Those loose-lidders . . .

This morning I tried to pick up the Aleve bottle, but it fell to the floor. Stuff like this happens all the time. You see, my wife Kirsten is a loose-lidder. She’s one of those people who never fully closes the lid on something she’s used (and I never over-generalize), whether it’s the ketchup or the milk or the pickles or the Aleve. And, unfortunately, I’m a top-picker: I usually pick things up from the top, not the side. As you might imagine, this can sometimes get interesting. I can just see God when we first got together laughing to Himself, “This is going to be awesome!”

Now, you would think after all this time I might have adapted, but some habits die hard. I still occasionally find myself cleaning up broken salsa jars, spilled milk, or still-perfectly-edible-even-though-they-were-all-over-the-kitchen-floor Aleve because I picked up from the top. This used to drive me crazy and as crazy as it sounds, I used to be resentful. I used to actually think Kirsten did it on purpose. But as I have gotten to know and love Kirsten more and more, I’ve learned to just deal with it.

If you’ve been together with someone for any length of time, you can probably identify with this scenario. There are probably things that person does that don’t make any sense or that drive you totally crazy. It is even hypothetically possible that I might do one or two things that drive Kirsten crazy. It’s at least a hypothesis. But when you love someone, you overlook that stuff. You look beyond it to the true core of the person.

And the fact is that when you get beyond the trivial stuff like lid tightening, our close relationships change us. We change ourselves, who we hang out with, how we spend our free time, as a natural part of deepening our relationships with those we really love.

I think God’s love for us is the same way. I can’t even imagine how many of the things I do every day that God just looks at and says, “Really?” As far as God is concerned, I’ve probably got more than just a few “quirks;” more than a few really annoying things that I do. But God looks beyond that stuff to see me, the me that was created as a result of the outpouring of God’s love, the me that was created to exist within the context of that love, the me that was created in God’s own image as a bearer and a recipient of God’s love.

Despite my quirks, God loves me. Despite your quirks, God loves you. That’s it. Now, would God want us to maybe modify some of those quirks and possibly even get rid of them? Sure. God loves us where we are, but God never wants to just leave us there. There’s always room for improvement.

But here’s the thing. The point of “improvement” (or as we Methodists call it, sanctification) isn’t to change something about ourselves so God will love us more. If we look at it that way, it becomes a job, a chore. And anyway, it’s impossible. God already loves us to infinity and beyond.

The point of “improvement,” is so that WE can enter more deeply into the love that God is. It’s not a cause and effect thing where we do something to trigger a loving response in God. It’s just us growing into the people we were created to be—people who live in hope rather than despair, peace rather than chaos, joy rather than sadness, and lover rather than hate. God wants that for us because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.

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Push on through . . .

I’m not going to say my neighborhood is boring . . . OK, I will. It’s boring. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. It’s a typical east-of-the-escarpment-converted-farmland-two-small-trees-in-the-front-yard development. Maybe nicer than some and not nearly as nice as others. It’s just that I like to walk, and our development is pretty much an island. The only (legal) way in or out is via the state highway, and that’s not a fun place to walk. So, most days I end up walking the same streets, seeing the same houses, hearing the same barking dogs, seeing the same weeds, same clods of dirt on the road. I usually go with my dog, Ginger Ruth, and she ends up “discovering” the same dead animals—and rolling in them.

So, I’m excited that Kirsten got motivated and scheduled us a couple of hiking trips to start off the Summer. One is to Rocky Mountain national park and the other is a trip back to Reno for our niece’s wedding. And this year, contrary to our usual practice, we’re trying to get ourselves in proper hiking condition. So, this last weekend we went to St. Edwards park on Spicewood Springs Rd. in Austin. I was a little discouraged when we pulled up. To begin with, the topography suggested that we’d just be walking on more or less flat ground along Bull Creek, which would be nice, but I can get flat walks at home; that wouldn’t help much in preparing us for the ups and downs of the mountains. Then, when we got to the parking lot, it appeared to be completely full and parked cars were overflowing onto the road. I figured it was going to be packed with people.

We pulled into the parking lot anyway, and someone had just left. Score! Then we began our hike, and my fears seemed like they would be realized. We started out walking along Bull Creek, and there were people everywhere, walking and playing with their dogs and splashing around in the water. They seemed to be having fun, but it wasn’t what we were there for.

