Grasping

I spend a lot of time worrying about things that don’t matter.

I could probably fill an entire library with a catalog of these things: trivial things, like pop culture.  Irrelevant things like worries for the future that won’t come to pass.  Unimportant things, that arise out of my own brokeness and insecurity.

I am thinking this morning about that last category.  I am thinking about the unimportant things that I worry about because I am broken.   Let’s call them the UTTIWABIB.  The world we live in preys on our uttiwabibs.  Our particular society makes some of them worse.  Consider, for example,  the quest for power and prestige.

Modern-day America creates a hierarchy, a power pyramid.    No matter how we dress it up, no matter how we justify it or rationalize it, there will always be more losers than winners in the power game.  This is the whole point, really, of the pyramid.   It does not matter how catchy Adam Ant’s attempt at a comeback was; no matter how prettily he sings “There is always/room at the top”  it simply isn’t true.

And even if it was true?  Even if there was room for all of us?

I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say much about the ways we can sell our soul.  Like so many things, we can all see that pretty easily when we consider others.  I suspect it is a little less obvious, the ways we do all this ourselves.

Every time we consider the appearance over a reality, every time we worry about what people will think, every time we think about spin doctoring things…  whether it is in our relationships or our work place, our friendships or family connections… every single time we do this, we are selling out.

Let me say that in a way that is more difficult, but much more important:

Every time I do that, I sell out.

I was reading in the book of Mark, this morning.  There is this pair of events.  The way they follow back-to-back is not an accident, I suspect.

The first thing that happens is that two of Jesus’ followers approach him.  They tell him that they want to sit at his right hand.

“You don’t know what you are asking.” Jesus says.  Put differently: You think this is about power and prestige.  You are grabbing after power.  Shortly thereafter, the other followers become “indignant.”  A funny word, indignant.  It seems like the other followers aren’t any better than the first couple.  It seems like perhaps they are upset because others gaining power and prestige would be at their own expense.

Because Jesus comes at them all, and explains that this is not how he operates.  His own followers are playing politics, they are grasping after power.  This is the way of the world they all left behind; Jesus seems to be asking what the point is, of following him, if things just go back to the way they have always been.

And then the second thing happens.  They are out and about.  And a blind man asks that Jesus would have mercy on him.  The followers try to shut the man down, but he calls out, and Jesus hears him, and Jesus heals him.

It’s not really clear how much time has elapsed between these two events.  But they happen back-to-back.  And it is an interesting contrast:

His followers, the guys who are supposed to know what is going on, they say: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  And the blind man, he says ““Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

There are a handful of interesting implications in this contrast.

Jesus followers are supposed to know who he is.  And yet they adress him as teacher.  The blind man calls to him by name, and recognizes Jesus’ lineage.

The followers are looking for more than they need, more than others have.  They are looking for an extra rebate, a bonus.  The blind man just wants to see.

When Jesus’ followers are given what they ask for, it is almost a dark parody; it carries this sinister underside that they have never intended.  Basically, they are told that that sitting at Jesus’ right hand means suffering and death; this is what they have asked for, this is what they will get.

The blind man is healed.  He follows Jesus.

Perhaps the bottom line is just this: we ought to ask for the things we need.  But we ought to be careful of acting entitled to more than what we need.  Healing?  That’s a good thing.  But power and prestige?  That comes with a pretty hefty price tag.

 

 

 

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there is blindness, and then there is Blindness

