Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I Am Absent (Slice)

"Gallery statistics report that the average time a person spends looking at a particular work of art is three seconds. To those who spend their lives caring for the great art museums of the world, I imagine this is a disheartening sight to behold day after day. It would have been interesting to hear the thoughts of the St. Petersburg curators who watched as Henri Nouwen sat before Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son for more than four hours.

I wonder how often I am more like the three-second viewer than a captivated Nouwen, moving through every sight of the day with my eyes barely open. How often might I be surrounded by the presence of God, but unaware and unseeing—missing, in my absence, the bigger picture? One of my favorite poems begins with the lines, "Lord, not you, it is I who am absent."(1)

The parable of the prodigal son is typically understood as a story that speaks to those who feel they have wandered away from God in belief or obedience. Or it is perhaps a story we apply to a specific time in our lives—a momentous return to faith, a homecoming back to the church, a particular event that caused us to remember God's mercy personally and powerfully. The phrase "prodigal son" is in fact so well known that even void of its spiritual context it is employed to suggest a return to rightness after a time of foolishness. It is a parable that at one time or another describes many of us. Perhaps it is also a parable that describes us daily. In the daily struggle to see, the constant battle to be present and conscious of the presence of God in this place, we all come and go like prodigals.

The parable tells us that the wayward child had a plan for returning to his father's house: he would confess his sin against heaven and against his father, and then he would ask to be treated as one of the hired servants. He would work his way back into his father's life. But the father doesn't even give him a chance to fully present the offer. Upon seeing his son, he says to his slaves, "'Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"(2) With every symbol of restoration, the father who was waiting embraces the son who was lost. 

Gripped by the intensity of the massive painting before him, Henri Nouwen found himself becoming "more and more part of the story that Jesus once told and Rembrandt once painted." Yet in Rembrandt's painting we do not find the father eagerly rushing out to greet his wayward son as it is described in the Gospel of Luke. Rather, viewers find stillness; we find the parable's characters at rest. Rembrandt slows flickering minds to the scene that captures a thousand words for a daily walk in faith: "Lord, not you, it is I who am absent." In this scene, the son has returned, and he is kneeling before his father in his ragged shoes and torn clothes exactly as he is: the one who insisted upon defining himself apart from his father, the one who was absent. In pursuit of life beyond his father, the child lost sight of life itself.

In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus bids us to slow down and be present, to taste and see, to be still and know: the Father is near. God is here, though we are absent. The Father waits, though we put off Him off. God grieves over our wandering hearts and minds, moving in grace to embrace those who long to see. God is a God who runs to greet his wavering child, and it is a sight to behold always."

--Jill Carattini

(1) Denise Levertov, "Flickering Mind," The Stream and the Sapphire (New York: New Directions, 1997), 15.
(2) Luke 15:22-25.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sibling Rivalry (Colossus and Magik in A v X)

As you probably know, Spider-Man had his butt handed to him by Colossus as part of the corruption brought by the Phoenix and Avengers Vs. X-Men. What I neglected to mention before was Spider-Man's comment which spared him the time needed for the rest of the Avengers to come back to save him and caused a rupture in Magik and Colossus' sibling relationship:

"All this between brother and sister
is just so... *cough*
so unseemly.

You guys... gotta learn
to get along.

After all,
you both know
what would happen to
all that power if one of you
was to fall, right?

I'm sure
neither of you
wants to see that."

Yeah, they turned on each other in an instant.

The Phoenix which gave them power also corrupted them with the will to gain even more power. These two one-time-heroes gave in to the temptation that even more power offered. By defeating someone else with the power of the Phoenix, their Phoenix power was to become even stronger. Too bad their story ends with a double K.O., forcing them both to lose the Phoenix force.

This story bears a hint of what Cain and Able went through. Although they might not have been super-powered or possessed by an alien storm, they were suffering from the affects of sin that came from the still-fresh memory of the Fall in their parents' minds. Instead of knowing love and cherishing one another as brothers, Cain became jealous of Able. The greatest power and honor in their lives was to have God's blessing, to know Him to be on their side. When Cain lost this, instead of trying harder or making a better sacrifice (selling some of his fruits for a choice lamb), his sin-tainted mind killed Able. He saw Able as his competition for God's love and took the seemingly easy way out, taking out the competition.

