Archive for March 2014

Nobody’s Savior

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition” – George Fox, Journal

There are few things more horrible than watching someone you love suffer. I remember a time when I accompanied my wife, Faith, to the hospital. She was experiencing terrible pain, and despite my increasingly urgent requests that the nurses provide some kind of pain medication, they refused to offer any treatment until she had been seen by the doctor. The problem was that the doctor was busy with other patients; we waited for what seemed like an eternity before she was finally given something for the pain.

For me, the reality of Faith’s suffering was amplified many times over in my mind by the gut-wrenching realization that there was nothing I could do to comfort her. I couldn’t convince the nurses to help. I couldn’t speed up the arrival of the doctor. I felt absolutely helpless.

The signature discovery of the founder of the Quaker movement, George Fox, was that Jesus Christ is alive and present, able to speak to the condition of each and every one of us. He is active and available, healing the sick and shining light in the dark places. There is no situation he cannot speak to, no heart he cannot touch. There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to our condition.

One implication of this amazing discovery is that, in the deepest sense, Jesus is the only one who can speak to our condition. Nothing and no one can save me apart from Christ, and I am incapable of saving others through my own efforts. The Holy Spirit can work through my life to speak to the lives of others, but I can’t control this. In my best moments, I am directed by Christ; I do not direct him.

I often forget this. My typically American optimism and can-do attitude creeps into my spirituality. Before long, I’m acting as if I were an agent capable of saving others. I even judge myself for failing to be as good a savior as Christ! In my hidden heart, I’m sure that I could save others – if only I could deliver the message of the gospel in a compelling enough way; or were a better writer; or were more available to others, were a better caregiver to those in need. There is something in me that wants to believe that I can rescue others from the darkness that they experience in their lives.

But this is an illusion. I’m not capable of saving others any more than I was able to relieve my wife’s agony that day in the hospital. For better or for worse, we had to wait for the doctor to arrive. As horrible as this waiting is, sometimes there is nothing to do but wait and be present with the helplessness. The doctor will come when she comes.

This terrible waiting is a reminder that I’m nobody’s savior. It’s a wake up call that there is one, even Christ Jesus, who is the Great Physician. I can wear myself out all I want trying to play doctor; but that’s just going to leave me tired and demoralized. In the face of all the needs, all the pain, all the brokenness I see, somehow I must learn to wait on the Resurrection and the Life.

Why Do You Call Me Good?

Jesus was always encountering people who were seeking to justify themselves. It seems like everyone was looking for a sure-fire recipe for salvation – to know that they were safe and on the right side of God’s law. Not much has changed in 2,000 years. Far too often, religion becomes a game of proving to ourselves that we’re OK. If we just follow the rules, say our prayers, and don’t commit any of the big sins, we can feel safe.

Yet, following Jesus has nothing to do with safety. It’s not about obeying the rules or believing all the right things. It’s certainly not about being a good person. Rather, Jesus calls us into total surrender to God. Only by acknowledging our own brokenness and powerlessness can we expect to enter the kingdom.

Jesus confronts our human obsession with being good in his famous interaction with a certain rule-follower:

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

If there is any human being that should be called good, surely it is Jesus! Yet, Jesus rejects this title. Why?

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Probably because the whole interaction reeks of idolatry. This certain ruler doesn’t want a relationship of dependence on God. He’s looking for a set of rules to follow, not the ambiguity and riskiness of real love. The ruler calls Jesus good for the same reason that he asks his question about which rules he needs to follow: He’s looking for an external standard of righteousness. Rather than throwing himself whole-heartedly into the waiting arms of God, he wants to know how to be good.

What does Jesus prescribe for this man who wants heavenly guarantees? The ultimate non-guarantee: Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. Only when this man is ready to truly surrender control will he be able to approach God in spirit and in truth.

Enough about that guy; what about me? Am I really looking for a relationship with God, or am I seeking a checklist to reassure and protect me? What are the idols that I’m going to have to give up before I can truly walk in relationship with Jesus? I can call him good all I want, but if I fail to imitate his humble, out-of-control walk with the Father, I’m missing the point.

*images from bricktestament.com

Are You Keeping Busy?

I’ve often heard this joke about Washington, DC: Here, people ask your job before they ask your name. That’s a slight exaggeration, but it has the ring of truth to it. DC is filled with extremely bright, highly motivated, driven people. This is a city of go-getters, one that centers itself around idealism, success, and career advancement.

