Finding Peace in Chaos

Preparing for Storms

Emma and I moved to Cocoa Beach in July 2016, and in October of that same year Hurricane Matthew hit Florida. Having spent so much time inland, we didn’t know much about mandatory evacuations and were told that once the winds reached a certain speed the bridges would be closed and anyone who stayed would be on their own. Although we were fortunate to have my parents’ house in Lakeland as a refuge, we were not prepared for the evacuation. We didn’t have a hurricane kit and most of the stores were sold-out of staple items. I had no idea how to board-up the windows, and as the evacuation deadline quickly approached all we could do is clear the lawn of potential projectiles, throw our kids and five pets in the cars, and drive into stand still traffic. As weather reports predicted a 6-8’ storm surge, I was scared that we would return to a house underwater, especially since we didn’t have flood insurance. Emma wrote on Facebook:

“I am awake in bed two hours away from our new home in Cocoa Beach, glued to the storm coverage, and I keep wondering what we will find when we go home. I can’t help but think about things I left behind, like the kids’ baby books and that growth chart I’ve been keeping since Isaac was a baby… I should have grabbed those. We should have boarded up the windows. Why didn’t we fill sandbags? Exactly how far above sea level IS our house?”

Since Hurricane Matthew wobbled off its projected path, Cocoa Beach avoided a direct hit. Our home was not flooded and there was minimal damage to the property. Lakeland was not affected much either, so we didn’t need the supplies that we failed to prepare.

This was a big lesson for us. Immediately upon getting home, I purchased flood insurance. The church also installed hurricane windows in the parsonage. As the next hurricane season approached, we got a hurricane survival guide and prepared a kit, which proved helpful when we were evacuated again in 2017 for Hurricane Irma. We returned to Lakeland fearing a direct hit to Cocoa Beach, only to discover that the storm changed directions and we had evacuated into its direct path. The eye of the storm tore through my parent’s neighborhood, causing significant damage. Fortunately, we learned how to better prepare after navigating Matthew and, with the help of family and friends, had all that we needed to weather the storm. Had we not learned how to better prepare after Matthew, we would have been in real trouble with Irma.

How many times have you had to navigate storms? And I’m not just talking about the weather, but about emotional and spiritual storms too. Were you prepared? How did you handle it? Did you learn important lessons from one storm to another?

 

To Be Like Jesus: Finding Peace in Chaos

While the disciples never weathered a hurricane, they did have to navigate some fierce storms, and according to the Bible, Jesus expected them to learn important lessons in the process so they could be better prepared for whatever life threw at them. What is interesting to me is that the disciples often failed to meet this expectation, and this irritated Jesus.

Take for example the storm that we read about in Mark 4:35-40:

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Jesus’ questions at the end are striking, especially when we consider that the disciples encountered other storms throughout the Gospel of Mark that provoked a similar response in both the disciples and Jesus. Take for example the story of Jesus walking on water in Mark 6. The disciples were once again on a boat when another storm breaks out. As they were fighting the storm, they saw something across the water that looked like a ghost and were terrified. Walking on the water, Jesus identified himself, told them not to be afraid, and calmed the wind. Then Mark says that the disciples lacked understanding because their “hearts were hardened” (vv. 48-52).

After following Jesus day in and day out, listening to his teachings and observing his way of life, after witnessing him calm storms and perform other miracles, the disciples failed to learn important lessons about faithfully navigating difficulty. Repeatedly, Jesus questions their fearful reaction, which culminates in Mark 8 when an exasperated Jesus says, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (vv.17-18). Jesus is disappointed because they frequently miss the whole point of following him—to be like him, especially in the face of challenge when it really counts. Jesus shows them repeatedly how to prepare for and navigate storms, how to stay close to God and cultivate a calm spirit, a wise mind, a peaceful heart, and a strong faith, all of which are necessary to handle suffering in mature and faithful ways. But instead of growing in spiritual maturity and developing the resources needed to act like Jesus in the face of challenge, they remained immature, demanding that Jesus do everything for them.

Notice their response in the story recorded in Mark 4. First, they are unprepared, caught off guard and consumed with fear. In desperation, when they finally call on Jesus, they essentially accuse him of being absent and uncaring when they needed him the most: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” They seem to mad at Jesus for not preemptively rescuing them.

We often do the same. We go through life without paying much attention to Jesus. We might pray before meals, go to church on Sunday, and occasionally share a Christian meme on Facebook, but we don’t spend much quality time with Jesus in serious, daily discipleship. Neglecting things like prayer and meditation on scripture, which help us regularly connect with God, we’re left unprepared when storms come. Like the disciples, we are caught off guard, overwhelmed with fear, and demand that Jesus miraculously change realty to match our desire. We even get angry with Jesus or blame God when things don’t go our way and we experience suffering. Without the ongoing spiritual growth that happens through the consistent practice of spiritual discipline, we fail to see how these compulsive reactions to fear are misguided, entitled, and immature.

In contrast, Jesus wants us to grow-up in the faith. Instead of remaining the same from day to day and expecting him to do everything for us, Jesus wants to cultivate in us the same spiritual resources that empower him to faithfully and wisely navigate storms. Through a close relationship with him, Jesus wants to increase our awareness God’s perpetual presence, which serves as a conduit for the virtues we need to deal with difficulty: wisdom, faith, courage, patience, and peace. The good news of the gospel is not that God will miraculously prevent you from facing fear and pain, or that Jesus will do everything for you so that you don’t have to do anything for yourself, but that Jesus can empower you to faithfully navigate storms like him.

So how do we prepare for storms? By imitating the life of Christ day in and day out. Jesus could calm storms because he was deeply connected to the powerful presence of God through a life of perpetual prayer. As one who was constantly connected to the peace of God, he could remain calm in the face of chaos. As one who was constantly connected to the wisdom of God, he could make wise choices when all hell broke loose. The closeness of his relationship with God served as a conduit for everything Jesus needed to handle whatever life threw at him. But he didn’t wait until to storm broke-out to prepare.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus was intentional about growing his faith through the practice of spiritual discipline. Day in and day out he prays, meditates on scripture, teaches, and serves. He was intentional about staying aware of and connected to the presence of God, which shaped his heart and mind in ways that prepared him for stormy seas. Then when the storms came, the chaos didn’t rob him of his peace, but his peace brought calmness to the chaos. In this way, Jesus models a way of life that transforms us into his image. As we daily imitate the pattern that he sets forth, we gradually receive the wisdom, faith, courage, and peace required to handle difficulty like him. Our preparation for the storms of tomorrow happen today. We don’t wait until the bridges are being closed. And when the storms to come, we draw on the hard-won spiritual resources to help us stay true, knowing that even in failure there is grace and there are lessons to be learned that will better prepare us for the next storm.

