Strengthening the Core

As with many people I know, back pain is no stranger to me. I ended up with a pretty significantly herniated disc in 2012 and had fusion in the lumbar spine. In the physical therapy that followed, I probably missed a key point. It was at least a point I found too easy to forget. The purpose of physical therapy was to strengthen the core … to give strength to the muscles in the back and abdomen so they stop the vicious cycle where muscles tighten in response to inflamed joints and then the tightened muscles create even more stress on the joints. The trick is to strengthen the core. Those who know me can pretty easily tell that my body core can use some strengthening.

As I began physical therapy again this week, I was reminded that this was about strengthening the core, and I began to think about the core of my life in a more figurative way. What about the core of my emotional and mental life? Is that core given exercises to grow strong? What about the core of my ministry? Or the core of my spirituality?

Then there is the core of discipleship. So many of us want to be disciples … followers of Jesus … yet we fail to strengthen our relationship with him. We consider ourselves devoted children of God, yet we do nothing to strengthen our relationship with God. As a marriage is not possible without a dynamic relationship, so discipleship, by definition, has at its core a dynamic relationship with Christ.

The same holds true, as well, about how we exist in this thing we call Church. We want to consider ourselves as part of the community, but are we really willing to give ourselves to the deeper relationships within the community to make it strong. Are we willing to build the relationship we have with other Christians … some of whom have very different perspectives on things that are very important to us … in order to have an authentic Christian community. That, after all, is part of the core.

It is no secret that I remain concerned about the divisiveness and vitriolic ways we shout from our positions to each other … at each other … in our world today. We see it in our nation, we see it in our neighborhoods, we see it in our churches. When we strengthen the core, we are called into a sacred relationship with each other. We are called to practice listening to one another … hearing the motives, hopes, and fears that stand behind the positions we each hold. We are called to reflect upon our own motives, hopes, and fears, as well.

One of the keys I’ve discovered is that that the body core has many muscles, with some much smaller than others. Some of these muscles begin to react in ways that are hurt the body more than they help if they are not given proper attention. The trick to strengthening the core is to do exercises that are sometimes very small and seemingly insignificant yet which begin to stretch those muscles that we don’t even know we have.

In the same way, there are those whom Jesus calls “the least of these, my brothers and sisters.” (see Matthew 25). These are people who are often invisible to society. They are marginalized and considered insignificant … until something dramatic happens (often crime) where society then feels justified in demonizing the invisible ones and pushing them further into the darkness.

The key to strengthening the core of our culture and our church is to follow Paul’s lead as he talks about the church as the human body. He tells us that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23, NRSV) It is not healthy … in fact, it is harmful … for us to simply ignore or marginalize any part of our body. As my back has forced me to attest, these muscles (both large and small) will finally make themselves known in ways that require greater attention.

So my prayer is that we be about strengthening the core … strengthening our relationships … and paying greater attention to those whom we too easily disregard. In so doing, we will discover stronger communities and communities of faith than we ever thought possible. As a matter of fact, I think I remember Jesus saying that all things are possible with God.

The Dance Between Daylight and Dark

Darkness. I have written about it multiple times, but I continue to experience it as a very real thing in the lives of people. When we have lived long enough, we know about this darkness.

I am currently reading Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals, and in that book, he describes the power of darkness and how to build upon the darkness. A friend introduced me to Moore’s work in the 1990’s with his New York Times bestseller, Care of the Soul. It is an understatement to say that his thinking, his philosophy, his spirituality and his poetic rendering of the power of dark nights to define us … to give us profound insight … to provide some of the best commentary on our lives that unfold in the light of day … has had a profound impact on my life.

As I shared in my last blog post, the dark skies that have defined the beginning of this autumn have fostered a darkness … a depression of sorts … within my own being. I write about darkness because I think we tend to deny it in our culture. According to Moore, there is a distinct difference between a quiet lunar presence and “a solar hero battling monsters and racking up mighty accomplishments.” (Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, pg. 94)

As he begins talking about magic that happens in the dark, I paused. Then it hit me that the biblical story of the Magi (magicians would be our modern word) were people who traveled in the dark. They followed a star, which would not have been visible in the daylight. And their gifts to Jesus were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are gifts that foreshadow not only the proclamation of the reign of the Christ, but they also foreshadow his death … his darkness. In the joy of birth is the specter of death.

