Monday, March 20, 2017

Reclaiming Hope


For years I considered myself apolitical. Yet I have found, as I have gotten older, that to not be political is to be political. It's difficult to be part of either political party when neither holds firmly to the beliefs that I do. In many ways, I'm conservative and, in others, I am liberal (particularly in regards to social justice).  I have never voted straight party ticket but have thoroughly investigated and checked the stances on specific issues for each candidate and then voted according to my conscience and after much prayer.

Growing up in a very conservative Republican and Protestant home, the closest my family had to a saint was Ronald Reagan. My mother's ideal for me was to be like Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox's character on the TV show Family Ties).  I was taught that I was:
1. A Christian
2. An American
3. Southern
4. Republican
And all of those things were blessings of God.

This is how I was raised yet, as I got older and the more I read my Bible, I began to question. Yet I struggled to find a candidate who I could fully support.

In 2008, a candidate ran on the platform of hope and the dignity of all. Despite the odds, Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. It was an historic election that made many wonder if our country had turned a corner, particularly in regards to race.

Now, over eight years later, we have watched as all of that has changed into fear, distrust and discrimination. During this last election, I, like many, grew weary of the polarizing divisiveness of American politics and of the system itself. Many are losing hope.  The author, Michael Wear, writes, " . . . I believe it is an error to identify Barack Obama - or any candidate or political movement - as the source of our hope. But at the same time, I do not want to dismiss his 2008 campaign as an illusion, to reduce it to a cautionary tale of the dangers of political commitments. There was real promise in that moment. Many hundreds of his campaign staff would say he changed their lives. For thousands of volunteers, first-time voters, and all who felt their voices were finally heard in our political process, the Obama campaign affirmed their dignity. If only politics did this all of the time."

At the age of twenty-one, Michael Wear served in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama. Reclaiming Hope is part memoir, part political observation and a book of ultimate hope and faith. Wear writes candidly and honestly about the highs and lows surrounding that administrations achievements. He also writes openly of something many overlooked or dismissed: President' Obama's strong faith.  Seldom did the media cover it, partly because many in the White House did not want them to just as there were many in the Democratic party who were unhappy that Obama continued the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership (which was started under Bush and many on the left felt should've been abandoned). Obama championed vocally for the inclusion of not only that Office but voices of faith to be heard. He was disappointed when many in the Evangelical Church either doubted his Christianity and falsely labeled him "Muslim."

Wear writes, "In 2010, respected academics David Campbell and Robert Putnam concluded in their landmark book, American Grace, that partisan politics were directly to blame for the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans. 'The growth of the nones,' Campbell argued, 'is a direct reaction to the intermingling of religion and politics in the United States.' Evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt was more blunt in his assessment: 'As American Evangelicals have become more partisan, American Christianity has suffered as more shy away from the faith."

Yet, despite many people's claims to the opposite, President Obama's Christian beliefs showed up again and again in his speeches, especially those given at each National Prayer Breakfast.  He referenced his Christian faith more than the sainted Ronald Reagan. He spoke of how his beliefs shaped so much of how he viewed the world, others, and reaching out to help those in most desperate need. He spoke of being the Good Samaritan and he was "... the politician who injected the phrase 'I am my brother's keeper' into the political lexicon."

Michael Wear's book is balanced in his assessment of his former boss. He writes of watching the President change his position of gay marriage, as well as his attempt to find common ground between those who are Pro-Life and Pro-Choice to create ways to lessen the number of abortions in the United States. He also writes of achievements such as including the adoption tax credit and making human trafficking a major priority for his administration. This is an honest appraisal that balances both the highs and lows of being a Christian in the center of the public square.

Instead of the politicization of religion that so many in office use as a way to get elected, Michael Wear rights of the compelling need of real faith to intersect with politics. For those who have abandoned hope, this book is much needed and one will rediscover the reason for hope in the last two chapters. This is the hope that is more than a political slogan or bumper-sticker.

As we see our political system so mired down in ugliness and we seem more and more divided on issues, we should heed the words President Obama spoke at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast:
"At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another; to have a serious and civil debate. And this erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion. It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on the truth. And then we lose sight of the children without food and the men without shelter and the families without health care. So what's the answer? Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility."

