Stop The Noise!

Many, many years ago (ahem), my former college roommate and I spent a long weekend in Las Vegas. We rented a car and drove around to see the sights; we saw Hoover Dam and did the dam tour with all the dam jokes that the dam guide could offer. At night we drive west until we couldn’t see the lights of the city anymore, pulled off the road, and turned off the car.

I grew up in Vermont, so I had a pretty good idea what the sky could look like at night without all the lights of a city, but it was still amazing to see. But what I remember most was the silence. There wasn’t a sound, and probably no one around within miles to make any. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the presence of silence that pure. I remember the silence as almost a ringing in my ears: as if my brain, so accustomed to a wall of sound, had to make up something to take its place. I remember we both commented on the phenomenon, we were both not-hearing the same thing: the assault of the world in a place where God alone reigned.

I believe the key to being in conversation with God is being able to tune out The World and to listen for his voice. Unfortunately I’m not very good at that. Even when I sit in the relative quiet of my house, in prayerful attempts at receiving whatever Jesus may wish to tell me, I find my mind occupied by its own sounds. Granted, most of the time I have contemporary Christian music on in my head, but still–it’s not quiet. I find it hard to turn everything off, and to just…be. To just listen, to be completely and totally receptive to God’s voice. I know this is one of the places I need to grow, so I can be in better communion with our Lord.

Immersion in God’s Love

This past weekend, I had the chance (finally!) to go on the Walk to Emmaus as part of the National Capital Area Emmaus community, which hosted their 177th weekend. I was one of 21 men to walk as pilgrims, and even a week later (to be honest) I am still processing all that it meant.

For those not aware, an Emmaus weekend starts Thursday afternoon and goes until Sunday at a retreat center. We were up in the hills of western Virginia, and we are intentionally cut off from the outside world in many ways, so as to allow us to focus on God: no watches, no cell phones, no laptops, no nothin’. The 24 men on the staff have all done this themselves before, and they help us through the weekend with food, music, eating, activities, more food, and times of reflection. And eating. We had 15 little “talks” that some of the men gave on grace, life in Christ, and taking that grace and life out into the wider world. Several of those were incredibly raw, honest, even touching stories of how each man had fallen, and yet had been redeemed by Christ. We sang lots of contemporary Christian music, and even got in some exercise a few times. We shared joys and concerns at smaller gatherings, and we came together to reflect on what God’s love really meant.

At the closing ceremony, I stumbled through a few words about how the poverty of the English language means it’s not possible for me to put into words what the experience meant. People talk about an Emmaus weekend being life-changing; I pray it’s so, and the only test of that is down the road. But I had the opportunity to experience God in so many ways over the course of the weekend:

  • I experienced God’s love in new ways, ways I hadn’t experienced in a long time. In fact, I experienced it as a wonderful relentlessness: I might try to duck and hide, but God’s love will just keep coming, and coming, and coming for me. I had always known in my head about the scope of his love; this weekend I could feel it in my heart.
  • I met dozens of new brothers in Christ: men that, for having gone through this experience together, I know I can count on for support and prayer. Our “theme song” for the weekend was Lean on Me, and it was a blessing to meet so many people I can lean on.
  • I was challenged to set myself aside as never before. The little acts of service that the staff provide add up to a huge challenge to a “guy” who’s used to handling everything himself and being self-reliant.

On the drive home, I shared with my sponsor some of the reactions I’d had to the immersion I’d experienced in God over the weekend. I remember in the earlier part of the weekend feeling overwhelmed by God’s love and presence, and at one point I had the following exchange with him in my heart:

“I don’t deserve this, all this love being shown to me, someone who’s as broken as they come.”

“You’re right,” God replied, “you don’t.”

“I’m not worthy,” I protested.

“Oh, yes. Yes, you are,” he whispered. “And I’m gonna show you, and keep on showing you, until you finally get it: this is how much I love you.”

De Colores.

Saved, Not Excused

When someone we love is hurting, we hurt. Right now I have someone in my family who’s hurting, and it absolutely breaks my heart.

I’m a guy, of course, and as a guy, I want to fix things, and when it’s someone else’s heart that’s broken, when someone close to me is living (as my brother Glenn says, channelling Los Lobos) in “the deep dark hole that leads to nowhere,” well, I want to fix it and make it all better. But I can’t. It’s not something I can fix.

