“Stay focused! Disruptions are coming!”

“Stay focused!  Disruptions are coming!”

I recently returned to yoga.

Though I’m not a big fan of most forms of exercise, I do really love yoga!   Yoga provides a teacher-led, group-based, meditative practice, building strength from head to toe, burning fat, increasing flexibility and balance – all things I desperately need.  For an hour, or so, yoga consumes the full focus and effort of my whole being.  I generally leave a yoga class physically depleted, emotionally centered, and soulfully re-charged – not to mention, pretty sweaty!

My Monday instructor is a young, petite woman, named Ariel.  She has a gentle voice, clear instruction, a steady pace, logical movements, and she challenges me to push my limits.  I’ve had a number of yoga instructors, and she rates among the best.

This morning, Ariel had us begin, lying on our backs, relaxed, slowing our breathing, and finding our “center.”  All of a sudden, the classroom doors banged open, as chatty students from a different class returned exercise mats they’d borrowed.  Then, some students showed up late to our class.  Then, a maintenance guy came in, drilling something.

Chaos, rudely interrupting our feeble efforts to achieve inner peace.

In the midst of the noisy disruption, Ariel quietly arose, walked to the center of the room, and with a strong, clear voice said, something to the effect, “Stay centered.  Focus on your breathing.  Life is full of distractions and intrusions, just like these.  You have to learn how to stay relaxed and centered – in life and in yoga – even when there are interruptions.  Hold on to your peace.  Stay focused!”  Then she returned to her mat, and continued the class.

I have to say, I was very impressed with her composure, focus, and ability to turn a challenging situation into a teaching moment.  She saved our class, and provided a great life lesson.  “Life is full of disruptions.  You have to learn to stay focused.  Don’t lose your peace.” 

Honestly, if Ariel hadn’t taken control, I was on the verge of getting up and walking out.  I’d quickly lost my focus, and was becoming increasingly irritated.  Her strong, clear instruction calmed me, helping me regain my center, leading to a great – though challenging – workout.

The truth is, that kind of thing happens to me all of the time.  I begin everyday with prayer and meditation.  I start every day centered and spiritually grounded, or try to.  But, as they say, “stuff” happens.  Something on the news or social media irritates me.  Someone misses an appointment.  A driver offends me.  I feel stressed by my “to-do” list.  I spill coffee on my freshly-ironed shirt.  Unexpected crises disrupt my well-planned schedule.  The car won’t start, or I get a flat tire.  Whatever the issue is, the peace I worked so hard to establish, and wish to maintain, flies out the window, leaving me in a frenzied state of irritable distress.

I lose my peace, all of the time.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t take much.

I bet you do, too.

As Ariel took control of today’s class, I wondered if she could possibly follow me around, everyday, reminding me when the disruptions come, over and over: “Stay focused.  Stay centered.  Breath.  Don’t lose your peace!”?  But, I’m guessing that might seem a little strange.  And, she might actually have other commitments and obligations – like yoga classes to teach.

Maybe I need to learn how to stay centered and focused on my own.

How about you?

Look for the good

Look for the good

A requirement of my Doctoral program was a weekly Church Leadership class, for which we read a book per week, and wrote a one-page reflection.

I’ll never forget the first book.  None of us like it, much, and said so in our reflections.  I don’t know why we thought criticizing the book was a good idea, since the Dean was the teacher and the one who assigned the book!  Obviously, HE like it.

I’ll also never forget his reaction to our reflections.  He said, more or less, “Your assignment was NOT to critique the book.  Your assignment was NOT to focus on the faults and failings of the author’s ideas.  Your assignment was to LEARN about leadership.  You can always learn SOMETHING, whether you like a book, assignment, class, etc., or not.  In my class, I don’t want to see another critique.  I want to know what you learned.”

That’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, and I strive to remember it every day.  By critiquing the book, I wasn’t learning anything.  I was evaluating the book based on what I thought I already knew about leadership, supposing I already knew more than the book had to teach me.  But, the point of the assignment was to learn.

How often do we miss valuable life-lessons because we’re judging, measuring, evaluating, or critiquing?  What arrogance!  What a loss!

I, like you, am constantly presented with opportunities to be the critic or evaluator.  But, what good does that do for me, or anyone else?  Instead, why not seek and affirm the good?

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

It would be wrong for me to suggest Paul is saying something he isn’t.  But, when I read this passage, I sense Paul is saying, “Look for the good, even when it’s less than perfect.  Affirm the good.  Celebrate the good.  Focus on the good, wherever you find it.”  

