why God works slower than I would often like

So I just got back from a conference in Portland about transformation, innovation and the future of the church.  It was a really cool conference where we learned from some secular innovators about design thinking and leadership through the unique challenges of the creative process.  It really was pretty great and often inspiring.

But, having said all that, there was something that was kind of nagging at me the whole time: I felt a certain sense of anxious, fear-driven urgency to the whole thing.

This was probably because we talked a couple times during the conference about the United Methodist ‘shelf-life,’ or about how long we have until it all our institution kind of implodes in on itself.  This was not new information to me as I heard it all through the ordination process, as older generations in the church have been ‘Princess Leiaing’ me and other young clergy for years, i.e. ‘help me, Obi Wan, you’re the only hope.’

But, as we sat and listened to these wonderful and inspiring stories of innovation and creativity there was this underlying narrative at work within me (and maybe it was only me): ‘well you better do this quick and fast and big or the whole thing’s going to fall apart.’

The funny thing that occurred to me in hindsight was that the presenters never talked about rushing the process or about instant results.  In fact, they often talked about just the opposite. They talked about patience, perseverance, stability, and longevity.  The story of their companies and their ability to innovate weren’t about a quick fix, a one hit wonder, or a time where everything just kind of blew up in an instant.  They presented a different pace of growth, a growth that happens over years of cultivating an idea, a process and a way of life.

As Christians, I believe we are called to resist the narrative of quick fixes and instant gratification.  We are called to cultivate lives of patience, stability, and longevity over a lifetime.  As Eugene Peterson once said, ‘discipleship is long obedience in the same direction.’  Perhaps we in the church need to be committing to the long haul of sustaining innovation instead of jumping from one thing to the next in hopes that eventually it will blow up and save the church because, in the end, the church doesn’t need another savior, it’s already got one.

So I feel resolved at the moment to keep trying to do what we are doing at simple church, to tweak, to pivot, to respond, to innovate, to respond faithfully to the creative call from God, but to remember that my timeline is far less significant in the grand scheme than God’s timeline, captured by these words of Teilhard de Chardin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”

 

Why walking through Holy Week can make a difference

I was talking with someone yesterday who went to 6 Holy Week worship services in three days for the first time ever.  After assuring her that this meant she would definitely receive extra gold stars in heaven, the conversation drifted to her insights and spiritual learnings from her intentional walk through this the Holiest of Week.  She relayed that this experience opened her to receive the good news of Christ’s resurrection in a way that she had never experienced before; the story had moved from sort of swirling around in her head to making a home inside her heart.  It was an enlightening witness to the power of Holy Week and the spiritual practice (discipline) of intentionally walking through all the different movements of the week.

It brought to mind a line from our Simple Church Easter Vigil as we were preparing ourselves to hear a series of readings focused on God’s saving acts throughout all of history.  The line says: Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, and pray that each of us receive the fullness of this grace.

Walking through Holy week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Sunrise and Easter Sunday Sanctuary worship, grants us the opportunity to digest the fullness of the story of God’s undying, life-giving love.  It takes us to places within ourselves we might otherwise prefer to ignore or avoid; i.e., empty promises we make, our moments of betrayal, the denial we carry, the isolation of living in this hyper-individualistic culture,  the darkness of the tomb.

But when we fumble around in the dark long enough we will eventually find that which we can touch, and feel, lean on to and grab ahold of.  If we sacrifice enough time from our busy and overscheduled lives to allow the fullness of this story to work on our hearts, we can start to open ourselves up to receive the fullness of this grace.  We can humbly remember that this good work of God’s saving love began long before we ever came into being and will continue on into eternity.  We can fit our small and beautifully ordinary story into this larger landscape.  We can give our entire self, every part that is slowly unearthed during the journey of Holy Week, over to the resurrecting love of God, whose best work is done while we fumble around in the dark.

Practically imperfect in every way

I have a 2 and a half year old who loves to watch Mary Poppins.  I do I love that movie, but after the millionth viewing it’s starting to get under my skin.  Especially that scene where Mary pulls out her tape measure and measures herself to be ‘Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.’

This scene has always annoyed me a little and after all these viewings I finally started to see why: Mary Poppins comes off as pretty smug and arrogant with the children.  I mean who carries around their own tape measure that measures their height to be perfection?  Come on!

Reflecting upon my unusually strong reaction to such a trivial scene revealed some of my own underlying character defects.  I too have a tendency to be slightly smug and arrogant from time to time; further confirming this one fundamental truth about my own human condition: I am not perfect, nor am I even close to being ‘practical perfect’ in any-way, let alone every-way.

This confession is hard to make because I am part of a denomination that talks a lot about Christian perfection.  And, like some of my friends in ministry, I have struggled with this idea of Christian perfection.  What does it mean when Jesus says to his follower ‘be perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect’? I think that my struggle with this idea really boils down to the confusion that I often have between Christian perfection and perfectionism.

See perfectionism is having and completing your list of ‘to-dos’ in the right order at the right time, without error…… perfectionism is enforcing your own mistake management program of shame and guilt every time you slip up…. perfectionism is holding unreasonably high expectations or standards for yourself and others….. Perfectionism isn’t Christian because it is really all about ego, manipulating your life circumstance in order to be seen the right way or flawlessly working your way up the ladder of success until you’ve finally received the reputation you deserve.

