Saturday, June 09, 2018

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Badly

Scripture is full of stories that show us that God doesn't expect great and perfect works from those who follow Him. However, it's common for us to have illusions of grandeur and perfection; i.e., we believe that the measure of approval we will get from God is dependent on how much we do and how close to perfection we can do it.

Over and over we read of those whose small sincere and often faulty obedience was all it took for God to do great things. The point of these stories is that it's God who does the great things with our small and inadequate actions because of His great care for humans.

One such story is that of the young boy's offering of his loaves and fish to Jesus (John 6). This was a poor inadequate offer on the boy's part in the sense that it didn't come close to meeting the need represented by the crowd's hunger. But Jesus, unperturbed by the tiny bit of food and caring that the people were hungry, unhesitatingly accepted the "foolish" offering and used it to satisfy the hunger of the large crowd.

Often in our lives we labor under feelings of inadequacy or guilt that we aren't fasting or praying enough or doing great enough things for God, but this kind of heavy burden indicates that our focus is more on how much and how well we're serving than on His desire and His ability to take our small and feeble offering and multiply it into blessing for many.

In our fallenness we are prone to look inward at how well we are performing for God rather than to look up and away from ourselves to Him and to His desire to do much with the little that we give Him in faith.

Religion requires perfectionism; God asks simply that we trust. Perfectionism focuses on my offering to God and on getting it right (self-rightness); trust focuses on God and His perfect love and work in Jesus. Perfectionism attempts to compete with God's work; trust responds with utter dependence on God's self-giving work.

We've all heard the saying, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well." G.K. Chesterton reworded this to say: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." This isn't advocating sloppiness or carelessness but simply acknowledging that God desires our inadequate offerings of love and that we must not allow perfectionism to paralyze us because we can't "do it well".

The young boy didn't allow self-conscious fear of inadequacy keep him from giving what he had, trusting that Jesus would do well with it. He had his eyes set on Jesus rather than on the insufficient lunch in his hands.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Good News: God is Not Angry with You

In one of his novels, George MacDonald has young Robert saying the following to his grandmother (who had been raised with a view of God as an angry God requiring punishment to turn away His wrath toward humans):

Robert: "It's more for our sakes than His own that God cares about his glory. I don't believe that he thinks about his glory except for the sake of truth and men's hearts dying for lack of it...

"God's not like a proud man to take offense, Grannie. There's nothing that please him like the truth, and there's nothing that displeases him like lying, particularly when it's pretended say some things about him sometimes that sound fearsome to me...
Like when you speak of him as if he was a poor proud man, full of his own importance and ready to be down on anybody that didn't call him by the name of his office - always thinking about his own glory, instead of the quiet mighty grand self-forgetting, all-creating being that he is. Think of the face of that man of sorrows that never said a hard word to a sinful woman or a despised publican. Was he thinking about his own glory, do you think? And whatever isn't like Christ isn't like God."
Grannie: "But laddie, Christ came to satisfy God's justice by suffering the punishment due to our sins, to turn aside his wrath and curse. So Jesus couldn't be altogether God."

Robert: "Oh but he is, Grannie. He came to satisfy God's justice by giving him back his children, by making them see that God was just, by sending them back home to fall at his feet...And there isn't a word of reconciling God to us in the New Testament, for there was no need of that; it was us that needed to be reconciled to him...It wasn't his own sins or God's wrath that caused him suffering, but our own sins. And he took them away. He took our sins upon him, for he came into the middle of them and took them up - by no sleight of hand, by no quibbling of the preachers about imputing his righteousness to us and such like. But he took them and took them away and here am I, Grannie, growing out of my sins in consequence..."

Monday, April 23, 2018

Self-denial: Interpreting Language

There's more to language than simply the surface meaning of words. Language is laden with unconscious meaning that comes from sources such as family upbringing and experiences, gender and personality, etc.  For understanding hidden and unconscious meaning in a language, the hearer must care about the speaker and about the "world" they speak out of.

I've been thinking lately about the way of love which God exemplified and demonstrated in Jesus. The thought came to me that if I want to love and accept those I have contact with, I must be willing to listen to their words in the context of the world from which they speak. This applies, not only to a person from a different language from mine but to persons who speak my native tongue.

