Patty just left a minute ago for the Women’s Retreat for our church. She’s on her way to Forest Home where it is supposed to snow later tonight. So fun! I know it’s going to be a good one. Hopefully she’ll make it up there without needing to put on chains!Read More
Today I have my monthly spiritual direction appointment. And although it has been clearly marked on my calendar for some time, it still caught me off guard. Thankfully, I received a text reminder this morning from Lynn. Because today I’m jumping from one meeting to the next. All good things, but hardly a pause in between. Life can be so full.Read More
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It is a sacrament that goes back hundreds of years in Christian tradition, but only a few years in my own faith journey. My first experience of it was visiting St. Catherine’s, here in town, and simply participating in their beautiful service. I found the whole thing so moving.Read More
Last week, I surfed the biggest waves of my life. Huge, double overhead Rio Nexpa. The surf was perfect. An A+ day. Our surf guide, Juan, couldn’t believe how lucky we were. We had the trip planned for months and had traveled all the way to Southern Mexico just in time for a huge swell.Read More
Wow, I can’t believe I made it all the way to 40! When I began this Lenten journey, I had no idea just how strenuous the climb would be. At day 20, I was creatively and emotionally exhausted. I found myself quoting that familiar line from Arrested Development… “I’ve made a huge mistake.”Read More
Today is Good Friday. Today we walk the Via Dolorosa. The way of grief or sorrow. It is the road Jesus walked, through Jerusalem, on his way to the crucifixion.
It is a painful story, filled with such mockery and hatred. It is filled with blood and dirt.
Jesus falls, several times. His burden is too great for him to bear.
But another picks it up…Simon the Cyrene.
He encounters women mourning for him, but all Jesus sees is their suffering. His heart breaks for them.
Jesus sees his mother. He tells John to care for her.
The thief next to him asks for a favor…remember me? Jesus’s response…I will.
As we walk this road, we pause at each of these stations. We reflect. We examine our hearts. Because Jesus is doing more than bearing his cross. He is helping us to carry ours. And as slight and as small as the sliver of cross we bear, it is somehow sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Paul tells us that as we share in his sufferings we share in his glory. Try to wrap your mind around that.
We pause, because otherwise we move too quickly through his pain. And too quickly through our own. We long for the grace of Easter morning. But first we must contemplate the enormity of the cost. Because when we stare into the heart of the crucifixion, we see into the very heart of the creator of the universe. What exists there is a purity of love so deep that it would give up everything for the ones He loves. For you.
There is a wonderful moment in John’s gospel before Jesus feeds the 5000. “When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.”
Jesus is always teaching. Always demonstrating. Not just walking on water Himself, but welcoming us outside of the boat.
In Mat. 16 Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
Tonight, we join Jesus on the road of suffering. And we realize that he is doing more than bearing our burden for us. He is teaching us how to carry our own. And as we do, He is speaking those words of encouragement we need so desperately. “You can do this.” “I’m with you.” “Just a little further.”
As we pause, we let the words sink deep into our hearts. They transform our burdens from unbearable weight to light and momentary affliction. And we fix our eyes ahead. To the joy set before us. And we carry on.
For the past few years, on Palm Sunday I’ve led my church in folding palm crosses. It is a longstanding church tradition, but a fairly recent one for Church by the Sea. Each year I’ve had at least one of my kids help me with the demonstration. This year Lila and her good friend Eva helped me out. I usually have to twist my older kids arms to get them on stage, but when I mentioned it to Lila she said, “oh, that sounds like so much fun!”
Every year I get a little teased for doing the crosses. I realize it can feel a bit like arts and crafts time, but I think we can use more of that in church. It is good for us to use our hands, not just our minds and mouths. But more than anything, I love the symbolism. The deep meaning it brings to an otherwise awkward day of celebration.
Palm Sunday was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The palm branches symbolize the cheers of victory as the new king rode into town. But the praises would be short lived. The hosannas would turn to jeers and cries of anger in less than a week. Selfish motives would be exposed. It is shocking how quickly our allegiance can turn when our expectations go unmet.
Palm Sunday begins Christ’s journey towards the cross. And so we take the palm leaves and bend them and bruise them and twist them until they are formed into the symbol of sacrificial love. Because that is actually where true hope lies. Not in conquest, but in pouring our lives out for the sake of others.
After the services I go through the pews and gather the remains. Twisted palms, bent and broken. As I gather them, these crooked crosses, I can see the intentions of the ones that did the folding. They tried, but couldn’t quite get it. I can sense their frustration as I see their discarded failed attempts. I gather them, and I save them. And eventually, I burn them. Along with all the others left behind. I’ll wait almost a year, and then my son and I will take them all out to our barbeque and set them aflame.
Afterwards we’ll gather the ash, and on the following Ash Wednesday, I’ll apply the ash to the foreheads of the ones that gather in church for a time of confession and repentance. “From dust you have come and to dust you will return.”
These crooked crosses have become dear to me. They are beautiful in their own way. To me, they symbolize the incredible grace of God that beams with joy in our failed and frustrated attempts to do good. Like a loving parent cheering their kid on as they swing and miss the ball. “Good try!”
In one of my favorite prayers, Thomas Merton writes,
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Isn’t that so good! “the desire to please you does in fact please you.” Thank God for that! Because sometimes that is all we have. On Palm Sunday, we are reminded that the only victory we can cling to is God’s grace. In all our twisted motives and misguided prayers, that is ultimately, the only thing we can depend on.
At our Lent service last night, my friend John’s wife, Cathy, started refolding the broken palms. I hadn’t seen crosses like that…loops instead of tight edges. They were beautiful. The frayed edges and dry cracks smoothed and reshaped. It was so redemptive.
And maybe this is what God does. He takes our crooked crosses, our broken Hallelujahs, and refolds them, patiently, into something more. Or He gathers the remains and savors the attempts and smiles. All of them, ultimately returning to dust. A reminder to us that our lives are over so quickly, and yet are extremely precious to God.
Last night I had dinner with one of my favorite people. His name is Father Francis and he is a Benedictine priest and lives at St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo. He was visiting some friends here in Laguna, and Patty and I were able to enjoy a beautiful meal with a man that is becoming a dear friend.
Afterwards Patty mentioned the deep sense of peace she felt with him. It came out in the way he spoke. It was a sense of calm underlying his responses, even when the subjects were points of tension or concern. There was such a lack of defensiveness, even when handling delicate or controversial matters of faith. And when responding to potential areas of confusion or doubt, his response was almost whimsical. There was a lightness to him. A playfulness. A deep sense of joy.
We talked about the Benedictines…how they deeply value community, counsel, and respect for all persons. They live each day in the practice of hospitality. Often Benedictines stand at the door to the sanctuary and greet each person entering with the phrase, “Thank God you’ve come.”
Francis has lived at Valyermo for over 40 years. He came when he was 19 and he’ll one day be buried in the cemetery at the top of their hill. I love that spot. It is one of the most quiet places on earth. It is sacred ground. Walking amongst the gravestones you feel the stability of the ones who have remained, who have grown deep roots.
True peace takes years and years to cultivate. Edwin Friedman refers to it as non-anxious presence. And the prerequisite for it is self-differentiation, or in simpler terms, knowing oneself. Who you are. Who you aren’t.
Whenever I travel to the abbey (which is often, but not often enough) I am usually wrestling with one or the other. Who am I? Who am I not? Two sides of the same coin. What is my identity? My identity in Christ? What is my true vocation? My true self? Where am I hiding? What are my facades?
Self-discovery is powerful and meaningful, and often humbling. It makes us vulnerable. It exposes our hearts. My deepest longing is to be able to receive the love of God in that place of vulnerability, without pretense or self-protection. I have a long way to go.
But there has been a consistent voice for the last several years when I stay at the Abbey. I’ll be eating breakfast in silence. Quiet and still. Slowly waking up. Preparing for the day ahead. And I’ll hear the voice behind me whisper, “I know you.”
And I turn around, and there’s Father Francis. Full of such grace and peace. A heart warm, like a fire. Non-anxious presence. I can’t help but want to draw close. To warm my own heart.
That phrase gets me every time. It touches a deep longing. My heart leaps. There is such tenderness in the words. When he says it, I hear the whisper of God’s voice. And my own heart opens just a little bit more. To be known is so powerful. It is such a vulnerable gift.
Living in that place takes faith. I experience this peace only for brief moments. But slowly it is starting to stick. I’m beginning to speak more honestly. To stand a bit straighter. To release worry and self-criticism. To allow myself to just be who God made me to be. That is true self-differentiation.
Francis visited our prayer room yesterday. What a joy to have him here. We’re going to have him speak soon at our church, and I’ll be sure to let you all know ahead of time. As I walked up the stairs to greet him, I was so encouraged to see so many in our church already enjoying the warmth and peace he brings.
As I entered and gave him an embrace he held me tight and whispered, “I know you.”
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.”
Today I feel such hope. The feeling caught me off guard. It appeared in the most unlikely of places. I was reading an article on Russian Orthodox ministers who were martyred under Stalin. I know, right? The title of the article was ‘Spiritual Freedom’ (from First Things) and it included two photographs, mugshots, of a man and woman moments before their execution. The expressions on their faces are profound. The author, John Burgess, writes,
“I stop and contemplate their faces. They seem to look through and beyond this world into eternity. I see terror yet peace, exhaustion yet ecstatic anticipation of another life. And there is spiritual defiance. These men and women had been stripped of every legal and political right, yet are strangely confident that a righteous God holds them safely in his hands. Under the most awful circumstances of persecution, Butovo’s victims discovered what Christians really mean by freedom.”
It is such an odd paradox in Christianity that somehow, through the giving up of one’s rights and freedoms, we are set free. In the laying down of life, we gain life. This isn’t to dismiss the significance of civil liberties, nor is it to suggest that the defense of them isn’t biblical. It just means that, at our core, liberation isn’t ultimately something that happens outwardly, but inwardly. The freedoms of the heart cannot be restrained by any form of external control, nor can their allowance by government provide any sort of guarantee of a heart truly free.
“When the church is socially acceptable and when religious affiliation is more a matter of custom than faith, those who call themselves Christians are easily tempted to sell their inheritance of spiritual freedom for the pottage of social privilege and material wealth. This temptation is, perhaps, also ours in America today. A legally guaranteed right to religious freedom may too easily be mistaken for true Christian freedom.”
This is comforting, because I’m afraid right now for our country and world. I’m afraid for us and for my children’s future. I used to say, “Don’t worry, that will never happen.” It was usually followed by a justifying statement like “People are smarter than this.” “People are better than this.” “We’ve grown.” “We’ve progressed.”
It isn’t the loss of religious freedoms that I fear. It is the loss of human decency. We have lost sight of the ends and have become entangled in the means. The optimism I once felt has been replaced by a weight; a heaviness of inevitability. There are forces at work in the world that feel beyond our ability to restrain. Selfishness, deception, violence, fear, discrimination, greed. I feel weighed down by their gravity.
Newton’s second law of thermodynamics seems to have a moral corollary. As our universe expands and grows more cold and less complex, so our morality seems to be degenerating, becoming more and more base. We are sliding backwards and losing ground. How will this story end?
One of my favorite philosophers, Simone Weil, writes, “All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity unless there is supernatural intervention.”
This intervention is what gives me hope. Without this injection of grace into our system our plight is desperate. But with it…with it our fear and anxiety can be transformed. There is still a card that hasn’t yet been played.
Many of you are familiar with the revelation received by Julian of Norwich when Christ told her again and again ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Julian cautiously questioned this reality. And Christ’s response? “all that (her concern) is true, but the secret grand deed will make even that ‘very well’. ‘With you this is impossible, but not with Me.’”
The secret grand deed. That phrase makes my heart lift. I don’t even know what that deed is. We’re not supposed to. But what I hear God saying is, “trust me.” Those words speak to my dismay and despair. They tell me not to give up. Those words give me hope and break me free from this downward spiral of hopelessness.
Julian was shown a tiny hazelnut in the palm of God’s hand and was told that ‘this is all that is made.’ She feared that ‘it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness.’ This little world where we live can feel so immense, incomprehensible, overwhelming. I draw such comfort from the picture of this little nut resting in the palm of a strong hand.
It gives me courage to push against darkness. To fight back with selflessness and generosity instead of clutching and hiding. To respond with soft words to others’ wrath. To speak truth. To love my enemies. To seek out the ones in need.
This is what freedom feels like. True spiritual freedom is freedom of the heart. Freedom to be my true self. Freedom to live a life of grace. It must first be received. I can’t muster it on my own. Like Simone said, it requires intervention.
And this means humility. It means sacrifice. It requires me to trust and accept. It means laying down my rights instead of insisting on them. It stands strong against oppression, but by turning the other cheek, not by striking back. It requires restraint.
Simone says, “I must necessarily turn to something other than myself since it is a question of being delivered from self.”
Because my heart, like all the rest of my brothers and sisters, is still broken and in need of healing. I need you and you need me. As we receive this intervening grace from heaven, we share it. We give it away. And the effect is contagious. It grows. It spreads like a fire. Once lit, it becomes impossible to contain.
“An emotional triangle is any three members of any relationship system or any two members plus an issue or symptom.” Edwin Friedman
I’ve felt such a hesitation to write recently. Anything I consider posting feels like either reactionary political commentary or, on the opposite extreme, complete avoidance of reality. How do you comment on anything without some response to what is happening daily in Washington DC? It feels like there are only two options; to add to the enflamed, anxious political discourse, or to pretend it doesn’t exist. Both feel terrible.
My heart is heavy over the effects of this past election, over the building confusion and despair, over the lack of predictability for what tomorrow’s news will bring. But deeper still, I feel a deep worry about the emotional state of our own hearts as we lose ourselves in the angry responses, the vitriol, and the accusations. We’ve stopped listening to ourselves, let alone each other. There is an energy behind the issues we type, post, or share that we are not paying attention to. We get numb to it. Soon it is like the air we breathe. If we don’t pay attention to it, I fear, we will be incapable of responding intelligently and with wisdom to the deep concerns of our day.
One of my favorite stories in scripture is Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. It isn’t in the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel, but it sure sounds like him. We need to study more than just what he said. We can learn from what he did. I’m reminded of Dallas Willard’s statement that Jesus was the most intelligent man that ever lived.
In this case, he is being tested by his opponents, the Pharisees, who have caught a couple in the act of adultery but have dragged only the female before the mob. Interesting. They are ready with rocks to carry out the law themselves. Jesus is asked what to do, not because they need his insight, but because there is no response he can make to the angry masses that won’t backfire on him. Either he condemns the girl to death to the satisfaction of the mob, or he extends mercy and grace and trivializes not only her sin, but the law itself.
During the chaotic scene, Jesus pulls out his phone and starts texting somebody. Or maybe he is just looking something up on Wikipedia. Scripture isn’t clear. Actually he bends down and writes in the sand…but same thing. Whatever the case, it isn’t what they’re expecting. They start fidgeting. What’s he doing? The energy starts to dissipate. Jesus, subtly, refuses to be pulled into the anxiety of the mob.
In his timing, without looking up, he simply states, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Do you see what he’s doing? He is, step by step, defusing a bomb. He begins with the environment itself. It is triage. There is an order to this. The sin is not trivial, and yet, in this story, it is the least of his concerns.
The energy behind the mob is his chief concern. He pauses to disarm the false urgency. To take a breath. To allow for actual reflection. Only then does he proceed to the next level… to their own pride. He states, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…” In the quiet space Jesus has created, he unleashes a bomb. It is too much for the mob. One by one they leave.
Sometimes it feels like our computer screens create a similar environment to that of our cars. The distance or space allows for the ugliest sides of us to slip out like road rage. Someone cuts us off and we react with anger and profanity. Someone types something that hits a nerve and we immediately lash out. We strike back.
As our anger flares, our egos take over. We feel righteous. To condemn creates a false sense of virtuosity. The problem is them. They are the enemy. They are the one to be feared. If I can identify the sinner, then suddenly I am without sin.
This is why scripture tells us not to judge. Because we are so bad at it. We can’t help but make it about us. Subjectivity almost always overrides our objectivity. It feels so good to condemn.
Jesus pauses to create some space to breath. He confronts the self-righteousness and the mob dissipates. He is finally ready to talk to the accused. He asks, “where are your accusers?”
“Then I don’t accuse you either. Go and sin no more.”
This is how sin is dealt with. Jesus so wisely separates the behavior from the person. It isn’t she that is condemned, but the action itself. It is beneath her. It is harmful to her. “You are better than this.”
The fact is, Jesus loves her. Not in a way that trivializes sin, but in a way that brings hope. It doesn’t condemn, but points to a greater good. That is the way of peace.
As my mouse pointer wavers over the post button, I remind myself to do a little reflection. To ask a couple of questions.
First, is this a reaction? If so, wait. Wait a day. At least wait til the morning. See if it still feels the same.
If it does, then secondly, what is driving my response? Am I trying to fit into the inner circle? Am I trying to prove my own innocence or superiority over another? In other words, where are my attachments? What is the thing behind the thing?
And lastly, am I speaking truth in love? Either extreme falls short. Truth without love causes such deep harm. Love without truth is…as Lewis puts it, soft soap. But speaking truth gently and courageously brings healing. It brings life. It sets before the other a greater vision. This is what draws us forward…a greater conception of the good and the offer to step further into the love and vision God has for every single person on earth.
