Seeking Transformation

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“What are you doing?”  The bricklayer looked annoyed, his concentration broken by the idiotic question.  Could there be any doubt? Wasn’t it blatantly obvious? “I’m laying bricks!” he snapped and went back to his work, not bothering to turn around and even see who was talking to him.  Sir Christopher Wren, the famed architect of the 17th century, continued walking, his curiosity piqued. This wasn’t just a wall. It was a part of Wren’s greatest masterpiece−St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  “What are you doing?” he asked the second bricklayer. Though he still didn’t turn around, this time the man sighed, stared off into space, and said, “You gotta earn a living somehow, eh mate?” Wren continued.  This time after posing the question, the third bricklayer straightened up, turned around, and with a wry grin, he said, “As it were, I’m building this great cathedral for the glory of God!”

There’s probably a lot more legend to that story than anything else, but even if it’s not factual, its truth remains:  how you choose to look at something affects what you see.  In other words, if you seek transformation, that’s what you’ll find.  Everything you look at will change.  Each of us goes through life falling into one of the three categories above at one time or another, depending on what we’re doing.  

  • Task Oriented:  just going through the motions to get the job done

  • Means-to-an-End:  recognizing the banality of the work, but accepting it’s necessity to earn a paycheck

  • Being a Part of Something Greater:  accepting your personal limitations but recognizing your role in the “big picture”

The surprising thing is that you are more in control of making meaning than you think.  Each of the bricklayers above was doing the same job. But they all saw it differently. Changing your perspective is everything.

As Christians, we are called to seek transformation−not only in ourselves, but also in our community.  And if we learn to look at it the right way, the work we do in our everyday, ordinary lives can take on more special meaning if we see it as playing a part in what God is doing in the world, as become a Kingdom Builder here on Earth.

Once you master the Kingdom perspective, it starts to transform the world around you.  The homeless man in the Wal-Mart parking lot starts to look a lot more like Christ.  The same is true for the hungry, the strangers, the sick, the prisoners (Matthew 25:35-36).  And if you start seeing the Christ in them, the Christ in you becomes a little easier for others to see.  Before you know it, both the world and you are transformed, and we’re all one step closer to the Kingdom.

~Justin


Same Same but Different: Islam and a Line in the Sand

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“El burro, por favor.”  The scene was tranquil as the sun danced on the water, a light breeze drifting in from the ocean, fluttering the umbrella of our beachside cafe table in Valencia, Spain.  But the waiter’s face was anything but tranquil. We thought it was a simple request, but he looked like he thought we were out of our minds. He had brought the bread. We wanted butter.  But our limited Spanish vocabulary couldn’t produce the word. My friend knew that in French the word for butter is “beurre.” Nerds that we were, we knew that Spanish and French share a common language (Latin), so many of the words are similar.  We tried to turn “beurre” into Spanish, and the result was “burro.” After a few tense moments of head shaking and hand gestures, he brought the butter and we discovered that the word “burro” has nothing to do with butter. We had been asking for “donkey” for our bread.  Sometimes what seems so close together couldn’t be further apart.

But I suppose the opposite is also true:  sometimes what seems so far apart is actually not all that different.

I never knew that much about Islam.  I had always thought that it was the opposite of Christianity in every way.  But last night I heard a story that challenged my way of thinking, so I looked it up to see if it was true, and here’s what I found:

Ethiopia is the oldest Christian nation, with a rich history going back millennia, interweaving legends and rich historical artifacts, from the Queen of Sheba to monolithic, cross-shaped churches carved out of solid rock.  In the year 615, Islam was in its infancy, and its new followers were being persecuted in Mecca, mostly for claiming there was only one God (“Allah” is just the Arabic word for “God,” closely related to the Hebrew “Elohim”).  They fled for their lives, seeking refuge in the kingdom of Axum (modern-day Ethiopia) under the Christian King Ashamah Negus or Al Najashi. Shortly after their arrival, a group from Mecca arrived, asking the king to kill the “heretics.”  Trying to sort it all out, King Najashi questioned the Muslims on what they thought about Jesus. They responded, saying that “Jesus is considered to be a messenger of God, the word of God, and the miraculously born son of the Virgin Mary” (Wise).  The king conferred with his counselors, and after reaching a decision, he came back to the Muslim refugees, and with a stick he drew a line in the sand, saying the “difference between the message of Mohammed and Christianity is the difference between this thin line.” And he let them stay in Ethiopia, offering them as much protection as as the Christian citizens of his country.  This was remarkable in a time when many Christian groups killed anyone they discovered disagreeing with their version of Christianity.

I think this story offer us much wisdom for today, especially in light of all the misinformation going around in the world.  It offers a model for how to build relationships with people of different faiths, and thus become a positive witness for Christianity in the world.

  1. Witness by Listening - King Najashi didn’t tell the refugees what they should believe.  He asked them to tell their story. After all, if you want someone to listen to you, isn’t it much easier if they know you’ll listen to them too?  Respectful dialogue is much more effective at building a relationship than a one-way exchange of information.

  2. Witness by Respecting Needs - The refugees were in danger, and the king kept them safe even before he decided he was on their side.  Some needs are all-consuming, and if you can understand that need and help do something about it, it goes a long way toward building a positive relationship.

  3. Witness by Finding Common Ground - The king knew the refugees were different, but he found common ground.  So often in life we focus on what’s different, so much so that we leave little time for common ground.  What would happen if people from different groups (political persuasions, social classes, races, religions, etc.) had conversations about what they have in common?  It seems to me that the differences might fade to the background, enabling you to see the human being in front of you rather than an idea you disagree with.

Christians and Muslims have a long, checkered relationship.  But this story from Islam’s beginning gives me hope that there’s a way to live together and have a conversation, to see each other as people and not as ideas.  Maybe we can find common ground. God willing.

~Justin


Lent & Renewal:  Revival and the Self

Don’t get stuck in the mud of your own dust. But let it be “the fertile soil in which something new can grow.”

Don’t get stuck in the mud of your own dust. But let it be “the fertile soil in which something new can grow.”

“Out of the ashes we rise.”  The image is vivid, provocative, unexpected.  Fire consumes everything, and yet, we find a way to keep going, to rise to the occasion and find renewal in the face of destruction.  More than a time to swear off sugar and feel sorry for yourself, Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and self reflection.

I didn’t grow up with Lent or Ash Wednesday.  In fact, I’m not sure I even knew what they were until after high school.  So I’m still learning. Because change and the same old thing can sometimes be enemies of growth (leading to either discomfort or stagnation), many Protestants abandoned some of the ritual traditions of the historic church calendar, but many ancient practices are finding new life as they themselves rise from the ashes.  

Lent (“the lengthening of days” or Anglo-Saxon for “Spring”) began as preparation for Baptism for new converts to Christianity.  It was a time of self-reflection and repentance—a time of turning one’s life around, embracing a new life of following Christ.  Today many people see it as a time to feel bad about yourself and think about death and suffering.  But that’s only the first part of the story. Lent is an invitation to look again at your own life in light of the life of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The emphasis is more about finding new life rather than feeling bad about your old one.  

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  The traditional saying accompanying the imposition of ashes is rather dark and morbid, and we find in it a challenge to our grand egotism and inflated view of ourselves.  But also in it we find a reminder of a cycle that should play out daily in our lives—that of death and resurrection. This cycle of renewal is built into many Christian traditions, but it’s easiest to see in Baptism where, as Baptists practice, the believer is “Buried with him by baptism into death” as they are lowered beneath the water, and then “Raised to walk in newness of life.”  

But we get it wrong.  Instead of focussing on the “newness of life” part, we carry our sins around with us, resurrecting sins instead of letting ourselves find new life.  We keep resurrecting our old self instead of letting it die. We dwell on the past, and we don’t forgive ourselves for all the things we are ashamed of.  And as a result we bring our own demons back to life, time and again resurrecting the shadows of the past. But Ash Wednesday calls us to “repentance”—not to feel sorry but to turn our lives around.  And to do that you have to let your old self die. You have to let your past become dust. You have to throw a little dirt on the grave of all your shame and regret.