Yes, our political system desperately needs civility.

Our social media needs to be open to polite discourse that, while it does not always have to agree, it should always be respectful without breaking down into coarse, vulgar and incendiary comments.

All of us needs to truly and prayerfully be "empowered by faith."

Faith in what?

Not in a political candidate or party. As Wear writes in the introduction, "Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics o have their inner needs met. Politics does a poor job of meeting inner needs, but politicians will suggest they can do it if it will get them votes. The state of our politics is a reflection of the state of our souls."

Indeed.

Wear offers us more than politics, more than false hope and how we can truly reclaim real and lasting hope.

It doesn't matter whether you're Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal, there is something in this book for everyone. This was one of the books I was most excited about this year and it did not disappoint. It's no wonder that it's gathered endorsements from J.D. Vance, Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Ann Voskamp and Sara Groves among others.


Michael Wear's official website:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Assimilate Or Go Home: A Beautiful & Necessary Book Of Refugees & Stateless Wanderers


D. L. Mayfield starts off her book with failure. She writes of showing an apartment of full of devout Muslims The Jesus Film. What I love about how she narrates this experience was the fervent desire to proselytize and play the missionary. Realizing that the "heavy yoke" of her desire to convert was slipping off her shoulders, Mayfield sat there and listened to the rhythms of a foreign language and, instead of worrying about converting them, she simply entered their lives and loved them. She writes:

"Slowly, I started to enter more fully into the world of my refugee friends. As the days and months blended into years, I experienced strange paradoxes. The more I failed to communicate the love of God to my friends, the more I experienced it for myself. The more overwhelmed I felt as I became involved in the myriad of problems facing my friends who experience poverty in America, the less pressure I felt to attain success or wealth or prestige. And the more my world started to expand at my periphery, the more it became clear that life was more beautiful and more terrible than I had been told. The differences, although real, started to blur together a bit. Muslim, Christian, Somali, American. We were being told to assimilate or go home, but we couldn't do that either."

We live in a climate that has become hostile to refugees, immigrants and migrants. Somehow there is a fear of contamination, especially if they are Muslim. Xenophobia is rampant as so many of our political leaders and a great number of people in this country want to ban foreigners, particularly Middle Easterners, from entering the United States.

D.L. Mayfield writes with thoughtful honesty and deep humility. Growing up Evangelical, she had a heart for converting the world for Christ but found that what was needed was loving the world because she, herself, was being converted daily to become more like Christ. What began with eager enthusiasm crashed into the hard realities of being a missionary. She discovered that chasing spiritual highs would leave her continually unsatisfied. Mayfield admits that she had to learn to stop seeing herself as "the generous benefactor" when she would discover "just like the Bible said, it was the poor, the sick, and the sad who would be blessed in the kingdom of god - and they would be the ones who would reveal it to me."

The book is written as essays to mirror the four general stages a refugee goes through in acclimating to their new lives: anticipation , reality, depression and acceptance.  She deftly connects her own spiritual journey using these four stages as she moves from religion to the kingdom of God. The more she was drawn to this kingdom, the more she found herself drawn to the margins, to the "stateless wanderers of the earth" where Jesus said he would always be found. "I used to want to witness to people," she writes, "to tell them the story of God in digestible pieces, to win them over to my side. But more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life. To live with eyes wide open on the edges of of our world, the margins of society."

D. L. Mayfield has an intelligence and compassion that comes through in her prose. She is a skillful storyteller who is not afraid to reveal her failures as she questions her own motives for why she really was working with the poor Somali Bantu refugees in Portland, where she lives.  Her story is coming to the realization that following Christ isn't about simply believing in Jesus and going to heaven. As she writes, " . . . reading Jesus's words it becomes apparent that the kingdom is very much about the here and now, changing the world to reflect what God desires: the oppressed would have justice, the poor would be fed, and the stateless wanderers would be taken care of."

