A Blessing for the Journey

May the wind be at your back
But not only at your back

May the wind be ever before you
To clear the path ahead

May the wind be always at your side
At either side and both, a friend

May it support you from beneath
And keep you grounded as the earth

May it blow above that clouds may part
And show you stars above

May the wind surround you like a warm cloak
Protecting you from threats and harms

And may it inspire you from within
God’s very breath, His Spirit yours

Today, tomorrow and forever.

Amen.

Confession

My eyes are dry.
My faith is old.
My heart is hard.
My prayers are cold.
And I know how I ought to be:
Alive to You and dead to me.

Keith Green phrases it well.

My prayer life is not what it used to be. My spiritual life is not what it used to be.

I say the words. I mean them. I believe in the One to whom they are addressed. I believe He hears.

But I am not sure about what He does with those words after that.

I have friends who have lost their faith. I have a friend who went from missionary to atheist in a matter of months. I have another who went from preaching to doubting in a matter of months.

I have other friends who have out-wrestled Jacob AND Job to keep their faith … having lost those dearest to them, yet remaining in the ministry. Some have remarried; brought new children into their hearts and families through these marriages.

And I am not my friends.

God and I are not exactly on speaking terms.

That is, I talk to Him and He does the listening. He doesn’t seem to say much of anything back anymore.

Not like He used to.

Except – and He’s funny about this; He’s a divine comedian, in fact – except on Sunday morning.

I teach at a tiny church in the slightly bigger town next to where I live. I don’t preach, because I’m smart enough to know I’m not gifted at preaching. And there’s no need for preaching. Preaching is for people who haven’t heard the gospel. There are, on a good Sunday, ten of us at my tiny church and we’ve all long since heard the gospel. So I teach. We try to dive deep into the word. We discuss. We argue sometimes. I try to keep it loving, or failing that, civil. We midrash. I teach.

And I am the worst. As far as the teaching paradigms go, I am the worst teacher ever. It doesn’t work to set out a course of study weeks or months in advance and nibble on each Sunday’s preplanned message a little each day and slave over it in prayer and meditation and practice standing behind a lectern because I teach sitting down from a chair and because God isn’t talking to me that way anymore.

He used to. I’d study and stew and pray and read over something pestering my soul for hours and be able to sit down at the keyboard with a pretty good idea where things were going to go because I felt deep inside that it had been made clear to me, bit-by-bit and bite-by-bite and byte-by-byte.

Now He is silent.

So this blog has been pretty much silent, too.

However, on Sunday mornings, things are a little different.

My little church family has requested a study of prayer. So we are studying prayer from its first instances with Abraham and Isaac’s chief servant through the Old Testament and on to the New … exactly the way we studied the Holy Spirit for more than a year. They are gluttons for punishment. They knew I was going to do this.

On Sunday mornings now, I select four readings. They’re not from a book. They are not necessarily in scriptural order, but I try to keep them in chronological order to the best of my ability. I read them over breakfast. I seek any clarity that’s desperately needed from my books or — cautiously — online. I pray that God will help me be honest.

And once I thought He was trying to communicate to me that was all He was asking for.

Then I go to the little parsonage where we meet and I teach.  I try to tell the truth.

When I don’t know, I say, “I don’t know.”

When I have a theory, I say, “That’s just my thoughts on it.”

When I think a doctrine we’ve all heard before is out of whack, I say so and I give my reasons why and I say, “But that’s my line of  thinking on it. Yours may be different. I don’t think God is going to judge you based on what I believe, but on what you believe.”

I don’t care where the best insight of the morning comes from or who puts it into words.

I’m just there to sing, pray, worship, break bread, drink a sip from a cup, remember Jesus and live out His love for others while keeping a discussion about Him on track. (It’s always about Him. Even in the Old Testament where we are studying now. It points forward to Him. The gospels point to Him. The Acts of the Apostles  and the epistles point back at Him. The Revelation points forward to Him once again.)

And then I go home.

