Fight for Joy!

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

A couple months ago, I felt led to do something new: I applied for a spiritual director.

For me, that was a risky move. Risky because I’m an introvert and inherently skeptical. Even so, it was clear that I should lay aside my hesitation and pray for courage to obey the Spirit-promptings.

This week I met with my spiritual director for the second time. So far, so good! A question he’s been asking me during our sessions is: What are you hearing, feeling, or experiencing in this moment? Sometimes the question is more direct: What are you hearing from God?

Excellent questions.

In our present “stay home, stay safe” moment of sacrifice to care for each other, I’m feeling and experiencing many things. Restrictions, prohibitions, and isolation can be difficult. I want to do what I want to do. I want to eat out, have people over, and worship in my church building. Grocery shopping is stressful (more than usual), Zoom meetings are awkward, and I’m not a fan of jigsaw puzzles.

When things don’t go my way, I get edgy. And my edginess breeds a need to control through task and accomplishment. I respond with instructions to my family for house cleaning, lawn raking, and other things I deem “productive.” My unilateral edicts are often rationalized with a “dad speech” about responsibility and character development. But what’s really going on is that I feel anxiety over my helplessness.

I don’t like being unable to affect my circumstance. But this thought from Thomas Merton has been helpful: “We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that His [God’s] power is made perfect in our infirmity. The surest sign that we have received a spiritual understanding of God’s love for us is the appreciation of our own poverty in the light of His infinite mercy.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.26)

This weekend we reflect again on the life and passion of Jesus Christ. As I consider who He is and what He’s done, the helplessness I feel in the midst of a worldwide crisis highlights that I’m a dependent and needy person. There’s no place for rugged individualism. And any response that sprouts from seeds of discontent regarding my “rights” only deadens my ability to exhibit the qualities of a Christ-follower. So I’m returning often to that question from my spiritual director: What am I hearing from God in these moments?

What I’ve heard this week is: “Fight for joy!”

Reclaim a perspective that is hope-filled and not usurped by headlines, op-eds, and social media cynicism. Acknowledge the legitimacy of anxieties and disappointments while remembering to “fret not” (Psalm 37). To lament, grieve, and pray. To embrace our salvation that was claimed on a cross and secured through resurrection.

So, what are you feeling, thinking, or experiencing right now? What do you hear God saying to you? And what do those things indicate about your understanding of God’s love, mercy, and expectations for you in this moment?

This Easter weekend, and in the days ahead, I’m keeping close these words from the prophet Isaiah: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3–4) Perfect peace. We all need some of that.

Our Cry

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Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

Our Cry
A reflection on Palm Sunday

Rebellion
in the Garden
was our cardinal sorrow;
lament ever since
has looped on repeat.

East of Eden,
baleful seductions
divert our longings
toward culverts
rife with deceit.

We cannot make
our way back.

This day
our “Hosanna!”
erupts
from the ache
of pandemic.

Yet,
our true
and befitting
cry
remains—

“Blessed is He!”

Sad Worship

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Photo by Jonatán Becerra on Unsplash

It’s Sunday. We just finished week two of online worship due to social distancing requirements. It was a good service. Even so, a pre-recorded service has relational limitations, so I choose to add some mental enhancements while I participate.

During the audio-only recordings of the choir, I envision their smiling faces and syncopated swaying. During the liturgy, I dub-in voices of those typically sitting in the pews near me as we collectively offer an amoeba-like recitation. And when the Word is preached, I mentally insert several raised-voice, pulpit-slapping, jump up and down exclamations of, “Isn’t that good news!” for which our pastor is known. I’m grateful to be part of a vibrant Christ-exalting, Spirit-dependent, cross-cultural community of faith.

Yet in this morning’s blend of digital worship and my mentally inserted animations, I sensed a longing. An ache. An unsettledness in my spirit. It felt like I was grieving. Reflecting now, it was lament.

Lament is generally described as expressions of sorrow, regret, grief, or mourning. I prefer a more faith-centered definition given by a former pastor who said, “lament is sorrow but with confidence.” Confidence in a loving, ever-present God who sees, hears and knows our circumstance. A God who can sympathize with our anxieties, frustrations, losses, and desires. A God to whom we can safely bring our anger and our angst.

As I allow my feelings from this morning to percolate, I’m mixing in this quote from Michael Card: “Lament is not a path to worship, but the path of worship.” (A Sacred Sorrow, p.21) Oh, boy! My conditioned response is that worship be a positive, joyful, happy endeavor. Through that lens, I’d write-off what I felt this morning as inadequate or distracted worship. Yet if Card is right (and I believe he is), I can’t—and shouldn’t—discount what I’m feeling. Instead, I should embrace my sadness as a portal to worship.