Cain should have known God's love to be limitless. He could have realized that both him and Able were able to have the Lord's blessing. The sin, now deeply tainting our humanity, led Cain to forget how omnipotent the creator of the universe was/is/ever shall be.

This led to a double loss, just like Magik and Colossus'. Able was murdered, losing his earthly life. And, Cain lost the life he knew. He lost his livelihood, farming, and his home.

The Fall put a nearly irreconcilable gap between God and humanity. Even Cain, the son of the first man created in God's image, had lost his way. Sin has found us and tortured us into living unrighteous lives.

Historically, Jesus came a while after Cain's life. But, it still applies, Christ (God incarnate) offered himself up to reconcile all of creation. He took our fallen lives and lifted us back up in redemption. Faith in this and the trust that God will send a savior (Gen. 3:15) given by the Spirit is enough to save even others like Cain.

But, what can we learn from this? We are fallen. And, we don't deserve God's gifts to us. But, we can also learn that we were meant to love one another, not to hate... not to murder...

"Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liableto judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."

Although, like Cain and Able, we should long to be in God's good graces and receive his blessing. But, if there is something hurting our relationship with others... a thorn in our side that causes unhealable corrosion between friends... we must face it before we do anything else. Otherwise, the sin will fester and we may face a double K.O., a loss of faith, or another type of "KABOOM."

Gladly, we don't need to worry about who gives the best sacrifice because Christ has already sacrificed it all for us. The quote above is in red, not to symbolize the colors on his costume (like Spider-Man's), but to remind us of the blood He shed for us. It would seem that what we have done to Him, we killed Him, would have torn us apart worse than any other earthly relationship. Yet, he reconciled with us (even before we knew we hurt him) and he constantly forgives us. Now, he sends his power, the Gospel, along with the Holy Spirit to strengthen us. Through him we have become more powerful than any sin or other power could have made us. Not by our own doing, but by what Christ has done and continues to do through us.

We may still fail.
We fall.
We forget to forgive,
and argue with our brothers and sisters.
But, we know,

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Questioning the Answers (Slice)

"On her deathbed an American author was said to have asked, "What is the answer?" Then after a long silence, she replied, "What is the question?" Whether you approach truth as something solid and knowable or hold the concept as an illusion, it seems a fitting place to start. What is the question?

Questions on our hearts and minds can range from cynical and devious to desperate and heartfelt. We might genuinely seek answers at certain points in our lives, while other times aiming more at testing the answerer. But this is nothing new.

Hearing of Solomon's great fame and of his relation to the name of the LORD, the Queen of Sheba planned a trip to Jerusalem. With her royal entourage and queenly offerings, she brought all of the questions she wanted answered. Whether she was coming to the king known as the wisest man in the world to test him with riddles and mysteries or coming with the hope of finding wisdom in a world of questions, we do not know. But the ancient account of the meeting in 1 Kings 10:3 reports of the queen's interrogation and the king's attempt at answering. "And Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain" (1 Kings 10:3).

In a world where we aren't always sure what the questions are, or even that the answers can be something real, their interaction is significant. Whether the queen had questions behind her questions or venom behind her questions, Solomon treated her inquiries as reverently as he treated the queen herself. And the story conveys, "She was overwhelmed"—literally in Hebrew, "there was no more wind in her" (10:5). The quickening insight of one whose wisdom came from God took her breath away. 

Most of us are not known for reputations of unflinching wisdom and alluring opulence like King Solomon. And the shower of questions that presently berates Christianity often comes with heated words and intimidating contexts. More often than not it seems that Christians are the ones who are left overwhelmed. And yet the directive of the one they follow remains: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). In a world of loaded questions, it's a task that easily becomes lost in arrogance or fear, defensiveness or dismissiveness.