 

Time Away for Rest and Meditation

In addition to daily spiritual discipline, Jesus gives us another important practice when we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, straining against the oars: physically separating ourselves from the chaos by going to a peaceful place. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gets worn down by his service to the crowd. He deals with this challenge by frequently going to a quiet and deserted place to rest and pray. In addition to doing this himself, he encourages his disciples to do the same (Mark 6:31b).

We all need time away from the busyness and chaos that swirls around us. This is why God commands us to keep the Sabbath, to set aside at least one day per week for rest and re-creation. We ignore this command at our own peril, especially when navigating storms that result in seasons of suffering. In addition to weekly rest, sometimes we need to literally walk away from the noise and chaos, to physically withdraw to a quiet place for rest, prayer, and meditation.

Most of us easily go to conversational prayer when facing trouble, but when navigating storms mediation is just as important. Since mediation is a lost disciple for many Protestant Christians, I offer several teachings on this topic that can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes. When chaos is swirling around us in and in us, meditation is the best tools for quieting the mind, body, and spirit so we can get meet God at the deepest level of soul, where God gives us access to divine wisdom, courage, strength, and peace. It is no coincidence that Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4 by saying, “Quiet! Be still!” And Jesus says the same thing to us today to calm the storms of our hearts.

Meditation (or contemplation) clears space in our hearts and minds so we can find clarity about our next best steps, but to calm the storm on the inside we sometimes need to, first, calm the storm on the outside. We need to get away from the noise, busyness, conflict, and competing demands of others, finding a quiet and peaceful place for rest and prayer. Do you ever give yourself this gift?

It’s important to note that if we don’t prepare for storms through daily spiritual practice, or if we fail to handle the storms with wisdom and faith, Jesus doesn’t abandon or reject us. The Bible is clear that Jesus abides with us always, and when we fail he offers grace and forgiveness. However, our lack of discipline and preparation will make it more likely for us to make unwise, and even sinful, choices that result in even more difficulty, pain, and confusion.

 

Challenge

So, let us commit now to a life of daily spiritual discipline. Being a Christian is not just about a one-time decision in which we ask Jesus to be our personal lord and savior. It’s a way of life based on the imitating Jesus. It’s about a radical transformation that makes us more loving, compassionate, faithful, and wise. In addition to daily conversational prayer, let us also commit to daily meditation, the practice of stilling our hearts and minds in silence, so we can become increasingly aware of the presence of God in every single moment of life. If you need help with meditation, you might consider attending our Christ centered yoga class or acquiring some other good resources. Like Jesus and disciples, let us commit to taking time away from the noise and chaos for rest and prayer, whenever the need arises. And when we return from our deserted place, let us commit to getting help from other Christians, especially those who are farther down the disciple’s path. Christianity is not a spectator sport or an individual sport, it is a community affair. We need each other. We need good traveling companions and guides. This is the main reason we offer the Quadratos Companioning Group and other groups, studies and classes to support you.

Don’t wait until the storm arrives to start preparing—start now through the practice of daily spiritual discipline. If it’s too late and the storm is already raging in your life, then get help from other more mature Christians and do your best to commit to prayer, meditation, and the study of scripture, which will help you to be faithful and to pay attention to the lessons that God wants to teach you in the process.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, teach me how to stay close to you day by day through the imitation of Christ so that I can be prepared for storms.

 

(This post is the eleventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Advertisements

Preparing for Stormy Seas: The Necessity and Gift of Suffering

Context for the Gospel of Mark: The Burning of Rome

On July 19 in the year 64 C.E., a fire broke out in Rome. It lasted several days, killing many and reducing most of the great city to embers. The emperor at the time, Nero, had previously proposed to demolish and rebuild most of the city in a classical manner, so rumors spread that he started the fire to make it easier to proceed with his plans. As a result, Nero came under attack by his senators. He needed someone to blame, so he scapegoated the Jews. His ploy was believable because most Jews lived on the outskirts of town across a river, and because of their location were untouched by the fire.

Word spread quickly among the Jews and fear spiraled out of control as they anticipated mass suffering at the hand of brutal tyrant. Desperate to avoid Nero’s wrath, some Jews went to the emperor and accused a fringe group of setting the fire, the Messianic Jews who followed Jesus. Nero’s response was horrific. He demanded that the larger Jewish community collaborate with Roman soldiers to identity Christians, and to save their own families they agreed. “A mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on each door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Christ believer. The answer determined the fate of the householder and everyone else in that house.”[i] If a believer was identified, either by admission or someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. Most were led into the Circus Maximus, chained to the floor, splattered with blood, and eaten alive by starved dogs. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified as a Christian, then those living there were forced to name someone else, who was then seized and executed without trial. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day. In the end, the Christian community in Rome was destroyed.

It is hard to imagine this horror. The Messianic Jews were betrayed by their own people to mass murder. The Christians who escaped and those who lived in neighboring areas were isolated in a sea of terror, fear, persecution, and death. It must have been hard to believe in the promises of Jesus, especially since their slaughter was the result of their belief.

Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark to around 70 C.E., and while its audience is debated, it certainly fits the situation of the early Christians who were recovering from the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty. As such, it gives guidance to Jesus followers regarding how to faithfully navigate fear, resentment, hatred, persecution, and suffering.

 

The Gospel of Mark and the Second Path of the Quadratos.

As the Gospel of Mark addresses the question of how we move through suffering, thereby disclosing the second path of the Quadratos.[ii]  Those who walk the road to transformation sometimes feel like they are in a small boat on a stormy sea. “The winds and water lash at us as we are tossed about in a gray, horizon less [sic.], directionless world.”[iii] We’ve gone too far to return to the beginning, but we’re not sure how to discern the best way forward either. As we stand facing the horizon, Mark reminds us of a hard truth: sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Suffering is to be expected and is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. But, Mark also reminds us that suffering is only for a season and that there are reliable spiritual practices that can help us along the way. We endure by praying, listening, and acting accordingly.

