Dying to Live: Suffering for a Higher Purpose

A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.

Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.

 

Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose

All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.

But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.

First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.

I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.

Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.

In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.

The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.

Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.

As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:

  • God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
  • Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
  • God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
  • God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
  • Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.

These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.

 

The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope

All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.

It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.

True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.

 

Challenge

Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?

We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.

 

(This post is the twelfth 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

Suffering, Confession, & Repentance

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  (Mark 1:1-5)

 

A Call to Repentance

The gospel of Mark begins with the announcement of good news to a people enduring great suffering. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative. Rather he jumps right to a message that the people needed to hear: you do not suffer alone; God suffers with you. This is communicated by evoking a prophecy in Isaiah of a suffering servant sent by God to save his people, and by suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The appropriate response upon hearing this good news is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which seems odd. Why would the first message to a brutalized people be a call to repentance? At first glance, this may seem like victim blaming. What exactly are the sins from which they need to repent?

Remember that when Rome burned in 64 C.E., Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and a mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on every door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Jesus follower. If a believer was identified, either by admission or because of someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified, then those living there were required to name someone else living elsewhere. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day.[i]

As they were subject to unimaginable horror, some people acted out of character, doing things that they deeply regretted. Some denied Jesus by denying their faith. Others betrayed friends to save their own families. Resentment and hatred poisoned their hearts in the face of unjust violence.

These are some of the sins from which they needed to repent because they created heavy burdens of shame. Seen in this way, repentance was a gift from God insofar as it provided a release from these burdens through the process of forgiveness. They needed to forgive themselves, as well as their family, friends, community, and enemies to move forward, live full lives, and be transformed into the image of Christ, the suffering servant.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah makes all this possible because he baptizes the repentant with the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers us to find freedom through repentance and forgiveness, both of which are miracles of God’s grace.

 

Suffering, Self-Discovery, and Forgiveness

In my own experience, suffering functions to peel away layers of old beliefs, thoughts, and patterns of action that cloud a true understanding of our pain. So often we don’t really know the source of our pain or what drives it because our understanding is distorted by false assumptions and stories we tell ourselves that are simply not true. Suffering can initiate a process of self-discovery that strips away the things that deceive so we can get to the roots of our suffering, which is the only place where true healing can happen.

However, this itself is a painful process. When our illusions and defense mechanisms are stripped away, we are required to face the fullness of our suffering. This is experienced as a kind of death—the death of ego. Many try to shorten this process by rushing forgiveness, as if it were a momentary decision of the will: “I forgive you. Yes, yes, all is fine now.” But all is not fine because forgiveness has not really happened. Rather this is an exercise in denial that sweeps the wrongdoing under the rug and prevents authentic forgiveness, which includes naming and condemning the offense, grieving losses, processing resentment, converting bitterness into compassion, and reassessing the boundaries in the relationship. Although denial may appear to work for a little while, over time it proves to be another deception that must be stripped away by suffering, so we can get in touch with deeper currents of anger, pain, and shame. Healing from brokenness and betrayal, the kind inflicted on us by others and the kind we inflict on ourselves, is a process that takes time. It cannot be rushed. And part of this process involves the confession of sin and repentance.

This is hard to hear when you’ve been the target of mistreatment or abuse. We must be very careful not to blame victims for offenses inflicted on them by others. (See the comments below on appropriate and inappropriate guilt.) But even truly innocent victims sometimes discover that they need to repent from their reaction to the offense. For example, some retaliate with violence, repaying evil with evil, while others nurse resentment for years.

These examples illustrate a more general truth: it’s hard to focus on our part in wrongdoing when our part is very small. Except in extreme cases of victimization, we usually bear some responsibility in the conflict we experience with others. Sometimes our part is easy to see because we’re mostly to blame, or at least a 50/50 participant. But when the offense of another is pronounced and obvious, it can eclipse the small ways that we may have contributed, making it appear as if the other person is 100% to blame.

Imagine having a difficult conversation with someone where you honestly spoke the truth in love. He gets furious and retaliates by mistreating you for months, trashing you behind your back to anyone who will listen. Resisting the temptation to repay insult for insult, you remain loving and continue to act morally. Then, one day, after a particularly nasty attack, you lose your temper and send an email in which you speak more truth, but this time it’s in anger not love. You’ve had enough, and your primary goal is to hurt him in the same way he has hurt you. Your enemy then takes the email and makes it public to continue hurting you. The wrong doing of this disgruntled man is so obvious and prolonged that it is easy to saddle him with 100% of the blame. By highlighting his gross wrong doing, you can eclipse your own small part and act as if you’re totally innocent. But if you want to be healed and spiritually transformed, you must own your part, even if it’s so small in comparison that it’s hard to see. Indeed, even if the other person is 99% to blame, you still must confess and repent of your 1%.