Let’s be honest, consistent perfection is an impossible goal to achieve, especially when you consider how opinionated, biased, and subjective we are.  What might be perfect to you, may seem deeply flawed to me (and, of course, I would be right!).

If perfection is a score of 100%, when I was in school 90% and above was an A, 80% and above was a B, 70% and above was a C, 60% and above was a D, and anything below 60% was failing.  C was considered average.  Think about that.  Average: normal, typical, to be expected.  C grades – 30% less than perfect, is the norm!  Of course, everyone wanted As and Bs.  But, notice, you could still get an A or B without being perfect. And, Cs still got degrees!

There’s an old joke about pastors, and other professions too, I suppose.  ” Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight As in seminary?  Pastor.  Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight Cs in seminary?  Pastor.”

And, on a ten-point grading scale, even a failing grade potentially gets more right than wrong!  I still remember Mr. Pfingstag’s Algebra II class in High School.  On many occasions, the entire class failed his tests.  As he returned our graded tests, he would say, “Here’s a good E!”, meaning “This is one of the higher Es.”  Though, I don’t recall a “Good E” ever being much of a compliment or consolation!  It was still a failing grade!

My point?  Perfection is impossible.  But, better than average happens all of the time.  Most things – not all, most – are more good than bad. Rarely is something 100% perfect, or 100% flawed.  A half-empty glass is still better than an empty one!

Never forget the timeless wisdom of Forest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  I have a particular dislike for coconut, for instance, which I inevitably choose.  But, while my single coconut-filled chocolate may be disgusting to me, it might be someone else’s favorite, and is certainly not a reflection on the rest of the chocolates in the box (especially the chocolate-covered cherries!).

When we’re critical, we’re often ignoring much that is still good and valuable, focusing on the small percentage of little things we dislike or disagree with, blinding ourselves to what is helpful, positive or informative.

If I’m honest, a critical spirit comes naturally to me.  I seem predisposed to it.  I ALWAYS see things I’d like to change, improve, or fix – according to my personal standards, of course.  The upside, I suppose, of seeing what can be improved, is to actually make improvements, not just critical judgements; like when Jesus suggested removing the log in your own eye, so that you’ll be able to assist the one who has a teeny speck in their’s.  The downside is, critics can be JERKS.  Even “constructive” criticism is still criticism, and no one really wants to hear it!  I really don’t want to be a jerk…

So, here’s my suggestion.  When something or someone falls short of your impossibly high standards, consider the following…

  • The benefit of the doubt:  Maybe you misunderstood.  Maybe there’s more to the story.  Maybe you missed something.  Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, you haven’t considered.  Maybe you’re wrong.  Maybe you just happened to get the chocolate-covered coconut.
  • Celebrate the Good:  Focus on the 50%, or more, that’s right and good, instead of what you found objectionable.
  • Acceptance:  Life ain’t perfect – like a box of chocolates.  We can always strive to offer our best, fix what’s broken, and improve what needs improvement.  But, life, even at it’s best, is a mixture of good and bad, better and worse, desirable and distasteful.  Accept it all as reality, and look for the good wherever you find it.
  • Humility:  Are you really so perfect?  Never burnt a meal?  Never bombed a test in Mr. Pfingstag’s class?  Never misunderstood something?  Never said something you wish you could take back?  Never taken half-measures?  Never spilled your milk?  Never changed your mind?
  • Receptivity:  Don’t slam your heart and mind shut at the first sight or smell of offense (or coconut).  Before passing judgement, force yourself to remain open.  Maybe what offended you, at first, won’t seem so significant in light of the whole.

Last Sunday, as I greeted members at the door, following the 11:00 am service, someone said, “That sermon wasn’t progressive at all!!!”  She seemed so surprised!  In a particular sermon, almost a year ago, as I was naming various labels or “boxes,” that might be applied to me, I said, “On some issues, I’m progressive.  On others, I’ve very traditional.”  All this person heard and remembered was two words, “I’m progressive.”   Two words have defined and colored every sermon she’s heard me preach for over two years.  I responded, “That’s really not unusual.  Most of my sermons are actually pretty traditional.”  She just shook her head, saying, “You confuse me.”

The problem, of course, is that words like “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “traditional,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” “Independent,” “Socialist,” “Christian,” “Gay, “Straight,” “black,” “white,” etc. are so emotionally charged, we immediately jump to conclusions when the word is used, without evaluating the whole.  Yes, I am “progressive” on some issues, and not on others.  No single word defines me!

Again, we’re so quick to judge, critique and evaluate.  I can’t help but wonder how much this particular person has misunderstood or misinterpreted my sermons, because she’s been critiquing me through the assumption that EVERYTHING I’ve said is “progressive.”  That’s inaccurate, unfair, and potentially a loss of helpful spiritual insight and teaching to her.

My advice – look for the good.

 

God Speaks: are you listening?

God Speaks: are you listening?

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

Does God really speak to us?

Is it possible to hear, recognize, and comprehend, the voice of God?

Jesus says we can.  “My sheep listen to my voice.” 

Throughout the Bible, God spoke…

  • God spoke to Adam and Eve, face-to-face.
  • God told Noah to build a big boat.
  • God told Abram and Sarai they would become parents in their old age.
  • God spoke to Joseph in dreams.
  • God spoke to Moses via a burning bush.
  • God spoke to and through the Prophets.
  • God spoke to Elijah in a “still, small voice.”
  • God spoke to Mary and Joseph through an angel.
  • God spoke, and the “Word became flesh, and lived among us.”
  • God spoke, through Jesus, to the multitudes.

“For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”  (John 12:49)

If God speaks, and if it’s possible to recognize God’s voice, inevitably the question is, “how?”  How do we hear and recognize the voice of God?

I suppose the different ways God might speak to a person are innumerable.  Sometimes, God might provide a literal “sign.”  I have a small sign, that sits on a shelf in my office, that says, “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it.”  It’s funny – but, probably not the sign most are looking for!

Sometimes God speaks through a person.  Pastors call that “incarnational” ministry: when we become the human vessels through which Divine speaks or acts.

Sometimes God speaks through a painting, a song, a line from a book, a billboard, a dream, a movie, a TV show, a Social Media post, a “coincidence” – you name it.  The possibilities are endless!

But, a word of caution is needed.  Even the most experienced, godly, spiritually-gifted “listeners” hear God incorrectly, sometimes.  Your “signs” might be from God, or they might just be wishful thinking!  Your “signs’ might be from God, but you may not be very good at interpreting the signs.  After all, we’re all biased by our hopes, desires, fears, and limited by what we don’t know or understand.  If we want a sign badly enough, we will likely see one, whether it’s from God or not.

If and when you believe you’ve heard from God, before acting on what you think you’ve heard, I suggest the following…

  • Pray more, and wait on the Lord for further confirmation, clarity, or instruction.
  • Read the Bible.  Is what you heard consistent with Scripture?  God never contradicts his Word!
  • Seek “wise counsel.”  Go to the godliest people you know, share what you think you’ve heard, and be open to their feedback.  Hopefully, they won’t just affirm what they think you want to hear!
  • Consult with a Spiritual Director: someone who has training and the spiritual gifting to help you discern God’s voice.
  • In seminary, a nun taught me to apply the Great Commandment to what I think I’ve heard God say.  Does acting on what I think I’ve heard cause me to love God and my neighbor more, or less.  “If more,” she said, “do it.”  If an action fulfills the Great Commandment, we should act, whether God told us to, or not!  Of course, if it doesn’t, don’t.
  • One of my dearest friends always asks, “Is it the brave thing to do?”  Often, God challenges us to move past our fears, doubts, insecurities, and complacency, requiring bravery to act.
  • Pray and listen some more – it never hurts.

Like I said, God speaks, and may speak to anyone at any given moment.  But, if you want to become more familiar with God’s voice, and to hear God’s voice more frequently, and with greater clarity… well, that takes faith, practice, time, and trial and error.

I begin every day (almost) with God.  Sundays are a bit of an exception, as I’m preparing to preach (I consider this God-time too – it’s just different).  Every other day, my morning routine begins with God-time.

Though my exact routine varies from day-to-day, most days begin with Scripture and devotional reading.  Sometimes, I believe God speaks directly through Scripture, as a particular word or phrase seems to “leap” from the page, drawing my focus and attention.  The same happens in my devotional reading.

I usually spend some time in relaxed silence.  Silence can be hard for some people.  Internal and external noise can be a distraction.  For some, repeating a word like “love” or “peace” can be a helpful aid to focus – sort of like a mantra.

Throughout my silence, my primary focus is on God’s presence.  Because I believe God is both intimate (within me, through the Holy Spirit) and transcendent (greater, higher, mysterious, ineffable), I focus my attention on God’s loving presence in me, and all around me.  Usually, as I do this, I feel a gentle weight in the center of my chest.  I don’t know why, but that’s what happens.

Then, I move into a time of listening.  I simply ask God, “Is there anything you want to say to me?  Please help me hear your voice.”  Sometimes, I ask specific questions, or bring up issues I’m praying about.  Then, I listen.  I find that using a journal helps.    I write down what I bring to God.  Then, as I sense a voice, other than my own, speaking within me, I write down what I “hear” (this is rarely audible – more of an impression).

Let me be clear about this.  Just because I sense God speaking, and just because I write it down, doesn’t mean I am 100% confident God has spoken.  But, I do write down what I “hear.”  I simply trust – by faith – that God is speaking.  Time will tell if God actually has, or not.  To me, the important thing is having sufficient faith to believe God DOES speak, and sufficient humility to recognize my limited ability to listen.

There have been a few, rare times I’ve heard an audible voice, that I believe was God’s.  I can’t prove it.  For the most part, I’ve not sought those occasions.  Rather, it’s seemed I needed to hear a particular a word from God, that I didn’t know I needed.  More often than not, what I’ve heard has been quite humbling, and usually uncomfortably challenging.

My personal belief is, God is constantly speaking to anyone who will listen.  As God is essentially relational, and desires a relationship with each of his children, and relationship requires communication, it only makes since God is constantly striving to initiate a conversation with each of us.

The challenge is, God rarely shouts or screams.  God is far more subtle.  In my experience, God mostly whispers.  So, while any of us could hear from God, at any given moment, most of us aren’t paying attention.

One of the questions I wrestled with, following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was, “If God speaks – which I believe – why didn’t God warn anyone about Nikolas Cruz?  How could family, peers, teachers, administration, DCF, FBI, and law enforcement all miss it?  Wasn’t God speaking to any of them?”   I obviously don’t know the answers to those questions.  But, I’ve come to believe God was speaking – because God is always speaking.  Perhaps no one was listening.  How tragic is that?

I try to listen for God’s voice, every day.  I’m not a prayer expert, or a super-spiritual mystic.  I just believe God speaks, and I don’t want to miss out, if God has something to say to me today.

Are you listening?

 

 

Fruitfulness

Fruitfulness

One of the trees in my bonsai collection is a calliandra – more commonly known as a “pink powder puff.”  “Pink powder puff” doesn’t sound particulalry manly, so let’s stick with more scientifically precise terminology!

My calliandra bonsai ought to look like the one pictured above.  But, it doesn’t.  I’ve owned the tree for almost ten years, and it hasn’t yet produce a single pink powder puff yet.  I’ve watered.  Fertilized.  Pruned.  Re-potted.  I’ve tried more sun and less sun; more shade and less shade.  I’ve begged and pleaded.  I’ve done everything short of singing to it.

Still no puffs.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad looking bonsai – not my best, but not bad.  But, a calliandra is SUPPOSED to produce pink powder puffs… and, dang it, I want my powder puffs!!!

My non-blooming calliandra reminds me of a teaching of Jesus,

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”  (Matthew 7:16-18, NIV)

“By their fruit (or pink powder puffs) you will recognize them.”

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree and it’s fruit as a warning against false teachers.  You may recall, Jesus was frequently critical of religious leaders, who appeared outwardly pious, but were inwardly mean, stingy, and ungodly.  Basically, to paraphrase, Jesus said, “Look for the fruit.  If the fruit is good, trust the source.  If the fruit is bad, no matter how religious or pious the person outwardly seems, be wary.  Be very wary.”

This teaching could also be applied in reverse.  Sometimes, a person may not seem particularly pious or religious.  But, “look for the fruit,” and you might discover more in them than immediately meets the eye.

What fruits?

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5, NIV)  He was talking about love.

Galatians 5:22-23 says, “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)

You might think of other “fruits” of the Christian life – tithing, service, study, worship, and varieties of other “Christian” behaviors.  But, at least according to these two passages, the fruit of abiding in Jesus, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, is mostly related to our character.  And, character has everything to do with how relate to others; how we treat others.  The bottom-line seems to be, a fruitful Christian has a character something like Jesus’.

As you may recall, the people most condemning of Jesus’ religious behavior (healing on the Sabbath, associating with sinners, touching the sick) were specifically the ones Jesus warned us about.  The religious leaders, who constantly opposed and criticized Jesus, “appeared” perfectly religious – they tithed with exacting precision, they prayed loud eloquent prayers in the public squares, they associated with the “right” people, they avoided sins and sinners like a plague, they washed their hands vigorously, and they dressed impeccably.  But, Jesus compared them to freshly white-washed tombs – fresh and clean on the outside, but filled with death and stinking decay.

In stark contrast, Jesus was open-handed and open-hearted with EVERYONE.  He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.  His followers were commoners.  He embraced the sinful and the sick.  He honored outcasts – like Samaritans, gentiles, and even a Roman Centurion (the commander of the enemy occupiers!).  Jesus was consistently welcoming, kind, and compassionate.  He spoke of love, demonstrated love, and embodied love.  He even loved and forgave the ones who nailed him to a cross.

Recognize the goodness of a tree, by the good fruit in produces.  Recognize a godly person by their character.  Is a person’s character more like Jesus’, or like the Pharisee?

My point isn’t to judge – the Bible is pretty clear about that.  My point is, perhaps we place so much weight on outward morality and behavior, and far too little on character.  Though I strive to live a consistent, faithful, obedient, moral life, I would much rather be known for my kindness, generosity, mercy, and love, than how much I tithe, or how little I cuss, or how many verses of Scripture I’ve memorized.  I do tithe.  I don’t cuss… very much.  And, I do know a fair amount of Scripture by memory.  But, do I love?  Do I love like Jesus?

What kind of fruit am I producing?  What kind of fruit are you producing?

 

Let it rain

Let it rain

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”  Hebrews 6:7 (NIV)

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And God permitting, we will do so.”  Hebrews 6:1-3

In essence, some spiritual teachings are foundational, even “elementary.”  Repentance, faith, etc. are the basic materials for establishing a foundation of faith.  Good, strong foundations are important.  But, foundations are meant to be built on.  A solid foundation is essential.  But, a foundation is only a foundation.  Therefore, “let us move beyond elementary teaching about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

My particular brand of Christianity is Methodist.  One of my favorite things about Methodism is our belief that, following conversion, God begins a new work in us, growing us toward full maturity in Christ.  We believe, with God’s help and our active participation, we will become like Jesus.  According to Hebrews 6:1-3, the “elementary” teachings about Christ are simply the raw materials for establishing a foundation for a life of faith.

For years, I’ve participated in home construction in a small Mayan village in Guatemala, called Chontala.  Most families in Chontala have traditional homes, made of adobe brick, like ones built by Mayans for millennia.  The main benefit of adobe is it’s free – just made of mud and straw.  The problem with adobe is it becomes brittle and unstable in earthquakes.  The homes we build are concrete block construction, which tend to be more stable in earthquakes and storms.

Before we can build the walls of a concrete block home, land has to be cleared, trenches have to be dug and leveled, and foundations have to be created from rock, sand, re-bar, cement, and concrete blocks.  Those are the elements of a solid foundation.  But, as Hebrews describes, the foundation is just the beginning.  Upon the foundation will be added walls, doors, windows, electrical, and a roof.  Then, families will add furnishings and personal belongings to make a new house a home.  Of course, most important are the beautiful families who will live in these homes.

Surrounding most of these homes are corn fields.  Corn is the primary crop of Guatemala, and a mainstay of a Mayan diet.  Corn seed, saved from last year’s harvest, is planted in fertile volcanic soil, and grows rapidly throughout the rainy summer months.  For countless generations, corn has been annually planted, harvested, and dried.  Some is eaten, and some is saved to be planted the following year.  It’s a simple, reliable, dependable, repeatable process, vital to Mayan life.

Daily, corn is ground and cooked into tortillas, tamales and atole (a corn-based hot drink, I don’t particularly like) – the basics of the Mayan diet.  From infancy to old age, corn nourishes the daily life and work of every Mayan.

This is how I imagine the metaphor Hebrews 6:7 describes,“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”   Our spiritual lives can be like those Mayan corn fields; abundantly fertile, sown with ancient seed, watered with dependable rains, producing fruitful harvests, nourishing the daily lives of many, passing on seed to generations of planting and harvesting yet to come.

Mayan corn is a dependable crop.  It always has been, for countless generations

Likewise, spiritual growth and maturity is a dependable process, with God’s blessing and our participation.

The question is, are we still focused on“elementary teachings?”   Or, are our spiritual lives growing, like “Land that drinks in the rain?” 

As Paul writes,I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”  (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

My Mayan friends have no control over the rains.  They simply plant their crops, and trust the rain to come and do its work.  Similarly, we have no control over the “spiritual” rains that fall upon us, or the crops we produce.  Our job is to faithfully plant the seeds of God’s word in the soil of our souls, and to place ourselves under God’s rain as much as we possibly can.

And, where does God’s rain fall?  Worship.  Christian friendship.  Prayer.  Study.  Sacraments.  Contemplation.  Service, mercy, and justice.  Silence and solitude.  Spiritual direction.  Place yourself where the rains of God’s grace flow, with an open heart and mind, and we will grow.

We will become like Christ.  We will become who we were created to be.

Thomas Merton writes, “The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him and in Him, the work will never be done.” 

What do you desire?  Elementary teaching?  Or, to become like Christ?