…and God is still good.

Has life ever felt like one brand new experience after another, some experiences you have asked for and some that you haven’t?

Personally, I think that we are often prepared only for those enterprises in life that are familiar and rote.  Rarely are we prepared for those experiences and times that hurt, that would offer us growth as a person.

A recent example is an outdoor adventure involving refugee kids from a local community here in Charlotte.  Our church partnered with Camp Canaan to bus in about 50 kids to experience a sand island in the Catawba River, complete with hiking, soccer and a zip-line.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

As I approached this zip-line with its platform approaching the lower canopy of leaves, I already began to feel a little shaky.  The wooden planks forming this veranda in the sky seemed to me to be a bit too small.  Yet, what better motivation for a new adventure than watching 6 year olds scale this ladder of wood and bark, leaving only their fear behind to taunt me upward too.

I was the adult there.  As in, I have responsibilities like…breathing and…my legs…but that didn’t stop me (or my pride rather) from tracing the steps of many brave souls gone before.  Maybe the platform was about 30 feet up but then again, it could have been 100 feet up.  It didn’t matter because I was there and people are watching and I may not ever be here again.

So I climbed…

…and God is still good.  But what makes Him good isn’t my understanding of the word “good” because I often ascribe a definition of goodness that would benefit my current state of being, or doing or thinking…

…and I climbed…

…because you see I have a rather small definition of goodness.  This definition of God’s goodness generally revolves around me getting something positive or feeling a certain way.  The inverse of this small definition, or rather, the risk of this small definition is that if things aren’t going my way or if don’t feel a certain way then perhaps God isn’t quite as good as I think He should be…

…and I stood on the edge of that platform…

…realizing that the problem for me isn’t that the Lord is good but that I often put Him in a box of ‘goodness’ that is just too small…kind of like the platform I was standing on.

“God, you are good while I’m here on the ground.  You are good while gravity is my friend and while I’m looking up instead of looking down.  God, you are good when I have a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear, family and friends to love.”

There’s only one way off this platform that allows me to keep my dignity.  Of course that’s just my pride talking because I can climb back down.  The deeper issue is that there is only one way off this platform that lets me leave all the questions behind…questions like, ‘what if I had just jumped’ or ‘what does it feel like to fly’?

Shaking, nervous, scared, unknown…God is still good.  There’s only way to know that goodness and leave the questions behind: to trust Him and jump.  The Lord was good way down there on the ground, safe and comforted.  Up here…my definition of goodness has to expand.

There’s only way to know that God is still good despite the hurt, pain, confusion or anger and that is to trust His goodness in spite of it.  There’s only one way off this platform that redeems every aching, scary step up to it and that is to let go and jump.

“God, you are good while I am way up here on this platform.  You are good while gravity is vengeful and while I’m looking down instead of looking up.  God, you are good when I don’t have a bed to sleep in, naked and ashamed having lost all family or friends.”

God, you are good and we leap…

…and we laugh, breath taken, loving deeply this wind in our hair and this view so magnificent and we laugh…

…because You are still good, so very good to us.  Not because we jumped but because that’s just who You are.  A different experience, another stretch, a bigger definition and the box I’ve kept You and my heart in is slowly crumbling.

Hey, look back there…do you see that?  That platform isn’t quite as high anymore.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

A Birchcroft kid coming down after the long zip!

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political conventions and permission to doubt.

As I write these words, Ann Romney stands at the podium admonishing the nature of love in a Republican-Mormon family.  This week the Republican National Convention is taking place in Tampa, FL.  Next week, in my hometown of Charlotte, NC the Democratic National Convention will meet.  There will be political maneuvering behind the scenes, back-slapping and high-fives on both sides of the political aisle.  2016 is already in the sights of many ambitious politicians.

Name dropping is the vernacular.  You don’t actually talk to other people at the convention, you simply look at them and say a name.  They in turn say another name, you both nod and then walk away.

Seriously though, these types of events represent the pinnacle of American political idealism.  The real question is, “Who can be the most optimistic about America’s future?”  Which political party can paint the most vivid picture of a dream that we all want to be a part of?  Promises like “not failing and not being let down” get thrown around so lightly that they are almost believable.  Please don’t interpret my cynicism as opposition to a particular ideology.  Rather, read my cynicism as a set-up for a deeper truth…

The staff at Renovatus has recently read Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  In it, he writes, “It is common sense that some situations call for pessimism, but as a culture Americans have strangely decided to endow optimism with unqualified favor.  Politicians today compete to be the most optimistic, and accuse their opponents of pessimism, as it if were a defect.

