Archive for the ‘god’ Category

As Christians, what can we do when we can’t do any more?

What can we say when our health problems, relational problems, money problems or situational problems overwhelm us? What words can we use then?

We might consider twisting the English language. Perhaps the shape of a pretzel will work.

Consider some aspects of ancient languages that might provide a model for this. Greek, Sanskrit and Old Norse have a grammatical middle voice, a voice between the active voice (Mother’s adore their babies) and the passive voice (Babies are adored by their mothers). The middle voice can say this in a third way, “I will have myself adored.” That’s the middle voice. English doesn’t normally use that voice, but as you see, the middle voice can be voiced in an odd, twisted way.

Rachel Winner, in her book Still, gives two examples of the middle voice as she explores her wavering spiritual experience as a Christian.

“I will have myself carried.”

“I will have myself saved.”

I love those unique expressions of “ I will have.” They contain longing, hope and confidence.

The middle voice — found in “I will have myself saved” — indicates that it is another agent than oneself that does the saving. In this case, the implied agent for the Christian — saying such a thing — is God.

We Christians might think of this as a way of saying, “I will put myself in God’s hands, and he will rescue me,” or “I will present myself to God. He will save me.”

But the mid-voiced form, “I will have myself saved” is better. It is better because it says what we want to say concisely, and because it accurately respects something about God and about oneself that is true. It respects God as savior. And it respects oneself as worthy of being saved.

Also, notice that it is spoken in this pretzeled form of the language almost as a demand. “I will have salvation!” Or, it is spoken with certainty, “I will not entertain any options or scenarios of not being saved.” Or it comes across as a foregone conclusion, “I will not, not be saved by God.” Or, we may say, it is spoken with active confidence, “I will take action to render myself present to God to save me and he will do it.” It is all of those.

About God it implies, “I know that when I present myself to God, he will carry and rescue me.” It reminds me of Job’s famous, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.” Job 13:15

This passage from Job is often misread. It is not an expression of the ultimate form of passivity. Job is presenting himself as both active and worthy. In maintaining his innocence, his ways, he is declaring himself worthy of salvation no matter what happens to him.

The NIV renders Job’s words as, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.”

The Message renders this as, “even if he killed me, I’d keep on hoping. I’d defend my innocence to the very end.”

We must not miss Job’s defense of himself in this scripture. Job is saying, “I will, no matter what I experience ahead, even if it is death, put myself in God’s hands to be carried and saved, and he will save me because I am worthy of this,” or to pretzel it in English into the middle tense, “I will have myself saved.” What we have here is an affirmation of grace, both original grace (we have worth because we were made in the image of God) and redemptive grace (we are made worthy by the sacrifice of Christ). Job unknowingly but rightly puts himself within Christ, within redemption when he trusts God to save him.

Try it on. See if it fits, the pretzeled, middle-voiced, grace-affirming, self-affirming cri de coeur. Use it to help yourself adopt the correct posture toward yourself when difficulty overwhelms you. Christians, you are not guilty. You are not being punished or condemned. You are loved; you are worthy; you are forgiven. It is okay, even encouraged by scripture, to be confident before God because God is more than willing to carry and save us. He has already saved us! It is ours to claim and receive, and he is pleased when we do.

“Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus … let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience.”

Hebrews 10:22

Say it with me:

“I will have myself carried.”

“I will have myself saved.”

Yesterday I sat outside my house on the side patio. After a while I noticed that two mourning doves had landed in the corner of my yard on the wall surrounding my small decorative pond and fountain. They arrived as if from nature’s chef, an amuse-bouche, free, surprising, desirable. The tiny pond is a cool oasis full of water lilies, duck weed and water Hawthorne and around the edges grow nasturtiums and coreopsis and alyssum. It’s a lovely cool spot covered with a trellis full of passion vines.

One of the doves wandered over to the rocks around the pond to drink and began to splash around. Then leaving the pond, it walked along the bricks at the top of the stucco wall in front of it and sat down beside its mate in the shade of an orange blooming cape honeysuckle. It was a warm day here in San Diego, high 70’s, but there in the shade the doves sat side-by-side and settled into a mid-day repose, a luxuriating sloth, a robust calm, ataraxia, robust tranquility. Their legs disappeared. They sank into the cool bricks and widened. They so settled that when I moved my chair out of the sun, only 25 feet away, they didn’t move a feather to fly.

During the coronavirus pandemic, as we social isolate, for many of us there’s less to do than we are used to. In such a limiting milieu as this, I find myself flitting between uncomfortable feelings. What is it? Boredom? Lethargy? Anxiety? Malnoia, that vague feeling of mental discomfort. Unlike the doves, I don’t settle well in the shade.

Caralyn Collar, a blogger I follow at beautybeyondbones puts it well in saying, “we’re grappling with … restlessness.”