When Solomon first asked God for wisdom, he asked with a knowledge of God's greatness and an understanding of his desperate need. He was far from perfect, but he seemed to understand that his own answers would fall short. "Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong," he prayed. "For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" (1 Kings 3:9). A Christian response to the questions on the hearts of the world—whether angry or earnest—grows out of a response to the heart of God. 

Catching her breath, the queen left Solomon with a picture of a greater kingdom: "Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel" (10:9). The queen saw in Solomon the greatness of his God. She saw that it was his God who put him exactly where he was in life and in wisdom. And she saw in Solomon the evidence of God's love for his servant and the people he ruled. 

By God's Spirit, whether the questions on our hearts and the questions of our world are known or unknown, voiced or unvoiced, we can hold in Christ an answer for the hope that is within us."


Friday, August 24, 2012

Ramadan Karim: Revelation (Sojourner)

"It was the summer of 1994 and about 10 friends and I sat huddled around Bibles in my friend’s living room. It was a “scripture party.” The lights were dim and the air was full of anticipation and mystery. We did not know what God might reveal as we opened the book of Revelation and read it out loud, in community, in one night. 

This bears resemblance to the way the early church would have read the scripture. They were an oral culture, not a written one. The Hebrew Bible was written on scrolls that were read aloud to congregations. Most of the New Testament was written as letters to the worshiping bodies of whole cities (i.e. the saints in Ephesus, the church in Philippi, the body in Corinth, etc.). When received, the letters would be read out loud to the whole church community and received as God’s instruction revealed through the apostles for the edification of their communities.

Imagine being one of the very first followers of the Jesus “Way” (Acts 9:2).

Imagine being a persecuted religious group. You have to use code — the sign of the ichthys — to identify yourself to other believers for fear of religious persecution. Only when you are gathered together in secret can you speak openly about your faith. Only then can you be fully known and appreciated for the whole image of God that lives inside of you.

Imagine huddling in a secret meeting place and reading the Apostle John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ for your nascent faith community in Ephesus or Smyrna, or Pergamum, or Thyatira, or Sardis, or Philadelphia, or Laodicea (Revelation 2-3). Imagine living in Ephesus and reading Paul’s prayer for your church to understand its hope and inheritance (Ephesians 1:17-2:22).

And imagine being rich in the early church and hearing James’ letter warning: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your field, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

Imagine hearing it all for the first time. It all feels so real. The call to holiness feels so urgent because God feels so present.

This week marks the final week of the fast of Ramadan. Ramadan is the month when it is believed the prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an. Throughout the month Islamic communities around the world fast, pray, and gather together each night to listen as the entire Qur’an is read aloud over the course of the month.

A dear friend in New York City knew that I was going to be in town earlier this week and invited me to her parents’ home for their Iftar dinner — the late-night dinner that breaks the daily fast. We sat at table and her father and mother, both educators, shared the significance of each part of the meal. The father asked me to read the hundredth chapter of the Qur’an which would be read at the mosque that night. My jaw dropped when I read:

“Verily, towards his Sustainer man is most ungrateful – and to this, behold, he [himself] bears witness indeed: for verily, to the love of wealth is he most ardently devoted. But does he not know that [on the Last Day,] when all that is in the graves is raised and brought out, and all that is [hidden] in men’s hearts is bared – that on that Day their Sustainer [will show that He] has always been fully aware of them?”

Then the family — grandfather, grandmother, mother, and teenaged son — went into the living room, laid out their prayer mats, and prayed.

It was beautiful. The whole family bowed together. The whole family followed the lead of the grandfather’s prayers. The whole family exercised intention to worship God with their whole heart, body, mind, and soul. I watched and wept.

Later, my friend took me to a small community prayer room on the campus of Columbia University where her cousins and other family members were gathering to pray and hear the recitation of the final chapters of the Qur’an — in Arabic. After that she took me to one of the largest mosques in New York City, the 96th Street Mosque. We sat and watched.

