Monday, June 18, 2018

Jumping out of the boat

Maybe it's because I've been spending a fair amount of time in boats lately. Or maybe it's because I've been working hard to bring some of the ecclesiological insights of the last year and a half to bear on the church I'm currently working in. Or maybe it's the Holy Spirit creating that sensitivity that only he can bring.

Whatever the reason, I was so struck by Oswald Chambers' reflections this morning on the story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water from Matthew's gospel. If you're a little rusty about the story (or maybe haven't ever paid attention to it) take a minute and read it from Matthew 14:22-33.

Please understand, a lot of my percolating on this story today has been wrapped around the metaphor that was so common in the early church, that a boat or a ship was so often used as a symbol of the church. Picking one thread out of a whole day's ruminations, let's play with that symbolism for a bit. There are a few provocative points if we grant the metaphor:

  1. Jesus is outside the boat precisely because he has been seeking God. 
  2. Jesus, coming from outside the boat through the storm, declares himself to be God -- that is the implication of his words, the same words from Exodus (in the Greek version of Exodus, anyway) that God speaks to name himself when talking to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus in effect says, "Take heart -- I am. Do not be afraid." Because that sounds awkward in English, most translations make it "It is I." That's linguistically okay, but we miss the Exodus associations. 
  3. Peter takes the initiative in what comes next. This is huge. Jesus honors Peter's initiative. This is also huge. 
  4. Peter's desire is to come to Jesus. To do so, he has to leave the boat. In Jewish understanding, large bodies of water represented chaos. Think of Jonah. So Peter is in effect saying (within our metaphor), "Lord, call me out of the safety of the church and into chaos so that I might come to you."
  5. Jesus, responding to Peter's request, tells Peter to come to him, outside the boat. 
  6. Peter, contrary to all common sense (this is where Chambers was so good today) steps out of the boat in radical obedience to Jesus. 
  7. Many people have made the point that it is when Peter's attention shifts from Jesus to the waves, but in fact the text says that Peter "saw the wind" (ESV) -- an interesting statement! Wind, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, is identical to the word "breath" or "spirit." Obviously the literal sense here is that Peter observed the storm -- but play with the metaphors. What might it mean, metaphorically, that Peter sees the Spirit at work outside the church? Is it possible that churches are sometimes a refuge from the chaos of the Spirit's activity, and we get afraid and huddle together someplace where we can protect ourselves from the storm? And jumping ahead a bit, notice that when they get back into the boat the wind (spirit?) stops. What's with that? Is there more being said here than just Jesus calming a physical storm?
  8. It is the risk of being overwhelmed by the storm -- the wind and the water -- that prompts Peter to call out, "Lord, save me!" Maybe there's something about Peter being at risk out in the chaotic storm that puts him right where Jesus wants him. 
  9. Jesus never criticizes Peter for getting out of the boat, for sinking, for crying out. Rather, Jesus seems to focus on the fact that Peter's focus shifted to the storm, and his trust faltered. The Greek word for faith has gotten watered down in English to mean something like "cognitive assent" -- in Greek it has a lot more oomph, and has a lot in common with our words "trust" and "loyalty." 
  10. It is the sign that happens outside the boat -- outside the church, in our metaphor -- that causes those inside the church to worship Jesus and proclaim his identity. 

The above thoughts are especially pertinent to me these days because I've taken a lot of flak over the years -- especially in the last couple years -- for decisions I've made that have put me decidedly out of the good graces of the church, at least in some circles. (I am currently deeply involved in a church that is both biblical and gracious, focused strongly on Jesus and welcoming to broken people. So I'm not outside The Church, just certain expressions of it.) Trouble is, all along the way I was seeking God passionately, yearning to be obedient to him. Not that I followed his guidance perfectly by any means, and not that I haven't made mistakes. Huge ones.

