This morning I write surrounded by boxes. It really is amazing how much stuff we humans acquire. Here’s a test for you. If you think yourself a minimalist, just try moving once. It really can be mind boggling. So here I sit surrounded by cardboard and chaos. But it really is a picture of something much larger than myself. Over the last almost sixteen years of marriage my wife and I have had the privilege of living in Tennessee, Florida, Michigan and Texas. And you know what we’ve found? People are beautiful and amazing and incredible no matter where we live. We have found more in common with people we never thought we would connect with because of our ability to experience different cultures and communities all over these United States. The scary thing is that it seems like these days we are led to believe there is more that separates us than unites us.
But let’s be honest for a moment. The way in which many of our lives are lived today only helps to contribute to the ease of which we are divided. We listen to the same news sources, we dine and discuss with the same folks, we read the same literature, we go to church with similar minded people and we rarely break out of our routines. We are boxed in more so than my current writing environment. And so, if we are led to believe that there is more that separates us, than unites us, then it becomes easier to embrace as a mindset. In his travel book Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had this to say about living our lives boxed in, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” And honestly, you don’t have to travel across the world to gain these perspectives…sometimes you just need to go to the other side of town.
We who claim the title of Christ should be very careful how our worldviews cause us to perceive one another. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes this, “Since you have taken off your old self with its practicesand have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” – Colossians 3:9b-11 Because of Christ these labels that society is quick to pick up and employ do not exist anymore. We don’t see each other through the lenses of mass media or liberal or conservative or democrat or republican or citizen or refugee or rich or poor or whatever the dividing line might be. We see all as if we are seeing them as Christ in flesh. But in order to do that we have to get outside of our boxed in worlds and realize Christ has called us to so much more. So I sit this morning surrounded by boxes…but I know they are about to lead me to new people to love through Christ.
As a parent of an elementary school student you sometimes find the dusty corners of your academic history needing to be swept. All of a sudden your child is coming home with work and arithmetic that you haven’t even attempted in ages. Most recently I have found myself brushing up on my multiplication tables and division for my fourth grader and I was probably a bit more dusty than I thought. And for some reason he is really struggling with division. The concept behind multiplication sticks, but for some reason the dividing of the whole just isn’t computing all that well. Which I must admit is a little odd to me…not so much for him, but just because division is so explicitly expressed in our society (I’m pretty sure launching into a philosophical discussion will not advance his math prowess, but it helps us in looking at ourselves).
We are quick to divide ourselves. We have so many different versions of ourselves. There is the professional, the personal, the spiritual, the familial, the sexual, the moral, the religious, or even the political self. And strangely enough we tend to draw dividing lines within ourselves to be able to balance out who we are in each and every scenario which calls for the appropriate self to be called upon. We even draw dividing lines against one another based on each other’s expressions of these personas and this is just as damaging. The writer of the epistle of James has a unique way of expressing this and a solution as well. “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” – James 4:8 The word for double-minded is dipsychos and it is best translated as double souled…or split souled.* We allow the fullness of who we are to be divided into categories which should be captured by the whole. And the writer has a very harsh critique of what this ultimately is…sin. How do we repair this? We draw near to God.
When Jesus was quizzed as to what the greatest commandment was he answered with the full spirit of the law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:37-39 To love God with all that you are basically means that you refuse to let yourself be divided. Your personal, professional, spiritual, religious, political, sexual selves disappear into yourself as you are simply you and that same you is fully dedicated to God. These categories fade away as you become fully devoted to God and consequently expressions of yourself in these categories are expressions of your belief in God. Throughout the gospel of John the writer continually refers to sin as unbelief. The rationale behind this is that belief, true belief, brings about change in one’s self. Does this change exist in you? Is your heart, soul, mind and strength one within Christ and not divided in double-minded fashion? Maybe you need to look at your life and see if you are being honest with yourself and God today and stop dividing yourself and others in a way that God never intended. Maybe division is something we shouldn’t be good at?
