They say Proverbs 31 is a blueprint for womanhood. It’s not. It’s a passage that’s been misinterpreted to make women feel like their best is never good enough. The church should be a refuge from unrealistic expectations — not a purveyor of them. Here’s what I mean …
The Proverbs 31 woman doesn’t exist
I have no business talking about women’s issues. As a forty-something-year-old man, I’m the least qualified person to address womanhood in 21st century America. Why, then, am I jumping headfirst into the deep end of the gender pool?
Because I’m tired of hearing spiritual justifications for the unrealistic expectations that hurt women I care about.
The Proverbs 31 woman is one of those justifications. In many Christian circles, it’s the justification — the passage that is held up as an aspirational goal for young girls and a guidepost for adult women who have “gone astray.”
It’s not coincidental that most Bible translations introduce Proverbs 31 with a made-up subheading like, “The Wife of Noble Character.” You can’t get more morally intimidating than that. But the subheading isn’t the worst of it. The real problem is the passage itself.
At face value, the passage seems to describe biblical standard for womanhood that unreasonable and unattainable. If Proverbs 31 is to be believed, the ideal women should be a(n) …
Savvy small business owner
Weightlifting enthusiast (just the arms)
Teacher of the year
Home-based HR manager
And what does this poor woman get as the reward for her labor? She gets to watch her husband kick back at the city gate with the husbands of other perfect wives.
What a deal.
Let’s stop pretending that Proverbs 31 is pro-woman
Over the years, I’ve heard well-intentioned people interpret this passage literally, as an instruction book for the traditional Christian housewife. More modern interpreters use it to propagate the idea that women can be a Stepford wife to their spouse, a June Cleaver mom to their kids and a Sheryl Sandberg to their employer.
Neither of these interpretations is useful. Or accurate.
I think it would be a different story if the interpreters could see what I’ve seen: women in tears because they feel like they’re failing to live up to the expectations placed on them by this passage and people who peddle the insane idea that anything less than perfection is nothing.
Some of the most talented people I know are women. Lived experience proves that women can excel in whatever roles they choose. Homemaker. Parent. Professional. Pastor. And yes, president.
If you think I’m espousing some medieval notion that woman shouldn’t have careers or can’t have it all, you couldn’t be more wrong. I’m saying that doing it all perfectly shouldn’t be the bar for womanhood.
But unfortunately, the image of womanhood found in Proverbs 31 is reinforced by the media we consume. From the airbrushed images of women painted on the covers of magazines to TV shows with moms who spend their days in the C-suite and their nights in an immaculate house making gingerbread houses with their adorable kids, the expectations we place on women are beyond cruel.
With so many voices telling women they aren’t good enough, shouldn’t their faith community be the one place where they feel accepted for who they are?
Proverbs 31 isn’t about women at all
On Mother’s Day at Caritas Community, we engaged in a frank conversation about Proverbs 31 and the expectations we place on women.
Part of the discussion addressed the elephant in the room — the simple concept that Proverbs 31 isn’t about women at all. In fact, you can make a pretty strong case that Proverbs 31 describes something that is relevant for all of us: divine wisdom.
Throughout the book of Proverbs, the writer uses the metaphor of a woman to refer to divine wisdom. Don’t believe me? Check out Proverbs 1:20-21, 3:13-18, 4:5-6, 7:4, 8:1-2, 9:1-6 and other passages.
If the very idea of this interpretation offends you, too bad. If you’re the kind of person that thinks every word of your King James Bible must be taken literally, please don’t waste your energy sending me an email. You and I are going to disagree about a lot of things and honestly, I don’t have time for pointless arguments.
But whether you see it or not, Proverbs 31 isn’t a blueprint for womanhood — it’s a blueprint for life. From marriage to parenting to the workplace, this passage describes the many activities in which women and men would do well to rely on divine wisdom.
The church should be a refuge from unrealistic expectations
I’m a husband, a father of two daughters and a pastor. Although I’m on the outside of womanhood looking in, I’ve seen the damage unrealistic gender expectations have on women. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ve seen it, too.
The women I know tell me that they don’t need to be patronized by their faith. They just need to know that they’re not living under a microscope. And they need their church or faith community to be a refuge from the unrealistic expectations they face every single day.
The gospel is about freedom and women’s value isn’t found in the things they do (or don’t do). It’s not found in their performance in the bedroom or the boardroom or the anyplace else life takes them. It’s found in the realization that we are all perfectly flawed human beings made in the image and likeness of God.
Why do we decide who we are by the things we do?
There’s a spiritual bliss about doing things for their own sake. But getting there isn’t as easy as it sounds.
When you talk to strangers, there’s a good chance they’ll ask what you do. It happened to me last week at the airport and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s an innocent question that people use to make awkward conversations a little less awful, right?
Because “what do you do” isn’t the real question. The real question they’re asking is, “Who are you?” In our culture, we have a nasty habit of establishing other people’s personal identities based on the way they put food on their tables.
- If you heal sick people, you’re a doctor. [Translation: You’re intelligent, emotionally cold and you have a Mercedes parked in the garage.]
- If you fix broken toilets, you’re a plumber. [Translation: You’re dull, uncultured and drive a pickup truck.]
- If you don’t have a job, you’re a bum. [Translation: You’re lazy, loathsome and if you’re lucky enough to own a car, you’re probably living in it.]
For whatever reason, we’re obsessed with putting the people we meet (and ourselves) into tidy, little boxes and we have no qualms about using shortcuts or stereotypes to do it.
Time after time, we decide who we are based on the things we do.
But is it possible that we’ve mucked up the relationship between doing things and being things at the expense of joy and personal fulfillment?
“I want to sing.”
A while back, I ran across an article that discussed the characteristics of teenagers who succeed in reality shows like The Voice or American Idol. I can’t give you a link to the article because I don’t remember where I saw it, but the point of the piece revolved around the difference between being things and doing things.
Singing ability is obviously an important part of the magic formula for young contestants who compete in musical reality shows. But surprisingly, it’s not the most important trait.
In interviews, researchers found that nearly all of the unsuccessful contestants identified “being a singer” as their lifelong goal.
But what about the most successful contestants? They didn’t want to “be” anything. Instead, they said that their dream, their singular goal in life was simply to sing.
Here’s what that means:
The doers (the kids who just want to sing) outperform the strivers (the kids who want to become singers).
It may sound like a minor distinction, but it’s not. It’s actually at the heart of a debate that has haunted Christianity for centuries.
Jesus and the debate about doing things
In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus drops in for a visit at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. If you’re familiar with the passage, you know where I’m headed.
The dutiful sister, Martha, runs around doing things, while Mary slacks off to spend time with Jesus. When Martha finally unloads on her sister, Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen the better part. He says that all of the activities Martha was “doing” fell short of Mary’s decision to simply “be” in his presence:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
On the surface, it looks like a straightforward piece of scripture. But as early as the third century, we find church leaders coopting the passage in the debate between active ministry (Martha) and contemplative ministry (Mary).
In some cases, early church leaders even used the passage to illustrate the difference between law (which they identified with Martha) and gospel (which they identified with Mary).
Unfortunately, it’s an understanding of the passage that has carried into present day. Over the years, I’ve heard too many sermons extol the virtues of Mary the “be-er” at the expense of poor Martha the “doer.”
In practice, the passage has sadly been used to downplay the importance of ministries that serve the poor and marginalized to free up resources and attention to liturgical ministries that take place within the four walls of the church.