Ash Wednesday calls us to reflect on our mortality and confess our sins “before God within the community of faith,” but it also calls us to “proclaim the grace of God, as well as reconcile with those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us” (Duck 131).  I would add “to be reconciled with ourselves.”  

So as we enter Lent this week, seek renewal!  Seek revival! Don’t get stuck in the mud of your own dust.  But let it be “the fertile soil in which something new can grow” (Palmer 116).


Same Same but Different

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“Oh, don’t worry!  The 6 o’clock ferry sank about a month ago.”  She said it so matter-of-factly, so calmly like it was some common, everyday occurrence.  I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, and I was hoping there was a joking tone in her Irish accent.  “Pardon me? It sank?!?” “Oh yes, it’s in the bottom of the harbor. There’ll be another one along at 3 AM.”  There was no twinkle in her eye. She was for real. This was no way to start my 6-week backpacking trip through Europe.

It was 6:10 PM, and my train was late to the port because a “bridge was out.”  Now I had to find something to do until the 3:00 AM boat to Dublin, Ireland arrived at Holyhead, Wales.  My Spring Break from Oxford University was not off to a great start. There was no place to sit at the port, so I started walking through the town as it grew colder and darker outside.  I had never felt more homesick in my life. Then I saw it. A neon “Open” sign on a small restaurant. I now had a warm place to sit and something to eat. I struck up a conversation, and it turns out the waiter liked bluegrass music.  As “Sweet Home, Alabama” came on the jukebox, people started to sing along. Even though I was more than 6,000 miles from Atlanta, I was right at home.

There’s a saying in Southeast Asia, from street vendors to philosophers to t-shirts:  “Same Same but Different.” If you’ve ever traveled outside of your culture, you know how unsettling it can be at times.  But it just takes finding something familiar for you to realize that, even though we are all different, we are still the same in many ways.  It’s possible for Georgians to find “Southern Hospitality” in New Hampshire, or barbecue in Greece, or folks who play the “fiddle” in Russia.  Everyone in the world puts their spin on the human experience, but if we learn to look beyond the surface, we can find all kinds of unexpected points of connection.  

The Gospel is no different.  The same story has taken root across many different soils in this world, and each time it blooms into something beautiful, different every time, but still the same.  Take the Gospels in the Bible, for instance. They all tell the same story, but they go about it in different ways. In Mark you find a sense of urgency and even secrecy, embracing the “hiddenness of divine mystery,” allowing for candid honesty “to acknowledge the reality of suffering, the difficulty of discipleship, and the not yet” part of expectation (Hays page 96, Reading Backwards). In Matthew you  find how Jesus fulfills and transforms Old Testament teachings as he embodies “‘God with us,’ the living presence of God who is to be worshiped as the holder of all authority” (Hays 98).  Luke “emphasizes promise and fulfillment” as he sets the stage for the story of Israel’s redemption (Hays 99).  Mark starts in the wilderness, and Matthew and Luke start at Jesus’ birth, but John goes all the way back to the beginning.  John takes all of the symbols of Israel’s worship (the Temple, the good shepherd, the sacrificial lamb, water, lights, etc.) and shows how they were all signifiers of Jesus (Hays 101).  

Each of these variations of the same story spoke to different audiences.  Each of us encounters the divine in a unique way.

Can the Christ in you learn to see the Christ in your neighbor?  It’s there. It’s the same. But different. The same forest is made up of thousands of different organisms.  So it is with faith. So has Christ come for all. So may we live into this truth.

~Justin


Accidental Enemies:  Encountering Otherness

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“NO!  TAP. WATER.”  I was practically yelling.  And my hand gestures were getting...let’s say quite “out of hand.”  But the man behind the counter kept offering me a bottle of water which I knew was not free.  I was in the Mall of Georgia food court, and I love Chinese food. Especially cheap Chinese food.  But I didn’t want to pay for a drink. And the miscommunication was starting to get to me. (Why is it that we talk louder and slower when we think someone doesn’t understand us?)  I assumed the language barrier was insurmountable, and I was on the verge of walking away when the Asian man behind the counter smiled, picked up a pre-made tap water, and said to me in perfect English:  “Here you go, man!”

In Luke 6:2728, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (NIV).  But what happens if we’re the ones who inadvertently mistreat a fellow child of God, accidentally treating them like an enemy?  We need to be honest with ourselves and be careful how we treat others, especially if there’s a cultural or racial difference involved.  We make so many assumptions in this world. The problem is that we don’t realize we’re doing it. I assumed the food court worker didn’t speak English well because of the way he looked, and this must have become so normal for him (white people assuming things about him) that he made a game out of it.  What I did and thought on that day was something born out of unintentional, unconscious racism, a problem I didn’t know I had. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never hated anyone or actively sought to cause them harm because of the color of their skin. But I’ve come to learn that there’s a subtle form of obliviousness when it comes to race that can affect you unawares.  I’m not saying that everyone is racist, but I am saying that race shapes how we think whether we’re aware of it or not.

It’s hard to change your mind when you’re not even aware what you’re thinking.  You see, if you’re part of the dominant/majority race or culture, you can’t see it because you don’t have to.  It’s become so normal that it’s invisible to you. Like going nose-blind to smells in your house or a fish unaware that he’s swimming in water (unless you take him out!).  If you’re like me and white in America, you’ve been swimming in whiteness without even realizing it.

It’s not a liberal or conservative issue.  It’s a human issue. We build up an idea of what “normal” means, and anything that we encounter outside of that narrow bubble, we subconsciously label it as “a bit odd,” “different,” or “other.”  And if you’re not careful, you can unconsciously treat “otherness” as inferior and second-class. It’s easy to see racism that wears a mask or carries a flag at a rally. It’s harder to see unintentional racism that causes you to accidentally mistreat others, to speak condescendingly, to be surprised when people who look differently than you have something in common with you.  I couldn’t see it in my own life until I read an article called “Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.”   The more I looked into it, the more I read by this same author, the more I realized how she was describing me:  “‘How has your life been shaped by your race?’ This is rarely a difficult question for people of color, but most white participants are unable to answer” (DiAngelo).  I never realized that my race was affecting how I saw and treated others.  Now that I’m aware, I keep coming back to the words of Jesus: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31, NIV).  I don’t want people to make assumptions about me based on the way I look.  I don’t want to be judged based on stereotypes. I don’t want to be treated as “other.”  There’s no room for that in the Kingdom of God.

Lord, may we learn to see others as you see usas your children.

~Justin


Living in the Moment: Reflections from Refugee Camp

Mae La Camp, Thailand - Photo by Rob

Mae La Camp, Thailand - Photo by Rob

Morning has dawned at Mae La Camp where I spent the night among about 40,000 Karen refugees from Burma, some of whom have lived in this camp for more than 30 years.  The camp is located about 8 hours north of Bangkok by car and in the hill region so the morning is quite chilly.  It isn't often in Southeast Asia that I have actually seen my breath condense into the morning air, but I can certainly see it here.


Mae La is one among a number of camps for Karen in this part of Thailand.  I came here first in about 2008 or 2009 when I served as the Global Missions Coordinator for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and my purpose at that time was to see the camp and to then help CBF churches in the US prepare to receive Karen refugees to the United States.  Many did resettle in places like Atlanta, Louisville, Richmond, Fort Worth and other areas.  But always the possibility of returning to Burma (now Myanmar) has caused others to remain here in the camps in hopes that one day they might be able to go home.  The United Nations has already cut rations to the refugees who remain and there are rumors that soon all rations may be cut off.  Challenges to returning to Myanmar include the fact that many Karen no longer have homes and property there since other people have now moved in and taken their former land, so there may not be much there for them to go home to.


It has been my privilege to stay at the Kathoolei-Karen Baptist Bible School and College.  This insititution educates about 400 students, preparing them for ministry among Karen, Chin and other Burmese tribal groups.  The work is impressive and the faculty are dedicated and committed followers of Christ whose deep passion is to see an educated ministry for Karen churches.  Thra Wado, the vice principal of the school, has been my host.  In my interview with him yesterday, he recounted his own experience in fleeing Burma as a child after the burning of his village.  He realized that he could not pursue schooling since his village no longer existed; so, he made his way to this camp to attend high school and later to graduate from this Bible school that he serves.


