Can’t Complain

“The dominant impression we have of our journey to freedom was that it was filled with complaints. The complaints started in Egypt, when Pharaoh responded to the first stirrings of liberation by making life more miserable for our people. The complaints continued at the shores of the Red Sea when we seemed trapped there. And, they pretty much continued all the way until the day Moses died.”

 

The same might be said of many of us – certainly me! We LOVE to complain. Like the people of Israel on their wilderness journey. if we aren’t careful it might be the thing that people most remember about us, too. I certainly do not want to be remembered as a great complainer. Or to have complaint as the defining trait of my character. Complaint excludes the possibility of other things taking center stage -
hope, affirmation, love. It drives out any possibility of gratitude.

Last year I attempted to give up complaining for Lent. Let’s just say I am revisiting this flawed area of my character. Last Sunday I challenged my church to join me in the  21-day Complaint Free Challenge   I offered a basket of simple rubber bands and asked folks to take one and put it on their wrists. When you complain… when you are sarcastic (ouch – this one is where I fall the most)… you move the band to the other wrist. The goal is to change this behavior by not moving the rubber band for 21 days. I have yet to develop a tan-line on either wrist if that tells you how I am doing on week into the challenge.

I believe one of the keys is to replace complaining with something rather than simply removing it from our speech and thought. To speak grace into every situation. To share hope in the face of every challenge. To bless with love every person with whom we interact. And to speak with love about every person whose path crossed ours before this moment.

“Gracious speech is like clover honey — good taste to the soul, quick energy for the body.” (Proverbs 16:24, The Message)

 

On the journey of Christian discipleship we have an ally in this attempt — the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit can squash our temptation to complain. The Spirit can shape our words and transform our hearts in the face of real challenges and people who try our patience (and our desire to not complain about them)! At the core of this ministry of the Spirit is love. To love and not complain… something to strive to achieve. But not alone.
 
If this call to cease complaining speaks to you today, take a look at these articles and resources –
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The Other Thing…

Last week I wrote about Tolkien’s notion of Eucatastrophe and a Christian hope that, in the end, God will bring about a surprising rescue.

The other thing lying behind this post and that I swing around to consider today is that on an individual level it does not always work out (at least not in this life or world). Sometimes things go disastrously wrong – not around the corner or  to someone in a far away place – but to me. To you. To my family and friends.

This state of affairs need not surprise us. Jesus speaks several times about the likelihood of persecution from following him: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”( Matthew 5:11 NRSV). Jesus says that good happens to everyone and so does evil: “… for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5;45b).

Evil in all its forms may – often does – come our way. Sometimes we delude ourselves that it will not. Sometimes the Christian witness gets corrupted into a promise that everything will come out swell in the here and now. Or that following Christ means following him to a place of prosperity and physical blessing. The pundits of positive thought and hard work make similar claims. Work hard. Work smart. Do what I suggest and you will thrive.

But you may not. I may not. People get cancer and die. Companies eliminate jobs and cast off hard-working people. Hurricane strike cities full of faithful, positive thinking people. Accidents of nature and senseless acts of violence (in every sense of that word) come our way.

I have been working with someone who encouraged me to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search of Meaning (I recommend you read it, too!). In the Forward Rabbi Harold Kushner summarizes Frankl’s observations from the horror of the Nazi Holocaust -

“Finally, Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that I have called on often in my own life and in countless counseling situations: Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

I am living into this compelling observation in this season of life. I cannot – you cannot – control what happens by any amount of positive thinking, strategic preparation, or correct belief. I can – you can – respond in faith and hope and with a sense of purpose. In this life it is all we have.. and it is enough.

 

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Eucatastrophe

Yesterday was the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. The fact that almost anyone can write or say “9/11″ is sufficient proof of the enduring effect 9/11/01 has had on our national psyche.

So often we look toward the next disaster, the next catastrophe. Today, the day after such a somber remembrance, I am in need of a eucatastrophe. Today in the light of what sometimes feels like cascading brokenness in the world I need a eucatastrophe.

“Eucatastrophe” appeared in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” It means when the protagonist in a story faces certain doom but is saved in the end from that doom. For Tolkien, the Christian Gospel offers the ultimate eucatastrophe — the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of “human history” and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.

I long for eucatastrophe in my life and our world. 9/11 reminds me how broken our world remains – and how insoluble these problems seem. We are about to launch air attacks against ISIL, for instance. The human story doesn’t seem to be one that can end well.

But it does. It will. It must. The hope of the Gospel is more than that my soul will survive into eternity with God. It is that the unfolding and endless catastrophes of human history will end in eucatastrophe.

So this Friday after 9/11 I look for that day, I long for the echoes of its arrival. It will come. It has to.