The books title, Assimilate or Go Home, confronts the reality that so many in this country and in the Church have. Be and act like us, or go away. With the huge crisis of global refugees the world is currently facing, this book takes on a deeper and more painful meaning. Reading this book, one sees the hardships that come with refugees who struggle to but cannot seem to assimilate in their new country with its culture and language. It's a complex issue that Mayfield writes about with compassion as well as frustration. Being present to their pain and suffering and poverty is hard, tiring, emotionally exhausting. "I realized I was tired of being comfortable with sickness and death and inequality," she says, "so, too, was I tired of being overwhelmed with all of the places it seemed God was absent."

Yet there is nothing more Christ-like than loving others in the midst of their trauma and poverty. To speak up and be a witness against a system that's broken and in desperate need of repair. Mayfield, despite the hardships, remains hopeful, remains engaged, remains involved. Like the author, all of us need to be present and in "proximity to the pain and suffering and injustice" so that we, too, can be a witness. It's about leaving the mission field to find, instead, community. Assimilate or Go Home is a must-read.


Check out D. L. Mayfield's official website Living in the Upside Down Kingdom:


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Return to the Ragamuffin: A Review Of Brennan Manning's A Ragamuffin Gospel


Years ago, I became aware of Brennan Manning through the musician Rich Mullins. Having grown up in the Church, I most often heard sermons about personal holiness and more on sin than I can even begin to count. Yet, what I seldom, if ever, heard were messages about the grace of God. Oftentimes salvation seemed like a tenuous thing that could easily be lost with just the wrong choice and that we had to cling tightly to Jesus for dear life. It was exhausting,

And then I read The Ragamuffin Gospel and wondered why it took me so long to read these words - words that could free a person from the bondage of performance and fear. Manning wrote about grace in a way that I had never heard or read about it before, though he sent me scrambling to my Bible to encounter that this was the very message Christ taught and lived. How had I missed it for so long? How had so many pastors gotten it so wrong? Why was there so much legalism and so little of the unconditional love of our Abba?

"My deepest awareness," Manning writes, "is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to deserve or earn it."

What?

That's not what I had been taught. Where was the wrathful judgmental God who kept lists and checked off every mistake, every sin and every failure?

I longed to read the words of truth that I encountered in The Ragamuffin Gospel. "The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ," he writes, "the poorer we become - the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving." Gone was the drudgery and being begrudgingly obedient out of fear of hell, but of willingly following Christ not our of fear but out of love and a desire to know and experience more of him day by day. To realize that I was, indeed, a "beloved" son of God.

After I first read this book, I bought extra copies and began to give it out to everyone I could think of and thrust it into their hands with, "You must read this book. It will revolutionize and change your life."

I gave it to every broken and hurting sinner and saint I knew. And it did change lives. They, like me, saw God afresh and anew. We see our Creator not through the restrictive eyes of pharisaical law, but through the loving eyes of Christ.

"For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to to God," Manning says, "it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, 'Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,' He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way."

Christ knew that we would and he lovingly chose us anyway. "I know you will doubt. I know you will fail and stumble. I know you will be hard-headed and hard-hearted sometimes. I know you will feel lonely and rejected and hurting. I know you will despair and question. But know that I love you. I call you  mine even when you cannot believe it, even when you cannot feel it, even when you abandon me, I will not abandon you." This is the Jesus of the gospels. This is the Jesus that Brennan Manning served and loved and wrote about. This is Jesus.

It was many years after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel that I was fortunate enough to get to attend a weekend retreat he held. I think it was around the time that his book A Glimpse of Jesus: The Stranger to Self-Hatred was published. Just as I had been when I first encountered his books, I needed to hear the words Manning spoke. Many of those gathered for the retreat, found themselves in tears from his message. They were words that provided deep healing and profound wisdom and grace.

At one point, towards the end of the retreat, he told the story of Don Quixote who saw the prostitute, Aldonza, whom he renamed Dulcinea, not as a whore but referred to her as "My lady." While she could not see herself as anything but worthless and cheap, Don Quixote chivalrously saw her as moa lady and someone whom he offered his honor and service to. Isn't that how Christ sees all of us? It's exactly the point that Manning made. Christ saw past our sins and called us "My beloved."I can still hear "Dream the Impossible Dream" playing on his cassette recorder as he had us all close our eyes and listen to the lyrics of this Broadway song from Man of La Mancha. Grace was more than a dream. It is a daily reality that so many miss out on because they so seldom encounter it in the Church or much of Christian writing.