One of the professors here was married in October, but he and his wife cannot live together because they have been assigned to two different camps.  They married in October and spent a week together.  He then saw her in December and he is hoping that she can come here to visit him in April.  I asked him about his hopes and dreams for the future and he responded simply that he doesn't think much about the future.  He simply tries to live in the moment, confident that God will take care of the future.


Most of the faculty here have not had an easy road to gain their theological degrees.  Generally, they have had to finish at the Bible School here and then make a very dangerous journey across Myanmar to Nagaland in India where they spend three years pursuing a Master of Divinity degree.  The journey to Nagaland takes anywhere from two weeks to one month, depending on the time of year and traveling conditions.  


My prayer for myself and for you this morning is that we all manage to live in the moment today and to not worry quite as much about the future as we are prone to do.  My new professor friend here put it quite well.  Best to live in the moment and leave the future to God.  For obvious reasons, that spiritual truth is much easier for me to grasp here as I see people living it out all around me.  

From Mae La,

~Rob

Miracles, Disenchantment, and Fish

“…as far as I’m concerned, every authentic human connection in this chaotic world is a miracle.”

“…as far as I’m concerned, every authentic human connection in this chaotic world is a miracle.”

“And Lord, we pray for healing.”  There were tears in the room, but that circle gathered around the hospital bed seemed to breathe as one in that moment.  And our collective grief and worry seemed to subside, just a tiny bit and for the briefest of moments. The report from the doctors was not good, and they were taking this case “moment by moment,” which made us all think we’d better make every moment count.  It was hard to sleep that night, but I went back to my daily routine with a tinge of grim expectation for news. Then I got a text.

“The doctors can’t explain it, but she’s getting better!”  And so she did! I remember thinking, “What just happened? Did the doctors miss something the first time?  Or did we just have ourselves a little miracle?!?”

Ours seems to be an age of disenchantment.  Much of what used to be unexplainable has now been explained, and so we’re all left with an abiding lack of wonder in our lives.  I’m one to believe that God is at work through doctors and science and medical advancements. But what of the unexplainable? What of miracles in an age of scientific inquiry?  

I’m inclined to agree with Albert Einstein on this one:  “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”  But oh the irony...according to the internet, we can’t confirm that Einstein actually said this!  So did that prayer years ago change God’s mind and save that young girl’s life?  Or did it change us and our outlook on the situation? To me the miracle is that even after medicine and science had “failed” us, we stood in that circle and felt real hope amidst the uncertainty of the outcome.  No matter how it turned out, we felt God’s presence with us. Did that change the outcome? I have no idea. But it made that moment better, and we were less alone. And as far as I’m concerned, every authentic human connection in this chaotic world is a miracle.

In Luke 5:1-11, the disciples had been fishing all night to no avail.  They were tired. The tried and true methods had failed them, and they hadn’t caught a single fish.  To me that’s the definition of disenchantment: what used to work has let you down, so what’s the use in trying again?  You can just hear the disappointment in their voices as Jesus tells them to throw the net out just one more time, this time on the other side of the boat.  In verse 5, “Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets’” (NIV).  You know how it ends.  The nets were so full of fish they had to call for help.  

So you’re tired.  You’ve been up all night.  And you’re not sure anyone is even listening to those prayers.  What does the “other side of the boat” look like for you? Does the prayer need to change?  Has it already changed you? Or have you been staring at the miracle all along, mistaking it for science?  The most important thing is that you’re not alone. And it’s ok to call for help whether you’ve caught any fish or not.  ~Justin


From the Outside In:  Baptist Mission Comes Full Circle

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“You don’t belong here.”  It’s a message heard by marginalized people across the ages in one way or another.  This time it was the British East India Company sending the message to American Baptist missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson who arrived in India shortly around the outbreak of the War of 1812.  Not to be deterred, the Judsons made their way to Burma where it took 3 years just to learn the language. But Adoniram was a linguist, and he soon had written a grammar of the language and began translating parts of the Bible into Burmese.  He tried to assimilate into the culture, but soon realized that he was destined to always be seen as an outsider. He stayed the course, even though it took 12 years to make 18 converts. Finally, with the help of a donated printing press and a fresh translation of the Gospel of Matthew, a congregation began to form, and "So was born the church in Rangoon–logger and fisherman, the poor and the rich, men and women. One traveled the whole path to Christ in three days; another took two years. But once they had decided for Christ they were his for all time" (chronicler Maung Shwe Wa).

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From 1824-1826, Burma went to war with Britain, Ann died, and Adoniram found himself in and out of prison.  But he found a surprising ally in a converted outcast and murderer named Ko Tha Byu of the Karen people who quickly spread the Gospel to jungle tribes whose oral tradition contained stories much like those of the Old Testament.  In 1835 Judson finished his translation of the entire Bible into Burmese and married fellow missionary Sarah Boardman. By the time of his death at the end of his 37 year career as a missionary overseas, Judson’s initial goal of 100 members had bloomed into a thriving network of 100 churches with over 8,000 members.  As a result, modern-day Myanmar now has the third largest number of Baptists worldwide with “1.6 million Baptists in more than 4,700 churches in a country that is an estimated 90 percent Buddhist and 4 percent Christian” (Baptist News Global).  

The modern military government in the region has not allowed missionaries since 1967, and recently the Karen people have fallen under persecution in Burma, now Myanmar, and had to flee as refugees because their home country “never claimed the Karen, nor did bordering Thailand, which maintained them in refugee camps they used as a military buffer zone. The Karen were stateless persons.”  Those who made their way to the U.S. have partnered with numerous CBF churches across the country, and as they have learned about American culture, we could learn a thing or two from their “culture of evangelism” in which everything about their faith is taken very seriously.  Christians from across the world are making their way to America for a variety of reasons, and it would seem that we have a lot to learn from them.

Some groups across Asia and South America are now sending missionaries to the US.  The Gospel has come full circle.  It seems as if we have become to the new mission field, and the places to where we used to send missionaries are now preaching the Gospel to us.  The reasons for this role reversal are incredibly complex, but people like Rob Sellers have theorized that “A lot of people in the West are much more likely to validate different religious, political or social ideas than our parents — and certainly our grandparents — were apt to do. [They] are disenchanted with the established church. They perceive the church to be rigid, legalistic, formal, out of touch, superficial and old-fashioned...If Christian people and churches were to set up their commitment to addressing human needs around the world, I believe more 'secular' people in the West would take notice and be more likely to participate” (Third World Faith).

May we tell these stories and learn from them.  Transformation is never too far out of reach. ~Justin


Moving a Mountain?  Pick up a Grain of Sand.

I thought it was about getting done as quickly as possible. Turns out there’s a reason to slow down.

I thought it was about getting done as quickly as possible. Turns out there’s a reason to slow down.

“Let’s get to work.”  I stared at the square hole already about a foot deep.  Then I looked over at the ten-foot-deep trench on the other side of the site.  I looked back at the shallow hole where our work was to begin. I looked at the small spade in my hand.  You’ve got to be kidding me!  It’ll take about ten years to dig that deep with this tool!  It was the summer of 2005, and I was on an archaeological dig in Ancient Corinth, Greece as a part of Mercer’s Study Abroad program.  I was ready to work, but I was not prepared for the pace. The tools we had were small spades and brushes for gently removing handful-sizes of dirt from the site, the goal being to find a corner of a wall that had been uncovered about 25 yards away.  I spent an entire day moving small handfuls of dirt, and when it was time to leave for the night, you couldn’t even tell we had been there. I wanted more. I wanted big results, and I wanted them fast. The next day I looked around and found a proper-size shovel, and I moved some dirt!  Let me tell you, I had lowered the level of that whole an entire foot in about 30 minutes. Then I heard it. In my haste the shovel had scraped against something hard, and there was a distinct cracking sound as I followed through with my swing. My heart sank as we started clearing the dirt around the object.  I just knew I had broken some priceless work of art, a beautiful piece of pottery preserved for thousands of years in the dirt, surviving wind and rain and earthquakes only to be smashed to pieces by the impatience of an over-eager college student. I turned away. I couldn’t look. I couldn’t watch as the rest of the team unearthed whatever it was I had broken.  I suddenly realized why they had given us the spades instead of the shovels.