Journeying through the darkness isn’t new to me. My doctoral work is focused on the darkness often faced by the clergy, yet rarely acknowledged in the church. In the church, it is difficult even to acknowledge depression among the the laity who are dealing with depression and brokenness, but it is extremely rare that we acknowledge when the clergy have to face it. My work is titled Ministers Making It Through the Night: Healing and Hope for Ministers Experiencing Broken and Hurting Ministries. It is in that work that I came to realize that the only way through the darkness was to embrace it. It is there that I discovered in the darkness an epistemology … an entire system of learning … that comes, not from our wholeness, but from our brokenness. There is finally no way around it, and when we are willing to walk through the darkness, it reveals within us a unique foundation upon which we can build our lives.

This week provided me another insight. Early in the week, we had been having rain off and on. I was driving from one place to the next when I saw it. A rainbow. I stopped to take a picture, and when I looked at the picture later, I realized it was a double rainbow.

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It struck me that the rainbow is created in the dance between the sunlight and the dark clouds still forming mist and rain. It is the dance between daylight and dark. In that moment, I was reminded of an ancient promise from God.

It wasn’t a promise that we would never experience darkness … or terror … or nightmares. It was a promise that, when we journey through the darkness, we will see the beauty that can only happen with the unfolding dance between the darkness and the daylight. It is a promise that we will not be destroyed by the dance; rather, we will be edified by it.  The dance between daylight and dark is what makes sunrises and sunsets the great subjects of modern photography. It is what speaks most deeply into our souls.

So I have learned to live in the moment … to join in the dance. It allows us to acknowledge the reality of the dark emotional states that are so real in our world. It gives us permission to embrace the darkness … to walk through it … in search of a rainbow. It gives us permission to stand quietly with one another in the dark … learning together its sometimes profound insights into who we really are.

So as you engage in this dance, look for the rainbow. If you are lucky enough, you might just be blessed with two!

The Dark Night

Several things are colluding to create a darkness that has taken up residence in my soul in recent days. With darkened skies come a sort of melancholy that can easily take hold. My soul is affected by the constant state of angst, bitterness, and conflict brought on by our current culture … within our political lives and even within our church. Then it is a (sometimes silent) reality that this month brings up the trauma of the loss of our son-in-law two years ago on the 23rd of this month. There are things that seem to loom and create a very real darkness in my own psyche.

As I begin to strategize about how I can sidestep such darkness, I am reminded of the wisdom I first heard espoused by Thomas Moore in his book, Care of the Soul. In that book, he has a chapter titled, “The Gift of Depression.” And it is in that chapter that he shares about how we can harness the gift of depression and use that period of darkness for self-reflection and growth. It is during these dark times that I have discovered deeply hidden within my inner being a new connection with God and a renewed sense of adventure in human living.

I then just recently picked up Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. In that book, he talks about the role of religion and how  even religious leaders tend to push the darkness aside as something that we can conquer. The darkness is not something to conquer. It is something through which we must journey. Only then will we find the greatest riches of the soul. About religious practice, he says,

Religion … often avoids the dark by hiding behind platitudes and false assurances. Nothing is more irrelevant than feeble religious piousness in the face of stark, life-threatening darkness. Religion tends to sentimentalize the light and demonize the darkness. If you turn to spirituality, you are using spirituality to avoid life’s dark beauty. Religion easily becomes a defense and avoidance. Of course, this is not the real purpose of religion, and the religious traditions of the world, full of beautifully stated wisdom, are your best source for guidance in the dark. But there is real religion and there is the empty shell of religion. Know the difference. Your life is at stake.

Flight from the dark infantilizes your spirituality, because the dark nights of the soul are supposed to initiate you into spiritual adulthood….

One of the strongest voices of religion in the face of death … is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and pastor, sentenced for participation in a plot against Hitler. In his last letters from prison, he tries to describe a kind of religiousness that is exactly the opposite of what it once was for him. “The world that has come of age,” he writes, “is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.” What he means, I think, is that in the old days religion called on God as a power outside of life to solve our problems. Today, Bonhoeffer says, we have to face our problems directly, and having lost the option of a God coming like the cavalry from the sky, we discover the real meaning of religion, an openness to the mysteries that are playing themselves out. Bonhoeffer wrote this toward the end of a dark night of the soul that was, by all accounts, not at all depressive. He kept his hope alive, but he also turned the idea of religion upside down.

Further, Moore notes that Bonhoeffer lost his life in this process when he was hung as a criminal by the Nazi’s, but in the end, he won the battle of the soul.

As I face my own dark night of the soul, I realize that Jesus is the one who understood these dark nights the best. Even as I preach today, there is an image that comes to my mind. We so often misunderstand the difference between the words “cavalry” and “Calvary.” I have even heard preachers mix up the words and say Calvary when they mean cavalry. Calvary is the Latin rendering of “skull” as in the “Place of the Skull,” which is somehow descriptive of the hill on which Jesus died. But we tend to prefer the word cavalry … which comes from a French word having to do with the soldiers on horseback (and today describes the most mobile of our military even today when few of our military use horses for actual combat).

The problem, of course, is that it is easy for us to mix them up because we want Jesus to be the warrior messiah coming with the cavalry. We want Jesus to break the darkness on our own terms. But he understands the darkness. He understands that the only way to conquer the darkness … to live through the dark night of the soul … is to walk through it.

When we get confused, Jesus looks at us squarely and says, “I didn’t say, ‘Cavalry.” I said, ‘Calvary.’” And then he begins walking away only to look over his shoulder and whisper, “Follow me.”

Living in the Tension Between Judgment and Grace

In 2 Samuel 11, Nathan confronts David about his abuse of power, his violation of Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. He tells David of a wealthy rancher who had all sorts of livestock he could prepare to feed a visitor who was arriving at his house, yet who chose to take the only pet lamb from his poor neighbor to kill and prepare for the feast. David responds with rage and says that the one who did this should be killed and his estate be forced to repay the wronged poor man four times his loss.

That’s when Nathan responds: “You are the man!” He then recounts all that God has done and how David has, like so many of us, still wanted more. He became so full of himself as the “anointed one” that he soon came to think of himself as God. Nathan tells him that, because he used the sword of the Ammonites to strike down Uriah, the sword would never leave David’s house. Tragedy would continue to plague David’s descendants!

Judgment was pronounced!

But at the very end of it, David has a very penitential response. He confesses that he has sinned against the Lord, and Nathan acknowledges his confession by saying, “Now the Lord has put away your sin. You won’t die.”

Grace was offered.

The thing about this is that it is not cheap grace. It is not grace that lets us confess our sin but continue to live as though nothing happened. God didn’t say that the consequences of David’s sin would go away, but God did pledge to be with David despite his sin. That’s grace.

As I preached this recently, I focused on the prophet’s pronouncement of judgment and grace. I had talked about how God works even through our sin and our brokenness. But I realized that I had left out one key attribute:

David was capable of hearing the prophet speak.

As I have thought about that key attribute of David, I realized what a unique individual it takes to be a strong leader, to be anointed by God, to make the nations tremble … yet to be capable of listening to the prophetic voice. David is capable of self-reflection and self-evaluation. He is not defensive or combative. He doesn’t resort to calling Nathan names or belittling him for calling the king out on his sin. He doesn’t strike Nathan with the sword (though presumably, it could have happened without costing him much political capital).

David is capable of listening and reflecting and finally owning up to his sin … no matter how great the sin or how harsh the consequences.

He is finally vulnerable before God and the prophet.

That is the only appropriate posture in the presence of God. Vulnerability. It is difficult for those who are used to having privilege and power. In our European and American culture, think of the privilege and power belonging to the middle- to upper-income, straight, white male. Being vulnerable is not something I was taught, yet I came to realize years ago that my privilege was often a stumbling block in my relationship with God.

A close study of the gospels reveals that Jesus keeps company primarily with the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized. If I wanted a closer walk with Christ, it was obvious that my privilege wasn’t going to get me there.

In my efforts to be closer to Christ, I discovered that I had to be vulnerable. I had to hear the marginalized and the oppressed calling out. I seriously had to reflect, not just upon my own sin, but upon the institutionalized, systemic oppression of those who did not look like me. That kind of reflection was scary … still is … and the feeling of vulnerability can produce anxiety, fear, and worry that, if I’m not careful, can warp the soul (which I believe is a primary source of systemic oppression).