But if you read the verses closely, you’ll find that they don’t specify either the kind of work that Martha was doing or “the better part” that Mary has chosen. In fact, it’s difficult to determine what was really going on — aside from the fact that Mary was focused on Jesus while Martha was distracted by other things.
And that’s a shame, because in the western world, we’ve used this passage and our own natural tendencies to reinforce the wrong things and downplay the sheer bliss that comes from simply doing things.
Sometimes doing is the key to happiness.
What drives young reality show contestants to want to be something rather than wanting to do something? I think a lot of it has to do with fame, fortune and the other trappings we associate with the “singer” label.
But I think it also has something to do with the security that we gain from being things. If we can call ourselves something, then we gain comfort from knowing our place in the world. By attaching labels to others, we gain the security of knowing how we stack up against everyone else.
The problem with the whole thing is that it’s an arms war. There are never any winners or losers. Just a constant struggle to move up the ladder by acquiring new labels and new identities.
It’s an insane process performed by people who are driving themselves beyond the edge of insanity for no good reason.
When we drop the need to be something and choose to be satisfied by the sheer act of doing things, we find that the act itself is the reward.
What you do isn’t important. Singing, serving, writing, loving — they all take you to the same place. They allow you to discover happiness and personal fulfillment outside of titles and labels and achievements.
Which — not coincidentally — were all of the things that Jesus refused to attach to himself when he walked on the planet.
Beverly Cleary and the Need for Free Time
Beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary will turn 100 on April 12. The award winning author is best remembered for her books about “Ramona Quimby,” “Ralph the Mouse,” and “Henry and Beezus.” But at age 100, Beverly Cleary also has a bit to share about life, simplicity and free time.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post Cleary said,
“I think children today have a tough time, because they don’t have the freedom to run around as I did — and they have so many scheduled activities.”
I can relate to her observation. My generation experienced a type of childhood in the 1970’s that was very different than the one my children had after 2000. My friends and I had fewer scheduled activities, fewer lessons, less sports, less technology, and less stuff. But we had more down time, more freedom and more opportunities just to be creative.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a nostalgic rant about how the “good old days” were so much better than today. But it is a reflection on what we lose when we don’t have enough down time. People need simplicity and unstructured time — no matter how old they are.
We were created with a need for free time, and now there is even science to prove it.
The Science of Simplicity
Researcher and educator Kim John Payne conducted a study in which he simplified the lives of children with attention deficit disorder. Within a short period of time, these children became more clinically functional and exhibited increases in academic aptitude — more so than with commonly prescribed drugs like Ritalin.
He says that “too much stuff, too many choices, and too little time” create anxiety and behavioral issues in children. The solution? He argues for a simpler childhood.
Children need unstructured play time to help them become more creative and self-directed. They need to have freedom to make decisions in how they play. They need space and time just to daydream and imagine. They even need time to experience boredom.
And guess what? You do, too.
Free Time (aka Sabbath Rest)
All of creation was designed with a need for Sabbath rest. From the beginning of time, God modeled it for himself and ordained it for all creation. But the concept of Sabbath rest is something that modern society seems to have forgotten.
The feeling of being rushed all the time, anxious about getting things done, and managing to pay for all that stuff we think we need is not healthy for our bodies, our minds or our souls. Instead of more stuff or an expensive vacation, what most of us really need is Sabbath rest. We need to set aside our “to do list” for a while and learn how to just be. We need to let go of what is not necessary and allow life to become more simple.
Imagine a time in your childhood when you were carefree. Some of my fondest childhood memories include a sunny day, sidewalk chalk and a game of hopscotch or a bottle of bubbles.
Pretty simple stuff.
Now imagine what that type of simplicity might look like for you today. For me it probably wouldn’t look too different. Probably just a sunny day, a good book, conversation with family and a bottle of wine instead of the bubbles.
After all these years, who knew that Beverly Cleary would still be teaching me things? Simplicity is a spiritual discipline. But it’s a discipline that leads to the gift of freedom.
My stash of hard-boiled eggs is running low and the jelly beans are starting to taste a little stale. But despite the visible lack of treats and decorations, it’s still Easter at my house.
Why? Because Easter isn’t a day. It’s a season. And it should be a way of life.
The Easter Calendar
It’s no accident that many of us think about Easter as a single day.
For starters, Easter is the central Christian holiday, a term derived the from Old English words for “holy” + “day”. So it’s easy to see why we often use the terms Easter and Easter Sunday interchangeably,
But Easter was never meant to be limited to a 24-hour period. Easter Sunday is actually the starting line for the Easter season — the 50 days from Easter to Pentecost.
Now here’s the real kicker:
The Easter season is universally considered to be the most important season in the life of the Church.
Not Advent. Not Lent. But the two and a half months between Easter Sunday and Pentecost.
Becoming Easter People
It’s ironic (and more than a little sad) that the most important season in the Christian calendar is also the least celebrated. In the coming weeks, we’ll encounter reminders in our worship spaces. Flowers. Banners. Maybe even a small reminder in the bulletin.
But the Easter season isn’t something we actively celebrate. Before the last chocolate bunny disappears from the pantry, we put Easter in our rear view mirrors and move on to other things.
The real tragedy is that we also move on from everything that Easter represents:
The hope of change
The power of redemption
The promise of new life
Easter disrupts our tired routines and challenges the bankrupt pursuits we hide behind. It reminds us that Jesus isn’t an abstract concept or philosophy. He’s a living presence, an active player in the story of our lives.
By living Easter beyond Easter Sunday and even beyond Easter season, we affirm that we have been irreversibly changed by Resurrection.
Where, O death, is thy sting?
Lent is not Easter. They are as different as night and day. Likewise, life before Easter is completely unlike life after Easter. And I think that’s something worth celebrating.
So you and I are called to be Easter people. Not for a day. Not even for a season.
We’re called to be an Easter people for life.
If you’re doing it right, prayer is always political
If you’ve ever seriously entertained prayer as a spiritual discipline, you know that it changes you. It forces you (sometimes kicking and screaming) to broaden your perspective and abandon positions that put your interests ahead of other people and the common good.
And that means prayer — authentic, honest-to-God prayer — is always political. But it’s not about your politics. It’s about God’s.
Richard Rohr’s “Politics of Prayer”
In What the Mystics Know, Franciscan author, Richard Rohr, describes prayer in terms of house-building:
To pray is to build your own house. To pray is to discover that Someone else is within your house. To pray is to recognize that it is not your house at all. To keep praying is to have no house to protect because there is only One House. And that One House is everybody’s home ….
Be careful of such house-builders, for their loyalties will lie in very different directions. They will be very different kinds of citizens, and the state will not so easily depend on their salute. That is the politics of prayer. And that is probably why truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort.
Did you catch what he’s saying?
To pray is to discover that you are at odds with politicians — not in league with them.
“Truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort.” – Richard Rohr
Politics in the Kingdom of God
When you strip it down to the essentials, prayer is an encounter with God. It’s an invitation to step beyond the world of the things you can see and hear and touch, and step into an up-close-and personal experience of Reality itself.
But we don’t come to our encounter with God as a blank slate. When we pray, we bring our experiences, opinions and biases with us. That’s what makes prayer so difficult — we have to consciously set aside our personal baggage and let God change us into better versions of ourselves.