*Much of the thinking behind this concept comes from John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping
My wife and I don’t have cable. In fact, we cut the cable a long time ago. Now this doesn’t mean we don’t necessarily enjoy TV, it just means we spend less and binge watch more thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. That being said Hulu recently ruined my life. In the last month they made the entirety of Seinfeld available for viewing. All of sudden man hands, the Soup Nazi, the sidler and a myriad of other characters were made available for my viewing pleasure once again. And in the midst of my binge watching I have begun to realize there was a lot more to these episodes than I originally thought. In fact, one of my favorites so far is called “The Opposite”. In this episode George Costanza decides that every decision he has made up to that point in his life has been the wrong decision and vows to then make the exact opposite decision of his initial leanings going forward. The result…his life all of a sudden becomes incredible. It really is an amazing episode.
These episodes have given me new ways to think about how they might relate to us in our Christian journey. There are quite a few things Jesus said while here on earth that I wrestle with. One of those verses goes something like this, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” – John 12:24-25 Death is not something I love thinking about, and yet here Jesus is reminding us the necessity of death for life. Unless a seed dies, there is no life. Unless I die there is no life. One of the things I have been ruminating on lately is what does that death look like in our world today. And I think it looks a lot like the death of certainty. Anne Lamont once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. ..Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, and emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
Confession; I am a recovering know-it-all. There was a time where I could tell you exactly who God was, what He wanted for my life and what He expected of your life with fearless certainty. But nowadays, I’m not so certain. Oh I am still confident of the fact that Jesus loves me and that God has and is redeeming all things unto himself. But the other details I think are best lived out in journeying with others. If I am dying to myself, to my certainty, to my comfort daily all of a sudden it leaves a lot more space for God and for others. And maybe that is where we all need to find ourselves from time to time. A little less certain and a lot more faithful.
This last Wednesday the teens of Central and I visited a familiar passage to many of us. The passage speaks of a parable when the Son of Man returns in His Glory and separates all of the nations into segments, much like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats of a herd. To the “sheep” on the right He extends an invitation into eternal reward based upon their seemingly unconscious service to the least of these. To the “goats” on his left he denies this same invitation due to their seemingly unknowing ignorance of the least of these. (Matthew 25:31-46). The trouble with this parable is that I always had trouble differentiating why the goats were bad and the sheep were good. I mean, aside from their sometimes general ornery nature I always felt that goats were pretty okay. And sheep could be pretty ornery as well to be honest. But then I began to think about their eating natures. Goats are notorious for consuming. Not only do they eat everything*, but they consume at massive rates without regard for each other or whoever else might be around. On the other hand, sheep eat grass. That’s it. They only consume what they need in order to provide for those around them, albeit unknowingly (wool and sometimes mutton).
Now let’s take it back to the parable. The goats are those who consume resources at an astonishing rate without giving thought to those around them. All of a sudden the parable begins to make a bit more sense. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ – Matthew 25:44 When you were consuming resources and looking out for number one you completely missed the least of these. I imagine this would be a more appropriate modern vernacular response. And on the flip side the sheep weren’t even aware of the fact that they were caring for the least of these. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” – Matthew 25:37-39. They were so used to giving of what they had and sharing their resources that it was a surprise that this was a service to God.
But that’s the thing. God has a huge place in his heart for the least, the last place, the outcast, the oppressed. And He expects us to have the same heart. I came across a quote from Dorothy Day this week that kicked me right in the teeth regarding this. “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” Go ahead and read it again. Let it sink in. Maybe we need to realize that our love for God is ultimately reflected in our love for the least. And that we are called to be sheep seeking for a way to provide instead of to consume.
* I was recently told by a friend who owns some goats that this may not be true…although they do eat a lot.