Manning writes from sheer honesty and rawness about his own flaws and failures, especially in regards to his alcoholism. But from the depths of his pain, he understands the beauty and great gift that grace truly is. We are, all of us, broken and in need of a healer, in need of mercy and forgiveness. We are, all of us, ragamuffins.

If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend that you do. Just as I thrust it into the hands of people I knew, I will tell you, "You must read this book. It will revolutionize and change your life."

It surely did mine.


Brennan Manning on God's love:


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice Of Asking Questions


I was raised to take scripture seriously as the Word of God, but when I simply didn't just take what I was being taught at face value, but had legitimate theological questions, I was made to feel ashamed of them. Questions sparked fear in my Sunday School teachers and in my parents. Questions created doubt within me. Doubt, not in God, but in myself; in that I was made to feel that to ask a question was somehow wrong. For years I suffered under that fear. Oh how I wish I had encountered a book like Casey Tygrett's Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions a long time ago. 

As he writes, "Questions require us to see the kingdom of God as it is and as it can be in this moment, this time and this place in our story." Questions begin in curiosity. Curiosity and questions lead someone beyond their own limitations to the endless possibilities established by the creative act of grace. Questions don't necessarily lead to doubt but to deeper thinking. 

So why do so many fear questions? 

The author states, ". . . questions make us vulnerable, revealing that we don't know the answer, and not knowing the answer makes us feel weak. We begin to realize how truly unguarded and fragile we are when we ask our deepest questions." 

Yet Casey Tygrett shows how, in asking, we receive. Not always answers, because Christ came not to give us answers but himself.  And Jesus loved questions. Tygrett points this fact out, "Jesus in the Gospels engages with nearly 183 questions. Sometimes he asks, sometimes he's responding, but what I can't shake is that in the nearly three years Jesus had to transform the narrative of the people of God he often chose to ask instead of tell." I love that. As someone who was born questioning, I love a savior who delights in them, who understands how questions spark more questions and deeper thought to what he was asking or teaching. 

Questions, like the very Incarnation, are unsettling because they force us to expand our thinking. Christ calls us to question ourselves: our identity, our priorities, how we interact with others, how we love God, ourselves and others, and do we forgive as we are forgiven.

Christ understood that when we question, we are actively thinking, not just passively accepting. Questions open up our minds to more than the here and now, that when we question we are not settling for the status quo but striving to make and shape ourselves and the world around us into the kingdom of God (Christ always preached the kingdom not as some future place we go after death but what we are to strive for in our daily lives in the very places that we now live in). Questioning means that the person is not taking anything for granted but wants to comprehend truths beyond the shallow surface that so many simply glide along on. It is becoming like a little child and asking, "Why?" Such is the kingdom of heaven, as Christ reminded his disciples. 

Faith is not about finding better answers but in forming better questions. It's about letting go of expectations to experience the miracle that can be found in my daily life if I am present to it. This book offers followers of Christ the impetus to explore not only the questions that the author raises, but their own and to know that it is not only spiritually okay, it's desired by our Creator. Becoming Curious is a work that one can return to again and again to stir up the sediment of one's thoughts and return to a more reflective frame of mind. 

You can pre-order Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions which will not be released until May 2017 by InterVarsity Press. 


Casey Tygrett's official website:
http://www.caseytygrett.com

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Jennie Allen Teaches Us We Have Nothing To Prove


I do not believe it was a coincidence that on the very day the Holy Spirit impressed upon me that it isn't about working to be self-sufficient but about resting in the One who is all-sufficient, that Jennie Allen's book Nothing to Prove arrived. While I am familiar with her previous books, though I had not read them, and with her founding If:Gathering, I had never read anything by her. Yet from the sentence, "The voice has been in my head most of my life. I am not enough," her words rang true in my own. I think far too many Christians suffer from the fear of not being enough, of desperately wanting to please others and God (unfortunately, often in that order), and of constantly striving and falling short. We live in a very performance-driven culture and this has also pervaded much of the Church. 