Here’s the the no-duh statement of the day:
Seeing stuff is important.
Further, the failure to see stuff is also important.
Yesterday, I blogged some thoughts about the blindness of Paul and Elmyas. Today, I want to take a step back from this specific case a little bit and cast a wider net.
Physical sight carries a metaphor with it that is so basic that it seems almost silly to mention it. The act of seeing with our eyes is very much like the act of thinking. We can physically close our eyes in much the same way we can choose not to think about a thing. We can act rashly on our first visual impressions much as we can act rashly on our first, sloppy thought.
This is so basic that our language is littered with metaphors connecting the two. “I can see what you mean.” We often say, when we mean, “I understand the thought you want me to have.” Or “I saw the light” we say when we mean that we had suddenly increase in understanding.
It is therefore fitting, perhaps even ironic, when Paul and Elmyas are stricken blind. The physical blindness is an outward manifestation of the thought blindness they both had. They were not mentally “seeing” things as they are… and as a result, they lost the ability to physically see things as they are.
blindness1
Paul, of course, regains his physical sight as he chooses to better use his mental “sight.” There is no indication that Elmyas ever changed his tune… by extension, it seems a safe assumption that he never lost his physical blindness. This is speculation, but I would wager that if Paul had not undergone a change of heart, he would have never regained his physical sight.
As I was pondering all this, I was reading Max Lucado’s excellent “And the Angels Were Silent.” This is an account of Jesus’ last week. He has some interesting things to say about the two blind men that Jesus heals outside the city gates.
These two men are obviously physically blind. They cry out for his healing. Some of Jesus’ disciples try to shut them down. But Jesus praises these two men.
It’s some times hard for me to wrap my brain around Jesus’ frequent praise of people who go beyond social norms and propriety to seek his healing out. In addition to those two guys, there is the woman who grabs at his cloak on the assumption that touching his cloak will heal her bleeding and the crippled man whose friends tear through a ceiling to lower the friend in.
There is a part of me that… chafes at these stories. Because it just doesn’t seem fair that the squeaky wheels are the ones that get the oil. I want to live in this world where Jesus praises us for being restrained and following the rules and procedures.
But wanting it does not make it so. And it is quite often that my vision of fairness does not coincide with God’s.
Lucado points out that there is a sense in which the blind men were the only people who could truly see, in that case. Jesus’ disciples were blind in an important sense, when they tried to shut down the two guys looking for His love, attention, and healing.
The relevance here is that those disciples were like Paul and Elmyas. The healing of their blindness is a testifies to this, the sudden ability to physically see an echo of the fact that they were the only ones who were rightly mentally seeing.
Paul and Elmyas are one side of a coin: when they fail to mentally see correctly, they lose the ability to physically see. The two blind men at the gate? When the correctly mentally see, they gain the ability to physically see.

A Little More from the Broken Dude.

I wrote, yesterday, about the fact that I am a broken dude.
At that point I did not have anything, really, to say about Jesus.
Jesus the Healer.
One of the very things that lead me to Christ was the experience of turning my pain over to Him.
I have been doing the best I can to follow Him as best as I can for a bunch of years. And it is still not my first instinct to just turn it over to him, submit it all to him, surrender it all to him.
I hope that some day, it will be.
But it occured to me, tonight, that it’s a little more complicated than all that.
(Seriously, if you have ever read my writing, would I suddenly find that something is more simple than it appeared?)
I have tried to turn my suffering over to Jesus, before. My suffering about this set of experiences; this painful time. There was a part of me tonight, that cried out, “How many times am I going to have to go through this? How my times will I need to bring Jesus back to this same place?”
But the truth is, I am not bringing Jesus back to the same place. As I discover these new ways that I am broken, these new aspects of the hurt, these perspectives I had never allowed myself to experience… I am actually bringing Jesus to these NEW places, as I ask him to heal me.
It occurred to me that Jesus pretty frequently praises people who show in almost outrageous ways how desperately they want to be healed; the women who grabbed his cloaked, the men who lowered their friend through the roof.
I can’t think of a single time that he approached somebody who didn’t ask to be healed.
It’s kind-of a harsh truth, not really all that warm and fuzzy. We can’t be healed where we haven’t agnowledged that we’re hurt. Jesus won’t go where he isn’t invited. There is a way to frame this that is kind-of awesome– he is a respector of our free will, we are junior partners in our own health and well being with him.
But still. This is hard. And it sucks. But I guess that’s just the way it is.

The Mystery of the White Stone

Has there ever been a time in your life that you’ve just been so quietly breaking?  For whatever (probably stupid) reason you can’t express what’s going on inside.  But there is this hurt, someplace deep.  It doesn’t go away.  It burns.  Perhaps it’s a time of lonliness.

Sometimes if just one person noticed, it would be so much better.  Sometimes, if the right person came with just the right words, it would be a weight lifted.  A light shined in our darkest places.

Even if our actual circumstances aren’t changed, sometimes, if somebody just new what to say… if somebody just new who we really are… it would mean so much.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

That’s written in the book of Revelations.  Chapter 2.  Verse 17.