Yup! Nailed it! Caralyn is restless. I’m restless. The world is restless. Our children are restless. My cat is restless. Early the other morning while it was still dark, I stepped out to look at the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter through my telescope. Unbeknownst to me the cat came out with me, at 5 AM! When I went back in, she was locked out.. When we got up we were like, “Where is the cat?” We found her huddled under a bush in the side yard. She was glad to come back in. She was lucky one of the local coyotes that roam our master-planned community didn’t eat her.

We all want to escape, run out the door, get out again. We want to get out to malls, coffee shops, stores, restaurants, breweries, the gym, parks, the beach, church, friend’s homes, work, parties, hangouts — and get food — anything but grocery store food — and hugs.

The restless don’t rest that well. I confess I’m addicted to movement. We all are. We are addicted to motion, ambulation, talking, meeting, driving, projects, errands, shopping! We’ve had a lifetime of consumerism. Sure we can still buy online but buying things on Amazon is getting old! I want to touch stuff! I want to hobnob with the checker.

What to do?

Sitting the other day watching the two doves in the shade under the honeysuckle on the cool bricks, I found myself admiring their equanimity, their composure, their even disposition, their ability to just be there, to rest.

The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit of God. I think we like the Holy Spirit just like we like our consumer culture. We like the Holy Spirit to be in motion, to come to us frenetic, with brio, with verve, with spunk, with clangorous tongues of fire, agentic, shedding gifts, flying lead bird to the next wonder-venture. And while all that is fine and good, my resting doves, by the pond, reminded me that the Holy Spirit is also a Spirit of comfort and of rest, and that our God is a spirit of rest, and invites us to enter his rest.

The doves came and sat with me. Sometimes God comes that way, just to sit with us, in silence, to sit with us in our uncomfortable feelings, to sit with us in our anxiety and to sit with us in our restlessness. He knows we are restless, and he knows the true rest is found in him, in sitting with him, in silence. Seeing that he isn’t all on edge to jump up and fly and fidget and fume and fix, seeing that he knows how to sink his legs and feathers into the everyday-shady-brick-mundane gives us permission to be content, at times, with doing nothing. God our quiet feathered flâneur.

I think I could take lessons from my neighborhood doves! To rest some of the day away with no shame attached — that’s progress. That’s progress in moving away from addictive motion and persistent restlessness. They’ll be time again for all that; perhaps this is the time to get better at resting.

This evening as I take my walk I hear a dove cooing gently, roosted, retired, settled for the night, signaling its intrinsic restful contentment.

At such a time as this we may feel weak and vulnerable. Living in a world pandemic has this affect.

We are helping some by social distancing, but it is a very small part to play. Few of us have a leading role, and even those who do are not masters of the universe. They too must wait; none of us has the power to say, “Stop,” and the virus stops.

And so we wait, and so we are weaker than we want to be. And so we hurt for those who are afraid, for those economically devastated and for those who are sick and for those who have died and for their families.

We may wonder how to experience God in such a time as this, a time when we can’t go to church, a time when our relationship with God is more up to each of us.

I have thoughts. Jesus did not come in power and authority over everything that happen in his time. He healed, but he didn’t heal everything. He influenced, but he didn’t influence everyone. The truth is he allowed himself to come in human form and to be weak and vulnerable like us. His moment of greatest weakness, the one he said he didn’t want, this is what saved us.

Debbie Blue writes, “Our response to smallness, weakness, being out of control, vulnerability, eventual decomposing is usually not very accepting. We don’t usually love what is small and weak and vulnerable in ourselves. Nor do we generally feel that loving toward what is small and weak and vulnerable in other adults. We feel threatened by our finitude and mortality.”

Debbie has us rightly identified here but it is unfortunate that we think like this because in our smallness and in our weakness and in our pain we actually have an opportunity to experience God.

Perhaps we have limited our awareness of God’s presence to big moments of joy in communal worship or big gushes of gratitude in times when things are going our way. But what if God is also known to us in our helplessness and weakness and smallness?

The unvarnished truth is that God in Christ himself became weak so as to enter into our weakness; therefore, we can experience him in our own weakness. This will take some getting used to, this truth that uncomfortable feelings also contain the presence of God.

Debbie Blue writes, “Maybe people wanted a mighty, fancy, elite sort of God. God gave them Jesus, who consorted with the commoners, died with thieves. And still we’ve (sometimes) tried to make him out to be a superhuman.”

Of course Jesus was and is super, truly God, and yet he chose to become human, like us, which in part means powerless, wounded, subject to death.

This is true and provides us with a unique opportunity in this season of weakness to come into connection and solidarity with God and other people through the mystic revelation that weakness is something that God is present in.

This is a time in world history to accept and even embrace our limits, to embrace the spiritual sensation of weakness as a way to experience God and be one with God. Our sensations of weakness, helplessness and smallness are actually doors that open onto the awareness that God is present with us.