During the week, I pray for my friends and my family. I meet with my church family again on Wednesday evenings, and except for the remembrance at the Table, we worship and do some more midrashing.

Sometimes I poke about in the word because something is distressing my soul. Sometimes I pray about me. Sometimes I pray the rest of Keith Green’s lyrics.

What can be done
for an old heart like mine?
Soften it up
with oil and wine.
The oil is You, your Spirit of love
Please wash me anew
in the wine of Your blood.

But I don’t hear the same response that I used to hear … the wording of verses from scripture that were uncomfortably poignant or illuminating or uplifting. Simply silence. Just His silence.

So I thought I’d confess that I’m a bad teacher. That I am struggling with a God who only seems to speak when He feels like it. That our relationship is strained.

Thought I’d try my hand at this blog again and see if I would know in advance how it would come out.

Nope. I didn’t.

And I sure didn’t expect that I’d be this honest.

The post I used to hate seeing

I used to blog here.

Every once in a while, I see my bookmark for this place, and I think “I ought to post something.”

But I don’t remember what I used to think was important enough for me to write about — as if I know anything about anything.

I think I used to write because I was a spiritual person. Then one day, that person got up out of my chair and moved to a different planet and never looked back.

So I’m posting this instead, which is not important at all. I used to see posts like this, and I hated seeing them:

“Nothing to post, but I just thought I’d let you know I’m still alive.”

So now you have something to hate reading, too.

Blue

I am sad most of the time.

Occasionally depressed; not too often. Mostly just sad.

Call it blue.

There are all kinds of reasons contributing to that, most of which don’t bear going into.

Oh, I can put on a smile and muddle through. I can keep it together in most social situations. I can sometimes even call on a show of sharp wit and an illusion of charm.

But I spend most of the time sad, and it’s a pain in the soul because sadness makes it harder to think, to focus, to perform, to excel, to multitask … even to uni-task. Sadness makes it harder to prioritize, socialize, look into others’ eyes. Sadness makes you alone and keeps you alone and alone makes sadness both less and more difficult to bear.

Less because you’re not burdening others with it.

More because your bearing it yourself.

Sharing it can make it worse because you may find yourself sharing someone else’s sadness too, at a time when you don’t feel you can bear your own.

Sharing sadness can make it better because you sometimes find someone who can help bear it with you.

When I am profoundly sad and alone, there is something that makes it bearable even when nothing can make it better.


He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. ~ Isaiah 53:3


When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept. ~ John 11:33-35


Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” ~ Matthew 26:38-39


In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. ~ Romans 8:26


For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. ~ Hebrews 4:15


Don’t get me wrong. None of this magically takes away the sadness. None of this miraculously eliminates the reasons contributing to it. None of it is rainbow unicorn photos on Facebook with cheery Bible verses chasing away clouds on brilliant sunbeamy backgrounds. None of it is a guarantee. None of it is a promise of better soon or think positive or pray confidently or best life now.

It’s simply an account of a Man who is God, who understands and shares. So much so that He shares His own Spirit within us to groan with us when words simply will not suffice.

I taught Romans 8:26 last Sunday. I confessed that until I studied the verse last week, I had always misread into it a misconception: that somehow the Holy Spirit provides the words God will understand when we don’t have the words to say. That’s not what the verse says at all. It says that the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans.

He groans with us.

So that we do not have to groan alone.

I wish that I had gained that insight earlier in life, sooner than a week ago.

It would have made the aloneness less alone. It would have made the blue less midnight and more aqua. It would have made the sadness lighter to bear.

Lighter by half.

Don’t Save Me a Seat on Your Bandwagon

I’ve had a week to think about it.

Bandwagon,_Circus_MuseumAnd I’m not going to pile onto anyone’s bandwagon regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to validate gay marriages in the United States.

I will admit that as an American, I am glad that the Supreme Court upheld a basic human right: to be joined in marriage before family, friends, the world and God. They did not set a precedent which might be twisted by some later generation to deny this right to people of a certain reproductive capability, age, ethnic background, or religious persuasion.