The book of John has approximately 27 stories of personal encounters that Jesus had with very different people. As far as I know, Jesus and each of them spoke the same language of that day and location. But because each person was uniquely formed by their "world" (upbringing, life experience, status, gender, vocation, personality, etc), Jesus listened and spoke differently to each of them. He heard "their language", understanding what they were trying to say and then He responded in "their language". I believe His love and compassion motivated Him to make the effort to truly understand "their language" in order to relate well with them.

In these times of polarization in society at many levels, I'm realizing my need to make the effort to listen with love and care to really "hear" what the person is saying rather than take their words literally and insisting on interpreting them through "my language". This is part of self-giving love, the self-denial to which we who follow Jesus are called for the sake of love.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Journey IS the Goal

I've had a recent setback in my journey towards recovery, and as I was silently listening one day, a thought came to me along the lines of the following: "the journey is the goal." As I considered that, I realized afresh that we humans typically see the goal as some "shiny object" out there that we're working for and we miss the reality that this day, this moment, is the goal, and how I live it will determine where I arrive one day. 

I'm not saying that having goals is wrong or bad but that it's wise to be aware that focusing too intently on that "shiny object" can prevent us from enjoying God and others and oneself today on the journey. I read the following poem recently in a Lent devotional reading along these lines:

Patient Trust
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing though
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

~Pierre Teilhard di Chardin, SJ

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Letting Go and Giving Up

I was recently on a panel in a small gathering of college young women. We were gathered to tackle their questions about dating and marriage and family and singleness. One question asked was something to this effect: "Does being content in singleness mean I relinquish my desire to be married?"

In my journey of injury and pain, I remember that around 2-3 years into it, there was a moment when I let go of the idea that I might walk again without the aid of a device. I accepted the reality that perhaps I would need help the rest of my life with walking. In some circles of faith, this is anything but faith! But I had a sense of peace in letting go of my determination to walk independently someday.

This, however, didn't mean that I gave up on a normal desire; you can't really let go of what is normal human desire without dehumanizing yourself to do so. But I placed that human desire within the space of peace. I continue to work towards wholeness in my injured leg but now I do so in and with peace, without trying to control the outcome. (Control, by the way, always has some form of fear behind it.)

All this to say that I believe that letting go and giving up on certain good normal desires doesn't mean that the desire leaves us. It simply means we cease to try to control and force the outcome but instead we give the desire a place of peace to dwell in as we continue to hold it in our being.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Incarnating God: Jesus' Childlikeness and Ours

God's coming as a baby highlights what he's like and what he prioritizes. The following are random thoughts about what this means; you will have other insights to add:

Dependent on flawed creatures: a baby doesn't chaff about needing others nor about their imperfections. God genuinely wants to partner with flawed humans; he shows this by his lowly birth in which he emptied himself completely and relied on the protection and upbringing of a poor Jewish family and community of the first century. He never quit relying on others as an adult.

Unself-conscious: a baby is delightfully unself-conscious. God is not so caught up with himself that he has to have praise from his creation to bolster his sense of importance; he is secure in himself, not obsessed with his own glory but seeks to put others in the spotlight. This attitude carried on into his adult life where, rather than seeking to elicit praise from others or one-upping others we see him downplaying his own acts and uplifting others.

Not in charge: a baby doesn't even think in terms of who's in charge but simply is who she is, and as Jesus matured into manhood, He maintained this childlike posture; he lived and taught that in his kingdom there is no hierarchy where humans "lord it over" other humans.

Indiscriminate: a baby doesn't categorize people nor see some as superior to others; Jesus demonstrated by action and word that he saw all people as equal in God's kingdom. After Jesus' death, one of his followers (Paul) wrote eloquently that in Jesus there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.

No agenda: goals and productivity are not what concern a baby but rather relationship. God cares more about relationship than about mission statements and strategic goals. Jesus did not establish an institution or corporation or religion but lived his life in simple and profound relationship with God and with people.

Non argumentative: a baby doesn't engage in the energy-draining exercise of attempting to prove himself "right" and the other person "wrong". God cares more about life (tree of life) than about who's right and who's wrong (tree of knowledge). As an adult human God didn't engage other humans at the level of knowledge but of wisdom.

Approachable, winsome, delightful: a baby is the safest and most approachable creature there is; in fact, she is approachable to the point of being delightful and magnetic, drawing people to her. God is delightful and winsome - easy and safe to approach for all humans; if we really knew this, we would desire him and be drawn to him.

