Daily Devotional: Letting Go of our Need to Cut Out the Lights on our Moments of Heartache and Pain

jesus-414397_640Mark 15:33-39

Hanging on the cross, while being executed on trumped up charges as a traitor, Jesus cries out in prayer praying Psalm 22, an ancient prayer of God’s people expressing confusion and loss.   Jesus prays alongside the people of God through the ages “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.

As a chaplain and pastor, I have heard so often the voices of people facing illness and loss, overwhelmed by the darkness crashing into their lives with no light at the end of the tunnel express exactly these words.   They feel betrayed by God. They feel forgotten by their Maker or, worse yet, unfairly attacked.   If you have ever been through unexpected illness, job loss, the sudden death of someone you love, you know I’m sure all to well such feelings.

Many of them express to me uncomfortability with these feelings. They say that they are afraid to voice them – for their families or the church tells them to think on the positive, to not give up faith, to believe.   They are told that their anger, fear, uncertainty, and sense of rejection is wrong and chaplain 1dangerous. It is putting a barrier to God. Some tell me they have heard “If you feel God isn’t there, who moved?” Sometimes these words of theirs cut right to my heart to hear for I remember saying just such things in a well-meaning way early in my Christian life and ministry, not realizing the heartache I was inflicting with my well-meaning words.

Now I make space for such cries of pain, for such questioning and fear, communicating it is ok.   I do because of this example of Jesus’ and, when asked, I share about his example.

Jesus knows the way of God better than I ever will, as God in the flesh, and he follows the pattern of Scripture which is not, as I had for years been led to believe, of pushing down and denying our pain but instead boldly confronting it, presenting it before God openly and truly. images-of-jesus-praying-to-godxSo Jesus raises to God a prayer openly expressing his own feelings of being forsaken, being cast aside and forgotten, being trampled on by the Almighty.   Jesus joins the cries of God’s people through the ages found in the Psalms who cry out “How long o Lord, hide thou away? When will thy wrath not burn like a flame?”

This is so different than what popular religion and spirituality often presents. Too often what we see is more like the caricature of pop spirituality presented in this clip from the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” –

Jesus instead is fully honest with God, with Himself, with others.   He lets Himself feel, know, and express the depth of his pain.

A funny thing happens through this. At the end of the story, a Roman centurion recognizes Jesus as truly God.   This is a man in the occupying army that oppresses Jesus’ people, grinding them beneath his boot.   It is a man with a hand in killing Jesus. It is a man with little to no knowledge of the God of Israel and of Scripture.   Yet not despite Jesus fully feeling, recognizing, and expressing his depth of anguish, questions, doubt and fear but because of him doing so, this man is able to see Jesus as God in his midst, one in whom the Sacred fire of heaven is burning bright.

woman_praying1This is a powerful lesson to us. In actual fact, honesty about our questions, doubts, fears, pain does not drive us further from God.   Trying to ignore, deny, “turn it off” when those are our reality does.   Truly being honest to God, to ourselves, tears down the barriers and allows us to truly experience God – even if we cannot in that moment use “God” to describe what we experience.   And when people see that honesty, they are able to see the Sacred that dwells in our hearts and lives just as the Centurion saw the Sacred presence in Jesus.

Instead of turning it off, we are called to open ourselves to know and feel the fullness of who we are, and share that with God.   This is what Hebrews means when it tells us to come boldly before the throne of grace.   I think it is also what mystic and theologian St Ireaneaus meant when he said the glory of God is a human life fully alive.   For God is present and alive in powerful ways in all aspects of our lives – in our joys and moments of peace, in our commitment to careful living, in our passions and sexuality, and yes in our moments of pain, of doubt, of fear. God is not the one far off and untouched by our suffering. Rather God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being who is ever in, with, under, through, and surrounding Question Mark on Road - Uncertaintyin embrace all living things and us as well. So that if we experience pain, doubt, anguish, and even feelings of God-forsakeness in some mysterious way God is also present deep within, through, and around those feelings and moments.   We discover that presence not by ignoring those feelings but by truly facing into them and expressing them for by doing so we open ourselves up not just to ourselves but also to the One who dwells deep in every soul, life, and moment.

