us your vision of our most authentic selves. Amen.

The Journey Through Brokenness – February 23

Liminal Space

In the 2008 release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (the last in the movie series that was released 27 years following the first in the series), there is a continuation of a subtle theme of spirituality. This movie takes us into the realm of space aliens and the idea that it was aliens who contributed to the various wonders of the ancient world.

It happens when we come face-to-face with the crystal skeletons of a council of these beings, who come to life when the crystal skull taken from one of their members is finally returned. Professor Oxley (played by John Hurt) has been out of touch with reality from the time we first meet him in the movie, and he immediately returns to his senses in this scene. At this point Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) asks, “Are these from outer space.” Professor Oxley replies: “It seems, rather, that they are from the space between spaces.”

This idea of the “space between spaces” is also seminal to the theme found in Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time (of which I spoke in a recent sermon). It is in this space that Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which take the children on the search for their father.

In Hebrew and Christian spirituality, it is what is known as “liminal space” or the “thin space.” It is best described in the story of Elijah, as Elijah has escaped the sword of Jezebel after he had killed the prophets of Baal. He has his own wilderness experience, where he first wishes to die only to be told by an angel to wait on a mountain that he might see God.

In 1 Kings 19:11b-12, Elijah then is on the mountain and he experiences God in a way that is unexpected:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

This “sheer silence” isn’t silence like we normally think about silence. This is the silence of space … where there are no molecules to transmit sound waves. This is that vacuous sound where it seems as if everything is being pulled away from us. This is the “thin space” or the “space between spaces.”

Liminality is something that mainline religious traditions don’t always talk about. The truth is that I have experienced liminality when I have felt most broken. When I am at that place of deepest grief … when I have been poured out completely … it is here that I experience something like “sheer silence.” This isn’t the place to think or do … this is the place only “to be.”

We are invited into this liminal space in this season of Lent. This is where we come face to face with our brokenness and powerlessness. This is where we come face-to-face with our most authentic selves.

Listen deeply in this silent, liminal space. And in the depth of our listening we may simply hear the voice of God.

God, speak to us in the silence. As we journey in this season of brokenness, bring us to the liminal space where we might hear your voice of love, hope, and life. Amen.

The Journey Through Brokenness – February 22

Great Love and Great Suffering

This week, we will see Jesus begin to turn his attention toward a destination that ends in suffering and death. We, like Peter and the apostles, can’t bear the thought of someone we love intentionally walking to the place of suffering and death. When we love someone this much, we beg them to take any path but that one.

But the mystics teach us that great suffering is intricately interwoven into great love. I first encountered this idea in reading Henri Nouwen back in the first half of my ministry. He spoke the following in his teaching:

Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart. Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.

-Henri J.M. Nouwen

His work became foundational to my education, my ministry, and ultimately my own spiritual journey. Anyone who has lived long enough has learned the truth: if we risk giving our hearts to another, we can be assured that our hearts will be broken.

During the time when I was doing my doctoral work, I was blessed to have Dr. Tex Sample as one of my two key faculty members, and one of the things I loved about Tex was his capacity to tap into the profound wisdom of country western music and incorporate that into theological thought.

So as a true Texan raised on country music, I felt obligated to dig more deeply. One of the country singers who touched me deeply in that time was Garth Brooks, and the wisdom I am talking about here is the primary theme of The Dance. As he sings, he is reflecting upon how deeply he invested himself into a love that ultimately did not last. In the chorus, and the finale, he sings:

And now, I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’da had to miss
The dance

It’s my life
It’s better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’da had to miss
The dance

-Garth Brooks, The Dance

When we love deeply, we will be called to the place of great suffering. I’ve read with interest the case of Alexei Navalny and his prosecution as an opponent of the Kremlin following his poisoning at the hands of Russian agents and his continued exposure of corruption in Russia. Navalny had spent much of his life as an atheist, but he has converted in recent years to Christianity. At his appeal and sentencing, he said, “To live fully is to risk it all.”

He understood that he could not be true to himself if he walked away from his love of his fellow Russians and the justice they deserve. His faith challenged him to speak truth to power … to challenge corruption. And that meant that he would experience suffering.

Jesus reminds us that suffering is now inevitable. Brokenness is something that comes to all of us. But the journey into the darkness … and subsequently out of the darkness … is best equipped by love … a love known as ἀγάπη (agape). It is the ultimate pouring out of self, and it is that image of pouring out that defines both great love and great suffering.

May your journey, my friends, be the pathway of love. When you experience great suffering, you will know you have walked the path that Christ walked.

Lord of Love: Come into our hearts and be with us as we take this journey through love and suffering. May it be a journey that connects us to you and one another as we walk this path. Amen.