While no one welcomes or wishes for loss, I can attest that painful and anxious moments have heightened my desire for God’s involvement in the particulars of my life. When I’m inconvenienced, frustrated, thwarted, or just plain don’t get what I want, those moments are ripe for lamenting worship. Embracing that perspective is tough. But I’m choosing to pray against the pull of bitterness and bring my grief to God.

In our longing for what’s normal, like being face-to-face with family, friends, and everyone else, it’s okay to be sad. But in that sorrow, we must sustain our confidence that God is more than enough and is worthy of our worship—whatever form it takes.

Bravado

Photo by miro polca on Unsplash

Bravado
a pandemic reflection

Flesh and bone
is
prey
for a
viral
marauder;
our
mortality
the talk of the town.

Fear
is
blood-letting
the
reservoir
of
communal
hope.

Familiar
touchstones
disintegrate
into
free-form
sand piles.

We
scoop
and
scrape
the
diffusing grains;
knuckles reddened
with
crimson futility
to
maintain
our
shape
of
security.

This
moment
belies
our
bravado.

We
are
not
our
own.

The Marital Bed

The Marital Bed

Our bare legs glide
between cool cotton sheets,
instigating negotiations
to create a slumbering nest —
a cotton and polyester poultice
to draw away
the day’s exertions.

Deep exhalations
release soft sighs,
triggering warm nuzzles
and gentle touches.

Hands overlap;
we interlace fingers
in affectionate affirmation
of our sacred promise.

Fogged with weariness,
our bodies yield through
jerks and twitches;
the Sandman is here.

Celestial movements
shutter the day’s light,
gifting the hush of darkness.

Our embrace is benediction.

A Necessary Ending

It’s winter in West Michigan, and despite the mildness of this particular cycle the grey days and shortened daylight hours can be difficult. To provide respite in the midst of our deep mid-winter, my wife and I are heading to Louisville, Kentucky in a couple of weeks. While there’s no guarantee of favorable weather, a change of venue should be refreshing. Our hope is that a few days away will enliven our slogging toward the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Beginnings and endings. Our lives are threaded with starts, stops, and redirections.

Nearly two years ago I started something. Through prayer, conversation, forms, and fees I stepped onto the path leading toward a doctorate degree. I yearn to learn and for many years contemplated the pursuit of education at the highest level. Recently, a job change coupled with the growing independence of my children suggested the addition of formal education to our routine was feasible. With the eagerness of a kindergartner equipped with fresh crayons and a PB&J sandwich, I plowed into my studies.

For me, the endeavor of learning is a paradox of euphoria and drudgery. Anxiety and excitement. Pressure and pleasure. The people, professors, and discussions are stimulating and edifying. The work is intense, yet gratifying. It didn’t take long to realize doctorate level studies are rigorous and demanding—but I loved it!

What I didn’t love so much was the voracity with which my studies consumed my time. Research, reading, and writing gobbled-up every spare moment, both literally and mentally. My thoughts were captive to papers, discussion questions, presentations, and time management. Adrenaline, caffeine, and self-discipline propelled me forward—an intellectual explorer ready to stake my claim within academia.

But like most adventures, the unexpected happens. Detours, distractions, loss, and delay can redirect or even thwart plans and efforts. My educational journey was not immune to such things. The ever-present responsibility for family, work, and church duties did not abate while I dwelt in the ivory tower. The good and necessary work of marriage, parenting, and career pressed into the margin reserved for study. In response, I adjusted my schedule by stiff-arming involvements and shortening times of rest and recreation. I can do this, I thought. I’m not a quitter. Just suck it up.

Yet my internal pep-talks could not reconcile necessary things with my availability for desired things. My primary calling was impinging upon my margin for study. Even more, I couldn’t span the rift between my occupation, vocation, and research interests. My angst swelled with each course and assignment. Nevertheless, I chose to mix optimism with naivete and trudged forward, all the while wondering if I should end my educational venture.

The answer was yes.

Two weeks into my second year it became undoubtedly clear that I should pause my studies. The wise choice was to drop the class, gather myself, and evaluate. I relented to that reality but it was excruciating to accept. Never had I dropped a class. Never had I quit anything. It felt shameful, irresponsible, and short-sighted. Did I lack determination, perseverance, or resilience? Was I not capable, smart, or skilled? What would others think?

All of those questions, fears, and suppositions haunted me as I dawdled to officially withdraw from the program months later. I didn’t want to be hasty but knew from the moment I dropped that course I was saying goodbye. A necessary ending.

But endings are also beginnings as the page flips to a new chapter that’s unwritten, untried, and open to possibilities. And that’s just what God presented to me. Something new. Something intriguing. Something that rings true in my soul popped into my purview the day after withdrawing from my doctoral program. Coincidence? I say providence!

While I can’t see what’s ahead, I have hope that endings can be good. Beginnings, too. God is not surprised by any of my starts, stops, or redirections. He planned them, actually. So in my confusion, frustration, and uncertainty I can settle into His claim on me, which provides assurance that all my moments have been crafted for my good and His glory.

Now, let’s get started!

As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!

(Psalm 40:17, ESV)

Complaining at Christmas?

The Wise Men Journeying to Bethlehem – James Jacques Joseph Tissot

It’s Christmas week. The fourth week of Advent. The time when all the scurrying and baking and frenetic wrapping reach their zenith. This can also be a season ripe for complaint.

Complaint about the weather. Complaint about traffic jams, visiting relatives, toddler fits, and shopping trips. In the midst of candy canes and popcorn cake, we prop-up idyllic Christmas celebrations, which can be unexpected setups for disappointment. Even in this season of comfort and joy, grumbling can rise like steam from the wassail.

I’m certainly not immune to complaining. Even if I don’t voice my dissatisfaction, my mind is all too eager to write a negative script. Why? M. Craig Barnes suggests, “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul.” (Pastor as Minor Poet, 16) Barnes goes on to add, “The primary symptom of a soul that has become sick is that it becomes blind to the poetry of life.” (38) When we complain, the presenting issue may not be the issue.

Complaint may seem off-topic for an Advent meditation, but the ubiquity of societal (and personal) grumbling is evidence of our longing. If we’re wrapped too tightly in wish dreams, our senses dull to the grand story unfolding before us. How enthralling, explosive, and poetic was the Incarnation! The shattering of time with the advent of the Christ-child was a longing fulfilled. A promise kept. The genesis of hope and assurance of renewal that affects this very moment.

Even so, we wait. Our souls lament as we cry, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

And yet there’s a song in the air! Can you hear the Creator singing His melody of grace harmonized with justice, mercy, and kindness? Release yourself into the mystery, wonder, and beauty of Salvation’s song that satisfies our soul’s longing and extinguishes complaint.

As we celebrate Christmas this week, let’s remember the One who had justification to complain, yet never did. Who with incomparable humility carried the Song of Love to the Cross and sung redemption into eternity. Thanks be to God for the gift of our Savior — Jesus!

Merry Christmas!

A Prayer against Complaint

Holy Song-Singer and Word of Life,
Jesus, our Savior, strong and good;
Forgive my complaint and steep me in joy —
Have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
(Philippians 2:5–8, NIV)

Food Democracy

Long ago those miniature, plastic-coated spoons disappeared from our home. They accompanied the gnawed sippy cups and Bob the Builder plates that were sent for recycling. It has been a while since my wife and I battled a toddler’s will against ingesting liquified carrots, spaghetti, squash, pears, chicken-n-dumplings, and other assorted glass-jarred baby foods. In their first days of semi-solids, our children did not hesitate to express their preference for specific types, textures, and flavors of food.

Those preferences continue but have matured to include philosophical and ethical considerations. Instead of struggling through a preference for Apple Blueberry over Sweet Potato, food is chosen by convictions about organic, processed, vegetarian, local, free-range, fair trade, and all-natural characteristics. Even so, my family’s passion for fulfilling their dietary needs is no less intense than when pulverized peas were ejected in a moment of disapproval.

As I’ve watched these convictions develop, I’m surprised by my push-back on beliefs that differ from mine. When I find them unreasonable, confusing, altruistic, or unbalanced I respond with an exasperated rebuttal through a raised voice. I’ve been cynical, skeptical, and grumpy. I’ve balked at purchasing foods that cost more, smell funny, or crowd-out my preferred choices in the pantry. A fan of simplicity, my reserve of patience runs low when I’m required to prepare different meals to accommodate convictions I don’t agree with.

While diversity makes our lives interesting, it can also bring conflict. In my previous post, I mentioned my affinity for solitude and contentment with quiet, peaceful spaces. That independence affords me a measure of control over my circumstances. I can manage and even steer clear of volatile issues as I protect myself from having to reconcile my own convictions with others.

Yet, consistent isolation or cloistering with like-minded people can foster attitudes of justified self-centeredness. Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, philosopher, educator, and civil rights leader said, “All men belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.” (The Search for Common Ground, 104) Does Thurman’s proposition apply to the food fights in my household? Absolutely. If I willingly shut-down or fortify myself against different ideas, beliefs, and behaviors I risk not only stunting my development but limiting the quality of my relationships.