We are a city of workaholics. We work hard and play hard. We are always on, wired and connected. If we’re not occupied with something very important, we pretend to be. The appearance of busyness is a symbol of success. A packed schedule says: My life has meaning. I am in demand. I do important work.

It also serves as a defense mechanism. After spending long days on the job, DC offers up a cornucopia of extra-curriculars: seminars, concerts, demonstrations, cultural events, brunches and dinners. It would be easy to fill up a 20-hour schedule every day of the week, if the body and mind could endure it. Caught on an endless treadmill of very important things, it can seem like the only way to avoid total burnout is to excuse ourselves: I can’t, I’m sorry; I’m much too busy.

As part of an effort to establish a new Quaker community here in DC, I have experienced busyness as one of the most profound barriers to the gospel. Busyness reduces connection between people, making us so task-oriented that we struggle to truly see one another. It speeds us up. We talk fast, think fast, schedule fast, and cancel fast. We’re often moving so quickly that we miss out on the incremental development of relationship. We accomplish a lot, but enjoy little.

Chronic busyness creeps in gradually, even when we think we’re on guard against it. This past year, I have been overwhelmed by too much, too many, and too fast. Even as I have intellectually recognized the danger of the super-charged DC lifestyle, I have somehow gotten caught up in it, too. How can the good seed of life grow among all these weeds?

There is a way out of this labyrinth. There is a way to greater peace, an open way of life that invites love, community and reconciliation. It is a way that requires us to release our need to control outcomes. We must truly believe that the world does not rely on us, and that God’s love is not conditional on how well we perform. We cannot work our way out of workaholism.

A good place to start is prayer. What is prayer, after all, than the act of wasting time for the love of God and others? We can pray, not to accomplish a certain outcome, but simply in order to be present with God in loving relationship. As we extend this prayer outward into the rest of our lives, we can waste even more time, simply being present with others who have nothing tangible to give us. Just relationship, and an awareness of how God’s love is present in community.

The path out of busyness is to realize – to really know in our bones – that God does not operate like us. God does not keep a timesheet. God does not care about our resumés. God does not measure success in the ways we do. The Spirit is calling us to be present to her, and to others – to love just like Jesus loves.

Do you struggle with busyness? Is there a culture of over-work and unavailability in your area, like there is in mine? What are ways you have found to root yourself in the life and power that takes away the occasion for busyness? What has this cost you? What are the blessings you have received?

Stay Awake

Then [Jesus] came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:40-41

Jesus was praying for his life in the garden of Gethsemane. He knew that his time was at hand; the next day, he’d be tortured to death by the occupying Roman legion. Before that happened, he’d be mocked and beaten by the religious authorities of his own people. The next 24 hours were going to be rough, to say the least.

Sometimes, we emphasize Jesus’ divinity so much that we lose track of the fact that he was also a human being, just like us. Jesus was no invulnerable demigod. He wept. He got angry. He didn’t want to die. In the garden that night, he begged God to show him some other way – any way that didn’t mean being nailed to that cross.

Jesus faced temptation, hardship and suffering. He felt abandoned by his closest friends in his darkest moment. Jesus was facing a horrifying death, yet his inner circle – Peter, James and John – couldn’t even stay awake with him for an hour while he prayed!

How often do I fall asleep to the prayer of Jesus in those around me? How often do I tune out the suffering that I see? So many times, I yield to the temptation to fall asleep in my distractions. What would it look like for me to stay awake with Jesus in the lives of those who are facing the reality of the cross every day – the homeless, the outcast, the unloved?

What would it look like to live in the cross myself, allowing my own will to be submitted to God’s loving desire for my life? Like Jesus, how can I stay awake and alert in prayer, knowing that I need the love and presence of the Holy Spirit in each moment?

Say My Name

I recently watched a video in which Traci Hjelt Sullivan, a Quaker in Philadelphia, shares about her experience of speaking in meeting for worship. I was fascinated by her description of how she felt compelled to share a message during a time of silent worship. She talks about being nudged, and having a sense of what she is supposed to do. She describes beautifully the sheer terror of standing up in a room of silent worshipers and beginning to speak, or sing.

I can relate to Traci’s description of feeling compelled to undertake a form of service that is uncomfortable. I’ve experienced many times when there was something that I did not want to do, but felt clear that God was calling me to do it. Despite my reservations and hangups, if I want to be faithful I must yield to the motion of the Spirit in my heart. I have to submit myself to God’s leading and take action, whether I like it or not.