 

Good News in Suffering

Given all that we know about the context, audience, and theme of the Gospel of Mark, one might think that it would begin with a sobering word of caution, something like, “Buckle-up buttercup because it is about to get really bad!” But it doesn’t. In stark contrast, it reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). I can imagine a Christian living in Rome around 70 C.E. saying, “Good news? What good news?” The Messianic Jews didn’t appear to have much to celebrate. Even though they decided to follow Jesus, their obedience to the call threatened their lives and resulted in the senseless murder of family and friends.

Nevertheless, Mark begins with the proclamation of good news. While all the evidence may seem to suggest that the teachings of Jesus are an exercise in empty wishing, we hear the voice of a cloud of witnesses: God’s promises are true. It may not look like it or feel like it, but God is faithful, and your suffering will not have the last word—that is reserved for redemption. Mark reminds us that we follow one who not only shows us the way forward but also understands our pain, because he has experienced it too. He walks with us and suffers with us, so that we will have everything we need to move through it.

An important truth revealed in Mark is that we cannot bypass suffering.  We must go through it. Suffering is a necessary part of our spiritual transformation because there are lessons that can only be learned as we wrestle with pain. But the good news is that God will see us through, and our faithfulness will be a contribution to God’s great rescue mission of this world. By beginning with the proclamation of good news, Mark is telling us to gather our strength and hope by remembering the promises of God, which help us understand our suffering as part of a larger divine process.

Although we will learn many important lessons and develop many helpful tools in our study of Mark, it is important to remember something from the very beginning. There is not only good news despite our suffering, or in the face of our suffering, or at the end of our suffering. There is also a gift in the suffering insofar as it helps us get in touch with what is most essential about our faith.

Since so many Christians in America experience a life of ease, which can function to distort the gospel message, it is often helpful to ask, for what are we willing to suffer? For what are we willing to be persecuted? For what are we willing to die?

Many of us are born, then born again, and die in comfort. As those living in a country founded on religious freedom, most of us will never face the terror of the early Christians. Indeed, the very idea of martyrdom has become unintelligible for most American Christians.[iv] This is not only the case for individual Christians, but the church has the luxury of dodging these questions too. Even though some influential Christian groups cry persecution as a political strategy, these claims smack with absurdity when considering what our brothers and sisters have endured through the ages, and even now in places like Syria.

It seems to me that we are most lax in our faith and divided in our beliefs when life is good. Individuals and churches that enjoy wealth and influence are tempted to misuse these gifts for selfish gain, squabbling over trivial matters and confusing the essentials of faith with political agendas. This can be clearly seen in our current context in which many people who profess to follow Jesus have all but completely abandoned his teachings and the value system of the Kingdom of God.

But persecution—real persecution—has a way of parsing, sifting, and separating that which is essential and non-essential in the Christian faith. When facing torture and death, you don’t have time to quibble over extraneous or peripheral issues. And while many of us will never face torture and death because of our faith, all of us will eventually suffer as a result of our decision to follow Jesus. Mark helps us to see that this suffering, understood in the right context, can be a gift insofar as it cuts to the core of what we really believe and shows us what we are made of.

Listening to the words of Jesus while enduring a season of suffering reminds us that Christianity is not a social club, a non-profit relief group, or a political action committee. It is not one collection of ancient teachings among others from which we can pick and choose to build our own philosophy of life. Rather, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he bids us to come and die.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[b] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:34-37)

Jesus is saying, I want you to base your entire life on the truths I am proclaiming and to believe it so deeply that you practice it even when it requires you to lose everything. Given the hostile environment in which these words were recorded, we can say that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. It is no coincidence that the word for witness in the early church was the same word for martyr, because being a Christian meant staking your life on the gospel of Jesus.

When we face the prospect of acute suffering because of our decision to follow Jesus, these teachings once again dawn on our consciousness, and if we do not quickly dismiss them they create an opportunity to wrestle with the question, “Do I really believe this stuff?” Human beings have an incredible capacity for self-deception. In terms of our faith, we often say that we believe something only for the truth of that claim to be questioned by the prospect of sacrifice. Suffering has a way of cutting through self-deception and getting us in touch with what we really believe in our heart of hearts, what we are willing to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for. Suffering can function as a kind of refining fire, separating the essentials from the non-essentials and giving us a gut check regarding our commitment to the essentials.

This is the way our ego is crucified so that our true self can be resurrected. This is the path to honesty, which is the path to humility, which makes true faithfulness possible. But this path is not easy. It is the most difficult part of our journey toward transformation, and we need the wisdom of the Gospel of Mark to illuminate our way and give us the tools we need to make it through. This will be the focus of our reflection in the weeks to come.

 

Challenge

But for now, it is important to gather our strength by remembering that we live in the power of good news even when experiencing deep suffering, and that the suffering itself can help us get in touch with what is most important, true, and helpful about our faith. In this way, we gain sound footing on the difficult road that lies ahead.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as dark, rumbling clouds approach the horizon and waves begin to beat against the boat, remind us of your faithfulness and give us the courage to trust your ability to get us to the other side.

 

(This post is the ninth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This account of the burning of Rome and the scapegoating of Christians is taken from Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind (Journey of Quadratos: Santa Fe, 2017) 130-132.

[ii] Ibid., “Crossing Mark’s Stormy Sea.”

[iii] Ibid. 128.

[iv] See Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

You Don’t Walk Alone: Change, Spiritual Journeys, & Resurrection  

The Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus, is quoted as saying, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Most of us know this from experience, even though we tend to resist change because it requires us to grieve losses and navigate countless unknowns.

When we decide to make a change, or one is thrust upon us, we typically do one of two things: cling to the past in fear or find the courage to move through it. While it is hard to admit, resisting change keeps us stuck in unproductive ways of living and ultimately proves to be a fruitless enterprise. Things are going to change whether we like it or not, and if we do not develop flexibility and learn to adapt it is at our own peril. In contrast, accepting change and courageously stepping into the future creates the necessary conditions for human beings to learn, grow, and experience a deeper sense of meaning.

Additionally, as Christians, we believe that God is at work in the world, giving us clear ideals and luring us into ways of being that make the realization of these ideals possible. So, when Christians face change, we not only see the potential for emotional growth, but for spiritual growth too. When God calls us in a new direction, it is an opportunity to better serve God’s mission in the world and realize God’s dream for our lives. We are given eyes to see meaning, purpose, and directionality in change as we embark on new spiritual journeys.

