Monday, December 3, 2012

Blessed to be a Blessing

Last weekend I drove down to Manasquan, New Jersey, with a group of people from my church. Our objective was to help people impacted by Hurricane Sandy. We spent a very productive day in Manasquan, helping at three different worksites doing various jobs that needed to be done, so we accomplished our objective––we were able to help, at least for a few hours. 

But, as so often happens with volunteer work of this kind, we found that we, ourselves, were on the receiving end of many more blessings than we could ever hope to bestow.

We began our day with a briefing in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Manasquan, a local church which matches up available work crews with people who need help in their community. At our briefing, we were reminded of why we were there in the first place––not so much to work on the homes, they said, but to be there for the homeowners in whatever ways that are needed. Often, we were told, what people need most is a listening ear; after all, people are still trying to cope with the shock of losing so much, so fast, and we needed to be sensitive to that. We needed to be careful, for example, not to throw peoples' belongings in a pile at the curb, but to place them there carefully, with respect. It was hard enough for people to throw out their most cherished possessions, they said; seeing them tossed aside, as if they meant nothing, was almost more than some of them could bear. 

We took that advice to heart at the three homes we visited that day, making an effort not just to work on the task at hand, but also to get to know the homeowners of the homes to which we'd been assigned. And, as we shoveled sand, tore down walls, and helped homeowners haul out debris, we discovered, just as the church leader said, that people needed to talk about what they'd been through. They needed to share their experience of the hurricane. They needed to convey to us how they felt when they saw how much work would be required for remediation. They needed to share with us their stories about dealing with the aftermath of the storm.

Photos from one of our worksites. We helped tear down the walls in this house and remove insulation so that mold could be treated. 
Most of all, though, they needed to let us know how wonderfully and truly blessed they felt after Hurricane Sandy. Because as bad as that storm was––and it was bad––they knew that it could have been so much worse. They were grateful, truly grateful, for their blessings.

It seemed strange to hear people who'd lost so much talk, instead, about how much they had. But they did. All of them. All day long. I don't think I heard a single complaint the entire day, from anyone, about how rough they had it. Even though some of them had lived without power for nearly a month. Even though some of them were still displaced from their homes, with no chance of moving back into their homes for months. Even though they knew that things would never, ever, be the same. Every single person with whom we worked that day chose to highlight, instead, the many blessings they'd received as a result of the storm. 

People mentioned, for example, the help they were receiving, help for which they were so grateful. Family members were providing for them places to live. Friends were offering to help them clean out their homes. Volunteers had arrived from all over the country and were willing to do whatever needed to be done. Their gratitude for these offers of assistance, I think, was not just for the help itself (although that was greatly appreciated), but also for what that help signified to them––namely, that they were not alone. 

It is a wonderful gift to be able to channel the love of God to someone else in such a tangible way, and that's exactly what it felt like we were doing––conveying the compassion of Christ and the love of God in concrete ways to people who really need to know that God is there. We felt like agents of hope in a world gone awry. 

And, in giving that gift of hope, we discovered something pretty awesome in return––that the gift we gave to others was given right back to us, and then some. We were reminded anew that we are, fundamentally, all in this together––whatever "this" happens to be. We were reminded anew that none of us walks alone when we walk with Christ. Through our relationships with one another we become whole and complete in ways that we cannot achieve by ourselves, because it is through our relationships that we become, literally, the Body of Christ. 

One of the homeowners (center) we were privileged to help.
Her neighbor, in the truck in the background, insisted on being included.  We were happy to oblige!

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). We are blessed to be a blessing when we we love others in the way that Christ loves us. We are blessed to be a blessing when we share that love with others.

May this Advent, and beyond, be a time of mutual love for us as we attempt to outdo ourselves in ways of expressing Christ's love to one another. May we all be blessed to be blessings.

The walls of the house and bags of insulation we helped the homeowners remove, after we were finished.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Telling Your Story

If you've been following my blog for some time now, you'll notice that one of the more common themes I seem to come back to over and over again is this:

Our need to tell our stories.

One reason we need to tell our stories, of course, is so we can share them with others. Sharing our stories, and finding commonalities within them, are a wonderful way for us to establish friendships and empathy with others. They're also a great way for us to share our faith, provided that we articulate how we've experienced God's presence in and through our stories.