If optimism is seen as an asset to a political agenda then pessimism is a liability.  If joy and happiness are the obvious outcomes to voting one way, then depression and melancholy must be the outcomes of voting another.  What provokes my thoughts about these political conventions are questions like, ‘How much of a liability is it to be authentic’ or ‘What would happen to my political career if I was to doubt something?’  It seems to me that building a platform around having all the right answers is flawed from the beginning.

I don’t think the speechwriters will work in the phrase ‘I’m not sure what we should do about the budget deficit.’  If a candidate approached the podium and began their speech with, “This is a crazy world, I don’t have the answers and frankly I’m a little doubtful”, that candidate would lose their platform instantly.  While I’m not saying anyone should start a speech that way it will always be easier to start a political diatribe with the ‘answers’ rather than authentic questions or doubt.  As valuable as optimism is to the American ideal, so is quick access to solutions for all that ails us emotionally, physically, spiritually or mentally.

Shenk continues:

Over the past few decades, a stigma in politics against emotional health treatment has extended to any display of unscripted emotion…Somehow, anything short of constant cheer has come to be perceived as a violation of the American religion.  Even as we practically drown in the information about politicians’ predilections – from snack foods to underwear – a kind of supposition of infallibility keeps us from a real discussion of character, because the real things human beings actually experience are considered taboo.  We all know that our presidents, as Bob Dylan sang, “sometimes must have to stand naked.”  Yet anyone who dared to be nakedly emotional would face death by a thousand cuts.

I think there’s an alternative model to having all the answers often seen in politics.  Let’s take a quick look at man called John the Baptist.  John wasn’t running for political office.  If he was running for office he wouldn’t have publicly called out the local king, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife as his own.  It landed him in jail and it ultimately cost him his life.

While in prison, John heard of the miracles that Christ was doing and he sent two disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah or should we be looking for someone else?”  This wouldn’t be so awkward if John himself hadn’t been the one to baptize Christ, subsequently watching the heavens open up and hearing a voice from heaven declare, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  There’s not exactly a lot of ambiguity here.  It sounds like this might be the Son of God you baptized, John.

I don’t know why John doubted Christ while in prison.  Maybe it was prison that did it.  Regardless, when John’s disciples found Christ and asked Him that question, He didn’t get angry.  He didn’t rear back and declare, “Why, that no-good, ungrateful low down, dirty…”  He told the disciples to run back and tell John of all the miracles that were taking place.  He then turned to the gathered crowd and he declared, “Among those born of women, there has not been one greater than John the Baptist.”

Christ didn’t chastise John or his disciples…instead, He praised John.  Jesus didn’t get offended by John’s authentic doubt, he praised John as more than a prophet!  It sounds like Christ is comfortable enough in Himself to encourage an authentic answer over a religious answer.  It sounds like God honors authentic doubt when that doubt is fostered in an authentic search.

It’s hard to imagine what religious tradition would be,” says scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, “if there weren’t people looking up and saying that they disagreed with what had come before.”  Maybe this is why John the Baptist felt so comfortable challenging the traditions of the Pharisees and religious teachers.

While American politics and civil religion may not lend themselves to doubt or authenticity, I find it encouraging to know that Christ values my authenticity and vulnerability far above my struggle to be eternally optimistic.  I would rather be in prison with John than in the throne room with Herod.  Christ praised the former over the latter and eventually elected to identify with death as well.  Like John, He knew what was worth dying for.  Perhaps a better understanding of reality would help us to know that truth as well.

I hope I’ve encouraged your doubting and your authenticity a little.  Thank you for reading this and as always, God bless you and God bless…wait, there’s a better ending to this speech.  How about, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

On this, my 30th…

I suppose I was looking to wake up feeling different or smarter as I embark on my 31st year. Alas, such forlorn thinking is reserved for the movies. Rather, I woke up just a little more grateful for those people in my life I call “friends” and a little more grateful for the grace of God.

I suppose I didn’t deserve the previous 30 years and to remember that I don’t deserve this day might serve my gratefulness a little more too. I offer this note of thanks to every single individual that I have crossed paths with, perhaps even leaving in my wake a trail of pain, love or ambivalence. To each of you, I say thank you for sowing a piece of yourself into my tapestry and letting me sow a bit of myself into yours.

It’s not easy to look back on the choices I’ve made that have caused others hurt but to look back on those choices at all is itself an act of God’s mercy. I believe more today than ever before in the notions of sovereignty, providence and free will. I believe more today than ever before that life is a gift and to celebrate that gift is divine.