I will also admit that as a follower of Christ, I do not see anywhere in biblical scripture that marriage is upheld as an institution between people of the same sex or gender; only between people of the opposite sex from each other. But it is not the business of government to enforce as law the doctrine of any religion’s scripture, not even the one I espouse.

That could set a precedent that could be contorted by some later generation to apply to the writings of some other religion — any other religion — or some set of documented beliefs that made no pretense to be any kind of religion at all.

I have to admit that I can’t follow the hermeneutical/interpretational gymnastics it takes to ignore or downplay God’s displeasure with “man-on-man sex,” which is what I understand the literal phrasing of scripture to say. (The English word “homosexual” was devised centuries later.) There is nothing there that leads me to believe that such a relationship was ever His desire or intention for the children He created and loves.

So I can’t jump on the bandwagon that celebrates a notion that any sexual expression between consenting adults done in love is endorsed by God and should be recognized as such by all believers. Nope. It’s not what God wants for us. If it were, He’d have spoken it as plainly and clearly as “Be fruitful and multiply” or “Do not commit adultery” or “Do not judge.”

To the very best of my understanding, engaging in homoerotic sex is sin. It is what self wants for self against God’s wisest wishes, even when love for another is involved. Just like heterosexual breach of promise in marriage that has led to so many divorces and broken so many hearts and homes in this nation for decade upon decade now. Sin is always sin. Even when there is no seeming harm, no reason given for prohibition, nothing other than God’s explicit love for us and desire for what is best for us.

Sin is always sin.

Including lying, stealing, greed, envy, faultfinding or any other one you wish to mention.

Which leads me to the reason why I can’t jump on the bandwagon that focuses on one sin, then accuses, belittles, condemns, defames … do I need to go through all the synonyms beginning with the rest of the letters of the alphabet?

Because judging others is what self wants for self against God’s holiest desires for us, even when we would like to pretend that some kind of love for His righteous law is our only motivation.

If I conveniently focus on one sin — someone else’s sin — and loudly castigate it, that may take other peoples’ focus off all of mine. But I am called to speak against all sin, which includes my predilection toward judgmentalism and arrogance and self-righteousness. I can say “But I don’t sin THAT sin!” all I want to, but God makes it clear that any kind of sin separates me from Him. If I denounce one, I must denounce them all. And having participated in any of them in a less-than confessional and penitent way reduces my credibility to disavow them all.

There are really no other bandwagons left to climb onto.

We have divided into these two intransigent camps and sung our battle hymns and flown our righteous flags while riding our bandwagons to the front lines, just as people have done (to their own destruction) for centuries.

And what we are called to do is walk together. To love. To show fellowship. Embrace. Encourage. Confess. Support. Seek to understand. Repent. Forgive.

Over and over and over again. Not until we get it right, because the odds are that none of us ever will.

But until we are called home.

We are all simply fellow sinners, called to extend the grace and compassion that was shown to us by the One who was able to live without sin.

And what His life says is, “It’s possible. It can be done. I did it.

“You can try.”

To be like Him — to accurately reflect His compassion, love, grace, forgiveness, and humility — we have to try the very best we can to be like Him in every way that we can.

That may mean celibacy. It may mean keeping judgment to one’s self. And let’s not kid ourselves — there are doubtless hundreds of thousands and more likely millions who lead lives that glorify God without having sex with anyone and/or having to inflate their own egoes by deflecting attention from the sins that so easily beset them and castigating others for their vulnerabilities.

They have learned self-control. They are trying to be like Jesus.

If they can try, we can try … walking the walk.

Talking less talk.

And leaving the bandwagons behind.

Jesus Wouldn’t

If you asked me why I do not support measures such as the recent state versions of the RFRA attempted by the states of Indiana and Arkansas (and wisely rejected by their governors as written), I would answer with those two words:

Jesus wouldn’t.

Yes, I am convinced that Jesus would not support laws which would encourage those called by His name to insist on their own way and seek legal remedy against those (especially unbelievers) who insist on their own way against the conscience of the believer.