Another reason we tell our stories is so that we can come to know ourselves––the "star" of all our stories––as the narrative of our lives unfold. How we choose to respond to the things that happen to us is often a good indicator of our character––it's a good indicator of who we are. As we come to understand the "whys" and "wherefores" of our own behavior, then, we can use that knowledge to grow and evolve into more mature, more complete human beings.

Perhaps the most important reason we tell our stories, though, is so that we can come to know God. Seeing God work in and through the events of our lives helps us crystallize our thoughts about God, through our perceptions of God's behavior. It helps us understand the image of God we form from these perceptions, which is inextricably linked to our life story.

So telling our stories benefits us in three ways:

  1. It helps us understand and connect with others;
  2. It helps us understand and connect with ourselves:
  3. It helps us understand and connect with God.

Learning how to tell our stories, then, is an important part of our faith journey.

In order to tell our stories, however, we have to have some idea of what to say––and, perhaps, what not to say.  What events should we consider noteworthy? Which ones shouldn't we consider noteworthy? What should we include? What should we leave out?

The short answer to all these questions is this: Whatever you like. There is no "right" or wrong" when it comes to telling your story. You can include what you want, and omit what you don't. Chances are, what you choose to include will be what's important, anyhow.

Still need a little help? Try this very simple (and very fun!) exercise I learned while preparing for a denomination CREDO conference last spring:

  1. Divide up your life into five-year segments (you can collapse your childhood years from 1-18 if you like).
  2. Identify a "key event" that defines for you the most important event(s) of those segments.
  3. Add a few details about why it was significant––for example, what did you learn from the event? How did it change you? How did you experience the presence of God in that event?
  4. Add a few details about how you felt about the event(s). Need a little help here? Try coming up with a song that describes the event. The song you choose will help you clarify the emotions you have surrounding the event. For example, if you're married, you might want to use the old Carpenters song, "We've Only Just Begun" to describe the hope you felt when starting your married life. If your spouse passed away unexpectedly, you could use Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to describe the despair you felt at losing your life's dream. You get the idea. 
  5. Having a hard time thinking of songs? Simply go to your trusty iPod, pick out a playlist, and see what songs resonate with you. Or, you could Google, for example, songs above childbirth, and see what pops up. 

Once you've identified your key events, and how you felt about them, you're ready to tell your story. Start with me, if you like. I'd love to hear it!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Stories of Our Lives

Then God said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."  (Exodus 3:1-6)

Our church decided to do something a little different this summer for our Sunday morning Christian education class. Building on a series my former church in Chicago had once done, we created a multi-generational class in which ten guest presenters from "The Greatest Generation" were invited to come in and simply share their faith stories with us. We titled our new series, "Faith Stories: Journeying With God Through Life." There was no specific format to these talks, and no guidelines were given to the presenters; they could simply talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. We just wanted to hear, through their stories, how their stories shaped their faith in God––or, maybe more appropriately, how their faith in God shaped their stories.

It's been an amazing summer. So far we've heard from Ray, a WWII Army vet and Purple Heart recipient who relayed for us a first-hand account of the Battle of the Bulge, as well as attending Sunday school in our church back in the 1930s; Gerda, a German native who grew up under Nazi rule and met Adolph Hitler (twice); Art, who has a Ph.D. in physics and worked on Nobel prize-winning research and development projects; Lenore, a WWII Wave who lived in some amazing places and ministered to family members battling mental illness; and Clara, whose son was killed in action in Vietnam but whose faith sustained her throughout it all.

It has been an incredible honor and privilege to hear these stories. I have been reminded again and again of the passage from Exodus (above), because as I listen to these stories I feel as though I'm standing on holy ground. Like Moses, I feel as though I should remove my shoes in deference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Because God is very present, in each and every story.

Sometimes the connection is made explicit, as when presenters credit God and prayer with guiding them through every step in life; sometimes the connection is less explicit, and we are left to see for ourselves the unseen hand of God in the twists and turns of their lives.

But one thing comes through loud and clear, whether the point is made explicitly or implicitly: God is there for all of it, and God is there in all of it. God is there in the stories of our lives.

I'm impressed with the openness of our presenters with respect to sharing their experience of God, as well as the courage they've had in discerning (and acting on) God's gentle nudges. Many of our presenters are in their 80s and even 90s, and they have a unique perspective in looking back and seeing the hand of God that's often so difficult to perceive in the present––but which, as they've illustrated, becomes crystal clear in hindsight.