 

Understanding Confession and Repentance

But what do we mean by confession and repentance? Neither one of these spiritual practices can be reduced to a fleeting memory of wrongdoing acknowledged by an obligatory, “I’m sorry.” Many of us know from experience how these words can be used to avoid the natural consequences of bad action.

In contrast, true confession is about making a searching and fearless moral inventory. By seriously reflecting on the full scope of our wrongdoing, we gain a better understanding of the nature of our offense, what causes and motivates it, and what negative consequences ensue for everyone involved. Having done this, true repentance requires us to feel the pain we have caused others through genuine empathy, so when we say the words, “I’m sorry,” they are heartfelt. After connecting with the pain we’ve caused others, true repentance also requires us to fully accept the consequences of our actions, to become willing to make amends, and to commitment to addressing the roots of our problem so we can make lasting positive changes. Taken together, confession and repentance expose the character defects that drive our sin, putting us in a position to receive healing and liberation.

It’s important to note that repentance is not about self-hatred or beating ourselves up. Just as we seek to be compassionate with others, we also seek to be compassionate with ourselves. Just as we seek to forgive others, we also seek to forgive ourselves. This means that while we should accept the appropriate guilt that we deserve, we should not accept inappropriate guilt that we do not. This requires good boundaries because some people will try to blame us for things we haven’t done or manipulate us into assuming a disproportionate amount of the blame. But honesty cuts both ways. Just as we should not try to hide or deny our contribution (no matter how small), nor should we accept blame that does not belong to us, or the false narratives spun to legitimate the offering of inappropriate guilt.

 

Challenge

True repentance is an exercise in honesty, a gift from God in the larger process of forgiveness that can heal our pain and set us free for deep spiritual transformation. So, if you are suffering today because of sin, either your own or someone else’s, then remember that God has given us a way out. It takes time to work through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, but if you stay close to Jesus and get the help you need, your pain will not last forever. As you heal you will experience fundamental changes that will serve you well on the path to freedom, peace, and joy.

How your pain changes you is partly dependent on your willingness to deal with it in God’s way.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, help me to be honest about my own wrongdoing so that I can truly repent and be set free. Forgive my sin, heal my pain, and empower me to forgive others.

___________________________________

[i] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2017), 131.

 

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

Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth 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] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.

Remember Who You Are: The Beatitudes, Identity, and Vision

The movie, Wonder, is an inspirational story about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers with Treacher Collins syndrome. After being taught at home most of his life, he started public school for the first time upon entering fifth grade. This required him to leave behind the astronaut helmet that he wore to hide his facial deformities. Sadly, he was ostracized by nearly the entire student body, but quickly became best friends with a boy named Jack Will. On Halloween, while everyone was dressed-up at school, he overheard Jack make fun of his deformities and tell the other boys that he was only pretending to be Auggie’s friend. Feeling betrayed, Auggie had a breakdown after arriving home.

His mother, Isabel, offered comfort by saying, “You are not ugly, Auggie,” who replied, “You just have to say that because you’re my mom.” She responded, “Because I am your mom, it counts the most, because I know you the most.” Since Isabel knew her son better than anyone else, she could see the truth about Auggie, even when he couldn’t see it himself. When the other kids were cruel, it was important for her to remind him that he was a good, kind-hearted, smart boy with a great sense of humor. When Auggie felt ugly and rejected, he needed her to speak truth into his life. Despite continued bullying at school, the words of truth spoken by his mother gave Auggie the strength to be his authentic self. As a result, other kids were also enabled to see below the surface of his deformities and accept him as a friend.

The truth that Auggie’s mother spoke reminded him of his true identity and encouraged him to live into that reality. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does something similar for us in giving the beatitudes (5:1-12).

Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was truly a paradigm shift in their thinking that resulted in big changes to their religious beliefs and way of life. It launched them on a new journey that took them into the heart of an emerging reality that Jesus called the kingdom of God. The decision to live in this new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, meant to live under the reign of God in accordance with God’s values. However, these early Christians soon discovered that these values were diametrically opposed to the upside-down values of the world. In their very efforts to align their lives with God’s ways of life, they came face-to-face with fierce resistance, and instead of feeling blessed many felt cursed.

As the author of Matthew drew on the words of the historical Jesus to compose his gospel, the beatitudes became an occasion to remind these early Christians of their true identity in Christ and to encourage to them to keep the faith during times of difficulty. It’s like we can hear Jesus saying: While you might feel cursed when evaluating your circumstances according to the value system of the world, when seen according to the values of the kingdom you are truly blessed by God because you are living in the truth. Therefore, remember who you are and remain faithful. God looks upon you with favor and will vindicate and reward you in the end.