I got lucky that day.  It was just a thin rock.  But I learned a valuable lesson that day:  sometimes you have to take it slow before everything falls apart.  Sometimes the shortcut isn’t the best way. Sometimes you have to dig with a brush instead of a shovel.  We have proverbs like this: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or my favorite from my days teaching the research paper to middle schoolers:  “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”  

I think it’s the same with faith, but like everything else we get in a hurry.  We want to dig with a shovel. We want God to show up and fix everything right away whenever we ask.  But the faith that can move mountains doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye.  When I first read that in my King James Bible at an early age, I had visions of snapping my fingers and watching one of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains float up in the air and replant itself a hundred miles away.  But that’s not how it works. That’s not even how you move mountains. Years later I would tell my students that if you have a mountain to move, don’t stare at it and get lost on how difficult it’s going to be. Instead, if you want to move a mountain, pick up a grain of sand.  And if you do that enough times, before you know it, you’ve succeeded in a greater task than you ever thought possible. The problem is staying focused and believing in what you’re doing. It’s all too easy to look at your lack of progress and give up entirely. But if you stay faithful, doing a little each day, you can do something great by the end.  

So what mountains are in your way?  Don’t sit back and wait on God to move it.  Get to work. Pick up a handful of dirt, and with God’s help, I think you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.

~Justin


Beyond Pain: C.S. Lewis and Finding Faith

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“It’s not supposed to be this way.”  We’ve all thought this at some point, at some injustice in our life.  As long as our life is relatively free from pain and loss as we’re growing up, we have no problem believing in the “goodness” of God.  But this is a fragile, understanding of God, a theology that has not been tested by the dark realities of this world. And all it takes is bad things happening to good people for anyone to start to question God.  Imagine living through the “War to End All Wars” which we now call World War I, and then in your lifetime having everything fall apart again in World War II.  The World Wars wrecked many, many Europeans’ concept of God. If God is good, how could all this happen?  And many gave up on God.  For many of us, the idea of national tragedy might seem distant.  But personal tragedy is no less devastating. So, how do you hold on to faith in a world of so much pain?  How does faith survive tragedy?

C.S. Lewis survived firsthand the frontlines of trench warfare in WWI, watching the same artillery shell that wounded him take the life of two friends right before his eyes.  As an atheist who paradoxically was “angry at God for not existing,” Lewis found a way to go on with life.  He had given up on God before the war (especially after the death of his mother when he was a child), but as an academic, he had friends whom he respected greatly, notably author J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings).   Through conversations with these friends and his own nagging sense of the possibility of God’s reality, he found his faith in 1929.  In his own account of this dramatic moment, he paints a vivid picture:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [College, Oxford], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy).

Despite his reluctance to enter the faith, he spent the rest of his life defending it, answering many of the most difficult questions that can be asked about God, or providing stories which gave a metaphorical understanding of such difficult concepts.  He went on to author over 30 books selling millions of copies worldwide.

Perhaps his fame was due to his efforts in WWII.  He volunteered to serve, but after his request was denied, he found a way to contribute by giving wartime radio broadcasts.  From 1941 to 1943, in a world struggling to come to terms with the powers of evil and death all around, C.S. Lewis spoke on “religious programmes broadcast by the BBC from London while the city was under periodic air raids. These broadcasts were appreciated by civilians and servicemen at that stage. For example, Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Hardman wrote:  ‘The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless. We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that.’ The broadcasts were anthologised in Mere Christianity” (Wikipedia).  His faith tested, he came out stronger, even helping others hold on to their faith.

Knowing that others have traveled down the road of doubt before you might not be much comfort, but when I travelled that road in 2006, I found answers in C.S. Lewis.  They’re not easy or simple (they won’t fit in this short blog post, for example), but they are profound. So I say, Keep searching.  Keep asking questions.  Don’t give up on God. God hasn’t given up on you.  And when it comes to pain, I’ll let C.S. Lewis speak to that:  “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (The Problem of Pain).  Pain can define us or refine us.  May we all find the right path. ~Justin

Changing God's Mind?

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Leave it to us to get it backwards.  I was 10 and someone was dying. I was asked to pray.  They died anyway. My heart sank, and all my little mind could think about was, “I must not have prayed hard enough.”  I had this guilty, sunken feeling for weeks. It felt like his death was all my fault for saying a weak, half-hearted prayer (I had said something silently to myself for about 30 seconds, and I quickly went back to playing Super Mario Brothers, not really giving it another thought).  Have you ever been there?

What happens in prayer is a bit of a mystery to us (as it should be), and depictions of prayer on tv and in the movies don’t help us understand it any better.  I recently watched an episode of Glee where the main character prays to “Grilled Cheesus” after seeing an outline of Jesus appear in his grilled cheese, and when his friend gets hurt in the process of him getting what he wants, he feels like it’s all his fault for the way he prayed.  We laugh, but in our own faith development, we all have room to grow when it comes to prayer. In fact, a misunderstanding of prayer has led millions of people away from the faith. It starts with a theology that sees God as some kind of adult Santa Claus who gives you want you want if you’re on the “nice list,” living a good life and praying hard enough.  The truth is a little more complicated. It can seem like some prayers work and some don’t. And all it takes is a few bad things happening to good people for you to discover that sometimes prayer doesn’t seem to change God’s mind. When that happens, some people choose to give up on God. Others look for a new way to see things.

In the 1993 movie The Shadowlands which chronicles the life of Christian author C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), Jack says, “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.”  Miracles happen, and outcomes sometimes take an unexpected turn. But there are some facts in life that don’t change no matter how hard you pray. Sometimes you don’t get the miracle you asked for. So does that mean that prayer is pointless? Hardly. When the facts don’t change, the only thing you can change is how you see them, your attitude, your resilience.  You can bring all your anger and confusion to God, and you can seek understanding and peace when things don’t make sense.

Prayer changes you.  That’s its purpose. You commune with God and bring to God all your cares and troubles and worries, and you walk away with the peace of God.  Paul tells us, “in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, KJV).  Notice that it doesn’t say that you will get your requests or even get an answer. It just says that “the peace of God...shall keep your hearts and minds.” Prayer takes us one step closer to God and God’s peace, and it helps us face the realities of this world with a sense that we’re not alone.  

So pray.  And pray hard.  It can change everything.  But it starts by changing you.

~Justin


Hope Trumps Experience: Expectations, Confidence, and Resolutions

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“Do those things really work, doctor?”  I was skeptical, but this was the second double ear infection in both boys in two months.  I was looking for anything to clear the air.  “Well, yes, actually. If you get the HEPA air purifiers, they’ve been proven effective at removing household allergens and in general improving air quality in your home.”  I went straight to Wal-Mart. It turns out that $90 is a small price to pay for anything that might reduce runny noses (and by extension ear infections). I had the device set up before I had walked the dogs.  It was one of the Febreeze kind, so it instantly smelled good.  I could already feel the air being cleaned (and the chances of ear infections dropping dramatically).  The next day I sat down after the boys were asleep and breathed deeply. “Wow, the air is so fresh and clean,” I thought.  I felt good about myself, my choice in air purifying devices, and the new freshness of the air in my home. This thing is really working!  After a little tv, I turned it on high to run for the night.  But it sounded funny. I looked more closely, noticing a button to release the back panel.  I pushed it...and there...in the back of the device...the filters were still wrapped in plastic!  All my confidence had been wrecked by the reality that the air purifier had being doing nothing for two days even though my mind told me it was working!  

The Placebo Effect.  Science and the medical community have measured and proven that faith in your medicine alone can actually make you feel better and improve many conditions.  When testing a new drug, researchers have three groups: those who receive the drug, those who receive nothing, and those who receive a placebo (or a sugar pill...something that has no healing qualities).  The thing is, you don’t know if you’re getting the real medicine or the placebo. But the placebo group typically shows improvement. So for the drug to be approved, they have to prove that it works better than a placebo.  So according to science, your expectations have power.  There is a verifiable truth that your confidence in something has the power to make you feel better.  Doesn’t that sound a lot like faith? It’s a funny thing, but if you believe it’s working, it might be!