For those of you who might occasionally follow my random ramblings on Twitter or Facebook it will come as no surprise as to the title of this blog. For the rest of you who haven’t suffered the misfortune of following me on either of the two aforementioned venues I can explain briefly. There is a severe disconnect between my brain and my body when it comes to my presumed youth and correlative athletic abilities. Because of this disconnect, the last two weeks have become witness to me tweaking my hamstring and severely bruising my shin; all on my right leg (yes that is the same one I had an ACL repair on almost two years ago). And the sad thing about it…I plan on playing in our church league soccer game tomorrow night. I guess I am somewhat of a glutton for punishment and I kind of have a never say die attitude when it comes to my body (kind of an ironic statement). I think it all boils down to a lack of patience and a lack of waiting in and on myself, or rather my physical self, to let me know when it is appropriate to continue or not. I am a fan of legging it out/making the play/enjoying the game even if my body is not. To tell you the truth, it is actually kind of selfish of me. I rarely take into account those who could be affected by these actions. My family could even suffer if I put myself in a cast for a few weeks (God forbid). I could get carried away with the competition and fun of whatever I am engaged in and injure someone around me inadvertently through my carelessness. Or I could push myself too far physically and limit some future life goals set in place because I have burnt up all of my reserves too quickly. And all of this is born out of enjoying satisfaction in the now and not the later.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that we are called to live in the moment. But I believe it is for the other and not for us. Take for instance all of this hullabaloo over “50 Shades of Gray” and Magic Mike”. Do I believe it is garbage….YES. But then again there is a lot of refuse out there. And for a moment, people buy into it. What is a little bit going to hurt? It’s just a quick fix. I think the problem with all of this trash and I guess sin in general is that it really is impatience and a desire for immediate satisfaction/power/control that wins out the day. If I read this book or see this movie or visit this porn site for a little bit of titillation right now then what is it going to hurt? The problem is that this is not life lived out for the other. And ultimately that is a life lived out of false hope.
I know contextually this may seem weird, but Isaiah 40:30-31 reads, “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Those who hope in the Lord. Those who wait upon the Lord. How can the immediate compare with that? I personally want to run and not get weary; to walk and not be faint. But if I am compromising the “best” for the “moment” then I am ultimately compromising my best self. Living in a society of instant gratification has cost us a lot, but maybe if we wait upon God in each moment then we can find ourselves again.
Last night as we were leaving church my four-year-old decided to throw a small fit as we got into the car. I can’t even remember the cause. But when he realized he was upsetting his baby sister he quickly settled down and began to comfort her. I leaned over to my wife and said, “He can be really sweet when he gets past himself.” And that’s when I was hit with some heavenly Father perspective. I am sure that the aforementioned phrase probably is something that often is expressed in the mind of God towards his earthly vessels. “They can really be sweet when they get past themselves.” The problem is, we don’t often get past ourselves in order to be sweet to one another.
We live in a Fast Food society where our demands are met almost instantaneously. We potentially can get anything we want simply by ordering it offline or going down to the local super-center to buy it. Our culture has ingrained in us that ultimately life is all about me and no one else. Fortunately, we are called to be counter-culture. We are called to care for others before ourselves. Philippians 2:4 says, “You should look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others.” It’s a radical concept…but only because the society that gives us value teaches us to value ourselves first.
The joy of watching my children grow up and learn life is invaluable in helping me understand the dynamics of human relationships. But lately I have learned, that they can be really sweet when they get past themselves. And I think the same an be said for us.
Does anyone else have trouble keeping their head above water during this tumultuous season? I often seem to be drowning after Christmas because of all the excess around me. I even saw a television commercial the other day that was praising the fact that this season of the year is often bent towards overspending and ridiculous self-gratification. What happened? I am not so much concerned with the commercialization of Christmas. I am a little more concerned with the fact that the church has co-opted a philosophical stance that is antithetical to the gospel. Let’s see how easy it is to fill in the blank…”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and ___________________.” I know you were able to fill in the blank without even thinking. But is this a blank, that as Christians, we should be concerned with fulfilling.
It’s amazing how easily we have adopted this as a philosophical belief in the church, but I am not sure I ever heard Jesus being concerned with our personal happiness. Maybe there was something about not worrying. Maybe even something about bringing our concerns, cares, needs, wants to him. But I don’t think the following statement points towards the pursuit of one’s own happiness, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” – Mark 8:34. This may be why I have such an issue with a season that has become typified by excess. Our lives’ should be characterized by sacrifice. We should be more concerned about the happiness and well being of others instead of our own. In fact, I believe Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness maybe she be first for others and then ourselves. While I was in South Africa, I came across a great quote from Nelson Mandela. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Maybe we can simply replace free/freedom with Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness in this quote and then co-opting that philosophy might not be so bad. We have life, as long as others have life; We have liberty as long as others have liberty; we pursue happiness as long as it is the pursuit of others’ happiness.