 

Challenges of Change

However, we also know that navigating change is no easy task, especially when considering a variety of predictable challenges. We will be tempted to disassociate from the parts of our story that evoke embarrassment or shame, cutting us off from important lessons that can be learned only by reflecting on our failures. We will experience fear of the unknown, tempting us to return to old ways of living that no longer help us become the person God is calling us to be. We will be tempted to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain and secure worldly success. The value system of the world will try to lure us off the path of discipleship, causing us to forget who we are as children of God. As we face unknowns and experience anxiety, we will be tempted to abandon personal responsibility by blindly submitting to religious authority. Instead of encouraging us to follow our hearts, people we love may betray us.

Taken together, these challenges can feel overwhelming, even for the most seasoned and mature travelers. So how do we faithfully navigate these challenges on our quest for spiritual transformation?

First, we remember that learning to deal with these trials in graceful and faithful ways takes a long time. It includes lots of trial and error, success and failure. We are going to mess-up—often—but the real question is whether we will learn from our mistakes and get a little better each time. Those who have gone before us say that we will never survive the process of maturation unless we are gentle with ourselves. Second, it always helps to have good traveling companions, which is one of the benefits of joining a healthy community of faith. Some people will feel threatened by our transformation and try to pull us backwards. Without a community of people on a similar journey to encourage and support us, it’s difficult to keep moving forward. As the Beatles knew, we get by with a little help from our friends. Third, we must stay close to Jesus.

 

Staying Close to Jesus: The Gift of Resurrection

When considering the possibility of staying close to Jesus, it helps to reflect on the story of the resurrection in the Gospel of Matthew, because it reminds us that we do not walk alone. The resurrected Jesus is always present through the power of his Spirit doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Even when we feel completely isolated it is not because God is absent but because, for whatever reason, we have been rendered blind, deaf, or numb to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, which is a life of radical transformation. He also shows us the way to be transformed by his life and teaching. But there is more to the story because this same Jesus was raised from the dead by God, is eternally present through his Spirit, and gives us the power to faithfully walk the path of transformation and experience real change. Remember his last words in the Matthew: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus does not leave us orphaned. We never walk alone.

This is certainly good news because no one can faithfully navigate change without God’s help. People who have recovered from addiction provide great testimony to this truth. While we need good friends to encourage and support us, there are things we need on our journey that only God can provide.

Indeed, as we stay close to Jesus and wrestle with change, he gives us many important gifts. As we face the pain and shame in the dark parts of our story, Jesus gives us the gift of redemption. As we face our fears of the unknown, Jesus give us courage. As we resist the temptation to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain or secure worldly success, Jesus gives us faith. As we resist the value system of the world and embrace the value system of the Kingdom of God, Jesus gives us wisdom. As we question religious authority and learn to author our own lives, Jesus gives us honesty and authenticity. As we heal from the brokenness of betrayal, Jesus gives us compassion and restoration.

Redemption, courage, faith, wisdom, honesty, compassion, and restoration, these are awesome gifts that not only help us begin our journey toward transformation but also prepare us for what lies ahead.

 

Challenge

In conclusion, there are a few things that will help us faithfully navigate change. First, and most importantly, stay close to Jesus by committing to a daily practice of reflection, meditation, and prayer. These spiritual disciplines do not save us or inoculate us from suffering, but they do create space for us to reconnect with God and become more aware of God’s perpetual presence. Second, secure a trusted spiritual director or soul friend who can serve as a good travel guide and connect with a group of friends that will support and encourage your spiritual evolution. Third, take stock of all the gifts that God has already created in you as a result of diligent struggle with trial and temptation, and allow these gifts to generate the courage, hope, and strength required for the next leg of your journey.

 

Prayer

Gracious God give me wisdom to know where you are leading and what needs to change in my life. As I do my best to stay close to Jesus and faithfully navigate the challenges of change, create in me the spiritual gifts needed to keep moving forward. Amen.

 

(This post is the eighth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Faith and Courage: Overcoming Fear of the New

When was the last time you experienced a big change?

For me it was a few years ago. After living alone for ten years, I was remarried in August 2015. My wife, Emma, had an estate sale, packed-up her belongings, and moved into my home with her two small children, Evie and Isaac, who I loved as my own. This was a big change for everyone involved, including my two older sons, Jobe and Jackson, who returned home for visits.

Six months later, just as we finished unpacking the last boxes, I received a call from my District Superintendent who said, “Mark, you’re moving to Cocoa Beach to become the new Pastor at First United Methodist Church.” Before we could even establish a new normal as a blended family, we had to relocate and start all over again with new jobs, new friends, and new schools for the kids.

These two major changes evoked a host of feelings, including fear.

 

The Gift of a Paradigm Shift

There are many stories in the Bible that help us deal with fear, but one of my favorites is the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2:1-23.

As a recap, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king of the Jews. When Herod got word of this, he freaked out because he was already the king of the Jews. The prospect of a new king was a direct threat to his seat of power, so he decided to eliminate the threat by killing the baby. After calling all the religious leaders together and learning that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod lied to the wise men, saying, “Go and find where he is, then come back and tell me, so I too can go and pay him homage.” The wise men found the baby Jesus and honored him by giving gifts to the family: frankincense, myrrh, and gold. These specific gifts are important to understand an important lesson in the story.

Remember that something horrible happened to the Jews in the year AD 70, their temple was destroyed. The one thing that gave meaning and value to the whole world–the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life–was demolished. This led to a massive loss of meaning as they struggled with the question, “How can we make sense of the world anymore?” Some Jews thought that the destruction of the temple signaled the end of the world. Others thought that God would rebuild the temple if the Jewish people would perfectly keep the sacred covenant made with their ancestors.

In contrast, the author of Matthew had a different view, which he symbolically communicated by his account of the gifts brought by the wise men. According to Alexander John Shaia, frankincense and myrrh were essential components in the most important temple rituals and were as costly as the gold of the Temple’s vessels (Heart and Mind 82). Myrrh was an aromatic resin added to the oil used for royal and priestly anointings, and frankincense was burn during the highest sacrificial offerings. By having the magi give these gifts to Jesus, the author of Matthew symbolically transfers the components of the old physical Temple to Jesus, the Messiah and emissary of a new inner temple. The author is essentially saying, “Don’t focus on the physical rebuilding of the Temple but on how God is building a new temple inside of you!”