For my money, Revelations is the most gloriously mystery-filled books in the bible.  Yet, more than any book in the bible, it has been subjected to these attempts to categorize it, analyze it.  Somewhere along the way somebody decided it would be a good idea to simply explain all the mystery away.  I suspect that we’ll get back to the entire book at some point.  But for now, I’m going to reprint those verses above in the hopes that it will encourage you (and me!) to read this verse again, and drink it in.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

This portion of the book of Revelations is one which follows a pretty specific formula.  John is sharing a series of letters which are directed to churches around him.  In each letter, Jesus praises some things about the church and criticizes others.  Jesus proclaims some truths about himself in each of these letters, and then he makes some promises about what his kingdom will be like.

It took me a while to wrap my brain on why I feel so moved, so giddy almost, about the end of that verse.  What’s so special about that last sentence:  (Will you read it with me a third time?)

I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it

After some prayerful reflection, I’ve begun to be able to put into words some of the things that this verse means to me.

Jesus co-exxisted with God the father at the beginning of time.  Along with The Holy Spirit, they sculpted the dance of electrons around the nuclei of atoms.  They fashioned the laws of physics and the very nature of reality.

They built up stars in the same way we might roll a snake out of play-do.  They formed the angels and watched them dance around the throne.  They invented the concept of a living thing and they made this plan a reality.

They have painted the sunsets and choreagraphed the motions of planets and stars.  They sculpted the mountains.  They filled the oceans.  All of it.  From things unimaginably huge through things unimaginably tiny.

They entered into human history with this scandalous plan to bridge the gap between us and them.  Jesus took on the punishment for sin that was meant for us.  Empires have built up and then crumpled while they watched.  Countless billions of people have been born and died.

And yet Jesus might know me more intimately than anyone ever has?  Jesus, the author of creation might consider me worthy?

Imagine that: Perhaps it will be the first time we meet him after this life is through.  Perhaps it is the very first thing to happen to us.

I have this idea that he will smile as he walks across the room that we will find ourselves in.  The stone, milky-colored, is perhaps the size of our palm.  I suspect that it will be turned over.  We will know that it has some precious word just for us.  But the anticipation will build as he crosses the room, and presents it to us.

The word on that stone will be the word that we needed to hear in our darkest hour.  It will be our new name.  This name will be a thing between ourselves and Jesus.  Could there be anything more intimate than that?  A private thing between us and our maker, an affirmation… Jesus love for us is not only endless and infinite, but also unique.  Just as that name on that stone will not be the name of any other person in all of creation, Jesus love for you is also unique, in all of creation.  There is no other person anywhere that he loves the same way he loves you.

The demons thought names could be used like a sword.  They sought to wield this sword and found it could not pierce Jesus.  The fact that they knew Jesus name means nothing.

Yet Jesus knows that our true name will mean everything.  I think in some sense, those stones are already waiting.  There is a stone already in heaven and it has a name on it that we don’t know, but when we hear it, we will know it is just exactly right.

Love and Humility for the Mentally Ill

What is the nature of the soul, and how is it related to the mind and the brain? Why do bad things happen to good people, how do these trials shape them, and what can be said of God when there seems to be no relief? What does it mean to be born again and made new in Christ? How should the truths of scriptures be understood in our modern world, which is so often viewed through a scientific lense?

How we answer these questions shapes the very most basic parts of our faith. And all four of these q uestions are just the very beginnings of how we view mental illness.

Mental illness. Is it going too far to call mental illness the dirty little secret of the church?

I’m not sure that this would be an exageration at all. I think we’d all be hard pressed to name a single issue which has effected so many but which is so rarely discussed. It would almost be a good thing if we could, in fairness, say that the topic was controversial. I almost wish that we could say that the church is divided on the issue. Because this would imply that we’re at least trying to deal with it. This would imply that we’ve at least recognized that it’s an issue.

It’s not altogether surprising. The secular world doesn’t do much better in this regard.

And a person could spend his whole life on any one of the questions mentioned in the beginning of this article. Yet, too formulate a cohesive and Christian response to the fact of mental illness almost demands an answer to all of those questions at once.

Consider the question of the relationship between soul, mind, and brain: The use and sometimes-success of medications imply that there is some physical aspect to mental illness. The very use of the term, “mental illness” draws a comparisons with physical ailments.

Or begin with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Mental illnesses are not brought on by any doings of the person who suffers from them. “How do trials shape us?” Even a casual survey of the research leaves one understanding that traumatic events impact the brain itself. “What can be said when there seems to be no relief?” One of the most heart-breaking aspects of mental illness is that it is so very unpredictable. It can go on for years and decades, being mostly the same. And then? Then it gets better. Or it gets much, much worse.