As we grow, we learn things like the concept of “circles of control” and “circles of concern.” A loved one’s personal anguish is very much in my circle of concern, but unfortunately, it’s not in my circle of control–I can’t take away the darkness or blunt the pain. It’s a hard lesson to learn, to have to surrender that to God and ask the four hardest words in the English language: “Thy will be done.”

How can this be? As Christians, aren’t we saved? Redeemed? Rescued? Why do we have to endure hardship and pain, or perhaps even worse, why do those close to us have to do so?

I have to remind myself, that’s all true: we are saved, redeemed, and rescued. But what’s saved, redeemed and rescued is our soul, our connection with the Almighty–giving us a cushy, problem-free life here on earth was never part of Jesus’ promises to us. In fact, much of 1 Peter serves to remind us that suffering will come our way: that life in Christ doesn’t excuse us from what this broken world will still dish out. We’re saved, redeemed, rescued, all right, but that doesn’t give us a hall pass from the suffering of this life.

Intellectually, I know that. It’s hard to hold onto when it’s someone close to you who’s doing the hurting.

I try to fortify through prayer, through bringing the power of Jesus against the darkness and to ask for the Lord’s healing power. Some days I think it’s working. Other days, the darkness seems to win. I know in the end, the darkness can’t win: I know who won the war already. But some of these individual battles, they look pretty close to me. And in the midst of the fight, sometimes, that’s all we can see.

Doing The Trim

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Hebrews is our men’s Bible study group that meets Sunday nights over beers at a local sports bar (He-brews, get it?). Some weeks ago, Dave said he wanted us to move beyond just talk, and to go into mission. So we connected with a group at Burke United Methodist to participate in Rebuilding Together, where we had the opportunity to help fix up a townhouse for an older gentleman who wasn’t able to take care of it anymore. This was a tremendous opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ: to use our gifts of time and skill to help someone who needed them. When we arrived, people were painting the outside, landscaping, fixing the roof, and laying new flooring in three rooms. Our group had the opportunity to lay flooring in the master bedroom. But first, I had to paint the bathroom. Well, not the whole thing: the trim.

Generally speaking I like painting. I love using the roller and covering a large wall with bright new color. I absolutely hate doing the trim. The tiny little detail work, how long it takes to finish…so very frustrating to me. But here I was, assigned to put two coats on the trim in a tiny bathroom that clearly hadn’t seen any paint in a decade or two.

God has a funny way of working sometimes. The things we hate to do, sometimes he puts right in front of us. To serve this gentleman, the homeowner, I have to put aside my own feelings about trim work and focus on doing a better job without complaint. It’s a great way of helping teach humility and helping diminish our own selfishness, to become more like Christ.

Sometimes to be Christ’s hands and feet, it means I have to do the trim.

Lord, thank you for once again pushing me to serve others, and in doing to, to put myself aside all the more. May Christ be seen in me even in the things I don’t like, because I do them in his name.

The Call of the Water

I just love being able to get away and go down by the water. Whether it’s a river or, ideally, the ocean, there’s something calming and peaceful about a gorgeous sunny day and sparkling water drifting by.

This weekend my bride and I celebrated our anniversary at a waterfront inn in Maryland. It wasn’t long at all before all the stresses of the workweek, and the life we left (temporarily) behind, could all fade away to the gentle sound of the lapping of the Chesapeake Bay.

On the two-hour drive here, Mary asked, out of nowhere, if I’d ever contemplated getting a vacation home. It turns out we both have: someplace we can come to again and again to recharge and to retire to, perhaps, in several years. As we talked, we discussed the pros and cons of the beach versus the mountains, both of which we enjoy. Later, at the water’s edge at the inn, I commented that I think the beach is the better choice.

I think I’m drawn to the water because I need that peace. I spend ten hours a week just commuting, plus another fifty at the office, and that’s before the time required to be any sort of dad to two teens. The world gets hectic, it pulls us in, it pushes our eyes down to just what’s in front of us instead of the majesty around us. And being able to spend a weekend down by the water often is enough to let me face a few more weeks of the world. The soft clanging of sailboat lines on masts, the bell of a boat heading out, the waves…I can feel my blood pressure dropping by the minute.

Water feeds a spiritual need. It speaks to me in a different language than the mountains do: to be honest, it’s a more fundamental one. In our baptismal liturgy we speak of Christ having been born in the water of a womb and then baptised in the waters of the river, to become the living water that he promised the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:14. When I’m connected to the water, I’m not only able to relax, but I’m also reminded of that living water and what it can mean to me in my life. It also reminds me, visibly, that the things that are won’t always be: I can’t look at the always-moving, always-changing surface of a river or the ocean without being reassured that whatever “the world” screams at us is transient, impermanent, and I can let it all go.

Jesus taught all around water, and used water frequently in his teaching. He called fishermen to his side, he walked on water, he calmed the sea. And when he had returned from the grave, he met his disciples by the shores of the sea, to connect with them one more time. “Let’s go down to the river to pray,” the old spiritual goes, and for me, there’s plenty of healing there, plenty of renewal, plenty of strength to lift my eyes past “the world” and back onto Christ again.

Genuine Worship

This past weekend was Youth Sunday at our church, so our youth group put on the entire service for three services (except the blessing of the Communion, that they wisely left to the pros). Our youth group has slowly grown and has slowly been retaining more and more high schoolers, which has been a blessing to see.

The kids did an amazing job. Two girls (including my daughter) played guitar while five others sang contemporary Christian praise, my son and one other boy were lay leaders, and another girl preached a great sermon about “Cleaning Jesus’ Bathroom.” She used the example of how she and others had cleaned a communal bathroom at an orphanage, and how their team leader had told them that “because you had done thus to the least of these, you had done it unto” Jesus.

I have to say, this was the most honest, genuine bit of worship I’d had the privilege to experience in awhile. Absolutely everything was heartfelt, from the enthusiasm of the music to the soloists’ singing, to the message to the little oopses of people not familiar with having to do these things but yet doing their absolute best to bring worship. It did my heart good, as a dad, to see my two teens publicly sharing their faith, and they had a great impact on all us old folks in the pews–I had several comments about how we need to do this more often, to let the youth bring their message.

I am reminded of Revelation 5, where all of creation joins in full-throated, no-holds-barred, wide-open, entire-hearted worship of God in heaven. The kids brought a taste of that to us last weekend, and it was beautiful.

It also leads me to reflect on what happens when worship becomes routine; when it’s not enthusiastic, when it’s just going through the motions. We get stale, we get bored, we start to slack in our attendance and we start to fall away. It’s when we get to experience genuine worship, a smidgen of a taste of what we’ll get to enjoy in eternity, that our hearts quicken and our souls gladden. Thank you, SUMC youth, for bringing a taste of full worship to us, and may we work to bring that more often!

It Really Is God’s Story: We’re Just Living In It

That feels so…grating, doesn’t it somehow? Aren’t I the author of my own story? Don’t I have free will, making my own way? Well, yes. But our brief moment on earth is just a fleeting instant in the great arc of the Story we’re all a part of.

The Bible tells of that arc so well. God created the earth and everything in it, including humanity. We then almost immediately turned our backs on him. He was offering such closeness, an intimacy even, that we can’t even imagine: Genesis 3:8 describes how God was walking in the Garden…the same God, walking through the same Garden we had the privilege briefly to inhabit with him. Instead we chose to disobey, to listen to our other passions. The entire rest of the Bible is the story of God trying to rebuild the relationship we severed in our sin in the Garden.

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Think about it: we struggle to make it outside the Garden, and eventually sin so much that God hits Reset and saves only Noah and his family in the flood. Trying again, we have righteous people like Abraham and Joseph, who try to walk in God’s path, but still remain unable to approach. God gives us the Law through Moses, then, as a way to help shape us into his people, but we overdo it: we take it too literally, and become a people of nitpicking and lose the forest for the trees. Finally, God sends his Son, Jesus, who is able to demonstrate the way to draw close to God once more, and whose death and resurrection opened the door to us to follow.

A massive epic like that transcends any one of us. We’re bit players in this drama! We don’t rate top billing. We’re onstage for a moment, and our role is to help draw attention to the main actors, not to upstage them and hog the spotlight. Once we come to acknowledge that we’re here not because of anything amazing that we’ve done, or anything amazing about us, but because we’re to return to God and to help bring others’ attention to him, then so much more of life falls into place.

To play our part, we have to acknowledge the lead actor. That’s worship. We have to focus our attention on him, so that the others–the audience, if you will–are able to focus on him too, to hear what he has to say.

In God’s story, there’s a battle, and it’s the same for us. We’re born into a world at war, between good and evil, as Act III of the play is unfolding. We’re not yet at the glorious climax, but rather at the point of the play when it feels like it could go in any of a number of directions. But the cool thing is, we know how the play will turn out: with God’s ultimate victory. We celebrated that at Easter this weekend, and we celebrate it in our hearts every day that we remember our role in God’s larger story.