This was a paradigm shift that required a new spiritual journey to make sense of it all.

 

A Call to Radical Transformation

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as calling us to new life, and a call to new life is a call to radical transformation—a paradigm shift in our thinking and believing, a spiritual revolution. The most obvious example is found in John 3 were Jesus is recorded as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). The call to new birth is a call to new life. The implication, of course, is that we must leave our old life behind. We are called out of the familiar and comfortable and invited into a space that is foreign and challenging, which typically evokes fear.

As human beings, most of us are afraid of the unknown. However, we also experience times when old ways of thinking, believing, and doing no longer work. This creates a tension between the impulse to move in a new direction and the impulse to remain in familiar territory. Eventually this tension forces a decision. We can either turn backward and to try to recover a lost past, or we can face our fears and move into a new future.

Jesus calls us to move forward by calling us to new life. He also helps us see that we can muster the faith and courage to navigate change if we understand that this is precisely how God intends to transform us, and also that God will guide and redeem every step we take, even those that lead us into dangerous territory.

 

 Abiding in Dangerous Places

If the story of Jesus’ birth is any indication of what God may expect of us, we must prepare to abide in dangerous places.

Shortly after Jesus was born, God called Joseph to take his family to Egypt, the place where his ancestors were enslaved and abused. This must have been a terrifying prospect, but it was necessary to protect the newborn King from Herrod’s murderous plot. Like the holy family, God sometimes calls us to scary places to protect the new birth happening within.

This means different things for different people.

Sometimes we are literally called to relocate to a risky place. Think, for example, of men and women who feel drawn to dangerous mission fields in places like Central America, Africa, or the Middle East. Listening to their stories, it’s clear that God radically transforms people who make personal sacrifices to help others. Sharing life with people in dangerous places can give us a radically new perspective and exponentially grow our faith.

For others, the call is more symbolic. Some people are called to scary emotional places. If we struggle with old wounds that keep us stuck in dysfunction, our transformation may require us to abide in scary emotional places to work through memories of loss, neglect, abuse, or moral failure. Some are even called to scary spiritual places, to a time of great questioning, doubt, and even loss of faith. Tradition teaches that most people experience a crisis of faith before a genuine spiritual transformation.

 

 Sometimes We Can’t Go Home

In my own experience, the journey to transformation is long and challenging. As we see the light at the end of the tunnel, our hope is often to go home, even if in a different way. This is the journey of the hero, which we see, for example, in Greek Epic Poems such as Homer’s Odyssey. However, we sometimes discover that we cannot go home because home will not nurture the new birth emerging within. Home no longer fits who we are.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph are from the region of Judea and probably lived in or around Bethlehem. This is very different from the story told in Luke where they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy because of a Roman census. However, a careful reading of Matthew suggests that the Holy family already lived in Bethlehem and experienced a home birth. This is an important detail because after living as refugees in Egypt, they were hoping to return home after the death of Herod. However, this hope would remain unrealized because Archelaus, son of Herod, assumed control of Judea and presented an ongoing threat to the baby Jesus. Thus, God warned them in a dream not to go home, but to build a new life in Nazareth, which was considered a dumpy little town in the region of Galilee.

Sometimes we too make a hard journey only to discover we cannot go home. Again, this means different things for different people. Sometimes we get the feeling that we, literally, cannot go home. Think of how many young people go off to college, experience transformation, and decide to move to a new city after graduation. As we grow and change, we sometimes need a new start in a new place, so we can build a new life that fits who we’ve become.

For others this is more symbolic. Some people cannot go home emotionally. When thinking about the true meaning of home, we usually focus on our most important relationships, and as we experience transformation we often discover that we cannot return to these old relationships in the same way. Some relationships need to end, and others need to be redefined by clear boundaries. As we renegotiate old relationships and nurture new friendships that support our new birth, it often becomes clear that we cannot go home emotionally.

Likewise, many can’t go home spiritually. Sometimes we must walk away from (or drastically reinterpret) what we were taught in the religion of our youth. The old ways of thinking, believing, and acting just don’t make sense anymore; they don’t fit who we are and what we have come to see as beautiful, valuable, and true. Sometimes these old beliefs even prove to be hurtful, exclusionary, and death-dealing, requiring us to actively resist them. This often requires us to find a new church, a new denomination, even a new religion. Sometimes we cannot return home spiritually.

 

Faith and Courage

Every aspect of this journey requires enormous faith and courage, gifts that God is ready to give to those who have open hearts and minds.

First, God gives us internal resources. In Matthew 2, we see that the magi followed a star, which is an enduring metaphor for a spirit that guides us. The English word “disaster” literally means “dis-star,” and to be separated from your star is to be separated from a deep, inner wisdom (Shaia, Heart and Mind, 82). Likewise, angels in the Bible are messengers that God uses to communicate important things to human beings. Understood symbolically, they can also represent a deep inner wisdom.

From a Christian perspective, we often speak of the Spirit of Christ living in us. Since Christ resides in the deepest part of who we are—what is often called the soul—Christians are encouraged to go deep inside themselves to meet Christ there, so that we can hear the wisdom he whispers. Most often this happens in stillness, solitude, and silence as we pray and meditate on scripture.

In addition, God sends us external resources. Just as God sent the magi to the holy family, God sends us wise people who bring good gifts to support our journey toward transformation. Often these people are the ones we least expect, people who are foreign, strange, different, weird, even disagreeable. They could even people be people of a different religion or no religion at all. (Remember, the magi were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.) The messengers God sends can come in the form of close friends or passing acquaintances, and their voices can come to us in personal conversations or through their writings, songs, art, or films. Furthermore, the gifts that God gives to us through them take different forms. Some will be small, like a piece of the past resolved, and others will large, like the call to new life.

Whether these gifts come from within or without, we can trust that they will be powerful and precious. They will give us the faith and courage we need to start the journey, to travel through dangerous places, and to build a new home to support a new life. However, to receive them we must keep expectant watch, and when divine messages come we must be attentive so that their wisdom can unfold as we travel.