May we learn to embrace each moment, however dark, as a place in which we can be fully ourselves and in being fully ourselves know God more deeply. Let us also learn to be ones like the Centurion who are able to see and help others see the Sacredness present in their lives in these moments of pain by giving them person to fully be themselves rather than being like those who try to tell people to shut off the light of their true feelings.

And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Daily Devotional: Learning How to Love God and Do What We Want

jesus-park-benchPsalm 37

In a few short phrases, this Psalm cuts through to the heart of so many of our sources of anxiety, fear, and confusion.

The Psalmist tells us to put aside all fear that in the end those committed to evil – which in Scripture are courses of life that fly in the face of Micah 6:8’s call to do justice, love mercy & compassion, and walk with humility before God – will triumph.   I know I have felt the fear which the Psalmist answers. When you’ve focused your life on trying to serve God the best you know how and yet have so many things you’ve worked to build seemingly slide through your fingers like psalm, you can wonder what the payoff of a life of faith is. Then you can look up and see others who not only do not keep the spiritual path as central but in fact openly get ahead through trampling others under foot, through oppressing and ripping off those in their way, outwardly seeming to thrive.   It is hard not to throw up my hands in those moments and say “why God?” or “Really? You have to be kidding me?” I don’t think there has been a person of faith who has not gone through such a period, where they look up from their commitment to the journey of transformation, of service, and wondered if it was an empty game or a cruel joke.

The Psalmist reminds us that, no, things are not as they appear.   The spiritual journey is about lasting transformation. It is about the big picture thinking and what truly lasts.   Living life disconnected from what matters – connection with others, the deep meaning that spirituality and ethics help produce, the serenity found in discovering something greater than one’s self – is living life that at center is empty.   I think about that life as like the seeming financial success right before the economic bubble burst at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. Many people & businesses had made lots of money through shady deals, through suspect practices like sub-prime mortgages, through claiming they or other had assets they didn’t. It looks like success and for a short period of time, some people made lots of money. Then, as any house built on sand, the whole thing came crashing down.   And so many lives were hurt.

breath prayerUltimately that crisis is a metaphor for what the Psalmist is saying. Lasting success is built on what is real. A life that is sustainably happy, content, and thriving grows out of a center of wholeness that can only come through doing the work of growing, seeking self-understanding, a heart of compassion, connection with others, and the deep wholeness the spiritual path makes possible.

This is more than religion. For some, church attendance, reciting doctrines and creeds, and going through motions of prayer can be not embarking on the journey of self-discovery and cultivating compassion which is the spiritual path but instead a protection from it. “I don’t need to explore my soul, for I came down to the altar and said the sinner’s prayer. I don’t need to hear the stories of people different than me and have my heart shaped toward compassion, for I know my basic instructions before leaving earth”. Religion can be a starting ramp and guiding map for the spiritual journey but it also can be just as vapid, just as empty as the life critiqued by the Psalmist here if it is used as a buffer against the call to true life. Also, I find many people who do not ascribe to religion, including those who might call themselves agnostic and atheist, who I believe in their own way embark on this journey to spirituality because they are truly honestly seeking what is true, as well as the deep inner wholeness that journey makes possible.

This building of a life that works long term to me also connects with two other gems this Psalm gives us – the reminder that we need to be patient as well as the statement that if we truly trust God, God will give us the desires of our heart.

When I first read that last phrase it seemed to make no sense to me.   After all the first section of the Psalm recognizes that we in fact don’t get what we want every time, and sit heart-broken to see individuals who choose paths of injustice who get it instead. Then I read the stunning proverb of St. Augustine’s – “Love God, and do what you want”.   Augustine meant, of course, if you truly are loving God with your whole heart, in that moment what you want will be love for others, care for God’s other, those things that better God’s world. When truly full of the love God gives, your heart will long for those things God loves – those things that work toward the healing of God’s world.

Becoming ones whose hearts naturally are overflowing with this love, this compassion, this longing for healing of all creation that flows from a place of wholeness coming from our own healing, is the point of the spiritual journey. And so if we truly embark on it we can know we will get the desires it places in our heart.   For we can know that this process brings lasting results in us, in others. We can know that in the end, God will work reconciliation of all things.

Yet what we find ourselves drawn to in such a journey ultimately take time.   One does not become a person of healing and compassion over night. One does not become ready to lead or serve or parent or befriend in the way that God has created us to all at one. It takes commitment to this spiritual journey.