In one night, I witnessed a family, its immediate community, and the larger Islamic community in New York City gathered together, in each case, with utter devotion to (whom they believe to be) God and absolute gratefulness for the revelation of scripture. It reminded me of that night in 1994 when I sat with my own faith community huddled around the Book of Revelation, reading it aloud.

My friend shared that people in the Muslim community usually don’t want Ramadan to end. It is such a holy time of year. With the spiritual disciplines of fasting, community, giving, prayer, and reading the word, God feels so present. This devotion is hard to sustain throughout the year.

I re-read John’s Revelation to the church at Ephesus this morning. Ephesus was the capitol of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). With more than 250,000 residents, it was ethnically diverse, it was political, it was one of the greatest hubs of commerce in the world at the time, and the church was persecuted to the point where people had to speak in code using the sign of the ichthys to identify themselves as Christians. To this nascent and persecuted church, John said:

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2-4)

In times like ours we are tempted to devote ourselves to many things. Some are tempted by money. Others are tempted by power. As I watch political candidates slinging mud, twisting truth, and spinning lies; when legislators lunge to protect tax cuts for the wealthy and toss vulnerable families to the lions of poverty, I am tempted to devote myself to justice. I mistake justice for God. Justice is not God. God is God. God alone deserves my devoted heart.

Ramadan is a time of revelation. This is what it revealed in me: I miss the devotion of my youth — scripture parties and all."

More on Ramadan:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Avengers Vs. X-Men (Corruption)

The Phoenix has come, infecting some mutants. But, it still hasn't reached it's main target: Hope Summers

Meanwhile, the infected (Cyclops, Emma Frost, Colossus, Magik, and Namor) attempt to manipulate the demon-like storm (Phoenix) to "improve" the world.

The Avengers know the Phoenix to be too overwhelming to control and wished to prevent anyone from using such a power. They became the only team able and willing to stay in the way of the chosen X-Men.

This started a war called "Avengers Vs. X-Men" (which is really a slaughter of the Avengers by the overpowered X-Men).

In the end, I believe that the fate of everything and everyone will still lie on Hope's shoulders and what she chooses to do with the Phoenix.

But, until then, Earth is being destroyed by five of the very people sworn to protect it.

Last week, I quoted Spider-Man in saying, "You learn to follow the guys who always seem to know where they're headed." That's a tough choice.

I used to hate Cyclops because he was too perfect. Like Superman, there was no evil or corrupt side to his character. Scott (Cyclops) was the definition of a "goody-two-shoes." He always tried to make Professor X happy and lead the X-Men down a morally-correct path.

It seems like I need to do some catching up on my X-Men lore because things have changed. Scott isn't Scott anymore. Although he still tries to do what is best for the X-Men, above everything else, he has lost his morality along with his purity. Things have happened to him and he has achieved uncharacteristic feats. In Scott's character development he has been forced to make choices that no one should ever have to make. Like the Saul who started out looking like a great king and became hardened to the core, Cyclops has become one of his worst enemies: Magneto.

Instead of consistently looking out for what is best for the entire world, he knows the (human) world to be against him. Now, he sees his vocation as a leader and savior of only the X-Men. No matter what happens to humanity, Scott will do what he can to serve and protect his race above all else.

Now, I hate Cyclops for becoming someone whom he would hate.

With this in mind, the Phoenix arrived. Cyclops has become more awesome, more powerful, and more supreme than ever before. The only thing standing in the way of what he wants to do is his inability to control Hope.

This new force has caused Scott to lose control of whatever morality he had left. He now sees that the Phoenix can bend the will of the world to the way that he wants it to be. Whoever stands in his way shall perish.

At first all of the other X-Men backed him up (even the ones who weren't Phoenix-powered). They saw that the Phoenix could be the type of mutant strength that is needed to benefit the globe. But, as the mutants witnessed a Phoenix-powered Magik and Colossus almost kill a god (Thor, not to mention Spider-Man) they knew that their leaders had lost their way.

Even more has happened since Namor, Magik, Colossus, Emma Frost, and Cyclops have gained the power of the Phoenix.