 

Challenge

Have you heard the invitation to new life? Have you mustered enough faith and courage to take the first step? Have you been willing to go to those scary places that require more personal and spiritual work? Have you met the challenge of building a new home? Where are you in all of this? Have you been able to find the faith and courage you need to walk the road of transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the wisdom, faith, courage, and support I need to continuing walking the path to radical transformation.

 

(This post is the third in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

Radical Transformation: Introducing the Quadratos

I used to be significantly overweight.

There were several reasons for this, but one contributing factor was the habit of eating six fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies every night after dinner. Before I knew it, the scale was reading 226. This might not seem too bad since I’m 6’1”, but due to a small bone frame, my ideal weight is around 170.

For my body type, I was obese. This not only affected me physically but also emotionally. So one day I got fed-up and made a decision to change. I was going to lose weight and transform my health.

I started educating myself about proper nutrition and exercise, which helped me understand the specific actions I needed to take. When reading the experts, I believed what they were saying and, based on their suggestions, I created a change plan. I trusted that this plan would work if I acted on it daily. So I went to the gym almost every morning and did all the exercises the best I could, even the ones I hated like lunges (which are from the devil). I also ate healthy, properly portioned meals.

Through consistent, daily, disciplined action, I gradually transformed my body, going from 226 to as low as 156 . . . at which point my mother told me to eat a sandwich. Nevertheless, I was in the best shape of my life.

While I have never returned to 226, my weight has fluctuated over the years. The reason is simple: I stop working my plan. Sometimes I recognize that I’m gaining weight, which creates a desire to get fit. But my awareness and desire is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even make a decision to get healthy again. “On Monday, I’m going to start eating right and exercising.” But the decision by itself is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even return to the fitness and nutrition literature and create a new plan. But my knowledge and planning are not enough to transform me. I can even believe in my heart of hearts that the plan will work if I follow it. But my belief in the plan is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even take a step in the right direction by buying healthy food, rejoining the gym, and working my new plan for a couple of days or weeks. But these initial steps are not enough to transform me.

Transformation only happens when I put all these things together in a consistent way over a long period time, which is the whole point of a fitness plan.

 

Christianity and Transformation

Similarly, the whole point of Christianity is radical transformation. While Christians take comfort in knowing that we rest in the eternal care of a loving God upon death, being a Jesus follower is not primarily about dying and going to heaven. Rather, it’s about a radical transformation that happens over time as we daily follow Jesus, a transformation that makes us more loving, just, kind, compassionate, peaceful, and joyful. In this way, we enjoy life to its fullest and become a blessing to others.

Jesus says in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Likewise, in Ephesians 4 we are called to renounce our former way of life, our old self, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. This is an invitation to a new way of life, which leads to a new self.  

Being a Christian is about being a disciple; being a disciple is about being a follower; and being a follower is about learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives until we draw our last breath. This is the path to radical transformation—what the tradition calls sanctification—and there are no magic pills or shortcuts.

This means that being a Christian cannot be reduced to an awareness, for example an awareness of our need for God. It’s not simply about confessing sin in a moment of heighted guilt, or even believing that Jesus can save us. Nor it is about giving intellectual assent to a set of biblical or theological propositions, like when a church gives you a checklist of religious claims and says, “If you can tick-off all the boxes with a clear conscience then you can join our tribe.”  Christianity is not about becoming a member of a church. You can do all these things and still not be a true follower of Jesus. You can do all of this and still not experience radical transformation.

Why? Because Christianity is a way of life under the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. The earliest Christians were called “Followers of the Way,” referring to the way of life Jesus revealed in his life, death, and resurrection. Being a Christian is about deciding every day to completely surrender our will and lives over to the care and guidance of Christ. This decision is manifest in action as we learn more about Jesus through diligent study and prayer and practice these teaching in our daily interactions. This is a long, challenging, and even messy process, with many ups and downs, successes and failures. Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back. But if we dedicate our lives to learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus and keep moving forward then we are promised radical transformation. To hope for anything less is to embrace a partial or false gospel.

 

The Quadratos as a Guide to Transformation

Fortunately, we are not without guidance on this journey toward transformation. We have scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to help us. Regarding scripture, we are gifted with the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which contain the core teachings of Jesus.

While there are different ways of reading these Gospels, one that is particularly helpful is called the Quadratos (Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind, 2017). This interpretive tool helps us see the Gospels as a fourfold path to transformation, disclosing four major movements in the life of faith.

The first path begins with the Gospel of Matthew, where we are reminded that human beings desire permanence and resist change. Nevertheless, the world is in constant flux, and at various points we all experience significant change and loss, which evokes fear, betrayal, grief, and confusion. If we don’t handle these experiences wisely, they can throw us off-course on our journey. Facing life during significant change requires new spiritual resources, which the Gospel of Matthew helps us cultivate.

The Second path of the journey continues with the Gospel of Mark. In the first path, we are called to confront our fears and insecurities in the face of deep change, but as we continue to the second path these fears and insecurities fight back. The Gospel of Mark speaks to people who are undergoing intense emotional and spiritual suffering, people who are feeling isolated and abandoned. This season of life is like crossing a stormy sea or walking through an arid desert, but Christians have the Gospel of Mark to help them move through suffering on the journey to transformation. This is by far the most painful and difficult path of our journey.

As we faithfully follow Jesus, he leads us through change and suffering with the promise of great joy, which is the fruit of the third path revealed in the Gospel of John. As we remain faithful through the difficulties and missteps of the first two paths, God gives us times in which we experience the joy of intimate communion with the mystery of the world. These are sometimes described as unitive experiences, where we feel the oneness of all creation in the deep embrace of the divine. While this ecstatic experience is difficult to describe, people universally speak of a profound sense that everything—the totality of reality—is a pure gift of grace, which generates a deep sense of gratitude. This season of life is like resting in beautiful garden, and the Gospel of John helps us to recognize and receive these moments of joy in ways that are generative and productive for our journey.

But experience teaches us that we cannot stay in the garden. After receiving the joy of intimate communion with God, we are called to walk the road of loving service and to share our gifts with others. We are called to the fourth path revealed in the Gospel of Luke. Through patient trial and error, we learn to author our own life in service to others, especially those around us who are most vulnerable and needy. Filled with new energy, excitement, and perspective on the third path, we step out of the garden of John into the gifts and challenges of daily life. As we remain in the courage of our journey, we find more joy and transformation than we ever thought possible. On Luke’s fourth path, we are shown how to cultivate patience, faith, and equanimity. Our hearts and minds are reshaped by humility, compassion, and love.

It’s important to note that we do not simply walk these four paths once, but cycle through them repeatedly throughout life. This repetition is not a vicious circle but a spiral that moves us forward in productive ways. As we experience each part of the fold-fold journey, we learn important lessons, develop new spiritual and emotional resources, and acquire helpful tools, all of which, when integrated, help us mature. As a season of life returns (e.g., a time of seismic change or intense suffering) we experience it in a new way because we have seen it before and have learned important lessons. With each cycle of the four paths, we become wiser, stronger, and more courageous, all of which provides evidence for our ongoing transformation.

 

Challenge

As you pray and meditate this week, spend some time reflecting on personal experiences of significant change. What was the change? What feelings did it generate in you, both good and bad? How did you handle it? How did you get through it? What lessons did you learn? What did all of that teach you about facing change in the future?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, give us ears to hear your call to radical transformation and help us discern the first step of a new journey.

 

(This post is the first in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter three in Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

 

For Christ’s Sake: A Pastor’s Response to the Parkland School Shooting

(Below is a revised manuscript of a message Pastor Mark delivered at First United Methodist Church Cocoa Beach on February 18, 2018.)

 Introduction

I want to begin by apologizing for not mentioning the Parkland school shooting during our Ash Wednesday service. As a parent of four kids, I just didn’t want to admit to myself that this had happened again. But as I read the names and ages of the victims this week, grief and anger washed over me, and I would be derelict in my duties as a pastor if I failed to say something about it.

Honestly, I’m a little anxious. While pastors are called by God to teach people how to apply the values of Jesus Christ to every aspect of life, many of us are reluctant to speak out when shootings happen because the surrounding issues are so politicized. Nevertheless, being a leader entails a willingness to speak from the heart, letting the chips fall where they may. This is especially true for pastors who follow a Jewish rabbi that was crucified by religious and political leaders for speaking truth to power.

I want to begin by honestly acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers. Although I have extensive training in interpreting the gospel and applying it to Christian life, I’m not infallible. I can only speak the truth as I understand it, humbly acknowledging that my perspective has limits and blind spots, just like yours. Second, I must admit that I sometimes fail to practice what I preach. I’ve encountered people with different opinions and reacted in ways that fall short of the ideals I long to espouse. However, if the precondition for casting moral vision is moral perfection, we are all in serious trouble!

The Problem: Everything is Politicized and Polarized

From my perspective, the biggest problem we face today is the inability to talk to each other and collaborate to solve our most urgent problems. Everything has been politicized and polarized.

Some of our most influential leaders are professional politicians, and their jobs largely depend on two things: pleasing their financial donors and maintaining the support of their political base. To protect these things, some sacrifice their own personal identity for their tribe. Both political parties develop their platform, which is the framework for thinking, speaking, and problem solving. Staying within this framework is a sign of loyalty, and loyalty to the tribe promises funding and political protection.

The boundaries of this framework are clearly delineated by professional speech writers, who carefully craft talking points on every issue that could potentially alienate the political base or financial donors. When engaged in public discourse, politicians often protect themselves by parroting these talking points over, and over, and over again. It’s rare when a politician finds the courage to deviate from the party line and speak from their heart, and when they do it often results in marginalization and political attack. In this way, heart to heart conversations and collaborative problem solving are actively discouraged.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not the only ones who have this problem. The Bible says that human beings are fallen creatures, and one implication is our penchant for tribalism. Instead of embracing God’s vision of unity, peace, love, cooperation, and community, we try to secure ourselves by forming exclusive associations with people who look, think, believe, and act like us. Instead of crossing dividing lines to unify people around a common vision of compassion (which is what Jesus did), we fearfully double-down on those dividing lines to protect ourselves from people who are different. In this context, we tend to gravitate toward black and white thinking in which the world is divided-up into insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies, which gives us a sense of belonging, clarity, and purpose.

Knowing that we all have a penchant toward tribalism, politicians on both sides leverage this to their political advantage. They welcome us into their tribe and, working through their spokespersons on cable news networks, train us how to properly respond to any given issue. Again, being a valued member of the tribe means staying within the boundaries of the party platform and repeating the approved talking points. Arming ourselves with memorized soundbites and treating those who disagree as enemies to be defeated plays right into our sinful nature.

All of this comes together to create a hostile environment in which everything is politicized and polarized. The name of the game is divide and conquer, and winner takes all. Conceding anything to the other side, even the smallest point in an argument, is a cardinal sin punishable by exclusion.

Tragically, when we can’t talk to each other, we start thinking that there are no solutions to our problems, which tempts us to capitulate to the status quo—even when the status quo involves repetitive and increasing violence. Since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, when Adam Lanza murder 20 first-graders and 6 adults, there have been 239 school shootings in the US, which resulted in 438 wounded and 138 killed. So, the most recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 deaths, is simply one of many school shootings. In fact, studies show that going back to January 2014 there have been an average of five school shootings per month. (Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times, February 15, 2018)

Working Toward Solutions

As complicated as this issue might be, we cannot accept this as the new normal, and the very suggestion that there is nothing we can do about it should make us all mad as hell. There are things we can do, and to throw our hands in the air as helpless victims is nothing short of sin. We can and must act. As an American, as a Christian, as a parent, as a human being with a conscience, I believe that we should do everything in our power to curtail this madness. And while we cannot place all responsibility on the shoulders of our elected officials, they do have an important role to play as law makers. Everyone agrees, even Libertarians, that the most important job of government is to protect its citizens, and if our elected officials are not willing or able to set aside tribal politics to better protect our kids from gun violence, then we should throw them out of office and elect principled leaders who will.

Many argue that passing more restrictive gun laws will not eradicate school shootings. Pivoting away from the public policy debate, they say that gun violence is a “heart problem.” Since parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children good morals, the solution is for parents to raise healthy and responsible kids.

