Friday, March 31, 2017

“When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power. As in Ezekiel’s vision, the water flows from ankles to knees to waist to neck as the New Earth is hydrated. (Ezekiel 47:1-12) Like Pinocchio, we move from wooden to real. We transform from hurt people hurting other people to wounded healers healing others. Not just individually, but history itself keeps moving forward in this mighty move of Spirit unleashed.” ----Richard Rohr, The Divine  Dance, 146

You know I have spent many years trying to rouse myself from a sleep so deep that I often fool myself into thinking I am awake as I slumber. But I feel myself waking up! There is a movement, a subtle shift somewhere deep within. Energies are beginning to align and to flow with less and less hindrance. A dawning realization is creeping into my awareness, and I suddenly find myself dissatisfied with my own status quo! 

This is awfully uncomfortable, but necessary. Indeed, as much as I shrink away from it, I also welcome it. Because I know you are at work. Yet wherever you work there is always discord, strife, and resistance. You are not welcome in all situations and places and circumstances of my life. You seem to stir things up so that it appears chaos is on the loose to engage in its destructive power! 

Yet what you are doing is not chaotic. It is planned. It is purposeful. It is accurate and precise.

It is good! 

Keep reminding me of the goodness of what you are doing in my life, though it feels "uncomfortable" and challenging. Water the thirsty depths of my soul until I am overflowing with the Waters of Life. You are certainly the God who brings comfort, but only after the death blow to my ego and willful resistance to you has been delivered. 

So may my death be the means by which you transform me. 

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. 

I want to be one of your healers, even in the midst of my woundedness. 

Bring healing, Lord. 

So be it. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

“This is How a Human Being Can Change”
Part 2:  Parable of the Prodigal Father

In my previous post I shared about the overwhelming experience the prodigal son had when his father welcomed him home with a lavish celebration. Instead of condemnation and judgment, the wayward child received love, affirmation, and forgiveness. The father basically ignores his son’s flimsy plan to be considered a servant instead of a son, and orders the servants to prepare a feast, which is the father’s way of saying, ‘We are witnesses to resurrection! I thought he was dead, but he is, in fact, alive!’

I want to delve deeper into the actions of the father. How would you describe them? If you were in his shoes (sandals really) how would you have reacted?

The problem with this question is that those who are really familiar with this story are typically church-goers who have been taught what to say in response to a particular interpretation of the story:  we human beings are the prodigal son who have been forgiven by our Heavenly Father and welcomed home with forgiveness. We tend to downplay just how radical and scandalous the actions of the father really are.

Maybe we’re too familiar with it. Maybe we really don’t see ourselves as being as bad as the prodigal so we can’t really identify with him. (But what about the older brother?!?!) Maybe we have missed the point of the parable, which is to usher us in to its story and have us experience first hand what is going on within its world. Maybe we don’t want to do that, and are content to sit and watch what is happening without really being involved in any real, challenging or life-altering way.

How we interact with these characters, how we have experienced their experience is critical to how we understand it. Personally I have been the prodigal far too often, probably more than I realize! When I consider how my foolish, reckless, shallow, and self-centered actions have so often landed me in the pig sty and left me starving for any kind of emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual nourishment, I am continually astounded at the mercy and grace of the Father, who is more eager to forgive than I am to seek his forgiveness, and who – more often than not – comes to me in the form of real human beings who love and support and encourage and walk with me through those times to welcome me to the other side where there is healing.

On the other hand, if we see the father’s actions from the point of view of the older brother, then the father was indeed foolish. Words like impetuous, unwise, foolhardy, and irresponsible come to my mind. The son has obviously sinned and needs punished for it. How else will he learn from it and correct his behavior? If there is no punishment, then does that mean we can do whatever we want? This sort of retributive justice is exactly the way the older brother was thinking:  both the father and his brother’s actions are offensive to his sense of justice, hard work, and fairness.

However we may choose to see the father, Jesus makes one thing is clear:  This is who God is. Jesus tells this story (and two other parables at the beginning of Luke 15) in order to demonstrate to the religious authorities of his day exactly the kind of Messiah he was. They had expected a great warrior with political skills and a charismatic charm to woo the masses. Instead, they got a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief,” whose political ambition was summed up in the phrase “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near!” And whose fighting skills included turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, letting Caesar have his money that-he-so-obviously-loves-because-he-put-his-picture-on-it, and praying for those who persecute you.

Not exactly the prize fighter they were hoping for.

He tells this story to say:  this is who God is, this is who I am, and this is who you are. So if the prodigal’s father is God, then the kind of love the father has is the kind of love that forms the very heart of God’s identity and being. If you want to know how God loves, see the reckless and extravagant behavior of the prodigal’s father. See how he doesn’t care what others may think of how he loves us. See how the judgment and condemnation of others, the older brother, simply do not matter. See how the Father doesn't condemn or shame his older son because he is only interested in being in a relationship of love with all of his children. For those who have experienced this, Paul’s words are true:  “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, NIV)

No condemnation.

