Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fear Keeps us in a World Smaller than the One God Loves

Fear often runs and ruins our lives.  It causes us to hide our truest selves, hedge our deepest convictions, and hesitate to use our finest gifts.  Fear makes us obsessed with security, status, and success. It makes us reluctant to venture beyond the walls of the familiar, and it bars the way to meaningful friendships with people whose experiences and viewpoints are different from our own.  Fear causes us to live in a world so much smaller than the one God loves.

When I was a boy in Atlanta, I often visited the Grant Park Zoo.  The zoo’s most famous resident was a gorilla whose nickname was “Willie B.” in honor of a former Atlanta mayor, William B. Hartsfield.  I always sent to see the massive gorilla, and it always made me sad that he lived in a glass cage instead of in the jungle.  These days, I wonder if “Willie B.” was sad, too; or had he been captive for so long that he had lost sight of a world beyond the narrow confines of his cage? Had he surrendered his desire to run free?


The God made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is always flinging open the doors to our cages.  We don’t have to be paralyzed by fear.  Love sends us and goes with us into God’s vast, wonderful, troubled, and beautiful word, the world God sent Jesus to reclaim and to heal.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The River Says

I got to the river today. 

I didn’t, as I often enjoy doing, head to Madison County and hike the mountain trails which ring the French Broad near Hot Springs.  Instead, I parked my Subaru at the old “transfer station” and ambled along the path to the “Race Track” park and then made my way back.  It wasn’t a long walk, and, because my energy was ebbing a bit, I didn’t make great time.  What mattered, though, was that I was at the river. 

Ever since I was a boy, walking the flood wall next to the Ohio River with my grandfather, there has been something restoring to my body and soul about seeing and hearing the water flow.  

After my walk, I sat for a while and listened and, not unexpectedly, given where I was, I heard William Stafford’s poem “Ask Me” echoing in my mind and heart.

“Ask Me” is one of the poems Stafford wrote about the Methow River in Washington State.  He imagines standing riverside on a bitingly cold day with a friend and inviting that friend to ask him some hard questions:

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

Think about how real, trusting, and honest a friendship has to be for it to sustain such a searching and vulnerable conversation.  To give voice to our fears, to admit that we have failed, and to acknowledge that we aren’t living the lives we were meant to live require much more courage than we can often muster.  And, we have to trust that the person who hears us loves us so fiercely and so tenderly that he or she will not reject, judge, or condemn us for how we feel.

               Some time when the river is ice ask me
               mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
               what I have done is my life. . . .

The poet promises to hear the heart of the other: “I will listen to what you say.”

Next to that frozen river, these two friends meet in ways we all too rarely meet each other: in honest, respectful and mutual love.  When words are spent, the poet says: 

               You and I can turn and look
               at the silent river and wait. We know
               the current is there, hidden; and there
               are comings and goings from miles away
               that hold the stillness exactly before us.
               What the river says, that is what I say.

On the surface, the river is ice, frozen and immobile.  On the surface, a human life is stuck in mistakes and failures to be and become.  Far beneath the surface, hidden from the eye, even a frozen river flows: there are comings and goings from miles away. 

And here’s what I believe: deep down in the heart of the person most stuck, most paralyzed, and most lost in the chill of lovelessnes, the Spirit of Jesus flows.  Here’s what the river says, what the Spirit of Jesus says:  

You are alive in the world.  My life, my energy, my vitality surge and move in you.  So, live your life and live it now, fully, and freely.  Live it passionately, compassionately and adventurously

You are forgiven: don’t let regret freeze you into place or guilt paralyze you. 

You are loved—I love you—so don’t let fear hold you down and hold you back.   Love the world, love your neighbors, love the strangers as I have loved you.

That’s what the river—what the Spirit of Jesus—says: you are alive, so live.  You are forgiven, so celebrate.  You are loved, so love.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Random Thoughts About Love

Love is not so much the opposite of hate or indifference as it is the opposite of fear.  It is fear which gives rise to hate, indifference, and insensitivity, and also to isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty. 

“Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Love embraces, reassures, and opens us to one another and to the world. 

It is possible, even though the possibility sometimes seems remote and unlikely, to be loved for who we are, not merely for the work we do and the roles we play.

The capacity to love and be loved depends on vulnerability. 

Vulnerability calls for courage, risk, and trust.  

We know love’s strength most fully when we are most empty.

Love is the womb of faith, the light of hope, the condition of peace, and the music of joy. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Making a Home in Exile

Here’s a paradox about human nature: we look for home in a world where we never feel fully and restfully at home.  That paradox explains why even the most settled and contented people have moments when they wonder if they will ever arrive where they most want to be.  It’s why everyone can imagine what it would be like to be an exile—how it would feel to live in a place that seems a long way from home.