In this way, Jesus’ words gave encouragement and hope to a group of Christians who were struggling to find meaning in difficult circumstances, which were caused by their commitment to God’s way of life. In addition, the beatitudes revealed the marks of authentic discipleship, which not only confirmed that they were on the right path but also provided ongoing direction for their spiritual journey. With each pronouncement of blessing, Jesus says, “I declare by the power of my word that this is who you really are in the eyes of God, so remember who you are, be encouraged, and live into this reality.”

As we meditate on these pronouncements of blessing, Jesus can do the same for us. So, let’s turn to the beatitudes themselves to remember who we are and see more clearly who God is calling us to be.

 

The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew[1]

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The poor in spirit are those with no spiritual qualifications, charisma, or influence. No one would think to ask their opinion on religious matters or call on them to pray or teach a Bible study. According to the religious elites, these people were spiritually bankrupt and excluded from salvation without their rituals, teachings, and intercessions. Then Jesus comes along and says: God’s kingdom is open to you. Far from being excluded, God eagerly awaits your entry. While the “holier-than-thou” may look down on you, God sees your value and uses your spiritual poverty to reveal an important mark of authentic discipleship: humility. Those who are poor in spirit know that they cannot be saved by religion. Rather, they are entirely dependent upon God and find their identity, security, and hope in God’s saving action. Consequently, they are truly blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Like Jesus, the meek are “gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). The world says, “Assert your will and leverage your power to take what you want,” but the meek renounce the coercive, domineering, and violent ways of the world. In so doing, they expose the dark side of power and the damage it does to human beings. While the meek look foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, Jesus says, “these are the ones who demonstrate real strength and who are truly blessed.” When God finishes the new creation, the meek—not the domineering, forceful, manipulative, or violent—will inherit the earth. You can mock them all you want as impotent and impractical, but God will vindicate and reward them in the end.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). Like meekness, mercy is often seen as a sign of weakness. The world says, “If you are merciful, people will take advantage of you. If you don’t want to become a doormat, show strength not mercy.” But according to the value system of the kingdom, the merciful reflect the compassionate heart of God. By making the truth of God’s love and forgiveness real in this broken world, they show themselves to be true disciples. While the world may crush them for their kindness, Jesus says they are truly blessed because they reap what they sow—divine mercy.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). In this pronouncement, Jesus blesses people who sincerely pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (6:10). They long for God to right-wise this fallen world with love, justice, and peace. They ache for the time when God will vindicate His people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. Based on this hope, they actively seek to extend the reign of God’s righteousness in the world around them, even at great cost to themselves. Since God is faithful, their hope is not in vain—their hunger for justice will be satisfied when God’s redemptive work in creation is complete.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). In this pronouncement, Jesus is not saying that mourning, in and of itself, is a virtue. Rather, like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is blessing people who lament the present condition of God’s people in a world subject to sin, evil, and death. According to Jesus, the truly blessed refuse to resign themselves the present condition of the world but mourn the fact that God’s will has not yet been done “on earth as it is in heaven.” They are blessed because they will be comforted by God’s ultimate victory.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9). Note that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers,” those who fear conflict and sweep it under the rug. Nor does he endorse the kind of peacemaking done by the Romans at the tip of a sword. Rather, he pronounces blessing on those who are courageous enough to engage the incredibly difficult work of reconciliation. Peacemakers work to eliminate hostilities between enemies in hopes that they may be restored to friendship. While the bullies and conflict avoiders of the of the world try to sideline the peacemakers, Jesus says, “In the last judgement, they will be claimed as God’s children.”

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Purity of heart is not about avoiding what some consider impure thoughts, but about single-minded devotion to God. Rather than dividing ourselves among several different loyalties, which will inevitably require us to compromise our values, our ultimate loyalty to God subordinates all others. This means that when the value system of the kingdom comes into conflict with the value system of the world, the kingdom always wins. Instead of serving two masters (6:24), we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (22:37). We how to live with “undivided heart” (Ps. 86:11). While the world may see the pure in heart as naïve, Jesus says that they are blessed because they will see God in the feast of the new creation.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-12).

As we have already seen, the value system of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the value system of this present world. As disciples of Jesus try to imitate his life by being humble, meek, and merciful; as they hunger and thirst for justice and lay their lives on the line for reconciliation; as they act out of a single-minded devotion to God, they meet fierce resistance. In their imitation of Christ, their very life shines light in dark places, exposing the violence and injustice of the wicked, who, in turn, try to extinguish their light. One strategy for this is persecution: using power to silence, smear, discredit, dominate, oppress, imprison, punish, torture, and even kill. People who experience these sufferings may appear to be cursed by God when seen through the eyes of the world, but according to the values of the kingdom they are blessed because they suffer for the truth. While the powerful may make their lives a living hell on earth, Jesus says, “their reward will be great . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Summary and Challenge

These words of Jesus, reminding us of who we are and encouraging us along the way, are important as we navigate change on the journey to transformation. When all the evidence suggests that we are cursed for embracing a cruciform way of life, we need to evaluate our circumstances in light of the value system of the kingdom. This is no easy task, because challenge, discomfort, and pain cause us to lose perspective, especially since the value system of the world seems to be our native language. But if we see ourselves through its distorted lenses, we are easily discouraged and tempted to give-up and turn back.

In order to cultivate the courage, strength, and hope to keep moving forward with Jesus, we must find ways to stay focused on the value system of the kingdom. We do this by developing a daily discipline of prayer and meditation on scripture (especially the teachings of Jesus). We do this by sharing life with the friends of Jesus who are marginalized and oppressed. We do this by declaring the reign of God’s righteousness in worship and allowing every aspect of our lives to be an expression of God’s glory. We do this by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love.

Focusing on the value system of the kingdom of God sharpens our ability to see the world and ourselves as God does, which is encouraging when all hell breaks loose. By meditating on the beatitudes we are reminded who we are, given direction for our journey, and empowered by renewed vision and hope.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I’m blinded by the value system of the world and begin to think that I’m cursed, remind me of who I am in Christ and help me see the world in the light of your coming kingdom.

(This post is the fifth 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.)

[1] My understand of the beatitudes is informed by E. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes [NIBC], 178-180.

 

 

 

 

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.)

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?”

Surfing, Yoga, Discipleship

Being an older surfer in Cocoa Beach can be challenging. While we sometimes get good swells, we also suffer through days, even weeks, when it’s flat. This means that you can’t rely on surfing alone to stay in good surfing shape.

Although I enjoy playing sports, I’ve never enjoyed exercising. I’ve tried weightlifting, jogging, and even “surfing workouts” in the gym, but eventually I lose interest and stop. When a good swell rolls through, I struggle to find my rhythm in the water because I’m out of shape. Winded paddling out, slow to pop-up, and sore to the bone after a two-hour session, I tell myself, “You’ve got to get back in the gym.”

Not too long ago, I remembered a conversation with an older surfer at The Longboard House. He said that, after turning forty, the best thing he did to improve his surfing was take-up yoga. While I tried yoga in college, it didn’t stick. But now I needed to do something to stay in shape between swells, and it seemed better than repping-out squats next to a guy flexing in a mirror while drinking water out of a gallon jug. So I started going to Infinity Yoga with my friend, Dan.

My initial logic was simple: Dan does yoga, and Dan rips. Maybe if I do yoga, I will rip too.

While I’m not as consistent in my practice as I want to be, I’m doing yoga more often and experiencing some real benefits, both physical and spiritual.

Before going to class today, I read Psalm 106:1-5 during morning prayer, which led me to meditate on mercy. When I got to yoga, the instructor (as usual) led us through some deep breathing, reminded us of the importance of remaining open and compassionate, and invited us to “set an intention” for the class. After silently saying the Jesus prayer in cadence with my breathing, I set my intention on what I had already been pondering, mercy.

As in all meditation, the mind wanders. In the middle of class, when twisted in a challenging pose, the instructor, Martha, said, “Notice in your body what feels good, and focus on that.” While this initially brought my attention to physical sensations that I would have otherwise missed, it also got me thinking about life. About how we often feel comfort and discomfort at the same time, and how we have a choice about where to focus our attention. It got me thinking about the benefits of to learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions, and how to relax under stress.

My wandering mind came back to the room when Martha reminded us to return to our breathing and refocus on our intention. After a couple of deep breaths, it suddenly struck me, “I’m praying.” In addition to exercising, my time on the mat was turning into an extension of my time with God in morning prayer. It also occurred to me that throughout the class my awareness of others waxed and waned. I noticed an inward and outward movement of attention; a rhythm of going inward to pray alone, followed by a going outward to pray with others. Which led to another realization: yoga is a kind of worship experience.

This was a joyful discovery because, as a pastor, I often feel like my responsibilities for leading weekly services leave me with little time to sink into the presence of God with others in corporate worship. But this is exactly what was happening on the mat today, and it’s exactly what I needed.

At the end of class, the instructor offered positive, loving, and encouraging words. She reminded us that we are full of light and that we should share that light with others. This warmed my heart because light has long been one of my favorite mediation images. While meditating during my devotional time, I often imagine breathing in light until my heart glows and then breathing out light as my whole body is illuminated. (Check out Matthew 5:16.) So the final words at the end of practice felt like one of many little confirmations that I’m on the right path in this season of my life.

What better way to stay in shape than to practice a form of meditative exercise that will not only improve my surfing but also make me a better human being.

Who knows, maybe this is a form of exercise that I will finally stick with, even if it doesn’t make me rip like Dan.