Some of us have already broken our New Year’s Resolutions.  Studies show that only 8% of people actually follow through.  I think it has something to do with expectations, confidence, and just overall faith in ourselves.  Look, if you take a sugar pill placebo and feel better, the pill didn’t do anything for you. You made you feel better.  We look for solutions outside of ourselves when all the while we already have what we need inside us.  Now don’t get me wrong: sugar pills won’t fix a broken leg or clinical depression. But there are all kinds of things about life that can be made better by a little more faith in yourself.  I think part of the problem is that we learn to look for evidence that it’s not working.  Thus we train ourselves to be skeptical, and we lose faith in our resolutions the moment we discover evidence that the diet is not working, that the kindness didn’t keep you out of the argument, that the person you’re trying to make amends with hasn’t changed a bit even though you have.  But real change takes time. Resolutions have to become habits, or otherwise they’re just fads that last a few days.

Colossians 3:12 challenges us to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (NASB).  Now there’s a list of resolutions that no one can master. But why not pick one? Write the word in a place you’ll see every day.  Perhaps tape it to the bathroom mirror. Pay attention to your daily living, and make a little note on the paper every time you get something right.  It’ll take some time, but before long you will start to expect something to happen, and you’re confidence in yourself will grow.  And forget about all the times when you don’t get it right. All they’re good for is skepticism.  We need hope to triumph over experience. Only then can you learn to “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,” and make a new reality where “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:16-17). ~Justin

The Light Hurts:  Gifts and Giving

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The shadows look so real.  But that’s all they are. Just shadows.  It takes the light to discover the truth−to see reality.  But sometimes the light hurts.  When I was a kid, my dad took me on all kinds of treks through the woods, and in the distance my mind would see all kinds of things in the shadows cast from the light shining through the trees.  For some reason dinosaurs were featured regularly in my shadow visions (this seemed to happen the most after I saw Jurassic Park in theaters), yet when I took a few steps and the light changed, it was always just trees and shadows of trees.  Sometimes I was relieved to discover the truth, but other times I was downright disappointed. I think part of me really wanted a brontosaurus to be lurking around the bend...but definitely not a velociraptor!

When I studied Classics in college, I learned there’s actually something to this light and dark thing.  Around 380BC a man named Plato wrote a book called The Republic where he describes his ideal society, and in one chapter he makes a famous comparison called “The Allegory of the Cave.”  He says we’re all a little like prisoners chained from birth to watch shadows on the wall of a cave, mistakenly thinking that the shadows are real (the details aren’t really explained...like who did the chaining or why...but the message is clear:  people mistake the shadow of a horse for the horse itself). But imagine if one prisoner broke free and ventured toward the light at the mouth of the cave−what a vision!  To see the real world for the first time!  Sure, it hurts your eyes at first, but how much more beautiful is life out there in the sun than all those shadows beneath!  

I think Christmas is like that.  We mistake the gift for the giving.  We trade reality for a shadow. As a kid there’s a certain magic to waking up, believing Santa brought all those presents in the night, faithfully descending every chimney around the globe and somehow knowing just what you wanted!  Then the light hurts when you discover the truth. The magic fades, but somehow the excitement remains. Or does it? The more gifts you receive, the less each one means, and it’s possible to expect that same excitement but be disappointed when it doesn’t come.  

This was my son’s first time really being aware of the magic of Christmas, and I’ve rediscovered my excitement through him.  You know, now that I look back, I don’t think it was ever about the gifts or the money or all the stuff. That was just a shadow.  What it’s really about is the human connection and validation that comes in knowing that someone cares enough for you to seek the things that make you happy and give them to you.  I mean, how much of that stuff really has any value? You find much of it at yard sales in a year or two selling at 2-5% its market price. Take a ceramic trinket, for instance. It’s basically just dirt (clay hardened in a kiln...but still mostly dirt).  It’s basically worthless. But if you know it’s hand-made, if you know the symbolism behind it, if you know it took great effort to get it to you, it can become a priceless part of your life. The spirit of giving, and not the gift itself, is really what Christmas is all about.

John knew about Plato, about breaking free of that cave and seeing the light.  There was a word for that. The Greek word for finding that ultimate reality was logos (or literally:  “word”−it’s where we get our words like logic, logical, logistics, etc.).  John knew all this, so he said something like: “Hey, all you philosophers!  You know that ultimate reality you’re always looking for? Well, it came to Earth.  His name is Jesus.” Except he said it more like this:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. (John 1, NRSV)

So don’t miss it.  It might hurt to discover Christmas is not really about the gifts.  Step into the light, even though it hurts. Embrace the spirit of giving that’s trying to light your way. ~Justin


The Rules of Love

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He couldn’t find his ID.  And of course the teachers noticed.  His morning had been one negative encounter after another.  “Do they know that your grandmother just passed away this morning?”  “Yes, but they said that was no excuse. When I woke up to the bad news, I guess I left my school ID badge at home.” My blood boiled a little.  It was barely 9:00AM by the time the 7th-grader came to me, but no less than 4 other teachers had already given him grief about the fact that he wasn’t wearing the lanyard with his student ID around his neck.  Now I’m a firm believer in the rules, especially ones designed for the safety and security of the entire campus. But I also believe in compassion, and here was a grieving young man who just wanted to get through the day without being berated.  “Did you ask for a loaner at the office?” “Yes, but they’re out.” You’ve got to be kidding me!  My frustrations with my colleagues were rising.  “I tell you what, I’ve got an old, inactive ID card here.  Do you think if you wear it they’ll leave you alone?” “Thank you so much Mr. Bishop!”  I’m not sure if my act of mercy fit the letter of the law, but he bounded away relieved, a weight lifted off his shoulders.  And I walked away changed.

I can’t say that I made the right choice, and I wonder how many times I’ve acted just like my colleagues and didn’t realize it.  It’s so easy to choose the rules over the person. Thank God that Jesus saw another way. He tells us that God has chosen us over the rules.  So why do we choose the rules over each other? “God is love” is the simplest expression of the divine mystery brought to us by Jesus. And if we are truly made in the “image of God” as the Bible tells us, then it would follow that we are love.  But so often we fall short.  Instead, we are judgmental.  We are petty.  We are indignation, self-righteousness, bitterness, and even rage.  That’s the norm. We might have been made in God’s image, but we live however we choose to.  And if we’re going to truly live in God’s image, we have to choose something different than the norm.  We have to choose love.

It strikes me that love, by definition, breaks the rules of society.  Your child disappointed you—you choose to love. Your friend went behind your back—you choose to love.  The customer was rude—you choose to love. Your colleague was petty, shallow, and judgmental—you choose to love.  No one could blame you for choosing anger, punishment, estrangement, etc. But the rule of love leads you to choose the person over the rules.  A mentor of mine took me aside shortly before my wedding, and he put it this way: “Remember, son, you can be right all the time, or you can have a happy marriage!”  I think the same is true of all human relationships. Love is not concerned with being right all the time. Sometimes love has to learn to keep his mouth shut!

As Christians, we learn to see clearly what’s wrong with the world.  But it’s harder to see what’s wrong with ourselves. Too often what starts out as love for the world turns into a bitter rejection of its faults.  Imagine if God did the same to us.

So what’s the secret?  Richard Rohr says don’t stop at “What you see is what you get,” but follow through with “What you seek is also what you get” (...Learning to See...page 159).  He goes on to say that “We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, and not by demanding it of others or trying to force it on others.”  The truth is that you can’t change the world, but you can change you. And you can change your response to the world. That’s how you make it new. That’s how you make it more like God’s Kingdom.  Don’t worry about everyone else. Live your own life in “God’s image,” and love like your life depended on it. Make that your mission this Advent season as you reflect on Love this final week before Christmas.

Rohr ends his book with a list that I keep plastered on the wall by my desk:

  • If you want others to be more loving, choose to love first.

  • If you want a reconciled outer world, reconcile your own inner world.

  • If you are working for peace out there, create it inside as well.

  • If you notice other people’s irritability, let go of your own.

  • If you wish to find some outer stillness, find it within yourself.

  • If you are working for justice, treat yourself justly, too.