So learning to patient with God is really learning to be patient with yourself and with others.

To me, this morning, this gives me – a man often too impatient – hope and encouragement. I will pick up my stakes, lift up my tents, and continue on my journey one plodding step at a time, knowing the destination is beyond my imagining. I hope you do the same!

Micah

Daily Devotional: (repost) Replanted by God’s hand

Jeremiah 31:27-34 describes God as replanting the seeds of humanity and all creatures that have been plucked up by the justice that naturally comes from our choice to reject God by sowing seeds of injustice and lack of compassion for each other.   This shows that God’s goal is never our abandonment or destruction, but rather restoring relationship with us and others, healing our communities, and healing the earth. Right now, in whatever ways you may be facing the hard realities that have flowed from your or others’ bad choices, hear the promise: This is not the end.   If you will allow God to work God’s healing, transforming work, things can be set right. This is not just true for you as an individual, it is true for our families, communities, nations, and world.

This is spoken of in Jeremiah as a renewal of covenant, covenant being the relationship God and humanity have made through promising love and faithfulness to each other.   The language that is later taken up by Jesus to describe “the new covenant” Jesus makes with all people by expanding this covenant beyond Israel to all nations, tribes, and peoples, is introduced here by Jeremiah.

Jeremiah suggests what will make this renewal of relationship possible is a change of heart, where the principles of God that have once been written into laws on paper will be written by Spirit into our hearts. This is not something that happens by magic. It happens through us choosing to open our hearts and minds to God, to others, to all life on God’s world.   It comes through saying “God teach me, God change me, God show me”. It comes through being willing to change your attitudes and ways of thinking. This is not easy. We get stuck in the ruts that promote the very daily acts of injustice, insensitivity, and selfishness that when sown reap the whirlwind Jeremiah has been warning of. But with God all things are possible.

Let’s examine our hearts, and open ourselves up to the transforming work of God the Holy Spirit within, so that we can be restored in every area of our lives where we have become hardened to God, to compassion, and to justice.

Daily Devotional: No More Masks

No-Masks3Psalm 26

This psalm calls on God to search one’s heart, so that all the masks of the day are taken away, and we are revealed to be who we truly are.   This has always seemed to me to be a very courageous prayer.

We live so much of our lives putting forward masks, even without knowing it. We put on the persona of the business person, busy about our tasks of work. We put on the persona of scholar as student or teacher. We put on the persona of parent, spouse, brother, sister. Some of each of these roles can be true expressions of whom we are. But often times in one or many of these areas we put aside a part of who we are, hiding it under a bushel basket, and try instead to put forward some stronger, smarter, more ethical, more loving image of ourselves in order to succeed at the role we are in.

We can even begin to put masks on to ourselves – rationalizing that we don’t have selfishness, that we are good people, that this or that tendency or behavior is ok because of this or that rationalization. We can begin to buy our own press, try and convince ourselves that the part of each of these roles that are a mask are who we are.

The psalmist asks God to pull away these masks, these roles, and reveal whom she or he is.

no maskLife has a way of publicly ripping off our masks, for the whole world to see. I remember a few years ago, when a popular liberal political candidate for president who was presenting himself as this good Christian family man was found to have fathered a child by his aid, the shock that fell upon his community.   The mask of being this ideal person fell aside.   We saw it too when the long list of fighters for “traditional family values” who were preachers, teachers, and advocates of the religious right were revealed by hackers to have accounts online on hook-up sights to find affairs that broke their marriage vows.   We see it when popular preachers and heads of philanthropic organizations who present themselves as selfless and for the whole community are expos ed to be funneling funds raised for God or the needy into their own coffers, funding private fortunes. The masks come off.

The teaching of Christianity has also always been that in the end all of us will stand before God, masks off, just as we are.   This experience is metaphorically described in Christian Scripture as the last judgment and depicted as if God weighs our lives based on the good and bad we have done, based on who we truly are at heart.   This image is not unique to Christians but one Christians inherited from Judaism, which learned this metaphor from Zoroastrianism and many pre-Jewish faiths; and it is shared by Muslims and many other contemporary faiths. The lesson of that image of standing before the judgment seat of God is as much as we may try to convince ourselves and others that we are all the polished images our masks present us to be, ultimately God sees through our masks. We cannot enter our final destination in God’s glory until we let God show us whom we really are underneath.

