Unpredictable paths…

Unpredictable paths…

“History unfolds itself by strange and unpredictable paths. We have little control over the future; and none at all over the past.”  Winston Churchill

This week, I’m visiting Quetzaltenango (commonly known as Xela), Guatemala, speaking to English-speaking Middle and High School students at the Inter-American School’s Spiritual Emphasis Week.  The Inter-American School is a private, Christian-based, English-speaking school.  But, the students (mostly Guatemalan) come from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds.  This week, I get to tell them about Jesus!

The reason I’m this year’s Spiritual Emphasis Week speaker is, my daughter, Malinda (Miss Rains, to her students), is the IAS art teacher.  And, I’ve never been good at saying “no” to my daughter!  Actually, I wouldn’t have said “no,” anyway!

As I was about to speak to the students, this morning, a thought crossed my mind…

“How the heck did I end up here???”

How did a 50-year-old gringo end up telling a bunch of Guatemalan kids about Jesus?

To many who know me, the answer might seem obvious…

  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala.
  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala, because she went on a mission trip to Guatemala, with her mother and me, when she was in high school.
  • We were on a mission trip to Guatemala, because I’ve been leading mission teams to Guatemala for years.
  • I’ve led mission trips to Guatemala, because I met a missionary, working in Guatemala, in 2007.
  • I met a missionary in Guatemala, because I was a campus minister at Florida State University, looking for a place for my students to serve internationally.
  • I was looking for a place for my students to serve, because I was impacted by a mission trip to Mira Flores, Mexico, when I was 22-years-old.
  • I went on a mission trip to Mexico, because I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, and the trip was already planned.
  • I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director, because I had just (VERY UNEXPECTEDLY!) felt like God might be calling me to become a pastor, and the Youth Director position became (unexpectedly) vacant at the same time.
  • Before that, I had recently begun attending FUMC Orlando, AND LOVING IT.  Before that, I had recently graduated from college.  Before that… well, lots of things happened!

Looking backward, of course I ended up here, this week, doing this.  But, if you told me, when I was in school, that some day I’d be visiting my adult daughter, in Guatemala,  telling Guatemalan kids about Jesus, I’d have laughed.  I didn’t know much about Jesus, and I couldn’t have found Guatemala on a map!  My family didn’t go to church, nor did we travel internationally.  I studied German in High School, because I couldn’t imagine ever needing to speak Spanish (even if I never came to Guatemala, living in Florida, Spanish would have been a LOT more useful than German!)

How, on earth, did I end up here, now?

The truth is, even if you’re never invited to speak to kids in Guatemala about Jesus, most of us end up in different places, doing different things than we ever would have imagined.  We set goals.  We make plans.  We have dreams.  But, life usually has unexpected twists and turns, altering the course of our paths in surprising ways.

“We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.”  (Proverbs 16:9)

“The Lord directs the steps of the godly.  He delights in every detail of their lives.  Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand.”  (Psalm 37:23-24)

“This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is good for you and leads you along the paths you should follow.'”  (Isaiah 48:17)

How did I get here?  It’s God’s fault… or blessing!  I choose to believe the latter.  And, I speaking of choice, I believe our choices also have a lot to do with where we end up.  In fact, I increasingly believe that every choice we make – every step we choose on our journeys (including choices ignorantly chosen) – have a lot to do with what steps will follow.

So, that’s how I ended up, sitting in my daughter’s classroom, this morning, and I’m so thankful!  I never would’ve predicted it, but I’m so thankful for it!  And, I can’t help but wonder what this moment of my journey will lead to next!

So, where are you this morning, what are you doing, and how did you get there?

And, I wonder, what’s next for you?

 

To love and be loved…

To love and be loved…

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”   St. Augustine of Hippo

As I was praying, this morning, I sensed God saying, “Your calling is to love and be loved.”

When I “hear” things from the Lord, in prayer, I’ve learned to simply receive, as humbly and gratefully as possible, without too much skepticism, over-confidence, or over-analysis.  I try to be equally open to the possibility God has actually spoken to me, and that I might just be talking to myself.  I try to pay attention, listen, and receive.  Time tends to reveal what is of God, and what isn’t.