  • If you find yourself resenting the faults of others, stop resenting your own.

  • If the world seems desperate, let go of your own despair.

  • If you want a just world, start being just in small ways yourself.

  • If your situation feels hopeless, honor the one spot of hope inside you.

  • If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God.

“Some Eastern religions have called this karma, the correspondence between who you are and what you can make happen. But this truth is not found only in the East. Jesus said the same, almost exactly:

Do not judge and you will not be judged,

Do not condemn and you will not be condemned,

Grant pardon, and you will be pardoned,

Give, and there will be gifts for you.…

The amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back. —Luke 6: 36–38"

(...Learning to See...page 161)

Want to love God?  Love people. Live love.  Be love. Change the world by being the love you wish you had. And maybe one day love will become the new rule.

~Justin


Surprised by Joy

The project was a failure.  I mean, I was the teacher, so no one was really going to grade me on it.  But I had mentally written a big “F” all over the idea. It seemed so simple!  “Create a 1-3 minute video that defines happiness.” What could go wrong?!? I was teaching 8th Grade English in a private school, and I can’t even remember what book we were studying.  But I was still new and filled with ideas. I had thought this one would be gold. But as it turns out, I’m not sure that your average teenager really knows what happiness is. I had envisioned them weaving in short segments of vocations, family time, hobbies, etc.  Instead, I found myself looking at pictures of butterflies and flowers and students spinning in office chairs across a stage. At any rate, they seemed to have fun making the videos, so maybe it wasn’t a complete loss after all. But still, I was surprised by their apparent lack of joy.  Maybe they just weren’t old enough. Maybe they just didn’t know how to recognize it and label it. After all, there is a fine line between something that brings you momentary pleasure and something that gives you joy. That was 6 years ago. Do you think it would be different if I asked them to do the same project today?  What if I asked you?

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Maybe it’s because I told them to go looking for it.  Maybe joy is more of a surprise. Like this picture of my son.  We had had his first birthday party for him not long before this picture was taken.  We invited all the family and had the house filled with lots of presents, trying to make a big deal out of celebrating him.  And it went ok, but you know how it is. He had more fun playing with the boxes than the actual toys, and the texture of the icing on the cake made him cry when he got it all over his face.  So the expectation didn’t play out; we had failed to manufacture joy on a level we would have liked. But then, one day we were walking by my parents’ pond, and I captured this image. His face here is one of pure joy, at least in my mind.  There was nothing special about the occasion. No presents. No cake. Just the wild discovery that my voice echoed off the valley walls in that particular spot by the paddle boat. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world. And once is never enough for a toddler.  I had to make the sound at least 20 times, but each seemed to be funnier than the last. I was lucky enough to snap this picture and capture the moment that my son was entirely surprised by joy.

This Sunday’s Advent message is JOY, and the truth is that joy and happiness have always been a bit surprising, and not a little elusive and hard to nail down.  Sometimes it floods over you in a moment without explanation. Sometimes you can’t see it unless you back on your life and see times that might have been joyful.  It happens when you find old photos or start telling stories of beloved memories of family or friends. But at the time the event was taking place, you might not even have realized you were experiencing joy.  But it always seems to happen without explanation. It’s always a bit of a surprise.

Joy seems to be something, like pain (inexplicably), that’s mixed up with our everyday lives, and it sneaks up and surprises us at the strangest moments when we least expect it.  The holidays are like that. We can forget that the joy of the season can become mixed with pain for those who have suffered loss. We laugh at Porky Pig singing “Blue Christmas,” but after any major loss, the holidays can take on an entirely different feel, and seeing what feels like everyone else having a great time can sometimes increase the isolation.  Take my grandmother, for instance, who was cooking Christmas dinner when her four-year-old daughter accidentally pulled a boiling pot onto herself. She didn’t survive, and the holidays were never the same for my grandmother.  The joy of the season had become forever mixed with the pain and grief of loss. Once major tragedy or suffering strikes, joy seems to come only as brief moments when you become lost in something happy and forget your pain for just a little while.  (The poet Wordsworth immortalized this awkward mix of emotions in his poem “Surprised by Joy” where he recounts momentarily forgetting the death of his daughter.)  Some of the same memories or photos that used to bring you joy now bring pain instead.  Grief is complicated, and different for everyone, but I pray that you find a way to keep the joy alive.  And be patient with those who are still finding their own path through grief. Sometimes it takes time, a lot of it.

In his book, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis traces his own journey through life and his own encounters with something he labels “joy.”  For him, the concept is something (like God) that is indescribable, too high up for words. For him, “joy” is more “like a ‘signpost’ to those lost in the woods, pointing the way, and that its appearance is not as important ‘when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles.’” And he notes a distinction between pleasure and Joy, saying, “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” Indeed, we fill our lives with pursuing pleasures that can sometimes leave us feeling empty, so much that we might be blind to the Joy that’s right in front of us.  

So open your eyes this season so that Joy might surprise you.  Don’t let fear of pain or pursuit of pleasure keep your heart from glowing with the joy you’ve found.  It’s there; you just have to learn to see it. Let it shine a little brighter than the pain that won’t seem to go away.  Let it surprise you.

~Justin

Waiting vs. Getting in “The NOW”

The face of waiting…

The face of waiting…

A speech given to high school chapel at King’s Ridge Christian School 12/6/18 @ 9:45am.

This time of year is busy.  Too busy. Crazy busy for some you.  Between all the family commitments and concerts and other events...it seems like we spend all of our time waiting...waiting for “this thing to be over with” or waiting for the next thing to begin.  And sometimes we get so caught up in where we going that we forget to be where we are.  The truth is we’re not very good and living in the NOW.  Makes me think of Kung Fu Panda.  My favorite is that wise old turtle...Oogway...you know the one… “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”  

Living in THE NOW is a very hard thing to do.  Especially if we’re waiting. I remember when I was in Middle School a long time ago...in the BC days...you know, BC...Before Computers...and I hated it.  I mean, I was this nerdy little dude with glasses...and I had all this hair...believe it or not...and gravity had no effect...it just stood straight up all the time in every direction.  There was so much of it, in fact, they called me “wolf-man” in the locker room. Middle school was the worst. So the whole time I was there, I couldn’t WAIT for high school. “If I can just get to high school,” I thought, “everything will be better.”  Well, I finally got to high school, and...NOPE...same thing...I couldn’t WAIT to get to college. Everybody called me “Biscuit” for some reason, and I was great at school...but you know how it is...if you’re great at school and always make 100s on everything, people give you a hard time about it...and when you do make a tiny mistake, everybody lets you know about it!  So here I am again, “If I can just get to college,” I thought, “everything will be better.” I couldn’t WAIT. Well, you see where I’m going with this...I got to college, and then I couldn’t WAIT to get my first job, and then I got my first job...and I couldn’t WAIT to get the next one.

You see...what I wasn’t doing...I wasn’t living in the NOW.  I lived my life waiting for the next phase, and it robbed me of the PRESENT.  So that’s my challenge for you: learn how to live in the present, in “the NOW”, wherever you are.  I’m challenging you to do something that I couldn’t...I never figured it out while I was in school, but I believe it’s possible.  You just have to catch yourself when something steals you away from the NOW.

“Mr. Bishop,” you might say, “aren’t we always in the now?”  Well, yes, you might physically be present in the here and now, but it’s possible to be here but not really be “PRESENT.”  Have you ever tried talking to your parents when they’re answering an email? Or have you ever tried to talk to you friend while they’re playing a game on their computer?  It’s possible to be right next to people but not really be present. The thing is, it’s easy to see when someone else does it, but it’s harder to recognize it when you do it.  So, the next time you catch your friend not paying attention, not being present in the moment, you might say, “Hey, get in THE NOW!” Better yet, catch yourself when your mind starts to wander away, and tell yourself, “Hey, get in THE NOW.”

