It Shakes You

Earlier today a man called the church. He claimed he had viewed our website and was interested in joining our community and finding out if the people here would be his brothers and sisters. But first he wanted to pose a question.

“What does it mean to bear your cross and follow Jesus?”

As a pastor, I’ve had many opportunities to explain the meaning of Jesus’ well known statement, but I have never before been asked what it means by someone who, it seems, already knows the answer. In this case, I quickly learned that the man on the phone did not consider my response completely satisfactory.

My response to his question was something along these lines: “To take up one’s cross is to live sacrificially – to surrender my own will in favor of the will of God. And to follow Jesus is to recognize him not only as the example of how to live for God, but also as the atoning sacrifice that makes it possible for me to experience a relationship with God.”

The man seemed pleased with my answer initially. However, before I could really respond again, he began to accuse me, and by extension the entire church leadership, of forsaking the true meaning of “bearing the cross.” Apparently, this man interprets that passage as the relinquishment of all worldly possessions, everything from houses to material items to, as he said, “everything you got up there in that bank.” This man believes Jesus was promoting complete asceticism when he said his followers must take up their crosses. (I’m not sure where the use of a phone, or the Internet, falls in that extreme expectation.)

There was little I could say at that point. It was clear this man’s mind was made up, that he had a predetermined agenda and this question was just a setup – a test for me to fail so I could receive his rebuke. What is more, as his correction quickly morphed into impassioned rant and then into fever-pitch screaming, he would not have been able to hear me even if I had wanted to repent right then and there.

“Sir,” I said beneath his tirade, “I cannot talk with you if you won’t listen to anything I say. I’m going to have to hang up.”

The last words I heard as I placed the phone back into its cradle was, “You see, you’re running! That’s all you people do when I call, just run away from-”

Click.

In the silence that followed, I could feel my beating heart, quickened with the adrenaline that washes over you when you’re being screamed at. I could hear my shuddering exhale under stress. And I could feel the rush of my racing mind, immediately turning inward, awakening the inevitable personal reflection that comes from any kind of rebuke, whether unwarranted or wholly deserved.

Have I interpreted that verse of Scripture incorrectly? Was the man on the phone right? Have I strayed from the true meaning of discipleship?

I do not believe so. However, this man unknowingly exposed the scars I bear from my own upbringing. For years, I worried I was getting it all wrong. During my adolescence, I walked many a confessional aisle, prayed many salvation prayers (which we so often referred to as “prayers of rededication”), made many recommitments to Jesus, most of which basically boiled down to a white-knuckled, teeth-clenched, self-actualizing vow that this time I would get things right. This time I would really be a Christian.

I have come to accept and even embrace the ambiguity of biblical interpretation. I realize that I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who understand and apply certain passages and verses differently than I do, and unlike the man who called me, I do not think all of them are wrong and I am right. I believe God is bigger than our finite understanding of him. I believe he is bigger than our interpretive capacities. I believe he is bigger even than this testimony about him that we call the Bible.

I believe that I will never be able to get it all right, and that is essentially the reason God sent his son to die on a cross. And I believe that what brings the Son of God glory is when I try to get it right – when I make a genuine, honest effort. As Thomas Merton famously wrote, “The fact that I think that I am following your will doesn’t mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Nevertheless, a confrontation such as the one I had with this man may cut more deeply than you expect it will. It halts you. It shakes you. I gives you the kind of uncomfortable, self-searching pause that few of us ever seek out on our own.

Holy Spirit, sustain me. Abide in me, and teach me your ways. When I am wrong, rebuke me with gentleness and wisdom. When I am right, bless me with humble assurance. Holy Lord, I thank you that, ultimately, I must answer to no one else but you. Amen.

Lauds

A period of silence may follow.

The prayer book prompts me to be silent, and so I take a breath and close my eyes and go to where the silence is. Outside is the click of the ice maker, the low hum of the refrigerator, the faint gush of air through the ducts of this aging house. The baby monitor elicits the sound of an artificial womb, the volume raised just enough to perceive a pre-dawn cry. Beyond the window in the darkness, a morning bird too eager for the break of morning decides to test its call.

Outside, there is a beating heart, a yawn, a subtle pop within the stiffened neck of this aging body. The shift of the couch cushion. The gurgle of an empty stomach accepting hot coffee.

I go inside. Inside is the soul, and thus, the silence. Inside is where the Spirit of God has made His dwelling place. Some mornings, He seems a next-door neighbor; other mornings, it is a long journey to His abode, down the narrow path of sluggish contemplation that winds through the wild interior woods where if I turn to look I will see the watchful eyes of dark shapes surveilling me from the shadows. The path empties into a clearing, in the center of which is a quaint cottage. A thin line of smoke whispers from the little chimney – He always has the fire kindled in His hearth – and the morning light spills across the garden plots that surround the cottage.

Some mornings I find the Spirit tending these gardens: aerating the soil, assessing the strength of the stalks, inspecting the budding fruit. He greets me with a smile and a kind word, and there is always a look of pleasure on His face. He is proud of His gardens, of the fruit that has been born and is slowly growing. On other visits, I have found Him relaxing on the little front porch. He rocks back and forth slowly, and as I approach He gestures to the other chair next to Him. “Sit for a moment,” He says. “Enjoy the view with me.”