The trail we were on eventually looped back to the main road and seemed to stop. It looked like we were done before we’d even gotten started. But then we saw some people crossing a small bridge from the other side of the creek, so we crossed over to where they’d come from.

And from there, everything changed. We found a trail that went up a hill and we climbed, and we climbed, and we climbed. I couldn’t believe there was that much elevation change in all of Austin. It seemed like we just kept going up; exactly what we’d been looking for.

And the further we got from the creek, the fewer people we saw. Near the top, the trail was completely deserted except for us. As we continued to explore, we discovered several other trails. Some went up, some went down, some went along the edge of cliffs with spectacular views. I never would have guessed a place like this could exist in the middle of Austin.

In reflecting on that afternoon hike, I’m reminded of the importance of perseverance. It would have been easy for Kirsten and I to bail out when we saw the apparently full parking lot. We could have been lured into changing our plans when we saw all the people playing in the water (especially if we’d had our swimming clothes). We could have turned back when it looked like the trail came to an end. But we didn’t. And from that one decision to just go a little further, a whole new world of really cool training trails opened up.

It’s the same with our faith life. We face a lot of temptations. There’s the temptation to do what everyone else is doing, whether we’re ready for it, understand it, or think it’s the right thing to do. There’s the very real temptation to get complacent; to think we’ve gone as far as we need to go; that we’re doing OK and at least we’re not as bad as THAT guy.

But I am coming more and more to believe that life is by definition not static. You’re either growing or you’re dying. There’s no standing still. And this is really hard to hear, because we spend pretty much our whole lives fixated on that time when we’ll be “there,” wherever “there” is. We strive for that place where we can just stop and rest and be done with all the junk we put up with day in and day out. When we’re little kids, we think it’s when we get to the next grade or when we get our driver’s license or go to college. When we’re middle-aged, we think it’s when we retire. I don’t know where retired people think “there” is, but I don’t see a lot of them who think they’ve made it.

It’s actually kind of a paradox, because in one sense, God wants us to be “there” all the time. The Christian scholar Dallas Willard once said the key to effective living is to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life. We were created to live in peace; to live in God’s love. We weren’t created for all the craziness we put in our lives.

But in another sense, we must recognize that for most, if not all of us, we’ll never be completely “there” until we’ve joined God in eternity. In other words, getting “there” and being “there” isn’t a destination, it’s a process; a process of continual growth; a process of not stopping to join the crowd in complacency or stopping when things seem to be stuck; a process of continually pushing through to deepen our spiritual connection to God.

I’m excited about our new hiking place and about the opportunity to try out some new ones soon. I like my neighborhood fine, but life’s too short to just do the same-ol’ same-ol’. And I feel the same way about my spiritual life. I hope you’ll join me sometime on the trail as we continue to push on through.

Change is good . . .

I had a meeting in Georgetown yesterday and as I often do when I have meetings in Georgetown, I hung out for a while at Cianfrani, a local coffee shop. And I distinctly remember my trip to Cianfrani because as I was standing at the register to get my coffee, a guy said, “Change is good.” A lot of people I know would disagree with this guy. For most of my life, I would have disagreed with him.

A few minutes later, as I was typing away on this week’s sermon, I saw a woman taking some paintings off the wall. A couple of the patrons started to help me and invited me over to help (because I’m tall). I got to talking with the artist and it turns out she was taking the paintings down because her time was up. Apparently, the shop makes wall space available to local artists and they rotate the space so any works that don’t get sold have to be taken down after a set period of time. I commiserated with her about the ones she hadn’t sold, but she said, “Sometimes, change is good.”

I just finished reading a book entitled, “Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation” by Alexander John Shaia. I’m still not sure exactly what to make of it, but it’s main theme is clear, “Change is good.” In fact, his point is that change is inevitable. We see it in the seasons. There’s the beautiful, strong, green growth of Spring, followed by the maturation and eventual harvest of Summer, followed by the decline and movement towards stasis of Autumn, and then the apparent death of Winter, only to be followed again by the rebirth and growth of Spring.

This cycle matches what we see in politics. All the great human empires have gone through the process, with the death of one empire usually setting the stage for the growth and dominance of the next.