Tribalism is quick. It’s easy. And it’s the total opposite of the kingdom of God.
Politics exploits the fact that human beings are tribal. We gravitate toward groups and labels because they simplify our lives. They help us define our place in the world.
Political affiliations are shortcuts we use to put ourselves and other people into buckets of attitudes and beliefs. If you’re a Republican, you love guns and NASCAR; if you’re a Democrat, you love taxes and Birkenstocks.
But it’s never that simple, is it?
Prayer isn’t about entering the kingdom of God. It’s about letting the kingdom of God enter you.
Prayer breaks down walls and divisions. It forces us to abandon our tribal mentalities and recognize that we’re all part of the same tribe and the same family.
We’re all God’s children and the language of prayer is love: God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for each other.
That’s the politics of prayer because it’s the politics of the kingdom of God.
Maybe I’m naive. Then again, maybe we all are.
Prayer and politics are complicated topics. I get it. And I’m fully aware of the scope of the challenges we’re up against. Poverty. Terrorism. Racism. Climate Change. Economic injustice. The list goes on and on.
I don’t have easy solutions for any of these problems. (Neither do you.)
But here’s what I know for sure: If you’re a person of faith and you find yourself more committed to a politician or a political party than you are to the kingdom of God, then it’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
It’s time to take off your partisan blinders and start seeing the world through God’s eyes. It’s time to pray.
Lectionary This Week: March 20
As we approach Holy Week, the lectionary readings become more and more familiar. We know the story in this week’s gospel passage. Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem. All the people praise him as a king. And then, in less than a week, the crowds — drunk with a mob mentality — clamor to see him crucified.
As you read this week’s passage, consider the voices of the Pharisees and the crowd. What do they tell you about Jesus, power and mob mentality?
The Passage: Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV)
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethpage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Power and the Mob Mentality
Wherever Jesus went, he drew a crowd with a message of coming change. Without political power or wealth, he offered something better to people from every social strata. But his power was different than Rome’s military might or the Pharisee’s temple system. Jesus operated outside of and against the power systems that oppressed the people.
In Luke’s gospel, we see that the people loved Jesus because he gave them hope for a better life. The mob mentality when Jesus entered Jerusalem was one of support and high praise. Jesus had won their hearts — something that threatened the Pharisees’ power and control.
We don’t see it yet in this passage, but we do get a glimpse of how threatened the Pharisees felt. “Order your disciples to stop,” they said. But, Jesus’ power wasn’t rooted in political rhetoric and manipulation. People loved him because of who he was and the hope that he offered. Their collective voice was in unison with all creation, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
So what happened between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the crucifixion? In a span of a few days the mob that praised Jesus called for his crucifixion.
If you read just a few verses beyond this passage you will be reminded that after Jesus entered Jerusalem, he also entered the temple to drive out the vendors and money changers (Luke 19:45-46). This is the Jesus who brings change. And part of that change disrupted the economic and social order of the temple system. The powers — particularly the chief priests, scribes, and leaders — were losing money and control.
Without going into all of the political intrigue, dishonesty, and spies that are revealed in Luke 20, we can safely say that the powers of the day used those mobs to turn on Jesus. And they were successful. Using their money and influence they were able to buy off even one of Jesus’ closest followers. One of the twelve — Judas — to turn people’s hearts and minds against the king.
As we prepare for Holy Week and reflect on Jesus and the mobs, I am reminded of how mob mentality works. We are so easily influenced by the behavior and rhetoric of the powers of our time. During this political season, it seems especially appropriate to remind ourselves to resist the mob mentality and to continue to follow Jesus.
Life Is Boring
Life is boring. We jazz up our Facebook timelines to make it seem like we’re living la vida loca, but back in the real world we spend most of our time waiting for something bigger, better or more exciting to happen.
For example, right now I’m sitting in an airport. I’m surrounded by fellow travelers struggling to fill the minutes and hours before something bigger (hopefully a plane) arrives.
The lady next to me has been picking at a muffin and staring into space for about 20 minutes.
The old man behind her has fallen asleep with his head tilted back and his mouth wide open.
There’s a fifty-something woman playing a seriously intense game of Candy Crush on her iPad.
Unfortunately, the airport isn’t all that different from the way we live our everyday lives.
We endure the steady drone of our daily routines, hoping that at some point, something bigger and better will come along. That our metaphorical ship (or plane) will come in.
Of course, the reality check is that around the globe, there are millions of people facing extreme poverty, violence, serious illness and other challenges. Although it feels like life is boring to us, the kind of boredom we experience is a luxury to them.
But in every person’s life, there are long stretches of time between the peak experiences — spaces between the alreadys and the not yets — that test our resolve to live balanced and spiritually healthy lives.
Facing Your Noonday Demon
If it’s any consolation, boredom isn’t a modern problem. For millennia, people from nearly every culture on earth have shared our sentiment that much of life is boring. In the early church, the desert fathers called the problem of acedia (boredom or listlessness) the “noonday demon.”
Here’s what one of the more notable desert fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, said about it:
The demon of acedia (also called the noonday demon) … makes it seem that the sun barely moves and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside [his room], to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour (3 p.m. — the time when monks ate their only meal of the day).
Then he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that [love] has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred.
This demon drives him along to desire other places where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself.
Did you catch that? Evagrius says that boredom isn’t just a lack of excitement — it’s a threat to our spiritual well being. And he’s right.
When it feels like life is boring, I daydream.
My daydreams usually involve an imaginary future, an alternate reality in which I live in a different place or work a different job or lead a different life altogether. But the more time I waste thinking about these things, the less attainable they feel. Gradually, hopes and dreams give way to hopelessness and even self-pity.
On the occasions when boredom doesn’t lead me to fantasize about the future, I find myself brooding over the past. I relive glory days. I dwell on past decisions. I recite a laundry list of occasions when other people have slighted me, hurt me or taken advantage of me.
But none of it changes anything. None of it is healthy for my soul.
The bitter truth is that when life is boring and I’m fantasizing about the future or dwelling on the past, I’m wasting my most valuable resource: the here and now.
Finding Joy in Present Moments
It took me way too many years to realize that God doesn’t live in the past or the future. He lives in life’s present moments — even when it feels like life is boring.
It’s tempting to see the tedious stretches in our daily routines as things to be endured. I know because I’ve been there. But it’s in those moments that life is lived.
More importantly, it’s in those moments — those present moments — that we can encounter God.
1. Practice stillness.
One of the reasons we struggle with boredom is because we haven’t learned how to practice stillness and solitude. You don’t have to live in a hermitage or a one-room shack in the deep woods, but it’s important to turn off your TV and smartphone to spend a little time in prayer, stillness and solitude each day.
2. Invest in the present.
Living in the present moment is a choice. Instead of dreaming and worrying about the future or reliving and regretting the past, intentionally decide to become more emotionally and mentally invested in the right here, right now.
3. Be more mindful.
By choosing to become more invested in the present, you create opportunities to become more mindful of God’s presence in the world around you. Gradually, mindfulness will transform your daily routines into spiritual encounters, moments in which you experience God in your relationships, in your activities and in creation itself.
Like it or not, life is boring (or at least it can be) and if you’re constantly striving for something bigger and better, your days will be filled with dissatisfaction and disappointment.
But with the right attitude, boredom — the “noonday demon” — can also be an invitation to a richer and more mature spirituality filled with experiences of God in present moments.