I don’t think we emphasize this enough. God doesn’t condemn Us. He is not angry with us. He is not nursing wounds or pointing fingers to blame or to shame. God is a lover, who restores us to our proper relationship with him:  daughters and sons who have come to our senses and returned home.

When I read this parable (or have it read to me in church) it is so tempting to always identify with the prodigal, the child “who has thrown away your money on whores” (Luke 15:30, The Message). It is tempting to mentally and spiritually remain in the role of the prodigal, the selfish, demanding, petulant juvenile who has the audacity to ask for more.

And certainly that has been me. I won’t go into all the gory details (You’re welcome!) but needless to say I’ve done my share of wasteful living in childish behavior and interests. I can be as selfish as anyone else. I can be demanding, care-free, and wasteful without bounds or borders. I can prodigal right along with the best (or worst?) of them!

The point is, I have found myself there many times. The good news is that I’ve always found myself eventually wandering back home, poor and tired, defeated and empty, hopeless and depressed, only to find myself embraced by my Father, who just wants to celebrate my return. He doesn’t go into a litany of what I’ve done wrong, to remind me of it, to shame me for it, to watch me wallow in guilt and self-loathing. I know it all too well and have done enough of that to myself. So none of that. He only wants to celebrate my return. He only wants to love me back into his family and treat me like his beloved child. I can imagine that he has cried tears of joy at times. All because I came home. Me? Really? Yes! What an image!

As powerful as the experience of being welcomed home is, it’s not the only experience this parable encourages. There’s the older brother, of course, and there is much I could continue to say about my judgmental attitude and the limits I place on God’s grace and forgiveness toward myself and others, but I’ll save that for perhaps another time.

The father has more recently become the most intriguing character in this little story. I’ve come to the conclusion that the parable could also be rightly referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.” The son essentially said, ‘Since you’re not dead yet, go ahead and give me my share of the inheritance.’

And what does the father do?

He gives it to him.

The gall! The impudence! The irresponsibility! The audacity! We want to describe only the son this way, but I challenge you to see how that’s also a pretty accurate description of the father. We aren’t used to this sort of behavior from a parent, much less God. God isn’t supposed to let himself be taken advantage of like this! God isn’t supposed to let his children walk all over him and let them get away with this sort of reckless and disrespectful behavior!

By definition prodigal means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. Having or giving something on a lavish scale.”

The father allows the son to have the money to waste. Does he know what his son will do with it? Of course he does! He’s the child’s father after all! Not only does he give him money to waste, he spends even more money when he welcomes the sinful child home – not with a stern lecture about responsibility and understanding the value and function of money, but with a lavish and joyful (wasteful!) party in which all work on the farm ceases and they kill the “fattened calf” to celebrate his return.

Again, the older brother rises up within me. It offends my moral sensibilities to have the father act this way toward someone I know to be in the wrong. It is obvious to everyone that what the child has done is wrong. His behavior is shameful! He is not appreciative of what he already has! His uncaring demand for more is morally repugnant. That boy doesn’t care one bit about me or our father! He’s only looking out for himself, to do what makes him happy. And that is very, very wrong.

Yes. The older brother is technically correct. His younger brother has sinned greatly and has brought shame and disgrace upon the family.

But it seems to me their father brings even more shame and disgrace upon the family by NOT disciplining his son. By not rejecting him, by not having him thrown out for being the wasteful mooch he is, by not behaving according to the standards of the morality police, the father is behaving in a prodigal way as well.

It seems the father  is more interested in being in a relationship of love and mercy and forgiveness. The father chooses relationship over rejection. He chooses love over punishment. He demonstrates mercy rather than condemnation.

There’s no doubt about it:  if the father is reckless, lavish, and prodigal with his love, then God is reckless, lavish, and prodigal with his love. In the face of such brazen, impudent and obvious sin, God loves. That’s really all he does. He loves. He forgives. He welcomes.

And in doing so, he sets an example for how I am to be.

And that’s the real challenge of this familiar story:  to become like the Father.

The late Henri Nouwen captured this so well in his challenging little book The Return of the Prodigal Son. He wrote

What of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels somehow good to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood.

But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?

God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.

I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.”[i]

Am I interested in becoming like the Father?

I first read this book many years ago but only recently it has come back to me. Funny how God will show you something only to have you put it on the shelf for a while, until a more appropriate time, until you’re ready for it. I suppose I’m ready now. It’s a bit frightening, honestly. “Become the Father.” Wow. Wasn’t that Adam and Eve’s desire? To be like God? Yes, but they were doing it in a manipulative and demanding way, fueled by the adversary's doubts about God’s good intentions toward them. They were trying to be like God on their own terms. That never really works out well.

