Category: Discipleship

I Didn’t Choose This

“If there was one thing that you would say to the church or if there was one thing that you would want Christians to know about your experience as a gay man, what would it be?” This was the question that I recently put to a friend on a warm summer evening near the end […]

Why Do I Sin?

It was the championship women’s church league volleyball game. It’d been an intense season, and the double elimination tournament lasting until two a.m. reflected that. A team had come up through the loser’s bracket and had to beat the first place team twice to win. Players were exhausted. Tension was high. A player spiked the ball onto the other side just as a random ball bounced onto the court. “Redo!” the ref called. Everyone was upset. The ball had come from a group of teenagers taking advantage of the empty court on the other side of the gym. A group of teenagers that were, well, my friends and me. After being yelled at, two of my friends volunteered to be on the side of the circle closest to the championship game. My two friends were taller, faster, stronger, and more skilled. They had a much better chance of making sure the ball didn’t go onto the other court than I did. However, strangely, I found myself adjusting my position and running after the ball despite their assurances that they would get the ball. Logically, I knew they had a better chance than I did of getting the ball. Yet, somehow I just didn’t believe they cared as much as I did about not letting the ball go to the other court. I just didn’t trust them. _____________ While I went through my phase of reading or listening to Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and Ken Ham as a preteen, I haven’t really doubted God’s existence since then. But I have given up on God. At two major times in my life, I came close to abandoning Him for good. During my senior year of high school and subsequent year at RBC, I quit daily devotions, seriously considered choosing a career for pride and wealth rather than what God wanted me to do, prayed with a "yeah, right" attitude, and lived for myself. Then seven years later, I did it all over again. Neither time did I doubt whether God was real. Instead, both times I was angry with Him: He hadn’t changed my negative feelings toward a friend --even though I’d been fasting and praying. I didn’t believe He would heal my mom. My life hadn’t turned out how I expected. I imagined God as this cosmic deity sitting on His couch eating popcorn and laughing at my troubles. If I solved one problem, He’d say, “Oh, what new problem can I create to help Tabitha grow?” I was fed up with “growing”. More recently, as I’ve been monitoring a month long cough with increasing paranoia (since I had pneumonia at the same time last year), I stated, “God, I need to quit worrying. I trust You with my health. Wait! No!” My mind went to a friend with cancer, and I remembered my pneumonia last year. “I take that back. You don’t care about my health. I need to worry.” When I worry, I’m not trusting that whatever God has planned for me is good.
When I idolize books and movies and ignore God, I think that my hobbies will make me happier than Him. When I get angry at a student, I’m replacing my job as my source of happiness instead of God. Thus, when I sin, I doubt God’s goodness. Yes, if I believe that He is the God of the Bible then it makes sense that He is good, but I still don’t actually act as if He will get to the volleyball before I do. I know I struggle with God's goodness when bad things happen. Yet, I don’t always realize that doubting His goodness is the root of even my “minor” sins. __________________ So, what do I cling to in those moments of doubt, those times when I want to turn to “comfort sins” instead of God? I’ve learned to
1) Talk to God; yell at Him; be honest with Him, and don’t cut the communication lines.
2) Worship. Otto Koning once said that God’s heart responds when we say “thank you” while hurting. I’ve found this to be true.
3) Repeat truth. “You are good, and You do what is good” (Psalm 119). “He delights to give good gifts to His children” (the Sermon on the Mount). I’m amazed at how what I choose to dwell on becomes a part of my natural thoughts.
4) Remember His past faithfulness. God has answered prayer after prayer for me. I look back at old journals and am astounded. He’s been good in the past, so thus, I can trust Him to be good in the present.
5) Meditate on God’s incarnation --His decision to dwell in our pain.
6) Enjoy the relationship. I've realized that even the above principles won’t work if I treat them as a formula. My relationship with God has mystery and uniqueness that cannot be pinned down.

