Thursday, April 11, 2013

Writing for Tomorrow

Well, it’s obvious from the date since my last blog entry that the only writing I have done as a regular discipline is the weekly crafting of sermons. But I have noticed that there are seasons when I’m drawn back to the simple power and practice of writing and attending to words.

This has been one of those seasons.

The first arena though which I’ve experienced God reawakening my love for language is (rediscovering) poetry. Anna Carter Florence, a gifted preacher and teaching of preachers from Columbia seminary, spoke at her recent visit to Lipscomb of a small book that helps her train students to love the power of well-crafted words, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. I’ve been reading through that volume and listening to an audio course on poetry, working through many of the classics. I sense something happening on a soul level already, as I’ve committed to memory Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and relearned the Frost classic, The Road Not Taken.

Have you ever had an experience so pregnant with wonder that it actually seems to gain force over time rather than diminish? Then you have a sense of Wordsworth’s discovery after seeing an explosion of daffodils on a stroll by a lake with his sister. Here are the final lines of that poem:

I gazed and gazed, but little thought
What wealth to me the show had brought: 

For oft when on my couch I lie 
In vacant or in pensive mood, 
They flash upon that inward eye 
Which is the bliss of solitude; 
And then my heart with pleasure fills, 
And dances with the daffodils.

These words are more than some romantic reflection on nature; they stir me to seek solitude and allow the gift of memory to draw me back into cherished experiences, at times even more moving than the initial event.

And so, lately, I read. And I even try to write a few lines of verse (only to realize again I do not have that gift). After watching the play Amadeus, an image struck me as a fitting way to capture my joy of reading poetry and my frustration at the inability to write it. This is all that came out:

I feel like the Salieri of verse, 
         Who soars at the poet’s strains, 
         And yet cannot give voice to them himself…

So, I’ll leave the writing and sharing of poetry to my bride and to my daughter. But I will read and I will write, from time to time, because words create worlds. They have since the beginning (Genesis 1:3,6,9,14,20,24,26; John 1:1-3).

Then last night God called me back to another avenue of world-shaping words: my spiritual journal. A mentor from my past sent an email yesterday that reminded me of the journal technique he taught us years ago. For a season of my life, God led me to journal almost daily. I felt this urge to pick that practice up again (I don’t know for how long); but I wrote last night. Then I pulled out my old books and glanced through them. I turned to the day our youngest son Luke was born and took in the wonder of that miracle all over again. I paged back a day and felt my heart 'strangely warmed' when I found these words of a memory I had forgotten: “You (God) gave me some special time just holding and talking to Christine and David on the last day we will have just these two children in our lives.” I smiled reading the entries about our discernment to move here to Tennessee; eagerly flipped to a day where God provided one of those “thin spaces” between heaven and earth and praised him all over again; skimmed through some of the darkest moments of doubt and fear and watched the words slowly shift as God walked me through that valley.

In this linguistic journey, God reminded me again what I have allowed myself to forget in recent months: the experience with God in journaling and writing is much like Wordsworth’s daffodils: the memory often can be even more powerful than the original experience.

And so I find myself writing again, because the fullest “bliss” of the journal entry I write today most likely will not come right away. I write today for the time when I’ll need to remember--when I'll need to re-experience--God’s faithfulness, the beauty of his world, the simple delight of family, friendship and commitment to his calling in our lives.