Think about this...you post the pic or the video...and you wait for the likes...nothing wrong with that, but if you obsess over it, it’s stolen you away from the NOW.  You’ve sent the text, and now you’re waiting for the response...nothing wrong with that, but if you obsess over it, it’s stolen you away from the NOW. If all you can think about is the reply you haven’t gotten, you’re no longer living in the NOW.  The past or the future have stolen you. If the future steals you away, that’s called worry.  You start thinking about all the things that could go wrong, all the possibilities that might happen…, and you get worried.  (I remember when I was in college I went water-skiing with my roommate, and he left his phone in the apartment...he didn’t take it on the boat with us. We were gone maybe 3 hours...and when got back...he had 12 voicemails from his girlfriend...12 voicemails!  It was the days before text messages, so she had called him and left messages.  They started out nice enough… “Hey, what’s going on, just checking on you. Give me a call back.” But then they started to get more and more angry.  “Where are you?!!? Why the heck won’t you call me back!?!” Finally, by the last message, she was yelling into the phone:  “You jerk! I knew it...you’re with HER aren’t you?!? You’re cheating on me!!!” ...you may not have a gone that far when it comes to waiting and worrying, but haven’t we all started to freak out when we have to wait?  The point is, when you worry about what might go wrong, what might happen in the future, then the future can steal you from the NOW.) If the past steals you away, that’s called regret...and you start thinking about what’s happened before, and suddenly you’re locked into that frame of mind:  THE WAY IT’S ALWAYS BEEN IS THE WAY IT ALWAYS WILL BE. And it steals you from the NOW.

So what do we do to stay in the NOW? How do we WAIT well and not let ourselves get stolen by the past or the future?  I think the church gives us two good answers, and it has to do with this time of year. This past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent, the story of Christ coming to earth, the divine becoming human to see through our eyes and feel what we feel.  Last Sunday was HOPE and next Sunday is PEACE. And I think that’s the answer to living in the NOW and learning to wait well:  hope and peace.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but most of the Bible is a story of waiting - either God waiting for people to do the right thing, or people waiting for God to show up.  You get some interesting stories about God waiting on people...think Moses...he leads the Israelites out of slavery...that’s a pretty big deal...you’d think they would follow God and start doing the right thing...NOPE!  They get halfway into the dessert and suddenly start doing the wrong thing, worshipping other gods and forgetting all about what God had done for them. God waited on them for a long time. But people also had to wait on God, and that’s where Advent comes in...you see, there was this promise in Isaiah of “Immanuel” - Hebrew for “God with us.”  And that’s where Jesus comes in. The problem is that it took about 700 years for that prophecy to come true...700 years! Can you imagine waiting that long? Isaiah’s grandchildren were probably like...ok, “let’s get this Immanuel show on the road, come on God! Show up already!”  By the time Jesus shows up, many people had already given up on God.  Sometimes I think the same thing might be true today.

It takes a lot of courage, and a lot of guts to wait for a long time.  And that’s where hope comes in. When things don’t go your way for a long time, it’s easy to give up.  It’s easy to look at the way it’s always been...and to think that that’s the way it always will be. But hope is different.  Hope is choosing to see something better, refusing to accept that the way things have been is the way they will always be.  

Are there any high school seniors in the room?  You know something about waiting, right?  I mean, isn’t this the longest school-year of your life?  Some days probably seem to take forever. Not to mention waiting on your college acceptance letters, right?  The whole process is gruelling, and it brings up the past whether you’ve moved on or not...you’re looking at your transcript and you start to think, “Man, I wish I’d turned in that 9th grade research paper on time!”  (Underclassmen, I hope you’re taking notes on this…) While you’re waiting on those acceptance letters, it’s easy to start to worry, but then, you get that first one and you breathe a sigh of relief. But sometimes it seems like your #1 choice takes forever to get back to you.  It takes courage to stay hopeful in all of that. It’s easier just to try to forget about it. And God forbid if your #1 choice says no. Holding on to hope is a hard thing to do.  Especially when you get the results and it’s not what you wanted.  It’s then that HOPE says, “Maybe God has something in store for me that’s even better than my plans.”  But that’s not an easy thing to say.  Still, hope is a way to keep yourself rooted in the NOW, and keep your mind focused on the present rather than worrying about the future.

For me, hope was kinda easy.  It’s peace that was the problem.  You see, I’m a perfectionist, which means that I’m always over-analyzing everything.  Anybody with me? Anybody out there overanalyze stuff? All my life I would do something or say something, and I’d think about it over and over again in my mind.  Especially if it was a stupid thing that I did or said. I didn’t have a label for it when I was your age, but today I think we’d call it anxiety. I’d worry myself to death over something that was in the past!  And the past is the one thing that you cannot change no matter how hard you try. So if you’re like me, the past can haunt you just as much as the future, especially if you’re not even aware of it. And that steals you from the NOW, it takes you away from the present.  Peace is the answer to that, but like hope, it’s not easy. Peace is the opposite of war, and what we don’t realize is that sometimes we’re at war with ourselves or the past. And just like in a war, you have to make a peace agreement with yourself...almost like you’re looking in the mirror, saying, “Ok, SELF, I know you messed up.  But that’s in the past. It’s part of who I am now, but I won’t let the past haunt me…” Easy for me to say, but much harder to live.

So how do you do that?  It’s so easy regret to flood you with emotion and totally take over and you lose control.  So what do you do? It sounds simple. It sounds too good to be true, but the easiest thing you can do is learn to breathe.  That’s it. Just breathe. Science shows that a few deep breaths can calm you and lower your blood pressure. So, try it. The next time you get yourself worried sick with embarrassment because that video is going around of you doing that stupid thing...just breathe.

So that’s it.  All of us are waiting for something...waiting for something to start, waiting for something to be over.  And it’s easy to lose grip on “the NOW.” But Jesus us did not call us to lives of worry or regret.  Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.  Claim that promise. Claim that hope and peace even in the midst of this busy season, and take comfort knowing what Bible says about Jesus, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Whoever you are, whatever you’re going through, there is hope and peace for you, here, NOW. You just have to learn to see it.

At my church we have a benediction, which is really just a “Good Word,” like “Go in Peace” or something.  So here is my benediction, my blessing for you.

Let us go from this place

Believing with hope that there is a light that shines in the darkness

Which the darkness shall not overcome

And may the love of the Creator

The joy of the Spirit And the peace of the Christ-child

Be with you this Christmas, and evermore

Amen.  Go in peace.

~Justin

Christmas in Context: The Huron Carol

“Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high.”

It’s a strange verse to find in the Methodist hymnal, but there it is.  Title: “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” or “The Huron Carol.”  And it makes you wonder:  baby Jesus in “rabbit skins?” Wise men as “hunter braves?”  Does the Nativity story work with different details? Does the Gospel preach in language you can understand?  I would say that’s the only language that really works. After all, what good is heilsgeschicte if you have no idea what it means?  In case you’re wondering, it’s the theological term for “Salvation History,” tracing God’s redemptive work throughout the events of human history, and the truth is that every book of the Bible presents God’s “saving work” in language that could be understood in a particular context, to a particular group of people in a particular time and place, making the divine mystery accessible.  So “The Huron Carol” has more in common with the Bible than we might think.

Jean de Brébeuf gave his life as a missionary spreading the Gospel to the Huron people in Canada in the 1600s.  Embracing the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Brébeuf met the people where they were, learning their native language and even writing the first Huron dictionary.  He took a French song and re-wrote the lyrics in Huron, creating “The Huron Carol” as a way to present the Christmas Nativity story in terms that the Huron people could understand, bringing alive the Gospel truth that “Jesus your king is born” with familiar symbols and cultural ideas.  The hymn must have resonated with the people because after Brébeuf and his community were attacked by the Iroquois, killing Brébeuf and destroying his mission, the song resurfaced in Quebec among migrant survivors, presumably becoming a part of their oral tradition. Inspired by his story, musicians in more recent times translated Brébeuf’s lyrics into French and English, and the song is now widely celebrated as the first Canadian carol.  Brébeuf was canonized in 1930, becoming the patron saint of Canada.

So the details are different.  Yet the spirit of Truth is there.  “Come kneel before the radiant boy, who brings you beauty, peace, and joy.”  Haven’t we all experienced Christ on our own terms? In language that we understand?  To me that’s the power of Christ: he can speak the same Gospel Truth to me, to you, to everyone, and though the words might be different each time, the message is the same.