We see it in economics. A successful business or product experiences explosive growth at first. It eventually plateaus and at some point begins to decline (often due to a new, more innovative or more efficient business or product). Most of the time, absent some sort of market imperfection (like monopoly or government intervention), the product or business dies, but out of its death comes something new and better. Some economists call this creative destruction. Think Blackberries and iPhones or Blockbuster and Netflix. The businesses that last—the ones that eventually come out of Winter into a new Spring—are the ones that are willing to change; to let go of what used to work but no longer does.

Church growth literature recognizes the same cycles of growth, maturation, decline, and death within local churches. We may well be in the end-stages of that cycle within the United Methodist denomination and our future survival may depend on whether we’re willing to let go of things that used to work but no longer do.

And, of course, we see the same thing in our lives. We’re born, we grow up, we make some money, maybe travel and dance a little, we get old, then we die. The cycle plays itself out. And then of course, as Christians, we believe it starts up again. Physical death isn’t final. It’s the Winter that leads to the Spring of eternal life.

But that still leaves for me the question of cyclicality in our here-and-now lives. Because what I just described for our physical lives isn’t really a cycle. It’s an arc. It’s the arc of a story: beginning, middle, then The End. This understanding of our physical lives assumes, in a way, that we are exempt from the cyclicality we see in the world around us; that we are exempt from fundamental change. It implicitly incorporates the idea that the self we become during our formative years is more or less who we are for the rest of our lives. In other words, when we understand our lives as an arc—as a line from the beginning to the end—then we’re going to do everything we can to hold on to who we think we are, including holding onto the world we were formed in. We’re going to resist change and long for the good ol’ days.

And one of the important takeaways for me from Dr. Shaia’s book is that this is a stunted understanding of human development. The real process of growth into an integrated, properly functioning human being, involves a more-or-less constant process of fundamental change. If we’re growing the way we ought to, we are constantly cycling through the seasons of change, constantly becoming different than we were the day before; not just learning new things, but becoming new things. We are—or should be—constantly evaluating what’s working and not working in our lives, incorporating new things that work and jettisoning old things that don’t.

And I think this is part of what Jesus meant when he said he came to give us new, born-again, bountiful life, not just after we die, but right now (see John 10:10). For most of my life I resisted change. I figured I could do life just fine by myself. But when I really discovered Jesus, I had to come to grips with the fact that that understanding just didn’t work anymore; in fact, it never really had. So, I took the leap of faith into a new life of entrusting myself to Jesus. I became, in a very real sense, a new person. But if I’m honest with myself, that new life itself has been anything but linear. It continues to involve seasons of intense growth as well as times when I feel like I’m in the middle of winter.

For most of my life, I would have disagreed with that guy at the coffee counter when he said that change is good. And, to tell you the truth, my instinctive reaction to change is still fear. Change is hard. But it is good and it is necessary if we are to become the people we were created to be. We weren’t created to be satisfied. We weren’t created to be complacent. If you’re not at least a little uncomfortable with your life—with your faith, whatever you put your faith in—then you’re probably doing it wrong. Because as some of the biggest organizations can attest (think Tower Records or Blockbuster Video—or the Roman Empire for that matter), it’s when you stop changing that you start dying.

A Trip to the Hospital

I spent some time at the hospital last week. My dad was in there for a fairly routine procedure, but at 88, nothing’s really routine. So, my mother and sister and I waited, and we waited, and we waited. The procedure before my dad’s took a lot longer than expected, as did his. We were at the hospital for almost 12 hours.

And, as I usually do when waiting for him to come out of surgery, I got to thinking about our mortality. My dad has lived a long time. He’s lived a full and interesting life. He’s one of the smartest people I ever met. He had a wonderful sense of humor and one of his chief qualities was that he wasn’t really happy unless he was getting into some kind of mischief. He was always putting us kids up to doing stuff that would get us in trouble with our mother, or just doing it himself.

But as he’s gotten older and more frail, a lot of that has sort of faded away. He no longer has the energy to do most of the things he used to like to do. His only remaining joy in life seems to be sneaking to the dessert table when he thinks no one is watching.

He made it out of last week’s procedure just fine, but one of these days, he’s not going to make it.

And I wonder whether that will be such a bad thing.

This Sunday is Easter, the day we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. And the reason we celebrate isn’t just because we believe Jesus came back to life. We celebrate because we believe that in doing so, Jesus showed us that death is not the end. He definitively demonstrated that we are eternal beings with an eternal destiny.