The psalmist is recognizing if we wait until the final moment to consider the divide between who we present ourselves to be, perhaps who we wish to be, and who we truly are, not only will it make it harder to enter into the peace and joy that is the final destination we are made for, but also it will keep us from entering here and now the truly rewarding life we are made for.   So the psalmist is saying to God, do it now. Bring me in this life before the judgment seat. Take off my masks and show me whom I truly am. This can be a frightening thought.

bonhoefferWhile going through imprisonment and trial by the NAZIs, Christian preacher Deitrich Bonhoeffer was forced to control who he was at hear and it was truly a heart-shaking experience.   Writing of this experience and the questions it produced, Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a Squire from his country house.

“Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

“Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

“Am I then really that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectations of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

“Who am I? This or the Other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

“Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”

Yet facing into this question of who we really are, inviting God to reveal to us this divide between who we are and who we wish to be is the only way to really begin spiritual transformation. It is the path to wholeness and the heart of true spirituality. As you begin to go through this process, you begin to see strengths and gifts in yourself you’d never seen due to hiding aspects of your true self from not just others but also your own gaze. You also will begin to see the painful shortfalls in your character you’ve never let yourself glimpse. Though painful, ultimately that is to your good. Getting them out in the open, you can begin to work with God and others to change.

This process is like going into the chrysalis of the soul, in order to be transformed each day more and more into the beautiful butterfly you were made to be.

Let’s embrace this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Seeing Beyond Appearances

outward appearance 1James 2:1-13

As usual, the writer of James cuts right to the heart of our human situation. So often we who claim to be upholders of our Scriptures, be they the law of Moses as the members of his Jewish Christian community or the Christian Scriptures in my community of faith, or perhaps the Quran, the Gita, the words of the Buddha in other religious communities, are more focused on being gate-keepers to determine who is “outside” our circle of welcome than truly living out they inclusiveness at the heart of our traditions.

The purpose of our faith, whatever name it goes by, is not according to James to give us badges to declare us holy and good people, especially if those badges distinguish us from the other and the outsider. Instead it is to live out lives of selfless love, compassion, and grace toward others.

James’ words let us know that if our religion motivates us to prejudice, exclusion of those who are different than us, ostracizing the marginalized, let alone hate, we are practicing them wrong. James focuses on what the Rev. Hugh outward appearance 4Hollowell of Love Wins Ministries has deemed “hobophobia”, a prejudice against those who are poor, struggling to eke by. So often those of us who are middle class, let alone a part of either financial or academic elite, look on those with less money, less resources, less education as if they are beneath us, even dangerous, for their situation. I think of a church I served once where the poor in the community began to come to join in worship due to the church reaching out in service and members with money began to become afraid things would go missing at church, the nice buildings becoming damaged. I contrast that with the Methodist church that allows part of its building to be used by the Love Wins congregation, a Mennonite church start which intentionally includes people experiencing homelessness as the heart of its membership.

But I’m not guiltless. I have to admit since moving into a bigger city at times I flinch, want to look away, when I see the seemingly homeless man or woman on the side of the road with a sign, since having some pretty uncomfortable confrontations with some whom I felt threatened by in how they expressed symptoms of mental illness.   I am aware I need to be careful to not let those experiences cause me to begin to return to living out our society’s message about those struggling with poverty, addiction, or mental illness which paints them in ways that rob them of their humanity and which can, if we live into those messages, rob us of our own. I confess I’m not there.

outward appearance 2The tendency to fall into prejudice against others is not just one that deals with poverty.   As a part of my studying in counseling, I read up on the powerful hold racism has on us.   Every few years they test children on the effects of cultural messages of racism through having them rate their responses to pictures of people of various races, and even today so many decades after the Civil Rights movement, young children buy into the racial stereotypes that privilege white people over people of color, considering lighter skin and traditionally White features over those of people of color.   With the highly publicized shootings of young people of color by police and with analysts reporting that we still imprison young black men at a much higher rate than white youth, we have to face that we are not done in combating racism. The starting place is looking within at the subtle ways we may buy into these messages, pushing against the unintentional racism that if we are honest influences each of our souls. I recommend groups like the Racial Equity Institute centered out of Greensboro, NC, which organizes programs to help people examine both the ways in which they personally unknowingly are living out racist conditioning and unknowingly propping up racist systems, whether as white people or people of color experiencing internalized racism.

