Creatures of Habit

The line between a something that’s a habit and something that’s part of your character is a thin one. There are many things I do regularly: is brushing my teeth a habit, or part of my character? Well, the action is a habit; the character bit is taking care of myself. How about mowing the lawn? I do it habitually, but the character piece is keeping the house up to standards.

How about the stuff that’s not so good? What do my bad habits say about me? If I have a glass of wine with dinners, does that make me an alcoholic? How about my sins: when I get selfish or thoughtless, or worse, does that define me?

Paul reminds the church at Rome that the answer is NO. We are no longer defined by our sins, as new creatures in Christ.

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. […] Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 7:14-15, 24-25a)

Nonetheless, we are such creatures of habit. And when we’re taken out of our routines, the changes can make it hard to take up those habits again. Take vacations, for example. Normally, I use some of my morning commute as prayer time; it’s become my routine, my habit. But on vacation, my habits are rearranged: I’m not commuting, so I lose that time I’ve set aside in prayer. I have to make a conscious choice to pray at other times in the day, which is awkward at first because it’s different and outside my comfortable habit.

God understands us better than we give him credit for. He knows each of us, individually and intimately. He understands the power of our habits, and how difficult it is for us to break our bad ones. Fortunately for us, he has given us the possibility of new life in Christ, who can make all things new within us.

If you’ve ever tried to break a habit on your own, you know it’s not easy. The good news is, you don’t have to: You were never meant to bear your sins beyond the cross. Jesus can come into a life and, where the habit has been too strong, he is able to break it and fulfill his promise of new life. Now if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is!

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“Let There Be No Divisions In The Church.”

appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. […] All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is part of it. (1 Corinthians 1:10-11, 12:27)

In the middle of the 19th century, one Daniel Keenan emigrated from Ireland to America where he set up his young family in eastern Vermont. Six generations later, his four-times-great-granddaughter said Yes to my proposal, and became my bride. Twenty-plus years on, and we are now in Ireland touring with the kids to show them the place where mom’s family came from, as part of our son’s graduation celebrations from high school.

According to what Mary can find, Daniel hailed from “Greencastle Parish, Belfast, County Antrim.” We made it a point to try to find Greencastle, to see if we could find the church or the town hall and see if there were any more records we could locate about Daniel, because her trail grows cold here: we don’t know his parents, or any other relatives. According to Google, Greencastle Parish is on the north side of Belfast, and this morning we went for a look.

On driving into Northern Ireland from the Republic to the south, one notices almost immediately the plethora of flags and symbols of Northern Ireland’s connection to the UK. But it’s when we got into the neighborhood that things really got intense. Greencastle, in a word, felt intimidating, with its superabundance of Union Jacks and Northern Irish flags, and not least a huge mural (see photo) on the side of a building overlooking the main street: “North Belfast: Prepared for Peace, Ready for War.” It gave every sign of being a neighborhood ripe for sectarian violence, and it appears to be a Protestant neighborhood in some proximity to a Catholic one to the west.

belfast

I had really hoped to have avoided this on the visit. I had hoped we could find a pleasant place, where we could find some kindly soul to help us through dusty archives to find more about Daniel. But instead, the apartment blocks glowered with their flags, the mural threatened with its armed figures, and the whole stretch of the place seemed completely, utterly uninviting. We drove the main street, Shore Road, two or three times, looking for anything that could have been helpful. We didn’t find a thing.

On the one hand, it’s disappointing in that my wife wasn’t able to find anything to help in tracing her family roots. All the more, it’s a shame the kids had to see such rawness and intimidation on display. But worst of all, it demonstrates the continuing utter failure of Christ’s people to come together as one.

Paul had had it with the pettiness of the divisions of the young church at Corinth. He wrote passionately in his first letter to them, trying to convince them that there is only one church, and that we are all called to be part of it. Unfortunately, it looks as if two millennia on, we are still wrestling with the shattering divisions that started even then. From our nice, comfy, adjusted perches in the States, we don’t see Greencastle as our reality: we mix well with Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists, and yes, Catholics. Unfortunately, however, Greencastle is real, and seeing it on display this morning deeply disturbed me.

We try to make our divisions a laughing matter. Comedian Emo Phillips tells a wonderful story about coming across a man about to jump off a bridge. Emo talks with the man and as the story goes along, discovers that they share so much of an identity: just as the story climaxes, they are not only Christians, but Protestants, and Baptists, and Northern Baptists, and Northern Conservative Baptists, and Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptists, and Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptists Great Lakes Region. But it’s when the man says he is from the Great Lakes Region Council of 1912, instead of the Council of 1879, that Emo yells “Die, heretic!” and pushes him off the bridge.

We laugh, but as Greencastle shows, it’s really not funny. Christ came for each of us. He came to die for your sins, just as much as mine. He didn’t come to establish a range of religions, he came to preach repentance and that the Kingdom of God is here, now, available to everyone. My heart broke a little today for what his must do each day we go on putting up walls between us, instead of uniting to truly become his hands and feet in the world.

May we find our way, Lord, may we come together and truly be at peace, never ready for war in your name. Amen.

It Takes Effort

Let me tell you a little about the last couple of weeks in my world.

  • Spent two-plus days with my son taking him to his college orientation.
  • Helping plan, then execute, his Eagle Scout project–he’s up against the 18th birthday deadline, so everything has to be done at once.
  • Planning for his own high school graduation, which will be this week.
  • Graduation parties for the high school graduates of some of my best friends in the world.
  • Emceeing the farewell dinner for our two pastors at church, and chairing the Church Council meeting.
  • Replaced the oven, which curled up and died suddenly in the midst of all this.
  • Taking my bride to a Dolly Parton concert, finally fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers.
  • Helping my daughter through the fraught last few school assignments and exams of freshman year.
  • Oh yeah, my day job: helping run a $28B organization while short-staffed.

All of these take a pretty big effort to pull off. Orientation meant eight hours’ driving total, and lots of information flooding at me. The Eagle project required multiple meetings, runs to Home Depot, and general support even before the first spade hit the sod to begin his project. Graduation parties mean multiple guests coming, which means the carpets finally have to be cleaned, and the house too, ahead of the big day. I’m not a big Dolly fan, but my wife is, so I make the time to do this, which is important to her.

What’s missing from the list? Oh yeah: drawing closer to God.

It always seems to me that the paradox of my life is that the times when I need him most, when things are running full-steam and barely under control, or even (shudder) out of control, those are the times I don’t make enough of a priority of being with Christ. Intellectually I know I have to; it’s just the press of the now-now-now that means I don’t make it the priority it needs to be. It takes a high degree of intentionality to stay focused on being in communion with Christ when all around me is swirling, and I confess, I don’t do that as well as I should. There’s a gap between what I know I should do, and what I actually do.

intentgap

I’m somewhat pleased to report, though, that in the midst of this past push of madness, I was able to do an 11-day Bible reading and reflection program. Of course, I did it in only three days: I’d forget about it for a few days then push to catch up, then fall behind again and have to cover several days at once. But I did do it, which is progress for me. I also re-started reading Matthew again, which I haven’t done in awhile, and trying a new discipline of reading it before even getting up in the morning.

It takes a tremendous amount of effort sometimes just to keep going. And to add something to the list–even something as essential as working on my relationship with God–often feels either one thing too much, to be honest, or slips my frazzled brain entirely. It’s not ideal, I know. But it’s real, and it’s where I’m truly at sometimes. I like to think those are the times my forgiveness is all the more precious.

Kingdom Life and the 21st Century

When Jesus returned to Capernaum, a Roman officer came and pleaded with him, “Lord, my young servant lies in bed, paralyzed and in terrible pain.” Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”

But the officer said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.” 

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to those who were following him, he said, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Matthew 8:5-10)

This passage always used to puzzle me a little. Is Jesus saying that faith is blind obedience? Is Jesus saying that a hierarchical, military-style leadership is what the Kingdom of God is all about? I don’t think so. Jesus is teaching about life in the Kingdom, yes, and obedience, but it’s not the kind we’re thinking of. Jesus knows that the Kingdom has a hierarchy–God is on his throne, angels are there too (and even angels have hierarchies–see Daniel 10, how one angel needed to call on a superior one in a battle), but we’re neither God nor angels–we are distinct and, yes, lower creations. And it’s when we start to imagine ourselves as bigger than we really are, that we start to commit the sin of pride that Satan did before his fall.

There is a way things work. The Roman officer knew it. He knew his place: he knew he could command others, but equally, he knew he was subject to the commands of those above him. And he understood authority. If the superior officer says something will be done, then he and his men made it happen. Similarly, this soldier knew that if Jesus were to give the word, his servant would be healed even from afar, because he respected the authority of Jesus to get things done, and he knew angels and the forces of heaven would move to bring about Jesus’ will. That’s the reason Jesus is so thrilled: Here’s a guy who gets it!

ctk2

If we’re honest with ourselves, there’s something about this that rankles us. We come from a 21st century Western mindset, born of the Enlightenment, that holds that we’re all special and empowered. We have democracies, for pity’s sake, we don’t have kingdoms anymore! Unless you live in Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Oman, Qatar, or Swaziland, you have no idea what it’s like to live in a true kingdom. Don’t like your leaders? Vote ’em out!

The Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. We have one true King, and we are all subjects of his authority. Yes, it feels alien to us, with our representative republics and, at least as Americans, our history of overthrowing kings. But it doesn’t make it any less true. If anything, it makes it a little but harder for the 21st century American to take to his knees before the King.

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.