How will we know if and when we are really experiencing God in weakness? I’m not completely sure. We will have to try on theses new feelings to know, but not like when we try on new shoes. The idea is not that we have found God, the right God, when we feel good, when it feels like we have a comfy fit with the divine. The idea might be that we will know that we are connecting with God when we notice that we have more compassion and love for weakness in ourselves and others.

Muck

Posted: April 17, 2020 in god
Tags: , , , , ,

Debbie Blue, creative theologian, cofounder of House of Mercy and author of Birds of the Bible writes, “Tertullian insists on maintaining the belief that God became fully human in Jesus, though he is clearly disgusted by some of the implications. ‘Start with the birth itself,’ he says, ‘an aversion, the filth within the womb of the bodily fluid and blood, the loathsome curdled lump of flesh which has to be fed for nine months of this same muck.’

“The womb. Somehow I get the feeling that the Spirit (like a dove) hovering over the deep, hovering over Mary’s womb, didn’t feel quite the same way about “the muck.’”

“The Spirit called the muck into being, so the story goes—God shaped it with God’s hands. God reveals Godself most fully, the Christian church professes, not as a rational system or a set of ethics or an unchanging principle, not as some magisterial deity or a pure white light, but as a living, breathing, bodily being. This is admittedly weird, but continually beautiful.”

I like this! This fits my experience. We’re in the muck these days, coronavirus, economic mess, social isolation. And we each have our own internal muck, anxiety, pain, uncertainty, identity confusion. It is good for us to resonate with the idea that God is willing to enter our mess, our muck, and be with us in it.

We want hide the filth of life. We may want to hide from our muck. We may think it keeps us from God. Not so. Not from God. In the beginning God created the muck. In the middle he entered it. In the end he redeems it.

We can help. We can be honest about our weaknesses. We can stop shaming ourselves for our muck. We can see God close to it, in it, with us, loving, understanding, caring.

He is!

Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

John 12:24

Jesus said this predicting his death, but even further he was laying out the loss-gain narrative of the universe.

Loss becomes gain. One becomes many. A kind of ongoing death becomes a new kind of ongoing life. The loss-gain narrative in Christ is paralleled in nature.

The acorn enters a dark place of transformation in the soil so a new oak may live. It waits. It waits for a unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light. It waits for the right time. In the scientific sense of the word, the seed doesn’t “die” — but its shell protects, its nutrients feed, its form sacrifices itself for the new embryonic oak it engenders. The seed is used up in this process for the success and survival of the new tree it propagates. Jesus refers to this metaphorically as a type of death, one He would experience.

Jesus was used up to nurture, feed and birth a new, fresh embryonic us. Scripture says at the right time – the kairos— he literally emptied himself — the kenosis — in a real sense into us. He literally poured life into us at Easter in the same way the acorn pours life into the new tree.

And then perhaps the most radical thing of all: He asked us to lose our lives for others as well. To follow the loss-gain model, we like Christ are to protect, feed and nurture others by pouring ourselves into them. This seems particularly relevant to Easter 2020. The world is sheltered in place, waiting, giving up freedoms, mobility, connections, resources in order to save lives. We are currently living Easter! We are letting go of life to give and save lives.

And we are waiting, for what’s next! What’s next?

It is a beginning that will be the end of a waiting, a loss that will birth a gain.

In His darkest hour, Jesus felt abandoned by God. He cried, “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?

Most of us can identify. We too have felt abandon at times by family and friends and even God. Perhaps during the global pandemic many feel this as they lose loved ones, lose their own health, lose jobs, businesses or resources.

Recently, I’ve suffered months of nonstop pain, and in this gorgon’s grip I have sometimes felt abandon by God, or if not abandoned then at least neglected. I have known and believed he was there, but for long periods God has not communicated with me in the personal and intimate ways he has in the past.

Abandonment anger, loneliness, depression, sadness and fear — I know these feelings. Most of the world does too.

I’ve asked: Why has God allowed me to go through so much unrelenting pain? Why allow this throughout our world?

The answer: I don’t know. I may never know. I’m not settling for quick, familiar or facile answers to tout to the faithful or faithless. I’ve been told by my wisest friends to wait, to defer judgement, to not rush toward fake fixes or trite truths.

I resonate with their counsel. It’s okay to not know. It’s honest. And I have also come to a good place of not shaming myself for being ignorant and fragile and unconnected. I am, in this season, both weak and strong, but I refuse to pretend I am always strong.

D.A. Carson wrote, “I find hope in the fact that there is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but a faith so robust it wrestles with God.”

Psalms 13

Listen to David.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I take counsel in my souland have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

Moses humbled by his own failure in Egypt, lived in Midian 40 years.

Times of loss, abandonment, isolation sadness and fear were common to the heroes of the Bible. We just don’t tend toward those remembrances. We tell the story with the end in mind but lost in trial they knew nothing of redemptive ends.