What does it mean to be born again, or made new in Christ? People accept Jesus as their savoir, and their mental illnesses linger. Others, who are life long Christians develop mental illnesses. It is a real and legitimate question: where is Jesus’ healing for them?

The question of where Jesus healing is for the mentally ill leads to that last fundamental question: “How should the truths of scriptures be understood in our modern world, which is so often viewed through a scientific lense?” In the entirety of the bible, the events that seem like the nearest descriptions to mental illnesses are in fact examples of demonic possession. Yet modern science has no room for this explanation. And modern science has sometimes been succesful in explaining and even managing mental illness. How do we handle this tension?

This is not a series of abstractions. This is not an interesting quandry. If you are fortunate enough to not have grappled with this yet, you will.

If you spend long enough in ministry, you will wrestle with how best to hold someone accountable for actions they may well have no control over.

If you spend long enough trying to bring Jesus’ love to everyone, you will find people so thoroughly depressed that they can not feel His love or hear the truth of your words.

If you spend long enough in small groups, you will become authentic enough in your community that someone will share these troubles, that can be so very hard to understand or change… unless of course you suffer from mental illness yourself. And if you do, you may find that there are no lonlier places that a person might be.

I am not suggesting that there is no answer to these questions. In fact, I believe there is a desperate need for better answers to these questions.

But I am clear that we do not have these answers. Not fully, completely, or consistently.

And I have seen the damage, the terrible damage inflicted by people who believe that they did have the answers.

I think one of the lessons that God wants us to learn from mental illness is that He will not be placed in a box and He will not work on our time tables or according to our plans. I do not believe that mental illnesses occur so that God can teach us these things. But I do believe that He uses mental illnesses to teach us these things.

I believe that when we don’t see healing the way we think it should occur, when the same issues and challenges wear and tear on us year after year, I believe we are all confronted with a decision. Will we take the path of Christ? Into the pain and doubt and suffering? Or will we take the path of Judas, into the safe and comfortable?

In small ways and big ways I have shunned the suffering. The suffering are reminders that I am not God, and I can not heal whoever I choose. The suffering are reminders that God is not a genie, he is not a cosmic ATM. I repent, right here and now, of all the times I have taken the path of Judas.

The mentally ill are not the only people who are suffering. But there are a few cruelties we save for them alone. There are limits to the comparisons between mental illness and physical illness. But there are ways it is a useful comparison.

Yet most of us don’t encourage people with high blood pressure to stop taking their medications. Most of us do not think that the people who wear glasses among us lack the faith for healed eyes. Most of us don’t cast doubt on the ideas that a secular doctor might have some good insight about our flat feet.

There is a part of me that wishes so desperately that I had more. And yet, over and over, in the scriptures, we are told that love and humility is enough, they are more than enough.

So may all our actions be saturated in love and humility. Whatever specific things we do, I think they will be the right things if they begin in love and humility.

Our own human attempts at love and humility are so small but I know that there is an infinite storehouse of love and humility in Christ. And I know that we can access this storehouse in Him and through Him… That is not the end but the only worthy beginning.

Some Thoughts from the Sermon Part 3: The idolatry of Expectations

This is the third posting that’s a portion of the sermon I’ve got the honor of delivering to Fellowship Church in about a week.    If you live in Massachusetts, I hope you’ll stop in.  If you don’t, I hope you’ll consider viewing the service online.  (Fellowshipholden.com)

Rather than posting the whole text of what I’m planning to say in one big entry, I’ve decided to carve it up this time around.  If you read it, I hope you’ll leave a comment or two.  Perhaps there’s a different way of looking at these issues, or some more thoughts you have on the topic.

I don’t know what kind of expectations that you have… But maybe some of these sound familiar. They certainly are familiar ones to me.

