God is in the business of reminding

In my first Chapel at Judson University during my undergrad work the University’s president issued a challenge. It was simple: memorize the Sermon on the Mount. For those of you not familiar with the Sermon, it is found in Matthew Chapters 5 – 7. Three chapters! It is one hundred and eleven verses. Immediately I decided that would be a challenge I would not be taking. That was five years ago.

If you were to ask my wife, she would probably tell you that I have trouble remembering anything. (Wives are often the most reliable source of information when it comes to husbands)

“Hey can you grab me a glass of water when you come back upstairs?” I reply, “Yes,“ however return with no water.

“Could you please change the laundry in thirty minutes?” I reply, “of course babe,” and a day later we are rewashing the same clothes because they sat in a moist washing machine for over twenty-four hours.

My wife knows this about me, and although I imagine it could be more than a point of frustration, she shows me a great amount of grace and love despite my forgetfulness.

I am not however terrible at remembering things, I am just terrible at memorizing meaningful things. While I had trouble with test taking because I couldn’t remember what I studied, I could still recite to you the song I learned at fourteen that names all of the helping verbs. I have trouble remembering what my wife may ask me to do, or important vocabulary for my job, or a specific schedule, but I can recite to you thousands of song lyrics and movie lines. When my wife’s family first downloaded iTunes, they had a bunch of music that they did not know the name or band to. We went through song after song to where I could name the band and song often within the first few bars.

As human beings, it is in our nature to either remember or forget. Although I have just stated what we have all known to be obvious, I mean this as more than forgetting an item at the grocery store or remembering an anniversary. I am talking about remembering the very truth of who we are, or instead, all to often, forgetting it.

If you have ever read through any portion of the Old Testament following the second chapter, we see this theme over and over again. As humans we forget. We forget the begging of our story, we forget who we are, we don’t remember how we were created and more importantly, who created us. The first story we read of highlights two people who forget the one rule they are supposed to follow. The initial group of people God identifies as his people continuously forgets him in pursuit of other “gods” of the day. God frees a nation from slavery in Egypt, ending the brilliant saga with the splitting of a sea and the drowning of there Israelites enemies. How ridiculously impressive! It isn’t more than a few sentences later that we read of how the Israelites have forgotten God, they have forgotten how miserable they were in slavery, and they even muse at going back to their wrenched bondage.

It is not that God can’t stand us forgetting him simply because he feels like some neglected five-year old child needed to be recognized. God would be just fine on his own. He however, cannot stand that when we forget who he is, we become less of who we are. By forgetting God we become less human. To truly be human is to embrace all of who we were created to be and who created us to be that. Do we not fully appreciate art only when we look all the way from the picture to the inspiration to the artist? When we sever ourselves from the memory of who created us, we remove a part of who we truly are from our existence. There is no motivation for inception, no inspiration for creation. We are just as we are yet we were created to be more than we are.

What is our difficulty with remembering? I think it is simply that life is filled with distractions. Everyday is suffocated by thousands of different avenues all leading towards something we see meaningful at the time, but all the while leading away from where we can find true meaning. The pursuit of money, the pursuit of fun, the pursuit of sex, the pursuit of respect, power, popularity, success, comfort, etc, are all roads that lead from the God who promises us more than just fun, or just comfort, or just success. None of these are bad individually, but they can only be understood in the context of who created all of them. Success is fruitless unless we realize who has given it to us. Sex can be damaging unless experienced within the context in which it was intended. Power can be dangerous if we forget the one who has power over all things. We remember meaningless things, we make smaller gods into bigger Gods and so we get hurt and we forget.

And yet the God of the universe, who has every right to just throw in the towel and leave us to our own devices knows us so well because he created us that time after time in the narrative of scripture we see that God is in the business of reminding.

He reminds who we truly are. He calls us back to him. God knows that we forget, and so he reminds us.

That’s what love is isn’t it? That despite forgetting time and time again, he has not given up on us. Instead of conceding that we are too broken to remember a God who has given us all things, he refuses to relent from calling us to remember.

Our history chronicles thousands or people who engage in trying to remember God, it is the very process of becoming more of a child of God. Or perhaps if you are uncomfortable with that language we could simply say that the process of remembering God and hearing the reminding of God is the process of being made more human.

And it’s with that reflection that I have decided to pursue hearing God’s reminding in greater clarity. I am half way through memorizing Matthew 5-7, 111 verses. My goal is to complete this by Easter, the greatest opportunity we have each year to pause and remember God, who his is, and just how much he loves us and wants to remind us of who we truly are.

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Goodness Not Good Enough

In an oft-quoted poem, frequently cited as written by Nelson Mandela, Marianne Williamson writes, “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” If you ask my wife what my greatest fear is, she would likely tell you it is spiders. Although they are not my favorite creatures and I do not enjoy their company especially when they are in my house, my greatest fear is not spiders. As a confession, my greatest fear is likely that I will be inconsequential. And I wonder how many of us, at the core of our being truly resonate with this. And even more so, how many of us are living this fear?

I find it hard to imagine that when I read something as both remarkable and frightening as, “…in the image of God he created them,” that human beings were created for mediocrity. Why would the God of the universe waste his time on creating us to be average? True creation, actual genesis of something is rare indeed so I cannot claim to truly know the motives behind the grand architect’s creative endeavors. Perhaps one of the only successful things I have ever created is a Lego house when I was 10 years old. I can tell you however, I did not pour far too much time and intentionality into the laying of every six-spiked brick to shoot simply for an average Lego house. I set out to create the greatest Lego house that had ever existed! (I like to think I succeeded). My siblings and I actually created an entire 20’x20’ town!

And so I muse that it is the same for God, the God who claims that we are fearfully and wonderfully made the one who has plans for us, a hope and a future, that he desires greatness for us, not mediocrity. Yet, I think as human beings, all to often we desire greatness but we pursue mediocrity. Even worse, we frequently confuse the two.

I remember growing up and watching my friend’s parents come home from work. They would sit at the dinner table relived to be home and removed from the stresses of the day. And yet judging from their countenance, their retirement home was one of release, they were thankful to be finished with another day, another grind. It wasn’t the job that excited them, it was what the job offered: safety, security, money, etc.

There is nothing wrong with the joy and privilege of providing fro ones self and one’s family. I wouldn’t say that. However I am not sure I would say that there is everything right with it. There is goodness in that but is there greatness? We are created with the seed of greatness within us, and yet we reach a point where we equate greatness with comfort. We were not created with the seed of comfort within us.

In one of his many encounters, the Gospel of Mark records Jesus coming upon a man who was clearly well accomplished in his young life. He had acquired great wealth. He was likely respected for his abilities in the workplace and was likely sought after (if not already married) by many young women for his ability to provide for a family and a community. The man tells Jesus that he has led a good life but knows there is something more. He asks, what he must do to inherit, eternal life. He wanted to know what there was more than just what he had. How did he get to the next level, from living a good life to living a life truly of greatness. Jesus’ instructions are simple, give everything he has to the poor and come follow Jesus. The man turns away sad.

It is interesting to me that we never cite the rich young man as a person who truly got it. We don’t read that story as see him as a picture of greatness, someone who really lived a great life. We actually see him as a man who missed out on a great life but how many of us truly strive to live a life like him, not like the life Jesus asked of him? In our brokenness we confuse mediocrity with greatness, we confuse the attributes of a great life and an average life, and as we do so, we watch Jesus strolling into the sunset followed by those who are willing to give up everything for a chance at greatness, and we are left alone and dismayed.

The man Jesus encountered failed to see what was true. Although he had amassed good things, all he really had was a bunch of Legos. Compared to what God is doing, the goodness we accomplish is nothing compared to the greatness he desires. It is greatness that God offers us in participating in his story. We can write our own pursue our own paths, and remain building Lego houses, or we can dare to risk everything we have at the promise of gaining so much more.

I don’t actually think there is a shortness of opportunities for greatness. Jesus is recorded as having many followers over the course of his Journeys. I think instead that there is a shortness of people who are willing to pursue those opportunities, as seen when we read repeatedly of people leaving his presence when they hear what Jesus has to say. And with that Williamson is correct, we fear that we are powerful beyond measure.

We are offered to pursue transforming the story of history, in participating the great narrative that started with the mountainous words, “in the beginning.” But we are lured to believe a lie that goodness is good enough. Like the rich young ruler, we stand on the side of the road and let greatness pass us by, fearing that the potential that we have, the very image of God we were created with, could never possibly be realized. Because of our brokenness, we worry that we can never be great, and yet the God of the universe is beckoning the greatness out of us. He is dissatisfied as a great God who’s image bearers settle for goodness.

So we are left to question, are we really pursuing mediocrity because it is all our potential lends to us? The God of the universe is not the God of comfort or mediocrity. He is the God of greatness. And it is the God that desires us to risk all of the mediocrity around us in pursuit of the greatness that was created within us.

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Mourning the Perfect Family Part II

If we are to ever break free from the hurts and disappointments that can and are common to every family, we must mourn the idea of the perfect family.  I am suggesting the term mourn because I don’t want to pretend we can simply just accept that the world is imperfect so we just need to deal with it. That sort of thinking is only denial. Lets admit it, we wish it was perfect. We pretend it is perfect. We re always comparing our lives to a “perfect  life.” We want the perfect family, the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect kids. You ever notice how no one has those things? And it is if no one has those things that I wonder if the actually exist.

We can’t just abandon our pursuit of perfect. Instead I think we need to struggle with the realization that God has greater purposes for you than simply create for you the perfect family. That perfect family doesn’t exist. Lets accept that it isn’t possible. Only then can we move from comparing what we have to what doesn’t exist and look toward how God is moving and working in the context we are in right now. We need to wrestle and process the anger that accompanies that realization. It is ok to be angry that there is pain in your life, it is ok to be angry about what has happened as a result of your broken family. It’s a healthy thing to process that. Instead of harboring that pain and frustration or manifesting it in other areas of our life, what if we too tie to come to terms that we were are not perfect, therefore nothing we do will be perfect.

We need to look toward the truth that God is good, he has created us as part of his story, his great story, and although his purpose is not to just give us a simple pleasant a perfect life, his purpose is great, and powerful, and unique.  God offers some astounding promises in his word, but I challenge you to find one that promises an easy perfect life. Sure Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but its still a yoke and its still a burden. And that is OK.

When we think the world is perfect, we see no need for our brokenness, as if it is a waste. It is a malfunctioning of an otherwise perfect system. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t seek healthy relationships in and out of our family, but in that we need to be prepared of the reality that is an imperfect world. Our brokenness isn’t a malfunction of  perfect system, it is a product ofa world that is not fully restored, and a humanity that, when given the freedom to pursue other gods, often does.

But what if we encounter the world as God see’s it, the creation broken since the beginning of time. Inhabited by imperfect people from imperfect families, our we can begin to shift our disposition of asking, “why has God not made this better? To, “how is God calling me to use this?” It is not simply something that began with your family. You are not the first person to experience brokenness in your life. You join in solidarity with ancestors throughout history who have hit the strak realization that the world is not as it should be and who have experienced that first hand. It is a continual story we are part of as we read in the pages of scripture from the begging of time. I don’t know much but I do know these two things to be true: Human beings hurt people and are hurt by people. Although that may be obvious, it doesn’t remove the harsh reality and the even harsher sting of that hurt.

The Apostle Paul likely knew what it was like to have brokenness in his life. Growing up a devout Jew who all of the sudden abandoned his life’s work to perpetuate the Christian movement, I have a feeling Paul knew well what it was to have pain from a family. Yet in his letter to the Romans, he reminds his readers, of the truth of family.

When we open to Romans 8, we are struck with an understanding of family so countercultural to our society today, we have a tendency to brush over it as a trite Christian nicety, not a profound promise of God.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[h] And by him we cry, “Abba,[i] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

We must look toward what God does in fact have in store for us, how is God calling us out of our brokenness, our broken family, to help redeem a world that is in fact broken.

When we accept our adoption into the perfect family, we participate with the loving Father God in being Co-heirs of the Kingdom. What we must remember, what we can’t skip over from that verse is the final statement, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”  That is not a contingency, to participate in his sufferings. When we continue to question how we can avoid the pain, how we can avoid the suffering, how we can avoid the brokenness, we remain setup to be letdown. But what if instead we ask how can I be redeemed from this brokenness?

I want to conclude by saying that I know nothing I have said or could say could take away from broken relationships or pain you have had from your family, but I do want to say this. You are loved and cherished and valued by God. The very God who created the universe wants to meet you in that brokenness into his eternal family. He wants to call you out of it. And he wants to use your transformation to transform a broken world.  What I have found so freeing in my story is not that everything has been patched up but that when I let go of the brokenness that has taken place in my life and embrace the God who calls me into adoption, I am no longer bound by those chains. My brokenness becomes a means to make myself and other whole. It is typically in times of pain and areas of brokenness that we see God clearly. When we are confident that our life is going well we see little use for a God to fix what we don’t see as broken. It is when we feel powerless over our weakness however that he shows himself to be the God of all things. Life is no longer dictated by the hurt one may have been caused but instead is dictated by the redemption one has received.

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Mourning the Perfect Family Part I

A little over four weeks ago I met my son for the first time. He is an unbelievable blessing to our lives. Your parents may have said that you were cute as a child or you may have kids of your own that you found to be adorable. I am sorry, but you were heinous compared to my son.

As I look down at Patrick, I think about the future, specifically reflecting on one question, “How will Patrick be affected by having me as a dad?” Essentially, I wonder how I am going to screw him up and how I can minimize the damage. And yet I know that I will be one of the most influential forces in his life. Our family will radically shape the trajectory of his life, his motivations, his passions and so on.

We are struck by the shootings of young people in Ohio and an immediate question we have is, what was his home life like? Last night I read of a high school teacher, father and husband, who left his job and his family to movie in with his daughter’s classmate and friend. And we ask, “how will it affect those kids?” Family is paramount in its influence upon our lives. it is a common denominator across the world as a generator of influence upon its members. So what kind of influence is the right one to have, and how do we prevent brokenness from tainting the influence out family has on our life?

We live in a world absent perfection and yet we are shocked when things are not perfect. I don’t know anyone who has “a perfect family” when you dig deep enough. Everyone has their struggles. And yet we still teach, and talk, and live, and cover up, as we should have a perfect family. Maybe we feel like it makes us look better to let people know that things were not perfect. Maybe, if we were honest, we would be a lot more disappointed in God if we had to come to terms with the pain we walk around with from our own families.

I think we have the illusion that having a Christian family means having a good family. We only have that illusion until we are part of a Christian family long enough. We are quickly knocked down to reality. Perhaps its abuse, perhaps its divorce, perhaps it’s a lack of love, a death, an illness. In my own life as well as my time as a pastor of young people, I have yet to come across parents or students who simply just have and have always had a perfect family.

Some issues in dealing with brokenness in the world we have mapped out pretty well. For example: the lack of fresh water? We say, “lets dig wells!” Lack of education? Build schools! But what about the brokenness in our family, in our very home? What does god have to say about that? What about the brokenness in our own family or the brokenness we have from our family?

The family I grew up in was one of divorce, substance abuse, anger, performance anxiety, loneliness, confusion, and the list goes on. How could God let this happen? I was just a kid? How come God let my parents divorce? How come God didn’t allow my brothers and sisters to have a “whole family?” Why didn’t God give me the perfect family?

Something I have come to realize about the God of the universe is a truth that is transparent and obvious and yet takes us far too long to realize: God doesn’t call us to be perfect; he calls us to be perfected. The reality is every single one of us has had brokenness in our family. Maybe it’s a divorce. Maybe it’s abuse. Maybe it’s neglect. Maybe its performance anxiety, always feeling like you wouldn’t be loved unless you achieved. Perhaps you were the black sheep of the family. Perhaps your were adopted and have struggled with that reality.

What came as a shock to me is that our notions and expectations of what a “perfect family” is are inconsistent with what we read about in the Bible. Modern cultural shaping of a nuclear family consisting of a mom and a dad, 2.5 kids and a dog may be the American dream but it isn’t necessarily a promise God has laid out for his people. God’s plan for family and redeeming us from that brokenness is far more profound. My story is a story of both pain and redemption when it comes to my family, and so I wonder, is it possible to avoid familial brokenness? Does God bless some and not others with the perfect family?

It is not. He does not.

When we “focus on the family” no pun intended, we set ourselves up to compare. Their family is better than ours. They have no pain we have a lot. God has blessed their family and not ours. Growing up, when my parents were struggling through a messy divorce I was in search of what could have been in my own family. My mom had moved away. My four brothers and sisters and I were struggling to find our own identities through, sometimes in less constructive ways such as drinking, drugs, acting out, inappropriate relationships, etc. I had a great friend whose house I would often hang out at. I remember sitting in his kitchen during parties as a middle schooler and talking on end with his parents. I was enthralled to be amidst what I believed was the perfect nuclear family. It felt warm, and safe. I felt like, although I had missed out, I could experience a remnant of what life should have been like.

Scripture tells us the story of God’s interaction with creation. We are part of that story, members or characters in the plot, participants in the grand narrative that is God’s work in the world. As I was thinking through my story and reflecting on how prominent and influential the role of my family has been within that story, I actually began to question what the typical Biblical family was like. I don’t mean, “oh Solomon had multiple wives,” sort of different. I was much more concerned with their interaction. Understandably the biblical family unit functioned differently that ours today.

From the begging of time we read of the brokenness of the notion of the perfect family. Adam and Eve start off well for a moment, until they both get into some trouble with an apple, a tree, a snake and God. Then what happens? Adam blames eve (just incase you were wondering, I have only been married for a year and a half, but its not good practice to blame your wife for things) Genesis 3:11-12 says this:

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Adam and Eve apparently resolve their marital spat and we read of their first two sons, Cain and Able. How did that end? Genesis 4:8:

“Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”[a] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”

Within a few chapters covering a hundreds of years we reach Noah. And here with Noah we think, “finally, here we see a family working right.” Noah and his whole family board the boat, everyone is safe, they survive the a great flood that wipes out everyone else they have ever known. We have no reason to believe that Noah’s family is anything but perfect, until we hit Genesis 9:20-27. Noah’s son Ham (the father of Canaan) disrespected his father. I know that today kids never disrespect their parents, but I guess times have changed… Noah’s response was this: Genesis 9:25-27:

he said,

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

26 He also said,

“Praise be to the LORD, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend Japheth’s[a] territory;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

Now you tell me if you think that maintains the perfect ideal family.

We hit Abraham who, just to mention a few things, disowned his wife on more than one occasion, almost killed his son, had a son with a woman that wasn’t his wife and then exiled them from the family.

We follow Isaac, Abraham’s son, who has 2 sons: Jacob and Esau

Jacob deceives his brother and father and steals his brother’s inheritance and enters into a long feud with his brother. Jacob has a large family with lots of sons. His son Joseph was his favorite however, which caused the other brothers to threaten to kill Joseph but instead just sell him into slavery.

END GENESIS

So what do we do? Where do we go from here? I believe God has a plan for us, our story, and how our brokenness enables us to transform the world we live in. Perhaps the question is not, “How do we prevent this?” or, “How do we fix this?” but instead, “How is God calling me out of this and what is he calling me to?”

(Part II to come)

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Overcoming the Silence

I love to watch movies. In all honesty, have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like movies? I am not sure that person exists. Perhaps they only like a type of movie, but if someone were to swear off movies altogether I would have some real concerns in judgment.

Easily one of my favorite movies of all time is Batman the Dark Knight. I could watch it on repeat and on one occasion did just that. The late Heath Ledger played the Joker and many have said it was the defining moment of his career. It shortly after that Ledger passed away, however the Dark Knight was not his final film.

If you saw the movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus you were not among a majority. The movie, debuting in 2009 was actually Heath Ledger’s final film. Ledger passed away halfway through the filming. The Imaginarium follows a traveling theater troupe throughout London sort of like a traveling sideshow offering viewers participation in an exploration of their dreams and imagination. The movie itself was not overly compelling however the specific scene that sets the trajectory for the entire plot stands as an interesting theological commentary.

The storyline is driven by an initial exchange between Dr. Parnassus and the Devil. The two meet within an ancient monastery where Dr. Parnassus is head of a monastic group commissioned with telling “the eternal story… the story that sustains the universe, the story without which there is nothing.” The Devil challenges Parnassus, “how can you believe something that can be so easily disproved?” following which he silences the storytellers. In the silence, the devil jests that the universe is still in motion. Parnassus insists that it is simply because others are still telling stories elsewhere within the world. The two proceed to wager who can “win more souls,” Parnassus, by telling and commissioning others to tell stories of imagination, or the Devil, by encouraging humanity to pursue feeble and carnal desires.

That’s really the problem with the world isn’t it? We are commissioned to listen to God’s story and continue its telling by the living of our own. All the while, the world is pulled astray, us included toward the feeblest of desires. To summarize C.S. Lewis, it is not that we make God to big, to powerful, but instead we make him to small, not powerful enough. We place God on a scale opposite all the world can offer us, money, sex, fame, power, and we in our falleness believe the scales to be of move value toward things that are fleeting, fading, and in the end will leave us still searching for ourselves and our story.

It is the sin of humanity that God continuously seeks us as we continuously seek for someone or something to take his place. The power of the Christian story is to disprove this cosmic untruth; by meeting God as he calls us, and living a life in pursuit of him, we turn the world on its head. Our story is part of an epic revolution of truth, commissioned to show that God does not indeed belong on the scales in the first place. Our story is the story that sustains the universe and although the darkness that envelops creation would have us convinced otherwise, it cannot be disproved.  The proof however is not in the telling but in the living, one is not merely convinced simply by observation, but rather in participation.

While there is a mission to silence the Christian story, whether the reason is antiquation, lack of intelligibility or otherwise, God’s mission is and always has been to prove his love for the world and his power to overcome the falleness of creation by divine subversive intervention: inviting humanity to participate in the suffering of Christ and in doing so, allowing humanity to become co-heirs to a new world, one of hope and not of sadness, one focused on a redemptive future not a painful past, on the resounding story of God not the silence of falseness of empty desires (Romans 8). It is our mission to overcome the silence, not by who can yell the loudest, but who can live

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