Saturday, May 13, 2017

On just needing Gospel....

Anyone that knows me, knows I'm a fairly ecumenical guy. That's not in the sense of "I've got friends who worship differently than I do." That's in the sense of "I've done everything I can to enter into the traditions and communion of friends who are not from the congregations and traditions that I've been formed by." This week, I've had the opportunity to retreat at a Roman Catholic abbey that houses Trappist monks following the Rule of St. Benedict. The solitude and silence and prayer in the midst of a community was rich, restful, and the Lord began some new works in powerful ways while I was with them.

I left there and within 24 hours, I was worshipping at a Pentecostal gathering for Christians of many congregations to have serious conversation about race and gender and the Church's witness in these things in our cultural climate. This was rich, encouraging, and the Lord began some new works in powerful ways while I was with them.

But then I went elsewhere and was listening to an itinerant preacher/evangelist of an independent charismatic bent. His enthusiasm was evident. His ability to connect with his audience was a sight to behold. I talked to a few people who came from a ways away to hear him tonight. As for me? I couldn't get through it.  His preaching was disguised in the language of grace, but the demands he was making of our lives were immense. It was overwhelming. It was isolating. Many others around me were laughing, saying their amens, raising their hands, and shouting "come on!" As a priest in the Church, it was everything in me not to stand and seek to bring correction (but this was not an event I had the proper authority to do so, so I did not).

As a Christian, I found myself in need of hearing that ancient rhythm I've come to love--sin, grace, and faith. The pattern of Law and Gospel. The message that, yes, we are in fact living quite apart from the design and intentions of God, but that in Jesus, I find that the absolution and work I need has already been done. That the true self made in the Image of God has been restored. That God has created within me a wilderness through which his voice cries out repentance for me, and answers with a majestic grace. That whether in solitude and silence, or in the midst of Pentecost's re-enactment, God is lovingly present with me. And He has said it is finished. No ifs, ands, or buts. Hallelujah.

So, whether you dress it up in a black scapular or an electric guitar, every Christian really needs the same thing: the enactment of God's law, the announcement of God's absolution, and the triumph of God's grace through faith. If you're not getting that, I plead with you by the mercy of Christ, let's get you somewhere that you can hear that message. All of us preachers and pastors ultimately fail, but the Word of Christ is not bound by our failures and that grace will come through.

Friday, February 24, 2017

New Beginnings

Birth. Baptism. First day of school. Confirmation. First date. Commencement. First day on the job. Engagement. Marriage. These are the kinds of things we associate with new beginnings. They're milestones, celebrations-- marks of life flourishing. But the reality of the world we find ourselves in is that there is also divorce. Getting fired. Flunking out. Rejection. Loss of friendship, family, community. Death. And they have a way of discoloring, tainting and ruining the things that began.

And it creates another kind of death in us: a death in aspirations and energy--a death of hope. Sometimes even the death of identity. Being Pentecostal gave me a strong grasp of seasons....I heard many prophetic declarations about seasons and times in my growing up years. There was always excitement and anticipation for those moments. And usually within a day or a week, that was replaced with disappointment because sin, death, and the work of the devil had a way of working themselves into that brand new thing.

And there's no stopping that from happening, at least not on our terms. But the whole narrative of the Scriptures is thrust in this idea that the End will be a new beginning. "See, I make all things new!" is the declaration of Jesus to a creation broken and bound. "If anyone is in Christ-- New Creation" is the guarantee of the Spirit-inspired Apostles. So where's it at?

I'm not really delving into the complexities of Christian debates about being conformed to Christ, but I think a critical adjustment to my experience of this newness came when I started attending a church worshipping with the liturgy. Because every week, we confessed our sins together. Then the priest announced God's absolution...and that absolution closed with the phrase "newness of life." I knew how I was hearing that: a call to holiness, to being different than I was, and while I wouldn't argue with the presence of holiness of a sort resulting from God's work in us, I started to wake up to something else--because the promise of newness in the absolution seemlessly moved to the Comfortable Words: "Jesus said, 'Come to Me, all you weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." The promise of newness pointed to a call to rest with Jesus.

