Monday, November 30, 2015

Expectant Hope

Yesterday marked the first day of Advent 2015, a day when some light the first candle of five set within a wreath of green.
This first candle, usually purple as befitting the prophecy of a king to come, symbolizes expectant hope. 

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). 

I often forget a major reality: Expectancy isn't filled with soft, comfortable days of waiting.

Consider the opening of Jesus' story: an angel comes to Mary, and even after greeting her and letting her know that she's highly favored and the Lord is with her, Mary is greatly troubled. Angel Gabriel has to say: "Don't be afraid." 

No wonder! We've made angels into cute little beings, or, like Henry Payne's section of painting* above, of equal stature. Bernini did a better job of capturing the immensity of angels. 

I like what is comfortable and familiar. Prophecies and hopes are exciting as long as I can wrap them up in a box with pretty wrappings and bows. But, when they don't fit inside of my small comfortable expectations, or when I have to wait, confused and unsure, then I need a reminder that the Lord also says to me as He had Gabriel say to Mary: The Lord is with you. Don't be afraid." 

"Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as you have: for He has said, 'I will never leave you, nor forsake you' so that we may boldly say, 'The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do to me'" (Hebrews 13:5,6). 

"The Lord has not given us the spirit of fear, but of strength, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7). 

"Nothing...shall separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). 

* "Annunciation" detail from Peace and Goodwill 1921-1922 by Henry Payne, stained and painted glass, leaded in the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Choosing to be Intentionally Kind

In view of all the bombings last week, I am taken by these sentences by Dallas Willard in his first chapter of The Divine Conspiracy

"Yet, in the gloom a light glimmers and glows. We have received an invitation. We are invited to make a pilgrimage -- into the heart and life of God." 

And, I've been thinking of the words that follow up the two sentences up above: "The major problem with the invitation now is precisely overfamiliarity. Familiarity breeds unfamiliarity -- unsuspected familiarity, and then contempt" (11). 

Many of us reading these words "know" about Jesus, hear about Jesus, see the name of Jesus often, especially during the winter season. As Dallas writes, we "think [we] have heard the invitation...accepted it...or rejected it." 

But, truly "the difficulty today is to hear it at all" (ibid). What is meant by these words of Willard's? I looked up "contempt." Many would be aghast to have anyone say that they have "contempt" for Jesus. Some do live by the first definition of the word: "the feeling that a person or thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn" (computer dictionary), but we wouldn't put ourselves in that category.  

If we think that removes us from having contempt, consider the second definition: "disregard for something that should be taken into account." This is where I think those of us most "familiar" with Jesus fall into "contempt." We so think we "know" Jesus that we have disregard for something that should be taken into account, and that something is how Jesus would live our lives if he were us. When we consider His kindness, love, graciousness, intellect, patience, and more, do we really think He would get bent out of shape (for purposes of translation: angry, mean, insulted and insulting) just because the culture around us doesn't say, "Merry Christmas"? 

The meaning of the greeting above comes from a slurring (common with language) of two words: Christ's Mass. But, the meaning of "Happy Holidays" also comes from a slurring of two Christ-centered words: Holy Days. 

Frankly, I can say, "Season's Greetings" and absolutely be following Christ in that moment or I can say, "Merry Christmas" and be far, far away from the heart and life of God. 

Lest, anyone think that I have failed to keep Christ in his proper place of December (January for my Russian friends) by posting about Christmas before we have had Thanksgiving (which is only a November holiday for the U.S.), I am THANKFUL that Jesus cares more about my heart and soul attitude and actions than He does about whether I plaster His name everywhere. You know, if He were me, He might even use the money I typically spend in Christmas cards and specialty coffee drinks and instead practice intentional kindness and helping out those in need.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ugh. I Missed a Special Moment

This week I had one of those ironic life moments. I was so busy "enhancing" a picture of God's creation (the photo below) by adding a scripture verse that I missed His handiwork right in my own yard: a deer with a fawn that I saw running off (after I decided a picture of God's creation was beautiful enough without a verse on it)! Many verses could go with this picture, or it could point back to the Creator Himself.

I like beautiful pictures with verses on them, and I don't necessarily think a picture with a verse is what Dallas Willard had in mind when he wrote about "clothing and greeting card graffiti" or "be cute or die" (The Divine Conspiracy 10), but go into a Christian bookstore and verses on anything and everything are certainly commercial products. Those products can be great reminders of God's words to us, but I was so busy trying to do something for God that I missed just being with Him in His creation and seeing His handiwork. And, if I am going to be transparent, maybe my picture idea wasn't cutesy, but I'm just as guilty as the next person at striving for cuteness in my Facebook posts!