~Justin

THE HURON CAROL

'Twas in the Moon of Winter Time
Jesous Ahatonhia

Saint Jean de Brébeuf (25 March 1593 – 16 March 1649), a Jesuit priest, 1643
English Translation by Jesse Edgar Middleton, 1926

1. 'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunter heard the hymn:

Refrain:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

2. Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high. Refrain

3. O children of the forest free,
O sons of Manitou,
The Holy Child of earth and heaven
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy. Refrain


Rusty Grace: Prayer in a Divided Age

Rusty Grace.jpg

We live in an either/or world.  Right vs. Wrong. Left vs. Right. Republican vs. Democrat. Insiders vs. Outsiders. We spend so much time trying to figure out where we stand that we forget to be present where we are.  Once we think we know where we stand, we learn to listen for key words in conversation, and once we hear them, we disengage. Once we disagree, we cease to listen and start defending our position.  There’s nothing wrong in standing up for yourself and what you believe, but there’s a way to do it with grace. Have you ever thought about winning the person instead of the argument?

It seems like we’ve forgotten how to disagree well.  Just because you disagree doesn’t mean that you can’t love one another.  You can completely disagree with everything someone stands for yet still love them.  Just ask the parent of a wayward child, the teacher of the hateful student, the martyr blessing her accusers with her last breath.  It’s not easy, but it’s possible. I just bought a shirt that says, “God loves the people you hate.” I hope I can learn to live that way--with love and grace.

So what’s the key to finding this grace--this unconditional love?  Sometimes the best way forward is to take a step back and regroup. History has seen its share of revivals and reformations, and so has the church.  Maybe it’s time for another. I say we start with PRAYER.

We think of prayer as coming up with the right words to say to God.  But if you go back in time, there are many Christians who saw it less as speaking to God and more as being in God’s presence.  Jesus himself preferred quiet prayer over spoken words (especially public) which he cautioned against, saying not to “heap up empty phrases” (NRSV, Matthew 6:7).  And we only get the Lord’s prayer from him after the disciples begged him for it saying “Teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1).  He even tells us to go to a private room and shut the door (Matt. 6:6). In this type of prayer, the words don’t matter so much.

So how do you pray without words?  Just breathe. It seems all to simple.  But try it. Find a quiet space where you’re all alone, and just empty your mind by focusing on your breathing.  Give it some time. At least 5 minutes. Half an hour is best. But if it’s a super busy, stressful day and you can’t find half an hour...you’d better do a full hour then!  

Breath Prayer

If you can’t stop your thoughts from racing, pick a couple words or phrases and focus one on breathing in and the other on breathing out:  breathe in “PEACE” and breathe out “STRESS.” Or breathe in “LOVE” and breathe out “ANGER.” The important thing is to empty yourself of yourself and make more room for God.

What does this have to do with our divided age?  The idea is this: if you’re more at peace with yourself, then it’s much easier to be at peace with your brothers and sisters.  After all, God doesn’t love you because of the words you say. God loves you for you. That’s called grace. And if you learn to recognize it in your own life (God showing grace to you), then it’s much easier to live it (you showing grace to others).  I went to seminary with a man named Rusty Grace, and I think that’s the way we all are...we’re a little bit rusty when it comes to showing grace.  So spend some time in silent prayer this week, and see if you can knock some rust off the old grace and make it shine.  Because, after all,

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

~ Justin

A Walk in the Woods

…sometimes we get so caught up in where we’re going that we forget to be where we are.

…sometimes we get so caught up in where we’re going that we forget to be where we are.

“Take off your shoes.”  The thought hadn’t occurred to me.  In fact, thus far on the path, I could think of nothing but the fact that my leather work shoes might get dirty from all the sand, leaves, and mud.  Well, that and the mosquitoes and spider webs. You see, I was on a 24-hour silent retreat, and this was a “prayer walk” through the woods by the Chattahoochee River.  It’s not the kind of thing I would normally seek, but when it’s a requirement for your doctorate, you don’t ask questions. At this point I was four hours in, and I had stared out my window enough.  So I took a walk.

Now I was used to walking in the woods, but the point was usually to get somewhere:  a place to fish, a mountain peak to capture the view, a campsite, etc. This was different.  The path didn’t go anywhere. It was just a circle. And when I say “path”...it was more of game trail than anything else, the weeds and ferns and ivy growing so close that at times I could barely see the shoes I was so worried about.  

At last I reached a deck by the river.  A welcome reprieve from my “spider-web-in-the-face,” “a-snake’s-about-to-bite-my-leg” anxiety.  I was carrying a bag with my copy of our discussion series book in it. So I opened Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith, and what do you know!  She has a chapter called “The Practice of Walking the Earth.”  It seemed serendipitous. It seemed like “God-moment.” So I sat down to read.  

“Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground...you don’t need to go to the Sinai desert to engage the practice of going barefoot.  Just choose a place outdoors that you are willing to encounter in the flesh without your customary cushion and protection...Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are….It will help if you do not expect God to speak to you” (Taylor 66-67).

“...do not expect God to speak to you…”  The words echoed in my mind. “Ok, ok. I think I get it.  Slow down, and stop looking for it. Stop waiting for something to happen.”  So I took off those nice leather shoes I had been so worried about. I pulled off my socks, rolled up my pants leg, and I started walking.  More slowly this time. More deliberately, gingerly placing each step on the ball of my foot instead of the heel to avoid putting too much weight on a sharp stick or stone.  

It sounds funny, but the effect was almost instantaneous.  My anxiety was gone. I could feel the softness of the damp, sandy soil.  I could sense the crunch of the leaves. And for the first time I could sense my surroundings.  Everything came alive. The birds in the distance. The gentle flow of the water. God didn’t say anything, but God’s peace was more real to me than it had been in quite a while.  I guess sometimes we get so caught up in where we’re going that we forget to be where we are.

~Justin


Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap.jpg

“Isaac,” the stern deacon said, “if you cannot be reverent, you can at least keep your mouth shut about things which do not concern you.”  When Isaac and his brother Enoch remonstrated that they were not only criticizing the hymns that were being used (they had called them “cheap” and “ugly”), but that they hoped to prepare their own hymnal, the elder laughed and said, “That old hymnal was good enough for your grandfather, and your father, and so I reckon it will have to be good enough for you!” ~Controversy

Isaac may not have gone about it the right way, but he had a vision.  He had a gift. But not everyone could see it.  Some embraced the “newness” of his songs. Others, like many of us, had trouble letting go of the way it’s always been. “They took issue with one of his most popular songs calling it ‘man-centered’ and ‘focussed on human experience’ . . . The year was 1707, the composer was Isaac Watts, and the song was ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’” (Radford). Sometimes great things are forged in the gap between tradition and vision.

In the London subway (or “The Tube,” as they call it), there are signs everywhere that say “Mind the Gap.”  The wording seems odd to us, but it’s there as a warning, calling you to attention the space between the platform and the train.  It’s meant to keep you out of trouble. If you don’t “Mind the Gap,” you could wind up in serious trouble, i.e., with a broken leg...or worse!  

I think there’s a bigger gap we have to “mind” in life.  It stands between reality and possibility. There’s the way things have always been.  And there’s what might be. There’s what we hope for our children.  And there’s who they have become. There’s what we want. And there’s what everyone else voted for.  To “mind the gap” is to hold on to hope that a third way will emerge.

“I hold no illusions about how hard it is to live in that gap. Though we may try to keep our grip on both reality and hope, we often find the tension too hard to hold—so we let go of one pole and collapse into the other. Sometimes we resign ourselves to things as they are and sink into cynical disengagement. Sometimes we cling to escapist fantasies and float above the fray” (A Hidden Wholeness).

In faith, as in any human endeavor, to cling to the past (or reality) is to disengage, to close the door on the future.  To focus on fantasy (possibility) is to check out or “lose touch.” There must be a third way! As humans, we crave resolution, but at what cost?  Too often we settle when we could have waited and found something far greater.

When we don’t understand what God is doing in our lives, it’s easier to dismiss it, to give up the question and fall back on our old clichés.  But if you can wait, if you can hold the tension, if you can “mind the gap”--God may show up in an entirely unexpected way. And who knows where the train might take you!

~Justin