A few years later, a teaching assistant who corrected my assignments in seminary shared an insight about the days of creation that stayed with me: humanity is created on "day 6." What time was there to do any work? The crown of creation and God's declaration of "very good" comes as the last bit of work, and then God declares a day of rest--a day that humanity shared in, despite having done nothing. 

I say all that to say...in our sin, and in our work, and in the tensions and challenges and calls we face, we need newness. And we need it often. Newness follows on the heels of confession (if the issue is sin) or an acknowledgement of inability to get it all done or right or perfect (whatever it may be). The Law of new beginnings shows me I'm not enough. The Gospel of new beginnings let's me say "You're right", and enter rest. Because after each rest, new work begins and new attempts are made, and at the end of the day, over every single effort, the word of Jesus stands true: It Is Finished.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Inputs Abounding--Outputs Thriving

It's taken me many years to understand myself well enough to know what I need to do.

To rest. To work.

To love. To be loved.

To create. To admire.

To set boundaries. To make some efforts at discipline.

To make friends. To be be alone.

In the past year, I've had refreshing moments of learning and lots of moments where I'm pouring everything I have and know into doing my work and rest. I've sought to have constructive outlets-- to journal, confide in my spiritual director, lean on my friends, inform my intercessors, to blog and write, to preach and teach, and occasionally just trying to get a good joke in there somewhere.

But the outputs felt forced, like I was lacking in inspiration. Things weren't flowing like they needed to. It wasn't until this past week, as I've set up a phone upgrade I was able to cash in on to play podcasts I've missed--thoughtful things by friends in higher education, ministry, and other scenarios-- that I was able to realize that I was lacking serious, regular input in multiple directions. Reading actually is more exciting when I know I'm getting content in other ways (like podcasts). And on the 15th of this month, I'll benefit from some assessment and coaching (MCore). My outputs are already improving.

Funny thing....for someone who loves extremes in so many ways, and can't stand boring stasis, God's created me to be someone that thrives best in the midst of stability and routine. It's a fun paradox, but I love getting to explore it as I seek God.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Zaki's Great Exchange

Many will remember the childhood Bible song...

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he. 
He climbed up in a sycamore tree,
For the Lord he wanted to see...

I make no apologies for the fact it is now stuck in your head. My Arabic-speaking friends call this guy Zaki. I like it. So I will use that name. But Zaki is immortalized for being short. As my friend Stevan Betcher pointed out in his sermon at Church of the Savior, though, Zaki was a tax collector--a public ally known "sinner" of Jericho. He didn't push through the crowd because someone might have stabbed him. Zaki is the Despised One in every sense. So he takes a safer, more memorable path to get a good look at Jesus. 

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in that sycamore tree. 
And he said, "Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I'm going to your house today."

What the song doesn't go on to say is what Jesus does: the crowd's contempt for Zaki goes away. And the contempt for Jesus shows up. JESUS becomes the Despised One. Jesus takes Zaki'/ place as the resident "sinner" in Jericho. And Zaki becomes the one who is generous, who brings justice, who demonstrates grace to those who despised Him. It's the foretaste of the Great Exchange that would take place at the Cross. Jesus shows up. He frees Zaki. And Zaki now has a new identity and a new life. Let's embrace the scandal of our exchange. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Recovery

So, just two weeks ago, I had surgery. It was outpatient and relatively minor, but it involves six weeks of recovery: no lifting anything over 15 lbs., walking instead of running, no exercise of any kind, wearing a large binder/flexible belt around my torso, etc. In my better moments--most of the time--everything feels normal (with the exception of the binder, but it's getting to be normal). But about 10,000 steps into the day, and I start to feel it: a pinch or burn from the stitches, a mild burning, or a muscle spasming just ever so slightly. I'm not whole. I'm not strong. I'm not where I need to be.