God invites me to become like him. He wants me to grow up and be the one who forgives, who welcomes, who lavishly loves and celebrates others as they are amazed by his abounding love and generosity.

Besides, how can others know the Father’s infinite grace and love if I do not show them? However inadequate I feel most of the time, I am the hands and feet of Christ. What if others will only know they are loved by God if I love them? What if others will only see their value and worth as a human created in God’s image if I see their value and worth?  What if others will only know mercy and grace and forgiveness if I show them mercy and grace and forgiveness?

In the Father’s world great sin requires greater grace to forgive. Reckless rebellion requires a bold and heroic love to overcome. The impudence and arrogance of evil calls for an explosion of lavish forgiveness and mercy that stops our shallow excuse-making in its tracks and overwhelms us with what we think we don’t deserve.

And I am called to do just that. To love, to forgive, to welcome and embrace, to heal and show mercy, to speak kindly and have compassion, to advocate for the needy and the poor and the disenfranchised, to view those who are not like me as worthy and deserving of God’s love, even though they may believe they are not. Even though they may reject me. Even though they may ridicule me or mock me for what they perceive to be weakness. Even though they take advantage of my kindness. Even though they continue to sin against me.

Am I interested in becoming like the Father? You betcha. I’m sick and tired of being the sick rebel and the tired judge.

Become the father.

It’s time to ascend.

[i] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 122-123

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

“This is How a Human Being Can Change”
Part One

Change is an inherent part of life. I often hear from people that they don’t do well with change, that it’s usually unpleasant and uncomfortable, and they’d rather just go about their business as it is right now, thank you very much.

I know this because those “people” are me. There have been times when I’ve embraced change, usually because it’s what I chose and was hoping would happen, like graduation or starting a new job. Other times the change chooses me, and it is often unexpected and disagreeable.

The spiritual life is no different. There are expected developments and changes in my relationship with God:  I am growing more patient, loving, and appreciative of small blessings in life and am (hopefully!) less judgmental and impatient with others. This is to be expected. To put it simply:  if intentionally living as a follower of Jesus means anything, it means more good and less bad, more love and less fear.

But there are times, and it seems these times happen more often than not, when the change is sudden and unexpected, when God shows up in ways that are totally unpredictable, times when we could not possibly be ready for him even if we knew he was coming! Like Saul on the road to Damascus, or the shepherd boy David being chosen as the next King, or Moses seeing a burning bush in the desert.

We are shocked. We are very often terrified. We are challenged as we discover that while God is certainly good, he is also wild and free, defying expectations and constantly exceeding the boundaries of our meager expectations.

And afterwards, we are never the same.

This has been my experience. Allow me to focus and elaborate through a familiar lens.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s gospel is familiar to perhaps even the most casual church goer or reader of the Bible. I have heard more sermons preached and lessons taught on this parable than perhaps any other.

With few exceptions these sermons and lessons generally follow the same line of thinking:  each one of us is the prodigal, the sinner, the wayward child who has sinned against God. But God forgives us if we return to him. Now that is definitely good news, but is there more?

Yes. I think there is MUCH more going on here.

What continues to startle me is the audacity of the son. “Father, give me my share of the estate.”  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard this so many times that it’s become a bit too familiar and has lost some of its punch. But can you hear the audacity? He’s essentially saying, ‘Dad, I wish you were dead already so I could get my money and go do whatever I want. You know what? Nevermind, I can’t wait. Give me what’s coming to me now!’

The nerve of this kid! He has the gall to demand his inheritance money while his father is still alive. The father, however, doesn’t respond as I want him to respond! He goes ahead and gives his child the money. The least that could be said is the father, in giving in to his spoiled child’s demand, is foolish. The text doesn’t explain why and Jesus gives no clear indications or motivations the father might have. He simply says “So he divided his property between them.” The boy makes an unreasonable and utterly selfish demand, and the father acquiesces. If we saw this happening today, we’d say the boy needs whipped and the father needs a backbone!

The boy takes takes what he has so selfishly demanded and wastes it on “wild living.” I can only imagine what this looked like. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. I’ve been there. Such “wild living” is why I crammed what is normally a four year college degree into 5½ years!! When I went to college I was given a great amount of freedom and I ran with it. Naked. Through the streets. Drunk. Actually, while I can neither confirm nor deny getting drunk and running naked through the streets, I will most definitely confirm this:  Thank God there were no smart phones with cameras and videos and instant access to social media in my college days!!! Because it was not all sunshine and roses. I’m not proud of it, and I’ll spare you the gory details; needless to say it got pretty ugly.

The boy seizes the day and  lives wildly for a time, indulging every desire and craving he had. But it didn’t last. There was a famine in the land, and like the foolish grasshopper who didn’t prepare for winter, he “began to be in need.” So he gets a job. A desperate job for a desperate boy. He’s slopping pigs, a dirty and unclean animal according to Jewish teaching. So he begins to feel sorry for what he’s done and decides to return home to his father, where the hired servants eat better than he is on what he’s earning, and promises to do better.