God is like the childlike Jesus. He operates in an entirely different realm and prioritizes partnering with imperfect humans over acting independently,  other-consciousness over self aggrandizement,
organic over organization,  inclusion over exclusion,  relationship over agenda,  giving life over winning debates,  and approachability over rules.

Because the kingdoms of this world require independence, self-aggrandizement, hierarchy, tribalism, personal agendas, winning, rules and regulations in order to survive, Jesus' life and teachings and actions were a threat to their existence, and so they murdered him. We who follow him are called to deny the false 'adult' self that is easily seduced by earthly kingdom values and take up the cross of childlikeness as Jesus did. This is how we incarnate God in the eyes of others.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Doctor, Warrior, Judge or Parent?

The early Genesis story is filled with wonderful insights about God and humans. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden tree in the Garden, they experienced "dis-ease" (lack of peace) for the first time and hid from their Maker with whom they had enjoyed pure bliss and peace. God's response to their hiding was to call out to Adam, "where are you?"

If you were to retell the story putting it into a setting that fits your view of God's primary way of relating with humans, would you say that Adam and Eve needed a Doctor to heal their wounds, or a Warrior to fight their battle, or a Judge to apply the law, or a Parent to unconditionally love and comfort them?

In other words, do you picture God as a Doctor asking Adam, "What happened? Let's look at your injuries; I'll heal you..."? Or do you picture God as a Warrior asking Adam, "Where are you hiding? It's safe to come out; I'll fight for you..."? Or do you picture God as a Judge saying, "What did you do? You have offended me and my law and will be sentenced to death..."? Or do you picture God as a Parent longing and looking and calling at the top of his lungs, "Where are you?! Come out of hiding; I love you..."?

All of us lean more heavily towards certain pictures of God by virtue of many factors, not the least being our inherited theology. I see all of these metaphors for God in scripture, but the one that I see most in Jesus' teachings and in his example of self-giving love in life and death is the parental or family metaphor.

A good book that presents the differing atonement theories that have been adhered to in the church through her history is Brad Jersak's Stricken by God?  Many who are raised in Christian homes or taught from youth by modern western Christians don't realize that there are various legitimate atonement theories about God and the cross, not simply the one that they were raised with. It can be a life-altering experience to explore how God's people from various theologies have thought and believed about him and his relationship with us. It is a fairly scholarly book, but I recommend it to help expand one's way of knowing and loving God.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Dark Night of Loving Fire Brings Peace and Rest

I'm going through a simple devotional book that I've recently discovered entitled Daily Office, Remembering God's Presence Throughout the Day by Peter Scazzero.

Here is a quote from Week 4 of this book that I trust will encourage you; the theme of Week 4 is "The Wall" which refers to times of great difficulty:

"The best way to understand the dynamics of the Wall is to examine the classic work of St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, written over 500 years ago. He described the journey in three phases: beginners, progressives, and perfect. To move out of the beginning stage, he argued, required the receiving of God's gift of the dark night...This is the 'ordinary way' we grow in Christ.

"It is God's way of rewiring and 'purging our affections and passions' that we might delight in his love and enter into a richer, fuller communion with him. God wants to communicate to us his true sweetness and love. He longs that we might know his true peace and rest. He works to free us from unhealthy attachments and idolatries of the world.

"For this reason John of the Cross wrote that God sends us 'the dark night of loving fire' to free us from such deadly imperfections as: pride (being judgmental and impatient with the faults of others), avarice (suffering discontentment), luxury (taking more pleasure in spiritual blessings than God himself), wrath (becoming easily irritated, impatient), spiritual gluttony (resisting the cross), spiritual envy (always comparing), and sloth (running from what is hard)."

The prayer at the end of the reading:
"Lord, I invite you this day to cut any unhealthy attachments or 'idols' out of me. You promise in Psalm 32 to teach me the way to go. Help me not be stubborn like a mule but rather to be cooperative as you seek to lead me to freedom. Lead me to a place of communion with you where true peace and rest is found..."


Saturday, October 21, 2017


In my meditations on scripture, I'm presently in Psalm 44; I typically look at different versions to start with, and this week I was struck with the wording of vss 6,7 in The Message:

                                                      I don’t trust in weapons;
                                                     my sword won’t save me—
                                         But it’s you, you who saved us from the enemy...