Ash Wednesday may or may not be a part of your spiritual tradition. After all, it’s not a required Christian practice. But Ash Wednesday provides an opportunity to take our spiritual temperature and examine how we’re doing on the journey.
Ash Wednesday Themes
Ash Wednesday emphasizes two main themes. First, it’s a time to be be honest about our sinfulness and acknowledge our need for God’s forgiveness. And second, it reminds us of our mortality – ashes to ashes and dust to dust. We have a finite amount of time on earth. But Ash Wednesday points us to the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, because both sin and death have been overcome through his death and resurrection.
Lent and Ash Wednesday aren’t intended to make us feel guilty about eating chocolate or meat. This time of year is meant to strengthen our relationship with God. If Ash Wednesday isn’t a normal practice for you, here are a few reasons why you might want to start making it a part of your spiritual discipline.
Why Observe Ash Wednesday?
- Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter Sunday. The day itself isn’t as important as the Lenten season that follows. Lent is an extended time of self reflection, prayer and sacrifice. It’s a time that is set aside in preparation for Easter.
- Ashes remind us that humility and repentance are part of a normal Christian life. The Old Testament marks times of repentance with sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1, Jonah 3:5-7). While repentance should be a year-round practice for a healthy spiritual life, Ash Wednesday represents a special day for us to turn from our sins.
- Ash Wednesday reminds us to consider the spiritual discipline of simple living. The act of sacrifice or giving up something for a period of time isn’t essential for our salvation, but it does cause us to reflect about what is really necessary for healthy living. The act of giving up chocolate or alcohol or meat isn’t nearly as important as how those actions cause us to reflect on what it means to live more simply. What do we really need versus what do we really want? How can we focus on enough rather than constantly striving to accumulate more?
- The symbol of ashes is an outward sign of an inward reality. Ash Wednesday is one of the few days when our Christian faith truly makes us stand out. Sure, people might mistake that black cross on your forehead for dirt. But it invites us to consider our place in the global church. We have the chance to publicly identify with Christians throughout the world and throughout the centuries.
Whether or not you make it to church to receive ashes, Ash Wednesday still provides an opportunity to consider the seasonality of our faith. There are times of repentance and times of celebration, sorrow and joy, fasting and feasting. Our faith recognizes the full range of our human experience, while pointing us toward an eternal hope in Christ.
As we begin this Lenten season, let’s be open to new experiences with God and unafraid of changes that bring hope.
Sooner or later, friends, coworkers, even family members will disappoint you. You’re going to feel betrayed. Taken advantage of. You can’t avoid it. It’s inevitable. But when people let you down, you have a choice to make: You can either use it as an excuse to become angry and bitter, or you can turn your disappointment into spiritual strength.
What to Do When People Let You Down
Some of life’s disappointments are bigger than others. But over time, even small let-downs and disappointments can make you feel numb. Instead of hoping and dreaming, you stop believing in yourself and other people. Worse yet, you start believing that if the people you trust don’t care about you, then God must not care about you, either.
Life is too short to wallow in self-pity. When people let you down (and someone always will), it’s time to fall back on the fundamentals — nuggets of spiritual wisdom to help you move forward in peace, joy and confidence.
1. Happiness starts with you.
It’s easy to blame other people for making your life miserable. But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own happiness. Real happiness — the kind of happiness that hangs around regardless of your circumstances — comes from knowing who you are rather than letting other people define you.
When people let you down, remember that you’re not alone. Even Jesus felt betrayed by his friends and forsaken by God. By embracing your identity and worth as a child of God, you can reclaim your happiness from haters and critics.
2. Expectations are a slippery slope.
We all place expectations on other people. We expect our spouses to love us, our coworkers to respect us and our friends to be nice to us. And that’s the problem … because even though expectations are part of life, they set us up for heartache and disappointment.
In a letter to a friend, the English poet, Alexander Pope said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he will never be disappointed.” There’s a lot of truth in that. By minimizing the expectations you place on other people, you can prevent disappointment down the road.
3. Pain is real, but temporary.
When people let you down, the pain you feel is real. Unfortunately, there is nothing anyone can say or do to make that pain go away. But no matter how much it hurts, you have to remind yourself that the pain is temporary.
Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Tomorrow is a new day and even though the heartache you’re feeling now won’t instantly disappear, it will get better.
4. You matter more than you know.
Insignificance is an unfortunate side effect of disappointment and betrayal. When people you trust turn their backs on you (or worse yet, stab you in the back), it stirs up feelings of abandonment and isolation. Life as you know it is suddenly turned upside down and you start to wonder whether anyone cares about you.
But the truth is that your life matters to God and to countless other people who depend on you to be a source of love, support and encouragement. By investing time and energy in those people, you find purpose and meaning in your life — and you realize that you aren’t alone after all.
Open Road: 30 Days of Creative Prayer for People Who Are Too Busy to Pray
Maybe 30 days of prayer sounds like a long time. But if I’ve learned anything in more than two decades of full-time and lay ministry, it’s that most worthwhile things begin with prayer and meditation. And over the years, I’ve also learned that stimulating and consistent prayer times are like good hair days — they happen, but sometimes they’re few and far between.
It took a while, but I eventually discovered that it doesn’t have to be the way. Recently, Melissa and I published a book about what we’ve learned in our search to make interesting, creative prayer a part of our everyday lives:
Why do I need 30 days of prayer?
How often do you pray? Probably not as much as you would like to and maybe not even as much as you tell other people you do. For those of us who are trying to live a spiritually grounded lifestyle, prayer provides fuel for the journey.
But when it comes to regular daily prayer, most of us find plenty of reasons and excuses why it’s just not possible:
- We’re too busy to pray.
- Prayer is stale and boring.
- Nothing changes when we pray.
Sound familiar? Too often, prayer can feel pointless and mind-numbing, a waste of time in a daily schedule that’s already filled to overflowing.
We wrote Open Road to give ordinary, everyday people the practical tools they need to make interesting, thought-provoking and spiritually meaningful prayer a regular part of their busy lives.
Open Road walks readers through four, essential aspects of prayer:
- A Road Map: Making Room for God
- On the Road: Starting Conversations
- Gaining Speed: Using Intuition to Hear God’s Voice
- Home: Finding Joy in God’s Presence
Filled with practical tips, Open Road also includes 30 days of prayer exercises that use scripture and other resources as starting points for conversations with God.
We like to think that Open Road isn’t just another book about prayer – it’s a companion for a journey home to God and the first step toward a more spiritually authentic lifestyle.
Available in both print and e-book formats, you can buy Open Road at Amazon.com.
Open Road Workshops
We also offer Open Road: Encountering God in Prayer workshops to provide practical, real-world training to people from a variety of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds. Intended for local churches, our workshops are flexible by design and can be structured to accommodate your church or organization’s unique needs.
For more information, visit our Workshops page.
You need Advent hope.
People need Advent hope. Why? Because the world is a grim and beautiful place. I know that sounds ridiculous (and maybe a little melodramatic), but it’s true. One of the great ironies of life is that the world we live in is filled with some of the most wonderful and painful things you can imagine.
Advent should be a time of joyful anticipation. But while the rest of us are celebrating baking cookies and ticking items off Amazon wish lists, far too many people find themselves anything but joyful. Instead of looking forward to the arrival of the Christ-child, they find themselves wondering …
- Where they’ll find their next meal
- Why the world seems to be against them
- Whether their lives will ever return to some semblance of normal
From refugees in search of a place to call home to individuals stitching together three jobs to make ends meet, they’re searching for a reason to believe that tomorrow will be better than today.
As people of faith, we’re called to stand in solidarity with the hurting and the broken, the poor and the oppressed. We not only need Advent hope ourselves — we’re called to be the midwives who help bring Advent hope into the world.
Merton’s “Uninvited Christ”
Maybe you’ve noticed that we celebrate a sanitized version of Jesus during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Somehow we find a way to reduce the muck and mire of the manger to smiling figurines and a cherubic child wrapped in impossibly white linens.
But beneath our whitewashed nativity, there is a larger truth that desperately wants to be told. It’s a truth I was reminded of recently, when a friend shared a quote from Thomas Merton:
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited.
But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
— Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable
During Advent, we wait for the Christ who came into the world for all of us. But if we’re not careful, we lose sight of the fact that Immanuel — God with us — came into the world as an outcast to be present in a special way to those who have been rejected and forgotten. To those for whom there is no room.
So, as we progress through Advent, count your blessings and celebrate the joys of the season. But in your thoughts and actions, your words and opinions, bring Advent hope into the world by standing in solidarity with Christ and the people for whom there is no room.
Traditional desks jobs are slowly dying as a new generation of workers discovers the benefits of telecommuting. In addition to workplace advantages, there are also several spiritual benefits of telecommuting — benefits that help you find more meaning, balance and purpose in your life.
The Spiritual Benefits of Telecommuting
A recent study by IT solutions and services provider, Softchoice, showed that 70 percent of employees in the U.S. would quit their current job to work at a company that allows them to work outside of the office more frequently.
As someone who works remotely full-time, I’ve seen the benefits of telecommuting firsthand. Are there challenges? You bet. Barking dogs, telemarketers and a lack of human interaction come with the territory. But at the end of the day, I can’t imagine ever working in a typical office environment forty hours a week.
For me, remote work has also become spiritually advantageous. Here are just a few of the big picture spiritual benefits of telecommuting I’ve experienced over the past five or six years:
#1: Flexible work days make space for spiritual routines.
The Softchoice study found that 63% of Americans prefer a flexible eight-hour workday, while 37% would rather work eight straight hours. The ability to exercise ownership over your work schedule (within limits) creates opportunities to incorporate meditation, prayer, nature breaks and other spiritual practices into your daily routine.
Since I started working from home, I no longer have to waste time around the water cooler during work breaks. Instead, I can take a quick walk around the neighborhood, meditate over a short creative prayer exercise and do other things that nourish my soul.
#2: Working from home leads to a greater sense of accomplishment.
Offices are full of distractions and interruptions. That’s why two out of three workers say they’re more productive when they work from home. A good day’s work gives your life dignity and purpose, while a nonproductive day at the office can leave you feeling frustrated and discouraged.
Some days are more productive than others. It’s just the nature of work. But I’ve found that one of the benefits of telecommuting is that the number of highly productive days I experience significantly outnumbers the nonproductive ones. And I get satisfaction from feeling like the time I’m investing in my job actually produces a positive result.
#3: Remote work helps you achieve a better work-life balance.
Three out of four (75%) U.S. workers say that they’re able to keep more personal and social commitments when they are permitted to work anytime, anywhere. Does your kid have a nasty cough? Not a problem. Instead of taking a sick day or sending a sick kid to school, you can take him to the doctor and make up the time at the end of your work day.
Human beings were created to care for each other. When you were just a twinkle in God’s eye, you were hard-wired to drop everything when someone you love is in need. Although there are limits, most telecommuting scenarios allow you to shift priorities to achieve a more satisfying work-life balance.
Working from home isn’t all upside. For example, remote work routines and mobile office technologies sometimes lead people to perform work-related tasks on vacation days, sick days and holidays.
But in my experience, the spiritual benefits of telecommuting outweigh the challenges. Whether you work from home full-time or just a few hours a week, remote work can provide the space and balance you need to become an authentic human being rather than just another cog in the corporate machine.
Halloween’s over. We’ve turned back the clocks and winter is knocking at the door. But yesterday was All Saints’ Day, the day we celebrate the known and unknown saints that came before us. It’s also the day that we remember we’re all saints in the making.
Remembering the Saints in Our Midst
All Saints Day is about remembering the people who provided us with examples of holy living. Many of us are familiar with canonized saints like St. Francis, St. Augustine, St. Patrick, St. Anne, etc. But All Saints Day is set aside to honor all saints, both known and unknown.
In other words, All Saints Day is also about remembering lesser-known Christians (or saints) who have impacted our lives and taught us about holy living.
For example, I remember my grandfather as a saint because he taught me about self-sacrifice and generosity. Raised in poverty, he knew what it was like to be a humiliated child with holes in the bottoms of his shoes. He was never a rich man, but he made sure that all of his grandchildren had new school shoes each fall and Easter shoes in the spring.
“Saint Bob” understood the heart of a child and put aside his own needs to be as generous as he could be. Even on his death bed, he didn’t talk about himself, but made conversation with me about my time at college. He even asked if I needed anything. His care and concern for others — particularly children — was an example of holy living.
We Are All Saints in the Making
It’s been said that not all saints started out well, but they ended well. So maybe there is hope for us yet — we can all be saints in the making.
We’re not perfect. But the saints that came before us weren’t perfect, either. They acknowledged that they were flawed and allowed God’s divine grace to change them and mold them into new creations.
Hebrews 11 provides a litany of Old Testament saints from Abraham to Rahab who eventually flourished and succeeded because they “lived by faith.” None of them started well. They were murders, liars, adulterers and prostitutes.
They had real problems. But they were also faith-filled people who pursued God despite their mistakes and shortcomings. They didn’t start well, but they ended well and Hebrews 12:1-2 refers to them as examples of holy living. Their lives encourage us to persevere in faith and service.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Most of us will never be canonized. And like the saints that came before us we all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes. But as people of faith, there’s hope that we can still end well and be saintly examples of holy living to future generations.
“This above all else, to thine own self be true.”
This famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be found on inspirational signs and jewelry, or tattooed in ornate script on twenty-something bodies. At face value, it seems like good advice. We should live with integrity, be ourselves and strive for authenticity.
Fair warning: You may not like what I’m about to say. You might even think I’m being a bit ungracious. But “being true to yourself” often takes a hard turn towards narcissism and selfishness. In some cases, being true to yourself can even be at odds with a healthy Christian life. Here’s what I mean …
Being True to Yourself and Christianity
The idea of “being true to yourself” is frequently used to justify all kinds of decisions that hurt other people. I’ve seen people leave their spouses or quit jobs that support their children under the excuse of “being true to yourself.”
In these cases, personal desires become idols that damage relationships with family and friends. The rationale of “being true to yourself” can even make it hard to follow God because you can’t have two masters — God and yourself.
Sometimes circumstances (e.g., abuse) force us to make difficult decisions. I get that. But I also know that we can convince ourselves that we have to do something when in fact, there’s no threat to ourselves or others. It’s really something we want to do — and we do it at other people’s expense.
The Apostle Paul warns against letting self interest guide our thoughts and actions.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … (Philippians 2:3-5)
Rather than living our lives based on a wishy-washy fantasy of being true to yourself, we’re called to being authentic Jesus followers who set aside our own desires for the good of others. We aren’t called to be true to ourselves as much as we are called to be be authentic Christians, people who discover our identities in relation to the Divine.