There is some truth in this argument. Christians believe that children are a gift from God, and part of our responsibility as parents is to teach our kids about love, compassion, and respect for all people, including those who are rejected, outcast, or ostracized. We should teach them how to identify and process painful emotions like rejection, loneliness, grief, and disappointment. We should have ongoing conversations with our kids about bullying and conflict resolution and cultivate trust in the family so kids feel safe asking questions and sharing what’s on their mind. We should be attentive to red flags in their mood and behavior, which means limiting their privacy. We need to know their friends and the parents of their friends. We need to know what they’re doing on their electronic devices: what apps they are using; what they’re texting, snapchatting, and instant messaging; what they are posting on social media sites; what videos they are watching, songs they are listening to, and video games they are playing. Do any of these things normalize, encourage, or glorify violence and killing? Do any of these things violate our Christian values? If so, we have a responsibility to restrict their access and talk to them about our values. Parents also need to recognize signs of abuse, mental illness, and emotional trauma, getting their kids professional help when needed. And parents are wise to surround their kids with other spiritually and emotionally healthy adults who can have a positive influence.

However, simply focusing on better parenting will not solve the problem. We also need to make changes in our education system. Those who spend the most time with kids other than their parents are teachers. Since many school shootings are perpetrated by disturbed students (or former students), part of the solution will involve shifting our priorities in public education and better resourcing our teachers and schools. Many educators will tell us that the state has become so focused on standardized testing that they have little if any time to teach the kids anything other than what’s anticipated on the next test. But teachers need time for other important things.

They need time to share best practices on how to recognize signs of isolation, bullying, grief, anger, and mental illness in their students. They need smaller class-sizes, so they can get to know their students on a more personal level and better spot red flags. All schools need an efficient referral system and enough school psychologists on staff to triage and assess troubled students. Schools need resources and opportunities for effective bullying prevention programs, diversity training, conflict resolution, and character development. I also think that every middle-school and high school should have a resource officer on campus to deal with more serious problems.

But even this is not enough. Whether we like it or not, there are important public policy concerns regarding mass shootings.

Take for example mental health. Everyone agrees that when we see something we should say something. When someone notices a child exhibiting strange behavior or signs of abuse, trauma, or mental illness, they should try to get that child help. But counseling and therapy are not free. So, if we are going to talk about treating mentally ill or troubled children, then we must also talk about healthcare. It makes no sense to say, “Mental illness is a big part of the problem,” if mentally ill people don’t have access to treatment. It makes no sense for parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults to look for red flags, unless the family of the child can afford to get them help. So part of the solution is to make sure that every child in our country has access to behavioral health services (which means talking about health insurance). No child in this country who is struggling mentally or emotionally should be excluded from treatment because of money.

Finally, we must find ways to put aside our tribal politics so we can have rational discussions about improving our gun laws to curtail gun violence. I hesitate to even say “gun control” because most people assume they know exactly what the phrase means and compulsively start parroting the prescribed talking points of their political party. But when we resist this knee jerk reaction and create space for genuine dialogue, we see a broad range of agreement in our country about specific policy changes that would help reduce mass shootings. Recent studies show that almost 90% of both Republicans and Democrats agree that mentally ill people should not be able to buy guns. Over 80% of both parties agree that people who are on no-fly lists or terrorist watchlists should not be able to buy guns. Almost 80% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agree on universal background checks (which would include closing the loopholes in personal and gun show sales), and a large majority of Americans agree on banning assault rifles and outlawing bump stocks. Still others agree we should limit the size of magazines and clips. (Ryan Struyk, “Here Are the Gun Control Policies That Majorities in Both Parties Support,” CNN, Updated November 6, 2017.) With these broad agreements between a clear majority of Americans, we should be able to revise our gun laws to make it more difficult for bad people to get guns and commit mass murder.

Are gun laws a panacea? No. Will stricter gun control prevent all gun violence? No. But this is no reason to throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, then, there’s nothing law makers can do about it!” That’s like saying, “If I can’t lose 50 pounds on my diet by tomorrow then what’s the point in trying to lose weight?” There are things our lawmakers can do to help to help reduce the death toll and they have a moral responsibility to do so.

As you can see, people on both sides have part of the solution, but these parts by themselves are not adequate for lasting change. We need people on both sides of the political aisle to bring their part of the solution so we can put all the pieces together for comprehensive reform. However, this will not be possible if money and tribalism render us morally bankrupt and destroy the possibility of collaboration.

 What About God?

While all the things mentioned above are important for addressing gun violence in America, there will be no lasting solutions with God. Human beings are not only physical and mental creatures, we are also spiritual beings. We are created in the image of God, and God desires an intimate relationship with each of us. It’s through this personal relationship with the divine that we find forgiveness and the overcoming of guilt; reconciliation and the overcoming of estrangement; joy and the overcoming of despair; peace and the overcoming of anxiety; unity and the overcoming of tribalism. It’s where we find healing and gain our true purpose in life beyond politics. It is where we learn how to love ourselves and others the way that God loves us. It is where we learn the true meaning of community and how to talk to each other and resolve conflict in healthy ways. It’s where the sacraments of baptism and communion erase all dividing lines and unite us under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The church has an important role to play by creating communities of belonging, love, compassion, justice, and peace. Many people who perpetrate acts of violence feel misunderstood, isolated, and outcast. They don’t believe that anyone cares about them or that their voice really matters. If the church will create communities of love where people feel genuinely accepted and heard, a place where they can honestly share what’s on the hearts and minds, without judgment or ridicule, then it can play a unique role in healing some of the pain that drives people to kill. When considering school shootings, this is particularly true for our children and youth programs.

Going even further in this regard, the church could help by refocusing on the teachings of Jesus regarding compassion for the lonely, outcast, and rejected. Jesus calls his disciples to reach out in love to these people and offer good news of forgiveness, healing, love, and friendship.

Finally, as United Methodist Bishop, Ken Carter, suggests, we can repent from our participation in a culture of death, grieve with those who are suffering, and pray for the families of the victims. But as important as it is to repent, grieve, and pray, we must not neglect to act. For Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, we must act.

Call to Action

Bishop Carter is inviting all United Methodists to write letters to our government officials, state and national, to insist that they prioritize the safety of our children amidst repetitive and escalating violence. You can find their names and contact information online by doing a Google search for “Florida Elected Officials.” If members will write letters and place them in addressed envelopes, our churches will cover the cost of postage and put them in the mail. The Bishop’s vision is for United Methodist Churches across the state of Florida to collect and send 5000 letters.

(Access the sermon on YouTube and iTunes)

Further Reading:

Bishop Ken Carter’s statement on Florida school shootings.

United Methodist Book of Resolutions, “Our Call the End Gun Violence.”

Pastor Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources: