Spiritual Insanity

Spiritual Insanity

I love the world of fantasy films and literature.  Ranging from comic books and movies, to the Arthurian legends, to Harry Potter; I love stories of superpowers, magic, and mythical creatures (especially dragons!).  Though I’m clear about the line between reality and fantasy, I find that an immersive story can blur the lines where the worlds of sorcerers and superheroes feel just as real as this one, at least for a moment.

I’m currently reading Wishsong, the third installment of the Sword of Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks; a series of stories set in the far future, following Great Wars that annihilated the Earth as we know it, and the emergence of a world populated by humans, elves, dwarves, trolls, druids, evil… and magic.  Brooks is an excellent writer and, as with all great fiction, the characters and story-lines begin to feel “real.”

Yesterday, I saw “Avengers: Infinity War” in 3D.  Though I’m a sucker for superhero movies, and have never seen one I didn’t love, this particular movie, in my opinion, crosses new thresholds.  The storyline, cinematography, animation and special effects blended perfectly to create a truly immersive experience that felt like reality.  As 18 Marvel movies preceded “Infinity War,” the characters comprising the Avenger team have, for fans, become personal heroes and friends.  The shocking end of the movie (spoiler alert), for a true fan, felt utterly devastating – even if it’s only a fantasy story.

Then, this morning, I came across an interesting verse of Scripture…

“It is by faith that we understand that the ages were created by a word from God, so that from the invisible the visible world came to be.”  (Hebrews 11:3, New Jerusalem Bible)

The “Study Notes” in my New Jerusalem Bible add, “Creation seen with the human eye of faith reveals ‘unseen reality’: before creation everything real existed in God from whom everything comes.”

For a person of faith, talk of “unseen reality” seems completely reasonable and rationale.  We read passages like this without a nano-second of doubt.  Of course there’s a God.  Of course God created everything.  Of course there are unseen realities.”  But, try to imagine reading those words without faith, and they begin to sound a lot like fantasy.

In 10th grade, I had a teacher that talked about the difference between sanity, insanity, and unsanity.  Sanity, as she described it, is a 100% accurate perception of reality.  Insanity is a completely distorted perception of reality.  Unsanity falls somewhere between sanity and insanity.  She taught that we’re all unsane.  As evidenced by conflicting witness testimonies in court trials, and the vastly contradictory reporting by the news media, we all see “reality” from vastly different perspectives and interpretations.  No one is capable of 100% accuracy.

We’re all unsane – hopefully falling closer to sanity than insanity.  But, we’re unsane, nonetheless!

Saying I enjoy escaping into fantasy movies and literature should sound entirely sane, even if you don’t appreciate the genre.

On the other hand, if I say I believe the Avengers actually exist, in real life, you might think I’m insane, or at least very naive.

But, what do we do with faith?  Where does faith fall on the spectrum of reality and fantasy; sanity, insanity, and unsanity?  After all, to unbelievers, talk of a spiritual world – filled with angels, demons, prophets, and miracles – likely sounds like fantasy.  Belief in an unseen God, who is the invisible source of everything “real,” likely sounds insane!

But, what if Hebrews 11:3 is right?  What if reality includes both the visible and invisible, spiritual and material, ordinary and extraordinary?  What if ignoring or denying unseen spiritual realities is actually insane – a complete distortion of reality?  And, what if, most of us – including believers – spend most of our lives completely out-of touch and out-of-sync with the most important aspects of reality – the unseen and spiritual?

What if denying God, and unseen spiritual realities, is insanity?

What if believing in God, but rarely actually engaging the invisible world of the spirit, is unsanity?

And, what if those who deny the existence of God are actually insane?

I choose sanity.  I choose mystery.  I choose faith in a God I cannot see.  I choose to believe a man named Jesus was the “visible image of the invisible God.”  I choose to believe prayer and contemplation connect me with deeper spiritual realities.  I choose to believe the line between heaven and earth, seen and unseen, is quite “thin.”  I choose to believe that love, compassion, sacrifice, beauty, goodness and “Truth” are far more real than the distorted half-realities this world values so dearly.  I choose to embrace the fullness of reality; including faith and science, seen and unseen, reasonable and unexplainable.  I choose to believe that what I am only able see partially in this life, I will someday clearly see “face to face.”  I choose ALL reality.

I choose spiritual sanity.

So, what about you?  Sane, unsane, or insane?

 

 

I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

If I wasn’t a pastor…

If I wasn’t a pastor…

As a United Methodist pastor, I’ve been assigned to the churches I’ve served.  While I’ve been very fortunate to serve very fine churches and ministries, from time to time I wonder, if I wasn’t a pastor, what kind of church I might choose to attend (Some days, this thought is a bit more tempting than others!  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve quit being a pastor.  I’ve just never actually turned in my letter of resignation!).

If I wasn’t a pastor, and could choose any church I wanted…

I’d want to be part of a close-knit, loving, Christ-centered community, where I can truly know and be known.

I’d want worship that’s a genuine, heart-felt, impassioned offering to God.

I’d want to be challenged to grow and expected to become the human God intends me to be.

I’d want to fall deeper, and deeper, and deeper in love with Jesus.

I’d look for a “thin place.”

I’d want to find a church community that’s open and honoring of all kinds of people, embracing and celebrating diversity in every form.

I’d want to find a church that literally drips, oozes, and overflows with God’s love.

I’d hope to find a place I could really be myself, knowing I’ll be loved and accepted, with no reason to fear judgement or rejection.

I’d look for a church that’s a “saint-incubator.”

I’d seek a church that always asks, “What should we try next?”

I’d look for church that was perfectly imperfect – whatever that means!

I’d want to find a church that embraces the unfathomable, ineffable mysteries of the Spirit and rejects sterile, overly-simplistic, formulaic religion.

I’d want to be part of a church membership that tithes generously, and gives more to missions than it keeps for itself.

I’d look for a pastor who knows and love Jesus.

I’d look for a church where the Spirit moves equally freely in worship, and business meetings, and shared meals, and acts of service.

I’d want to be part of a church that feels less like a business, and more like a spiritually organic network of friends.

I’d seek a church that boldly dreams God-sized dreams.

I’d love to be part of a creative church, that embraces the arts as expressions of worship and service.

I’d seek a church where each and every person is treated with utmost honor and respect.

I’d want to be part of a church where my friends are hearing and responding to God’s call to attempt outrageous kingdom experiments.

I’d look for a church that actively cares for and cultivates God’s good creation.

I’d want a church that never, ever settles for status quo, or the way things have always been done.

I’d look for a church that reads the Bible as a grand story to be part of, not just as a rule book to obey.

I’d join a church led by deeply-spiritual, God-seeking, wise, inspired, godly men and women.

I’d want to be part of church that is deeply committed to a particular people and place – loving it, serving it, healing it, shining a light on it, embracing it, nurturing it, caring for it, changing it.

I’d want to be part of a church family that equally embraces seekers and skeptics, long-timers and short-timers, saints and sinners, masters and novices.

I’d seek a church that believes ANYTHING is possible, if it honors Christ.

I’d hope to find Christ-followers who could easily say, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.”

I’d look for a church that prayed and taught people how to pray.

I’d seek a church relentlessly committed to justice and mercy.

I’d look for a church that graciously expects people to act like Jesus.

I’d seek brothers and sisters in Christ who are equally comfortable singing passionately, laughing uproariously, shouting riotously, applauding wildly, lamenting defiantly, and crying unashamedly.

I’d want to find a church equally committed to excellence and exceedingly gracious with short-comings.

I’d seek a church that primarily exists beyond it’s walls.

I would look for a church where EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is about Jesus.  EVERYTHING!

I know, I know.  I’d never find such a church.  Such churches don’t exist.  There’s no such thing as a “perfect church,” whatever that means, according to anyone’s hopes, standards, or expectations.  Every church has its gifts and graces, it’s strengths and weaknesses.

But…

If the Church is the Bride of Christ…

If the Church is the Body of Christ…

If the Church is the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven, on the earth…

If the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”…

If the Church is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led…

If the Church exists for God, and God’s mission…

If the Church is God’s family…

If the Church is where saints become saints…

If the Church is where heaven touches earth…

If the Church is where the Holy Sacraments are blessed and served…

If the Church is where believers worship the most high God…

If the Church is salt and light…

If the Church is where God’s story is remembered, retold, and relived, over and over and over…

If the Church is where saints are baptized, confirmed, confessed, communed, married, ordained, consecrated, annointed, commissioned, healed, and memorialized…

If… then, perhaps, someone could explain to me why we would ever settle for a church that is less?

Maybe the point isn’t to find the perfect church.  Maybe the point is to BE the Church we know we’re supposed to be.  Why do we settle for so much less?

 

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?

Timshel: “You may…”

Timshel:  “You may…”

My favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden.  East of Eden wrestles with questions of human nature, and good and evil.  Are we born good or evil, or are good and evil choices?

These questions find an answer in the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  Cain is outraged that God preferred his brother’s offering to his own.  In Genesis 4:6-7, God warns Cain,  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (NIV)

“You must rule over it.”

Other translations say it differently…

“Do thou rule over it.” (ASV)

“Thou shalt rule over him.” (KJV)

“You must subdue it and be its master.” (NLT)

“Do thou,” “Thou shalt,” and “You must” are translations of the Hebrew word “timshel.”  Here’s where the genius of East of Eden shines…

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.

Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.”

“Thou mayest” or, simply, “You may.”

Timshel means we have a choice.  In every aspect of our lives, we have choices.  WE CHOOSE!

Will our choices serve ourselves or others?  Will our choices bless others or curse others?  What will the impact of our choices be on the world?  Are our choices God honoring, or not?  Regardless of how we answer these questions, our choices are our own.    And, the responsibility for my choices lies on me.

Timshel is both a gift and a responsibility.  I get to choose how I will use my day, who I will spend my day with, what I will accomplish, or not.  I choose.  But, I am also responsible for those choices.  Were they godly choices?  Were they wise?  Were they loving?

“Think of the glory of the choice.”

What will you choose today?

What if?

What if?

What if we were kinder, and more respectful of each other?

What if we prayed more?

What if we really loved each other?

What if we were less materialistic?

What if we laughed more?

What if we cried more?

What if we were more civil to each other?

What if we invested more in friendship?

What if we were less self-focused?

What if we talked to strangers?

What of we said “thank you” more?

What if we “judged people by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin?”

What if we sang and danced more?

What if we spent less time pursuing happiness, and more time pursuing joy?

What if we were more careful about what we say?

What if we doodled in the margins more?

What if we looked more deeply in each other’s eyes?

What if listened more than we talk?

What if we were less defensive?

What if were less critical?

What if we smiled more?

What if we were neighborly, and not just neighbors?

What if we dreamed bigger dreams?

What if we were more compassionate?

What if we were less picky?

What if we actually lived by faith?

What if we stopped complaining?

What if we stopped to smell the roses more?

What if we told more jokes?

What if we stopped cussing?

What if we gave more compliments?

What if we hugged more?

What if we asked for help more?

What if we could not be so opinionated?

What if we could be less critical?

What if we could be more vulnerable?

What if we did more “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty?”

What if we got more rest?

What if we practiced the Golden Rule?

What if we enjoyed every bite of food we eat?

What if we were more grateful, even for the little things?

What if we considered each and every day a gift?

What if we were more adventurous?

What if anything is possible?

What if…?

What’s your “What if…?”