None of this really fits at all with what Jesus taught, lived or advocated for, so what the heck does he mean by ‘be perfect, like my Father in heaven is perfect?’

Maybe what Jesus is actually getting at is not to rid yourself of all those rough edges that make you ‘you’, not to carefully micromanage every move you make so that you can be without fault….. but, maybe for Jesus perfection is when we allow ourselves to be loved first, with a perfect love, for all those things we try to hide.  Maybe he meant we should allow ourselves to be loved first, with a perfect love, for all those mistakes we feel ashamed of, all those moments we felt exposed, vulnerable, or embarrassed.  Maybe Christian perfection is the practice of receiving God’s extravagant wasteful love for us instantaneously in the moment of any perceived imperfection and allowing that love to make us whole.

Maybe that’s all it means; being perfect for Jesus means being made complete, whole, connected.  It seems to me that this would make a little more sense because ultimately the most perfect and awesome thing we can ever do or participate in is love.  The coolest thing about the spiritual life is that once you start receiving love for all of those imperfections and rough edges you start loving others for theirs, instead of in spite of theirs.  Because in the end grace begets grace and loved people love.

why I often miss the point of Christmas

Growing up I used to watch a lot of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies with my family.  Nothing wrong with these movies per se, but if left unchecked you can start to miss the whole point of the Christmas.  No, I don’t mean that the Hallmark Christmas Channel movies don’t contain enough Jesus.

What I mean is that if I watch too many Hallmark Channel movies I start to think that the point of Christmas is to get everything just right, just perfect enough, so I can finally earn the spiritual gifts of joy, hope, love, and peace.

These movies tend to reinforce a false narrative we have in our world that we have to work insanely hard to create the perfect conditions for our life before we can experience a transcendent love, or what I call grace.  To put it theologically: we believe in salvation through works, or to put it simply: we believe the meaning of life is to work our way into perfection.

Now, of course, we know on some deep level that this isn’t really the point, but our false selves, our egos, tell us otherwise.  They tell us to give in to the illusion, to decorate, to clean, to perfect the meal, to buy the right thing, to polish all the silver in just the right way, so that all the external circumstances of our lives can be arranged in the way that looks the best for our Instagram (#nofliter) so that then and only then can we know salvation, spiritual healing, and wholeness.

But the truth of Christmas is that God is with us in the messiness of our lives.  The truth power of Christmas is that Jesus is born into a normal, somewhat dysfunctional family, that God’s grace enters into our imperfect human story and condition to show us the power of unconditional love.

My prayer for you and for me as we approach the birth of our savior, is that we embrace our mess, embrace our imperfections, embrace our broken relationships and somewhat dysfunctional family dynamics, because God embraces them wholly and holy.  Merry almost Christmas, Robert

learning a measured response in a reactive world (or on learning how to not be pissed off at the world)

If you are like me, then you tend to be a bit hyperbolic in your reaction to normal, run of the mill, everyday kind of inconveniences.  These flubs in my day to day can elicit a reaction which is not particularly helpful or warranted.  More often than not it is not what I would call a ‘measured response.’

An example:  The other day I misplaced my wallet in my home for ~ 15 minutes.  I couldn’t find it anywhere, it wasn’t in its proper place, and I combed the house for about 10 minutes.  After 10 minutes of searching, I threw myself down on my couch where I decided that I knew what had happened to my wallet: it was stolen, and by now someone was draining my bank account and stealing my identity.  I was pretty angry and frustrated with this imagined thief and with myself for allowing something like this to happen.

About 5 minutes later I found the wallet in the front pocket of my computer bag….

It seems like a lot of people I know have this kind of tendency to catastrophize, to blow their reactions to what they experience way out of proportion.  I am sure this can’t be good for our blood pressure, our anxiety and Lord knows it isn’t good for our souls.  It causes anger, resentment, frustration, and a sense of inflated self-importance which then can lead us to places of shame and guilt.  All of these are functions of our ego driven desire to have everything function perfectly, for our vision of our life to be realized every single day without having anything else throw it off our rails.

But the spiritual life teaches us that there is a center to the universe and it’s not us.  Our days are going to be filled with all sorts of unexpected hiccups along the way, we can’t control that, but we can learn to measure our response.

Learning a measured response is part of the contemplative life, the contemplative practice.  Accepting our exaggerated, ego driven reactions, letting them drift into our consciousness, observing them with humility and acceptance that they are in fact part of us, and surrendering to that which is greater and more patient that we are, the one I call God.  The great spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said, ‘whenever I sense anger arise within me, I become mindful of my breathing, embrace that anger as my friend and release it gently.’

I feel like if we lived this way it might make things like traffic, COSTCO checkout lines, losing our wallets or even the politics streaming in our Facebook feed, a more measured part of our awesome and sacred existence.  We might see ourselves and one another not as some inconvenience or adversary, but as a mystery to be explored.  Oh and maybe we could learn to laugh at ourselves a little bit more, not in a self-deprecating way, but in a humble making kind of way.  Maybe we could live into this wacky dream of a calm, centered and compassionate life, because I really do think it’s possible, by the grace of God.