I'm thankful for both Dallas's gracious words: "Absurdity and cuteness are fine to chuckle over and perhaps to muse upon" AND his exhortation: "But they are no place to live. They [absurdity and cuteness] provide no shelter or direction for being human" (ibid 11).

"Yet, in the gloom a light glimmers and glows. We have received an invitation. We are invited to make a pilgrimage -- into the heart and life of God" (ibid).

This week I was looking at journal prompts and I chose one where we write about 3 brights. The prompt fits well with Willard's quote above and looking for God in His creation (see also Romans 1:20). I wanted three bright things that anyone anywhere could see God in. The first is water as above. For the second, I chose flowers. Even in the most dismal of places, flowers show up.

Thirdly, I chose a child's face. Many, many years ago, I heard of a Russian scientist who came to believe in God as he looked at his child's ear. The ear is so intricately made as are all the parts of us! The eye amazes me with the number of colors that can be seen. Truly "we are fearfully and wonderfully made."

I don't have to miss work or be lazy in order to slow down long enough to be present to what is in front of my eyes. I can stop filling my calendar so full that there is no time to rest. I can look up, see the deer, see the bright beauty of water, flowers, a child's face -- to see God in His creation and worship Him.

I invite you to join me on this pilgrimage "into the heart and life of God." I'm looking for Him in His creation.

If you're a reader and joining me on this slow reading adventure, I moving on to pages 13-17 of The Divine Conspiracy. 

Monday, November 09, 2015

What's IS That Noise?

What is that racket, that commotion, that noise, I hear?

A) the running commentary and video in my head
B) traffic, Internet video clips, radio, podcasts, phone beeps
C) slogans and messages on billboards, clothing, bumper stickers, and everywhere else
D) All of the above

If you're like me, the answer is 'D' -- all of the above. When I lose my keys, the Internet is down at work, the latest text message carries with it a downturn in a friend or family member's health, and social media is broadcasting the latest in who is angry at whom, I feel like the momma elephant in the children's book Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy.

"The children were having breakfast. This was not a pleasant sight."

Murphy has this one right. I'm in the middle of reading a book Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. It's a non-fiction story about life in a Mumbai undercity. Children are not having breakfast there, but they're not really considered the poor in India which makes me wonder how desperate do you have to be to be poor in India. In the meantime, down the street, folks are upset because a major coffeehouse has changed the design of their cups.

The children of the world are having (or not having) breakfast, and it is not a pleasant sight.

During all this morning hour, as in Murphy's book, everyone is vying for momma's or our attention: Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Then, Can I? Can I? Can I? And, I'll add during this season: Buy me...Buy me...Buy me...

Dallas Willard writes: "We are immersed in birth-to-death and wall-to-wall 'noise' -- silent and not so silent" (The Divine Conspiracy 9). It's not just the morning hour, 24/7 we are "smothered in slogans" (ibid) and facing our own video thoughts.

All the momma wants in this children's book is five minutes of peace, and along with slowing down, five minutes of silence filled with peace helps me and others bring "truth, goodness, strength, and beauty into our lives" (Willard 10). Five minutes of stillness with God cuts through my first instinct to blame someone for "accidentally" picking up my keys (when I simply put them in a different place), cuts through the panic of how will I get my job done, cuts through the despair, cuts through sheer nonsense. God comes alongside and I stop scapegoating (blaming others), and I gain creativity and hope and wisdom. I can lift up my eyes and see someone else at the breakfast table other than myself. That will be the subject of a different post, but for now, for those who might be scared about 5 minutes with God, I leave you with this: God likes you; He loves you. He's like Mr. Rogers except hundreds upon hundreds times better.

Joining me on this journey of practice? Slowing down and 5 minutes of stillness with God.
Joining me reading? Pages 9 - 13 of The Divine Conspiracy. 

Friday, November 06, 2015

Learning Not to Blame Others -- RIP Rene Girard

Yesterday, my post wished Jeffrey Sachs a "Happy Birthday." Today's post wishes Rene Girard a peaceful rest. 

A college professor (at a state university) first introduced me to the writings of Girard. Although I was a Christ-follower, I didn't realize the lie in my life when it came to blaming others. The truth is this: because of Christ, I no longer need a scapegoat; I no longer need to blame others ("not as though I have attained"). Rene Girard taught me that. 

Girard had academic acclaim but his ideas proved problematic for some of his intellectual colleagues when he put his trust in Jesus Christ. For his critics, "One can only know about such theories and principles, and think about them in more or less clever ways," as Willard writes of "the current world of accepted knowledge" in The Divine Conspiracy (5). In today's culture, one shouldn't tie such theories to moral knowledge or God. 

But, according to those close to Girard, he not only taught what he believed, he lived into it as well. 

"René taught us that to truly live is to stop scapegoating our enemies, and to stop justifying it in the name of God. Once at a conference, René was asked what would happen if mimetic theory became wildly successful. He answered, “There would be no more scapegoating.”
To end scapegoating and to truly live we need to follow Jesus by turning away from violence and turning toward our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, in the spirit of love and nonviolence.
René not only taught us that truth, he lived into it. I met him once at a conference for young Girardian scholars. I was struck by the fact that René wasn’t interested in teaching us, or making sure we had his theory “right.” What he wanted more than anything was to talk with us. He wanted to learn about our lives and what interested us. He had a special humility about him – instead of taking glory for himself, he gave glory to others" (Adam Ericksen).

I don't have that special humility but I am on the slow track of practicing Christ-centered spiritual formation. To do so, this week, I'm practicing slowing down -- slowing down enough to let the Holy Spirit get a word in edge-wise when I'm about to scapegoat someone, to blame others. Join me if you care to do so. 

And, if you're a reader, I'm moving on to pages 3-8 in The Divine Conspiracy. 
If you REALLY like to read, here are some links to recent articles on Rene Girard:

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Happy Birthday, Jeffrey Sachs

I changed my mind about what I was going to write this morning when I read that today is Jeffrey Sachs's birthday (11/5/54). You may not know who he is. Don't feel bad; neither did I (and the rest of you can be aghast that we do not know the man considered to be the world's leading expert on economic development and the fight against poverty). 

That's okay. I may not know something that perhaps I should have known, but I'm happy to learn it now. I came across a speech Sachs gave this year at Columbia University (3/30/2015) when I did an Internet search for moral knowledge in U.S. universities. I was sure that Dallas Willard's information in his opening chapter of The Divine Conspiracy must have changed since 1997. After all, Willard cites Derek Bok's 1986-1987 "President's Report" (for Harvard). Bok concludes his report with this remark, "Despite the importance of moral development to the individual student and society, one cannot say that higher education has demonstrated a deep concern for the problem..." (qtd. by Willard 3). 

I know I promised to try to be brief. (I'm working on it.) The title of Sachs's speech was "What is a Moral University in the 21st Century?" and you can probably guess that Willard's information still holds true. Sachs acknowledges early on in his speech, "There are many who, quite understandably, would argue that we shouldn't enter the moral thicket." Many of my friends would look at me wondering why I would be surprised: Of course universities aren't involved with moral education anymore. But, read what Sachs said next: "Let's be pragmatic, they would say." Ohhhhh, there's quite a few of us that tend toward pragmatism. Let's be practical, we say. 

Later Sachs says, "Almost all of us are out of practice in moral reasoning. Moral reasoning...requires training, practice, and experience...We are mostly out of practice..." And, he concludes: "My message, colleagues, is that morality counts. It counts for our intellectual purposes; it counts for our souls." 

I can hear friends now: "Whose morality?" Sachs mentions Buddha, Aristotle and Jesus. I'm going with Jesus. As, I mentioned a couple of days ago, for many that requires "a fresh hearing for Jesus" free of the "stranglehold...that automatically shunts aside Jesus" (Willard, introduction).

I'm reading The Divine Conspiracy Chapter 1, "Entering the Eternal Kind of Life Now" -- sections "Life in the Dark" and "Rumors from the Intellectual Heights" 

I'm practicing slowing my steps down 1) so that I'm not rushing like a rat in a rat race and 2) so I can hopefully notice if I'm responding to moments in my day the way the world responds: practical, on the defense, watching out for myself, or if I'm responding in the love, goodness, and intelligence of Jesus.  

A link to Jeffrey Sachs's speech:

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

How Does This Work? Love.

Yesterday's post ended with something for us to consider as we went about our day: Is Jesus relevant to whatever we're doing or going through at the moment we ask the question? Here's one way it worked for me.

On November 1, a major coffeehouse sent me an email letting me know that my favorite time-of-the-year coffee would be available as a free sample on November 2 between the hours of x and y. (All my math friends, I really think you should give me a high-five for whatever it was that I just did there.) However, when I went to my local coffeehouse on November 2, there were no samples. Not a single one. I was tempted to tweet, post, and message my displeasure, but I remembered that I was asking myself if Jesus was relevant to my real life.

In my head I'm playing a running commentary with video: "Oh, boohoo, you didn't get your free coffee sample. How first-world 'poor me' problem is that?" If you thought that along with me, you're right. So before I come back to Jesus and coffee, let me make a few comments about this journey.

1) I presume that you are part of the 40% of the world with Internet connections. That doesn't necessarily mean that you are wealthy as I have met people who due to devastating circumstances are in homeless shelters, and they made sure to keep their computers so that they could find jobs (or have access to their jobs). But, it does mean you are not part of the 60% without, and my examples will probably be familiar to you.

2) In college I read these words in "The Unknown Masterpiece" by Honore de Balzac: "...Gillette, who almost forgave him for sacrificing her to the art of painting..." (italics mine), and I decided I wouldn't sacrifice relationships for the sake of writing. When appropriate, I will share deeper than petty annoyances, but, in reality, it's the day-to-day responses to petty annoyances that build up how we respond when life's tragedies hit us. (More on this in another post.)

Therefore, when I thought about "how to do what he [Jesus] said was best" (Willard, Divine Conspiracy), Jesus said love was best.

"Jesus said unto him [the lawyer who had asked about the greatest commandment in the law], "Thou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your should, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40, underlining mine).

If you're reading: We're still reading the introduction to The Divine Conspiracy.
If you're practicing: We're still exploring -- what does Jesus have to do with this moment? 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

What's Jesus Got to Do with It?

"My hope is to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus, especially among those who believe they already understand him" -- so begins Dallas Willard in his introduction to his book The Divine Conspiracy. Even Dallas laughed when people kidded him about the book being the most bought unread book on Christian bookshelves. I happen to like the book, but I'm not going to try to talk you into a "fresh hearing" for DC by DW, "especially among those who believe they" can't possibly understand him (to borrow a few of Dallas's words). The book happened to be the first one assigned during a two-year Christ-centered spiritual formation program. I'm a reader and even for me the two years was packed solid and fast track. I want to go back, slow down, and invite those interested to take the journey with me.

"Very few people today find Jesus interesting as a person or of vital relevance to their actual lives...And frankly, he is not taken to be a person of much ability" (DW introduction).

"He is automatically seen as a more or less magical figure -- a pawn, or possibly a knight or a bishop, in some religious game -- who fits only within the categories of dogma and of law. Dogma is what you have to believe, whether you believe it or not. And law is what you must do, whether it is good for you or not. What we have to believe or do now, by contrast, is real life, bursting with interesting, frightening and relevant things and people" (ibid).

"Now, in fact, Jesus and his words have never belonged to the categories of dogma or law, and to read them as if they did is simply to miss them" (ibid).

So, basically, most of us don't think Jesus has anything to do with every day -- REAL -- life. But, what if he does? What if he's actually brilliant, and here, and loves us?

* If you ARE a reader and want to SLOWLY read along the way: Start with the introduction to The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.

Not a reader? Not a problem. Readers are NOT holier than thou (even though some may think they are...oops, well, I did say I was on the slow track to spiritual formation).

* Something to practice: As we go about our "interesting," "frightening," and "real" life, be open to the possibility that Jesus might actually be relevant to us in that moment.  

Monday, November 02, 2015

I Begin Yet Again for the 3rd? 4th? Time

I've used this title before "I Begin Again." It's an appropriate title for continuing to write after close to two years of silence. It's also an appropriate title for explaining the work of Christ-centered spiritual formation. Each morning (not just for the third or fourth time, but again and again and again), I begin again.

And, God meets me, right where I am. Today, as I was struggling to begin again, forgetting much of what I had learned about how to set up a blog and working with a computer that needs to be updated fully, I had given up being able to find and upload an image of "His mercies are new every morning." I had decided to skip the image (and leave off writing) but to check out the blogs I recommend on my page. There on Learning Along the Way Coaching's post from yesterday -- "Finish Well"-- was this image. God used Lisa Lewis's finishing well on her 31 days of blogging to encourage me as I strive to begin yet again.

You might have had a bad day yesterday, this past might be in the midst of a struggle this minute. Begin again...and again...and again. As I begin writing again, I hope to explore what Christ-centered spiritual formation looks like -- on the slow track. And, I hope to keep it short (yes, I know, you'll believe it when you see it).