Currently, Namor has been defeated by the defending Avengers (causing the Phoenix-power to become strengthened within the other four mutants). Magik and Colossus have destroyed each other in an attempt to steal one another's power. Emma Frost is afraid of what the surging force within her might cause her to do (her psychic skills have been amplified so that she may now hear the thoughts of every living being on the planet). And, it looks like Cyclops is not only turning his back on the non-mutant world, he is going to be faced with the decision to turn on the woman he loves (Emma Frost):

We have all heard that "power corrupts." I beg to differ. Even though it seems that the power of the Phoenix is what is causing these mutants to forgo their morality, I believe their real fault is giving into temptation. With this much power and the self-awareness of such power, Namor, Magik, Colossus, Emma, and Cyclops have recognized the potential for what they can do. This is not only what good they can do, but all they can do. They have had doors of importunity flying open in all directions and it has been impossible for them to stay on the right path (down the hallway).

Although they might "seem to know where their headed," without their morality as a guide they really can't know where they'll end up. They will give into the temptations of their whims and will achieve what they want without realizing the sorrow that it costs until it becomes too late.

In our own lives, we have power. We can do good. We can do ill. And, we can do nothing. There is a time to stand up for what's right, there is a time to shut down what's wrong, and there is a time to wait for time to pass. The only thing that we can use to help us understand what time it is is the Law.

The Law often describes what to do and what not to do. It might not say, "Don't run across the street in speeding traffic!!" Or, "Don't eat another five pieces of chocolate cake!!!" But, it does tell us not to murder (causing harm to ourselves or others). Eating too much cake could be included with this (especially with the knowledge that our body is a gift from and a temple to God that we should maintain to the best of our abilities). The Law has many answers to daily questions. What limits us from recognizing these answers is often our lack of reading/meditation on the Scripture. And, if you're one of those people who "just don't get it" or become too bored by the words of Scripture to be able to accurately study them, don't be afraid to ask for help. Any Pastor would love to read/explain the Bible to you!! And, if you can't find one of them, ask anyone else. Even if it's someone who is on your page, who doesn't like to read let alone the Bible, just reading it together may add a new understanding as you are able to brainstorm and reflect ideas off of one another (I bet that's what many of the early Christians did).

We can also  pray for the Holy Spirit to help us under stand the Word and the Law.

So, over all, we know the Bible is where we get the Law. The Law is to be the guide for our morality. And, we must be able to recognize others who follow this Law so that they may have a compass for their morality.

Yet, Solomon knew this too. He fell. Although he was the wisest man who has ever existed, he gave into temptation. He knew better, but he failed to act on it. What he lost was the trust in God and His Law. He knew what was right and what was wrong, but he forgot to act on it.

We should remember as we choose our leaders (and as we become leaders ourselves) that "the soul is helpless unless it clings to the firm rock of truth." (St. Augustine) With Christ as the rock and cornerstone to one's life, morality becomes secure. The Gospel completes the Law, not only reminding us of how to do things right, but telling us that if we are a little off once in a while we can be forgiven and that we should do more than just "know" the Law. We should act on it and know that it is alive through us.

Just as Christ died and rose so that even when our sins (like the Phoenix) corrupt us we may be forgiven and made right again. We can learn to avoid Scott's mistake.

Perhaps, Cyclops needs something like the whack-in-the-face that the Gospel gives us in order to get him back on track.

Until then, Scott has caused a rift in the security of the Earth.

This is an even bigger hole than the Civil War made.

There must be peace before an even greater evil comes.

"If a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand."
Mark 3:25

Here are some more pictures:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Spider-Man (Avengers Vs. X-Men)

As comic book movies take over the box office, the Marvel Universe has erupted into chaos.

Phoenix,  the demon-like storm, is here and has infected some mutants. But, it still hasn't reached it's main target: Hope Summers. As the Avengers are picked off by the now over-powered and power-hungry mutants (Cyclops, Emma Frost, Colossus, Magik, and Namor), the other heroes have hidden away from the world in a different dimension waiting until they can get back on their feet.

In the end, it will be up to Hope to save the world from the dark power of the Phoenix, but until then she is only in training.