What would Jesus post? Words that heal. Words that build up. Words that refuse to puff up the self. Words that cut to the heart, but in a way that affirms God’s loving vision and purpose. These aren’t simply words to follow, but a character for us to imitate. Maybe it isn’t that complicated after all.
I love just after it rains. The hills in Laguna rebound immediately to a vivid green. The sun is so bright you can’t help but squint. The dust of the drought feels rinsed away and everything smells clean.
Except the ocean. In stark contrast to the gleaming landscape, the water is murky and brown. As inviting as today is to being outdoors, the sea holds up its hands and says stay out.
It isn’t just that it’s dirty. Its contaminated. The bacteria levels skyrocket after a rain. Surfers are warned to stay out of the water for 72 hours, especially when near drain pipes and river mouths.
As I stand at the outlook staring into the opaque water I can’t help but see it as a metaphor. 2016 was such a murky year. It felt impossible to make a good decision. Everything felt like damage control. News felt untrustworthy. Subjective interpretations felt unrestrained. Civil conversations would quickly degenerate into entrenched, unresolvable disputes.
It wasn’t just that the issues felt cloudy. The whole environment felt toxic and polluted. It was affecting my heart. I felt myself disengaging from those that disagreed with me. I couldn’t last in a political conversation for more than five minutes without accusing the other side of being obtuse at best, and moronic when I’d finally had enough.
Everything felt so polarized. It still does. Days later, you start to wonder if the water will ever clear.
And not just politically. The either/or dichotomy seems to find its way into every aspect of our lives. It isn’t just republican or democrat anymore. There is a conservative and progressive side to just about every discussion, be it spirituality and religion, vaccinations, eating habits, child rearing, healthcare, gender, education, you name it. Are you this or are you that? Pick a side. No one is known for what they’re for, but instead for the worst elements of what the other side is against. No one wins.
We are beginning a new year. This is the time for resolutions. For new goals, dreams, and ambitions to once again return with a freshness. We are given a blank slate or canvas. But this year I can’t do it. I can’t keep paddling through all this sewage. We need to clean this up.
But what do you do when you find all your options dissatisfying? What do you do when you find both sides equally cloudy and toxic? How do you take a step forward when it feels like there are no realistic options?
As a pastor, I’m particularly burdened by how complicit and intertwined my own evangelical faith has become with the systemic problems we face in America and the world. We have embraced power that stands in sharp contrast with our very essence of humility, gentleness and love. We have drunk deep from the power and ambition of the world and become intoxicated with it. We’ve lost our way. Both sides. Right and left. We’ve all lost our way.
James writes at the end of chapter 3 of his cautionary letter that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
How I long for this clean water! Wisdom from above is known by its texture and clarity. Integrity is not clinging to one isolated principle above all others. It is open to reason. It is known by its gentleness and mercy, by the taste of its fruit.
But if I’m honest, a quick look inward reveals the cloudiness of my own heart. So much of what I do merits praise and approval from others. How pure are my own motives? What would I do if they didn’t bring with them the privileges I enjoy? How willing am I to pray David’s prayer that God would search my heart and cleanse it? To go after the wickedness that lies deep in my own motives, that lurks in the shadows?
James says that pure religion begins by bridling the tongue. He follows it up by saying that it is followed by visiting widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
It makes me think of that statement attributed to St. Francis that we would “preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” Today I believe that our words are doing more harm than good. The church needs instead to practice goodness in secret. We need to stop waving the triumphal banner of some exclusive right to eternal hope and start actually living in such a way that hope is the natural and contagious effect.
This year is the 500th birthday of the reformation. It feels like we’re due for another one.
We desperately need to get back to the center. To rediscover the heart of our faith. To rekindle that first love. At least I know that I do.
So here are my resolutions for this year.
I’m resolving to talk less and do more.
To remember that without love, the most eloquent words are noise.
To invest the gifts I’ve received in the lives of those in need.
To not waste emotional and spiritual energy entangling myself in disputes without end.
To instead allow my own soul to be open and laid bare before God that He would do his work of creating in me a clean and new heart.
And to place my hope in the reality that this isn’t the first time this has happened. That things can die and be reborn. That Jesus is still making all things new. For His way is the way of true hope.
May we, in 2017, have the confidence to “walk in love, as Christ loved us.” Amen.