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

why I’m old fashioned (when it comes to churchy things)

One day after a lesson on church history, a youth from our community said: “Robert, you like really old stuff a lot, don’t you?”  I replied, “The older, the better.”

See, for me, when it comes to cultivating a spiritual life or a religious practice, I think that older is usually better.

I believe the practices and disciplines we’ve inherited from the past have some spiritual truth embedded within them which is timeless and carries with it the ability to speak across generations.  This is why tradition matters to me as a pastor at simple church and which is why our worship gatherings are pretty darn traditional and old fashioned.  It’s because we believe that we don’t have to invent it all ourselves, it’s not up to us to forge some new way of being in relationship with God.  Our living generation is not THAT important in the grand scheme of things.

In fact, it’s probably more often the case that we shouldn’t even try, because I don’t know about you, but if it were up to me figure out how to cultivate a spiritual life my spiritual practice would be pretty self-focused.  If left to my own devices and operating as a religious free agent, I’d probably self-select a ton of spiritual practices that are all about filling me up and giving me a sense of well-being in the world.  I definitely wouldn’t choose to give away 10 % of my money or practice regular confession, but, the truth is, I desperately need these practices for God to help save me from myself.

Existing as part of a historical tradition enables us to fit ourselves into a larger, more mysterious and wondrous worldview.  In other words, it allows us to fit our story into God’s story of grace and hope.

Being spiritual and religious is an exercise in humility and trust.  Humility in believing that I am not innovative enough to make it all up from scratch and trust in believing that there is something of God at work underneath all these old fashioned traditional practices which is powerful enough to open our hearts to be brought into alignment with God’s heart, which beats steadily and timelessly for the healing and restoration of the whole world.

why I take the Bible seriously

A couple weeks ago I had a wonderful conversation with a bright and thoughtful young man about the Bible, faith, art, and existentialism.  It was one of those moments when I thought, ‘Boy I must have the coolest job ever.’  He asked some really deep questions about life, the nature of reality and the purpose (or lack thereof) human existence.

At one point in the conversation, he asked me about the Bible.  It was an honest question, a tough question, a good question every person who follows Jesus should ask.  He said ‘there’s a lot of terrible stuff in the Bible, how can you take it seriously?  How do you not just pick and choose what you want to read and ignore or dismiss the rest?’

It’s a hard-hitting question because he’s right.  There are a lot of terrible things in the Bible.  It would be easier to just ignore, sweep them under the rug or to pluck out the Bible entirely.   But, I feel like this would kind of be missing the whole point of this faith thing.  What makes the Bible holy and inspired is how scripture works on us to transforms us into the image of God known in Jesus (i.e. more compassionate, grace-filled kingdom makers).  So, by leaving out the tough parts, the violent parts, the racist parts, the sexist parts, the human parts that I don’t like, I am living in denial that these things exist within the world and more importantly, exist within the darker parts of me.   And this seems to me, to be missing the whole point of a spiritual life which is about not living in denial, but being set free by the truth of God’s perfect love.  I need to wade into the darkness of our past, the shadows of my self, to see myself with honesty, openness, and vulnerability.

I need to engage in the messiness of the narrative so that I don’t continue to perpetuate a false understanding that the Bible is supposed to be a nice systematic theology that teaches me exactly what we are supposed to think and believe about God (usually reinforcing conclusions I’ve already made) so I can digest it, categorize it and move about my day.

Without this exercise and practice transformation is not possible.  Luckily the Bible facilitates this for me beautifully.

So the challenge that I try to place before myself and our simple church community is to try to take the whole Bible seriously.  To be bold enough to confront our shadow selves reflected back to us in this holy and troubling book of real flawed people struggling to understand the mystery that is the Divine.