In a conversation Jesus had with an inquisitive Pharisee named Nicodemus, Jesus said that in order to enjoy eternal life, it is necessary to be born again. I believe in the context of that conversation, he was talking about being born into a qualitatively different kind of life right here and now. As C.S. Lewis would say, from “bios” (physical life) to “zoe” (spiritual life). But he could just as well have been talking about our transition from this life to the next one. I believe our death to this life is simultaneously a birth into the next. And if what we read in the Bible is any indication, that next life holds the potential for the sort of joy and peace and love that our physical brains are incapable of even imagining.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my dad. I don’t want to lose him. That would be tremendously painful—for me. I’ve been lucky enough to make it this far in my life without losing an immediate family member. I’m not sure how I would deal with losing my father. But that’s all about me. What about him?

So, as I stood there looking at my dad after his procedure, asleep and frail, there was a part of me that wanted him to wake up not in that recovery room, but in that new life, in God’s very presence, trying to figure out if there’s some way to get into trouble in heaven. Is that wrong?

Obedience is freedom . . .

Obedience is freedom! Sounds kind of Orwellian, doesn’t it? War is peace. Hate is love. And, depending on the situation, it very well could be (Orwellian, I mean). But as I’ve been getting ready for this week’s sermon on obedience, I’ve been struck by this idea of obedience as freedom.

I’ve got 2 dogs. I always talk about Ginger Ruth the Wonder Dog™, but we’ve also got another dog, Heidi Ruth. Heidi is about 14 years old. When we got her, we already had a trained hunting dog and didn’t have time to train another one. And Kirsten had neither the time nor the inclination. So Heidi never really learned to obey. She sorta, kinda got some of the basic commands down, but she never really internalized the concept of obedience. She always just did pretty much whatever she wanted to do, which, since she’s a very sweet dog, usually wasn’t too much of a problem.

Ginger Ruth, on the other hand, is about 1 ½ years old, and I’ve worked pretty hard on her training. She’s got the concept of obedience down, at least for the basics. And, because she’s learned to obey, she gets to do stuff Heidi never got to do. I’ll take Ginger out into the front yard with me when I’m working without having to worry she’ll bolt off never to be seen again. Heidi’s got to stay inside. Kirsten and I will sometimes go out to Lake Belton or Lake Georgetown to walk. Ginger gets to go without the leash because I know she’ll stick close if I tell her to. We’ve got to put Heidi on the leash. Because Ginger Ruth has been trained to obey me, and because I’ve trained her with her well-being in mind, she enjoys a more complete, more fulfilled life than Heidi, even though Heidi gets to do whatever she wants.

Jesus came to reconnect us to God; to reestablish the relationship that we had severed. One of the ways he did that was by living the kind of life we were created to live—a life lived in God’s love. Another way he did it was by teaching us how to live that kind of life—training us. He didn’t offer us that training for his own personal aggrandizement. He didn’t do it to increase his wealth or status or power. He did it because he loves us and wants us to experience that sort of love for ourselves. And his consistent message to us is that if we just obey, our lives will be more complete and more fulfilled than we can possibly imagine.

We live in a culture that puts a lot of value on individualism. We viscerally react against the concept of obedience. But the fact is, we don’t have any choice. As Bob Dylan said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It might be your survival instincts. It might be the incessant messages you receive from the culture around you that it’s all about making yourself more important, more powerful, more comfortable, more richer. Or it might be Jesus, with the sort of message that demands intentional obedience; the sort of message that says to love EVERYONE, even your enemies, even those who persecute you.

We’ve got a choice. We’ve always got a choice. We’ve always got the choice to do whatever we want to do, willfully ignorant of all the background voices we’re following in doing so. But if we do, we’re going to end up like Heidi Ruth, longingly looking out the window while the other dogs play outside. We’re going to miss out on the fullness of life we were created to enjoy.

Don’t be like Francisco

One of the cool things about my job is that I get to work from home a lot. So, I get to spend some quality time with my pets, one of whom is a cat named Francisco Grande. Francisco is a very needy cat. If he finds a living horizontal surface, like a lap, for instance, he’s going to go there and demand some attention.

So, the other day I was working away with Francisco in my lap. I was scratching his chin (don’t ask how I can do that while working, just go with it), and he suddenly started to clean himself. He does that a lot. It’s like whenever he reaches a certain level of stimulation, his go-to move is to start cleaning himself. It’s like he’s obsessed with keeping himself clean.

Now, I get that this is an instinctive thing with cats, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use it to reflect on our human foibles, does it? Because I think a lot of us have our own go-to moves when things get to be too much. For some people, it’s drinking—that’s what it used to be for me. For some, it’s drugs. For others, it’s food (one of my current go-to moves). For others it’s withdrawal or anger or lashing out. For some, it’s blaming someone else, “It’s all their fault.” For some it’s self-condemnation, “It’s all my fault.”

And here’s where I think the comparison to Francisco Grande is especially apt, because when we do these things, we’re not usually acting out of our higher thought processes—the ones that set us apart from cats. We don’t sit down and think, “OK, I’m really stressed out, my life is a mess, I’m not sure how I’m going to pay the bills, and the world I grew up in and thought I knew seems to be dissolving before my very eyes, so I’m going to sit on the couch and eat an entire box of girl scout cookies while binge watching Game of Thrones” (PURELY hypothetical). No, we just do it. It just sort of happens. We may actually think about it, but the older, more instinctive parts of our brains don’t have much trouble beating down the ol’ prefrontal cortex.

All of us, in one form or another, have developed largely unconscious defense mechanisms to help us deal with the stresses of life. And some of these may be helpful, but unfortunately, a whole lot of them aren’t. The short-term fix often ends up making things worse in the long term.

And this is where God comes in. God loves us and is interested in our long-term joy and peace. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God offers us a new sort of life—a life not dominated by stress and hurry and worry and all the defense mechanisms we’ve created to deal with them, but instead a life of joy, hope and peace, lived bathed in God’s love for us, radiating that love to all those around us.

Now, as you might have picked up from my purely hypothetical example above, for most of us, it’s not an instantaneous thing. It’s a process. I’m a work in progress. We’re all works in progress. But progress is the key. In Methodism we call it sanctification; growing more and more into the image of Jesus. And it doesn’t just happen. It takes intentionality on our part: things like prayer, meditation, service, giving. It’s in seeking to get closer to God that we get closer to God. It’s in doing the things God does that we get closer to God. And as we progress towards that goal, the stress is less; there’s less hurry and worry. There’s less need for those go-to, instinctive defense mechanisms.

I like Francisco Grande. I like when he sits on my lap. I just don’t want to be like him.

Martha, Martha, Martha . . .

This week, rather than tell mildly amusing anecdotes about my dog and then reaching wildly to connect Ginger Ruth to the Gospel, I’m going to do some research for my sermon, which is about Martha. Martha, Martha, Martha.

We’ve all heard the story. Martha invites Jesus in for a visit and no sooner is Jesus in the door than Martha gets busy. The scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what she gets busy doing, but I can imagine her running around in the kitchen getting stuff ready to eat, putting out drinks, poufing up the chairs or more likely the cushions, maybe directing a few servants, straightening out her clothes and her hair, maybe putting away some things that had been left out; stuffing some coats and board games into the already-full closet.

And all the while, her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, just basking in his presence, just listening to him. This doesn’t sit too well with Martha, so, she redirects her anger from her sister to her guest and asks Jesus whether he even cares that Mary has left her to do all the work. Then come the famous words. “Martha, Martha, Martha [actually, it’s just two “Martha”s, but in my head I always add the third, along with a slow shake of the head and an “I’m not mad at you, just disappointed” fatherly tone], you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42.)

Now, for a lot of people, this is an intensely unfair story. A lot of us identify with Martha. Slackers gonna be slackin, but why should Mary be rewarded for it? But if we listen carefully to Jesus, he’s not chiding Martha for working too hard any more than he’s praising Mary for slacking. Instead, he’s suggesting to Martha that maybe she should ease up on the distractions and the worry. She’d gotten herself so distracted and worried about taking care of Jesus that she wasn’t actually capable of being present with him. She’d invited him into her house, but she hadn’t really welcomed him.

And my thesis is that in this sense, we are a culture of Marthas. We are a culture that is addicted to distractions. And if I’m any indication, we Christians aren’t a whole lot better about this than the culture around us.

So, my question is this: why? Why do we feel an almost compulsive need to always consult our phones, plug in our ear-buds, flip on the TV, or be ‘doing’ something? Why can’t we just take some time to be? I’ve got my own theories, but would like to hear yours.