But, somehow, what's necessary for my healing has been placed. It's done.  But the groans of the healing continue. As I've been reflecting on this, it has a lot connected with the way that the life of Jesus plays out in our life. Everything necessary for my salvation--the new birth of my spirit, the renewal of my mind and heart, the future resurrection of my body--has been done once and for all by Jesus. It's given. It's granted. The "surgery" of grace by repentance, forgiveness, faith, the love of God, and the blessed hope, has been done, but the groans of the healing continue.

Some days, I see the fruits of repentance in my life. Some days, I'm aware of what God's grace has done. There are moments of unshakeable faith that I really get surprised by after the fact, but feel just so natural at the time. And then there's pains-- sin that still seeks to cling so closely, or the natural brokenness of life in a sin-crushed world, like sickness or insomnia, or depression, you name it. And it's in those moments, that I need to look forward to the end of recovery: resurrection. The work has been done by the Great Physician, but the healing He is doing is ongoing, and He will finish it in a glorious way...and I'll finally be myself. I'll be whole, strong, and exactly who He made me to be all along.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Re-Entry Burns, Bruises, and Blues

I've always been one who is very public about what I'm doing in ministry. I'm open about the excitement, the plans and hopes, and the downsides. That was certainly the case while I was in Germany, updating some 100+ people multiple times in the week about ministry news, needs, and ways to pray and intercede for myself and the team. I've continued to request their prayers this week for the purposes of "re-entry."

For those who've ever done any kind of cross-cultural mission, education, or extended time abroad, you know what is meant by re-entry. For others, you may be more familiar with the concept of "culture shock" and the stresses that introduces to people as they adjust to new places, people, concepts, customs and needs. Re-entry is the process that someone goes through when they return to their host culture and have to go back to their previous cultural context. It can be emotionally-taxing, physically tiring, spiritually challenging, and mentally exhausting. Self-care in those times, is at a premium.

But there are also responsibilities. Life did not pause in my absence. Ministry did not pause in my absence. So I'm bumpily sorting my way through things that I need to take back up now that I've returned. I'm starting to juggle again, and I'm dropping the ball fairly frequently. It's frustrating, but it's part of the process. It's taking me some extra motivation to talk myself into normal things I do all the time. And I've found I'm more sensitive to slights and annoyances than usual, too. It's all par for the course.

In general, re-entry can take many about 1/3 of the time they were in the cross-cultural setting. For me, that's seven days. So, I'm pushing through the adjustments, demands, and trying to take the pacing and timing I need through Saturday. The lesson in discipleship with this is pretty straightforward: everything has a cost, and rest is not an option--it's a gift, so do everything in your power to receive it.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: Darkness is my Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Green-McCreight

I've spent a lot of time around mental illness. Whether learning about depression because of family history and the symptoms of the thyroid condition I was diagnosed with when I was 18, or from people I care about walking in the valley of the shadow of death, it's not a topic that is alien to me. So, when I asked for this book from Brazos, I was desperate for Greene-McCreight to help me make sense of some things.

But I put most of it off. Until Germany. And what a read. Greene-McCreight herself suffers from mental illness. But her Prayerbook-obedient, hymn-riddles, expose of life with illness is filled with beauty and a conviction of the beauty of God's gospel and Word. She lets you into the stream of consciousness of her experience, the needs from the community (laity, clergy, etc.), and the process of seeming treatment (including medication, therapy, and hospitalization).

Greene-McCreight is an Episcopal priest. She is intensely orthodox, in love with the Gospel of Jesus, and I think her book proves to be an invaluable tool for the care and cure of souls (and perhaps self-care) for all ministers. For those with mental illnesses, there is grace and understanding of the experience that offers much comfort. She candidly addresses her personal journey, with an openness that is very healing and instructive  Pastors, read this book. Learn. Deal gently with the ones who suffer from illness.