Wait. What? No, actually that doesn’t happen. Notice the prodigal doesn’t come home because he’s sorry for what he’s done. He doesn’t apologize to his father because he has seen the error of his ways. He’s hungry. And not for righteousness either! The boy needs food! I’m not saying that’s a bad motivation or somehow not good enough, but it’s not the stereotypical reason we may sometimes imagine:  he’s sorry for what he’s done and he wants to do better. None of that here. The child is still thinking only of himself and what’s good for him. He’s hit rock bottom and he’s desperate to get out. Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not condemning him or judging or shaming him. This is just a diagnosis. To diagnosis is not to condemn.

This plan to return to his father is seem to be an indication that this is probably not an isolated incident. It’s probably the most extreme incident so far in the boy’s life, but not isolated. He is an audacious child. He is selfish and only looks out for what is good for him. Not only has he insulted his father, but he is once again preparing to take advantage of his father’s generous nature and, perhaps, bring an even greater amount of shame upon his father. This isn’t just one act of disrespect and arrogant rudeness. It just might be the boy’s nature.

But if the boy is arrogant and rude and demanding, then the father has, perhaps, fed that nature and allowed it to blossom. If the boy is audacious, then the father may be an overly indulgent softy. Perhaps he has spoiled the child by continuously giving in to his demands and allowing him to have whatever he wants. No wonder the boy acts as he does!

The son does think, however, that his rebellion and sinfulness has been too brazen, too audacious. The boy has displayed such impudence and offense that he could never be treated as a son again, but he just might be able to be hired on as a servant. Maybe. There’s no guarantee here. After all, according to Jewish law the father had every right to have his son stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 21:18-21) for what he had done. I’m not sure how often that happened, if ever, but it was apparently allowed.

It seems the boy’s brazenness and audacity actually pay off and serve him well in this situation:  instead of skulking about in shame and despair, self-loathing and depression because of what he’s brought upon himself, he hatches a bold plan. He thinks, ‘If my father was so willing to give me my share of the inheritance in the first place, then perhaps he is also willing to let me come home. Not as a son, of course, not after what I’ve done. But at least as a hired servant. Maybe I can convince him to do that!’

And here is, perhaps, where the son shows just how out of touch he is with his own father. He really doesn’t know his father at all. He is completely ignorant of the kind of generous love – I would say scandalous love – that characterizes his father.

Instead of treating his son like a hired servant, the father throws a lavish celebration to welcome him home. He has a fatted calf slaughtered for food. Work on the farm stops, and his servants and family are called to attend an extravagant impromptu banquet to celebrate his son’s return. The father doesn’t listen to his excuses, and doesn’t shame him for what he’s done. There’s no guilt trip or any condemnation or judgment at all. There is only relief. And tears of joy. And celebration. Shocked but pleasant surprise. Laughter and smiles.

I thought he was dead, but my son is home, alive and well. And that alone is reason enough to celebrate!

I am very tempted to move on to elaborate on the love and mercy and forgiveness of the father, but I think there is more here to be discovered with his child. Consider the words of C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory:

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Am I “far too easily pleased” by the childish and immature pursuits that can so easily engross me? Of course I am. I think most are. I think because I cannot imagine how much larger and more satisfying and deep and meaningful is the next stage in our spiritual development that I focus my attention on what is pleasing and satisfying and comfortable in this immediate moment with little or no thought as to how God is calling me to become more of who he has always intended me to be. I am so often driven by unnamed desires that cry out for satisfaction and relief. I want pleasure and fulfillment and bliss. And I want it now!

But I cannot see how often those desires are petty and shallow and lesser than what is being offered by my Father. Why am I so willingly accept a lesser status, an inferior experience of God? Why am I so often content with “drink and sex and ambition” and “mud pies in a slum” when there is “infinite joy” to be had?

Maybe, just maybe it’s because I am too much acquainted with my own failings and shortcomings, my own darkness and shadow-nature that I fail to see what singer songwriter Rich Mullins calls “the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.”

Sometimes that love is overwhelming. It’s too much to be taken in at once. Especially if I’m dwelling in my own failures and shame and self-doubt and fears. There is a point where I can become too comfortable with that darkness, too at ease with that soul-sickness, to at home in self-punishment and loathing.

I’ve been there. It’s not an easy place to be, but if you spend too much time there then, believe it or not, it just might seem normal. Even natural. Like this is how it should be, for me at least. Because, you know, I don’t deserve anything better. Look at what I’ve done! You begin to see that what you’ve done is just an expression of your inner being:  this is who I am! I can’t help it! Sooner or later you begins to convince yourself there is nothing better, that all that talk of love and forgiveness and “infinite joy” is just talk, a fantastical delusion people adopt so they don’t have to face the cold, hard truth of reality:  this is the way it is and there’s no changing it so don’t even try.