Authentic Christians admit their failures.
Authentic Christians are honest with themselves and others. When they hurt others they accept responsibility for their words or actions — they don’t rationalize or explain failures away. They easily say they are sorry — and mean it — recognizing that repentance is important to maintaining healthy relationships with family, friends and God.
Authentic Christians are other-oriented
Jesus’ life and ministry was consistently other-oriented. Healing, feeding, comforting, teaching and caring for other people was his life’s work, and ultimately his death was also in service to others. Authentic Christians follow Jesus’ example by living lives that are other-oriented, putting aside their own selfish desires in service to others.
Authentic Christians put their faith in action.
Authentic Christians back up their words with action. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and do the work that needs to be done. Caring for the sick, the poor, prisoners — they don’t just talk about it, they do it. Rather than standing back and saying that someone should do something, they recognize that “someone” could be them.
Authentic Christians seek unity.
Authentic Christians look for ways that the body of Christ can be unified and strengthened. They don’t let political or denominational labels define them or prevent them from crossing borders to work with other Christians. They are defined by Christ and his love for all people. They are peacemakers who foster understanding, avoiding gossip and judgement in favor of building bridges instead.
Ultimately, being an authentic Christian requires being true to Christ and his calling rather than being true to yourself. Authentic Christianity is not easy — it requires discipline and self-sacrifice. But the rewards of authentic Christianity are far greater than the rewards of being true to yourself. As a unified body of authentic Christians we have the potential to bless others and to change the world.
The world loves Pope Francis. But there a significant number of Americans (and Christians) who still view him with skepticism, especially when it comes to his views on climate change, income equality and other social concerns.
So what’s really going on? Is Francis an intentionally divisive figure? Or is the problem that we’re looking at him completely wrong?
Pope Francis by the Numbers
Francis enjoys a wave of popularity in the U.S. According to the latest Bloomberg poll numbers, Francis’ favorability rating among all Americans is 64 percent — higher than all U.S. political leaders and double the favorability rating of Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump.
And his popularity isn’t limited to Catholicism. Although 86 percent of Catholics view Francis favorably, so do 55 percent of evangelicals and 58 percent of people who have no religion at all.
But in general, the public is less supportive of Francis’ issues. Here’s what Americans say when asked whether Francis is taking the Church in the right direction on the following social justice concerns:
- Climate Change. In the U.S. (but not necessarily around the world), Francis fares most poorly on climate change. Only a third (33%) think he’s guiding the Church in the right direction on climate change compared to 56 percent who say he’s headed in a bad direction and 11 percent who have no opinion.
- Welcoming Immigrants. The majority of Americans (70%) believe Francis is taking the Church in the right direction when he urges nations to be more welcoming of immigrants.
- Economic Inequality. Support for Francis’ rallying cry of greater economic and income equality is mixed. Less than half (48%) think he’s taking the Church in the right direction on issues of economic justice. Although fewer (37%) think he’s taking the Church in the wrong direction, 14 percent simply aren’t sure.
It’s important to note that these aren’t the only issues that are important to the Pope. He’s commented on a wide range of moral and religious issues. But it’s his views on social justice issues that are particularly divisive.
Understanding Pope Francis
In Francis’ mind, climate change and immigration and economic inequality aren’t separate issues. They’re interconnected. And to understand where Francis is coming from, it’s critical to understand a few basic facts about the man himself.
#1: He’s a friend of God.
Like him or not, there’s no denying the fact that Francis is a friend of God. He’s spent nearly his entire life in service to God, and by all accounts his relationship with Christ is the driving force behind everything he does. Unlike other public figures, he isn’t motivated by the accumulation of wealth and I don’t think he cares much about popularity polls. Above all else, he cares about being true to his calling and his views are rooted in his spirituality.
#2: He lives the gospel.
One of the things that separates Francis from all-too-many public and religious figures is that he’s authentic — he lives the gospel he preaches. Humility. Simplicity. He’s gone out of his way to eschew the trappings of his office in favor of more modest living conditions. Time and time again, we’ve seen him pay personal attention to the sick, the homeless and other people on the margins of our world. In my book, his willingness to live the gospel gives his message more credibility than the words of those who criticize his views from boardrooms and bully pulpits.
#3: He is a pastor.
Too often, Francis’ role as a pastor gets lost in the conversation. He doesn’t see himself as a bureaucrat, but as a pastor to the Church and the world. So, when Francis speaks about climate change or income inequality or immigration, he’s not talking as a critic or a politician, but as a pastor who is sincerely concerned about the impact these issues have on the people in his flock, i.e., the entire world.
Finally, it’s critical to understand that Francis didn’t invent his stands on social justice issues out of thin air. From protecting the environment and combating climate change to encouraging nations to be more welcoming to immigrants and fighting for economic equality, Francis is reaffirming basic, historical Christian theology.
He’s preaching the gospel.
I don’t think I’m the kind of person that attracts misery (at least I hope not). But somehow, I keep seeing people who are both: (1) self-proclaimed followers of Jesus and (2) horribly and alarmingly miserable. Where did all of these miserable Christians come from? And whatever happened to Christian joy?
In my experience, the miserable Christians I encounter generally fall into two camps.
The first camp are people who go through the motions of faith (or pretend to), but don’t seem very excited about it. They’re apathetic about their spirituality and they’re miserable. Maybe it’s because their lifeless version of faith feels like having a Ferrari parked in the garage collecting dust. Or maybe it’s because they think Jesus is just a golden ticket to the ever-after. Whatever the reason, it’s sad seeing them plod through their faith like it’s something to be endured.
The second camp of miserable Christians is more disturbing. These folks aren’t apathetic at all. Instead, they’re aggressive, bitter and angry. Somewhere along the way, politics or ideology or God-knows-what-else-has contaminated their faith. From Bible-thumping moralists to radical, faith-based activists, these are the people who see their faith not as a source of hope and inspiration, but as a cudgel that they can use to beat up anyone and everyone who disagrees with them.
When I see the misery their faith inflicts on these people (or maybe it’s the misery these people inflict on their faith), it really does make me wonder whatever happened to the idea of Christian joy?
Stephen Colbert on Christian Joy
You’ve probably heard of Stephen Colbert. After a wildly successful tenure at Comedy Central, Colbert succeeded Letterman as host of The Late Show. He has one of the sharpest comedic minds on the planet and he’s succeeded in doing something that a lot of comedians never quite pull off – he pokes fun at people, but is still regarded as an all-around nice guy.
What you might not know about Colbert is that he’s also a deeply committed Christian. A lifelong Catholic, he makes no effort to hide the fact that he’s in the fold. In fact, until a few months ago, he regularly taught a catechism class at his church.
A recent Daily Beast report described an interview that took place between Colbert and Father Thomas Rosica, media attache to the Holy See press office. The interview is remarkable for a lot of reasons. But in Father Rosica’s words, it “shows that a modern (Christian) is someone who is fundamentally with joy, with truth, and with a sense of history.”
Did you catch that? A modern Christian is someone who is fundamentally with joy. Here are a few excerpts from the interview so you can hear Colbert’s take on Christian joy for yourself:
“I think, you know, one of the reasons why and listen, I’m a wealthy man, don’t get me wrong, but one of the reasons why we don’t help the poor, I think is that we think if we give it to them, we won’t have anything, you know, so again it’s fear that keeps you from experiencing the joy of helping other people.”
