Sunday, April 22, 2018

Vita brevis

Just a brief note to apologize to regular readers for my tardiness -- I have had a busy week, with a ton of work projects, as well as some creative endeavors of my own. Besides all that, spring is rapidly springing here at Decision Hills, and that opens up possibilities, though the ice on the lake is still thick! I actually went bike riding today for about six miles just to work the kinks out. That was wonderful.

That said, there should be more ponderings coming to surface here shortly. In the meantime, get outside and enjoy!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Didn't I just fill that ...

Mystery solved. Looked out the window a few minutes ago and saw the culprits. (The fresh tracks had already been an obvious clue.) The fawn, on the right, came in first past my study window and I belly-crawled across the living room floor just in time to see the very pregnant doe on the left come walking in.

Between the dog nose prints from this weekend on the inside of the glass, and the deer-prints on the outside of the glass, it's a mess. (I don't think they were made at the same time, but ...) Kind of fun to watch, all the same. Seems like the deer really like the latest variety of birdseed I bought.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Going to church??

I've been thinking a little lately about wine and wineskins. Jesus talked about this in Mark 2, among other places. Seems like Jesus was saying that the "new wine" of relationship with him, of community focused on him, has to be placed in "new wineskins" -- new practices and structures. To oversimplify, the Jesus-following church was going to look different than its Jewish roots.

I think that we have a similar problem when we think about "going to church." What most of us have experienced as going to church has little to do with what the New Testament describes as church. Not only are the wineskins radically different, but over time those wineskins -- the structures we put in place to do church -- begin to change the wine itself.

For example, for most of us, "going to church" involves getting in a car and driving to a building that has seating for a large number of people -- maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand, maybe more. We enter that building and are likely handed a booklet including a template for the worship experience. We go into a sanctuary and sit in rows of seats or pews that keep us more or less passive, facing a platform from which professional leaders sing, play, perform, preach, and pray. We sit in place as an offering plate or bag or bucket is passed by us and we may or may not put a contribution into it. Eventually the experience ends, and we file back out to our cars and drive home. This, we think, is "going to church."

Such an experience has very little to do with the New Testament vision of the church.

What kind of Christianity does this kind of going-to-church produce? Passive. Professionally led. Low commitment. Biblically illiterate. While there are glorious, glowing exceptions to these harsh words, look at the tendencies of the western church across North America, and you'll see my point. Mostly the glorious, glowing exceptions happen in places where this lowest-common-denominator of going to church is augmented by faith lived out in the home, mission acted out in the neighborhood, scripture studied and discussed and prayed over in a spiritually hungry group of people.

If you're curious about this, I had the privilege of preaching about some of it at The Open Door this morning. We were scheduled to have a great student choir called "On Call" leading worship but the blizzard prevented that, so Ryan and Daidre put together a great acoustic worship set at the last minute. If you want to skip past their excellent music, the sermon starts at about 24:00 and my final thoughts at 1:02:00. Here's the link to the sermon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A deeper obedience

This morning I was reading a meditation written by John Piper, the well-known preacher and teacher. I don't always agree with Piper, and sometimes reading his material provides me with a theological wrestling match, sort of like sparring with a friend or colleague. It sharpens me, because I respect Piper's biblical knowledge and the fruit his life has borne, even if we disagree on some of the minor points.

This morning, though, I resonated deeply with what I read. Here's just an excerpt:
I have never heard anyone say, 'The really deep lessons of my life have come through times of ease and comfort.' But I have heard strong saints say, 'Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depth of God's love and growing deep with him, has come through suffering.' 
That's sobering. He goes on to quote the New Testament book of Hebrews (5:8) which says that though Jesus was "a son" -- in other words, in the position of an heir, full member of the household of God (just as Jesus' followers are sons and daughters through our adoption into Christ Jesus, his death and resurrection), as well as being uniquely positioned as the "Son of God" -- "he learned obedience through what he suffered." Piper rightly points out that this same book, Hebrews, declares that Jesus never sinned (4:15). So it's not saying he was disobedient and then learned obedience, but rather that the fullness of the experience of obedience was produced in Jesus' earthly life through suffering. Piper says, "It means experiencing depths of yieldedness to God that would not have been otherwise attained."

Here's where my ponderings go with these things today:

While your heart may have been turned to Jesus for a long time, your ability to act in obedience has not been mature. This has certainly been (and continues to be) true for me. This is part of what Jesus meant when he said, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," or what had Paul tied in knots in Romans 7.