So what happens? Why does the prodigal child return home? Despite his audacity, he was, for a time at least, plagued by the same crippling shame and self-doubt I have experienced in my life. He didn’t return home immediately. When famine and destruction hit and all his so-called “friends” left him, he went through a period where all he could do was “feed pigs.” This was his lowest moment, his rock bottom. A terrible place to be, but for someone like the prodigal it’s also the best place to be. Extreme and reckless behavior often lands us in the pit, and often that’s the best thing that can happen. Why? Because it’s in the pit where that moment of clarity can come, where the sun can shine in our darkness – however briefly – to let us know there is a way out after all.

The text says “he came to his senses.” What an understatement. But there it is. The moment of clarity. The insight he so desperately needed. The catalyst that fuels the ability to make a different choice. As an addict will testify:  he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. So he did something about it. That point of light illuminated his circumstances and he was able to say ‘This is not where I want to be anymore.’

The ancient Persian poet Rumi so often speaks to me in ways few can. Consider his poem entitled “The Worm’s Waking.”

This is how a human being can change:

there’s a worm addicted to eating
grape leaves.
                        Suddenly, he wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes him, and he’s no longer
a worm.
            He’s the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that doesn’t need
to devour.

I still have a very satisfying sense of relief when I read that poem. It’s a reminder that I am waking up, that I continue to see that where I am right now is not ultimately where I want to be. Oh I’m happy, happier than I’ve been in a truly long time. But this is not the destination for me. There is more. There is a continual return home to the Father where I am shocked and surprised and overwhelmed by the generosity and recklessness of his love. I thought I was audacious and bold in my sinning, but I could never even begin to touch the “reckless raging fury” of my Father’s love for me.

Thank God for that.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Here Be Dragons"

In medieval days when the world was not yet fully explored, vast swaths of space on maps remained empty of land or sea. These uncharted territories were often filled with drawings of mythological beasts and fantastic creatures of the human imagination, as they remained mysterious to explorers who had no idea what lay there. In modern times this has given rise to somewhat popular belief that the phrase "Here Be Dragons" was widely used on maps to indicate unexplored territory. This, however, was not the case. Only one ancient map actually has the Latin words Hic sunt dracones printed on it:  the Hunt-Lenox Globe, built in 1510 in Europe and made of copper. These now famous words probably originally served as an artistic warning that what lay in this unexplored territory was unknown and was therefore dangerous. Those brave enough to venture into such uncharted space would be wise to heed the warning, either proceeding with extreme caution or to simply not go there at all.

The spiritual journey should be prefaced with a similar warning.

I have learned this in my brief time as a spiritual explorer:  The further you travel in your spiritual development, the more “uncharted territory” you will discover. At this very moment, there are enormous, undiscovered realms of untapped energy and potential within you. They are places of joyful discovery and profound wisdom, but they are also places filled with mystery, fear, and danger.

If you have eyes to see in such places, you may notice there are signs posted:  “Here Be Dragons.”

Over the last few months I’ve moved into one such unknown place, a place I knew all too well existed, but where I had long ago placed the “Here Be Dragons” warning and vowed never to go there. I knew what awaited me there, or at least I thought I did. And that knowledge generated a great amount of anxiety and fear within me.

I have been reluctant to write about this for many reasons, but I’ve only recently realized that nothing else I’ve tried to write has had any depth of meaning or purpose because THIS needs to be said first. This is the starting point. Everything else just might depend on getting this right. I’m not sure if that’s right or wrong or somewhere in the middle, but I definitely have the sense it’s what I must do.

So here goes.

After nearly 19 years of virtually no contact, I reached out to my father. We talked. We laughed. We cried. We hugged. We shared stories. I introduced him to his grandchildren, and though it took a little bit, they warmed up to “Peepaw” and played with him, laughed with him, and later told me, “He was nice. Let’s see him again.”

I cannot express how happy this makes me. Or relieved. It feels like a giant, twisted, dark, sticky, nasty ball of anxiety and fear and doubt has begun to come undone. I can see it breaking into ashy bits, and beginning to blow away in the wind. It feels like I can breath deeply again.

For years I was under the impression that my father was not someone with whom I would wish to associate. There were lots of reasons and plenty of blame to pass around. It’s really quite the soap opera but I won’t go into all the gory details. It wouldn’t be appropriate or loving. But I will say this:  when parents separate and divorce it is never easy for anyone, especially children.  And while I wish things had been different, I also have arrived at the place where I choose forgiveness and reconciliation and love over continued anger and fear and indifference.

Nowadays I’m not blaming anyone for anything. Because in the deepest places of my being all I want is a loving, healthy, and abundant relationship with everyone in my life. And nursing old wounds and grievances only poisons and sabotages that process. No more.