To those who might read this and are suffering under the weight of an unfair hand, I admonish you with this simple word: “wait“. Time can be the cruelest of enemies and the best of friends. The gift of time is perspective and the gift of perspective is contentment. Settle deeply into the weight of what ails you and know that waiting will yield your catharsis.

For those of you who know me and my life at the intersection of introversion and extroversion, I offer you this brief poem in an unusual moment of lucidity:

Time waits for no man
and I list blissfully in her arms
like a babe cognizant of a
distant tomorrow.

Time waits for no woman
and I resist her grip
like a toddler longing for
the freedom of open space.

Time waits for no child
and I gaze unyieldingly
at the choices of a
blurring yesterday.

Time waits not for me
as I’m confronted with the
choices of a new day
and another year.

Time waits for no man
to discern how absolutely gracious
she has been for the gift of
time.

On this, my 30th…I am loved and so are you.

teaching a perfectionist to pray.

Leave it to a perfectionist to mess something up like prayer.  I’m convinced that perfectionism isn’t just a personality characteristic, it’s a barrier to freedom.

In my eternal struggle to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’, I was recently reminded that prayer isn’t about that.  More about that reminder in a second…

Muslim prayer beads

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My theological definition of prayer:

The nature of prayer, it’s very essence, is communication with God.  It is the means by which we turn the attention of our mind, body and spirit toward heaven.  The purpose of prayer is to connect the created with the Creator.  Every time we pray, we submit ourselves to something greater, far above any one of us.  Prayer to an unseen God is itself an act of faith. 

It’s hard for perfectionists to pray.  Just like every other aspect of our lives that must be aligned perfectly with some unknown, unseen, impossible expectation, so too do our prayers need to line up.

What I needed to be reminded of:

Not having the exact words to pray will never negate the effectiveness or hope that is wrapped up in the words themselves as it is the heart of these words that pleases God.

Prayers don’t have to be formulaic either for informal/spontaneous or for formal/liturgical contexts.  Some of the prayers that I could cognitively articulate (or muster) from the depths of my grief were simply the words “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”  Some of the prayers that spilled from own my lips in a corporate setting even surprised me as I couldn’t seem to think what I was saying and yet it ministered to those listening.

Prescribing formulas in prayer (as well as in theology) tend to be more for us, the people praying, as opposed to God who transcends our formulas.  There are books, journals, sermons extending well into church history examining the nature and purpose of prayer but at the end of the day, I’m learning that God just wants to hear from us.

So how can a perfectionist like myself learn to pray? 

  1. First, in remembering that I can’t impress God with fancy words, I’m free to just be myself.  Even in my quiet moments where I have an audience of one, I have to quiet myself.  The noise of the day and the busyness of life often slowly and steadily creep into the corners of my mind.  The need to impress God, along with everyone else in my perfectionist life, will continue to be a hindrance to my sense of peace.
  2. Secondly, I have to resist the temptation of relying on my own mental lexicon of synonyms to explain the same idea over and over.  In fact, if I was to repeat anything over and over it would be His praises.
  3. Finally, I have to let the Spirit speak those inarticulate, unutterable words to, through and from me.  I believe the Spirit knows the difference when our prayers begin with “Our Father who art in Heaven…” and when our prayers are more or less vomited from the gut.  I believe the Spirit comforted the Jews of Auschwitz as they breathed their last prayers just as he comforts the parents of Trayvon Martin today.

Faithful prayer takes a variety of shapes and sounds.  It can be directed toward God in praise, for ourselves in petition, for others in intercession or for our enemies in imprecation.

Prayer is far more cathartic than I’ve realized.  This is why even secular counselors and therapists will recommend prayer as a means of healing.  Wiccans pray, Muslims pray, Hindu’s pray, and even atheists will pray when the situation warrants it.

A perfectionist like myself will pray best when I lay down my pretenses and self-expectations to simply dwell in the height, depth and love of the Creator’s attention toward me, His creation.

My reminder to pray:

So what was my reminder?  It was listening to the prayers of a child.  Simple, heartfelt and poignant, their prayer was this:

“God, thank you for my friends and my mommy and daddy and my bed and let Pastor Jonathan be nice.”

Yep.  That was the reminder I needed.

So what are your thoughts on prayer, perfectionism or both?  Continue the conversation in the comments below or find me on Twitter and Facebook and let me know there.