Once, I found Him inside by the fire, and I asked Him why He was not tending the gardens, and He told me that He was, that resting is also part of gardening, and the fruit He has planted responds as much to this as any other act of cultivation.

I feel safe in the clearing. I am aware that eyes remain on me, that there are dangerous things in the woods, but the Spirit says He is unafraid of these wild things and I should be as well. Standing there next to Him, it is hard not to feel safe. Still, I tell Him that the things in the shadows want to ravage His gardens, and He nods His head as if this isn’t news to Him. He tilts His gardener’s hat back, letting the first rays of the morning splash His face. “Of course they do. This used to be their territory, like the rest of your soul. A completely lawless place. But then you invited Me to live here, and together We have tilled gardens for My fruit – good soil beneath warm sunlight – where before had been only overgrown wilderness, brambles and thorns.”

“But what if they get in?”

He looks at me. “That’s up to you. But I can assure you that they won’t run me off. I will go on tending these gardens, and if you will keep visiting Me, day after day, they will stay in the shadows. And, eventually, you will not only see the fruit; you’ll get to taste it, too.”

The clearing fades away. I surface from the silent depths. I come out from within my soul.

A period of silence may follow, the prayer book says, and I wonder if what I have seen… or imagined (what’s the difference, really?)… will suffice for practicing the discipline of silence. I move on in the prayer book: I read from the Psalter, then the Gospels, and then I offer prayers for myself and others, and it is within these free-form supplications that I often find myself saying, “Holy Spirit, cultivate the gardens of my heart. Let the harvest of Your fruit be bountiful.” In my mind’s eye I see the Gardener standing by the garden plots. He tilts the brim of His hat. I pray to know love, to experience joy, to feel peace, to have patience, to show kindness, to exemplify goodness, to learn faithfulness, to exude gentleness, to practice self-control. I pray the same fruits would be tended by the same Gardener in the souls of others.

Then I pray the way the Savior taught His disciples, and, at the end, as the black of night gives way to the gray of dawn, and the lone birdsong becomes a chorus, and the baby mutters and shifts against the weakening grip of sleep, I conclude with the Collect: Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day…

Cross

cross 2

A professor of New Testament once told me about a little known historical event that took place in the very early years of the Common Era (which we even more commonly abbreviate A.D.) in which the Roman army crucified a large group of criminals along a major Galilean road. From what we know about the Roman practice of crucifixion, most people who were hung on crosses were left there to wither and rot over a period of days, possibly weeks.

cross 1

If indeed this event took place, there is nothing odd about it. Despite the ghastly nature of it, crucifixion was commonplace in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It was appalling enough to promote fear among the populace, and public enough to be a cogent display of imperial dominance. While back in Rome the practice was frowned upon, considered far too cruel and inhumane a punishment for a Roman citizen, away in the far reaches of Caesar’s realm it kept the riffraff and the rebels, the subjugated and the slaves, in line.

The event this professor described would have taken place in the days of Jesus’ youth, perhaps a decade or more before he began his earthly ministry at the Jordan River. The Galilean road where this alleged mass execution took place ran close to Nazareth and other nearby villages. It was well traveled – that was the point of the Roman army erecting such a horrifying display. What good was a criminal on a cross if nobody came round to behold it and tremble?

And so, I’m left to wonder if Jesus was familiar with this crucifixion road just beyond his city’s limits. Some scholars have suggested that as a carpenter’s apprentice, he would have assisted with various building projects, and in those days many Galilean tradesmen would have been commissioned in the ongoing renovation work of nearby Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps Jesus traveled the very road along which these enemies of the Empire were hung.

cross 4

Perhaps he made his way back and forth along this road several times, walking by his father Joseph’s side, lunch pails in hand, tool belts hanging loosely around their wastes, a handful of other local craftsmen in their company. The sun is just over the mountains, casting long shadows of the poles and crossbars upon the road. The smell of old blood and rotting flesh hangs heavy in the air. Scavenging birds circle, perch, peck, and cackle at one another.

“Someone oughta take ’em down,” mumbles one of the tradesmen, a Nazarene neighbor. “It goes against Torah.”

Jesus, who knew the Scriptures better than most young apprentices who had left school behind to learn the family craft, recalls the Book of Deuteronomy. In it, the teachings of Moses are recorded, including a statement that those who are hung on poles are under God’s curse, and should be taken down by sunset. The neighbor is right. They should be removed. But not only would touching a cursed, dead man require a whole process of washing and atonement, but these tradesmen have lived long enough to know that if the Roman oppressors want their countrymen to hang until they rot, anyone caught removing the corpses without approval would likely join them on a cross of his own. So Jesus does not blame the men for doing nothing, for continuing to travel this road in service of the pagans, for trying their best to ignore these grisly adornments on the sides of the road. After all, what is a band of poor, simpleminded Galileans to do against such monstrous tyranny?

But as they near their destination – a city coming into view in the distance through the dust of the road and the glare of the morning sun – Jesus hears something that causes him to turn aside. It is the sound ragged breathing and the faintest of whimpers. At the end of the line of crosses, he comes to a living corpse. He can tell the man is only minutes from death.