Joseph endured a lengthy betrayal by his brothers, slavery and prison. Thirteen years passed from the time Joseph was sold by his brothers to the time he left prison. Some of that time, Joseph was in Potiphar’s service. None of it was easy. Think of how he must have felt during those hidden years.

Daniel was brought to Babylon a captive. Under Nebuchadnezzar’s orders, he was forced to serve in the king’s government. Think of how he must have wondered why his great wisdom was closeted. And then the lion’s den.

Esther was an orphan.

Jeremiah had his life’s work destroyed in the fire.

The disciples lost their teacher and savior.

They felt terrible.

What to say?

We all feel alone at times.

And although it’s not always something we can feel or see or even hear very well, yet God tells us that he never leaves us.

Isaiah 49:15-16, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…”

We may feel abandoned. That’s okay. We may feel forgotten. That’s understandable. We may feel neglected. That’s normal.

It is just that God says we aren’t.

What to do?

Don’t deny your feelings. They are real. They are valid. Most other human beings have felt as you do at some point in life. Jesus himself was unashamed — even when he knew the plan— to declare his feelings of abandonment openly.

We say what at we feel so that we are authentic and honest and real. We walk in the light, which means we let our thoughts and feelings be exposed to our selves and others.

Instead of running to quick fixes that involve suppression or denial or flip answers, instead we wait, as so many have waited, in solidarity with each other we wait, weak we wait, hopeful we wait, hanging on his character and judgments we wait, coming to us in his time and his way — we wait.

In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul.

Isaiah 26:8

Even to your old age and gray hairsI am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you;I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Isaiah 46:4

God promises his people three things here in Isaiah.

First, he will sustain them to the end of their lives. To sustain is to strengthen or support physically or mentally. And note the logical corollary to this: We will need the most sustaining when we are the weakest.

At one point in my life I lost a precious job and in the interim, before finding another one, I was afraid. I felt emotionally weak, vulnerable. I didn’t like it. I’m not particularly fond of feeling vulnerable. Few of us are. I’ve often played the strongman, the teacher, the leader, the writer but clearly I haven’t always been the strong man.

Secondly, in Isaiah 46 we are told that because God made us and feels intimately connected to us as family, he will carry us. To carry someone is to support and move them from one place to another. Again, this carrying implies a position of weakness: A person only needs to be carried when they cannot carry themselves. It can feel quite undignified to be carried.

I once sprained my ankle playing soccer in Brazil. The soccer field had holes in it. I was wheeled through the airport by my teenage team for the plane ride home in a wheelchair. I felt both privileged and slightly embarrassed. It’s true. Sometimes I find my weakness embarrassing.

Thirdly, in Isaiah, God repeats the first point, that he will sustain and he adds one more thing: He will rescue us. To rescue someone is to save someone from a dangerous or distressing situation that they can’t save themselves from. It is also to keep something from being lost or abandoned by retrieval. Again, dangling from a rescuing helicopter or laying on a gurney is hardly a bragging point for most of us. “I had to be rescued!”

At two points in my life I have been significantly sick, recovering from surgery, dealing with chronic pain. During these times I’ve had to wait on rescue, wait on doctors, wait on appointments, wait on surgeries, wait on a gurney, wait on God. I’m not that good at waiting, particularly when there is a high degree of uncertainty and uncomfortability. 

What can we take from all this? First, that we will at times be weak, embarrassed, at times need to be carried and that sometimes we will not be able to rescue ourselves from loss, deprivation, failure, need.

Let’s be honest. None of us like to be weak, dependent, helpless, sick and needy, and yet sometimes we will be. One of the great steps of maturity in life is to realize and accept our own vulnerability. All are subject to financial, health, material, relational, physical and situational loss and and its attendant emotion — vulnerability. We are realizing this acutely during the coronavirus pandemic. How insecure we are, practically spending the entire families savings on toilet paper!

But it is in such times of personal need that we can discover our humanity that includes our vulnerability — which by the way was always there even when we didn’t know it or denied it. How much we are all alike, strong, yes, and also all sometimes indisputably, intrinsically afraid, dependent and weak.

And here’s the thing; this weakness is most hard on us at the emotional level. The emotional power position is to save; the affectively weak position is to be saved. To be the one who needs to be rescued; we must be okay with being and feeling weak, even embarrassed; we must be okay with waiting until we are sustained and rescued by another; we must be okay with not being the hero, the driver, the solution and we must be okay with letting others shine and do the saving.

Ah, needy, waiting for help to come. The help seems slow. As time passes we wonder, will it come? We may grow angry over our loss of control or we may become sad.

What else can we do?

We can accept reality, accept both our strength and our weakness and we can work on not being so embarrassed by it so that it doesn’t become impedimenta to us that we drag along with us. Note that Betty Ford was praised for raising breast cancer awareness following her 1974 mastectomy. So many women have been helped and encouraged by her model of openness. We help ourselves and others by normalizing sickness and weakness. It is strong to accept that we are weak.

And we can learn to hold on to hope. That means we can trust that God will come through when he decides to come through and not when we tell him to come through.

We can lean into our difficulty and see what it has to teach us as we wait. That too is a form of strength. Waiting and watching can teach us that we are alternately weak and strong, that life is up and down and that God will come through in his own time and way and not ours.

Finally, it has been my experience — and I know many of you have experienced this too — that the promises of God do not always come to us when and how we want. Then we trust. Then we wait. Then we mature into those who are not afraid to be what we sometimes are — the strong-weak. Then we experience latency, a normal stage of life, the state of existing but not yet being developed or manifest.

Weak-waiting —- today it occurs to me that this can be a beautiful form of strong-trusting, and that this can set up a working relationship with God, one that preps us for future times of strength and weakness, one that finds a way to deeply liaise with the God who rescues.

Competition — I’ve lived it, the good the bad and the ugly

In high school I won my gym class ping-pong championship. I glowed.

Several times I have received good chunks of money for articles I wrote. I was competing against other articles offered to the same magazine. I felt very affirmed, my acceptances, my being allowed into the conversation. It help me realize that writing was the thing for me. So I’ve worked hard on it. since.

Competition, as a positive can promote discipline, hard work and toughness, develop skills, create teamwork, lead to innovation and invention, create high-quality work and performance, fuel productivity, help people know what they’re good at and what they’re not good at and teach a person how to be a gracious winner or loser.

I once raced a BMW in my Infinity G 37 coupe. Blew his doors off. I celebrated. Or gloated. Not good. Later I regretted this.

Competition as a negative can cause a person to become conceited —desiring to be the cynosure of all eyes — harmfully proud, create fear and anxiety, add harmful levels of stress, lead to rushed decisions, elicit cheating, illegal or harmful behaviors, sabotage teamwork, ruin relationships, consume a person with bitterness, lead to a loss of morale and self-esteem.

So what to think of all this?

We might say that because there are pros and cons here that we need a balance between competing with others and nurturing others. Fair enough.

But how does this work out for we Christians. What does the Bible have to say about competition?

Well, we might first note that Israel competed with the other nations for land and power and survival. The Old Testament may be even be seen as the story of winners and losers. But this perhaps ignores the purpose God had in choosing the Jews. It was to make himself known to the whole world. The Jews were to win only so others could win. They were to be a light to the other nations; instead they were darkness. And when they failed to let God make them successful, God had to discipline them and let them fail.

Well, what about the New Testament?

For Christians who see competition as valuable they might point out that the apostle Paul compared himself to a runner, boxer and soldier, to a competitor. But in the context of these analogies, Paul is actually competing against himself, against his old nature. And he eventually concludes that only Christ within will win his fight. For him to win is to know Christ, to be found in God, to please God and to help as many people as possible do the same.

So we might say that we Christians compete to win a win for everyone possible. I think of it is similar to how I think about my daughters and wife. I want to be my best self possible so that they might be resourced, successful, win at life.

But we might say that Paul and the other disciples and early church leaders debated competitively for the gospel, just as have all the apologists and evangelists who have come after him. True. And we might note that there is a kind of world competition for the truth, for what’s right, for a philosophy or religion to live by. Paul contended for the gospel.

Christians still do. So we Christians do well to train ourselves and discipline ourselves to be as good and knowledgeable and excellent in all our work as possible, but not so that we might win discussions, but so that we may draw others into the win of God.

This is an interesting topic to take on. Perhaps big-idea and longview conclusions help here. First, Jesus was never about himself against the world. He didn’t define his mission or ours as us against them — the outliers, the sinners, the deceived — but instead as himself for all of them, and us for all of them, us in him loving them, as many as we can. He only spoke against those who wanted to make Christianity an elite group. Remember, John 3:17. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. And Jesus had no ultimate doubts about the outcome of that quest. He knew — the father would win!

Jesus came and announced, “God wins!” That’s what the scripture, what Revelations says. And it isn’t even a fair fight. All of creation and all of history is going somewhere, the place Jesus prayed for in John 17, that we might all be one within God. I don’t know how that sorts out, but it is clear that God wants no one to be left out of that win, and that the only way that they can be left out is if they choose to be.

“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”

1Tim. 2:3-4

Life is a serious business. We all know that there are winners and losers. It doesn’t look like everyone wins in life. Not everyone gets a gold star. Not everyone gets a sticker or an A+ on their paper or a trophy. But everyone can be forgiven and everyone can realize their giftedness for the good of others.

With all this reasoning as presuppositionaI, I certainly don’t think then that the church is advanced by attacking the “pagans” or science or sinners or other religions or by holing up, circling the wagons and seeing itself as attacked by the rest of the world. The church’s goal is not to defeat everyone else but instead to share the win Jesus won with everyone else! Yes, it may be true that in the end everyone won’t win — only God knows that or who; only God could decide that — but it’s certainly not our business to try to decide that. That’s God’s work. Our work is to declare the win. If there is to be a loss, we leave that up to God.

At the last church I pastored we shared the church with other denominations, with other congregations, with AA support groups; we gave space to professional counselors, food distribution organizations and groups helping refugees and children in poverty. We owned it, with no debt, and we gave it away freely to anyone we had a common vision with us, vision to help people. We took a non-competitive, inclusive approach to our community. If we were competitive it was competition to win at the game of sharing.

Looking further in the new testament for commentary on competition, we find the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Faced with dismissal, the manager reduces the debts of his employer’s creditors, and thus creates friends for life. When his boss finds out, he commends the manager’s savvy, entrepreneurial, even competitive behavior.

Well, we might say this about that. God admires intelligence. After all, he made it. God admires shrewdness, for he is shrewd. God wants us to find ways to make life better, because he wants to make life better. Therefore, Christian go ahead, do well, make money, make art, be successful. You who invent products, advance knowledge by doing good science, you who are wise in the investing of time and money, who create social capital, go for it, that is if you use it for good, if you please God!

But let’s be clear, you please him not because you outdo others. You please God when you have found ways to thrive that include others. Note that thriving in the case of the shrewd manager involved forgiving others their debts. The wise steward won favor by creating wins for others, even though his master took a loss. Seems familiar. God, took a loss so we all can take win.

We also have the parable of the hired workers in Matthew 20 that seems to be commentary on this topic of competition. Those who work a whole day get paid the same as those who worked only part-day. The full-day labourers plead unfairness; the vineyard owner maintains he is being both generous and just by treating all his workers the same. Again the point comes to the surface that God himself is generous and wants a win for everyone possible

This helps our thinking. In the quest to win, to be paid, it must be remembered that God so wants to bless others that he may seem to even violate our sense of justice or fairness. We may be shocked at who is included in heaven, people who didn’t seem to have faith at all, people from other religions, people who did some horrible things. It will be an omnium-gatherum, a collection of miscellaneous people.

So why do we have here? When is competitiveness Christian, when not Christian?

I think we can safely say that competition is not Christian when the drive to compete is fuelled by greed, self-interest, envy, pride or revenge. That is clearly inconsistent with Christ’s command to love and with God’s purpose to create a people, a collective, a body, a team that wins.

I know that when I have been selfish in my family that has caused problems. Sometimes I traveled too much when I was working, off on missions to far off countries, and in doing this I was sometimes insensitive to my wife’s needs at home with the children. I regret that now.

When we are only out for ourselves, and when we are so broken that we want others to be at the back of the pack, and we are willing to oppress and damage them so that we might win, so that we might be first, so that we might get what we want, that’s not Christian. It’s evil! The drive that says “I’d rather be first than human; I’d rather be first than good” — that’s not good. This is the motive behind racism and sexism and even nationalism. I believe God opposes small thinking, the formation of oppressive, enclosed societies, the institutional formation of harmful self-interest and pride.

So then is there a place for competition within Christian culture? Yes. Paul models that we are to compete against ourselves to win the prize of God’s approval in Christ. And further yes we are in competition for the truth. It is right to stand up for the truth, to compete for the truth wherever we can. But not so that others lose, but so that they win. We compete to help them win, win the win of God in Christ.

This would imply then that we are to be excellent in all that we do, not so much for a personal win, but so that we may advance the cause of God by being a model of what it is to be intelligent and rational and hard-working and disciplined and successful. All the good things about competition come into play here, but we do not compete to beat out the rest of the competitors, instead we compete with ourselves to bring out the best in us, to steward our gifts, to do the thing that we do, best for and most pleasing to God.

Through my various jobs in life it became quite obvious that I was a leader. Even in high school I was elected to the position ofvstudent council president. I was always fascinated by leadership. I read all the books I could get on it and attended all the leadership conferences and training I could.. I trained my staff in leadership principles. I often encouraged, cajoled and incentivize people to rise up and take leaderships. God wants us to succeed, but is the kind of success that is successful when others succeed.

The bottom line for we Christians is that life is not a zero sum game. Life isn’t a pie where if we get a slice someone else doesn’t. Life is a pie that we want everyone to eat from.

Competition?

How about if our goal — like God’s — is for everyone possible to win?

This morning I awoke to my wife’s warm back against my back, soft blankets over me, pillows all around me, my cat warm against the back of my legs and the sound of a central air unit heating my home. 

I give thanks! 

The simplest things are the best things and may bring us into a lucid state of robust and capacious tranquillity.

Everyday things like warm blankets create hygge, the centuries old Scandinavian concept of a moment of well being, a cozy, warm, special and charming essence. 

My sweet wife and I keep our home simple and uncluttered. We are aiming for hygge. We want to experience the essence of the simple and yet refined. 

Our hardwood hickory floors are to me the great forests of the world and I love their knots and their grain patterns and their woody imperfections too. Our granite countertops, the producets of great heat and pressure, swilled and chunked with quartz and feldspar and mica, these are our ancient cliffs and lovely mountain peaks. The many windows and glass doors in our home —  these invite in the sunshine, green trees, blue sky and evening sunsets.. 

This afternoon I walked into the family room. The light streamed through the blinds and pane windows, jalousied, glorious, lambent, splendid, divine!

I see the essence of each thing and am grateful. I want to drop into a state of allostasis, emotional stability, and be at peace with my world. I try. I move a little way in. I want to go deeper. I want to see and give thanks. 

I think of Martin Burber and his book I And Thou. Buber writes of  “I-It” relationships, it being an object or even idea that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience.

The flowering pear tree I see though my double-paned windows, what this it to me? It’s now in full bloom. It looks like a bride, decked in white. If I comprehend its essence, if I respect it’s being, if I sense its center of value it becomes to me an entheogen. Inviting me into the presence it becomes a Thou, it moves from it to you, and I enter into a reciprocal, enlarging relationship with it. I become a transparent eyeball absorbent and give thanks for all trees, all plants and all living things great and small, and we are I and Thou.

Too often the things around me are assumed by me, undervalued, under-noted, unrecognized. I see them merely as out-of-focus background.

But what I am longing for is to see things for what they are and to rejoice in them and be thankful for them.

Simple things create the Japanese sense of wabi sabi. Wabi” is  defined as “rustic simplicity” or “understated elegance” with a focus on a less-is-more mentality. “Sabi” is translated to “taking pleasure in the imperfect.”

The Japanese idea of Shibusa is similar. It is an enriched, subdued appearance of something, say a vase, or the experience of intrinsically fine quality in an object with economy of form, line, and effort, producing a timeless tranquility. 

We have many decorative vases in our home, some bursting over with dried flowers. We have placed vases in our home because they are grace and beauty, their lines form curves of tranquility.  We take in their je ne sais quoi and intuit their household salience, surd, voiceless, aphonic yet known. 

I am very thankful, but there is even more and even greater to be thankful for.

I sat with my wife this morning over hot coffees discussing the highlights of our marriage. Her pour-over coffee equipment, my espresso machine, our its that are also thou’s fueled us with the jolt that made us talk. We love our technology, how it dialogs with us, hissing and beeping and gurgling life-giving juice. In steaming coffee mugs there is hygge.

 I give thanks. 

And as we talked we entered into Buber’s I-Thou, an  “I” relating to a “Thou,” a sacred relationship with each other in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.

My wife and I are two but we are One. Our experiences have merged. The boundaries between us have faded. Ant yet they haven’t, and yet they move closer than ever before. We have been through fire and rain and it has put us in each other more. 

I’m putting her first more often now, to honor her uniqueness and make it my own. She often thinks of me and puts me first and often thinks of others. She’s a problem solver. She bakes for others, finds books for them, recommends doctors for them, sews for them, helps them raise their  babies. To me she is a thou that leads me toward deeper relationships with other Thou’s. 

I am so thankful for her! I surge forward, seeking more thankfulness for her. I am her, and so I take care of her as I take care of myself. This comes from God! All good things come from God. For Martin Buber the ultimate thou was God. 

God is not an it but a Thou who created all the its and they reflect him and he made all the thous and they have value because his image, his Thou, is in them, and his purpose is to make them one and so I long for a relationship with all things great and small and with all people and with all of God, a dialogic, value-laden, knowledge-heavy intimacy — hygge and wabi sabi in all things. 

Oh world, you can be so savage and so horrible but at the same time you are so beautiful and so intimate and so present as essence, quintessence and incandescence of God. 

I have a new appetency for gratitude.

I long and press on with all of you as you all long with me, and we long together to be scandalously, shamelessly and infamously grateful. 

Here is the standard, modern, pervasive Christian framework, thesis, mindset, paradigm: God is made known in health; God is made known in solutions; God is made known in gain; God is made known in being made known through what we want.

I just refinanced a small real estate loan at a fantastically low rate. My response? Thank you God! Every good gift is from the Father. It’s easy to give that “thank you.”

But this God-as-gain paradigm rides on a thin, brittle epistemic rail of truth; it easily slips off and crashes into a adamantine wall of misunderstanding.

Yes, every material blessing is a gift of God, every lovely forest, towering peak, rushing stream, safe home, good meal, loved one.

A few days ago I spotted a goldfinch in my white blossomed, ornamental pear tree. Astonishingly beautiful! God — a god of beauty.

Yes, God is a God of beauty and of truth and understanding and rationality, and solutions flow out of his very essence, every income stream, every medical cure, every healing, every building plan, every scrumptious recipe — He is somewhere there behind it.

My mushroom and leek gravy today, originally his idea.

Yes, God is the Creator God, architect, founder, maker, artist and through his mighty power we have gained the universe, our gorgeous, looping, spinning solar system, stunning planet earth and all the blue-green beauty and burgeoning fecund good that lies within our small corner plot of good earth.

But God is also made known in ugliness, in pain; God is also made known in difficulty; God is also made known in loss. This is equally true whether we want to hear it or not. The gold finch will one day molder in the ground and frightening a school child along her way — a horrid rictus, an ugly death. 

Yes, God is solution, but yes, His primary, core, existential, ultimate solution involved He himself entering into and embracing pain, difficulty and loss — the incarnation of God in Jesus, God experiencing human frailty, God experiencing human temptation, God experiencing our suffering, God hammered onto a killing machine.

The good news is that Jesus healed and redeemed. And the good news is that Jesus suffered, that God suffered. Let’s face this square on. God is found in pain. How so? His essential solution involved pain.

Last night I dreamed about a broken work relationship in which I felt powerless. It’s rough. I lived that dream. How do I hook theology up to my experience relational hate, rejection and hurt? 

We know that God — agentive — is love. We love that! Let’s never lose that perspective. But the complete truth is that God — by choice, as an agency — is an ouch and a scream and has experience rejection too. God is love — as an amalgam. He is pain-love. That’s his chosen status. Yikes! We wish to rush away in a frenzy of Christian cultural cringe from heaven’s compounded, ugly-beautiful remedy. We don’t want such axiology. For many of the blithely hopeful this kind of thinking is a kind of theo-polution, a negative doctrinal bizarrerie. They won’t have it, and yet they will have it, and they will have it on a plate, and they will eat it and they will grimace and try to spit it out.

I think we who love God want God to be Valentine’s Day, all kissy, gifty and lovey-dovey, chocolate and hearts and seduction. I do. And He is.

I bought beautiful, expensive Valentines gifts for my sweet thing this week, fine pour-over coffee equipment. God too gifts us because he loves us. We are his valentine.

But look around — unblinkered — if you will. All love, even true love, involves also the gift of suffering, involves making a place for things we don’t want in another person. My wife and I have both broken down recently in the face of some overwhelming circumstances. True love involves some ugly tears. It also involves some sacrifices, and it comes to accept the chronic pain of loss, the loss of former glories, and eventually the loss of loved ones from our lives.

Here is the truth: God is made known by being made known in some things that we don’t want. Our response? It is to fight, take flight or freeze or reject.

But what about acceptance of the things we can’t control? What about a salutary acceptance of reality, reality God himself has allowed — your pain, your loss, your relational derailments and deplorements.

What is needed involves a tender, merciful love for ourselves and others, no matter what the unwanted and unvalued physical and material empainments we and they and we-they suffer?

Quite lately, I’ve been learning to be kind to myself, to be tender with my less-than-perfect body, to titrate a new bifurcated identity, powerful and powerless, a new mixed bag of a man extruded out of difficulty, both compensated and decompensated.

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a mythical creature, head and tail of a bull, body of a man. The Roman poet Ovid, gets at it: part man; part bull.

God is kind of like the Minotaur, very loosely. He is one thing, comforting, and another, allowing and even embracing discomfort, and we don’t get only part of the great complex of Him. And this is no Minotaur myth. We get all of God; He is a God of comfort and of a tolerated pain and he unifies these much in the way he is unified as a Trinity.

Proof? God once entered our pain, and carried it on his shattered shoulder, and he is still entering into your pain and mine, entering with a keen specificity into our mounting losses. This is the truth, the same as it was with Israel. In all our distressed he too is distressed. Don’t believe those who want to present you with an impassable God, a god who can experience no pain.

Jesus was God, and he took a brutal bag of horrible for us and the Father himself saw it and was moved to weep for in that moment of his kenosis all the horrors, jealousies, atrocities, lies, abuses, rapes, murders and wars in the world were gathered into Christ as God and dealt with them to forgive them. And in this, God’s spiritual agony far outweighed his physical pain. 

Latch on to this. You experience and you hear God speaking to you in your pain too! Amazing! Not our way. Not my way. His way — not our way.

David Brooks has this to say about a life that is a mixed bag of goodies — and badies.

“The valley is where we shed the old self so the new self can emerge. There are no shortcuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that the poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service. Dying to the old self, cleansing in the emptiness, resurrecting in the new. “

“One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.”

Brooks has it right. The great task of life is synthesis, a divine synthesis of our view of God and of ourselves, a synthesis that paradoxically combines comfort and suffering. We take our stand there within suffering and comfort, and we stand there within an enigma, we stand as a theologically branched tree standing strong in a orthodox forest of many other staunchly dual-trunked Biblical truths. 

Fellow warriors, honor the complex truth, this divine complementarity, honor the reality that stretches from you to the very horizon of your life, and  leave nothing out so that we might be complete.