Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Desert Dwellers

(Matthew 11:7-9)
“What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed, waving in the wind of public opinion?”

What did you go out to see? A “kept” man, bought and paid for, saying what he’s paid to say? You know where to find them!”

“What did you go out to see? What was it that drew you out of your comfort, that brought you to a lonely place?”

“A prophet.” Someone you knew spoke God’s word, whether you liked it or not. Someone you recognized as having enough integrity to stand alone, unswayed by public opinion or political influence. Someone you recognized as equipped to help get ready for all the new that is coming.

Jesus’ endorsement of his cousin John got me thinking about what kind of preparation is necessary for one who would be willing and able to stand alone in a difficult time. The answer, it seems to me, is desert time.

Time in the desert shaped the character and identity of John. The desert has a way of doing that. In the desert, in the lonely place, everything that is not essential is blown away by the necessity of survival. Life is brought down to its bare core. All of the conventions of success, all of the strategies of social structure, all of the deliberate delicacies of polite conversation, are left in the dust of the desert. The only thing left is what was there all the time – the life at the center. The nourishment of the desert is adequate for life, not luxury.

That kind of life develops the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion. One who has learned to live on locusts and honey can not be bribed. One who has trained an ear to the silence can not be swayed by the other voices, no matter how seductive.

The desert becomes a place of still refuge and great, soul shaping beauty for those who have been trained by it. And that is also one of the gifts of Lent. Life reduced to its core before God – trained to stillness, trained to silence.

It is that kind of life that prepares the way of the Lord.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Lord's Prayer - Part 1, Lenten Reflections

"Our Father, Who is in the Heavens,
Hallowed be Your Name."

We sink, deeply, into the ever new reality - we are His. He has made us His own - declared us His children. A privileged identity - shared with whosoever will. The privilege comes, not from having been chosen, but rather from whom the choice comes. Children have no choice, born, as they are, without a part. Fathers choose. We only may call Him Father, by His choice. We are not only taught, we are encouraged, to call Him Father. We sink, deeply, into the ongoing newness of that redefining reality. We are His. And He, is ours.

Matthew's recording gives us a sense of the scope of His being. He is in the heavens - everywhere present - in the space around our ears, as well as high and lifted up. His is not an oppressive presence anymore than is the air we breathe oppressive. His is a life-giving presence. It is in Him that we live. It is in Him that we move. It is in Him that we even exist at all. It is not that God is in everything as much as it is that everything is in Him. Everything is dependent for it's being on Him. He is real. Everything else is only real by association with Him.

This is the great God who has told us to call Him "Father." Not simply as a term of address - but as a term of identification. He in Whom all things are held together, has chosen to be known as our father.

And still, the wonder of real community bubbles joyfully to the surface and effervesces in friendships and family in Him.

No wonder we ask that His name be held in the highest of regard. No wonder that we don't use it lightly or meaninglessly. No wonder that we pause for an awe-full moment whenever we whisper, "Our Father."

And no wonder that we declare the truth of the Name above all others - the Name proclaimed throughout the universe by every star. The Name that is holy, holy, holy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day on which the season of Lent begins. The purpose of Lent is to allow us to sit deeply to death in order that we may rise freely in resurrection. It is a season of soul search, of cleansing, of self-denial, of death-dealing and death preparing. It is a long slow walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

It is not a season of morbidity but of awareness. There are some things in us that need to die - some things that we are allowing to remain on life-support, not realizing that they are dealing death to us. There are some things - habits, attitudes, behaviors - that have been allowed to go unchallenged far too long. Lent reminds us that, while we are declared saints, we sin and are thus in need of a grace-full savior.

Part of our struggle with Lent, and the journey it invites us on, sources in the belief that sin is not that big a deal. In fact, as a word, sin has largely lost its meaning. It has come to mean something naughty or, at worst, something not good for us. It is not all that big a deal - except that God has got something against it and so, even though for the most part it is harmless fun, we can’t do it or we won’t go to heaven.

Lent reminds us that sin is a very big deal, and that it is not God’s problem but ours. Sin is deadly - every time. It is the elephant on the air hose of our soul. It may be appealing in the short run, but in the long run it is a disaster of the first magnitude.