Something that surprised me in this video interview was that Traci never directly mentions God. She talks about encountering a struggle to be faithful. Faithful to what? She describes being repeatedly nudged to give spoken ministry. Nudged by whom? She expresses a sense of what she was supposed to do. Who is it that inspires her to take risky action, despite all her doubts?

I don’t know how Traci would answer these questions. (I hope she sees this post and comments!) What I do know is that her experience matches my own in so many ways; yet, I was disappointed that she did not take the opportunity to explicitly acknowledge the amazing life and power that calls her to faithfulness. The Holy Spirit is real – alive, active, and moving in our lives. I see every indication that Traci knows this from personal experience. Why not say it directly?

I know that this is awkward. We live in a culture that is increasingly skeptical of God talk, and it can feel less intimidating to refer to our experience in ambiguous language that dodges the question of who God is. But how can we share the good news of the living Christ if we are not even able to say his name?

For me, it is crucial that I be explicit about who I’m being faithful to, who is nudging me, who is spurring me to risky faithfulness. I cannot share the gift if I do not acknowledge the Giver. Is it possible for us as Quakers to be faithful to our Advocate and Friend without saying her name?

Make A Connection

Believe it or not, I’m not a naturally outgoing person. All things being equal, I like to stick to a few really intense, one-on-one relationships. A social butterfly I am not.

Despite my natural handicaps, however, God has called me to help develop Christian community here in Washington, DC. This work forces me to get out of my shell, meet new people, and interact in ways that aren’t necessarily comfortable to me.

I read once that human beings are a lot like LEGOS: Just like those little plastic building blocks, every person has only a certain number of connectors. Some of us have more connectors, others fewer, but each of us has a limit to how many people we can be in authentic, active relationship with.

Think about it. How many people are you friends with on Facebook? Now, how many of those have you had a real, in-person conversation with in the last month? The last week? If you’re anything like me, the first number is rather large, but the second number is surprisingly small. We can have a lot of contacts, but we can only sustain so many active friendships.

This presents something of a dilemma for us as followers of Jesus. On the one hand, we are called to share God’s love with everyone. Jesus calls us to go into all the world sharing the good news and forming communities. On the other hand, there are only so many active relationships that we can maintain. Practically speaking, we just can’t be in community with everyone.

So how do we make choices about where we devote our limited relational energy? Are we careful to ensure that our primary relationships are healthy ones that glorify God? Though it’s nice to have relationships where we can feel comfortable, how do we avoid surrounding ourselves with people who look and think just like me? What would it be like to regard each one of our relationships as an opportunity to live as the body of Christ?

Do We Really Want Community?

We live in a culture that talks a lot about community. Politicians, civic and religious leaders, non-profits and businesses are always announcing programs and initiatives to build and protect community. It’s not always clear what we mean by the word community, but we appear to think that it’s important.

Still, it often seems that the more we talk about community, the less of it we actually experience. How many newly developed residential communities are little more than sleeping quarters for thousands of disconnected households? Even within these households, how much real community is there to be found?

Increasingly, even within the family, each individual is expected to follow their own path – whether in career, school, or romantic relationships. The famous Howard Thurman quote – Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. – is twisted into justifying boundless individualism. If it meets your needs, do it.

In such an environment, how could authentic community ever have the space to grow? Real community isn’t a product that can be bought, sold, or created through ad campaigns and urban planning. Community is created through the simple act of living together and depending on one another over time. It requires that we consider the needs of others on an ongoing basis, even when it frustrates our own desires.

If we desire enduring community, we’ll sometimes be required to sacrifice of our own priorities, even deeply felt ones, for the sake of the family, the congregation, and all those other types of committed fellowships that are increasingly disintegrating in our present day. This is a bitter pill for us as members of a culture that glorifies independence, choice, and individual autonomy. The decision to live in real community is a radically counter-cultural one.

In light of all this, it is fair to ask ourselves the question: Do we really want community? True community will limit our options in many ways; it will tie us down and force us to put up with people and situations that we would rather avoid. Do we truly believe that community is worth the cost?

In my experience, the only way to justify the sacrifices required by community is through recognizing shared needs that can only be met in cooperation with others. What are these needs? What is the shared mission that God is calling us to together, which we simply cannot accomplish as separate individuals?