 

Wikipedia: Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004, operated and privately owned by Facebook Inc., Facebook has more than 845 million active users.

why true leaders are powerless: a reflection on the cross.

It was my first magazine interview.  And by magazine I mean ‘denominational publication’ and by interview I mean a Q & A sheet.  In fact, they really just wanted to fill the last page with something, so I was picked for “Meet The New Guy”.  One of the questions asked was for a favorite quote.  I really wanted to sound smart and well-read, especially since I was new to the position…

So one Google quote search later, I picked a Henri Nouwen gem you might have heard.  It is from In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.  In it he says, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  I read that and thought, ‘I’m definitely going to look good quoting this guy.’

Then life happened.

Five years later, two different jobs later, ‘coming out of retirement‘ later, I met Henri Nouwen again.  It was amazing how insightful he had become in that time.

the temptation of power…

I was just asked recently by one of my seminary professors, “How have you seen leadership give in to the temptation of power?”  He wanted us to answer it after reading Nouwen’s leadership text.  Some of my classmates chose to identify prominent pastors and other failures of Christian leadership.

This stung a little as all I had to do was look at my own story.  While I know this is a Christian professor teaching Christian content, I do want to call attention to the fact that all leadership is tempted toward power because all leadership is human.

I can easily point to historical figures like Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon who yielded to power.  To point out the failures of bishops and pastors isn’t wrong but it doesn’t get at the root of the matter.  I’m tempted to power and control not based on my position but based on my humanity.

It just so happens that when a leader has an audience and they give in to the temptation of power it’s broadcast for all to see.  The temptation to manipulate power can take any shape and form and I would dare say that we look no further than our own hearts to find it.

According to Henri Nouwen, the temptation for a Christian is to consider power as an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel.  In fact, he would even say it’s the greatest temptation of all.  What Nouwen is driving at is that we are all guilty when we choose power as a means of control.  Based on this definition, many of our most successful leaders have given into the temptation of power and been praised for it.

I’m one of those leaders.

Five years after first proclaiming that “it’s easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life”, I still find myself wanting to be God, control people and own life.

powerless is good…

This same seminary professor immediately followed up with another question, “How is the cross a symbol of power and powerlessness?”

I knew what he was driving at even though I’m sometimes tempted to think of the cross as neither a power-full or power-less symbol but rather a commodity to my faith.  Or worse, a commodity to my religion.

The truth is, I believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I believe the cross is the centerpiece of history.

I do believe the cross is a power-full symbol of power in that it represents the sovereignty and providence of God.  It is because of the cross that I am free from sin and brought into right standing before and with God.

Nouwen again writes, “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.”

It’s when I look at the cross as a symbol of powerlessness that I find shelter from the temptation to manipulate others with power.

In fact, I see the cross is more than a symbol of powerlessness, it is an instrument of powerlessness.  It was an instrument of torture and death.  There are only a few sadistic machinations from human history that match the depravity of death by cross.  The cross means to kill us.

One doesn’t climb onto a cross and hang for a little while, hurting until they are brought down.  Once you have been hung on a cross, you don’t come down until you are dead.  If I or anyone could come down from the cross before death then I would have defeated its power.

It’s only when I am powerless to come down from the cross that I have discovered its nature and purpose.  Essentially, Christ gave up his power to come down.  He chose it.  A common criminal couldn’t make that choice…you and I couldn’t make that choice but the Son of God could.

For a brief moment, He gave up His access to the powers of the universe so that at our hands He could die.

why true leadership is powerless…

We are commanded to take up that instrument and let the due diligence of its weight work on us.  If I could add an additional point to Nouwen’s, it would be this, “It’s easier to like the cross, than to die on it.”

Knowing, being and doing aren’t always hand in hand.  To lead, as Nouwen points out, is to be led.  It is to offer ourselves up.  It is to trade our dreams of power for something beyond ourselves.

Five years later, Nouwen still says it best: “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

when did porn cost so much?

The Epidemic of Pornography

Back In The Day
I remember in the 9th grade, I could buy a magazine or a video for a few dollars from a kid at school who may have taken it from his dad.  Getting my hands on something pornographic wasn’t difficult at all.

It could have been on trading cards or something else gimmicky.  I even remember a pen, that when held upside down revealed a nude women inside it.  This cheap trinket was probably sold at a highway truck stop for kicks and eventually sojourned into the hands of eager adolescent boys who giggled and laughed at it.

It was peddled with cigarettes and marijuana.  It was stuffed in lockers and book bags, gleefully peeking out at anyone who dared look.

“Over time, the porn peddlers grew up…”

Then along came the internet – the discount retailer of pornography.  Every aisle has something different and something cheaper.  Like perusing the store and finding the most obscure items, the internet offers variety at a price everyone can afford: cheap.  Monthly subscriptions took the place of magazines and videos.

Over time, the porn peddlers grew up.  They graduated with business and marketing degrees to build an empire and pricing structure that everyone can afford: free.  Mark Zuckerberg may have transformed social media but it’s pornographers who pushed the boundaries of what the internet was even capable of in the first place.

The New Normal
Pornography is available in the living rooms, offices, bedrooms of anyone with an internet connection.  Locker room talk for adolescent boys turns into “no-talk” for adult men.  The stigma associated with pornography consumption is often masked with pubescent humor: seen Superbad?  It’s always easier to laugh away our shame than to confront its sources.

Porn consumption is not just limited to men either.  An increasing number of women are turning to porn to see their fantasies acted out, to avoid intimacy in a relationship, and simply to aid masturbation.  Imagery is increasingly replacing literature to enhance a women’s libido.

“The average age of first porn exposure is 11…”

Psychologists argue whether pornography should be diagnosed as “addicting” but the behaviors are remarkably similar.  With the same physiological effects of a cocaine high, WebMD offers this information:

“One of the key features of addiction…is the development of a tolerance to the addictive substance.  In the way that drug addicts need increasingly larger doses to get high…addicts need to see more and more extreme material to feel the same level of excitement they first experienced.

Jonathan Stone wrote an amazing post on the addictive nature of porn.  Here is just a sample of some of the statistics he gathered:

  • 90% of youth ages 8-16 have viewed porn online.
  • 63% of youth ages 14-16 say they can easily access porn on their mobile phone.
  • The largest single group viewing porn is ages 12-17.
  • The average age that children are exposed to porn is 11 years old.
  • Porn is often not sought when discovered the first time.
  • Porn gives children (and adults) unrealistic ideas about sex.

The True Cost of Porn
Please don’t mistake this post as a rant for the moral majority or ammunition for retaking the White House.  This issue transcends the cultural milieu of conservative versus liberal and speaks to the heart of humanity.

Pornography costs more than money to use.  It’s accessibility and legality offer it marketability that drug dealers could only ever dream of.  So how do we pay for our porn addictions?

Here are just a few ways:

  1. The illusion of control – Porn typically culminates in masturbation.  This is often less about feeling good and more about attempting to control our own lives.  It’s an escape mechanism.  It’s a way to deal with stress by employing fantasies that aren’t based in reality.  Had a bad day?  Things aren’t working out at the office or at home?  Relieve some of that pressure by indulging in pornography.  You deserve it, right?  Wrong – coping with the stresses of life outside of your identity in Christ can just as easily lead to a computer screen as it can to the bottom of a bottle.
  2. The objectification of people – My pastor recently helped our community to frame pornography as more than just a physiological issue but also as a social justice issue with the help of Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion.  By saying that pornography is OK, we are actively ceding to the commodification of women, men and children.  The human body is now something to be consumed rather than celebrated.  How can we teach our children that pornography is wrong?  By defining and respecting others as more than just a body but as a whole person.
  3. Our relationships – Husbands, do you want to teach your children the intrinsic value of your wife as a person and mate?  Then love her unconditionally and lavishly in front of them.  Porn used to just cost a few dollars or time away from other activities.  It now costs marriages and relationships.  Nobody likes to be compared to an unrealistic image or have to live up to an unrealistic expectation but that’s what pornography represents.  Even the cheap romance novels that capture the imaginations of so many women inculcate a notion of sex that real men can’t emulate.  Sure, porn is monetarily free…but it’s going to cost a lot more than time or money.

Where To Go From Here
I don’t write this post as a distant journalist watching the war from his hotel room.  I write this post from the trenches of my shame and my victories, with mortar shells landing all around.  Sometimes it feels like I’m gaining ground and sometimes it feels like the enemy is pushing me back.

I trust that my life is hidden in Christ and my righteousness is secure in the Cross but there is still a target on me.  I still get stressed.  I still want to cope with the ups and downs of life with my most basest of impulses.  I still want to hide my sin and shame behind the façade of religious perfection.

“You are more than the sum of your battle wounds…”

The only potential difference is that I have a family who loves me through their understanding of the Cross.  I have a band of brothers who hold my arms up when I want to quit.  I have a faith and hope that I am more than the sum of my battle wounds.  I believe the same for you.

Here are some weapons for the war: