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?

 

“The Soundtrack of My Life” (Warning: this is very likely the most trivial post I’ve ever written)

“The Soundtrack of My Life” (Warning: this is very likely the most trivial post I’ve ever written)

Yesterday, listening to the radio, I heard someone talking about the collection of songs that would compose the musical “Soundtrack of My Life.”  As I was driving for a couple of hours, with time to ponder pointless thoughts, I’ve composed my own soundtrack…

Childhood, in the 1970’sLe Freak, by Chic (I can’t recall a single time at the skating rink the DJ didn’t play that song)

Middle School, in the early 1980’s – a tie between Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin, which was always the last song played at middle school dances, and Another Brick in the Wall, by Pink Floyd, which always seemed to be playing on the school bus

High School, in the mid 1980’s – the extended version of Purple Rain, by Prince

College, in the late 1980’sRound and Round, by Ratt

Dating and Marriage in 1990I Melt With You, by Modern English

Early 1990’sU Can’t Touch This, by MC Hammer

Parenting yearsEye of the Tiger, by Survivor

Ministry, With Everything, Hillsong United

Empty NestingDon’t Rock My Boat, by Bob Marley

DeathThe Saints are Coming, by U2 and Green Day

Life Theme Song (to be played during the credits), One, by U2 and Mary J. Blige

Don’t ask too many questions.  It is what it is.  Don’t judge me.

What’s on your “sound track?”

Quicksand Spirituality

Quicksand Spirituality

In a meeting with strangers, Thursday night, the question was asked, “Who gets stressed?”  We all knowingly chuckled.  We ALL get stressed.

The leader asked, “What stresses you?”  Work.  Family.  Relationships.  Health.  Money.

In my head, I was screaming, “WHAT STRESSES ME?  SEVENTEEN STUDENTS AND FACULTY WERE SLAUGHTERED TWO WEEKS AGO IN A LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL!  INSTITUTIONS MEANT TO PROTECT US FAILED!  A TROUBLED KID, REPEATEDLY SHOWING SIGNS OF MENTAL ILLNESS, LEGALLY PURCHASED AN ASSAULT-STYLE RIFLE, WITH THE EXPRESSED INTENT OF COMMITTING MASS MURDER!  OUR WHOLE COMMUNITY IS TRAUMATIZED!  WHAT STRESSES ME?  ARE YOU JOKING?”

But, I never said a word, out loud.  I smiled and nodded.  “Yes. Work, family, and money stress me too.”

I know this sounds terribly judgmental – please, forgive me.  As I listened to our trite examples of stress, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Have we forgotten what JUST happened?  Or, are we just being polite?  Or, is it too painful to say out loud?  Are others inwardly shouting, as I am?  Or, has everyone else moved on?”

I know we have to move on, some how.  We can’t wallow in this forever.  The students have gone back to school.  Businesses are open.  Teams are playing sports.  New stories are making the headlines.

But, I can’t “move on.”  Though I wasn’t directly affected by this tragedy, this tragedy has deeply affected me.  I’m functioning, fairly normally, I think.  But, my soul is troubled.  I’m wrestling with questions I’ve not really wrestled with before, and I can’t find satisfactory answers.  My heart hurts, a lot.  My prayers have devolved into angry rants.  I’m listening, but not hearing.

My struggle is not nearly as significant as the MSD families who lost loved ones, or the students who witnessed horrors, or the parents who now fear their children’s safety, or the faculty and staff who, somehow, must pick up the pieces and make something of the remaining academic year.

Perhaps I’m struggling because I’m supposed to speak for God.  After all, that’s my job.  That is what I’m paid to do.  I’m supposed to know why God allows tragedies to happen.  No. I take that back.  I’m supposed to know why God allowed THIS tragedy to happen.  I’m supposed to know where God was during THIS shooting.  I’m supposed to know why a “good” God allowed THIS evil and suffering.  I’m supposed to know why God didn’t intervene.

God!  Why didn’t you intervene?????

I don’t know.  I’ve had answers before, when things happened to strangers, in far away places.  But, today, two and a half weeks later, my neat theological explanations aren’t holding water.  At least, they’re not for me.

I can’t seem to retreat into comfortable spiritual routines, or familiar theological answers, or even my faith.  In fact, it’s my faith that troubles me most.  How do I speak for a God I don’t understand?  I’ve never presumed to comprehend God.  But, that’s different.  God is beyond human comprehension.  I actually like that.  I need that.  I’m comfortable with that.  This?  Not so much.

Though I haven’t lost or abandoned my core spiritual convictions, or turned my back on God, I feel like my foundation has turned to quicksand.  Where is my rock?  I don’t know where to step and stand with confidence.  And, I’m beginning to wonder if “moving on” spiritually will require me to know and speak for God with a lot less certainty.  That’s unsettling.  To say the least, that stresses me.

Stressed?  Yes, I am stressed.  But, for none of the normal reasons.

Bravery

Bravery

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt 

More than once, after listening to me wrestle with a decision, a dear friend has wisely asked, “What’s the brave thing to do?”  Not, “What do you want to do?  What’s the easiest thing to do?   What’s the convenient thing to do?  What’s the least controversial thing to do?”  

“What’s the brave thing to do?”

Yesterday, someone told me I’m brave for something I revealed in a recent blog.  It was a compliment, but also acknowledgement of the risk of self-disclosure.

Bravery’s hard.  Bravery requires risk and vulnerability.  Bravery requires facing the likelihood of danger.  Bravery requires stepping out of the shadows, and into the light.  Bravery requires facing the possibility of failure and defeat.  Bravery requires the courage to be real, to be exposed.

Bravery’s hard.  In my High School Psychology class, I learned about the fight-or-flight response to danger.  I’m definitely a “flight” kind of guy!  My natural tendency, when feeling vulnerable or attacked, is to retreat to somewhere safe.  I know I feel threatened, any time I realize I’m avoiding, isolating, or hiding.  I know I’ve forsaken bravery, when I betray my convictions, by remaining silent or feigning agreement or consent.

Some time ago, I noticed, every reference to courage or bravery in the Bible is a choice – “Be brave…take courage…”  Bravery is a choice.

If I choose bravery, you may not like what I say or do; you may not agree with me; you might be angry with me; you might judge and condemn me; you might fight back; you might reject me.  If I’m brave, I might lose.  But, if I’m not brave, what have actually gained?  Anything?  If I’m not brave, I’ve already lost by consent.

On the other hand, if I choose bravery, I might become your friend; I might be your ally; I might be your advocate; I might be your defender; I might be your hero; I might even inspire bravery in you, too.

Bravery’s risky business.  But, everything worthwhile is.

I want to be brave, even when I’m not.  I want to say and do brave things.  I want to take stands for the things I believe.  I want to be brave for those who can’t be.  Even when there’s a personal cost, and always a risk, I want to be true to my convictions.  I want to be brave.

I want to choose bravery.  Don’t you?

Heroes

Heroes

“God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honor and glory.” St. Augustine

I’ve been thinking about my heroes.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I heard something, or read something about heroes.  Perhaps it’s the talk of the heroic acts of students, teachers and coaches at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.  Perhaps it’s just a thought that randomly popped in my head.

Actually, I’ve been pondering what my particular heroes say about me.  Is there something about who they are (or were) or what they do (or did), that speaks to who I strive to be?

As an only child, I spent a lot of time, growing up, alone – as most only children do.  As an introvert, I didn’t mind.  That space, I think, helped me develop a lively imagination.

In third grade, I discovered comic books and super heroes, and I was enthralled.  I quickly discovered a small comic book store, within a bike-ride of my house. In addition to new comics, and boxes and boxes of preserved comics in plastic bags, there was a box of old, used, worn and torn comic books, for only $.25.  Just about every quarter I earned, found, or was given, was spent buying $.25 comics.

By the way, I still have most of them.

My favorites were Superman and Batman, but I loved them all.  At one point, I created and drew my own super heroes.  I loved their courage.  I loved their super-powers.  I loved their cool hideouts, vehicles, and weapons.  I loved how they always saved the day, no matter how terrible the schemes of their evil foes.

Though I haven’t read a comic book in ages, I absolutely love all of the super hero movies of the past decade.  In fact, while some are more critically acclaimed than others, I’ve yet to see a bad one.  A “bad” super hero movie, to me, is still better than just about anything else!

While I still love the heroes of fantasy, I’ve also accumulated a growing list of real-life “super” heroes.  Though most of my heroes are “known,” at least in certain circles, few are/were rich, or powerful, or successful by “worldly” standards.  Though some have risen to honorable positions, and received accolades, few are/were motivated by such things.

My heroes of history include St. Francis, who abandoned wealth and comfort to serve God and the poor; Mother Teresa, who ventured into the dangerous streets of Calcutta, to serve the sick and dying; John Wesley, whose passion for God and dissatisfaction with the spiritual status-quo sparked a movement; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement to serve the poor; Oscar Romero, who was martyred for standing with the poor of El Salvador;  Martin Luther King, Jr., who was martyred for his fight for justice on behalf of people of color.

My living heroes include Pope Francis, as he leads the Roman Catholic Church (and all of us) from a place of humility and love for ALL people; Barack Obama, who consistently demonstrates leadership with character; Jimmy Carter, who may not be remembered as a great President, but has given his life to Christ-centered service; Bryan Stevenson, an attorney, author and activist, fighting for the lives of death-row inmates unfairly tried and sentenced.   Dona Maria Tomasa, an incredible Mayan woman, and dear friend, who overcame the destruction of the Guatemalan Civil War and the brutal murder of her husband, to lead a weaving cooperative for widows, called “Ruth and Naomi,” that now sells hand-made products internationally; my Bishop, Kenneth Carter, who leads from a place of consistent, grounded, Christ-centered hopefulness; and many, many, many of my former students from the Florida State University Wesley Foundation, who are now leading and serving to make the world a better place.

As I reflect on my heroes, I see themes emerge: leadership, humility, dissatisfaction with the status quo, authenticity, fearlessness in the face of opposition, service and sacrifice, courage, commitment to change, depth of character, belief that a better world is possible, perseverance, overcoming hardship and resistance, and a deep passion for God.

As much as I love the “super” heroes of my childhood fantasies, I’ll never possess a superpower.  But, as I look at my list of real-life heroes, I see much I can strive to imitate.

I wonder if that’s why certain people become our heroes?  Perhaps they represent who we wish we could be.  Or, perhaps, they represent, to some degree, who we can be.

Who are your heroes?

 

God “Bless?” America

God “Bless?” America

I led a new Bible study, this morning, on the Sermon on the Mount.  I intended to start last week, but delayed due to the swirl of activity in the immediate aftermath of the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Today’s class focused on the Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-16…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean when we say, “God bless America?” Health?  Wealth?  Prosperity?  Protection?  Favor?

The Greek word, used in the New Testament, for “blessed” is “makarios,” which means something akin to, “being in an enviable position,” particularly in our relationship with God.  Being “blessed, spiritually-speaking, is a good, desirable, godly place to be.

Jesus says we’re in an inviable position with God when we are poor in spirit, when we are mourning, when we are meek, when we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and when we are persecuted, when we face opposition for our faith.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds VERY different than the way most of us typically use the word “blessed!”

Is it possible we understand the word “blessed” correctly, but expect the wrong outcome? After all, we live in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on earth.  But, what’s all of our wealth and welfare doing for us?

Being close to God does NOT automatically lead to health, prosperity, protection and favor.  Instead, being close to God may mean the opposite.  Being close to God will break your heart for the sins of the world.  Being close to God will reveal your insufficiencies, and need for God.  Being close to God means working for justice and peace, even when it brings opposition.  Being close to God requires seeing the impurities in our own lives, and our desperate need for refinement.  Being close to God requires personal sacrifice.  Being close to God can be difficult… and blessed.

Being close to God is undeniably an inviable position.  It’s where we want to be, whether we get that or not.  But, God blesses us to bless others, not to bask in the blessing ourselves.  Being close to God is joining in God’s work of healing and redeeming this broken world.  Being blessed is less about the temporal blessings we may or may not receive, and more about the blessing we can be for those less blessed than us.

This world needs a lot of blessing!

Though I’ve read the Beatitudes countless times, I’m hearing them differently this time.  I can’t help but read them through the lens of our recent tragedy.  I hear the call to mourn and show mercy – Christians are good at that.  But, I’m also hearing God’s call to work for justice and peace, even if it means facing painful opposition.

In fact, just a few verses after the Beatitudes, Jesus adds, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  

The “blessed” do.  The “blessed” put blessing into action.  Friends, there’s a lot of blessing for us to do.

Yes, God, please bless America.  Bless us with the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the workers for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, and those who are persecuted for doing what is right.  Bless us with your Kingdom.  Bless us, please.