In all the ways our heart puts up all walls to others – racism, homophobia, sexism, and many other ways – one of the easiest and most insidious things that happens is we put up barriers to see this, telling ourselves “we are good people. We don’t hate”, convincing ourselves we don’t see color, see gender, see the difference in others. Far too often instead of this truly being the compassion and openness we want it to be, this is just a defense that we spin up psychologically in order to keep ourselves from seeing the ways in which we have been negatively influenced by our culture’s prejudices.

outward appearance 3I think this is why the recent Go Set a Watchman is so troubling to us.   The hero of racial equity, Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird is depicted as having disturbing prejudices which we can’t imagine a hero of justice having. We don’t want to think our heroes had shortcomings, areas where they too were being molded by the prejudice in their day and age. And, of course, they did.

This even happened to Jesus. When the Syrophoenician woman comes to him asking for healing, Jesus dismisses her out of hand for not being Jewish. Her response, speaking up against this initially discriminatory act by Jesus helps Jesus see he is just going along with his culture and inspires him not only to heal her but to reach out to the Gentiles. It is possible to read the text as one where Jesus is simply always planning to heal her, presenting a front of the culture in his day to teach her and us a lesson, but I think it makes more sense to see Jesus as fully human.   Being fully human means at times unconsciously going along with the racism, homophobia, sexist, prejudice, all around us.   If Jesus is without sin, then while such conditioning is unconscious it is not sin per se.   But when an opportunity comes to raise our awareness of how we are being warped by the prejudices of our society at large and we choose to embrace it, we consciously fall into sin.   Jesus models that having shortcomings, failing to see the big picture, itself is simply being human.   However failing to be open to seeing a bigger picture is sin, while choosing to raise your own awareness, discover deeper compassion, is joining God in the sacred journey. It is discovering, embracing, and living into the Christ presence in your life.

This text challenges and calls me to see beyond my preconceived notions, to pray for eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand. Putting aside my prejudice opens the door to growing more into the open heart of God I’m called to have. And it is my small step in helping heal this world.   I’m not there yet, but James invites you and me to find that true path for ourselves.

And I sure ain’t whisting any Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: It Isn’t All Up to You (What a Relief!)

storm cloudPsalm 18

This psalm pictures God robing God’s self with the powerful forces of nature – earthquake, smoke and fire of volcanic eruption, cloud and thunder of storm – to ride out as a warrior to fight our battles for us. God rescues us from the pit of death, cutting with God’s mighty sword the cords that entrap us.

I cannot but help think of the many people I care for as chaplain and have as a pastor who face situations beyond their control.   The forces of disease, of loss, of grief, are greater than our human ability to stand against, control, or understand on our own.   The strain of loss, of illness, and at times of just moving one foot in front of another is often too much to bear.

Yet so often people find strength. At times this deliverance comes through healing from the illness, deliverance from the disease, yet so many times it comes in discovering life in the midst of pain & the forces of decay or death. It comes in discovering joy in the midst of shadow.   Through getting in touch with the One who is the life in, with, and through all things these once hurting people discover strength, resiliency, and life.

Often I throw up my hands when I face less in life.   And I know that when I feel helpless to change a situation, such as when someone I love is struggling with debilitating and chronic illness, I too feel bound up in cords.   Psalm 18 reminds me that it is not my power alone that will get me through. I need to stop trying to determine outcomes, and put aside my need to fix or resolve. I need to reach out outside myself. This means to God, through my practice of silence, meditation, Scripture reading, prayer, and hymns.   It also means to the community of faith God has placed me.   It means too opening up to others. I for one struggle here – having been taught a picture of manhood that is independent, pulling itself up from the boot-straps. I struggle with the idea that saying I am having a hard time will mean being weak or lead others to look at me as weak. Yet this Psalm reminds me God does not intend me to suffer on in silence.

Where have you faced the limits of your power, and needed to reach out and reach up?   How did you do that? What barriers stood in the way?

Let us remember to see from where our help comes from.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah