Frederick Buechner on Love

“The love for equals is a human thing—of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing—the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing—to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy—the love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The torture’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.” (Frederick Buechner, as quoted by Francis Chan in Crazy Love, p 132)

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Eugene Peterson on Prayer

From his book Practice Resurrection:

“Not all prayers are conscious. Not all prayers can be identified as prayers. Prayer is the language underlying and sometimes surfacing in all our language as we grow up in Christ. Most of us pray a good deal more than we are aware that we are praying. It’s not that prayer does not involve attentiveness and alertness to God; it’s only that it doesn’t require a learned skill. Trying harder doesn’t help.” (Practice Resurrection, p 266).

May you be blessed today as you practice resurrection.

Because he Shakes, we will not

I am sort of amazed at how two books, one I just finished and the other I am half-way through, have sort of intersected and complimented one another. The first is Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection which I have written about a couple of other times and the second is Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees. These are two of my favorite writers and I rarely have anything but praise for either of them.

Anyhow, as part of my practice to create space to write each day (so that my skills and passion do not fade) I will be reviving a blog habit I started when I wrote for the blog Prophets, Priests and Poets called Thought for the Day. Today’s thought is from Dillard’s book The Maytrees. When I read this paragraph I was struck by the similarities between the way Lou (a female character in the book who has been deserted by her husband Toby) and I seem to have a kindred heart. She has been deserted by her husband Toby and is trying to come to grips with it each day, little by little. I, on the other hand, have been left out to dry by a church and have had to find ways each day to come to grips with that reality.

Here are Lou’s thoughts:

If she, Lou, had known how long her first half-inch beginning to let go would take–and how long her noticing and renouncing owning and her turning her habits, and beginning the slimmest self-mastery whose end was nowhere in sight–would she have begun? Would she have turned herself over like a row of salt hay? Tossed herself to loose her own chaff? It took her months to learn that she could get clean for more than a minute at a time. Consciously she looked out for resentment, self-cherishing, and envy. Over years she formed the habit of deflecting them before they dug in. But she lived through those years in any case, and now she lived from that steady ground she won. More distances opened as she opened. Not that town, national, and world life as it was going did not give her fits. (p 93)

The transitions we have to make in life are difficult and, sometimes, Lord only knows the beginnings and the ends and the means in between. I like the idea of tossing oneself to loose our own chaff. My wife said to me tonight “I know what God is doing to you right now.” She said it with more enthusiasm than I could have conjured up for such a statement, but she was claiming God’s wisdom so I listened as she replied to my “what’s that?” with a rather anticlimactic, “He’s smoothing out your rough edges!” I didn’t know I had any (*smile*).

I’m not strong enough to loose my own chaff so for now the Lord has taken hold this pile of wheat and tossed it in the air. A strong wind has blown away a lot of chaff, but I suspect for now there is more yet to be loosed.

*Sigh.*

So we are tossed–a salad, a ball, a small boat out on the rough sea. But a large part of the tossing, we learn in Ephesians, is that we might be able to stand firm and, thus, no longer be tossed about. He tosses us so that no one else can. Here’s where part of what Peterson wrote compliments this short passage from Peterson:

Christians who let themselves be seduced into taking promised shortcuts of instant gratification that bypass the way of the Cross eventually find that the so-called gratification turns into addictions, incapacitating them for mature relationships in household, workplace, and congregation. (Practice Resurrection, 252).

I remember praying the prayer. Indeed. If there are rough edges they prevented me from standing firm and balanced. If there are smooth edges they have nothing to do with my own strength. If there is a resurrection, there must be a death. So we wait, patiently, not-so-silently, while the Father moves. His movement is the firmness under our feet. Because he moves, we won’t. Because he shakes, we will not be shaken.

How to Love the Church Again

I’m still plugging away at Eugene Peterson’s newest book. I have to admit that it is a little unnerving. His entire thesis of practicing resurrection hinges on his assumption that the church is the place where this, best, happens. The church is, funny thing that the church is, God’s. And we get what he gave us.

I struggle with church nowadays. I belong to a church, but honestly I’m not really plugged into the church I belong to. I work seven days a week and scarcely have time for my own family nowadays let alone someone elses family or God’s family. I spent the better part of my 20’s and 30’s tending to God’s family–to the neglect of my own–and now I have, for all intents and purposes, neither. It’s not funny how irony comes back to bite one in the ass every now and again; mine still smarts.

And Eugene Peterson, one author who has shaped me more than any other single author, is telling me that is the place I most need to be if I am to mature, grow, develop, become and practice resurrection. It’s a tall order.

I am out of sorts being a pew-person, a parishioner, a member of a church and not the preacher in a church. Frankly, I don’t know how people do it week after week–sit there and not get involved. I want so badly to be involved more deeply and yet, for what ever reasons the Lord has, I am prevented from doing so by circumstances involving work and school. It’s not an excuse; it just is. It kills me to be so restricted that I cannot be involved.

I used to spend more time at the church than anyone, now I spend the least amount of time of everyone. There on a dusty shelf in the downstairs part of my house sits a covered in glass ordination certificate…going to waste…going to dust…

Peterson writes,

Church as the body of Christ is not obvious. But neither is Jesus as the savior of the world obvious. We learn to penetrate the obvious ordinariness when we think in terms of inscape and manifold wisdom and shadow work. But for as long as we employ secular values and insist on having church as we think it ought to be, formulating this ‘ought’ from what we see work in our culture quite apart from God, we will never recognize the church that is right before us. For as long as we think that the church is in competition with the world, a way of outdoing the world, we will never get it.

The contrast between world and church in this regard is stark: American culture is doing its dead level best with its celebrities, consumerism, and violence to keep us in a perpetually arrested state of adolescence. Yet all the while the church is quietly and without false advertising immersing us in the conditions of becoming mature to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 145-146)

I think this is part of the reason why I am no longer preaching. I was unable to give a church the church they thought we ought to have: bustling, wealthy, without suffering, without squabbles, without tears, without this; with that. And no matter how much we prayed, those prayers were not answered; no matter how much we implored the people for leadership, none stepped up until it was time to ask me to leave. (That’s courage of conviction; a true understanding of leadership!) No matter how long we waited, we are waiting still.

There is a reason why I’m stuck in neutral right now. I’m not sure what yet, but there is part of me that hangs on just so I can find out what it is. In the meantime, while I’m parked at this rest stop, in park, with the parking brake applied, I’m going to deal with the church we have, the church that is, and sort of observe from the outside for a while. I’m going to pray and listen and learn and grow so that I will never become one of those types of people who think I know better what the church should be, one of those people who, armed with the keen insight of what I think a church ought to be, makes it my ambition to shape the church into my image. I’ll leave that up to the Lord whose church it is anyhow.

Instead, how about the church that is? How about finding a church, being a church, worshiping with a church that just is? That’s what I like about Peterson: he has no illusions about what the church is, and he loves her anyhow. He is perfectly content to teach his readers to accept the church that is broken and wounded and suffering and miserable and full of all sorts of terrible people. He’s fine with that. And so he will love them, pray with them, preach to them, and care for them.

So for all my complaining, maybe this is what Jesus wants me to see. Maybe it is I who was trying to reshape a church instead of loving a church the way the church is. I’m willing to confess that. A major part of this current transition is to learn that very thing: to love the church again. I confess that loving the church is something I have quite forgotten how to do. It’s no easy confession, but I stand by it.

Truthfully, though, I’m not sure I know how.

Grace is…

Let’s be honest with one another. Do we really understand grace?

The trend, it seems to me, is that we are saved by grace and then it’s all up to us. That is, God does the initial work of ‘saving’ us and then we do the maintenance on our own. I suppose we might pay lip service every now and again to the work of the Spirit. I’m not persuaded that I am any closer to the truth of grace. I still try too hard to be holy not because I love God but because I really want to impress God. Really. Don’t we all want to hear God say, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into your master’s joy today”? Grace is someone else’s reconstruction project and not my maintenance project.

Maybe I want to hear that because I want God to be impressed at how in control I am of my situation. I’m not too particularly concerned to be dependent. I like control and being in charge. I certainly do not want to cede control to anyone. Lately I have found myself in a place where I have no control. I’m about one meal away from having to go to the local food pantry and beg. I’m about one drink away from falling off the wagon I have been on since 1991. I’m about one missed day of work away from not making the mortgage. Grace is someone else in control besides me.

I want to be close to God and yet right now I am about as far away from him as a human on earth can be from one who came near. On the other hand, I am closer to him than I have ever been. It’s oxymoronic, but true and it has nothing to do with me. I’m not so good at hiding, and God is so very good at finding. Grace is someone else finding me and not me making myself known.

I don’t understand grace. Maybe I should quit trying and just enjoy it. Or Swim in it. Or blame it. Run to it. Run from it. Eat it. Drink it. Put it in my pocket. Fly it like a kite. Grace is someone else’s idea of sustenance not mine.

I read this short essay tonight. Well, it’s not really an essay. It’s more like a blog post—a good one: short, sweet, and memorable. It’s called Refrigerator People and the Unfair Grace of God. Here’s a clip:

The One I serve is the Author of wildly beautiful, unfair grace.  He permits me to pray for people the world dismisses with a few well-placed words.  Dirtbags.  Scum of the earth.  Criminals.  Crazy people.  You know, the ones who “deserve it” when the going gets rough.  He invites me to dare to believe He’s big enough to redeem even these…and that He longs to do exactly that.  As I join Him in the conversation about them, He shows me much about their brokenness and their beauty…and much about mine as well.

The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.  My prayer today is that every person on my fridge and on my heart will accept the unfair grace of God, and know freedom in this life.  I long to meet them on the other side, and celebrate with them the magnitude of that grace.

Grace will always be unfair. I’m undone. We are all undone by the God of grace because none of us can stand before him, read off our list of credentials, and hope to get in with a pat on the back and a smile. But we can expect to ‘get in’ when we are nothing more before God than who we are because of God. That is, when we make no effort whatsoever to impress him aside from just accepting what he offers in the form of grace, empty vessels holding up empty hands that have been lifted up by his strength that we hope he fills (faith?). Grace is God being pleased with us because he wants to and not because he has to.

I think some Christians put way too much stock in impressing God than they do in being impressed by God. Grace is God loving us because he can, not us loving him because we can’t.

I don’t really think I understand grace. I think the minute we think we do is the minute we will probably die because how can God afford for that message to be shared with the buildings full of Christians who think they are impressing God by being in church on Sundays and putting their trinkets into the passing plates and eating stale bread and warm juice? Jesus said it best, though, didn’t he: “It’s not the well who need a doctor, but the sick.”

He also said something like, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” I know for a fact this verse angers people in the church more than any other verse in the Bible because there is not one of us who would dare admit that we are blind. We see all too well which is exactly why we make a wreck of the church. We see all too well which is exactly why the church, some churches anyhow, has become a museum for relics to be admired, dusted, and preserved instead of a distribution center of grace and goods; a feeding trough for the hungry and helpless; a hospital for the beaten and broken; a truck-stop for the weary and worn out. The church should be a pair binoculars or a telescope or reading glasses instead of a mirror. Grace is something we look through not something we look at.

That’s what grace does. It changes our perspective and shifts our gaze. Grace is someone else’s vision and not our own.

I know that’s what upsets people about grace: We prefer to look at ourselves. Grace demands that we do not. Grace demands–yes demands–that we cast our nets wide, and empty. Grace demands that we haul in the catch someone else has provided.

Grace forces us into the uncomfortable position of having to consider someone else which, interestingly enough, is kind of what God did in Jesus.

And grace is unfair to a fault. Newton should have written that song: His unfair Grace, how disturbing the sound, that saves so many like me…

The ones we think deserve the most hell are the ones God invites to the wedding supper; the ones we think will most certainly be under wrath are the very ones being saved; and the ones we hope suffer the worst are the very ones God is in the process of healing the most. And we don’t like it because we know that Scripture says such people are under wrath and, thus, deserve to be. We understand not the mysteries and secrets of how the Kingdom works and grows and produces–nor why God happens to invite to and secure in his salvation the most wretched and ugly among us.

I’m not making predictions for God’s grace because I don’t understand it any more than anyone else. If I did, I would be dead. Grace is someone else seeing me as I am and not me seeing myself as I should be.

Grace is unfair because grace is the business end of God’s dealings with sinners—sinners of all kinds, and not just the ones we think God should deal with, like ourselves. I don’t deserve God’s grace any more than anyone else but I’ll gladly take what he gives.

I’m happy to let God be God. I’m happy to let God save the way God saves. I’m happy to let God save those God saves.

I’m happy that salvation is the work of Jesus, not me. I’m happy it’s about grace and nothing else.

Reclamation Project: Genesis 1

I am beginning an entirely new life as of August 21, 2009–leaving the past behind, pressing on into Scripture, and reclaiming some aspects of my life that have been allowed to grow shallow. Part of this reclamation project is to read through Scripture all over again. I will go slowly and not press the issue of hurrying. I want to hear God’s voice and story all over again with fresh ears and see his words with fresh eyes. I will be going from beginning to end, straight through, and blogging what I learn along the way. I might read more than one chapter a day, but I will be blogging every chapter I read. Part of my transition out of paid ministry is to be recaptured by the Word of God all over again from an ‘unprofessional’ point of view. I need to be refreshed in the Scripture and get my bearings back. This is my first step in that endeavor: reading Scripture all over again for the first time. There’s a lot of hurt that goes along with transitioning from what you have always known to something entirely unknown. I will need food, good food, along the way. I think the Bible is a good place to start. I hope you will care to join me.–jerry

Reclamation Project, Day 1

Genesis 1

It is easy to engage in debates and arguments concerning what Genesis 1 means. I, myself, have argued those lines. It is a no-win battle. What is often not argued is what is stated in the text. That is, let’s try hard not to read into the text our modern arguments, but instead let’s take time to simply read what a typical Hebrew might have read or heard read if they went to a synagogue on the Sabbath. How would they have heard the words?

I think they would have heard about God. There would not have been the sort of debates that we engage in when it comes to Scripture in general or Genesis in particular. They would have heard about God. I think sometimes I have been so ready to see what I think about God in Scripture that I have overlooked what God actually is in Scripture; especially Genesis. So note with me a couple of the more obvious things about Genesis 1 that I never hear anyone debating because they are so consumed with whether or not Genesis is talking about their favorite story of our origins.

First, God is. Genesis begins with God. This means the Bible begins with God. This means that the history recorded in the rest of the Bible begins with God. This means the beginning begins with God. God is. It’s rather simple. I think an original reader would have heard that. God is.

Second, God speaks. All through this chapter there is one voice that dominates the entire cosmos, there is one voice that is consistently heard in the beginning: God’s. We don’t know much about this God who is, but we instantly learn that He is, He is Spirit, and that He speaks. I think this means we should be interested in what he says, we should listen to his voice, and if he speaks in the beginning, does he speak again? What does he say? How does he say it? Why does he say it?

Third, God does. This God, of whom we know little so far, is doing things. He is making worlds. His voice is power to create, power to make, power to do. His voice, the only voice speaking in the entirety of the cosmos—makes worlds. ‘God made’ is heard over and over again in this chapter. His voice is permissive, “let there be.” Only he determined when it was right for these things to be and to happen.

Fourth, God blesses and commands. “God blessed them and said, ‘be fruitful and multiply.’” The work that he has called us to do (he gives the same command to creatures and man, verses 22, 28) is an aspect of his blessing for us. Tending gardens, pro-creating—being given power to make as he made, bearing his image, receiving his creation as our own, all of these things are part of his blessings for us. This God, who is described to us only once, ‘Spirit,’ interacts with his creation. He charges beasts and man alike to continue the work of creation that he started. God shares.

Fifth, God wants to be known. I believe God desires that knowledge of him be made abundantly evident in the creation. Paul says that since the creation, God’s invisible attributes, his eternal power, his divine nature have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Romans 1:20). I always thought this meant that God could be seen in the trees, in volcanoes, in stars and planets, in rivers, lakes, oceans, and things like that. But look what Genesis says: It is man and woman who bear the image of God. God’s power, his divine nature, his invisible attributes are not best seen in trees and rocks and mountains but in human beings—the ones who bear His image. God wants to be known–and we are the ones to show forth God. He created us in his image which means, I guess, that He has decided what we are to show of him. How will we do?

It was man who was charged with the responsibility to bear the image of God. It is man and woman who are created in the image of God not trees, not lemurs, not badgers, not lumps of coal, not angler fish. God wants his image to be seen on this earth in human beings. In a sense we are the visible manifestation of what is invisible (Spirit). We are to be the ones who make known what is unknown.

I will be interested to see how this story unfolds and what else this God has to say. I will be interested to see if this man and woman will bear his image the way he wants us to. In the meantime, this first chapter of the Bible gives us a great introduction to God even if the picture of God is not yet entirely fleshed out for us.

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Dallas Willard on our Life and God’s Work

“God looks to those who are humble and contrite of spirit and who tremble when he speaks (Isaiah 66:2). He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). Remember, grace means that he is acting in their lives.

“So the humble are dependent upon God, not on themselves. They humble themselves ‘under the mighty hand of God’ (1 Peter 5:6)—that is, by depending upon God to act. They abandon outcomes entirely to him. They ‘cast all [their] anxiety on him, because he cares for [them]’ (1 Peter 5:7). The result is assurance that the mission and the ministry will be accomplished, in God’s time and in God’s way. They don’t need to be the vision, and the goals we set for them are God’s business, not ours. We do the very best we know, we work hard, and even self-sacrificially. But we do not carry the load, and our ego is not involved in any way with the mission and the ministry. In our love of Jesus and his Father, we truly have abandoned our life to him. Our life is not an object of deep concern.”

–Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, 100-101