The “joy of helping other people”? It’s a novel concept, I know. But helping others is a big part of what it means to experience Christian joy on a daily basis.
When it comes to Pope Francis, Colbert is clearly a fan:
“Many of the things that the Pope has said have been seen as, I think probably in some ways, by people outside of the Church … as a sort of bomb-throwing, you know. (But) … to be a fool for Christ is to love …”
In the apostle Paul’s world, foolishness for Christ meant rejecting social conventions and priorities to joyfully embrace Jesus’ alternative way of life – the way of love. So, for Colbert, love is the epicenter of the foolishness and joy of the gospel.
“The Church is a flawed and human institution, for whom I always have hope. And I have no doubt that he (Pope Francis) is far from a perfect man, but he gives me hope that the message of joy that he wants to spread right now can be seen as not revolutionary, but a manifestation of something that was always there.”
Translation: Christian joy isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. It’s always been a part of Christianity and if you’re following Jesus without joy, you’re doing it wrong.
Finding Christian Joy
Let’s get something straight: Christian joy isn’t about living in a constant state of euphoria. If you’re following Jesus because you want to live every minute of every day in religious ecstasy, stop now. That’s not what Christian joy is all about and it’s only a matter of time before you feel disappointed, angry and bitter.
Instead (and this is what Colbert gets about a life of faith), Christian joy is about having a sense of hope in the midst of hopelessness and peace in the midst of tragedy — without downplaying the gravity of suffering.
More than anything else, joy is about putting love and compassion for your fellow human beings above the need to be right.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? If you’re lacking in the joy department, here are a few quick tips to help you get back on track:
Get to Know Jesus
It’s impossible to truly know Jesus and not have joy. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. If you don’t feel a sense of joy in your life, then maybe it’s time to put aside the Jesus you think you know and get acquainted with the Jesus described in the gospels — the Jesus of compassion, mercy and hope who came to speak words of life and healing to the world.
Stop Judging, Start Loving
Fingerpointing is a joy killer. If you’re expending your spiritual energy looking for faults in other Christians and people in the world at large, there’s no room in your soul for joy. Anger and judgmentalism are byproducts of fear (fear of difference, fear of not having enough, etc.). By naming your fear and letting it go, it becomes possible to love like Jesus loves — and that’s the fast track to experiencing joy.
Learn to Trust
There are very few things that you can actually control in life. Yet many of us live like we’re in control of everything. Like cosmic puppet masters, we pull this string and that string, believing that we have the power (and responsibility) to keep our own little worlds on track. Learning to trust God means giving up the illusion of control. Trust is at the heart of joyful living because no matter what happens, we know that God is with us and we’re not alone.
Christian joy is magnetic. If people actively avoid you, it’s not a sign that you’re fighting the good spiritual fight — it’s a sign that your faith journey has wandered off course. When you have Christian joy, people will notice there’s something different about you and they’ll want to be around you.
Life is hard — too hard to live without joy. So do yourself (and everyone around you) a favor. Get serious about finding Christian joy and start living the life you were created to live.
We all have reasons to quit the Church. But I can’t quit the Church because when it’s being true to itself, the Church does something better than any other institution on earth. It inspires us.
There was a baptism at church this Sunday.
The baptizee was a baby girl and like most baptizees, she brought an entourage of friends and family members.
It’s fair to say that a high percentage of the people in baptismal entourages haven’t been in church for a while. That’s just an observation, not a judgment. Most entourages aren’t sure when to stand up and sit down, and they mumble through the prayers and responses, if they try to participate in them at all.
On Sunday, I was seated a few pews away from a man and a woman who were clearly part of the entourage. A thirty-something couple decked out in their Sunday best, they spent the first 20 minutes of the service whispering back and forth, giggling in quiet tones like people who were passing time and wishing they were somewhere else.
If these thirty-somethings had ever bought into the idea of religion, they weren’t buying into it now. At some point, they quit the Church and were simply enduring an hour for the sake of their friends or family members.
But then something interesting happened …
Last Sunday also happened to be Global Solidarity Sunday. We frequently engage with social justice issues at our church. But on Global Solidarity Sunday, the moral and spiritual imperative of standing with the world’s least privileged takes center stage:
- During the homily, the priest talked about what it means when Jesus says he is the Bread of Life. He reminded us that breaking bread at table transcends boundaries and cultures. From South America to Europe to Africa, people show hospitality by sharing bread. When we consume bread at Eucharist, we are nourished and united by the living Christ
- After the homily, the Global Solidarity team spoke about the work our church has done in El Salvador, helping a community that is still struggling to recover from the bloodshed of the ’90s. Our church (which really represents the Church, big “C”) has built hurricane-proof homes, provided livestock and helped this village achieve dozens of other things that seemed impossible. The next project on the agenda is to build a village school so the kids won’t have to walk miles through dangerous territory to receive an education.
- During the congregational prayer, we prayed for the people in our parish. But most of our prayers were reserved for things outside of the parish. We stood before God on behalf of the poor in El Salvador, in our city and around the globe. We prayed for a world and a Church where the dignity and gifts of women are valued the same as men. With one voice, we asked God to help us make the world a better place.
As the hour progressed, my thirty-somethings checked back into the service. Instead of whispering back and forth, they listened and engaged with the message. If I had to describe what happened, I’d say they were enthralled by the magic that happens when the body of Christ becomes the Body of Christ. For the remainder of the Mass — from the homily to the Eucharist to the closing prayer — the Church had their attention.
That’s why I can’t quit the Church.
I have plenty of reasons to quit the Church. As a former pastor, I’ve seen the Church at its best. But I’ve also seen the Church at its worst, when religious and political ideologies drown out Jesus’ meta-narrative of grace, love and respect.
I’m sure you have reasons to quit the Church, too.
But last Sunday was a great example of why I can’t quit the Church. Maybe my thirty-somethings expected the priest to lay them on a guilt trip. Or maybe they expected an assembly of navel-gazers desperately trying to protect their traditions and their real estate.
They didn’t find either of those things. Instead, they found something that inspired them.
There’s a sense of Oneness about God. It’s a Oneness that we all crave as we struggle to make our way in a fractured world. When the Church stands in solidarity with the poor and marginalized (and in ways that deliver no apparent benefit to itself or its members) it gains authenticity and credibility.
But more importantly …
When the Body of Christ casts its gaze outward and lives in solidarity with the oppressed, the Church reflects God’s Oneness and becomes a beacon of life for people living fragmented lives.
That’s inspiring. That’s magical. And it’s something no other institution on earth can do. Not government. Not corporations. Not the media.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m trying too hard and putting words into my thirty-somethings’ mouths. But on Sunday, I think they looked at a broken Church and saw something different. They saw the reflection of a merciful and compassionate God who, against all odds, is still madly in love with the world.
And when we see something like that, why would any of us want to quit the Church?
What do former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Taylor Swift, Hulk Hogan, Meek Mill and Twitter have in common? Last week, they all made headlines because they apologized. Just another news cycle in an easily offended society.
On any given day in America, someone makes headlines by apologizing. Apologies and forgiveness are fine and spiritually necessary things. But most of these public apologies aren’t sincere — they’re just PR stunts designed to save face for people and organizations that have done incredibly stupid things.
Our Easily Offended Culture
Public relations stunts aside, the growing wave of public apologies is a symptom of a culture filled with easily offended people:
In a world that encourages us to outdo and outperform the competition (i.e., everyone else), our ego drives us to defend our status at all costs and makes us hyper-sensitive to slights and offenses — even when we know the offense is relatively minor.
Ironically, for a nation that touts its origin in the ideals of freedom and liberty, we’re quickly becoming a nation of captives — captives who are trapped by the need to defend ourselves from feeling angered and annoyed.
To be truly free, we’ll need to conquer our egos and embrace the responsibilities our freedom brings.
The Problem with Being Easily Offended
There’s a big difference between being easily offended and being outspoken about legitimate social justice issues.
For example, racial slurs, discrimination and symbols of oppression (yes, I’m talking about the Confederate flag) should elicit a quick response from anyone and everyone with enough guts to claim to follow the Jesus described in the gospels.
But when we become easily offended by lesser things, it desensitizes us to the legitimate injustices that exist in the world.
When everyone is outraged all the time, the noise of it all drowns out the cries for justice from the poor, the marginalized and the truly oppressed.
In 2 Corinthians 10, the apostle Paul says,
I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
By choosing to ignore the mad impulses of our ego and its insatiable appetite for being bigger and better than others, we become immune to insults, put-downs, slights and offenses. We allow God to turn weakness into strength and instead of being easily offended, we become nearly impossible to offend.
More importantly, by starving our egos of oxygen, we quiet the noise and it becomes easier to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, urging us to stand up and speak out on behalf of others — especially those who are least able to speak for themselves.
Forgiveness used to be a virtue. Now it’s a sign of weakness. What happens when people remember the forgotten power of forgiveness?
Forgiveness is never easy.
At some point in my childhood, my mom pulled me aside and told me that I needed to forgive one of my brothers who had just hit me or broke my toy or done something else that, at the time, seemed completely egregious.
Maybe you can relate.
Over the years, the seriousness of the things I’ve needed to forgive has gone way beyond broken toys. And I’ve learned that forgiveness is never easy — it wasn’t easy as a kid and it isn’t easy now.
Whatever happened to forgiveness?
Last weekend, 48 people were shot in Chicago. That’s not a typo. Forty-eight people were gunned down and eight died — including Amari Brown, a seven-year-old boy who was hit by a bullet intended for his father, a ranking member of a Chicago gang.
Chicago is murder central in the U.S. In Amari’s case (and many others), shootings are gang retaliations. Sometimes not even funerals are safe.
Charles Childs, president of the A.A. Rayner & Sons funeral home in Chicago, told NBC News that small things can cause funerals to take a violent turn:
“It could be something so minor, like somebody stepping on somebody’s foot or not saying hello or being asked to take their hat off.”
The cycle of retribution that fuels the murder rate in Chicago isn’t limited to gangs or even Chicago. In America, there is an epidemic of retribution, revenge and retaliation that cuts across every layer of society:
- We idolize movie characters that exact revenge when they experience a loss or defeat.
- We use social media to talk trash about people who have wronged us.
- We cheer when criminals are sentenced to death.
- We talk about getting even like it’s a virtue, rather than a character flaw.
I know … sometimes forgiveness is complicated. But my point is that somewhere along the way our society has forgotten about the power of forgiveness.
We need to rediscover the power of forgiveness.
Here’s the thing about forgiveness: it’s powerful. When we choose to forgive (because forgiveness is always a choice, not a feeling), we introduce something beautiful and sublime into dark and broken places.
In God’s world, forgiving and being forgiven are two sides of the same coin. But as important as forgiveness is for our spiritual well being, the power of forgiveness goes beyond personal spirituality.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel — it’s a defining feature of Jesus’s alternative way and his ability to overcome the evils of this world with love.
When people choose the power of forgiveness — even when it means forgiving unforgivable things — it creates an atmosphere for social transformation.
For example, church members’ willingness to forgive has been credited with preventing violence and beginning the healing process in the wake of the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston. A similar phenomenon occurred in 2006 when the Amish community publicly forgave the gunman in the Amish school shooting.
The members of Emanuel AME understand that forgiveness isn’t really about the shooter — it’s about them.
The power of forgiveness heals us and by extension, our communities.
The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff was one of my classmates in the Doctor of Ministry program at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. Following the death of Rev. Clementa Pinckney in the Charleston shooting, he was named interim pastor at Emanuel AME. Speaking on the power of forgiveness, Norvel told the Huffington Post:
“We’re not in control of those who may commit evil acts, but we are in control of how we respond to it.”
Maybe that’s the most important lesson the power of forgiveness teaches us. When we’re hurt or offended or victimized by evil, we have a fundamental need to regain control of our lives.
Retaliation is a form of control. But forgiveness is control perfected because it’s a divine, beautiful response to the worst the world has to offer.
And when we choose to regain control by embracing the power of forgiveness, we not only allow God to heal us …
We heal the world.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers … As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
– John 15:5-8 NRSV
I’m a terrible gardener. In my house, there’s a general absence of house plants. It’s not that I don’t try, but I just seem to have a brown thumb. I either overwater the plants or underwater them, give them too much light or too little.
I guess it’s a good thing I’m not the Divine Gardener.
Lessons from the Vineyard
In this passage from the gospel of John, Jesus gives his disciples at least three lessons from the vineyard — practical advice about how to live as productive, faithful Christians.
1. There are no lone vines in Christian community.
In Hebrew scripture, Israel is often referred to as the “vine.” But in John, Jesus is the “true vine,” God is the Gardener and we are the branches that should bear fruit. The relationship and interdependence between God, Jesus and Christian disciples is established.
One of the most important lessons from the vineyard is that there can be no free-standing individuals in this community of believers. A branch can’t live or bear fruit without the life-flow that comes from Christ — the vine — in a community of other branches. As disciples of Christ we give up our individualism to become part of a whole and healthy plant. And we don’t get to decide which other branches are connected to the vine. That’s the work of the Divine Gardener.
Connection to Christ — in community — is a necessary part of the normal Christian life. We abide in Christ and he abides in us.
2. God’s care of the community requires pruning.
The Divine Gardener needs to cut away the things that hinder our growth and the health of the community. God prunes the parts that prevent us from bearing good fruit. Things like anger, selfishness, pride, envy, gossip, greed and complaining.
The list could go on. But the important thing is these unhealthy leaves need to be cut away for our own sake and for the sake of the whole plant — the community. They drain our life and divert our energy. With these diseased parts cut away, we are prepared to become healthy and productive branches that “bear good fruit.”
Tempted to look around and compare your fruit with another branch? Don’t be. It’s not up to you to determine which branches are bearing fruit and which aren’t. Again, that’s the work of the Divine Gardener.
3. We should “bear good fruit.”
What does Jesus mean when he talks about “good fruit” in his lessons from the vineyard?
In Hebrew Scriptures, the imagery of bearing fruit typically refers to the community’s faithfulness. For instance in Psalm 1 it speaks of the faithful who keep God’s commandments. They are described as “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.”
However, in the context of John “bearing fruit” is not only about faithfulness to the commandments. It also expresses doing works of love. Love is the mark of Christ’s disciples.
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
Above all else, the lessons from the vineyard are about remaining faithful to the life of discipleship. Abide in the vine of Christ, loving one another, and bearing much fruit.