Yet ". . . to get to the place where God can be enough, we have to first admit we aren't." This is a difficult first step for the author and for many of us. We want to perform well. We want to exceed expectations. Yet too many of us struggle with the insecurities of not measuring up as a parent, spouse, coworker, friend, or follower of Christ. "I am realizing," she writes, "it's not my curse that I believe I am not enough; it's my sin that I keep trying to be." 

In this book Jennie Allen is deeply vulnerable and honest about her struggles of faith and how it's so often easier to turn to Netflix than to Jesus in our day to day lives. All of us constantly second-guess ourselves, doubt ourselves and wonder how we measure up as a parent, spouse, coworker, friend and follower of Christ. We question: 

Am I good enough?

Am I smart enough?

And we measure ourselves not by how God views us, as His beloved, but by other's Pinterest-perfect lives, Instagram-worthy moments, and Facebook facades. We gauge ourselves not by our Savior's love for us but by social media. It often causes us to feel deflated and defeated, just as Allen writes about her adoptive son and getting stars on his behavior chart.

Yet all of us need to hear the truth that she declares, "God doesn't need you, He loves you." There's a big difference and a profound truth in that simple sentence. 

The thing we long for the most is also that which we tend to fear the most: connection. 

Why? 

Because connection requires honesty, vulnerability and transparency. Most of us tend to shy away from admitting our failures, our flaws, our screw-ups and our brokenness. Yet this is how the Church needs to be with each other. 

"Healing and wholeness," Allen writes, "are found only when we step into the rushing stream of forgiveness, of intimacy, of connection." 

Certainly I find myself drawn to authors who share their stories with such openness: Ann Voskamp, Shauna Niequist. and Jonathan Martin are just a few recent examples of writers whose books have moved me and deepened my conviction that this is how we, as the Church, need to be with each other. Not just in the pages of a book, but in the day to day of our very lives.

As well as being painfully honest, Jennie Allen writes beautifully. Some of my favorite passages come in the chapter entitled "The Stream of Fulfillment": 

"Again and again Jesus showed up at everyday common occasions and turned them into symphonies. He didn't just teach with words; He often illustrated His hopes for us through unexpected metaphors."


or 

"We were made for wonder, but we've settled for entertainment."  

Wow! 

So much of what Allen had to say, I needed to hear. She reminded me that Christ is found in the ordinariness of my life (as messy, overwhelming or boring as I might think it to be). We are not to live our lives "for God" but "with God."  

Like Shauna Niequist in her book Present Over Perfect, Jennie Allen has written a book for all of us who "feel afraid, broken, overwhelmed, inadequate, stretched beyond your capacities." 





Jennie Allen's official website:


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Conversation With A Check-out Clerk


Standing in line at the grocery store, there was another man in front of me who was silent and would not speak to the young African-American woman behind the register, ringing up his items, despite here attempts to make small talk. The expression on his face was one of disgust. And it was obvious he just wanted to get his groceries and get out of there.

All the while, I am placing my items on the conveyor belt.

Once he's paid, the guy mutters a derogatory and racist word under his breath before walking off.

After he's gone and she begins to ring up my items, I greet her and ask her how her day's going - other than the last few minutes. At first she just shakes her head and I understand that she is doing so because of the previous customer. "Ever since Trump got elected," she finally said, "people feel like it's okay to be racist." I listened as she spoke about how, as an African-American woman who's a part of the LGBT community, she feels like she's not wanted in her very own country. "Churches keep preaching about love," she said, "but they sure aren't living it out. How can you preach love and vote hatred?"

I listened to her and wondered why she trusted to tell me her story about how, after coming out, she was kicked out of the church she grew up in. Her words were filled with pain and brokenness over not being welcomed in her church or her country. "I just don't matter," she said and tears welled up in her eyes.

"Yes you do," I told her. "God loves you enough to give His only Son for you and He loves you enough to have put me in this line right after that last guy to tell you this."

That is the grace of God allowing me to be there in that moment. How many of us are given the opportunities to be light and love to someone who's hurting?