Their stories are stories of survival, of resilience, and of perseverance ... but most of all, they are stories of hope. Hope that endures, hope that trusts, and hope that most of all is realized as they look back and see how very blessed they've been. The Light of Christ shines brightly in each and every story, illustrating how even the darkest of times are illuminated with God's unique silver lining.

I am grateful beyond words for the graciousness with which our presenters have shared their lives, their stories, and their experience of God with us, because their stories help us frame our stories. They help us see that God is there for all of it, and that God is there in all of it.

God is there in the stories of our lives. In theirs, in mine, and in yours.

What's your story?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

God's Skin

In addition to weekly assigned readings, my spiritual direction class last year required us to read two books. One of them, Ronald Rolheiser's The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, is one of the best books on spirituality I've ever read.

Rolheiser defines "spirituality" as desire––a desire to connect with God in a deep, meaningful way. Spiritual fire burns within all of us, he notes, and what we choose to do with that fire––how we choose to channel it––is the essence of our spirituality.

Spirituality is a given. We all have it. In fact, more than that, we are our spirituality, in a very real way. We don't have a soul, Rolheiser claims––we are a soul, a soul that constantly generates energy and integrates us into wholeness.

The function of a healthy soul, he says, is twofold:
  1. To generate fire, energizing us with a passion for life and love; and 
  2. To integrate us into wholeness, "giving us a sense of who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and what sense there is in all of this." 
Rolheiser spends a lot of time talking about this passion for God that undergirds all spirituality. Depression is a sign of not enough of this energy, he says; restlessness is a sign of too much. The key is learning how to manage our spiritual energy so it's in an appropriate balance.

This is where Christian spirituality comes in––it gives us a means by which we can channel our divine energy in a positive direction, toward wholeness of self. A complete Christian spirituality, according to Rolheiser, has four elements, all four of which were modeled for us by Jesus:
  • Private prayer and morality;
  • A concern for social justice;
  • Mellowness of heart and spirit; and
  • Community 

These four elements constitute the essence of Christian spirituality. They are the essence of Christian discipleship. They help us come together as the body of Christ, not just in a metaphorical sense, but in a literal sense. 

Because the body of Christ, according to Rolheiser, is not just a mystical reality, but a real one. So, when we come together in community, we literally become the living incarnation of Jesus Christ––God incarnate. 

Incarnation, in fact, is what differentiates Christian spirituality from non-Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality brings a transcendent God down to earth. '

Or, as Rolheiser puts it, with Christian spirituality, God has some skin.

What does this mean to us, practically speaking? It means that we are called to live out our faith in very tangible ways. If we use our divine energy to pray for a close friend, for example, but we do not call our friend or send him a note to see how he's doing and to let him know that we prayed for him, then how will that prayer ever touch him? 

The Apostle Paul explains the essence of Christian spirituality beautifully in his letter to the Romans:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord (Romans 12:9-10) 
For, as he reminds us:
In one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another (Romans 12:4-5).
God works in and through us, in very tangible ways. We are, quite literally, God's hands in the world. We are God incarnate, as the body of Christ. 

We are, in short, God's skin.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

12-Step Spirituality

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).

We say these words every week in worship during our time of confession––but how often do we really stop to consider what they really mean?

It’s easy for us to skip over these words and think that they don’t really apply to us. We rationalize that we are, deep down, good people, and we tell ourselves that our efforts to be good people absolve us from our occasional failures at living up to our potential (and, after all, there’s always grace, right??). We tend to think about sin as being someone else’s problem, not ours.

But this passage from 1 John reminds us that we deceive ourselves if we think like this. In other words, we deceive ourselves if we think that we are free from the self-deception that keeps us from seeing the ways in which we ourselves fall short of being the people God created us to be.

Getting beyond this self-deception can be difficult––but it’s not impossible. One of the ways we can do this is by practicing "12-Step Spirituality." 12-Step Spirituality is a series of 12 tasks, or "steps," used to treat various addictions, including (but not limited to) alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, and gambling. Working through these steps can be a very effective way of achieving personal (and hopefully permanent) transformation.

This transformation is not thought to be solely as a result of the effort of the addict, however (although effort by the addict is definitely required). Success, instead, is believed to be a function of the addict's having voluntarily turned his or her life over to "a higher power"––a power we Christians call, "God." 

The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the originator of all 12-step programs, is as follows:

1.   We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8.   Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or      others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we       understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Steps one through three involve admitting there's a problem that the addict is helpless to control, while the remaining steps have to do with "cleaning house," i.e., cleaning up the mess that the addiction has caused in the lives of both the addict and those around him.

In reading through AA's 12 steps, I was struck by how well the 12 steps of their program mirrored the central task of the Christian journey as Paul so elegantly summarizes it in Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ; 
and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:19-20).

The 12 steps describe how one can intentionally "crucify" oneself in order to ready the self to receive "new life" in Christ.

And the beauty of the program is that it's accessible to everyone, no matter what your issue. It's really just a matter of being honest with yourself, and with God––and asking God for help.

12-step programs don't guarantee spiritual perfection, but they do promise spiritual progress if you work the steps:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: 
everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 
All this is from God (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a). 

What addictions are you struggling with these days? What is getting in the way of your relationship with God? Which step are you on in your spiritual journey? 

May new life be yours in Christ––whatever your addiction.

Friday, February 3, 2012

They Like Jesus ... But Not The Church

Dan Kimball wrote a book a few years back called They Like Jesus But Not the Church (see photo, above). In it he explores the perception many young people (as well as many "old" people) have that the church is becoming an increasingly archaic institution, with little to offer in the way of modern-day relevance. Church has become, for them, an anachronistic association of like-minded people more interested in preserving the status quo than they are in changing the world.

Following in Kimball's footsteps is a young filmmaker named Jefferson Bethke, who echoed the sentiments of the young people interviewed in Kimball's book in a video he recently uploaded to YouTube  called, "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." The video went viral (which, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, means that a lot of people––in this case, 18,160,258 people, as of today––have watched it). Click on the link, below, if you'd like to see the video:

"Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus"

Clearly Mr. Bethke touched a nerve, especially with the so-called "Y Generation"––those born in the 1980s and 90s who are currently staying away from the church in droves.

And, in speaking for many of them, he also, in the process, made those of us whose job it is to reach those Gen Y folks (i.e., all of us) think, as well.

One of the people he made think was New York Times columnist David Brooks, who penned some thoughts about the video in his February 2 column, "How to Fight the Man" (see link, below):

How to Fight the Man

In it, Mr. Brooks pointed out the importance of not only understanding what you're against, but also, and very importantly, what you're for. As he notes:

Effective rebellion isn't just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don't repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.

Mr. Brooks also noted that Mr. Bethke has since recanted his perspective on "spiritual, but not religious" thinking in response to a Christian blogger named Kevin DeYoung, who posted a thoughtful (but not combative response) to Mr. Bethke's video on his blog:

Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really

So. What does this all mean for us––those of us who not only love Jesus, but who also love the Church?

It means that we need to remember:

  1. That none of us has "the" definitive answer when it comes to Jesus, religion, or the church;
  2. That it's important for us to listen to those who see things differently than we do;
  3. That the Spirit blows where it will (John 3:8). Our job, then, is not to direct the Spirit to where we think it should go, but to follow instead where the Spirit is leading. Even if (or maybe, especially when) the Spirit works through things like YouTube videos.

Admittedly, this process of tuning into the Spirit sounds a lot easier than it often is.

But we are called, as Christians, to open ourselves up to the possibilities set forth by the Spirit through worship, through prayer, through Scripture, through open and honest conversation with one another, and maybe even through spiritual direction, as we strive (and sometime struggle) to discern just where God is in the messiness of our lives.

It's not easy, to be sure ... but it's so worth it.

Who knows but that our openness might help people see it's okay to not only love Jesus, but also religion and the Church, as well.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Praying With Icons

I love contemporary art, and I love contemporary art museums––the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, MoMA in NYC (where "Starry Night," the Vincent Van Gogh painting, above, is exhibited) ––I love them all, mostly because contemporary art defies easy explanation. It seems less cognitive and more visceral to me; in other words, it evokes not just thoughts, but feelings. Contemporary art gets me out of my "head" and into my "heart," and in so doing it helps me clarify and understand my own thoughts and feelings––not just about the art, but about life itself.

I especially like it when I encounter a work of art in which I have no idea at all what the artist's trying to convey, because that's the point at which it starts to get really interesting for me. So when I go to a contemporary art museum, I generally look for a piece I'm drawn to, for whatever reason, and then spend some time figuring out why I'm drawn to it. The reason is seldom immediately apparent to me; it takes time (which is why I almost always go to contemporary art museums by myself). I have to sit with the piece for awhile to gradually become aware of the thoughts and feelings it evokes.

Invariably, I will find that the reason I'm drawn to a particular piece of art is not necessarily because of the art itself, but because of something that's going on in my life which the art is conceptualizing in some way.  In other words, the art allows me to sort of work backwards to think about something I need to be thinking about, but which I often wasn't aware even existed. The art taps into my subconscious, bringing to light issues that otherwise might have remained dormant, allowing me not only to think about these issues, but also to feel them. I enjoy reading all the background information about the artist and what he or she meant to convey with the art, but in the end I interpret it through the lens of my own experience. 

The lecture we had last Wednesday night at my spiritual direction class, on praying with icons, reminded me of my contemporary art excursions, because I've discovered that the process I go through in studying a work of art in a museum is the exact same process one goes through in praying with icons. That is, you first allow an icon to "speak" to you in some way, by grabbing your attention; and then, in the process of "listening" to the image, you find yourself responding in some way. The icon elicits within you thoughts and feelings of which you might not be aware––thoughts and feelings you can then take to God in prayer.

The word "iconography," which describes this type of art, is formed from the Greek words for "image" (icon) and "writing" (graph). Iconographers, accordingly, do not consider themselves to be artists; they consider themselves, instead, to be writers. I learned that one does not draw an icon; instead, one writes an icon. An icon is, literally, a visual depiction of the Word of God.

Take, for example, the famous icon to the left, written by fourteenth-century Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. It is, on the surface, a depiction of Genesis 18:1-16, the story of the three men (or angels) visiting Abraham and Sarah, who offer them hospitality. The angels, in return, tell the couple they will conceive a son, whom they will name Isaac.

During class, we were shown this icon and asked to take fifteen minutes to simply gaze at the image. We were not to approach it with any sort of preconceived notion, but instead were instructed just to sit with it, noting any thoughts and feelings it evoked. 

At first (staunch Presbyterian that I am) I must admit that I was somewhat resistant to this exercise. Byzantine art, after all, is not really my thing, and I was having a hard time understanding the connection between gazing at an icon and praying. However, I resolved to remain open. 

I was glad I did. As the minutes ticked by, I found my thoughts shifting from the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the angels, to thinking about how the three angels seemed to represent to me the Trinity––Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or, in more modern parlance, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer). I found myself wondering who was whom, how you could tell them apart, and what was going on among them as they sat there. Clearly, they seemed to be having a conversation of some sort––but about what? The angles of their heads would seem to indicate that the angel in gold was offering comfort and advice to the angel in green, with the angel in blue nodding approvingly over it all. 

After giving it a little more thought, I decided that the angel in green was the Holy Spirit, that the angel in gold was Jesus, offering compassion, and that the angel in blue was God, blessing all that transpired. I then found myself imagining reasons that Jesus might be offering compassion to the Holy Spirit.

It was then, at that point, that I suddenly realized that the things for which I imagined the angel needing compassion were directly related directly to things for which I, myself, might like to receive compassion. In other words, I became aware, through the art, of some needs and feelings within me I'd not really allowed myself to tap into before. As with my experience with contemporary art, the icon had drawn out of me things I hadn't realized were there.

The connection with prayer, I discovered, was that I could take these needs and feelings to God in prayer. I could simply share what I'd learned with God, or I could ask God for help in overcoming difficulties associated with what I'd learned. I could think my prayer, using the language of thought, or I could express my prayer silently, through my feelings. I could write my prayer down, using words, or I could create an icon of my own, expressing my prayer through my own art.

All this, from spending fifteen minutes on a single icon. No wonder spiritual directors often encourage the use of icons when people seem "stuck" or unable to pray. The icons seem to provide a nice detour around whatever stumbling blocks might be getting in the way.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon, so much so that I just ordered a book of (contemporary, of course) icon art. I plan to use it to explore a little more fully the role icons can play in my prayer life. I invite you to do the same. It doesn't have to be a religious icon (although it might be); it can simply be something––anything––that draws your attention. Anything that speaks to you, be it a greeting card, an image in the hallway of an office building, or even a tree outside. 

What it is it saying to you? What can you learn, through it, about yourself?

What can you learn, through it, about God?