Almost all of us ache for a truer experience of being known, welcomed, and loved—a greater sense of being home.  That ache has important lessons to teach us.  As C. S. Lewis said: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”   Literary critic George Steiner put it this way “We are creatures of a great thirst, bent on coming home to a place we have never known” (Grammars of Creation, p. 20).

We’ve all been parched by that great thirst, and we know about unmet desire, unsatisfied longing, and unfulfilled yearning.   There’s a refugee in all of us.  We want to go home. 

The prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 29) once told a band of exiles that they would have to make their home in a place that wasn’t their home.  In the place of your exile, he wrote:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

There are steep challenges in these instructions.  For one thing, God called the exiles  to love and pray for their enemies:  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord ion its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  The exiles would live in peace, only if they made peace with their enemies.  Their gardens would flourish only if the conditions were right for everyone’s garden to flourish.  Their destiny was lined to their neighbor’s destiny, even if their neighbor was also their captor.  Like Jesus centuries later, Jeremiah said: “Love your neighbor and love your enemies, even when neighbors and enemies turn out to be the same people.”

When we make our home in exile, we don’t pretend it isn’t exile.   We love our enemies, but we recognize that they are enemies.   They might become our friends, but they might forever be our enemies, but we love them nonetheless, which means we pray and work for God’s best for them.  We still yearn for and seek our better and true home.  When we live by mercy in conditions of brokenness, we don’t minimize the brokenness, but we do make the most of the possibilities for restoration.  We seek peace, but we seek it because we know we don’t have it. 

For another thing, God urged the exiles not to keep postponing their lives—the time for them to live their lives was while they were alive--which was the present moment. 
It’s easy to defer and delay our lives, because the conditions aren’t right.  After all, we’re not yet home.  The irony is, however, that change doesn’t happen if we wait on the conditions to be right.  The only way to effect change in the present and the future is to immerse ourselves fully in the present moment.

As we live creatively and faithfully in the here and now, we take heart from the knowledge that we will not always live in exile.  God has promised to take us home.  Jeremiah’s letter to the refugees included this encouragement:  “For thus says the Lord: ‘Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’”

There would be a home-going and a homecoming for the exiles.  And there will be for us, too.  We won’t so much go “back home,” but forward, at last, to our real home—the place we belong, which is the place that satisfies the longings of our being.

In that true home, love puts our fears outside the door. Hope sings to us amid all the suffering and dying.  Mercy gathers up the shards and fragments of our shattered hearts and puts us back together.  Grace holds us while weep over our painful regrets and shed our shameful tears, and, having cried ourselves into weary silence, continues to cradle us while we rest.  And, joy surges in us, an inexplicable but undeniable joy. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Benediction of Powerlessness

Imagine how you would feel if, at the end of worship, the minister asked you to receive a benediction which began like this:

            May all your expectations be frustrated.
            May all your plans be thwarted.
            May all your desires be withered into nothingness.

You might not want to receive it, and you might wonder, “Just what kind of benediction is this?”

Jean Vanier, who founded L’Arche and has given his life to care for the developmentally disabled, once offered a benediction which began with those surprising words.  They don’t seem, at first, to do what a benediction is supposed to do, which is to bless the people of God with an affirmation of God’s presence, to encourage them for their lives in the world, to lift their gaze to the possibilities rushing into the present from God’s future. 

Vanier’s words sound like a description of life as it already is, instead of a promise of what life might become.  Many people live too much of the time with frustrated expectations, thwarted plans, and withered desires.  A lot of people know more than they want to know about unfulfilled dreams, unrealized visions, and dashed hopes. 

As Thoreau said, “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or a temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” 

When we let ourselves feel what we really feel, we sense the pain of disappointment, the embarrassment of unreached potential, and the shame of failure.  These wounds alienate us from ourselves, isolate us from others, and distance us from God.

If Vanier had only said, “May all your expectations be frustrated, may all your plans be thwarted, and may all your desires be withered into nothingness,” there would be no blessing in his words.  But he also said: “That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

It is a blessing to learn that we are, in fact, powerless and impoverished—to know that we cannot create love or generate meaning or manufacture hope or originate joy for ourselves.  We can only receive them as gifts from God who sees us and cherishes us as children. 

There are some things our hard work, our incessant striving, and our constant pushing cannot make happen; and they are the graces we most want: forgiveness, acceptance, rest, freedom and purpose. 

Learning about powerlessness and poverty of spirit helps us to acknowledge, as Anne Lamott puts is, “the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little” (Help, Thanks, Wow.) 

Because we are so loved, and because God, who does not cause our struggles, will work with us not to waste them, there is blessing in the darkness, mercy in our brokenness, grace in our failure, and courage in unwanted but unavoidable change.  There are good gifts wrapped in hard circumstances.  There is a loving God who meets us and sustains us in the desert of difficulty.