John the Baptist was a leader, and it was from him that I began to learn the secret. John knew that it was not about him … I have learned that it’s not about me. In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, we find a story of John the Baptist’s disciples coming inquiring about this one who was baptized by John and about whom John spoke. Jesus himself was now baptizing people, and the crowds were flocking to him instead of John. John called Jesus the bridegroom, and thought of himself as the best man at the wedding. He said that his joy is in seeing the bridegroom and the bride together. His emphasizes this using one of my favorite verses: “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3:30, NRSV).

Being vulnerable like David means that I still know who I am. I remember that I may have privilege that is automatically granted, but I am called to lay that down … to seek solidarity with those in the margins … to remember that in God’s scheme of creation, I am but a grain of dust and God is still God.

That for me is vulnerability. That is what it means to live in the tension between God’s judgment and God’s grace. It is what it means to live with hope!

The Family of Faith

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I am passionate about my family. Always have been. Always will be. I have always had a grasp of the fact that, according to the biblical witness all the way to modern social sciences, we are made for each other. We are meant to be in relationship. We are meant for family.

The earliest witness of our faith from our Jewish roots places the locus for worship squarely in the family. Temple worship is meant for a deeper encounter with the divine, and the synagogue is simply a place where people gather (the literal meaning of synagogue: we gather). The family, however, is the central place of worship and spiritual formation. It is where we tell the story of our family … our values … our people … our faith. In the ancient Jewish tradition, if it didn’t happen in the family, it just didn’t happen.

Jesus took the notion of family and broadened it. He saw everyone as his family. The gospels of Mark and Matthew including an interesting encounter between Jesus and his family. His teaching is getting a bit edgy. He is thought by some to be a little out of control, and his mother and brothers were outside wanting to speak with him … perhaps even to take him home. Jesus apparently did not go outside to speak with them, but instead spoke only to the messenger:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)

Jesus will teach his disciples to call God “Abba!” A childlike name like Dada or Mama. He is redefining the family. The family is still the central place where we deepen our faith, but family is more than just our biological family. It is a series of relationships that connect us in ways that are far more intimate than we normally imagine. This is about a deeper understanding of family, and like siblings in a family, it comes through a connection with a common parent.

This is why I use the term family in talking about church. It is about us being a church family. Having a common God who unites us, we come together, not just as passing acquaintances, but as brothers and sisters.

In our church family at Wellspring, we are spending the Easter Season (the 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday) talking about the Beloved Community proclaimed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Dr. King who spoke of a community where ALL were loved and respected. This is a community where justice reigns supreme and where, according to the teachings of Jesus, the last are first and the first are last … where the one who is the servant of all becomes the master of all … where the poorest are the richest. This is a place where we fulfill the greatest calling of our shared humanity.

We live in a world and so often participate in a culture where it is easy to dehumanize others. We dehumanize people whose color or ethnic identity is different from our own. We dehumanize people who speak different languages or who have different customs. We dehumanize people who have a different experience of the divine than we do. And throughout history, the male-dominated cultures have had a horrible tendency to dehumanize women. Sadly, this dehumanization continues today in all its ugly forms.

As a Christian pastor, however, I am calling us to task. If we are TRULY Christian, then dehumanization of the other is not possible. To be truly Christian is to see all others as our brothers and sisters. It is to see that we are all equally part of the human family. It is to see that we are all people deserving of respect and love and justice. It is to understand that, if we are to find ourselves deserving anything, it is because we are those who find our place, not at the head of the table, but in service to those who are the weakest … the ones whose power has been stripped from them.

This is about the rehumanization of our world … a task that requires courage!

This season of Eastertide is very important to me. Interestingly, the number 50 (as in the number of days of the Easter season) is important. In ancient Jewish culture, there was something that was supposed to happen after seven consecutive periods of seven years. After 49 years, during the 50th year, all debts were forgiven, all prisoners were freed, all land returned to its original state. The slate was wiped clean and there was a new start. It was called the Jubilee Year!

The Easter season is the time when we are challenged to realize (to make real) the Jubilee gift of Easter. All debts are freed. Justice is restored. Life is reimagined. Hope is reborn. This is the gift that comes to us when we rehumanize our world … when we discover, to our delight, that we are all part of the same family!

Just for Today

Today. It was 50 years ago today that the assassin’s bullet found Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an effort to silence him. It was 50 years ago today that those who opposed the civil rights movement and all that it stood for thought it had ended. But it was 50 years ago today that the movement had only just begun.

MLK #!Today … yes, today … justice is still not realized. Today the African American male still walks in fear that they will be gunned down for holding onto their cell phone. Today we still watch the economic injustice that plagues our communities where the African American with a graduate degree will likely earn less than a white high school drop out. Today if we look at leadership in government and church and throughout our culture and, if we look closely, we should be startled by its whiteness … not to mention its maleness.

What is interesting is that, in my devotional reading for today, the scripture text was based on Acts 4:32-35 (CEB):

The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all.There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales,and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

Sadly, the writer failed to catch that today is the day to talk about the Beloved Community, the community of Dr. King dreams. The beloved community is the place where people are not judged by the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or anything else that would sort us into any “us and them” relationship. The community of Dr. King’s dreams is a community like the one described in Acts. Those who have resources are not considered better or more privileged than those who do not have resources. The beloved community is the place where we live out such radical notions that the greatest are made the least and the least are made the greatest and where the master becomes the slave and the slave becomes the master. It is a community where we celebrate all contributions, no matter how small, as authentic gifts that build up our shared community.

It is so hard right now not to rail against our culture … our leaders … our church … THE church … for failing to create this community. I’ve said it before that the church comprised of people of privilege will tend to misread Matthew 25:40:

Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

When I ask, “Who is Christ in this story?” the answer I invariably get is the people who are doing the good things are being the “hands and feet of Christ.” The problem here, you see, is that I tend to be a bit more of a literalist than most people imagine.The text literally says that when you have done these things, you have done them to Jesus. The “least of these brothers and sisters of mine” … those devoid of privilege … those who we so easily cast aside … those who are invisible to us … those who we justify as being somehow “bad” when they are subjected to racial profiling … THESE PEOPLE ARE CHRIST TO US! Not the other way around..

So friends, if we want unity with Jesus … if we want Jesus to be in our churches or in our neighborhoods or in our homes … then perhaps we should find the people whom Jesus describes and invite Jesus to be with us. And maybe instead of dragging them into our places of comfort and privilege, what would happen if we just went to where they were?

The beloved community is found down the streets that scare us. It is found in the schools our state wants to forget. It is found in the faces of those who struggle daily to make ends meet. And it isn’t as far from you as you think.

So today I will open my eyes. Today I will make every effort to honor the legacy of Dr. King by owning my own complicity for injustice. Today I will be honest about my own privilege and seek in every way possible to let it go. Today I will ask God to lead me to the promised land … to show me just one thing I can do to help create and live into the beloved community.

Today!

The Descent into Hell

I have been reflecting upon Holy Week. I am a pastor, so that’s what I do.

This week, I have been specifically reflecting on Judas and his betrayal. To start, I think we are pretty hard on Judas. While the author of John’s Gospel sees him as just plain bad (he used to steal from the common purse, he was evil, etc), the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) say that Judas was influenced by the devil.

As I have described before, I’m not so sure the devil, as described in the Synoptics, is the dark god of our nightmares. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, as is Christianity, so we are cautioned to be careful of dualities that bring us to the conclusion that the devil is the god of the underworld. The devil … the satan …  is best described by the Greek word diabolos. The diabolos is the distractor … the one who uses my distractibility … my attention deficit … to pull me off the path. The devil is the “ooh, shiny” among those who follow Jesus.

And Judas is someone who is off track.

Some authorities suggest that perhaps he was a zealot who wanted nothing more than to throw off Roman oppression. Some have also suggested that perhaps he believed in Jesus, but what he believed about Jesus was wrong. If he was looking for the Military Messiah to restore the reign of King David to Israel and bring it into a power unlike the world had ever seen, he had the wrong person in Jesus of Nazareth. In that scenario, it may well be that his “betrayal” was because he believed that Jesus, if backed into a corner, would finally become the Military Messiah Judas thought he was.

Then there are those who suggest that Judas might have simply given up on Jesus. Jesus was not meeting Judas’s expectations. The ministry of Jesus was destined to fail. Especially with his eyes set on Jerusalem, the most dangerous place to be, Jesus was doomed, and Judas just wanted to let it end. There is a hint of this among the disciples in John 11, when Jesus begins his journey toward the tomb of Lazarus. In that story, it is Thomas that says (despondently, sarcastically, or perhaps even with some derision), “Let us go with Jesus to Jerusalem that we may die with him.” (I know some think that sounds noble, but I hear it differently.)