First of all, because conscience is not the ultimate authority. That would be God.

Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.

But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” ~ Genesis 20:1-7

People can lie to us. Our consciences can be badly programmed. They can even become seared, so they no longer sense the difference between what is right and wrong. We need to go straight to what God says, without assumption or presumption of our own correctness.

Secondly, because the rights and desires of a believer — however “right” they might seem to be — are not to be considered by that believer as more important than those of others.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” ~ Matthew 5:38-42

Jesus did not put conditions upon these instructions. He did not say, “If you agree with them on all doctrines,” “If they are morally upright in your judgment,” or “If it doesn’t infringe on your personal rights as an American.”

Third, because legal remedy and going to court in front of unbelievers is not what God wants us to seek.

I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? ~ 1 Corinthians 6:5-7

We admit defeat for the cause of Christ when we insist on our own way; when we are not willing to rather use the opportunity to show love as well as righteousness.

Have we let political parties in American politics dictate what is Christian and what is not? Have we let them convince us that protecting our own rights as believers is more important that engaging lovingly and firmly in dialogue with people who oppose our beliefs — but lovingly first?

Are the verses above — and many, many more — no longer taught in our churches?

Has someone crept into our homes and sanctuaries and clipped them out of our Bibles?

Have we really come to believe that the children’s “JOY” mnemonic “Jesus, Others and Yourself” has a scripturally-approved exception clause that says “But ME FIRST when it comes to rights!”a

As I understand it, the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America wisely and sufficiently protects what these proposed state acts foolishly sought to exceed, and does so with these words:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Seeking our own rights, our own way, even the right or Biblical or Christian way in a court of law defeats the very heart of Christianity: the selflessness of Jesus.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:5-11

I’m turning off comments for this post. I don’t care whether you agree with me or not, or what your reasons are. I don’t even care if you are inarguably “right” and I am indefensibly “wrong.” I’m simply expressing what I believe and why.

I won’t permit this blog to become the court of public opinion on this question. There are plenty of other places, and you can go to any of them with your arguments. I could debate them with you until we were both blue and red and purple in the face, and nothing would be gained by it, so I won’t. Mainly because, I believe …

Jesus wouldn’t.

Shoes

For the current edition of Wineskins, I wrote this little ditty to explore some of the reasons why we have difficulty “Navigating Change” (the theme of this edition).

Comfy ShoesI like to go to church now and then
To hear I’m doing right is good news
I dress up so I do not offend
and wear my old, soft, comft’rble shoes.

I want my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
Church is a holy place
You’re there by walking, not grace
So wear your old, soft comft’rble shoes.

The Bible’s so convenient for me
It authorizes all the right “do’s”
And if you do a “don’t,” don’t you see,
You won’t have golden slippers for shoes.

I need my old, soft, comft’rble shoes
To walk the old paths that I choose
If I like ‘em, they’re hot
If I don’t like ‘em, they’re not
Authorized by comft’rble truths (I meant “shoes”!).

Repentance is a wonderful thing
For folks who need to leave behind sin
with faith, confessing and baptizing …
I’m glad I’ll never need it again.

I love my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
I changed that once for Him
So I don’t have to again
Won’t change my old, soft, comft’rble shoes.

Now worship is a serious time
A little joy but not too much happiness
If you do it right, it is sublime
If you do more or less, you’re in a mess.

I’ve got my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
Don’t need no podium plants
Don’t need no spiritual dance
Don’t want to see raised hands
Don’t want to hear praise bands
Don’t need no grace-filled rants
Don’t need no women in pants
Just a cappella songs
And hearing “We’re right; they’re wrong”s
And wearing old, soft, comft’rble shoes.

I hope you’ll honor my last request
When you put me down for the big snooze
Just dress me up like all of the rest
And put me in my old comft’rble shoes.

I want my old soft comft’rble shoes
to rest my feet to gospel-and-blues
So when it’s time to fly
into that sweet by-and-by

just-give-me-my

old,

soft,

comft’rble

shoes.