Nineteen years is a long time. It feels like a lifetime. And while there wasn’t really a day that went by that I did not think of him in some way, I began to develop a kind of hardness toward the situation. I became indifferent, dismissive, almost casually unconcerned about it as if it were no big deal. There certainly were times when God managed to break through that stiff outer shell, and showed me the truth. But I would quickly restore my defenses and trudge on in willing ignorance.

For years I worked as a hospice chaplain. I would routinely see family situations and histories that eerily mirrored my own. I would watch as families scrambled to get in touch with an adult child who “Papa hadn’t seen in 30 years” so they could say their goodbyes. Sometimes another family member would speak up and say “Well he hadn’t come around in 30 years so why would we want him here now?” To which an elderly family member, usually a matriarch, would reply, “Because it’s important. If they don’t do it now, they’ll regret it for the rest of their life. They just don’t know that yet. And if they ever do figure it out, it’ll be too late.” Sometimes the estranged person would be found in time, but other times they would not. And somewhere in the back of mind I would think:  “Someday that’s going to be me.” And the anxiety would build, because the whole hospice team would shake our collective head and say, “What a shame they couldn’t have had a better relationship. What a loss.”

And I’d shake my head with them. Yes, what a loss indeed.

I saw the above story played out too many times, but as powerful as it is, it was not my primary motivation for reaching out to him. Along with seeing other peoples’ experiences, there was always a vague sense of emptiness, of regret, the constant nagging sense of this-is-not-how-things-should-be, just itching in the back of my mind. There was always a feeling of incompleteness, of things left undone. Another step to take.

I’m not sure how it happened, but that nagging sense of this-is-not-how-things-should-be became things-could-be-different. That sense of emptiness and regret was replaced with a longing for things to be different. That desire and longing kept creeping up on me, getting closer and closer, until one day I realized not only was it something I wanted but the possibility for reestablishing a relationship was very real.

So I took a step of faith. Like Peter, I got out of the boat and walked on water. I’m learning this is an ongoing process. Getting out of the boat isn’t a one time thing. It happens over and over and over again. It’s an intentional choice I continue to make.

While God used a wide variety of people, situations, and experiences to take a step of faith and make that phone call, one poem by Robert Bly captures the essence of my experience.

There was a boy who never got enough.
You know what I mean. Something
In him longed to find the big
Mother, and he leaped into the sea.

It took a while, but a whale
Agreed to swallow him.
He knew it was wrong, but once
Past the baleen, it was too late.

It's OK. There's a curved library
Inside, and those high
Ladders. People take requests.
It's like the British Museum.

But one has to build a fire.
Maybe it was the romance
Novels he burned. Smoke curls
Up the gorge. She coughs.

And that's it. The boy swims to shore;
It's a fishing town in Alaska.
He finds a telephone booth,
And calls his father. "Let's talk."

For many years I had a longing within me, a deep resonating call, an almost primeval desire that I could not easily identify. Just a few short months ago I could ignore it no longer, so I responded and followed it into the wide, unknown place of the wilderness. And it led me to the depths of the abyss, what the psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death,” or what mystics call “the dark night of the soul.”

There, in the shadowy deep, I saw it:  the great dragon, that monstrous beast I was sure was sent to devour me and rip up my soul into tiny bits to drown in that awful, dark place. My God! Here really be dragons!Trembling with fear and rage, I despaired. I was sure I had neither the strength nor the ability to get out of its grasp. But I soon discovered the beast was there not to destroy me, but to bear me from the place I was to a place I needed to be. He would be the unexpected vehicle that would transport me further along on the journey.

In the belly of that great beast is a library:  there is wisdom and truth and grace in that wretchedly dark place, and it is treasure that can be found nowhere else in all of creation. It is hard won, and therefore precious.

While in the belly of the beast, I did what I needed to do to survive:  I am learning how to say goodbye to my desires for how I want things to be (much like burning the “romance novels” in the above poem!) in order to ready myself to embrace whatever comes next. Accepting life on its own terms. Allowing God to be who he is in my life on his terms, not my own.

The resulting fire warms and promotes life in those dark places, but it is also a catalyst, a spark that creates movement, and again I journeyed, this time upward, to a new reality, more spacious and real than the last, but also more dangerous, because I now knew what I had to do. Now I knew the source of my longing and desire. Now I knew why I could only arrive at this place in the belly of the beast as it traversed the darkness of the deep.

It sounds simple enough, yet the cycle of death and resurrection was the only means for me to do it. I found myself in an unknown place, and with a telephone in hand, I called my father. And we talked.

Here be dragons? Yes, but not all are evil. Some I have mistaken for dragons, but were really angels in disguise.

And they have been sent from beyond as guides, as messengers, as honorable guests who, as the ancient poet Rumi says, “may be clearing you out for some new delight.”