But I believe all along the way, I heard God's Spirit speaking. I still trust God for the promises he spoke to me in those days. And some of the directions I chose to go put me in tension with those who have positioned themselves as the guardians of public church structures, or public morality. It stirred me fiercely this morning to read Chambers:
Never begin to say — “Well, I wonder if He did speak?” Be reckless immediately, fling it all out on Him. You do not know when His voice will come, but whenever the realisation of God comes in the faintest way imaginable, recklessly abandon.
The church in its public expressions will rarely if ever be comfortable with those who are "reckless immediately" in response to the call of God. Those who recklessly abandon in response to God's call make those who oversee pension plans and committee structures uncomfortable.

I believe with all my heart that God is astir in the world, that he is up to great things all around. When church structures become the "old wineskins" Jesus talked about that cannot hold the new wine he brings, he will find other ways to get his people to jump out in obedience -- even if it means (as it so often does) jumping out of the boat into a storm. Jesus is there already, and he is faithful to take your hand in the chaos. I've experienced that, too.

Post-event hangover

Yesterday was the "Share the Dream" event here at Decision Hills. It was a phenomenal day, and so much fun to put together, to see the beach crowded and scads of people getting tours of this beautiful land and to do exactly that -- share the dream of what God might be up to in this place. Today I am dealing with the aftermath -- dumpsters and leftovers and a house that hasn't been cleaned in two weeks or more and the pervasive wet-noodle exhaustion of a long day well done, now that it is indeed done.

And I am reflecting on Fathers Day, and treasuring the communications from those I love about that day, and rereading cards old and current, and being quietly grateful for my own father, thinking about how he would have experienced the tumult and delight of yesterday. I think he'd have enjoyed it -- the hayrides and the boat rides and the pulled pork sandwiches and conversations in the massive party tents and walking down into the forested RV sites at the south end of the property.

At the same time Oswald Chambers this morning was just stunning, and has me thinking at length about Peter getting out of the boat and what exactly that means, and God has been speaking some very encouraging words throughout about how he engineers our circumstances (one of my favorite phrases of Chambers) and what it has meant in different situations for me to be obedient with reckless abandon, and how he loves my obedience in those things, and how he is not focused on my failures but rather enjoys my eagerness to take on a challenge, to jump into something new. I'm hoping to take time later today to write another reflection about that, so keep your eyes open.

At the moment, however, I have to go check on a few things, run a few errands, and -- please, God -- clean up this pigsty. It's a good morning.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Psalm 67

Processing this morning after reading Psalm 67:

A few short months ago, I was ready to write off the world, to hole up in one small corner of it and build a shrine to happiness. I had overextended myself, gotten chewed up in fights spiritual, domestic, and vocational, and I was thoroughly bruised, thoroughly wounded, thoroughly disillusioned. All I wanted was a small corner of the world where I could heal up and build a life around love instead of around conflict.

Even in the middle of that retreat, however, there were voices that came like a bracing shot of reality to the face. One recurring story reminded me that I was called to the service of my King, that I had a responsibility to build for his sake, for his kingdom. I told myself that just maybe, building a tiny corner out of the way of the larger battles was better. Maybe the wars would pass me by.

It was the voice of my bruises, my fear, speaking. It was true that I needed healing, and God graciously provided it, and continues to lead me down those restorative pathways. I am coming to see that my corner of the world doesn’t belong to me, but it is a crossroads in the grander struggle. Reading Psalm 67 this morning was a sharp reminder that when God blesses us, it is not for our own sake, our own indulgence, though Israel made that mistake and the church through the ages has done so as well. God blesses us for the sake of “all the nations,” as he told Abraham and repeats throughout the scriptures. Looking at the original languages, that phrase -- “all the nations” -- is not about political borders but about groups of people, tribes and ethnicities -- so that all people may know the Lord. The trials leading up to the Exodus were as much for the Egyptians to know the Lord as they were for the Israelites to be set free. So my smaller struggles are not just for the sake of my own freedom or happiness, but they are part of the larger war God is waging against ignorance about his character and unbelief about his love.

One particular theme kept recurring in those days, in the days when I was realizing my shrine to happiness was not going to be built, at least in that moment or in the way I had envisioned. That conversation urged me to go find my voice, to take up the mantle of building things for my King. It wrenched me away from the desires of my heart and sent me into what was probably a necessary, excruciating exile, an imprisonment in a hospital room where I could begin to recuperate. Even in the middle of whisking me away to the forested hills where I live now, it’s clear God was also drawing me into a new stage, a new place where being blessed myself is for the sake of what he is up to, not just for the sake of my own healing. He is at work in a multiplicity of ways. Always.

The wisdom of God is in this, because as much as I thought I wanted to retreat from life’s battles, I’m not done yet, not done with the struggles, not done speaking, not done building. There are words to be spoken and kingdom work to be done, even while the bruising fades and healing continues. I’m not yet good at turning away from the needful battles. I’m not good at keeping silent. The words Tennyson puts in the mouth of Ulysses ring true also for me: “How dull it is to stop, make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use. As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life were all too little.” It is, I imagine, a sign of progress, of healing, to be hungry for battles and building once more, even though I still weary easily and most evenings find me staring out at the sunset on the lake dreaming of that little out of the way life built around love. These days I imagine if it ever comes it will be as part of a kingdom-building community, as an outpost of the love of God set amid the great struggle to speak a word of truth into a falsifying world, to live the delight of the love of Jesus as he lived it, amid the great currents and migrations and within all the contests of the powers vying for supremacy.

And yet I don’t think it’s wrong to long for an island of peace. Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived in Bethany, in close orbit around the hairball that was Jerusalem in those days, and their home became a sanctuary for Jesus, a place of refuge and retreat, and even in some ways a base of operations for his movement. Peace and love and joy are all marks of the authentic presence of God’s Spirit, after all, and it seems reasonable to long for those qualities to be the warp and woof of a life that is lived in obedience to his calling, as much as the more public face of such a life is still lived in the presence of the powers, in the context of grander conflict.

Life is not a fairy tale. But if you read the book, even Westley and Buttercup got to settle down and build a home and raise their daughter, though that came with its own struggles. A life built around love is still something to hope for.

Meanwhile, I need to get to work. Sunday is our big “Share the Dream” event here at Decision Hills, and while I’ve delegated as much as I can, I have plenty to do and fewer and fewer hours to do it. Watching the weather forecast, getting the repaired dock put in the lake, mowing trails and repairing concrete foundations and coordinating first aid stations. There’s a joy in the work, a joy in creating an event that will hopefully speak a strong word to the local community and beyond about what God is doing in this place.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Under construction

These days is tempting to build a house in the land of my failure. In that landscape every bird, every breeze is a reminder of how I have fallen, how broken I am, how every action of every moment is tainted with the righteous indignation of those who know my sin and my weakness. No one else is building me this house, but I carry a weight that encumbers every moment. Like Bunyan's "Pilgrim" I bear a heavy burden on my back that needs to drop from my shoulders.

This morning as the sun cleared the trees beyond my meadow, a doe came grazing up through the early morning light. She shook herself in my front yard and the droplets of water flew from her like a misty cloud. I could see her chin whiskers highlighted in the crisp sunlight as she, head-down, examined a woodchuck that scampered out of the way of her curiosity. The sleek reddish-brown of her coat stood out so I could see every hair. Beyond her, the swamp grasses stand, seeded heads waving, growing inches each day, reaching for the light. Psalm 65 continues to ring in my eyes from my morning recliner:

"You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it. The river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it ... the pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy."

Like dusty spiderwebs in the corners of my consciousness, I live with my frailty. Savoring the memory of quiet exploration, of shared reflection on the word God is speaking into this day, I long for free conversations that will reinforce to me the righteousness, the benevolence, the compassion of God. Instead I turn and turn and turn on the racetrack of my own isolate thoughts. The superabundance that is so evident in all my context goes unnoticed, and I carry an anvil in my heart.

Last night we had a work crew here at Decision Hills, something I had initiated and organized. People showed up eager to sweat, to trim back the brush at our north entrance and to clear the patch of thistles where our repaired dock will go in the water this week, to give themselves with joy to the needful tasks of stewardship. We trimmed buckthorn and blew piles of last winter's moulded leaves and repaired leaky roofs. Our work was lightened and deepened by joyful acknowledgement of God's gracious goodness in this place, by beauty set in a gorgeous landscape, by loons calling from lake to lake around us, by the anticipation of God's goodness.

Since Seattle, I am fighting a cold and the weight in my lungs, the scratch in my throat, the drip in my sinuses feels deserved, like I have earned this discomfort, like why should I complain? It's karma, it's reaping what I have sowed. The virus twists me, turns me in on myself, makes it hard to get outside my own head, hard to get beyond my own infected consciousness, hard to lose myself.

In my morning reading, Oswald Chambers bears witness to the goodness of God and speaks incisively into my circumstances: "If you will give God your right to yourself, he will make a holy experiment out of you. God's experiments always succeed. The one mark of a saint is the moral originality which springs from abandonment to Jesus Christ. In the life of a saint there is this amazing wellspring of original life all the time; the Spirit of God is a well of water, springing up perennially fresh. The saint realizes that it is God Who engineers circumstances, consequently there is no whine, but a reckless abandon to Jesus. Never make a principle out of your experience."

God's experiments always succeed. We wonder why God doesn't send burning bushes anymore, but perhaps our ears have grown dull and our eyes clouded. Maybe the glory of God is abundantly burning all around us, and it is our filters -- my filters, my whine -- that keep us inebriated on the toxicity of our own perspective. Maybe the majesty of God is all around, waiting to be absorbed, experienced, enjoyed, worshiped.

There's a good chance that if I can't find joy in days like these, I would be dissatisfied if all my longings bore fruit exactly as I wish. Joy is here to be seized, to be grasped. to be danced and delighted. The question on a gorgeous June morning is whether I can abandon myself to Jesus and let him engineer my circumstances, let him be the wellspring, be the Opener of my eyes and ears.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How do you sum up faithfulness?

One of my favorite lines from "The Princess Bride" is when Westley's been mostly dead and is resuscitated by Miracle Max's magic pill, and Inigo is trying to bring him up to speed, Inigo says, "Let me explain ... No, there is too much. Let me sum up." That's a little bit what this Monday morning feels like. Yet throughout, there's a thread connecting so much of the last several days, and it all has to do with God's faithfulness and his eagerness to speak, to guide, to live in intimate, loving relationship with us, to provide guidance in our choices and to share delight in the intricate details. So let me sum up.