Looked with Compassion

Image result for bad eyesightThe following a sermon from Pastor Greg Henneman that he preached based on Matthew 14 after Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted for shooting of Philando Castile. I was born with bad eyesight. I have one eye that is not horrible, it is around 20/80, but in my other eye I am legally blind. However, I have lazy eye in the good eye so my body primarily uses the bad eye. Basically, I am blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other. All of my life I have had to wear glasses in order to see the world clearly. In fact, three out of four people in the United States wear some kind of corrective lenses, whether glasses or reading glasses or contact lenses. The vast majority of us need some help to see the world around us more clearly. While most of us need glasses to improve our physical vision, all of us need help to learn how to see the world as God sees the world. We all need to learn how to see one another like Jesus. In Matthew 14, Jesus had just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, was brutally executed through the influence of the king’s sister in law. John, a faithful, religious man, the one who baptized Jesus, was beheaded. Image result for crowdJesus hears the tragic news and decides to get a break from it all and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He gets on a boat, crosses the sea, but when gets there and who is waiting for him? The crowd. Crowds of people made it around the lake and got there before Jesus, looking for a healing miracle, listening for a teaching, wanting for something to eat. Jesus just wanted to get away from it all, and there was the ever-present crowd, just wanting more from him. Have you ever been in a situation like that when you just need a break and the phone keeps ringing or people keep calling your name or the kids ask from you or the boss wants from you and life just won’t give you a break? When we are there, it is easy to begin to look at the people around us as a drain, as a source of stress, as someone else wanting something from me, taking my time and my energy. We begin to look at the people around us as obstacles to be overcome. Jesus doesn’t do that. Despite the fact that he is stressed out and the crowd wants from him he doesn’t look at them as if they are a burden, he looks at them with compassion. glass.png He doesn’t see them as needy, he sees them with compassion. Through the eyes of compassion he provides for them, he heals the sick, teaches, and feeds. He does all of that, because he starts from a place of compassion. Jesus looks at people through the eyes of compassion. How do we look at people? We start by observing the outside. A Harvard University study found that brain scans show that the first things we notice about someone when we look at their face is their race and their gender. We look at a person and the first thing we notice is the color of the skin and whether it is a man or a woman. This is a natural, evolutionary response. But then from there, our brain not only makes this initial observation, but assigns meanings to the observation. We make assumption about people based on whether the person is a man or a woman. I know that if I go to get my car worked on, I will often get a different response than my wife. That kind of stuff drives me crazy and I hate it, but that is the world that we live in.
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And we not only make assumptions about someone because of their gender, but because of their race. We saw it again this week in the exoneration of the police officer who killed Philando Castillo. Castillo was not only brutally shot in front of his family and killed, but he had been pulled over 52 times in his life for minor traffic violations. 52 times. This is someone who was a model citizen, who worked at a school, who had a quiet and unassuming personality, who was described by the students of the school as “Mr Rogers with dreadlocks”. But because of the color of his skin he was pulled over 52 times and killed. This is how the world looks at people. We look at someone and judge them as a threat by their appearance. The world has conditioned us to look at each other as opposites and to categorize. Rich and poor, black and white, male and female, gay and straight.
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While this is how we look at the world, this is not God’s design. On the first page of the Bible, in Genesis, Chapter 1, it says “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Every person is created in the image of God. Every face you see in this room reflects something different about who God is. The person who is different from you is not a category to be labeled or feared, but is a sister or brother in Christ who has been created in God’s image. It is in the diversity of humankind that we see a little more clearly who God is. The invitation we have is to begin to see one another not as our culture and society teach us to see where we divide people by race, color, creed, sexuality, and national origin, but to see each other as God sees us, to see Christ reflected in the eyes of the stranger, to look with the eyes of compassion. So how do we do that, how do we get compassionate eyes? How do we learn to see each other as God sees us? Unfortunately it is not as easy as going to the eye doctor and getting a new pair of glasses with compassion lenses. Often, the way we begin to see others differently is when we go through some struggle and suffering ourselves.
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Remember, that this scripture follows right after Jesus has learned of the execution of John the Baptist. Jesus has lost a cousin in a horrific way. He is mourning, he is grieving, so when he comes upon this crowd of people who are hurting, Jesus is hurting himself. It is the fact that he is going through some stuff himself that he is able to have compassion for others who are going through some stuff. This compassion that Jesus shows is deep. The Greek word for compassion, splagchnizomai, means to be moved at the very depth of our being. It is a gut-wrenching compassion. Splagchnizomai is not looking at someone from a distance and having pity for them. It is not about looking down on someone and saying how unfortunate they are, to look with compassion is to connect their struggle with your own and know that we are all united together in Christ. In the world’s eyes we are very different. One of the things that makes us special as the Church for All People is our diversity. And yet, one thing that we have in common is that we all have been through some stuff. We have all mourned the loss of someone we loved. We have all faced addictions of one kind or another, whether to a chemical substance or to our pride and ego. We all know what it feels like to be rejected and to have experienced a broken relationship. We all know what it is like to just have a bad day. When we are able to be honest with ourselves and recognize our own brokenness, then we can be compassionate about the struggles of someone else. However, our temptation is to forget where we have come from. We look at the other with judgmental eyes, not remembering that we were there 10 years ago or recognizing how much God’s grace has changed us. What would it look like to see a person behaving badly through the eyes of compassion? It would mean seeing the person for who they are and not defining them by their behavior. Image result for splagchnizomaiWhen you see the person behaving in a way that you would consider wrong, that person is not their behavior. That person is a child of God and their behavior comes from a place you probably know nothing about. We all share a lifetime of pain and struggle and abuse and suffering. And we have all been hurt. When we can see our hurts and can be understanding of another person’s hurts, than we can begin to look at one another through the eyes of compassion. And when we can do that, amazing things can happen. The rest of this scripture is the familiar story of the loaves and fishes. The disciples see the hungry crowd and instead of looking at them through the eyes of compassion they look and see mouths that need to be fed. They ask Jesus to send them away, but instead Jesus says you feed them. They argue that they don’t have enough. But our God is not a God of scarcity but a God of abundance. There is more than enough. From the five loaves and two fish thousands are fed with 12 baskets of leftovers. But the full miracle here is not only the miracle of abundant food, but the miracle of abundant compassion. Our fear of scarcity is not limited to having enough money or food or stuff, we also often think we may not have enough love or kindness or generosity or compassion. o much so that we try and protect our pride by putting limits on how much forgiveness we are willing to show or understanding we are willing to extend. But our God is not a God of scarcity, but is a God of abundance! The more we show love, the more we receive love in return. The more we offer forgiveness, the more we are forgiven.
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The more we extend compassion, the more compassion spreads like a ripple effect across our community and our world. The more we look at one another and see God in the eyes of the other, even in the person who makes us most uncomfortable, the more we are a part of God’s work of creating a world where people are seen for the content of their character instead of merely for the color of their skin. My prayer for us today is that we will all get some new glasses, that we will see each other differently, that we will look at each other with eyes of compassion.

Gelassenheit: Parsing of a Spiritual Journey

My brother-in-law recently showed some footage of a family gathering in Switzerland many years ago. In the video, I was on a reclining lawn chair, trying to be oblivious to what was going on around me. My two kids were having the time of their life cavorting with their Swiss cousins. Unfortunately, the grimace on my face revealed that I wasn’t exactly having the same delight as my children.
I was in my early forties when this was filmed. I was working on construction during my summer off from teaching in order to pay for our trip to visit relatives in Switzerland. The weather was hot, and the work was demanding, both physically and with a language that was not my native tongue. Even though the job that awaited me back at home was better than pounding nails and driving screws, I was getting increasingly restless with it. My life seemed out of control. I was in great need of “Gelassenheit.” 
“Gelassenheit” is a term from the German that is often used to describe a quality of life of the Anabaptists, the radical arm of the Reformation in Europe in the 16th Century. There have been numerous attempts to translate what this term means as related to the Anabaptist life and practice. 
In chapter eight of our book The Spacious Heart, I write extensively about the concept of Gelassenheit. I cite this as part of the discussion: “According to the Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia Online,” I write, “these are the multiple meanings of the word: ‘self-surrender, resignation in God’s will, yieldedness to God’s will, self-abandonment, the (passive) opening to God’s willing, including the readiness to suffer for the sake of God, also peace and calmness of mind.’” 
These definitions are all wonderful descriptions of spiritual qualities that as Christians, we would do well to emulate.  However, if you look the word up in a modern English/German dictionary, you won’t find any of these definitions. The first word that normally appears is “serenity.” So perhaps for better understanding, a little parsing of the word would be helpful. 
“Gelassen” is the past participle of the verb “lassen,” which means “to leave [behind]” and “to let [allow].” An interesting side note. Eastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was preponderantly settled by German speakers. To this day, because of the influence of the German, English speakers from this area have a hard time distinguishing between “to let” and “to leave.” 
“Gelassen” can also be used as an adjective. As such it means: “unhurried, calm, easy-going.” I would add “laid-back.” This gets a little closer to the spiritual qualities of the Anabaptists listed above, especially self-abandonment. Adding the suffix “heit” to “gelassen” turns our adjective into a noun, like turning the English adjective “helpful” into the noun “helpfulness” by adding the suffix “ness.” The suffix here turns helpful into, “the state or quality of being helpful.  ”
For the purpose of this blog, I would like to define “Gelassenheit” as “the state or quality of being easy-going or laid-back.” 
Until my middle twenties, I was considered to be easy-going and carefree. In fact, I was often criticized for not taking life seriously enough. I was the book definition of “Gelassenheit”. This all changed when I was confronted with the realities of poverty and oppression that I experienced during my years as a volunteer in Central America. I became a cynical, bitter adult, suppressing my anger at not being able to do much about the situation of my friends. Becoming a father and career responsibilities added to my becoming more “uptight” than “easy-going.” These realities caused the grimace on my face in the home video mentioned earlier. 
To deal with my spiritual crisis, I did years of inner work, looking for the source of my restlessness, and finding my inner God image and likeness. Numerous forms of prayer, meditation, dream work, contemplative walking, and other forms of inner work, helped me to return to what God made me to be, rather than what the outer world forced on me. In our book that I mentioned earlier, I write extensively about these processes. 
Recently, my wife Esther and I were returning from another family visit. We had a wonderful time with her family, visiting, joking and just enjoying the moment. I innocently asked her if she noticed any change in my demeanor at such family reunions. “Absolutely,” she said without needing to think about it. “You are not nearly as uptight.” I’ve become more easy-going and laid back. I returned to the Gelassenheit of my youth. 
The spiritual journey I was on, however, was not an overnight victory. It took years of difficult confrontation with my inner demons. People who fail to do the necessary inner work remain angry and resentful well into their old age. It doesn’t take much effort to see the grimaces on faces you pass along the way. Unfortunately, they far outnumber the faces that reflect the image and likeness of God. 
Perhaps I haven’t gained all the qualities of Gelassenheit mentioned in the Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia I cited above. However, my parsing of the word, and parsing of my spiritual journey, show that I have come a remarkable way. 
Solo Dei gloria 

Binding and Blinding

Back in February, I remarked that Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind should be required reading for anyone who spends time on social media, particularly those who like to go to war over ideas. I said that this is a book for our cultural moment if ever there was one. […]

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