I write now for the world I cannot yet see
            and for the person I do not yet know.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Whole Sweep of Scripture

A friend put me on to this clip from one of my “literary mentors,” N.T. Wright, discussing how to get the most out of reading Scripture. I find that he is putting to words a feeling I’ve had during this long series on the life of David, that there is just something powerful about reading large chunks of the biblical Story and, as he says, “letting it wash over you.” Far too often, I’ve turned Bible reading into a hand-held version of a bumper sticker; looking for a little word or chunk here or there to “get me through the day.” Obviously there is a time and place for that practice done well, as the discipline known as lectio divina has shown. But there is a balance in healthy reading that seeks to see the broad brush strokes and the panoramic view of God’s Story. So I commend Wright’s wisdom to you:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Swimming in the Shallow

Here's a humorous look at an all too common problem: would-be followers of Jesus being content to stay in the baby pool of spiritual life and community, when God offers us the Ocean!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Bridge: The Danger of Over-responsibility

Some of life’s most critical lessons have to be learned again and again. Forgiveness. Love. Purpose. Faith. Endurance. The more I live, the more I realize how insightful Plato was centuries ago when he said that all learning is remembering. The principles and wisdom that enable us to flourish in life must be affirmed and embraced anew each passing day.

I was reminded today that principles of compassion and leadership are like that. Specifically, a tireless servant in the medical community shared with us how easy it is to forget that there is a difference between being responsible to another person in times of need and feeling responsible for another person in times of need.

She shared with us the following fable by Edwin Friedman, called “The Bridge,” which convicted me all over again of the dangers of over-responsibility. The applications for this story in leadership and service are endless. Enjoy.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nothing Uglier

Paul doesn’t waste time calling out the problem in the city of Corinth so many years ago: “there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:11). When I look at your church, Paul says, it looks more like an ultimate fighting tournament than a spiritual family or faith community. The “body of Christ” is falling apart, the “people of God” are engaged in civil war; the conduct of “the saints” makes them look far more like the sinners they had been; the “pillar and foundation of the truth” has become a hypocritical house of cards; and the “bride of Christ” has become like a lady of the night. When Paul opens his letter to them, without missing a beat, he moves from thanking God for their identity—“those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus,” enriched in Christ in every way, not lacking any spiritual gift and fully expecting to be blameless on the day of Christ—to the painful reality—this community is falling apart in factions and fights.

There’s nothing uglier than a family feud. I still remember one Thanksgiving, fifteen to sixteen years ago now, when my brother and I stood in the yard in front our house yelling at each other at the top of our lungs. I’m ashamed of how I acted, appalled at how shallow the reasons for the fight were, and how public our display of disharmony was. Just one foolish example of how ugly family fights can be. But I’d also say, there’s nothing uglier than church fights, nothing more repulsive to the world we are called to serve than a divided and contentious church. I recall one day, many years ago, a friend of mine who was seeking God came to a church gathering. It happened to be on the same day that one member pulled another aside a church leader to speak her mind. She decided to have this conversation, not later in private, but right there in the crowd, before the notes of the final song had stopped echoing in the sanctuary (ah, the irony of that word, the way we look sometimes, the sanctuary; perhaps it’s better than many of our churches have watered down the idea, calling it an auditorium). She pulls the leader aside and unloads her issues and solutions for all the church’s ills, right there in eyesight and earshot of everyone. Of course, it’s no surprise that my friend seeking God sought him in a different place. Reactionary of him? Perhaps. Short-sighted of him? Maybe. Not the full picture of that church’s character? Of course. But still, I hear the words of the Apostle who says, you are “called to be his holy people,” and I understand why he grieves and implores God’s church to put down the knives, gloves and incendiary words and live into that ideal a bit more. There’s nothing uglier than a contentious church.

So Paul pleads and urges with them to unite, not on issues, people, or personalities, but on the person and mission of Jesus Christ: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Paul’s language here is quite visual. He uses the word ‘schisms’ (here, ‘divisions’) in verse 10. It’s a word we see Jesus use elsewhere as an image of clothing: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.” Schisms. The same word is used in classic Greek literature to describe a ship that is splintered into pieces by the turbulent sea. Schisms. Paul says, that’s what happens when you try to base a spiritual community on anything other than cross of Jesus Christ. Like brand new slacks that get caught on a fence and torn apart, like a once mighty oceanliner splintered in a raging sea, it is a tragic thing for the body of Christ to be dismembered by human divisions and petty fights.

It seems so simple and I know ages of church fights testify how difficult the ideal is to reach. But I am confident that God is working in his broken, flawed church, to bring about his purpose in creation: to bring all things together again in Jesus Christ. So, let us take up Paul’s charge to let God start with us. Let us begin reflecting among ourselves and our world the very harmony, unity, and coming-together that God will do for all things when Jesus returns.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meet the Family

Nearly every budding relationship has this pivotal, defining moment—a kind of relational rite of passage. I picture it this way: a young man, after a few sleepless nights, walks with his beloved up the concrete steps to a door, biting his lip, convinced that everyone on the entire block can hear his heartbeat. He’s imagined every possible scenario of what might happen next, as the door swings open…

It’s no surprise that countless stories have been told, and in recent years an entire movie franchise launched, off the premise of this kind of moment—that sacred (and at times scandalous) moment when young lady or young man takes their new loved one home to “meet the family.” It’s an anxious time: because there is risk—what if the family doesn’t like her? What if mom doesn’t approve of him?

But you know, of course, the deeper fear isn’t what the family thinks, it’s what your beloved thinks. You see, it’s harder to hide now that you are surrounded by those who know you best; it’s harder to maintain the image of what you want that special person to think about you. Now that she’s met my family, he wonders, what if she wants to run? She’s thinking: what if he decides to opt out, now that he knows who I am and where I’m from?

This sacred moment is far more than an ancient custom or an empty ritual. This moment is critical to any relationship because there is a real sense in which you cannot truly know someone until you know the people closest to their heart. You do not truly know someone until you know who they love and to whom they are connected. That’s one way I think of the role that Israel plays in the Story of God. In the OT, when we hear the stories, sing the songs, pray the ancient prayers, it is as if God is taking us home to meet the family—to learn something of his character and his heart by seeing the company that he keeps.

This is one reason that I encourage and try to practice entering into Israel’s story. Three practices I might suggest are these. First, pray the Psalms. The liturgical collection in Scripture that makes up the book of Psalms has been the prayer book and hymnal of the people of God throughout the ages. Every conceivable emotion is contained in its pages: every possible struggle we face, every longing we experience. I learned to lament, to grieve honestly and openly to my God, through the Psalms. I continue to learn the language of praise and adoration through the Psalms. As I’ve said so many times, we do not learn to talk in an English or Grammar class. We learned to speak by mimicking those who already knew. Prayer is no different: we learn to communicate and commune with the One who made us by mimicking the masters we find in the Psalms.

Second, I would encourage all of us to “go East.” Although there is much in the Western historical and philosophical heritage to be embraced and appreciated, the faith revealed in Scripture is an Eastern tradition. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was a Jewish man. To know him, then, we must know the Story that defined his life, the Story of Israel. One great resource I have been given in recent years is the website, Ray Vanderlaan’s online resource to help Jesus followers reconnect with our Jewish roots. He has a brief slide presentation on the site to help people understand the difference between Eastern and Western thought. I also have appreciated the book by Philip Yancey called The Bible Jesus Read, which opens up the Old Testament and its worldview as the framing story of Jesus. Another resource I’d mention is any of N.T. Wright’s historical material—the chapter on Israel in Simply Christian, or for particularly ambitious readers, his work Jesus and the Victory of God, which explores how Jesus’ mission and activity was defined by the Jewish mindset and expectations of his time.

The final practice to help us meet the family of God in Israel is to see their stories as our stories. At its simplest, this means to actually attend to the Old Testament texts and to allow God to shape us and locate us in that narrative. A friend put me on to a phenomenal article by Donald Miller (on the one thing that will allow you to “rise above your peers,” i.e., reading great books: and this sentence struck me as strangely familiar: “I started reading Shakespeare, even though I didn’t understand him. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand him, because I could understand parts, and the parts were worth the reading of the whole.” I feel the same way about the stories and writings of the Old Testament. Let’s be honest: parts of the Old Testament seem so distant from our time and understanding that it makes reading them difficult. But in those same pages there are also countless stories, prayers, experiences and testimonies of God interacting with his people that stir our souls in such a way to make it worth the effort. As my beautiful bride put it so well the other day, “I feel different when I open the Bible; just reading this book affects me in ways that no other writing does.”

At least in my better moments, I long to know God. I long to connect with the One who has given me life and given life to this world. I long to know his Son, who is willing to sacrifice everything so the world might be renewed and reconciled to his Father. And I long to know the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who works on the stage of human history to consummate the Father’s plan. I sense this God calling me, and all who share this longing, to come and “meet the family” in the Story of Israel.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Seeing Jesus in Surprising Places

Sunday we talked about the glorious Christ hymn in John chapter one. Most of my life, when I’ve read this passage, I focus on the Trinity part: “the Word was God.” Or, I find myself marveling at the incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Or, I am captivated by the picture of God’s intimacy with the Son and with us: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

But this Sunday we leaned into the line in verse 4: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” That one word astounds me: “all.” With our perceptions of God, we expect the passage to read something like: “that life was the light of his people” or “that life was the light of faithful people“or “that life was the light of good people.” But, astonishingly he says that the Word of God, the Christ of God, is the light of all people. And so, as we discussed this week, this means that Jesus shows up, revealing God, in surprising places. We will find elements of His truth, goodness, light and life, as one has put it, “even outside of the Christian franchise.”

Now, let’s be clear: that does not mean that “all paths lead to God,” or all truth is relative. Instead, I believe this passage helps us see that, if you encounter truth, goodness, wonder, or light in the world, you can be confident that the ultimate source of that light is the Son of God—whether or not the source of that truth has a “Christian” label on it. So, followers of Jesus have a great opportunity: to embrace and claim truth, wherever we find it. We also are called to great humility, as we marvel at how and through whom God chooses to work (not the least surprising is his astounding promise to work through broken people like me and anybody else who claims membership in a church).

One of the first people who helped me pay attention to this part of the Christ hymn is Augustine. Long ago, when confronted with questions about the relationship between Christian thought and pagan philosophy, Augustine invited believers to claim any truth they find, whatever the source, and to use it for the service of the Gospel. Here is his argument, using a brilliant analogy of Israel’s departure from Egypt:

If those who are called philosophers…have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use…. The Egyptians possessed idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forebears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner (Ex 3:21-22; 12:35-36)…. In the same way, pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions…. It contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed, some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not invent themselves, but which they dug out of the mines of providence of God, which are scattered throughout the world…. The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to their proper use for the proclamation of the gospel (excerpt from On Christian Doctrine, cited in Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 6).

What I find so compelling is not just that Augustine acknowledges truth even from pagan sources (as Paul did so many years before, see Acts 17:22-28); but that he recognizes the ultimate source of that truth in God himself. He sees God revealing himself in many diverse avenues, “scattered throughout the world.”

I just wonder how different our world and our relationships might be, if those of us who follow Jesus would begin our interactions with those around us by asking, where do I see Jesus in this person or situation? Too often, Christians lead with judgment. Now, there is a place for honest, respectful critique of harmful paths and ways. But I long for Christians today to be known more as people who seek truth—or better yet, who seek Truth (the Person and not just ideas, John 14:6)—wherever we might find it. I thank my God that he has chosen to reveal the light of his Son to and through all people.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ortberg's "IQ Test"

Several folks requested that I make available the tool I shared from John Ortberg on how to discern what might be the main idols in our lives, the principal rival to God holding the center place in our lives. Ortberg calls it his "IQ test," not an Intelligence Quotient, but our "Idolatry Quotient." With some minor adaptations, here's his diagnostic tool.

Step One: Common Idols of our Day

Start by recognizing or identifying common idols in our time:

- Money
- Relationship/s
- Success
- Attractiveness
- Intelligence
- Pleasure
- Addiction
- Religion/Spiritual Reputation
- Work
- Other________?

Step Two: Questions for Discernment

Now, use these to identify which idol most competes with God for first place in your life; you might make a mark next to the items above after each question and see which has the most marks at the end:

(1) Which of these do you think about most? When you wake up or fall asleep?
(2) Which do you most fear losing?
(3) Which most gives you a sense of identity?
(4) Which do you look to in order to feel secure?
(5) Which do I most want to be known for? Makes you feel like “somebody?”
(6) Which most causes my emotions to go up and down?
(7) Which would other people who know me well say is my biggest idol?
(8) Which do my efforts most tend to revolve around (what you sacrifice for)?

I would add a warning here: please do not allow this tool to be an instrument of guilt, but simply a way of assessing where you are in your walk. We all have a (fallen) natural tendency to replace God with something or someone else; so this is about owning where we are and offering that to God to lead us in a healthier way.

The passage in which I introduced this, Isaiah 44:6-23, ends with these strong words of grace and hope from our God: “Remember these things, Jacob, for you, Israel, are my servant. I have made you, you are my servant; Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Sing for joy, you heavens, for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, you earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.”

God only reveals our idolatry so that he might set us free--free to experience the joy and wonder that comes when we invite him back to the center of our lives.

Grace and peace.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Even This City Can Overcome Death

I came across this simple poem by Howard Nemerov, which provokes me again to dream. Even though he speaks a vision of Easter life to the suburbs, I imagine it speaking to the whole city, our city—the entire area of Greater Nashville. I hear in the announcement of this glorious season of our Lord’s resurrection that “even this city can overcome death…even here, death will be vanquished again…and certainly not by our own doing.” May this season be one where our God moves us outside of ourselves, so that we might be used by Him to restore life in all of its forms, right here, even here, in our city.

Enjoy the poem and Happy Easter!

Easter, by Howard Nemerov

Even this suburb has overcome death.
Overnight, by a slow explosion, or
A rapid burning, it begins again
Bravely disturbing the brown ground
With grass and even more elaborate
Unnecessaries such as daffodils
And tulips, till the whole sordid block
Of houses turned so inward on themselves,
So keeping of a winter's secret sleep,
Looks like a lady's hat, improbably
Nodding with life, with blue jays hooting
And pigeons caracoling up among
The serious chimney pots, and pairs
Of small birds speeding behind the hedges
Readying to conceal them soon. Here,
Even here, Death has been vanquished again,
What was a bramble of green barbed wire
Becomes forsythia, as the long war
Begins again, not by our doing or desiring.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where Would We Be?

Palm Sunday, 2010. I came across this incredible image of Jesus' fateful journey taken from a painting in the Zirl parish church in Austria. I see it and strain to grasp even with all we know now, the full significance of this humble moment. I can't help wondering how many people missed it? How many folks simply went on with their day, ironically preparing to celebrate the mighty acts of God in the world, all the while oblivious to the fact that the mightiest act of all was unfolding before their very eyes?

But then again, can we really blame them? Would we really be any different? All of history is about to change, but the only marker of the occasion is a homeless carpenter, who happens to be the Son of God, riding into town on the back of a common farm animal. Pretty sure I'd have missed it too. Or, worse yet, I might well have been one of these men depicted in the back, with scowls on their faces, pointing in self-righteous accusation. Makes me thank God for second chances, for giving us all another shot (each year) to experience in some small way His life-changing actions in this world. It also makes me wary: in all of our preparations and celebrations this holy week, is it possible we too might miss him, showing up yet again in the most ordinary places and ways?

So, I don't know where I would have been then, or even what I'm missing right now. But I do know this: by the grace of God, here is where I stand today--honored to be one who cries out in grateful anticipation, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."