How many would have gotten upset with this woman for expressing her pain to them? Would she have even felt comfortable revealing her woundedness to many?

I don't ask, "Why me?" because I pray that God allow such moments to occur in my daily life as a reminder to not only others, but myself of His unending love for us.

As I am meditating and studying The Spiritual Exercises by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, I find myself praying his words:

Love consists in sharing
what one has 
and what one is
with those one loves.

Love ought to show itself in deeds
more than words.

We live in a very politically divisive moment in America's history.  But as followers of Christ, we must see that with division comes disorder. With unity comes understanding. We must move beyond the pathology of racism to the path of reconciliation, restoration and redemption. America is obsessed with upward mobility but Christ has called us to downward mobility. The Church is not to focus on prestige, wealth, and security but in loving as Christ loved, which is costly, and requires us to walk with the hurting, the poor, the sojourner, the marginalized, the lonely, the wounded, the orphan, the widow, the minority and the powerless.

The love of Christ must seize our hearts, our minds, our imaginations, our actions, and our very lives. Part of my prayer life is simply to sit in stillness and silence. With each inhalation of breath, I pray "Fill me with your love" and with each exhalation, I pray, "May I walk in your compassion."

When I pray this, it never fails to amaze me how god puts people in my path with whom I can share and pray and remind them that they are worthy, they are loved, they are treasured, they are desired, that they are why Christ came here and went to the cross. What an amazing gift to get the opportunity to share the everlasting love of God to others on a daily basis. Everlasting love. Love that existed long before we ever did. Has always existed and will always exist. A perfect love.

How many in this world are suffering from the wounds of the imperfect love or lack of love from a parent or partner or spouse and they, in turn, wound others?

Henri Nouwen wrote, "Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us 'Beloved'."

How many people need to hear they are "beloved" of God? How many need to know how dear and precious they are to the very Creator of all things?

How many people need to know Jehovah Rapha (the God that heals)? Or Jehovah Shammah (God is there)? Or Jehovah Shalom (God of peace)? Or that He's El Roi (the God who sees)? This is the God who collects our tears because our suffering does not go unnoticed. He keeps a record of our pain. This is the God who not only knows us but has our names engraved on His palms. They need to know that God is Yahweh Yireh (God who provides). He provides the healing that we need (physical, spiritual, emotional). He provides comfort, joy, peace, mercy, compassion, love and grace unending.

God allowed me that brief window of time to share with that cashier that she was beloved, that God saw her and the pain she was suffering and had placed me there to lift her up and exhort her.

This world is broken but we can show them the beauty that is the gospel, the good news.

I am beloved of God and when I truly realize this and live it out, then I see others not as strangers or foreigners but as those who are dearly loved by God and so often are completely unaware of this reality. None of us can do anything to earn or deserve it. We are all radically loved by God.

Brennan Manning wrote, "The way you are with others every day, regardless of status, is the true test of faith."

How do we respond to people every day? When we are at work? When we are at the grocery store? Or our kids' schools? Or at the gym? In traffic?

Do we see where we are and who we are with are exactly where He has us and wants us so that we are the light, the grace, the love, the mercy, the compassion of Christ in that moment and it can have a huge impact on someone who may be a complete stranger to us.

We must be aware. We must be present. We must be generous and tender and available. We must be rooted in prayer and scripture and love and forgiveness. These moments with others are not meant to be irritations but invitations to show the love of Christ to someone: a family member, a coworker, a complete stranger. But how can we not? Once we have experienced Divine Grace it awakens us to Divine Love.

I pray that we can move beyond being the body politic and be the body of Christ.

I pray that we stop sounding like CNN or Fox News and sound like the good news, the gospel of Christ because there is a desperate, hurting world that needs us to be.









Friday, February 10, 2017

Before I Formed You: Identity & Purpose


When my wife was pregnant with our older son, one of the most exciting moments was the first ultrasound. Despite the fact that the image looked more like a weather map than an unborn infant, I had tears running down my cheeks. This was the first moment that I got to see my son. 