A new delight? What an understatement!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

God, the Chaos Monster, & the Walking Dead

I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks, months – years perhaps?! – of news reports have been devastating to watch. As I listen to the horrifying details of the most recent shooting/massacre/killing spree and then hear the opinion of pundits and other talking heads, I shake my head and weep. I suppose bad news has always been what gets reported, but never before in history have so many details of so many acts of violence, crime, and natural disasters been so readily available to us. Certainly technology has done a great deal to propel us forward into a bright future as a species.

But it also reminds us of just how far we have yet to go towards that bright future. I know some who doubt there is even a bright future ahead of us. Tragedy after tragedy have struck us like mighty waves, tsunamis of shock, doubt, fear, uncertainty, and outrage have left us shell-shocked. One response I’ve had is to do some studying and reading the Bible. I’m a Christian and a Chaplain, so reading and studying the Bible is kind of “my thing.”

But you can try it too. we won’t arrive at the same conclusions, but differences in opinion and interpretation make for fertile ground where really interesting discussions and debates can happen. That’s how we learn and grow and evolve. So keep an open mind!

Recently I’ve been reading about Noah and the Flood. In case you’re wondering why, there’s an attraction that’s just opened down the highway from me: the Ark Encounter. It’s a life-size replica of Noah’s ark as described in the Old Testament. I haven’t been yet, but it looks really impressive. Now, I don’t agree with much of what Ken Hamm and his “Answers in Genesis” organization says is true about the Bible, human evolution, the earth’s age, carbon dating, etc. But he has got me thinking and reading and studying and digging deeper for answers for myself. And that is a good thing.

What have I found? Plenty actually. And really none of it has to do with the claims that dinosaurs existed alongside humans, or that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old, or that Noah’s ark really could float.

 In fact, I think those claims are really child’s play compared to what I’ve been discovering.

It’s actually fairly complicated but here it is in a nutshell: There are actually not one, not two, but THREE stories of creation in Genesis chapters 1-2.

The first is perhaps the most well known and covers all of chapter one and the first few bits of chapter two. This is the famous “7 days” of creation, with God resting on the 7th as a pattern for humans to follow.

 The second is the rest of chapter two, where more details are given about the creation of humans in the image of God. You know the story: Adam found himself alone, and God said “This is the only thing about my creation that’s NOT good!” So he created Eve. And after Adam woke up from this little out-patient procedure of having his rib removed, he looked at Eve in all her God-given glory and said, “Whoa! Man! Now THIS is the best idea yet!!” And that’s how we got the name “woman.”

The third story? It’s actually deeply embedded in the text of chapter 1 verse 2 which says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” This verse actually hearkens back to an ancient mythology shared by pretty much all ancient near eastern people: the gods did battle with the monstrous primordial forces of chaos, and won, destroying them and creating the world from their dead carcasses. That’s a pretty rough summary, but there it is.

There are plenty of other references to this story sprinkled throughout the Hebrew Bible. We get glimpses of it here and there, but never a full telling. Why? Because everybody kinda knew it already; they didn’t have to explain it. It would be like explaining the history of the American Revolution every time somebody mentioned the Constitution.

The ancient Israelites took this story and ran with it, saying, in effect, ‘Yes, that monstrous primordial force known as Chaos was/is real, and our God – btw, the only true God and his name is Yahweh – subdued Chaos and established an orderly, sensible creation where life could flourish.’ Notice the text doesn’t say God destroyed Chaos so that it’s no longer around to mess with us. Chaos is still present. And active. And oh how active it is!

Now predictably, this raises some tough theological questions, such as….
• Where did Chaos come from in the first place?
 • Did Yahweh create it? If so, what was he thinking?!
 • If Yahweh didn’t create it, then who and/or what did? (And what were they thinking?)
 • Did it always just exist as Yahweh does?
 • Was it just by chance that Yahweh won this primeval battle?
 • Could it have played out in other ways with Chaos being the winner?
 • Perhaps Chaos actually did win – or at least is winning now – and this explains the current national political environment?!?!?! (I intended that to be funny, but…)

[Please note: None of this is original with me! I’m slugging my way through the work of scholars like Greg Moberly, Jon Levenson, John Walton, Walter Brueggemann and others who aren’t afraid to dive deep into the text and sift it for its hidden treasures.]

Of course, there’s A LOT of other stuff there in the text, and I’m just starting to scratch the surface, but the central idea for now is this: Chaos is alive and well – though subdued by the Creator – and it has been a part of our world since the beginning. Perhaps, and this is where my mind continues to exponentially explode: perhaps Chaos is even a necessary part of our world.

Necessary? Maybe “necessary” is too strong a word right now. Perhaps the biblical authors are simply saying Chaos is an inherent part of our world. That it’s simply one part of the created order, which God declared over and over again to be “good.” (See Genesis 1)

So maybe the essential message here is NOT “Why is Chaos present?” or “Why is it allowed to be so active?” Maybe the biblical writers just took it at face value that Chaos was part of life on planet Earth. And what the Bible calls “sin” is humans rebelling against our Creator and unleashing Chaos into our lives and our world.