  • Last Wednesday I drove to the Cities and had lunch with my daughter Erica, a last minute stop at a delectable Mexican restaurant across the street from her work that could easily become the standard place where we meet. It's so good. We shared great conversation and the joy of being able to spontaneously connect in a loving way, with what Wendell Berry called (paraphrasing here, as my copy of "Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer" is, sadly, out of reach for the moment) the conversation of friends, lightened and cleared by all that can be assumed. What fun to share such conversations with one's children! And this was a huge theme of the last several days with both my daughters.
  • Thence to the airport, flying out to spend time in Seattle for the grand excuse of my daughter Mathea's master's degree graduation, though she launches immediately back into two more years of school to get her Ph.D. I have deep roots in the Seattle area, and I was able to schedule in a few key conversations with friends from back in the day. These are the hard conversations, since so much in my life has changed in the last couple years and each reconnection requires extensive redefinition, and no matter how well they go these conversations always take deep courage and significant mental and emotional preparation. I have things to apologize for, and I am also learning to be honest in new ways about the past, about my relationships, and about myself at new levels. The gift in all this was that in every case, these reconnections were deeply joyful, healthy conversations. Challenging at times but always loving. That is such a gift. 
  • Time with Mathea was priceless. I got to see the life she has built during grad school, including school and home and roommates and friends and favorite hangouts and so much more. Favorites include 
    • King's Hardware, a bar/restaurant in Ballard that, countercultural for Seattle, has mounted deer heads and coyote pelts on the walls and feels more like someplace you might find in northern Minnesota;
    • the opportunity to sample beet-and-goat-cheese ice cream, which is not as horrible as one might think, though I don't think it will ever replace butter pecan in my affections;
    • learning the near-vertical tangle of streets in Queen Anne that Mathea navigates like a boss; 
    • a plethora of bookstores and coffee shops and breakfast places that a bit urban for my tastes but fit her like a glove;
    • so much more. There is too much.
  • We went to see Lord Huron in concert at the Moore Theater, and I'm still processing the experience. I've been listening to them quite a lot the last few months. I have so many questions about this experience. Why is my daughter's demographic so overrepresented in the crowd at this concert? What is it about this band, their narrative lyrics, their fascination with death and relationships and dabbling in, but not really getting mesmerized by, the paranormal, their intense rock-n-roll presentation that makes it hard to understand anything if you don't already know the lyrics, their complete sensory overload of sound and lights and projection and all the technical excellence you could ever ask for, that draws young adult women and the boyfriends who were so obviously most of the males in the crowd, in tow behind the women who really wanted to see this band? That gender imbalance in the crowd -- not just numbers, but also in what I can only call the power imbalance in the crowd -- is one of the pieces of that experience I am still pondering. The concert was incredible, excellent, technically flawless. And I recognize that in some ways I am on the outside of the whole experience. And how does this obviously spiritual-but-not-religious experience connect to that kind of shift in our wider culture?
  • One of the most obvious examples of God speaking -- what you might call a burning bush moment -- was the Über ride to the concert. Turned out our driver, a great conversationalist who was deeply curious about the people he was transporting, was a burned out pastor who had made some significant mistakes in his career and was now driving and rebuilding his life, regaining a sense of himself and his call to ministry through this radically altered life. We had a great eight minute conversation and when we got out of the car, Mathea said, "Well THAT wasn't relevant at all." 
  • Our conversations over the four days I was there included a lot about the research Mathea is working on, the NT Wright book I'm currently reading (his recent biography of Paul, which is excellent), her interactions with each of the different faculty leading her organizational psych program, and the personal struggles, failures and victories each of us is experiencing these days. It was fabulous conversation, and as I told her Saturday, I long for three weeks of time to dig deep into each of those things. 
  • I've never been a big fan of commencement exercises, but it was a joy to see a little knot of us gathered together to celebrate and encourage and revel in this high water mark along the way. Sometimes public celebrations are a good thing. 
  • All through my time there, in Wright's book and in scripture (the psalms still, the late 50's and early 60's these last few days), in conversations planned and random, in quiet solitary moments and in large public gatherings, there has been, as I said, a thread of God subtly speaking his love and wisdom, cautions and encouragements. Out of that, a word that has kept recurring is "trust." Corollary to that is the theme of God's faithfulness, his relational, loving steadfastness. 
  • I got back to Minnesota late on Saturday, and arrived back at my cabin (had Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home" running through my head as I drove in) and saw a doe bedded down in my front yard as though she was keeping an eye on the place in my absence. A few hours' sleep and I was immediately back into the very good grind of things here at Decision Hills. 
  • Last night I got to meet with my Life Group leaders, a group of excellent people in training to implement a model of home-based communities here. It's exciting stuff, and we spent time last night in Mark 4 where Jesus stills the storm and his disciples go from being afraid of the storm to being afraid of Jesus. The whole evening was like a perfect capstone to the entire trip, a neat chance to tie up the days of hearing God deal with my storms and refocus my attention on him. It's one of my favorite stories, and it was a joy to delve with these great leaders into the questions of how God shows up in the storms, how he speaks "Peace, be still" and what that might look like ... 
It probably doesn't come through as I describe the experiences as strongly as it was in my moment-by-moment living it, but there's such a strong sense for me over the last several days of being deeply connected to people and places, of deep, life-giving relationships, of webs of love that hold us and keep us, of God's faithfulness flowing through the invisible connections that carry us through the days. It's so good, even in the middle of the storms. 