He pauses at the foot of this cross and gazes up curiously into the criminal’s face. The man’s body is severely bruised, the skin of his chest, back, shoulders, neck, arms, and legs is torn by what must have been repeated, merciless blows of a reed cane. As was the usual practice of Roman executioners, this man had been flogged prior to being executed. The Romans knew the importance of ruining a man before affixing him to a cross; that way the criminal would have no strength left to endure, to struggle, perhaps even slowly work the impaling instruments from his body. Indeed, this is the case for the man hanging above Jesus’ head.

There is a rasping sound that Jesus cannot make out. He steps even closer, so that the man’s scarred and bloated feet are only inches from his face. There are long, jagged nails pierced through the man’s ankles, affixing his feet to each side of the pole. The man’s upper body is caked with blood, smells rancid, and hangs limp. His head is bowed low. Again, the rasp, and Jesus thinks the man is trying to speak a word.

“Thirst.”

Quickly, from his shoulder he swings a leather strap at the end of which is sewn a skin filled with water. He stands on his tip-toes, awkward and unbalanced, and reaches as high as he can to place the opening of the skin to the dying man’s lips. Cool water from a Nazarene well trickles out. Most of it drips back down Jesus’ arms, but a few precious drops find the man’s thick, dry tongue. He moves it around sluggishly, relishing the momentary coolness. Then he grimaces deeply and breathes a pitiful, guttural moan.

Jesus stares up into the man’s face, and for the briefest of moments the criminal’s glazed-over eyes meet his. The man blinks slowly. If Jesus didn’t know any better, he might think the man recognizes him. But it is clear he has been hanging for several days – his mind must be scrambled by the heat of the sun. And, almost as quickly as those eyes found him, the man’s gaze shifts back to the nothingness of the middle distance.

“Yeshua!”

Jesus turns to see Joseph hurrying back up the road. The company of workers is already far ahead, blurred shapes amid waves of high desert heat. Joseph advances upon him with a nervous expression on his face. Jesus knows he must not linger any longer. But as he turns away from the dying man, another bit of Torah echoes in his mind. It is prophecy, lines he has thought about often since he first heard them as a boy.

He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with suffering; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our sufferings, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted…

Joseph places his strong, caring arm around Jesus’ shoulders and leads him away from the cross. But Jesus realizes in that moment it is impossible, in a world such as this, to be fully protected from such terror. He supposes that these will not be the only crosses he encounters in his life. He understands that safety from experiencing such an end is an illusion. And he knows that, despite what the oppressors intend with this grim display, he must not be afraid.

He does not look back. There is no need. He enters the city in the company of his father, and goes to work.

Slave

It must have been incredibly shocking.

I have to wonder if at first they even noticed what exactly was happening. The way people dined back then, there is at least a chance these men were used to not paying attention to whomever was behind them performing this task. The way they sat – reclining on their elbows, their legs stretched out behind them, focused on the food in front of them, holding conversation, seeing only the other faces at the table – it could very well have been that their master had made it halfway around the table before anyone even noticed he was the one washing their feet.

When Jesus got up from the table, perhaps they didn’t pay him much mind. Maybe they thought he was just excusing himself to the privy. Maybe in their periphery they noticed him messing with the wash basin and assumed he was performing a thorough wash before the main course began. And since the act of foot-washing was typically performed by the lowest of slaves – Gentiles, girls, or Gentile girls – it probably wasn’t customary to pay much attention to the one cleaning the dust of Judaea roads from your feet.

John doesn’t record who first noticed what Jesus was up to. He does, however, put the audible reaction in Peter’s mouth, one of the more outspoken members of the group (a trait that would soon bring him to his lowest point, and not long after raise him to his highest). The way Peter speaks when a stripped-down Jesus draws near to him with the water basin and soiled towel, you would think he is not merely scandalized by this role-reversal but is going so far as to swear an oath; he insists he will never permit his esteemed rabbi to persist in the humiliation of touching another man’s dirt-ridden feet. Granted, Peter had a habit of refusing Jesus of things, though his intentions were usually noble.

“I have to do this,” Jesus tells him. “Otherwise, you will have no share in what is coming.” It’s a puzzling statement to our modern ears, but not to a first-century Jew following a man they believe to be the promised Messiah. Being included in Jesus’ “share” no doubt evoked images of glory and affluence, of being a part of the newly crowned king’s inner circle. Peter wasn’t the only one interested in this future. The Gospel writers occasionally point out that debates regarding rank and status came up now and again. James and John thought about it often. It is very likely Judas Iscariot was just as interested in this outcome, and when he didn’t see it going the way he envisioned, he either sold-out to the establishment, or he arranged a plan with the establishment in hopes of provoking his master to finally, at long last, take the bull by the horns. One way or another, to have a “share” with Jesus was a chief concern of the Twelve.

“Then wash everything!” says Peter. “Do my head and hands. Do it all.” Translation: I want a share more than anybody else; I’d like a share greater than everyone else; include me in your plans more integrally than anyone else.

You have to wonder if Jesus smiled at that point. Or maybe he even laughed. It was a night in which he was no doubt experiencing a creeping melancholy because of what he had perceived was coming, but this moment of intimacy among men with which he had spent so much time over the past several years was something he had been looking forward to for a long while. Maybe he chuckled before he said to Peter, “That won’t be necessary. Now give me the other foot.”

And so the disciples watched their rabbi – the one they called Messiah, Savior, Lord, etc., and the one who called himself the eschatological “Son of Man,” divinely related to the one true God, whom he called Father – wipe away the gunk and grime from their well-traveled feet. They felt his hands guide the towel between their toes, scraping them clean. They saw beads of sweat form on his forehead and temples because he was not pretending to wash their feet, he was actually washing them, scrubbing them back to a presentable, hygienic purity.

James and John watched him, and they thought about how Jesus had responded to one of their recent arguments: “Whoever wishes to be the best among the group must act as the slave of everyone else.”

Peter watched him, and thought about the time Jesus had spoken about being watchful for the master’s return: “Blessed are the slaves the master finds still waiting up for him; the master will be so happy that he’ll cook dinner for them.

Judas watched him and struggled. He remembered the day Jesus had sat down on the hilltop and taught a gathered throng: “No one can be a slave of two different masters. It’s only natural that he’ll refuse one and obey the other.”

They all struggled. It was a shocking illustration, and even though they were used to their rabbi shirking propriety for the sake of making his point, to feel his hands on their feet – hands that had touched unseeing eyes, held leprous hands, lifted up lame bodies – was a sensation difficult to appreciate. It was also, of course, a sensation that would remain vividly in memory for many years to come.

So there they sat, around the table, feeling their master wash their feet.

Watching him do the work of a slave on their behalf.

Letting the Son of Man serve them.

 

The Greatest Danger We’ll Face in 2016

If you walked the streets of your neighborhood, or even the aisles of your local Target store, and asked the people you encountered what they believed to be the greatest threat to humanity’s development, what do you suppose they might say? Who or what would be the potential culprits?

No doubt some would toe the current media line and answer “gun violence” or “gun control.” Some might consider our country’s deeply divided views on immigration. Others might nod toward ISIS or other Islamic extremists. The most cynical might blame religion in general. A few germaphobes might point the finger at Ebola or some new flu you can get from armadillos or Canadian geese or something. There would probably be a handful who say, “Hillary,” while hopefully at least some reasonable people answering, “Trump.”

Donald-trump

Please, America. Please… just… just… no.

Here’s what I don’t think many people, if any, would say. I don’t think they would respond to the very problem studies show affects more people than terrorism or gun violence or immigrants takin’ our jobs. More people even than are affected by anxiety, depression, heart disease or cancer combined.

I don’t think anyone would say, “Excess.”

Our society is fanatical about speed and afflicted with the need for more. Year after year, we take great strides in productivity and efficiency, and while we may marvel at the industrial and technological advancements of the past two hundred years, we have ignored the tragically adverse effects such progress has wreaked on humanity.

The Inescapable Illness

“At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance,” wrote the 19th-century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, as he described the bewildering social changes in America resulting from the Industrial Revolution. He observed men chasing after more money, more possessions, more abilities, while simultaneously less and less content despite everything they had acquired. “The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world,” acknowledges de Tocqueville. True. Industrial America was only the latest victim of what many now refer to as “hurry sickness.”

I have no doubt felt the effects of such an illness. It surely no less than an epidemic in our country. We have becomes slaves to productivity and efficiency; we are incapable of ignoring the ticking of the clock. The comedian Louis C.K. makes us all laugh when he profanely fusses at human beings for being impatient for a picture to load on the technological wonders that are our smartphones, but the joke is that this is no exaggeration. We are all in a rush, and, if pressed to give a reason why, the only explanation we can really offer is, “So I can move on to the next thing I need to do.” Even if that next thing is a much-needed nap, rest itself as been tightly wedged into our congested and overcrowded daily schedules.

When you or I lament that there is never enough time in the day to accomplish everything we have to do, truer words were never spoken . If you’ve ever made that remark, guess what? You are afflicted with hurry sickness.

De Tocqueville goes on: “He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.” As a result, what happens to us? If we evaluate our attitudes and behaviors honestly, we find that this pace of life quite often makes us anxious, irritable, non-present. He who suffers from hurry sickness finds he spins less and less time with other people without an agenda unfurled between them. Our relationships are weakened because they plummet from the priority list. Without realizing it, we isolate ourselves from others – few if any really know the real us. Even when we do kick back and have a beer with a friend, we find much of our conversation dominated by our respective job responsibilities and family problems in need of solutions.

A Costly Cure

And here’s the rub. The cure for hurry sickness is actually quite simple, but it is stubbornly rejected time and time again. Why? Because this cure is not like other cures. It isn’t adaptable to our current, normal lifestyles. There is no pill to pop, no energy shake to grab on-the-go so we may continue flitting from one meeting to the next and multitasking only so we can multiply our productivity. No, the cure for hurry sickness is to slow down. To step out of the rat race. Not just two-week’s vacation from it – that’s nothing more than a Band-Aid. To be cured of this addiction to productivity and efficiency is to no longer bow to the power it exerts over us.

rat

Is it even possible to escape such a thing?

As a minister, I am nonetheless susceptible to the great temptation of our modern culture. I, too, want to accomplish just as much as everyone else as quickly as possible. I, too, complain there is never enough time in the day. I, too, have found myself snapping at people who hold up my progress by raising questions or disagreeing with me. And I, too, have given in to anger and uncharacteristically “gone off” on someone about an unsolved problem. All of this is indicative of hurry sickness – of a soul under stress, not at peace.

But I’m trying. I’m attempting to slow down this year. To resist the ever-present urge to rush, to accomplish or complete a large number of tasks every day, to produce results quickly, to cook dinner as quickly as I can, to ferry my children off to bed with as little lethargy as possible. I’m trying to avoid feeling like I never take any time for myself – for reading, writing, praying. There are more important things than feeling productive. Of course there are.

Slowing down and doing less doesn’t mean I shirk all my responsibilities. It doesn’t mean I show up late to meetings and tell the people I’ve put out, “Deal with it.” It doesn’t mean I indulge procrastination.

bedtime

But it also means this shouldn’t be my go-to bedtime book for my kids.

No, it simply means that I renounce the aggressiveness and stress that so often controls my days. Instead, I practice stillness, receptiveness, patience. I take time to reflect. By doing less, I create space in my day, and by slowing down, I do not surrender to the temptation to immediately fill those gaps. And I evaluate my progress in this not by how much I have produced and how quickly I get things done, but by how many meaningful conversations I’ve had in the past week, how many meals I recall savoring, how many times I’ve stopped to observe something beautiful. It is the very essence of “quality over quantity.”

The Root of All Sickness

This won’t be easy. The siren songs of our society can be terribly mesmerizing. I still have deadlines. I still work with people who need my timely input. I still carry a smartphone, and I still get “push” notifications from CNN.

cnn

So, North Korea has an H-Bomb. Thanks, CNN, for that late-night notification. I’m sure I’ll get a good night’s sleep now.

But I have finally come to see our hurry-obsessed culture for what it is. Idolatry.

I have listened to many a Christian offer that same “not enough time in the day” lament as an explanation for why they don’t spend more time reading their Bible, praying, or simply enjoying solitude with God. And I very often commiserated because their struggle was also mine. I would always agree: “Spiritual disciplines can be hard.” But deep down, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, I’ve always known that how a person spends his time reflects what he values most. It isn’t that there isn’t enough time in the day. It’s that there is not enough time after we have scheduled and done what we most value. Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s shopping, maybe it’s Facebook, maybe it’s our child’s soccer practice, maybe it’s another Law and Order marathon on USA.

 

Law & Order SVU home invasions ice-t

“Yo, you tellin’ me thisth dude wasth s’posthed to be a wapper back in tha day? That’sth ridiculousth!”  

Our idol is whatever we value most, and whatever we value most determines how we spend our time. This doesn’t mean that if we work a long-hour job or we spend our days taking care of our children that these things have necessarily become idols. That happens only if we allow these important, time-consuming things to control and direct our days – if we surrender to the assumption that everything else must revolve around these things. Just because you spend 9 hours at work and only 45 minutes praying and reading Scripture doesn’t mean your job is the most important thing in your life. That would be elevating quantity over quality. Rather, when you strive to protect your job within your schedule but fail to protect that 45 minutes you spend with God, that’s when you know which one you truly value more. That’s when idolatry rears its all too familiar head.

That’s the irony of this whole thing for me; a common assumption is that the minister would never make such a mistake. But I must confess I have often valued my job as a minister over my relationship with the God I am supposed to be pointing people to. I have put off meeting with a church member in order to complete a planned task. I have lingered at the office longer than I should have, subtracting time I could be at home with my family. And there have been many days when I have scheduled early meetings that caused me to neglect my own personal time of prayer and reflection.

That’s idolatry.

When you stop to think about this in light of the Ten Commandments, hurry sickness puts a believer at least two in the hole. We have essentially placed another god – our schedule – before our heavenly Father, and if we’ve done that, it’s probably been years since we’ve remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy.

worship

What, you mean sitting in the semi-dark listening to music and a spiritual TED talk for an hour and the  rushing off to lunch before the Methodist church lets out doesn’t constitute keeping the Sabbath?

Trusting the Healer

And all the while, the God who saves us – who sent His Son that we might know peace – watches us run from one task to next, one consumeristic pleasure to another, wondering when we’ll realize that it will never satisfy us – we will never achieve this good life that society promises us is right there for the taking if we would just reach a little bit more

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives,” said Jesus. The Greek word is eirene, the Hebrew is shalom. It isn’t a passive thing – the absence of strife. It is a powerful, active experience. It means fullness, wholeness, to live well. Or, as Frederick Buchner puts it, shalom means “having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.”

To know the genuine, abiding peace of the Son of God, we must live as he did. He was certainly tempted by hurry and progress and efficiency and success, but he never bowed to those influences no matter how insistently they grabbed for his allegiance. And if we are to live as Jesus did, then we must make him the highest authority – the one, true God – of our life, and protect our time and pace with him at all costs.

This is what I am trying to do in 2016. I will no doubt produce less, become a bit more limited in my availability to others, have less acquisitions and professional attainments to show for the year, but all the while I will have gained something far beyond the cumulative value of hurry-driven accomplishments.

I will have gained fullness. I will be more wholly and happily myself than ever before.

What about you?

Why Do You Believe Jesus is a “Savior”? (Reasons Why: Part 3)

As soon as I completed my last post, in which I sought to articulate the reasons I believe in God, a string of tragic events unfolded across the globe that caused me to think long and hard about whether I really believed what I wrote is true. These events included…

In late October, a drunk driver plowed into a Homecoming Day gathering in Stillwater, Oklahoma, killing four people, including a two-year-old boy, and injuring dozens more, many of which are children.

A few weeks later, ISIS-linked gunmen and suicide bombers attacked Paris, France, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more.

Our heads still spinning from that tragedy, we reeled from reports that an Al Qaeda cell had taken hostages in a hotel in Bamako, Mali, killing twenty-two people.

Two weeks ago, Chicago Police released a dash cam video of a police officer unloading his weapon into an African-American teenager well after the young man’s body had crumpled to the asphalt.

Right on the heels of a national day of thanksgiving, a gunman targeted defenseless people at a healthcare facility in Colorado Springs, killing three people including a responding police officer.

The following Wednesday, two individuals with alleged terrorist sympathies opened fire at another healthcare facility, this one for disabled people, killing fourteen and wounding over twenty others.

And yesterday, another terrorist attack in London left three people stabbed to death.

And so I must ask myself, What do you think, Bo? Do you still believe in God? Do you still think this life has any meaning? What were the words you used in your last post? Purpose. Inspiration. Justice. In the face of perpetual violence and constant tragedy, do you really believe there is a God who provides those things?

Yes. Yes, I do.

But I am a Christian. And at its core that means my belief in a God who gives meaning to life is the starting point, not the final declaration. The tragedies of the past month reveal that human beings seek solutions to our existence in a variety of ways. In our pursuit of purpose, reason and justice, we become deeply emotional. We despair, we get angry, we turn fearful. Such emotions not only drive those who act violently, but also those who react to the violence when it takes place. As such, these feelings are like cataracts preventing us from seeing through or beyond hardship to hope. At times, as individuals and as a society, we can feel like we’re lost in the woods. There seem to be no clear answers (at least not any that everyone can agree on), and the people we look to for leadership only seem to be pointing us deeper into the thicket. We start to believe the only real purpose in life is to endure, rather than to thrive.

So, if God is to give our lives true meaning, he must first save our lives.

rescue

“It’s best if you let me come to you.”

This is where my belief in God meets my belief in Jesus, and it is the reason I believe Jesus is Savior.

Now, the person of Jesus and the vast tradition of stories about him have been told a thousand times over. And for every time someone speaks of those stories well, with humility and reverence, someone else is twisting them to mean something they never meant, or watering them down so they are easier to swallow. As such, it is just as likely to feel lost in the woods when you go to church as when you watch cable news. Across denominational and cultural lines, “Jesus” has become either a cosmic authoritarian principal writing disciplinary referrals on our souls, or an upstart first-century revolutionary whose life is mostly myth and whose teachings might momentarily comfort but ultimately prove impotent within modern society.

Buddy_christ

Or whoever this Jesus was supposed to be.

But neither of these manifestations accurately portray the Jesus who shows up in the Bible. Read the first four books of the New Testament. Set aside what you think you know about Jesus, and really consider what you read. You find a man who, at the very least, is quite confident he is intimately connected to the Divine. He seems deeply concerned about the present and future life of individuals and whole communities, and he also seems to think that the quality of those things hinge on his impending death and subsequent resurrection. He often speaks in allusions and metaphors, but none are too difficult to decipher; his message almost always revolves around who he is and what authority he possesses:

Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full…  I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:7-10,14-18).

shepherd

“It’s like he was speaking directly to me.”

Now, it’s easy to explain away his words as the delusion of a guy with a messiah-complex, or to decide that he was only speaking abstractly – that what he was ultimately describing is a feeling, a sense, of hope or belonging. A person can persist in believing that the fullness of life Jesus brings is simply an inner conviction in the face of hardship. Happy thoughts despite ample reasons to be unhappy. Holy stubbornness.

Or…

Or you can believe that what this man was saying is true. You can believe that when he said those who “enter” through him will be “saved” (the Greek word also means “healed” or “rescued”), he knew this to be true. You can believe that when he said he had “come that they may have life,” there was indeed a plan in place. There was a real solution in the offing. And when he claimed God to be his “Father,” that wasn’t mere sentiment, but rather a claim of genuine relationship with the Creator of the universe. If anyone would know the kind of meaning God desires human beings to have, it would be Jesus. You can believe that, as outlandish as it may seem to our modern intellect, Jesus was telling the truth.

politicians

“It” referring both to his message and the unlikely scenario that someone offering us solutions to our problems is even capable of telling the truth.

To believe this is indeed an act of faith, I cannot apply it to my life as truth by reason alone, because reason is a human institution. It is earthbound, the product of humanity’s limitations. Just as I believe in a transcendent God providing meaning to life, I believe that my life is saved by something equally transcendent of reality. It is something different than the typical flow of human cognition and problem-solving. It must be different.