But maybe, just maybe, the message is much deeper than we might imagine. Or want to imagine. Maybe the message is this: we should not bemoan and lament the presence of Chaos as much as we should actively join forces with Yahweh and participate with Him in keeping Chaos bound in its proper place.

After all, Yahweh said, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Ruler over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground…” (Genesis 1:28, NIV)

What?! What are we supposed to do to the earth? “Fill” it for sure. (That’s the fun part!) But also “subdue” it? Wait a minute! Isn’t that what we said Yahweh did to Chaos – he “subdued” it? Yes! Exactly! As Yahweh subdued Chaos, so we are to “subdue” the earth. Yahweh only said creation was “good.” He didn’t say it was perfect, as if it needed no improvement, as if there were no work to do, as if we were designed to just lie around in the buff and eat grapes and oranges and watermelon and pineapples without a care in the world. (And bacon. Bacon for sure!)

Creation was “good,” but the earth wasn’t yet subdued. The rule of the Creator had not yet been established everywhere. It wasn’t free from danger, and the possibility of violence or injury or death was, perhaps, very real. Yahweh was essentially saying. ‘Guys and gals, proceed with my blessing, and also with caution. But please do proceed…’

As one paraphraser of this verse has written, “Be fruitful and have children, filling the earth with your life so that you can have power to fight against everything in it that leads to death. Rule with care and fairness over the natural world, over the myriads of My beautiful creatures – from tropical fish to soaring eagles to dogs and cats – every creature that is a part of this living world.” (Christopher Brown,

“…fight against everything in it that leads to death.” I like that. It sobers me, though, that there is far too much that “leads to death” in the world, and far too few humans – myself included! – who are actively opposing it.

It bears repeating: Chaos is alive and well today.

And though it is “subdued,” (Can you imagine if it were running unchecked and without restraint? In some parts of the world it is!) it continues to wreak its random havoc and senseless destruction and unpredictable death. In Baton Rouge. In Dallas. In Baltimore. Orlando. Newtown. San Bernardino. Fort Hood. South Carolina. Colorado. In thousands of villages and hamlets and communities and cities that never get any attention. This list is too long. The bad news is it’s just getting longer. The worse news is this is just the United States in the last couple of years. We’ve got work to do. A lot of work to do. What God has created is good, but it is being threatened from every side. And it has been threatened by the forces of Chaos for a LOOOOONG time now. What we are seeing are just the latest battles in a war that began “in the beginning.”

I mentioned bad news and worse news. How about some good news? The good news, I think, is captured in what the psalmist wrote:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear,
though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:1-7, NIV)

Though Chaos wreaks havoc around us, Yahweh is with us. That’s good news. The One who defeated and subdued Chaos in the beginning is with us now. He knows how to do it. And he has not left us powerless. He has not left us alone. He has not left us to figure it out for ourselves by trial and error. He came as one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and showed us the Way. That’s how Yahweh did it: through a love so passionate that it sacrifices itself for others so they might be saved. That’s how Yahweh continues to do it. And will continue to do it, because that's who he is.

I conclude with a nod toward a modern cultural phenomenon, and what might be, perhaps, one way our culture manifests or understands the Chaos monster: The Walking Dead. I’m a HUGE fan. And yes, I think Glenn is toast. (Ok, really mushy toast :-o) The words we need to hear are spoken by the most appropriate character to speak them, the cowardly priest Father Gabriel.
Here is the setting: The walls keeping the hordes of walkers out of Alexandria have been breached. Our heroes are cowering in their homes, leaderless and fearful of what to do. Rick, their leader, has left the infirmary and in a dazed yet furious rage over his son’s injuries and possible death; he starts killing walkers. One by one they being to fall. There are thousands of them, and it seems Rick will be overwhelmed and eaten alive. But he is joined by others. Now the walkers fall in twos, and threes, and fours. But still they are overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, another small group has sought refuge with Father Gabriel to pray for salvation and deliverance. At one point, Father Gabriel gets up, grabs a machete, and goes to leave the building. One in the group asks what he is doing. He responds with words we desperately need to hear and take to heart:

“We’ve been praying together,
praying that God would save our town.
Well our prayers have been answered!
God will save Alexandria.
Because God has given us the courage
to save it ourselves.”

How prescient. I wonder how many of us realize God has given us the courage to save this world ourselves? I find myself gazing heavenward too often, in hopes that God will miraculously intervene and make things right again.

But he has already intervened.

And he is intervening. He is working diligently to reconcile a wayward creation to himself by loving us even when we can’t love ourselves. He is working through Love to put Chaos back in its rightful place.

And he wants us to join him. So lament and grieve the loss of life. That is very appropriate. But we’ve also got work to do. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth with goodness and peace and love.

Remember: though this world is good, it’s not safe. So proceed with caution.

But, for the love of all that is good and life-giving, PROCEED!