As I read this, the following question came to me: what 'weapons' do I trust in to 'save' me?

To start, why do weapons exist? I believe they exist because of fear, and that the enemy I need saving from is death in its many forms (Heb 2:14-18); in other words, the fear of death drives me to accumulate weapons. Fear of death is a foundational human predicament and a subject that Richard Beck deals with very well in his book, The Slavery of Death. (For a review of his book and some understanding of why I propose that weapons exist because of fear of death, you can read what I wrote a couple of years ago on this: Disinterested Love...

Now to the question about what weapons I trust in to save myself - I identified several weapons that I tend to lean on in this season of my life when I feel threatened. I will summarize them as follows:
1) Weapon #1: knowledge or gathering information to bolster my point of view when I feel my worldview is threatened.
2) Weapon #2: possessions or holding tightly to what I have when I perceive that my lifestyle may be threatened.
3) Weapon #3: relationships or people-pleasing when I feel certain relationships could be threatened.

Knowledge, possessions and relationships are legitimate needs that, when met, contribute towards general health and well-being; it's natural and acceptable that we instinctively reach for whatever will satisfy our needs. But it is the fear or anticipation of loss of these things that drives us to turn these things into 'weapons' to dehumanize or neglect others for the sake of our own survival.

The psalmist says that my weapons will not 'save' me but rather that it is God who saves me from the enemy of death and loss. Motivated by love, God in Jesus broke the power of the fear of death over humanity by submitting to death (Heb 2). In doing this, He has empowered humans to love selflessly; and disinterested love is the antidote to fear. Each day I get to choose love over fear whether I am conscious of it or not. I still need that which knowledge, possessions and relationships can give me, but I must not find my sense of security and well being in knowledge, possessions or relationships or I will end up weaponizing them to survive. 

A life of self-giving love is the way of trusting in God to save me rather than resorting to using weapons to protect myself.

Can you identify particular 'weapons' that you are tempted to trust in when feeling threatened?


Saturday, October 07, 2017

Is Spiritual Maturity Possible without Emotional Health?

I'm presently reading a book entitled Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It's Impossible to be Spiritually Mature while Remaining Emotionally Immature, written by Peter Scazzero.

Although the material in Scazzero's book isn't new to me, it has given greater focus, clarity, and language to a reality that I have embraced and taught for some years, which is that all of God's heart and intention is summed up in Jesus' words when he was asked about the commandments of God: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NLT)

Scazzero uses his own experience as an emotionally broken pastor of a multi-ethnic congregation in New York City to illustrate the need for joining contemplation with emotional health in order to be spiritually mature. He equates contemplation of God with 'loving the Lord you God with all your heart...'; and he equates emotional health with 'loving your neighbor as you love yourself.' In other words, loving God and others is necessary for spiritual maturity, and we cannot genuinely love others without emotional health.

The following are some quotes from the book:

"Being productive and getting things done are high priorities in Western culture. Praying and enjoying God's presence for no other reason than to delight in him was a luxury, I was told, that we could take pleasure in once we got to heaven. For now, there was too much to be done. People were lost. The world was in deep trouble. And God had entrusted us with the good news of the gospel...

"Are these things wrong? No. But work for God that is not nourished by a deep interior life with God will eventually be contaminated by other things such as ego, power, needing approval of and from others, and buying into the wrong ideas of success...Our experiential sense of worth and validation gradually shifts from God's unconditional love for us in Christ to our works and performance...

"The greatest commandments, Jesus said, are that we love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul and that we love our neighbor as ourselves...Brother Lawrence called (contemplation) 'the pure loving gaze that finds God everywhere.'...We are not simply about experiencing a better quality of life through emotional health. Awareness of and responding to the love of God is at the heart of our lives...

"Emotional health, on the other hand, concerns itself primarily with loving others well. It connects us to our interior life, making possible the seeing and treating of each individual as worthy of respect, created in the image of God and not just an object to use. For this reason, self-awareness -- knowing what is going on inside of us -- is indispensable to emotional health and loving well. In fact, the extent to which we love and respect ourselves is the extent to which we will be able to love and respect others."

I highly recommend this book as foundational in making disciples (mature followers of Jesus).