And because it is different, my faith in it doesn’t waver when I watch newscasts or glance down at notifications on my phone that report the latest deadly attack or human tragedy. These events are evidence of human fallacy, not the absence of God. I do not doubt this life has meaning because I do not depend on human reason to find life meaningful. While I can sometimes still feel lost in the woods, this only happens when my finite mind forgets the transcendence of God’s salvation. Clarity comes through prayer (i.e., articulating my emotional impulses to God) and stillness (i.e., retreating from the stresses of life that cause emotional reactions). When I rest in the promises of Jesus, I find true meaning in life. The prophet Isaiah recorded God’s own endorsement of this practice, as well as the struggle for human beings to avail themselves of it:

“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
    in quietness and trust is your strength,
    but you would have none of it” (Isaiah 30:15).

As a matter of fact, this message circulates throughout our communities quite prevalently around this time of year. The other day in a department store I heard playing quietly over the warble of electronic credit card readers, cash register draws and hundreds of hurried conversations, this refrain:

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day
to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. 
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy…

war

But you go on thinking there’s a war on Christmas if that makes you feel better…

I believe the answer to lasting hope and purpose in life cannot be found inside myself. I believe any inward search, however calming and well-intentioned it might be, will ultimately come up short. I cannot heal or rescue myself. I must be healed. Someone must come to my rescue.

This is what I believe Jesus was telling people. This is what I believe to be the fundamental message in the books about him.

This is why I believe Jesus is my Savior and yours as well.

Why Do You Believe in God? (Reasons Why: Part 2)

Starting this series by attempting to tackle this question seems silly, but there really is no better place to start. Of course, the ability to bring this post to an end is what makes me nervous. This can be a very broad question.

But the point of this series is not to comprehensively explain everything I believe. It  is to provide the reasons why I believe some of the things I do – in particular, some of the things that a growing number of people in the world do not.

So, why not start at the point where all the rest must begin. Belief in God. “Why?” inquires the skeptic. “Why do you believe in God?”

It would be easy, at the outset, to launch into some previously prepared apologetical defense, in which I point out specific evidences that validate faith in a divine being while simultaneously poking holes in arguments to the contrary. I’ve come across many defenses like this over the years – some mean-spirited, others genuinely thought-provoking – but the majority of them lack the very thing I am intending this series to contain: personal testimony. Rarely have I heard the defenders answer the Why question; more often than not, they seem caught up in how they believe in God. I could go on and on about what Christians believe and how that belief is configured and structured, but if my words do not emerge from my own personality, emotions, inclinations and experiences, then all I have done is offer a formula, not a testimony.

My goal is to sound as different from these guys as possible.

My goal is to sound as different from these guys as possible.

Why do I believe in God? Because in God I find meaning.

“Meaning” is a tricky word. Allow me to clarify: purpose, motivation, intentionality, objectivity, inspiration, and grounds for justice.

It is in God – and, without meaning to separate the two, the idea of God – that I find these things. Each of them are integral to human existence, but all of them can be gathered up within the word “meaning.”

Since humanity’s beginning, there have always been individuals who believed that any or all of the above terms could be experienced outside of a reality in which a divine being reigned over our existence. Some of them have dismissed the concept of God completely, while others have been content with thinking this God set existence in motion but then eventually took his hands off the steering wheel and abandoned the vehicle. Either way, if these individuals wanted to determine their purpose, or be inspired, or appeal to some foundational rule of order, they had to go about it by entirely human means. They had to take cues from either the biological impulses within them or the natural world around them (or both).

I am the opposite. I do not determine meaning in this life merely by the instincts and urges of my body, nor by the functions and occurrences of the natural world alone. I point to something outside of these realities. I point to something Other than these things – a Something that is separate from them. And, aided by millennia full of humans who have thought similarly, I refer to this Something Other as “God.”

It just sounds better than

It just sounds better than “Roger” or “Steve.”

Further assisted by particular human traditions, I have embraced a particular viewpoint about this God, the details of which are legion. Suffice it to say, this viewpoint includes core beliefs such as:

  • Monotheistic – meaning there is only one God who oversees all, rather than multiple gods who each oversee some
  • Transcendent – meaning this God acts from beyond my own reality, or, perhaps more accurately, from a reality that is higher than my own perception allows me to experience
  • Intimate – meaning that despite this God’s transcendence, “He” (to use a human pronoun) intentionally interacts with humanity, seemingly showing interest and concern regarding our existence
  • Personal – meaning that, as an extension of Intimate, this God wills that I would be intimately aware of, and even dependent upon, His existence

This, of course, is where personal testimony must kick in, lest I fall into the trap of qualifying and quantifying my belief in God in only clinical, philosophical language. It is not enough to leave my explanation at a short list of characteristics. I must claim them as important to my own existence.

I believe in God and in the particular details above because I believe they sufficiently explain how I experience existential meaning. The above characteristics are a source for purpose in life (my own individual one, and the world’s comprehensive one), for motivation to go on living, and for the significance of intentionality in the way I speak and act. I can trust in these things because I believe this God is objective – not acting on mere whim but according to His determined will. As such, I receive inspiration to live according to that will. The Latin root of inspiration is spiritus, after all.

And, as everyone knows, peppering in words from a dead language is the rhetorical equivalent of a mic drop.

And, as everyone knows, peppering in words from a dead language is the rhetorical equivalent of a mic drop.

Finally, I believe and uphold a certain standard of justice. I insist in an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Because of my own fickleness, and the capricious will of humanity in general, I know that this absoluteness must proceed from an objective Other, not a subjective me.

Now to respond to what I believe are some natural follow-up questions…

Isn’t your belief in this “Other” simply the result of your unique upbringing?

I have known some skeptics to ask me, if I had I been born in 12th century Saudi Arabia or 14th century China, do I think I would have a completely different concept of God or spirituality in general? After all, are not even the details of my theology that are listed above the natural result of being born into a time and place that is heavily saturated with people who think likewise? Isn’t my belief in the Christian God dependent on the specific cultural and religious influences within which I grew up?

No doubt. But the fact that I was born at a certain time and place and within an arena of particular influences does not, in and of itself, invalidate the existence of the God I believe in today. It may sound callous and narcissistic to some people, but I believe that had Bo Bowen grown up in 13th century Central America and accepted that culture’s most prominent belief system, he would have been mistaken. My faith in God and in His characteristics is such that I intentionally reject contrary belief systems.

Sorry, Ek Chuah, Mayan god of war, human sacrifice and violent death. Can we still be friends?

Sorry, Ek Chuah, Mayan god of war, human sacrifice and violent death. Can we still be friends?

If that sounds theologically small-minded, I’m sorry. Once again, I’m just being honest.

Why do Christians say they believe in one God when they actually believe in three?

This question is worth its own post (or its own blog), but in lieu of that I will just respond to the alleged discrepancy itself.

The Christian faith is indeed predicated on the concept of “a Triune God” – that is, a God who is one nature, but acts as three expressions, or “persons.” God’s nature is what He is. The “persons” reveal who He is, specifically Father, Son, and Spirit.

Why would any faith system add such a confusing mind pretzel to its theology? Because of that millennia of human tradition I mentioned above, most notably the thoughts and experiences collected in the Bible, which continually refers to the who of God in three distinct ways. It may seem like needless muddling of an idea, but the doctrine of the Trinity, which developed during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., actually helped Christians think more clearly and profoundly about God.

“I’m not really interested in a God who forces me to think profoundly.”

Isn’t it easier to simply find the meaning of life in life rather than outside of it?

When I have been asked this question, the person I’m talking to usually appears frustrated, as if my beliefs are too burdensome for any normal person to accept. Belief in God seems too technical, too complicated. I try to remind them that they were the ones to press me for a satisfactory answer for why I believe in God.

It’s not like I wake up every morning with the words purpose, motivation, intentionality, objectivity, inspiration, and justice at the forefront of my mind, or the concepts of monotheistic, transcendent, intimate, and personal plastered mentally across the bathroom mirror. For me, belief is experiential, not formulaic. Even the most left-brained, mathematical mind does not see all religious faith as a series of ones and zeros, but as something with which a person identifies, has a relationship with.

The only thought I have in this moment is,

The only thought I have in this moment is, “Why does my daughter’s school bus come so freakin’ early?!”

Sometimes the question is asked with a tone of offense, as if it is terribly rude of this God to expect our belief without giving us proof of His existence. I was speaking once with a college student who bluntly declared, “I won’t believe in God until he gives me a full-proof reason to believe in him?” Setting aside the nonsensical premise of this statement, I asked him what kind of proof he was interested in? Was it an audible, otherworldly voice in our ears every day saying, “Hey, don’t forget, I’m God and I exist”? Was it an unequivocal physical manifestation of God walking around in our midst? Or is it the scarcity of violence, sickness and despair we want, the presence of which seems to be all some skeptics need for dismissing the idea of God? His response: “I don’t know. I just want more proof. More evidence.” I clarified that he meant he wanted evidence that had no logical explanation or couldn’t be explained away by science. “I guess so,” he said. I told him that’s exactly what I meant by this feeling – this inkling – of meaning I had been talking about.

He wasn’t satisfied. At that point, there was nothing more for me to say.

“So… um… I guess we’ll just sit here and look at our phones?”

Finally, sometimes the question is asked in exasperation, suggesting a control issue. The skeptic is not interested in embracing the concept of Something Other because that would mean there is a power and a will operating outside the bounds of human reason. That will could be imposed upon humanity. Belief in God is an act of submission – it is accepting that my will is not central – and whether he admits it or not, the skeptic finds this difficult. If only he knew that he is not alone. It is as difficult for the believer as it is for him. The only difference is that I have chosen to do what is difficult in order to gain something greater.

That “something greater” is the feeling – the intuitiveness – that my existence is not random, nor is it pointless. I do not agree that this notion is merely the firing of neurons or a side effect of evolutionary development. No, I have value beyond my suit of flesh and my immediate environment. I was designed for a reason by a reasonable mind, and created for specific place within a grand Creation. There is something to all this; we’re all headed somewhere. It was so before me, and it will be so after.

That is why I believe in God.