When I find myself experiencing repeated frustration, negative emotion, stereotyping or making assumptions, I’ve given my desires inappropriate priority. I’ve allowed my convictions to corrupt my relationships. Henri Nouwen said, “Our human relationships easily become subject to violence and destruction when we treat our own and other people’s lives as properties to be defended or conquered and not as gifts to be received.” (Reaching Out, 119) My goal should not be to convert critics or overpower dissenting voices. To get vegetarians to eat meat or Ford owners to drive Chevys. Those aims can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and division. As a believer in Jesus, my behavior is to support a peaceful unity. I’m to do justice, love kindness, and be humble. This does not mean I jettison my convictions. Nor should it imply that I be silent when I disagree. To the contrary, I should engage, speak, and advocate.

The Apostle John noted that Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Notice the order: grace then truth. The grace our Lord gifts to us should inform our interactions and relationships. We should be kind and hospitable, listening first to understand. We should not fail to offer dignity and respect to everyone, allowing for disagreement while not maligning or disparaging one another. In short, we should love each other.

In the past few years I’ve learned a lot about food. I’m grateful to be led by my children into a new stewardship of my food consumption. Beyond food, I’m seeking to assume a humble, grace-filled, listening posture that promotes dialogue and relationship. I’m praying for strength to hold my convictions while being kind to those who think differently. I’m asking the Spirit for a holy courage to speak with gentleness.

In this third week of Advent, as we continue to ponder our “doing” (week 1) while being diligent with our togetherness (week 2), lets also consider our words, thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Are we advocates and unifiers? Does the grace of Christ pervade our interactions even as we stand firm in our convictions? From peas to politics, how we relate to one another is an indicator of what we think about God.

A Prayer for Unity
Heavenly Father, Obedient Son, Comforting Spirit —
Unified in divine diversity;
Temper our spirits with grace and truth,
and quicken our love toward peace-filled community.

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
(Galatians 6:10, ESV)

A Converted Caravan

The photos shuffling on the display of my computer are of the Gros Ventre Wilderness near Jackson, Wyoming. During the summer of 2018, my youngest son and I, along with a handful of other fathers and their sons, set-out into that remote part of the American West for an 8-day adventure of vigorous hiking.

While the mountainous vistas are worth every step, such trips are not without tense moments and uncertainty. Weather, terrain, injury, illness, and mental fortitude are ever-present variables. During our 24-hour drive to the trailhead, our group pondered some important questions: Would the trail be navigable? Would there be good places to camp near a potable water source? Would the snow pack cause us to re-route and lengthen our hike or send us bushwhacking? What do we do if a bear eats our food, and did we bring the bear spray?

Our concerns were not unfounded. We encountered snow. We detoured. But there were no bears. More serious and unexpected, however, was our encounter with illness. As the days passed, one of our teammates became weak and exceptionally tired, struggling more and more with the rigor of uphill climbs. To assist, we lightened his load by dispersing items in his pack among the group. This continued until he walked packless, clutching only a small bottle of water. Still, his body wearied toward delirium and heat stroke. We stopped and rested often. Fully spent on our final day, our sweat-drenched friend groaned as he sat hunched over a scraggly Western Pine, and wept. We wept, too. And prayed. As we baked in an arid, sun-soaked valley, miles from our exit, a new dimension was demanded from our fraternity.

That hiking experience is not unlike the Christian life. The journey of faithful living is arduous, unpredictable, and shouldn’t be done alone. Yet in our current culture of rugged individualism, we might be lulled toward habits that isolate and behaviors that exacerbate a prideful disposition of, “I’ve got this!” And this individualism can seep into our spiritual practices. How? For me, I’m very content with quiet mornings of coffee, reading from Scripture and another book (or two), a bit of conversational prayer, and some writing. Just God and me and the stillness of the pre-dawn morning. While this solitary practice has merit, if I neglect to supplement my peace and quiet with face-to-face interactions, I’ll be spiritually under-developed and relationally malnourished.

Referring to the collective of professing Christians, Jamie Smith said, “Conversion is joining this caravan, not setting out alone.” (On The Road With Saint Augustine, 51) More importantly, Scripture commands us to make togetherness a priority. (Heb 10:24-25) It is in our gathering that we apply salve to wounds and reorient those who’ve strayed. We support and carry those who are weak. We encourage, edify, celebrate, and grieve — together.

In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen said: “The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.” (88-89) From time to time, each of us will be desperate and tired, mustering our last bits of courage to take one more step. When those moments come, we need each other.