Although, the Immortal Iron Fist is her mentor (seen waaay below saying "What?"), Spider-Man has his chance to talk with Hope. He says:

Pete speaks from experience, he's been around the block. He knows what it's like to be part of a team full of superheroes and gods. He knows what its like to feel so small while still so overwhelmed. And, he knows what it's like to be the one lagging behind. In fact, I remember that in the first issue of Avenging Spider-Man, Spidey does his part in fighting with the Avengers, but after the fight is over he has no way to get back to New York because webbing can't shoot between cities. He must rely on the Red Hulk (Rulk) to carry him back to his hometown. Anyway, he really knows how Hope feels: helpless and maybe afraid.

At the same time, Spider-Man's courage is always his best trait. On the surface Pete doesn't seem to be the boldest or bravest hero, or even the most courageous. But, when someone's life becomes threatened or there is an evil that must be stopped, Spidey's courage to stand up for what's right and cling onto the responsibility of saving the world always sees him through.

That's just how we are. We know that we aren't the strongest or the bravest or even the smartest. We are really helpless and probably afraid. We might feel like the Karate Kid going through meaningless exercises, through our practices of love, hope, joy, patience, kindness, and all of the rest of a Christian's trait. We become stronger and ready to face whatever may be thrown at us. Like a muscle, our faith and our traits become strengthened to support us. We become ready for our moment and what we may need to do in the future. Without our practicing of endurance we may never be able to finish the race. But, after it's practice and with God's coaching, we can reach a world-record breaking ending.

Still, our own actions can never merit enough.

At the end of this comic book Spider-Man is there when the world needs him and he is ready to give his all. Pete is beaten to a pulp by two of the Avengers' most powerful enemies. He survives, but barely. By the end of the comic book he is only clinging to his life. Blood pores from his body and he cannot get up. He's on the ground. But, he continues to try to overcome his adversaries. He knew that this was his moment. He stood up to fight so that all of the other Avengers could get away. He became a sacrificial distraction to save the ones he loved. The distraction worked, but barely and Spidey would have been left for dead if the others hadn't come back for him.

All that we do, all that we could even think of doing, wouldn't be able to measure up to what we need to do. On judgment day, there is no way that we could stand before God and offer him a clean slate. We will become beaten and bruised by the guilt and sorrow that we know that we have caused Him and others. Although we continue to try, we could never overcome our sin. Like Spider-Man was dependent on the Avengers to come back for him, we are dependent on Christ to come back for us, pick us up off of the floor, and carry us home.

Although we can never win. We can never do this on our own.
We must muster the courage to try.

And know, that as we try,
As we struggle from day to day,
Through our tasks and trials,
We can know that Christ is there with us,
Fighting alongside us,

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Refuge (Superhero Headquarters)

(Exploring the Fortress with Lex)

Where do you go for refuge?

Superheroes tend to have a headquarters. Anywhere from Stark Tower and Aunt Mays house to the Fortress of Solitude and the Batcave. But, in real life, where do we go?

Some of us have our own little nooks and crannies. We have our space where we can just be who we want to be and do what we want to do. We hide in our room to get away from the world or just drive until we feel the freedom that we have been searching for. Sometimes we go to movies to be able to be free of the rest of the world for a couple hours. But, the world still sneaks up on us. The Colorado murder is still fresh in our minds. In all of these places, the world creeps in or comes back too soon. You see the bill lying on the floor of your room or you run out of gas, knowing you shouldn't have wasted any.

Rarely, if ever, do we think of going to church. There's people there and I just don't feel like praying. It's too much gas or it's not open. It's not even Sunday.

But, isn't that where we should go?

If there is a place on Earth, a stronghold for support and unprejudice welcoming, the church should be it.We should be who we are as individuals. God knows us, he loves us. Even though we may have freckles or messy hair, he loves us anyway. Because of our sin, he should judge us just like everyone else does. But, due to our Redeemer, Christ, he forgives our sin and doesn't even see it in us anymore. He sees more than just who we are, but who we are meant to be.

A church should feel the same way. Although we might have screwed up or continue to screw up, the church should recognize that everyone's in that boat. No one is perfect. And the church should be a place that is stronger than any fortress or Batcave because the hero is not alone, they have much-needed support.

But, the church closes, doesn't it? No. It might help to remember, the church is not a place. That means that it can never be closed, it can only be opened. As the saying goes, "We are the church." This knowing of acceptance and place to gather strength from other Christians and time to worship God cannot be imprisoned within a building. These things are way too powerful to be kept within brick walls. We are to be there for each other, for the church, all of the time. We can worship God and strengthen each other while watching a football game or playing poker, shopping or eating at a restaurant. It doesn't take much to thank God for what he's given you and acknowledge him in our lives. As long as we remember who we are and how we are to encourage one another with the Spirit, the church is a powerful thing that knows no bounds.

Sadly, the world creeps into the church too. It was less than a week ago that a white-supremesist killed people praying at a Sikh temple. Although these people may be lost, missing the mark and not knowing the true God. They were on the right path. They knew that there was someone to be worshiped and that they could go to this place to worship him. This terror makes us ponder whether or not we are safe also.

As we go about being the church, encouraging one another, sin attacks. We want to do things for one another and out of the goodness of our hearts, but we judge one another. And if we do not judge one another, we often (perhaps accidently) lead one another into temptation.

How can we have refuge from this?

We have to remember the point. We must know who Christ is and what he has done/continues to do for us. We know both the Father and the Spirit, the Holy Trinity. We cannot get distracted by the things that creep up on us, but remember to focus on God. When we take refuge in him, nothing can overtake us. Although we are weak, he is strong. When we give everything, our all, to him, we can know that he provides the shelter that we desperately need.

Even when we forget to give God our all and we forget to show our faith through our actions, God is still there for us as our refuge.

I encourage you,
The next time you need shelter, pray.
The next time you need encouragement, encourage others.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Stuck in the Middle:

Confronting the Mid-Faith Crisis

"I was just about the most enthusiastic new Christian you had ever met—in church all the time, reading about church things when I was not at church, wanting nothing more than prayer, Communion, hymns.

What happens in conversion—at least, what happened in mine—is that a person concludes that the truth is in Jesus. That conclusion will carry you to baptism; it will carry you to church, or back to church, or to your knees. But then where does it take you? Or, more precisely, how does it take you? How do you continue to allow the truth that is in Jesus to be your rudder?

The kidnapping dream and the prayer book and the baptism made a path; they were my glory road, and I thought that road would carry me forever. I didn't anticipate that, some years in, it would carry me to a blank wall, and at that wall a series of questions: do I just stand here staring at this wall? Do I go over? Under? Do I turn around and retrace my steps?

The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God's closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone.

And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me.

Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.

In the American church, we have a long tradition of telling spiritual stories that culminate in conversion, in the narrator's joining the church, getting dunked in the waters of baptism, getting saved. But this is just the beginning, and what follows is a middle, and the middle may be long, and it may have little to do with whatever it was that got you to the font.

I was carried to the middle of my spiritual life by two particular events: my mother died, and I got married, and the marriage was an unhappy one. Had you asked me before—before my mother got sick, before I found myself to be a person thinking about divorce—I would have told you that these were precisely the circumstances in which one would be glad for religious faith.

Faith, after all, is supposed to sustain you through hard times—and I'm sure for many people faith does just that. But it wasn't so for me. In my case, as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die, too. God had been there. God had been alive to me. And then, it seemed, nothing was alive—not even God.

Intuition and conversation persuade me that most of us arrive at a spiritual middle, probably we arrive at many middles, and there are many ways to get there. The events that brought me to the middle of my spiritual life were dramatic, they were interruptions, they were grief.

But grief and failure and drama are not the only paths to a spiritual middle. Sometimes a whole life of straightforward churchgoing takes you to a middle. Sometimes it is not about a conversion giving way, or the shock of God's absence. Sometimes a life of wandering takes you to a middle. Sometimes you come to the middle quietly.

You may arrive at the spiritual middle exhausted, in agony, in what saints of the Christian tradition have called desolation.

Or your journey to the middle may be a little easier, a little calmer—it is not that God is absent—it is, rather, that your spiritual life seems to have faded, like fabric. Some days the fading doesn't trouble you at all; other days, it seems a hollowing loss. You're not as interested as you once were in attending to God. You no longer find it easy to make time for church, for prayer.

Whether you feel a wrenching anguish or simply a kind of distracted listlessness, the middle looks unfamiliar when you get there. The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow farther away, maybe in hiding.

I don't have instructions for "getting through" the middle. I don't think the middle is something to be gotten through. It's time when the things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living. The challenge is

continuing to abide in faith amid uncertainties, in the interstices of belief.

The middle opens us up to a new way, the new glory road that might not be a glory road after all but just an ordinary gravel byway, studded with the occasional bluet, the occasional mica chip.

In my case, the middle has had three phases.

First, I am at the wall. I have been standing at this wall a long time. God is absent; perhaps I am absent from myself. The conversion is over. Everything has changed, everything needs to change.

The second phase is a picture of wrestling with a God who isn't there, or maybe who is: what do you do in the midst of this absence? Where do you go? What do you try? I try all kinds of things, all my old tricks for getting through—I try anxiety, I try bourbon. I pray, I don't pray. I go to church; I keep going back to church. I make myself busy, so that I don't have to look at the wall. There is boredom here, and loneliness; there are also Eucharists and angels. God darts by; sometimes I notice.

And then there is a third phase. It is a moment of presence. Something has shifted, something has moved: you are looking for God and you are looking in ways you hadn't known to look before. Sometimes, in the days when I felt furthest away from God, I thought that my goal was to recover the kind of spiritual life I had once had, to get back to that glory road.

Increasingly, I understand that I don't get to go back (increasingly, I don't want to). I am living in a place, a house, a room, and I begin to understand that something will show up in this room, and what shows up will be faith. I am less certain now than I was ten years ago, fifteen years ago; but I sense that this place is certain; it is sure.

Once upon a time, I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle. If life is long, I am still at the beginning of the middle.

Once I would have said, "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine." From here, I say with the poet, "O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you."

May you find good company for your own climbing."

Lauren F. Winner


C. S. Lewis also had this sort of Mid-Faith Crisis
He writes about it in "Surprised by Joy."

"A rebirth not a birth,
a reawakening not a wakening,
because in many of us,
besides being a new thing,
it is also the recovery of things."
Page 71

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Spoilers (No Dark Knight Spoilers Included)

No one likes spoilers.

Whether seeing a movie or reading comic books, no one likes a good ending being spoiled. There is something about not being able to have the story unfold the way it was meant to that sickens our stomachs. Knowing the ending before seeing it is almost worse then never even seeing the ending at all.

Christians might struggle with this.

We already know the ending: WE WON!!! CHRIST IS RISEN!!! The death and resurrection the ending and beginning of both ours and Christ's lives has already been spoiled for us. Not only that, we also know that because Christ died and then rose, we will be risen too. Jesus has already beat Satan. No matter what happens at the end of the world, God wins and we will be safe.

The Christian ending is the sweetest victory that anyone could ever taste. It is a proclamation that rings like a beautiful suite through one's ears. It is a treasure that one should store in their heart while simultaneously generously giving it away to the rest of the world. The news is too good to ever be spoiled.

Now, all we have to do is sit back and watch as the story of the world unfolds the way that God has always meant it to. We have the opportunity to trust in Him. Even though we know already the ending, just like Christopher Nolan's movies, we enjoy watching it (we'd probably even see it again and again). And, also like one of Nolan's movies, God has plenty of surprises to keep us wondering what's coming next.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
We already know the sweet sweet ending that God has in store for us,
Now, all we have to do is (actively) watch.

And, since this spoiler cannot really spoil,
We can excitedly spread the word of the Gospel.
Instead of ruining peoples' endings,
We will be fixing them.

This has been part of the Dark Knight Series