The genius of Lent is the invitation to embrace our own dying in preparation for resurrection with Christ to new life. For example, Lent invites us to fast - to abstain in some meaningful, significant, and concentrated fashion from something we have perhaps allowed to take too high a place in our lives. Fasting shakes us up and reminds us that we are more than body - and reminds our body that it is not in charge!

So, pack your bags - but lightly. This is a seven week hike through some powerfully and darkly beautiful landscape. Keep your wits about you and your eyes wide open. You are not the only one on this journey to the cross.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Preparation of Lent

The season of Lent, beginning this coming Wednesday, seeks to deliberately prepare the soul for the celebration of Easter Sunday. It is a time of soul searching and of dealing with what is found on the search. It is a season of consideration and of repentance. It is a season of mourning as what might have been is seen in the light of what is. It is a season of laying before the Lord, allowing the searching light of His love to penetrate into the hidden places of our hearts. Lent is not a season of rush. Instead, it invites a slow and stately walk through one's inner life, preparing the way of the Lord.

Often this reflection is accompanied by fasting, which serves as a marker of both sorrow and seriousness. Fasting is not about manipulating God into doing something, nor is it a mark of super-spirituality. Fasting seeks to place the soul before the Lord, deliberately removing the social scaffolding we erect around our lives to prop them up. Fasting, in the traditional sense, chooses to deny the body something which it has come to depend on for it's sense of security and well being. It is a way of pealing back the layers of comfort that we might deal directly - with God, with ourselves, with others.

For many of us, food is more than nourishment - it is comfort, counsel, strength, security and hope. To choose instead to look to the Lord for all of those things is a huge step of faithfulness. And it is that to which Lent calls us. When we give up something for Lent, we do not do so for God's sake, but for ours. It is a way of measuring how out of control our lives have gotten. If I become angry with people because I am hungry, there is a good chance I am using food to protect my nurtured anger. Lent helps uncover that, exposing what is really within.

It can be a frightening season. But Lent works on the assumption that what is known can be dealt with, while what remains hidden deals with us. It is a kind of dying that prepares us for the Resurrection. Resurrection can only be celebrated - or understood - by those who know what it is to die. Lent sends out the invitation to come and die. It does so knowing that, unless you do, you will never live.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

To Be Loved

Behind the high walls
     and deep ditches
     and barbed wire
          beats the safe heart.

     completely protected
     totally sheltered

Up periscope
          Down periscope.
     Safe again.

Sending out
     longings for
     someone to
     come to dinner

But when they come
     they can’t get past
     the walls
          the wire

How hard it is
     to open the door
     to risk invasion
     to not be safe

     to not be
          alone . . .

To let them in
     is to risk . . .

To not
     is to . . .

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Love Is A Verb

This is the month when a young man’s fancy – and pretty much everyone else’s – turns to love. It’s a Hallmark Month – of pinks and whites and frilly, doily-like things. But the truth is, love is more robust and rigorous than advertised on a Hallmark card – and it’s a good thing it is, because life is more, and other, than advertised! So it is refreshing to turn to the “love chapter” – 1 Corinthians 13 – and discover the dynamic, action oriented love we need. Paul writes about love in the context of full out charismatic conflict, with love being the intermission between two rounds of a tough fight which probably did not earn Paul many friends in Corinth!

He describes a love that is rooted and anchored in the character and nature of the lover – not in the characteristics or responses of the loved. As such, this love is first a decision – and then it is an action. Love does not exist apart from action – it is a verb. Most of the words Paul uses to give an outline of its dimension are in verbal form, even though many of our translations turn them into adjectives. This is all the more important when we turn to apply the challenge of this love to our relationships – whatever the setting. We might not always have warm feelings of love for one another – but we will never be confused about how love acts – and doesn’t act.

·       This love waits patiently. It has a sense of timing and has the ability to wait rather than force an outcome. This waiting is active, attentive, alert – watching for the opportunity to act.

·       Love acts kindly. It is not just that love is kind – it is that love acts in kindness – it behaves towards others with generosity and gentility. Love does good.

·       Love does not bubble over with envy and it does not brag, inflating its own importance. You can hear the echoes of the spiritual one-upsmanship that Paul is concerned to speak to in Corinth. But, setting aside bragging, cultivated envy and self-exaggeration is good practice in any relationship!