 

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What Season Is It Anyway?

(This week’s post is my monthly newsletter article for my church’s newsletter. While these articles aren’t always appropriate to my slightly wider reading audience, this one applies to all kinds of organizations as well as our personal journey.)

Like many of you, the weather is often on my mind. And the seasons. As I’ve mentioned a few times I love fall. But we have barely had a summer! Oh it’s been hot a few times (here lately mostly).  But it has been more fall-like than summer-like these past few months. But fall will come soon and relentlessly the season will turn.

How do we know what season it is? We can probably rattle off the signs of the seasons (snow and cold in winter, hot and green in the summer, for instance). Sometimes a single day or even week don’t fit the pattern. 50 degree days in January throw us off the mark, as do 50 degree nights in July. But the pattern of the days and nights… the appearance of the natural world around us… our sense of time and season are enough to assure is we know where we are.
How do we know such things about the church? How do we discern the season in which our church is living? Are we in a season of renewal and growth? Are we in a time of seeking and discerning? Are we in a period of decline and death?

It isn’t as simple as the recurring seasons of the year. Sometimes a single Sunday may make us think “Wow! We are really going places!” Another Sunday – sometimes the next Sunday – leaves us wondering “Wow! How did that happen so poorly?” But we can look at the consistent things (How many are showing up to worship? Who is in our classes and groups and ministries? How are people supporting various ministries with their time, their treasures, their talents? – and others like this).

I don’t have a clear answer myself to what season we are experiencing. But after a few years with you I am starting to ask the questions and wonder. Just as we need to know what season it is to know which clothes to pack away (and which ones to replace or bring out of storage), so the season of our church’s dictates where we should focus our efforts and what we need to do in response to the time and season and circumstances in which we find ourselves.

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Dream a Little – No, A Big – Dream

The word “dream” has arisen several times over the last few weeks of my life. Dreaming can mean wishful thinking about what could be. Or fantasizing about what is unlikely but would be welcome. Or those strange movies that play in our minds while we sleep.

In ancient times people saw dreams as God’s messengers. Interpreters of dreams were held in high regard (at least as long as their interpretations proved true or matched the hopes and wishes of the dreamer).

The Bible tells the stories of dreams and dreamers – Joseph, Daniel, Joseph the father of Jesus, Paul. How did they know that God was speaking and not last night’s dinner?

In all of these stories, God intrudes. God invades the dreams and lives of people without warning. God uses dreams to get their attention or to leverage a change in course.

God’s dreams are grander of ours. We dream of an easier life – God dreams of a fulfilling life. We dream of more of what we love – God dreams of more love. We dream of no cares – God dreams of our caring as deeply as does the One in whose image we are made.

One of the ways to know where our dreams originate is to ask whom they resemble. If they are inflated versions of us, then we know they come from inside. If they look as big, as holy, as loving as God… they are something beyond and outside us. They are God’s dream.

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One Man’s Death

Much has been written this week about the death of Robin Williams. Sadly – and not surprisingly – not all of it kind or helpful or insightful. But much, especially among the community of faith, has been. If you struggle with depression  and especially with suicide (or know someone who does), please see the links below for information, thoughts, and resources.

At the same time there are bigger things happening than the death of a single beloved comedian: the unrest in Ferguson, MO… the Ebola epidemic in Africa… the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria… you get the picture. Terrible things. Unimaginable things. Perhaps that is now and always the point.

The death of a single person is something we can grasp. And the unfolding story of depression, illness, addiction overlaps with many of our own experiences. Our tendency to identify with lovable stars and to think we know them deepens the personal sense of loss.

I hope this also reminds us that we make a difference – most of us – with other individuals. We don’t have the influence to change the course of cultures or history. We lack the stature to have the President or our Senator take our calls (not that we should not speak out and speak up however!).

People around us need our love and understanding. They need to connect with people of faith who demonstrate in real-time and real situations the love of Christ. It is not a coincidence that God’s great plans came to fruition in real people – Abraham and his crazy extended family, David and his flawed descendents,  and ultimately in Jesus of Nazareth who lived in a particular place and at a particular time in human history.

Somewhere near you someone needs you. Somewhere near you may be the person you need. God works that way. And it works.

RESOURCES

In Which Depression Is Not Your Fault 

After The Laughter The Waves of Dread

NAMI What We Can Do About Depression

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Lessons from Wednesday – Learning to Forgive

This past Wednesday, something happened that left me in a storm of emotions -anger, hurt, regret, loss. A friend — someone in whom I confided and with whom I was very open about a subject on which we disagreed but whom I counseled about how to lead in a touchy situation at his request —  turned out to be a Judas. I learned in a very public way that my trust was misplaced and that this person not only was not my friend but lacked integrity and honor. I was – and am – devastated.

I hesitate to write such harsh words. And you would be right. But I share such a harsh tale to talk about the spiritual and personal issues is raises for me.

Today – on Friday – I am struggling a bit with forgiveness. It will be a long journey. This person will likely not be my friend ever again. I certainly won’t trust him. Nor, I think, does God or inner peace require that I do so.  But I have to come to a place of forgiveness. Today I want to be angry and self-righteous. But I need to move toward forgiveness and charity.

This is not the first time I have faced betrayal – probably not you either. And it won’t be the last. But I have learned at least that bitterness only takes root and grows. Regret becomes a sinkhole into which we fall if we are not careful. Unforgiveness poisons our spirits and shrivels our own experience of God’s grace and forgiveness.

After all these years I am still devastated when these things come. But I am learning better all the time how to live into and with that pain and move toward forgiveness and newness. If you struggle with this I am with you… but the struggle is worth it. Grow up with me into forgiveness and graciousness.

 

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Mmathew 5:18 The Message

 

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I Am A Sabbath-Breaker

I am. More accurately, I am a Sabbath-avoider which amounts to the same thing.

When Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Sinai, among the first is this –

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
(Exodus 20:8-11 NRSV)

I can’t remember the last time I took a real Sabbath… when I did no work, not even a little. When I stopped trying to manipulate and coerce my world into being what I want it to be. When I rested in the reminder of God’s work as opposed to my work.

I decided a few days ago to take a Sabbath from Facebook and Twitter – a kind of electronic Sabbath. How hard it has been! Much harder than I imagined. I have had to stop myself from opening a browser tab to see either of them. I have had people text me to tell me about something they thought I missed on Facebook. (The irony that some of you will read this from a link on my Facebook page or Twitter feed is not lost on me).

It is hard to rest. It is hard to let things lie that seem important or urgent. It is hard to admit by resting that the world continues to revolve without our active spinning it on its axis.

When did you last have a real Sabbath day – a day of rest, a day of real renewal, a day in which your Creator is proclaimed as Lord (and you are reminded that you are not)? And more to the point of the Scripture — how will you make it  necessary rhythm of your life?

I am working on it… I need to rest on it.

“I’m of the opinion that busyness is a deeper threat to the soul than pornography ever was.”

—Author and speaker Gordon MacDonald

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This Place

This Sunday I will be preaching (I believe for the first time) on the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28. The word most often repeated in this story is “place.” Some commentators say that the word behind our English word “place” means “sacred place.”

Place matters – something we might forget in our Internet, interconnected age. The where of things is as important as the why or who or how. Imagine a picnic in the midst of the Sahara? Or playing golf in the Antarctic? Place is important, maybe more so than ever. How much of our news is about place? The conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is over place, for instance.

Jacob finds himself in a certain place. At that place – not in another-  Jacob has a dream of a heavenly stairway. A stairway that connects two specific places – heaven and earth.

One of the things that Jacob’s dream foretells is a time when place will not limit God. God is not a God of a place but a people. Not a local deity who cares about local concerns but a God whose concern is everywhere and for everyone. BUT who cares about the place where you are, where I am.

God is in THIS place – no need to search for where God might be. No need to move to where God might be found. No need to wonder if you are in the correct place.

God is in the place where you are right now.

“You realize, don’t you, that you are the temple of God,
and God himself is present in you?”

1 Corinthians 3:16 The Message

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Anniversaries

July is a month of anniversaries for me. July 1 I began my third year as pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church. July 1 also marks the beginning of my twenty-third year as a pastor in The United Methodist Church.

Hard to believe it has been that long. Truthfully I think sometimes how little I have really learned :-) I have joked that I have one year of pastoral experience repeated twenty-two times.

I could say the same (boy, just ask my wife) about marriage. Next Tuesday, Dana and I will have been married twenty-five years. THAT is even harder to get my mind around. Are we that old??? I have been married longer than I was unmarried. Wow.

Often anniversaries cause us to look back (as I am doing above). We should give thanks for the years we have enjoyed with our spouse, in work that we love. I wonder, too,  if we ought to look ahead on these days as well.

The future is the only thing we can change, the only place where we can grow. Yes, it flows out of this present moment. But the past is immutable and while a source of gratitude it can also be a fertile ground for regret and pain.

In the future God awaits. In the future there is a place for change. In the future I can be a better husband, a more faithful pastor, a more deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ.

Here’s to many more milestones and anniversaries! And the future that contains them.

 

“This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.”

Jeremiah 29:11 – The Message

 

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