In my previous post I challenged us to consider our “doings” — our involvements, behaviors, and activities that determine who we are becoming. I’ve been meditating on my “doing” this past week as part of the Advent season. For the second week of Advent, I’m going to consider how my desire for introverted independence tugs me toward seclusion. I’ll be evaluating the balance of time alone with time in community.

How about you? Are you wandering alone? Are you regularly engaged with like-minded people of faith? Do you have friends who both challenge and support you? Do you consistently give of yourself and your resources for the good of others?

To finish the story, we made it out of the Gros Ventre. It required patience, humility, empathy, encouragement, and of course God’s kind providence. Looking back, it was a privilege to pace with our hurting friend during that intense and painful episode. He couldn’t have done it without us.

As people of faith, we’re members of a glorious caravan. We journey together. This day, let’s encourage one another to walk by faith, trusting the One who gives us hope through His birth, death, and resurrection — our traveling companion, Jesus Christ.

A Prayer Against Isolation
Friend and Brother, our Lord Jesus Christ,
Pioneer on the path to glory;
Invade my realm of detached independence,
amend my affections with desire for your people.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
(Hebrews 10:24–25, NIV)

An Advent of Becoming

It’s been a long slog through jack-rabbit starts and anti-locked stops. Back roads and main roads and residential roads. Blind spot blindness and forgetful signalling. Missed turns and tight turns but always (fingers-crossed) a safe return. Now we’re rounding the final turn with our youngest child. Number five. Just a few more hours to log and we’ll be done — forever — with driver’s education.

Our progression toward becoming safe, proficient, confident drivers requires the acquisition of knowledge and skill. We study the rules of the road. We practice driving to gain familiarity with  vehicle characteristics. We travel on different types of road to master the nuances of city, highway, and residential driving. We push buttons, turn knobs, and adjust mirrors to develop our man-machine relationship. Learning to drive is a process of doing specific things to foster driving competency. In short, we do to become.

What we do — the activities, involvements, relationships, and places we inhabit — determines the trajectory of our life. Our “doings” mold our imagination and develop our character. Pause now, just for a moment, and review this past week. Ponder your everyday activities. Your noble acts, secret indulgences, and subconscious routines. Where did you go? Who were you with? What conversations did you have? What did you do to rest and refresh? What caused frustration and how did you respond? Don’t bury, ignore or conveniently forget a thing. God is neither unaware nor surprised by you. It’s important to dwell upon your doing because it directly affects who you are and who you are becoming.

The life of a Christ-follower should be a deeply earnest, all-out effort of submission and contrition. An uncompromised commitment and trust that God will come alongside and masterfully balance our pain and progress toward becoming more like Jesus. Granted, me writing (and you reading) those words oversimplifies the process. While I long to be more Christ-like, it doesn’t take much to knock me off kilter. It could be a poor night of sleep, frustrations at work, parenting struggles, misunderstandings, illness, a dwindling bank account, loneliness, headaches, shopping malls, or a rough driver’s ed drive. Even running out of coffee can unleash my dark side.

Photo by Rota Alternativa on Unsplash

Christian living is neither simple nor automatic. It’s packed with mystery into which we must venture by faith. But faith requires… faith. In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff said, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.” (76) To trust is to risk. And rather than release my moment-by-moment existence to Jesus by faith, I’m tempted to corral my activities into safe places. I craft what I believe will be a simpler, easier path that routes me around pain and keeps me in relative comfort. But if my doings are self-protective acts of distrust, then who am I becoming?

This Sunday (December 1) is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, which kicks-off with the season of Advent. Advent is a sacred time of anticipation, longing, and mindfulness. A four-week period to reflect on the cosmic conjunction of the divine and human in the God-Man, Jesus. As we enter Advent, join me as I seek to infuse my Christmas preparations with intentional “doing” as I ask God where I’m at on the path of becoming. Consider whether you’re stepping toward Christlikeness or wandering wild? Perhaps you’re earnest but aimless? Maybe it has been some time since you did any serious spiritual work. No matter your present circumstance God sees, knows, and cares. He beckons you onto the footbridge of faith.

Together, let’s commit to using this pre-Christmas season to evaluate, confess, repent, and pray. Let’s seek the Spirit for counsel and comfort as we invite a personal advent of spiritual refinement. Let’s reform our doing with great expectation for what we’re becoming!

A Prayer for Becoming
Omniscient Father of Providence,
progenitor of life and breath in my soul,
weave my doing with the Fruit of your Spirit,
call forth in me what I’m to become.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
(Romans 12:9–13, NIV)