As an example, for my entire adult life I have been eager to have strong relationships that reflect the love and glory of God. In my own vernacular, my shorthand for this desire is that I long for a life  built around love. That desire is not new; I remember dreaming in college about what I wanted my adult life to be, and the shape of it was exactly this -- I longed for a life built around love. I believe this is a right, good, God-honoring desire.

Trouble is, my understanding of love and a life built around it was immature and partial, and my ability to act to build my life around genuine, enduring love was broken at best. So for decades, while pursuing the worthy goals of building a marriage and a family and a career that glorified Jesus and built the kingdom of God in some way, my own brokenness and weakness prevented me from making some of the needful hard decisions in obedience. Fact is, I thought I was being obedient, and I looked for all the world like a husband, father, worker who was trying to do things right -- because that's exactly what I was. However, my obedience didn't have enough depth. I needed to set hard limits at times, and instead I gave people cheap grace. I needed to be an advocate for myself, and instead I believed I was called to give up my needs, just one more time. I needed to hold people near me accountable for their hurtful actions, and instead I forgave as best I knew how, but inside I seethed with resentment, and thought I was being loving. I needed to walk away from dysfunctional conversations and cut them short, and instead I just put on an impassive face and tried my best to endure. These specific examples may or may not be the place God is calling you to deeper obedience. But he is definitely calling -- especially if you are suffering.

Eventually my shallow obedience was not enough, and much that I had tried to build came crashing down. While it's tempting in suffering to blame another person or another system (because they're certainly broken as well) that doesn't bear any good fruit. And make no mistake, I suffered for my own actions, or my own inactions. It is an ironclad truth that whatever you plant, that's what you're going to reap. But the suffering I reaped through the crash has begun to teach me a deeper, richer obedience that looks different than what I thought obedience looked like. I'm learning to acknowledge and advocate for my own needs. I am learning to say no to dysfunctional people and systems. I'm learning to walk away from destructive conversations. I'm learning that grace is costly, both for me and for those I love. I'm learning that sometimes I need to take action to call a stop, to make an end, to set and enforce a limit. And make no mistake, that can be painful.

This deeper obedience lies in tension with, and sometimes contradicts, the "Minnesota Nice" I absorbed growing up, which (in reality) is so often simply an impulse to avoid conflict and avoid pain. There are deep, deep confrontations inside me where the truths God is teaching me stand in direct opposition to the long-suffering passive-aggressive behaviors I learned growing up. There were many lessons I learned in those early days that still serve me well -- kindness and patience and careful thought and hard work and many more. But sometimes it is right, deeply obedient, to call a halt, to say "no," to walk away, even if it looks in the short term like those choices might cause more conflict and offend people. Sometimes it is deeply obedient to know your own needs and name them out loud and act as your own advocate, even if doing so looks terrifying at the time.

I look back at the last few years and realize -- and this is uncomfortable -- that without the suffering I've endured (including the self-inflicted parts) I would never have learned these lessons. Too much in my life was wrapped around my old ways of acting, believing, coping. It is a severe grace of God to come at times like an avalanche and sweep away much that seemed solid. But it is also God's mercy and compassion to rebuild on foundations swept clean. More than ever, I continue to long for a life built around love. In this challenging season, I am growing into a deeper understanding of what that requires of me.

Monday, April 9, 2018

April is the cruelest month

Regular readers know that I enjoy winter. This is most certainly true. Yesterday again we had a few inches of snow, and yesterday while five deer traipsed through my meadow, not seeming to mind the flakiness of it all, I hunkered down in front of my window and worked on indoor projects and ate popcorn and drank LaCroix and chaga and worked on a story I'm writing. The evening was absolutely gorgeous.

But recognizing my own (and others') impatience and doubt about whether spring will actually ever arrive, I started playing with poetry this morning. This doesn't do a thing to hasten the arrival of spring, but it's fun to play with words.

I'm always confident that God is doing good things under the snow. And if (when, says faith) it arrives, I believe spring will be all the more glorious because of that. But even a lover of snowshoes and blizzards like myself can get impatient. So because it seems like winter is lasting forever:

We have never known effervescent Spring
when robins return to nest
freshets flow in sprints to bring
ponds to waiting depressions where

the cold of January held arid sway
and budding maples do their best
to draw sweet water from earth to sky
while raindrops speed through air

to soak the softened earth.
Spring is all foreign to those
living prescient rumors of rebirth
but who have loved only in bitter ice.

We have never known green and mud
where multifoliate petals rose
to the embrace of carbonated blood
beneath starlit spring-fed skies.

What would it be to wander free
as the hands of the rain gently pry
open blue floral banquets, and -- see!
Spring's songbirds not only sing, but fly?

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

For many years now, this exquisite poem has gotten mingled in my mind with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in "The Quiet Man," which is set in Innisfree. The poem echoes so much of the best of the place I am now living, where I do indeed hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore -- or will, once the lake unfreezes, probably sometime in May this year:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, 
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: 
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee; 
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.  

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, 
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.  

I will arise and go now, for always night and day 
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; 
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, 
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

-W.B. Yeats

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The timing of God

Have you ever been frustrated with God's timing? I have. So many times. I'm thankful I have many, many stories I can look back on to verify that God's timing is perfect. He knows far better than I do when things should happen and how the amazing, intricate web of events that make up our lives should be coordinated.

I'm thinking about this today because I'm hearing lots of people grind and grumble about the snow that's falling. Yesterday as I was running errands and this storm was just beginning, the grocery store clerk, the lady who cut my hair, shoppers at the hardware store, and many others were expressing their distaste for snow in April. (I've also heard many, many people around here noting that a year ago, they had their docks in the lake already.)

This morning I've been taking advantage of the snow to handle some administrative details, surfing through old emails, planning future projects, doing my best to manage my work and my life and to communicate well. If the day stays like this, I'll add a few paragraphs to the manuscript I'm working on later. Eventually I'll need to go out and clear some snow, but there's not much point in that until the flakes slow down later this afternoon. So I'm doing indoor work by my window, sipping my Caribou Mahogany coffee, listening to John Mayer explain why he's not going to L.A. anymore.

The snow falling fast through the oaks and cedars looks like a snowglobe, like a perfectly gorgeous late November or early December day. And earlier this morning there, out of the trees across the meadow, up into my yard, came three deer -- Momma and the almost-grown twins. It was quite clear that they don't mind the snow at all as they paused to browse on the buckthorn at the bottom of my yard.

It strikes me that this lingering winter is such a parable for the timing of God. We get stuck in patterns, living in the chains of old life, and God grants a vision of what could be. We long for that vision, yearn for it, make ourselves sick wishing for it. Perhaps we even decide to force heaven's hand and make it happen. (One of my daughters started her garden indoors a few weeks ago, and now all her plants are too big for their tiny pots but she won't be able to put them out for weeks yet. Yikes!) Usually that effort to coerce God by my own efforts fails miserably, at least for me. I've seen enough Minnesota springs to know that early or late, there will come a remarkable change in the weather. The snow will disappear again in a matter of days, the soil will continue to warm up (which it's doing under all that frosty white stuff even as I write) and like a miracle, spring will come again. I love the way Solomon writes it, exactly capturing the spirit of joy and freedom that will appear in the next few weeks:

"My beloved speaks and says to me: 'Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.'" (Song of Solomon 2:10-13)

Doesn't look much like that outside my window right now. Yes, last year March saw days in the 80's and spring came remarkably early. That doesn't mean God needs to make it happen just that way this year. Like those twins appearing in my yard this morning, God's promises are good, and he has good reasons for his timing. There will come a day his voice will speak clearly and he will say, "Ready? NOW!" and if we're paying attention, it will be time to act, time to move, in an attitude of submission to God's sovereignty and worship of his glory.

Until that day, remember that for Jesus' followers, waiting is never a passive thing. If God has you in a period of waiting right now, this is critically important. We wait actively. Waiting is a time to prepare, time to get ready for that day when God speaks his "Now!" Like the warming earth under the snow, like the sap rising in the frost-encrusted maples, like the deer calmly browsing through the buckthorn, waiting is an active time. The fledgling church in Acts 1 was waiting, by Jesus' command, for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yet in that throwaway chapter, they gathered together to strengthen relationships, they prayed, they dealt with leadership issues, they immersed themselves in the scriptures, so that when the Holy Spirit showed up, they were ready to leap forward in obedience.

God's timing is perfect. Trust him, and do what can be done in these days while you wait for spring.