And I will admit that I'm chuckling a bit about writing that last line as a massive thunderstorm is pummeling everything in sight. God has a sense of humor. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

God has a bottle

I've been working my way through the Psalms for a couple months now. This morning I am reading and pondering Psalm 56. David wrote this one when he was in difficult circumstances, when his enemies had taken him captive and were debating how best to do away with him.

The psalm is full of David's confidence in God's love and power. It's good stuff to read. But I'm taken this morning by a line near the end of the psalm:

"You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?"

I have to admit, the past year and a half, my life has included plenty of "tossings." Restless nights staring at the ceiling, fears of the past and the future, tears of shame and repentance and regret, longing for loved ones who are beyond reach ... tossings. Without exception, every day in all that time I've been in conversation with God, asking him to reveal himself, asking for guidance. Some days he has revealed himself in some significant way. Other days the heavens seem to be plastered over, closed off, locked up. More than anything else, he has found many ways to tell me he has not abandoned me. He's good like that.

Make no mistake, the evidence of his love and care, when I look around, is overwhelming. There is so much good in my life, and I give God full credit for every bit of it. He has been so faithful, so loving, so generous. Yet my days and nights are still, so often, full of tossings.

That's why it's comforting to me that God has a bottle. (Okay, I got into a long conversation yesterday about interpreting the book of Revelation, and the person I was talking with was quite concerned with what could be taken literally and what was symbolic. So let me say, I don't think it's helpful to get hung up on the literal nature of this bottle and how God fastens the lid / cork / cap / stopper on it, and where he keeps it ... does this mean God has shelves and pockets? Let's not go there. The bottle can be symbolic for the moment. But given our nature as incarnated beings, we need physical reality and it might be helpful just to imagine God having a real, physical bottle right now for the sake of argument without getting caught up in the metaphysics of whether it's an old mason jar or a beautiful alabaster flask.) And that bottle, according to David, is where God saves your tears. They don't fall without him paying attention. They don't drop from the curve of your cheek to the dust without God's knowledge, without his intimate attention. They don't just soak into your shirt-sleeve and evaporate, leaving a tiny trace of salt in the fabric. God tenderly holds your tears.

In my symbolic / literal mind, this means that all your angst, all your frustration, all your grief, all your longing, is tended and stewarded by God. This is a deep facet of his love for you. Like an attentive lover, God is paying attention, caring for your heart, caring for your mindset and your frustration and your hopes. He holds every twist of your tossings, every track of your tears.

And he does not squander them. It's not that God is just aware in some kind of banal benevolence. He is actively working out the details of your life -- engineering them, to borrow Oswald Chambers' phrase -- including all these uncomfortable bits, for the sake of a greater good that will bless you and bless the world through you. That's what God does. While we like to read the Bible for the sake of all the good parts, by which we mean the parts that tell us what we want to hear, the evidence in scripture is overwhelming that God is in the business of taking your sufferings and making something good out of them. In fact, that might be one reason he allows them in the first place. God could have prevented David from falling into the hands of the Philistines, but he allowed it -- and then he delivered David, proving his own goodness and increasing David's trust in him and strengthening David's capability to serve as an excellent king for his people.

God is doing things in your life. Part of what he is doing is that he's saving up your current frustration, your current fear, to build greater things in your and in the world. Because that's what his love does.