Regardless of what is behind Judas’s action, he betrays Jesus. We are told he betrayed him with a kiss. What an image. An act of love and devotion that leads to death.

Regardless of what Judas might have expected, Jesus gave in. He did not resist. He was arrested, tortured and killed. And Judas was despondent. One text tells us that he hung himself and the chief priests used the silver to buy Potter’s Field (see Matthew 27:3-10), while another says Judas bought the field himself and then fell headlong into it and “spilled his guts” (sorry for the grossness, folks, but that’s the image we find in Acts 1:18-19). Mark and John do not mention anything about Judas following his betrayal. What we can assume, however, is that Judas found himself in a hell of his own making, and many have assumed that, because of his acts, he is the one disciple who is spending eternity in hell. But are we really sure?

Jan Richardson is the writer of devotions in the Upper Room Disciplines (the devotional guide I use) for this week, and she spoke the greatest truth for me in Tuesday’s devotional reading. She reflects  on John 12, where Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” These are her thoughts:

We sometimes make letting go such a hard thing. We resist giving up. But what if it is not about giving up but giving in? Falling into dirt, as Jesus says here. Going where grain is supposed to go; following the spiral within the seed that takes it deeper into the dark but also – finally, fruitfully – out of it. (Disciplines 2018, pg. 111)

When we find ourselves in darkness and despair … often because of the very things we have done (sometimes with very good intentions), we fear there is no way out. When we can embrace the wilderness of conflict and seek neither to dehumanize nor be dehumanized by those who disagree (sometimes sharply) with us, we find ourselves in the dark. Sometimes owning up to our own demons, our addictions, our overwhelming fears gives us a feeling of what hell is like.

The good news is that Jesus is unafraid to storm hell’s gates. Jesus is unafraid to reach boldly into our darkness.

The Roman Catholic version of the Apostles Creed has an interesting addition that we Protestants don’t use. The creed says that Jesus …

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell;
on the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from there He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Judas found himself in hell (no matter how we define hell). I wonder what this affirmation might mean for Judas (and all of us who are prone to Judas-like behavior). This Saturday, we celebrate what is called Holy Saturday. At Wellspring, we have probably more than a hundred kids and their parents hunting Easter eggs and enjoying our Easter Eggstravaganza. We celebrate Easter fully … one day early.

But in the ancient church, this Saturday is known as the Harrowing of Hell. Jesus is giving hell … well, hell … to use our modern vernacular. The gates of hell are broken down. Jesus is claiming that there is no place that is beyond the reach of the loving embrace of God, and there is no one … NO ONE … who is beyond the reach of grace. So I wonder if Jesus went there perhaps because Judas was there, and perhaps Judas and the criminal to whom Jesus promised salvation and maybe even the one who scorned Jesus are with him.

Now that I think about it, I think there was a word of forgiveness for those who were the architects of hell … the Romans who abused their victims and subjected them to the horrible effects of unrestrained power (see Luke 23:34). And surely this was the same forgiveness offered to the religious leaders who were complicit in his execution.

Maybe even they are not beyond the reach of Jesus. Maybe Jesus is coming to offer a new life to EVERYONE whose life is pretty hellacious right now.

So are you beyond Jesus’s grasp? What about me? Sometimes I find myself in that place that feels like hell. Nothing is going right. I feel cut off and “blessed assurance” is but a fleeting dream.

Try this. When you find yourself in whatever hell you are experiencing, don’t be frantic about it. Stop and listen! Jesus is breaking down the gates. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, just reach out your hand. Do you feel it? It is the hand of the crucified reaching for you!

Orthodoxy or Orthopraxis

Thinking a lot about orthodoxy these days. Orthodoxy literally means “right belief” or “right opinion.” In church life, we talk about orthodox theology as that thinking about God considered by the church to be correct and true. The problem is that our God is not a static God. The notion that God is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” implies that we have a static, unchanging God.

In reading those who are, in my mind, sages or mystics, I have come to see God as One whose nature is perpetual motion. An ever-expanding God even as the universe is an ever-expanding universe. I see God as one who does not let me get to one place and stand still … in my thinking, in my relationships, as a pastor and, perhaps most especially, in my own understanding of God.

I decided early in my life that I was going to be a lifelong student. Always learning. Always growing. There have been times when I was tempted to think I “had arrived” … that I finally knew everything there was to know … about life … about God … about relationships … about me. Man, was I wrong!

When I opened myself up to the “ever-expanding God,” I began to learn things I never before had dreamt. I learned of a God who is so much more compassionate and loving than I ever thought possible. I learned of a Jesus who practices justice in new and evolving ways. I learned of ways to think about social justice and how to create space for human dignity that I simply had not considered before.

I learned that people … regardless of how God created them to be … regardless of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their language or their income levels … bear the image of the creator in them. I learned from Jesus that when I care for the poor, it is not because I am being Christ to them … it is because THEY ARE CHRIST TO ME! I don’t bear the face of Jesus in my encounter with the poor. They bear the face of Jesus to me. I invite you to read Matthew 25 more closely!

Orthodoxy tends to freeze us in time. We are caught up in attributes of God only as described by Christians who went before us. I fully respect the traditions, creeds, and affirmations of my spiritual ancestors, but I also absolutely will not give up the notion that God is speaking to me and my contemporaries. Our contemporary experience of the divine also counts as we live into our faith today!

So instead of orthodoxy, I tend more toward orthopraxis. Orthopraxis literally means “right practice.” It means that, regardless of what creeds or affirmations I inherited from my spiritual ancestors, I am called to do good … to love God and neighbor … in increasingly creative ways.

We, who are heirs of this strange practice known as Methodism, are all about praxis. There are those who claim what they call “Wesleyan Orthodoxy,” but I don’t think such a thing exists. If John Wesley had been truly orthodox (adhering strictly to the rules and teachings of his Anglican Church), he certainly would not have ordained people when he was not a bishop. If John Wesley had submitted himself to the restraint of those in authority over him, he would have stayed within his own parish (a strict geographical boundary of who “belonged” to your own local church). He preached everywhere, especially where he found the poor, the hard-living people, and those for whom the church was irrelevant or dangerous.

Last year, I attended the gathering of Uniting Methodists, and Dr. David N. Field was a keynote presenter. During one of his presentations, he noted that many across the theological spectrum in our United Methodist Church often quote Mr. Wesley’s famous line: ““I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.” (from his Journal Entry, June 11, 1739). Yet, according to Dr. Field, what we don’t grasp is that the statement is itself an act of ecclesial disobedience (think civil disobedience but in opposition to church law).

In other words, Wesley was not orthodox. He did, however, know fully what orthopraxis was about. He did not care as much for the talk, but he cared deeply (and devoted his entire life) to the walk.

So today, I am committing myself to orthopraxis. Living out the gospel of Jesus Christ in every way possible. Reaching the poor, making disciples, inviting people to follow this one who taught us about a new way that was so much more than “right thinking” or “right opinion.” Let’s follow the one who taught us about the love of God and all of our neighbors. At Wellspring, we just say “all means all”.

I invite you to join me in this walk of faith … praxis … that leads us straight to the heart of God.

Partners in Creation

To say that Rabbi Irwin Kula has become an influence in my life would be an understatement. I have been tutored by this rabbi through his book, Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. Rabbi Kula, in his chapter on Inspiration and Illumination shares insight about the first story of creation, found in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a. Of this story, he says,

The world began with an act of supreme creativity. Something was made out of nothing, and life began its glorious unfolding. There’s such a wonderful order to it all: each day yielding a new form of life; every day seeming to reach such a satisfying conclusion; then humankind created “in the image of the Creator.” … How marvelous to imagine that humankind was made in the image of an artistic genius worthy of being named the Creator, God, or all that is. St. Thomas Aquinas called God “Artist of Artists.” … The world was left unfinished so that humans could have a part in creation. (Yearnings, pp. 183-184)

As I read and reflected on this, something significant hit me about the opening stories of Genesis. The section of the Bible generally known as the primeval story is contained in Genesis 1-11, and they start with this beautiful story of creation and then end with the unfolding of the judgment on the people who built the tower commonly known as the Tower of Babel. What interests me here is that the opening story, as Rabbi Kula so well describes it, is a story where people are invited into the creative process. It is godlike for us to engage in the creative process and thereby reflect our creator as we engage in the very act of creation.

But the conclusion of the primeval story ends with humans wishing to engage in a different creative process. Combined with our yearning to share in this creative process is the longing to “make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Then further mix it with the judgment that befalls the man and the woman described in the second creation story (starting in Genesis 2:4b) because they longed to “be like God,” and we have an interesting story that unfolds.

What interests me here is that we are people who are invited into the creative process, yet we suffer from this tendency to lose our way in the partnership. We want to go it alone … to make a name for ourselves … to cut God out of the deal because, quite frankly, we are pretty sure we can do it better ourselves.

As I reflect upon my life, I think I see the truth in this. I am a native Texan, and with that comes a bit of an attitude and a belief that I can actually pull myself up by my own bootstraps. An image that brings a smile, if you think about it a minute. There are times in my life when I have acted impulsively. I have acted according to my own interests and pretended that it was for the good of others … the church … the community … the world. There are times when I have acted out of fear … as though I might be forgotten, or worse, irrelevant … if I didn’t take decisive action myself.

In the opening story of creation, we are invited to be co-creators with God … those who tend the creation that God provided. But we are prone to distrust, and we give up on the partnership. Then it all falls apart.

So where does this lead us? Ultimately, this becomes for me another facet of my central theme: “Let go and let God.” It doesn’t mean that I am passive and simply sit by letting God do all the work. It does mean that I am actively engaged in helping create a world like God intended it to be. I seek to create a world where justice is the norm. I seek a world where, as we at Wellspring put it, all are welcome and all are accepted! I want a world that is a reflection of our expansive creation born of an ever-expanding, all-consuming God. That means that I want a world where there is no “us versus them” thinking and where we all seek a common unity born amidst our diversity and inclusivity.

But that doesn’t happen without trust. I have said before that there is a difference between what we consider belief and what we consider faith. Belief is, for many of us, an effort to get our heads around something … to give acclamation to a principle or person or deity. We tend to associate belief with an act of ascent.

Faith, on the other hand, is about trust. It means that I am fully incapable of getting my head around who God is, but I am confident that God can get God’s arms around me. It is that notion that, no matter what I face, God’s got this. When I then move through life and ministry with that kind of trust, I am available for reflection, reproof and appropriate change. It is this faith that has led me to a greater level of inclusiveness and given me a voice on such matters when I previously had a far softer voice.

Today I received an email from a reader. Someone who has been cut off from the church … by the church. She had read my blog titled “Feeling Unmoored,” and described how her life felt unmoored after having been cut off from the church because of who God created her to be. It was then that my reading of both an email and an incredible book came together for me. I am called to partner with God in creating a world where people like this child of God are given a place among the people of God.

So you are invited. You are invited to be partners with God as we seek a world like the one described in the opening passages of Genesis. You are invited to create a world that the creator, the “Artist of Artists” might well call very good!

Noise

Noise. It is almost like there is a perpetual disturbance around me these days. Like waters that will not stay still. A moment’s peace and then more noise. The To-Do List stays long. There are not enough hours in a day. The time for creative writing and sermon planning seem to grow shorter. Even when that time comes, the noise in my own mind becomes so loud that creativity is shut out.

Our denomination is full of noise. We are trying to decide if we United Methodists might be able to figure out how to stay united. Groups who want control are tightening up and becoming more organized (perhaps “galvanized” might be the better word here). Tensions are growing in the debate over who gets included and who doesn’t. Whose theology rules over others. It is noisy in my beloved church right now.

But the church is also full of noise as the children of God raise their voice and hands in song. The noise of fellowship and hospitality. The noise of people building community.

Our culture is full of noise. Political noise. Violent noise. The noise of racism, sexism and white supremacy. The noise of children being shot. The noise of blame and hatred.

But the noise of hope is also heard as people care for one another, reaching beyond their own prejudices, walls and city limits to share the limitless power of love.

As I reflect on these noises, a song comes to mind. It is sung by one of my favorite singers, Neil Diamond. The song is Beautiful Noise. In it, I am reminded that those things I count as noise come together to create a symphony. Even the hard parts … especially the hard parts … are where God intends to make music.

In music, harmony and dissonance combine to create color and tone. Having listened to a great deal of music, I know this truth: the symphony is boring and lacks movement if it is ALL harmony, and the symphony is unbearable if it is ALL dissonant.

Listen closely, and you will hear it. Listen and perhaps you will hear God speaking through the noise to create beauty and movement. Beauty in our diversity and a movement that takes us ever closer to the heart of God. Somewhere in all of this noise, God is seeking to let a symphony of heavenly proportions emerge.

What do you hear in the noise around you?