Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

While many in the U.S. will observe today as Halloween – a night for Jack-o-lanterns, costumes, parties, and “trick or treating” – our neighbors to the South will be observing a much more ancient tradition called “Dia de Los Muertes” – the Day of the Dead.  The Day of the Dead, originating in Mexico and observed to varying degrees throughout Central America, is a special celebration for honoring loved ones who have died, in hopes their spirits will return for a visit.  Families build altars in their homes, as places of loving remembrance, and they visit cemeteries for family feasts, and to decorate family tombs and grave sites.  Day of the Dead celebrations often include parades, feasts, decorations, and colorful skeletal costumes.

Probably, the most familiar image, to most, from the Day of the Dead is the “Sugar Skull” – images of skulls or skeletons, decorated with elaborated dress and beautiful flowers.

I’ve heard some say the Day of the Dead is evil, or morbid, or, at least, weird.  But, I love it!  If you ask me, Halloween is weird!  Whether Halloween is an opportunity to adorn a different persona, or self-indulge in parties and candy, or, at worst, glorify evil, it’s all a bit strange to me.  But, I think the Day of the Dead is kind of beautiful.

The Day of the Dead embraces death as an inevitable part of the life experience.  The Day of the Dead keeps the love and memories of the deceased alive in ritual form.  The Day of the Dead celebrates life!  The Day of the Dead imagines the distance between the material and spiritual world as being rather thin.

And, frankly, though the Day of the Dead traditions arose from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, aspects of the traditions feel very Christian to me….

  • We believe Christ has conquered death, and opened the gates to eternity.
  • Hebrews 12:1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” which I understand to mean the souls and spirits of those who have died in the Lord.
  • We believe in honoring the “saints” who have gone before us, and on whose spiritual shoulders we stand, whose lives deserve to be remembered.
  • We believe life is a gift to be celebrated fully.

No, the Day of the Dead is not, technically, a Christian holiday.  But, it is a rich cultural tradition, celebrating life, death, and the life after death.

In ancient times, Christian monks would keep the skull of a deceased and decomposed brother on their prayer desk, as a reminder of their own mortality.  Can you imagine praying, with the hollow eye sockets of a deceased brother staring at you?  Tibetan Buddhists sometimes meditate with prayer beads in the shape of tiny skulls, sometimes carved from yak bone, for the same purpose.

Death is a reality we inevitably face.  There’s just no escaping it!  Though Christians believe we will live forever, none will do so without passing through death.  While death is an enemy, in that it is the end of our earthly existence, it is also a defeated enemy, in that it is not the final ending of our eternal existence.  Really, death is nothing more than a transition from life to more life.  In some ways, death is akin to birth, passing from one existence to the next.

Dare we also say death can be a friend?  After all, death, if we will embrace it, reminds us that each and every day is a gift and blessing.  Death is a reminder to live every day on earth to the fullest, and strive not to waste even one.  And, death is a promise that when the struggles of this life are over – and some of us struggle a lot – there’s a better life waiting for us on the other side.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes, mis amigos!

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are reminded – over and over and over – about all God did for them in the past, and as an encouragement to trust God in the present and future.  For instance, when time came for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, they feared the Anakites, who were already living there.  Deuteronomy 1:29-33 says,

Don’t be terrified! Don’t be afraid of them!  The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you just as he fought for you in Egypt while you watched, and as you saw him do in the desert. Throughout your entire journey, until you reached this very place, the Lord your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child.  But you had no faith in the Lord your God about this matter, even though he went ahead of you, scouting places where you should camp, in fire by night, so you could see the road you were taking, and in cloud during the daytime. (CEB)

In spite of considerable evidence of God’s past faithfulness, the Israelites lacked sufficient faith to face the challenges before them.  And, if I’m honest, I’m exactly the same.

In a general sense, I believe all of the blessings I’ve received in life are gifts from God.  Marriage and family.  Friendship.  Ministry.  Life experiences.  Health.  Security.  Education.

And, in many, more specific ways, I’m keenly aware of the countless ways God has been faithful – more than I can possibly name.  Without a moments hesitation, I can share story after story of God’s particular faithfulness to me.  A quick glance in the rearview mirror of my life reveals God faithfully, consistently, generously present and working, time and again.  In the words of the great hymn…

“Great is thy faithfulness.  Great is thy faithfulness.  Morning by morning, new mercies I see.  All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

Looking in the rearview mirror of my life, my faith is strong.  God HAS been faithful.  Even reflecting on past pains and struggles, I can see how God was working.

But, in any given moment – or looking ahead – fear, doubt, and uncertainty often take over.  Hebrews 11:1 says…

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

But, SEEING makes it SO much easier than hoping for what we don’t see!

So, I doubt.  I worry and fret.  I get scared.  The “what if?” scenarios consume my thoughts, far more than my prayers.  My prayers, themselves, lack the confidence of a man whom God has blessed as much and as often as me.  I possess too little faith, and far too much fear and trembling.

The answer, of course, is surrendering our fears, and to possess more faith.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just that easy!?!  In reality, the best most of us can do is NOT act on our fears and doubts; acting instead on the flimsy faith we wish was stronger.  Perhaps, one day, faith will come more automatically.   But, it until it does, “fake it until you make it!”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once confessed to a Moravian pastor, Peter Bohler, thoughts of quitting the ministry.  Wesley felt he lacked sufficient faith to preach, thinking, How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?”   Bohler’s advice to Wesley was,“By no means.  Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

The truth is, I preach more faith than I actually possess sometimes.  I don’t mean to imply I don’t believe what I teach and preach – I do!  I’m confessing I may lack sufficient faith and courage to act on what I say I believe.  And, frankly, the acting on faith is far more important than the preaching of it!

The good news is, I’m not the first, only, or last to struggle with a meager or wavering faith.  Neither are you.  The Bible is full of weak-faithed servants of God, doing the best they can.  The good news is, we too have faith-filled rearview mirrors to remind us of God’s history of faithfulness, in each of our lives, if we’ll only remember to look back and notice.

But, remember: you can only stare into the rearview mirror for so long.  While it’s helpful to look back from time to time, life consistently moves forward, into the unknown.  The past reveals God’s PAST faithfulness.  The present and future is where we discover God’s continued faithfulness.  NOW and THEN are where we act on faith, whether we have it sufficiently, or not.

So, move forward with faith, even if its scary.  Move forward with faith, even if you don’t have enough.  Act on faith, even when it’s weak.  Then, maybe, we’ll discover what faith really is – confidence in what we hope for, and confidence in God.  We have every reason to believe, and every reason to act, and plenty of evidence to believe God will be faithful.

He was then.  He will be now.

What do you see in your rearview mirror?

 

 

You will see me…

You will see me…

I’m spending this week, away from the office, reading and researching for upcoming sermons and series (hopefully for the entire coming year!).  Among the books I am reading is Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s, Made for Goodness: and Why This Makes All the Difference.  Each chapter ends with a brief, moving meditation.  Though there’s much I could share from Made for Goodness, and will in upcoming sermons, I feel particularly moved to share a portion of a meditation I just read….

When you stop running from the pain

And turn to face it,

When you step into the agony and let it be,

When you can turn to your own suffering and know it by name, 

Then you will see me.

You will see me in the heart of it with you.

It doesn’t matter if your body is wracked by pain

Or your mind is spiraling through the aches and anguish.

When you stop running you will see me.

Though I certainly don’t wish you suffering or pain, both are realities we all face and endure at some point in our lives.  If that day is today, if this is your season of suffering, may you find some comfort and direction in these words.  More – may you find God in your suffering.  May you see God in your suffering.

God is with you.  You’re not alone.

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?