Monday, September 29, 2014

Real Friends

Good friends give us the freedom to be who we are and to become our best selves. They help to disentangle us from ways of thinking and feeling which hinder us from reaching our full potential. They encourage us to break away from expectations and demands which chain us to an identity that isn’t ours. They believe, and help us to believe, that we can unlock the prison of self-defeating patterns which walls us off from happiness. Real friends never try to dampen-us down, throttle us back, or hem us in. 

Love longs for the liberation of the beloved; it desires freedom for a friend. Real friends want one another to experience lighthearted joy—the joy of hearts unshackled from doubt about their worth and unburdened by fear of engaging life. 

I hope you have experienced that kind of friendship.  It’s a rare and priceless gift.

And, it’s a gift Jesus offers us.  On the night before his death, Jesus gathered his followers around him and blessed them with these remarkable words: “You are my friends. . . I do not call you servants any longer. . .  I have called you friends.” 

The old gospel song got it right: “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  He dearly cherishes, deeply values, and wholeheartedly delights in us.  He has inexhaustible and unconditional love for us, and he wants us to receive, depend on, and rest in that love.  Amazing. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Gonna Serve Somebody

We live in a crowded and busy marketplace of competing faiths, dueling deities, and rival worldviews, which means that we have to choose, deliberately and intentionally, which god we’re going to serve and which way through life we’re going to travel.  Bob Dylan got it right when he said: “You’re gonna’ serve somebody,” so we need to choose that somebody/Somebody wisely. If we don’t, we’ll likely end-up simply serving some version of ourselves.  Maybe subtly or perhaps obviously, we’ll make ourselves the center of our attention, loyalty, and commitment. 
When choosing the god we serve and the path we follow, I think there are important questions to ask, questions like:

Does my faith have a truthful, realistic, sober, yet hopeful view of the human condition and the nature of the world?  Does it cause me to see people, however broken they/we may be and however wrong they/we may go, as beloved children who have more potential for light and joy than they/we know? 

Does it give me a vision of the world made whole?  Does it energize me to work toward that wholeness?

Does my faith cause me to respond to suffering with compassion?

Does my faith speak meaningfully to my longing for love? Does it enable to become more loving?

Can it deal failure and guilt—with shame and alienation—in a way that restores people to community and gives them/us the confidence that new beginnings are possible?  

Does my faith give me a reason to live that is bigger and more enduring than myself? 

I remain a follower of Jesus, because the way to which he calls me is a way which answers “yes” to these questions. As I experience it, It is a way to authentic and meaningful life. I am some distance from the life to which he has invited me, but that distance is a reflection on the energy and pace of my travel, not on the direction and value of the path.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parade of Joy

Years ago, I preached a sermon I still regret: a rambling, ill-focused, and sneering screed of a Palm Sunday sermon in which I took cheap potshots at parades. I talked about out-of-tune bands, out-of-sync drill teams, and out-of-shape military veterans crammed into their old uniforms. I critiqued floats hastily constructed on the back of flatbed trucks or pulled by loud, smoke-belching tractors. It was a perfectly awful sermon. 

Part of what made the sermon so dreadful was how clever and sophisticated I thought I was. I even tried, lamely and unsuccessfully, to claim, that my curmudgeonly cynicism was a spiritual gift. Almost as soon as the worship service was over, however, there flashed across my mind what had happened to Peter the night Jesus was arrested and he denied any connection with Jesus. After the third denial, Peter heard a rooster crow, and it woke him up to the terrible thing he had done. After I preached my sermon in praise of cynicism, I heard a rooster crow; I had denied something essential about the gospel. I had denied joy; and, like Peter, I wept bitterly about how misguided I could be. I still do that sometimes; I cry over how easy it is to miss the joy God intends for us.

For a variety of reasons, some stretching back to my very early years, joy has been a struggle for me. Theologian David Ford diagnosed my spiritual condition perfectly when he wrote: “Joy may be a greater scandal than evil, suffering, or death. Some people have a realism that can come to terms with the darker side but cannot cope with something that seems too good to be true.” (The Shape of Living, p. 179).

Over the last year, because of some difficult challenges I have faced, I have come to know, firsthand, the unfailingly gentle presence of Jesus in harsh circumstances, been surprised by laughter in the midst of tears, and felt life rise up from weakness.  These experiences have called me to turn, more decisively than ever before, from my practiced pessimism, cultivated cynicism, and familiar melancholy. 

I am more convinced than ever before that Jesus is in us and with us—anywhere and everywhere, anytime and all the time. For that reason, joy is always as near to us as our own breath. Again, in the words of David Ford: “God does not coerce us with joy but there is always more on offer than we can take” (p. 183).

Parade, anyone?