This image came to my mind instantaneously when I read my favorite prophet, Jeremiah, when he wrote, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you . . ." (1:5). How beautiful it is to grasp this with all of your being. What God is telling Jeremiah, He is telling us. "Before you knew, you were known." Meditate on that. Before we were ever formed, God knew us. Before we had a physical shape, we had a spiritual one.

Isn't that amazing?

Before we were ever born, we are spiritual beings. From the time we are born, we are on spiritual journeys. God is found in every particle of creation. All flowed from Him and was formed by Him. God is in our DNA, in the core and substance of our very makeup.  And, as the second part of that verse tells us, ". . . and before you were born I consecrated you . . ." 

Consecrated in Hebrew is qudash and it means: become holy, declare holy, dedicate, keep the holy, manifest, sanctified, set apart, transmit holiness, be hallowed. Be honored or treated as sacred. 

The word was used in connection with the shew-bread used in the temple by the priests.

Before we were ever born, before we were pushed through the birth canal, we were consecrated by God just as the shew-bread was consecrated by the priests. Before we were given our names, before we were cleaned of all the amniotic fluid or the umbilical chord was cut, before our parents set eyes on us, God said, "I have a plan for you. You are mine."

We always think of newborn babies as miracles, but do we ever stop to see them as God sees them? As consecrated? We were not only formed by God, we were not only created in the image of God, we were not only known by God, we (before we ever wailed our first scream or took our first breath outside our mother's body) were consecrated by him.

He declared us holy from before even the moment of conception.

Do we look at ourselves that way? Do we look at others that we come across each day in this manner?

When Moses saw the burning bush, he stood there long enough to realize the bush wasn't being consumed (typically this happens after 5 to 10 minutes) before he grasped that this was not just a burning shrubbery, that this was Divine Mystery in action. Once this beginning to grasp the reality of the moment happened, then God spoke to Moses. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." The place where you are is consecrated.

Do we approach others in this manner?

Do we see that God has consecrated each one of us with a purpose, His purpose?

I know I don't. I barely can register when I'm doing his will.

But it is because we have all lost sight of this truth, that God consecrated us before birth, that we spend so much of our lives stumbling and fumbling and groping through the dark to make sense of who we are, what our purpose is, and why we make such a fallen mess of the very lives that God gifted us with.

"The only true joy on earth," Thomas Merton wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation, "is to escape the prison of our own false self and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls."

Sin is what keeps us from being the consecrated beings He created us to be. We believe in the false self, the self that is disconnected from the understanding that Christ meant when he said, "The kingdom of God is within you." He was not only referring to himself, but that we were ultimately created to be the kingdom of God here on this very earth. We were consecrated for that holy purpose.

Yet most of us cannot or will not believe this. We will settle for the cheap baubles that our culture dangles in front of us and markets as happiness. If you drive this car . . . If you wear these clothes . . . If you have this job and make this much money . . .

Consecration is discarded to pursue the fantasy that keeps us from the very reality we were created for. It's as if we were children happily eating mud pies outside when our loving parent has prepared us a chocolate cake. "I have better things for you." God says but we just keep ingesting the mud pies.

"Consecrate yourselves," Joshua told the people of Israel, "for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you" (3:5). How many of us need to hear those words in our own lives?

Set yourselves apart. "Be holy, because I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16). "Offer your body as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God." Why? Because that was how He created us. He created us as consecrated and when we live in the manner our Creator meant for us then we will begin to see that He is "going to do amazing things" among us. As Watchman Nee wrote, "Consecration is not how much we can give to God. It is being accepted by God and being granted the honor of serving Him."

Once we begin to see that we were created in this fashion, we will not only begin to see ourselves differently, but others as well. How would our attitudes be towards those around us if we realized they were consecrated by God? That is no less miraculous than a burning bush. Yet we are dulled to the miracle of that reality and we see the brokenness we have in this world because of it. We see the disconnection and lack of community and compassion that our culture suffers from.

That is why we must read a verse like Jeremiah 1:5 and grab hold of it tightly. Cling to the truth that we are consecrated before we are born. We are known by our Creator who has not only formed us but engraved our very names on His palms.

How much different will the world be when we start living in a consecrated manner?

"On earth as it is in heaven."

Amen.