But, this morning’s word, “Your calling is to love and be loved,” feels like something God would say.  I wasn’t praying about “my calling.”  The words just came.  When a word comes, that clearly lines up with Scripture and Truth – like the Great Commandment, say – why wouldn’t I accept the possibility God has spoken?

But, God took it further.  As I heard it and received it, I first assumed God was talking about people – love and be loved, by people.  Let’s be honest, that’s not always easy.  Some people are easier to love than others!  And, some days, I don’t feel very loving.  But, God wasn’t talking about people.  He was talking about my relationship with him.

My calling is to love God, and be loved by God.

That probably sounds pretty obvious.  Truth usually does!

My calling is my vocation, my life’s purpose, my destiny.  My calling is how I am to use my time, energy, talents and abilities.  My calling is giving all I am to all God has given me to be and to do.  My calling is my first priority.

So is your’s.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”  (Matthew 22:37-38)

I think it’s easy to forget that.  If we care about love, and I think we all do, I suspect most of us focus more on how much, or how little, we love or feel loved by others.  And, if we don’t love, or feel loved, by people, we might assume God doesn’t love us much either.

We might wonder why certain people don’t, or can’t, love us.  We might show love to others, and feel rejected when they don’t love us in return.  We might try as hard as we can to love certain people, and feel like failures when we don’t.

But, if our first love is God, and we allow ourselves to be loved by God, the degree to which others do or don’t love us becomes less important.  If we can grasp how much God really loves us, that’s enough.  Thankfully, others – some others – will love us, too.  And, that’s wonderful.  And, I truly believe God often loves us through the people who really love us.  But, dare I say human love is just a bonus, if we already know how much God love us?

And, if I really love God, in return – with all of my heart, soul, and mind – am I not more capable of loving the people God loves?  Do I not have a greater capacity to love as God loves, even if they are hard to love, or don’t love me in return?

If my first task is to love God, and be loved by God, and I am faithful to that task, won’t my heart gradually become more and more like God’s?

As I pastor, I think about my calling a lot.  Calling is a pastor’s modus operandi.  But, I tend to associate my calling, primarily, with a particular role, or place, or mission, or set of pastoral tasks.  Those are not insignificant.  They are part of how one responds to a particular calling.  But, I am realizing they are secondary.

My primary calling is to love God, and be loved God.

St. Augustine writes,“To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” 

I suspect love is your calling, 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?

Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with God.  When the morning came, God said, “You will no longer go by the name Jacob. From now on, your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

Of course, Jacob is a patriarch of the nation of Israel, from whom the nation received its name.  The name, Israel, means “wrestles with God.”

Besides the literal event in Genesis 32, isn’t it interesting God named his chosen people, “You will wrestle with me.”  And, Israel did.  God’s people have always wrestled with God.  We still do.

I’ve always enjoyed that little tid-bit.  As a son of the “New Israel,” I’ve appreciated God welcoming our wrestling, rather than squashing us like bugs when we challenge him.  In fact, God seems to initiate the wrestling, as life, and our ability to navigate it, is never easy.

I’ve relished digging at some deep theological question, some perplexing ethical dilemma, or some difficult passage of Scripture.  Even when I’m left dazed and confused, I’ve found the wrestling stimulating, and even enjoyable.

But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

A month after the terrible tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I continue to wrestle with questions I’ve never truly wrestled with before.  Even though terrible tragedies happen all of the time, and always have, this one has literally hit much closer to home.  Even though I’ve had neat theological answers in the past, they haven’t been working so easily for me lately.  I haven’t even been directly affected by this tragedy.  Yet, being a pastor in this community, at this moment, I feel an urgency to know what to say.

I don’t.  I’m wrestling.

Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?

If we believe God intervenes in the affairs of this world sometimes, why not this time?

Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?

Is it sufficient to say, “God suffers with us?”

Is it sufficient to say, “Someday, all suffering will end?”

I’m torn between knowing that the answers to such questions exist in the realm of mystery, and needing to know the answers to my questions NOW.  I’m torn between the reasonable theological answers I’ve been taught, and the lack of meaning they have for me at this particular moment.

I’m wrestling.  But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

Maybe that’s the point.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we’re worn out.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we can’t wrestle anymore.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we find some kind of peace with the One we are wrestling with.

Maybe…

Until then, as tired as I am, I’ll keep on wrestling, whether I find my answers or not.