·       Love knows how to behave – and does. Love doesn’t make itself the center of every conversation and activity, because it is not pre-occupied with itself. As a result, love doesn’t get exasperated very easily – love’s fuse is very, very long – and its memory is very, very short.

·       Love does not gloat or take pleasure when things – or people – go wrong, but keeps circling back to joyfully celebrate when the truth wins out over malicious gossip.

·       Because love is anchored in the lover, it does not stop supporting – it does not stop standing in the reality is presses towards – it does not lose sight of the hoped for outcome – it does not give up. Ever.

·       Love will be standing when everything else falls.

     Words to love by.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Choosing to Know

There come times - many of them, in fact - in every relationship where you have to make a decision whether to press on in the light of new information. Every relationship - friendship, dating, marriage, partnership in business - has to go through a number of barriers on the way. Consider the purchase of something valuable. At a number of points in the negotiation the purchaser is likely to encounter potential deal-breakers. She has to decide to press on with the relationship because the goal of purchase is worth it to her. Or not.
Similarly, in dating, things tend to flow along reasonably smoothly for a week or two - but then you discover something about your date that sets you back on your heels. Now you have to decide if you are going press on past this barrier and seek to know them more - or if you are going to pull the plug and just remain “friends”. It doesn’t change after you get married. Over the course of building a life together, all kinds of barriers become apparent - things that, had you known about them sooner, might have been a deal-breaker. But now, you are well down the road with a lot invested. Some couples decide that the price of pressing on past the barrier is worth paying for the closeness and intimacy that opens up to them on the other side. Other couples stay in the shadow of the barrier, their growth to intimacy halted. Life presents a number of chances for choices like this.
If this is true in our other relationships, we shouldn’t be surprised when it is true about our relationship with God. If it is a dynamic and vital relationship, it will ebb and flow in intensity over time. We will find things out about Him that we might not like. We will find things out about ourselves in relation to Him that we might not like. Having invested a lot of time and energy in getting this far, we might not want to completely cut off the relationship - but we could decide not to press on past the barrier. We live on the way to intimacy with God - but never quite there.
On the other hand, we might choose to know Him - to press past this barrier, as painful as it might be to do so, knowing that intimacy and closeness with God is worth whatever price we have to pay to get there. It is part of seeking him with all of our heart - only in doing so will we find and know Him. And that is worth everything!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dry and Thirsty

This weekend, the Garden, the church in Long Beach I have the privilege of walking with, hosted the second Empowered conference – seeking to open up a conversation about the Spirit empowered life – the life that Jesus lived and invites us to live with Him. I wasn’t able to attend the whole weekend, but what I did get to was water to my dry and thirsty soul – a gentle, steady rain that soaked down deep.

I grew up in time of occasional revivals – wonderful visitations of God, or at least of an evangelist, in which we experienced remarkable outpourings of the Spirit for days at a time. One or two of those events stand out in my memory as being defining moments for me. The problem with the revivals, as wonderful as they were, is that, like a Southern California sudden rainstorm, eighty percent of the down-pour ended up in the ocean! The long term results of those meetings were not nearly as remarkable as the momentary experiences. Now don’t get me wrong – I treasure those moments of experience. But what I long for is the ongoing, gentle filling and re-filling by the Holy Spirit.

The church of my childhood provided that, too. Every Sunday was an opportunity for me to respond to the tug of the Holy Spirit, desiring to alleviate the dryness in my soul. Sunday morning and evening services provided space and time for encounter with God – a long, slow, soaking in an environment of calm and gentle worship. It was not nearly as remarkable – but it was far more effective in shaping the character of Christ in me. For every dramatic experience in a service of revival that served as a marker, I can remember dozens of quiet nights and early afternoons with my face buried in the front pew just waiting in God’s presence for whatever He would choose to bring.

It is not nostalgia that makes me long for a return to that simple waiting. It is a deep and desperate dryness in my soul – a longing that goes beyond words. I wouldn’t mind the sudden downpour of a spirit of revival every once in a while – but I know that what my dry and thirsty land needs even more is the gentle, consistent, regular filling and refilling by the Holy Spirit. I think He knows that is what I need, as well – and that is why, if I set aside the time for Him, I usually find that He has set aside the time for me.