There is this expection that the way things have been is the way things always must be.
There is this expectation that everybody– even Jesus– will let us down in the end.
Or we expect that a religion, not relationship is the important thing: it’s about legalism, observing all the right rules in the right order.
Sometimes we expect that we’re not worth being loved by him.
Sometimes, we expect Jesus to act in a certain way, to heal us in a certain time. To lift our burdens in a certain manner.
There is this thing in my life that is a challenge. I have worked on it and prayed about and sought out Godly counsel… I have borne through it, and wished over it, and tried to make changes.
And it just isn’t getting any better.
And sometimes, I struggle with Jesus about it. Sometimes I mad at God.
When I search my heart, though, when I stop, and really listen, when I pray and really seek out Jesus, I know what I am doing.
I am worshipping my expecations.
I expect that my pain has this easy-to-read expiration date. I expect that things will bget easier in this life. I expect that God will work on my schedule.
My expectations are on the throne, not Jesus. I can console myself, at least, with the realization that I’m in pretty good company. People who walked with Jesus in the flesh did the same thing.

Trees of Life

For a while, I’ve had this interest in the tree of life that appears in Genesis.  I never really connected it to the pair of trees of life that occur in Revelation.  Interpretations of Revelations are so hard to understand, and so divisive, and frankly, in my opinion, have given rise to so much silliness that I probably don’t pay it the attention it deserves.

But it’s a pretty interesting thing, the way it’s described in Revelations”a pure river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, coursing down the center of the main street.  On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month.  The leaves were medicine to heal the nations.” (22: 1-2)

I’m open to the possibility that these “trees” aren’t actual trees.  There’s certainly lots of fodder for symbolism here.  The number 12 seems to represent, through out the Bible, people who are supposed to be doing God’s work in the world.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people trace their ancestory through the 12 tribes to the original 12 ancestors.  In the New Testament, Jesus has 12 disciples.   Through out both testaments, but particularly from Jesus, crops, fruit and the like are also a symbol for mantaining a connection to God.

At the bare minimum, the trees could be understood to mean that Christ-followers are the crop which healed the world.

I think there’s a lot more going on than this.

I’ve been noticing a theme lately.  This theme is that the New Earth is what Eden was meant to become.  It’s easy for me to think, somehow, that the New Earth is a bit of a consolation prize.  Perhaps it’s easier for me to wrap my brain around a God who wants to punish us.  Maybe it seems like there are so many things that are just ruined forever and the best we can do is cope with the aftermath.  It’s possible that I am not fully adressing how very much God loves us, and how indomimatable his spirit is.

Whatever the reason, it’s not my natural tendency to think that what we will end up with is what was supposed to happen.  It’s not easy to recognize that the whole of human history was just this temporary diversion, this speed bump.   The more I read and pray and think the more I recognize that God won’t be thwarted.  The end that will happen will be the end that was meant to be.

The scriptures give a variety of instructions around offering the first fruits to God and around people not eating the fruit of young trees.  I wonder if God started Eden with only one tree of life expecting that it would be left alone.  I wonder if he thought that the right naturally processes were underway for the second one to pop up without his direct intervention, the same way that other fruit trees spread.  (Fruit falls, is eaten by a wild animal, seed is excreted with a bunch of natural fertilizer from the animal, wind covers the seed, seed grows.) 

I can’t say for sure that the reason stated above is the reason we’re told not to eat the fruit of young trees.  And of course, the instruction to do this hadn’t been handed down to Adam and Eve.  I suppose that the whole point of the fall is that sometimes God isn’t going to give us all the details.  If we want to live in harmony with God we need to be o.k. with this.  He certainly didn’t owe Adam and Eve and explanation for why they shouldn’t eat from the tree.  Genesis says that one reason for this is that they would live forever.  Ultimately, it is of course the principal of the thing.  But I wonder if there was more.  On a pragmatic, and perhaps trivial level, I’m wondering if the issue of original sin was about interfering with God’s forestry plans.

The statement around what the trees can do is pretty interesting stuff to.  In Genesis, the tree of life leads to eternal life.  In revalations, it leads to healing.  These two uses aren’t particularly contradictory.  In fact, on the New Earth, we’re already eternal. 

This leads to all sorts of questions, some gory, some quite practical, about what that eternal life will be like.   We’ll be capeable of getting sick or hurt.  Otherwise, the medicines from the tree would be quite irrelevant.  But we also live forever…  This leads me to wonder what if the fruit wasn’t around?  What if we used the whole crop and we had somebody who suffered some sort of horrible accident: an explosion, hideous burn, etc.   The New Earth is supposed to be a place where all our tears are wiped away.  But I think I’d shed a few tears if I was crushed or blown to pieces or burned all over my body and I had to heal up.

I suppose this is part of a wider question about how it all will work… Can we have excitement without tears?  With an eternity that stretches out before us, will we be motivated to do anything?