Heart on the sleeve

“Be angry and sin not” says Paul (Eph 4:26), “angry” being a command.  What a strange thing for Paul to say. Perhaps it violates our sensibilities about what it means to follow Jesus.  Isn’t anger a bad thing?  Shouldn’t we just find a way to deal with our anger internally, not letting it out into the daylight where it can make a mess?  Why in the world would he command us to “be angry”?

Truthfully, I’m not 100% sure, but I have some guesses.  In the verse prior to 4:26, Paul tells us to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one Body.”  Then he says, “Be angry.”  Is it possible that these commands are connected?  I think so.

When I was on staff at a church in Tulsa several years ago, we would put on an annual “lament service” during Lent.  This was a service in which we created space where it was okay to do what publicly what the Psalmists seemed to do fairly regularly – giving (sometimes shockingly loud) voice to our sense of injustice before God over the things that have been done to us (or not done for us) by God and others.  It was a time to rage.  To shake our fists in brutal, gritty honesty at God, giving expression to the pain and frustration in our souls.  “Where were you God?”  “How could you let THAT happen?”  “Why didn’t you come through when we called to you?”  “Why aren’t you answering us?”  “I trusted you and you let me down…”

You have to appreciate the existential risk that participating in that service posed to the good folks of Tulsa.  In a place like Tulsa, a bastion of “faithy” Christianity, where your “confession” is everything, the thought of saying such things for many seemed like a short step from losing your faith altogether.

Which is why we put the service on.  To create space where it was safe for people to climb out of the polite fossilization that had occurred in their relationship with God and into the risky dance of honesty… and perhaps also, then, intimacy.

When it was all over, the most frequent comment I would hear from folks was this one: “You know, that was the most painful and difficult and awful thing I have ever done… and I have never felt so close to God as I do right now… the moment I was done venting, I felt waves of his love and acceptance and affirmation wash over me.”

There is a lesson to be learned there for all of our relationships.  Too often, in the attempt to avoid making a mess with our emotions – our frustrated, angry, confused, hurt emotions – we bury them deep within ourselves.  And in so doing, we bury any chance of intimacy in the relationships.  My own conviction is that many marriages, for instance, die not because of too much conflict but from too little.  Many families grow cold and stale not because the families were too vigilant in “telling the truth” about what was going on in their hearts, but from not enough of it.

When our hearts are frustrated or angry, it is an important “tell”, for our hearts are constantly trying to tell the truth about what’s going on around us.  And when things are out of whack, our hearts SCREAM inside of us to tell us so.  To put a bottle on that is to censor the truth.  And censoring the truth is the best way to wind up in oppression and slavery – often its the oppression and slavery of having relationships that have become merely “polite.”

God, we learn from Scripture, does not censor his heart.  Instead, he wears it on his sleeve.  When he sees injustice, he reacts.  When his people stray from him, he BURSTS FORTH in the pain of his soul – “What have I done to you O Israel that you have strayed so far from me???”  When the world devolves into chaos, his heart grieves.  Jesus frequently got angry.  He exploded on the Pharisees for their stubborn hearts, he flipped tables in the Temple, he pronounced judgment on Israel for rejecting him.

And we are made in his image.  “To fear the Lord” the writer of Proverbs tells us, “is to hate evil” (Pr 8:13).  When things are out of whack, we’re supposed to react.  It is part of the Divine impress on us.

I think we need to do a better job of wearing our hearts on our sleeves, because to press into radical honesty is to press into intimacy.  Seems to me that attempting to play it safe and be nice and maintain the status quo is a sure recipe for becoming emotionally distant, from others, from ourselves, and ultimately from God.

We need to learn to live from our hearts.  People need to see our hearts.  As a leader, people need to see my heart.  And not just my “nice” heart.  They need to see my frustrated and angry heart sometimes too, for in doing so (and this is the important point), they’ll also see the things that I love and long for, the things that I care about deeply and am willing to fight for.

Like God.  Elie Weisel, the Holocaust survivor, once said “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”  God’s anger – his STRONG ANGER – is but a corollary of his great love.  It is because he loves the world so much that he hates it when it slides into chaos.  It is because he loves the weak so much that he hates when they are oppressed.  It is because he loves his people so much that he hates when they stray.

Marriages die… families die… friendships die… churches die…

From indifference.

To press into radical honesty is to press into intimacy.  And so Paul tells us to “Put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are members of one Body,” and then “Be angry…”  These are profoundly connected.

Let our loves erupt in ruthless honesty Lord God.  Help us wear our hearts on our sleeves.

The Sacrament of Now

I know that I am veering into dangerous territory spiritually when I am more worried about what is “next” than I am with what is now right in front of my face.  The “next” task instead of the present one… the “next” conversation instead of the present one… the “next” moment in our church’s life instead of the present one… as a result, I wind up being not-fully-present in whatever it is that I am doing… out of sync, as it were, with what is happening around me right now.

And it is very destructive for me.  It is destructive of my soul, my mind, my relationships, my work.  It robs me of noticing and participating in the peculiar glory of the now.

If I understand the philosophers and metaphysicians rightly, the “Finite” is a subset of the “Infinite”.  And Christians believe that only God is infinite.  Which means that everything that exists, in some way, exists “in” God.  Paul said (quoting a pagan philosopher), “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  The Psalmist said, “Where can I go from your Spirit, where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:6).  The question is a rhetorical one and the answer, of course, is “nowhere.”  He is everywhere.  The Infinite, Eternal God… there is nowhere to hide from Him, nowhere that He is “not”… for, again, in Him we live and move and have our being.

The question then is how we, bound by our finitude, experience Him, this Infinite God… how we touch and taste His presence.  The answer I think, has something to do with slowing down enough to recognize just how his infinite presence is “lighting up” this present, finite moment.  That is to say, it has to do with embracing the sort of sacramental quality of the “now.”  To put it another way, NOW, if we have eyes to see it, is being transfigured, is shot through, lit up with, carried in the womb of, ETERNITY.

This is why it is so destructive for me to live in what is “next”… having my life dictated and determined by the pressure of the coming moment rather than the glory of the current one leaves me feeling spiritually and existentially displaced.  I miss what God is doing RIGHT NOW in my haste to move more hurriedly into the future.

It is for this reason that the Christian tradition, at its profoundest, has always called saints to a reflective, contemplative, meditative, prayer-filled life… for it is those disciplines suffused into our ordinary tasks that keep us engaged and alive to how the Infinite God is pervading our Finite Now.  And so we sense him as we drink our coffee, and walk the dog, and do our work, and engage in conversation, and embrace interruption as a gift, and listen to people’s pains and struggles, and exercise, and prepare meals, and pay the bills, and change dirty diapers, etc etc., “all to the glory of God.”

There’s a great prayer I read one time that captures the spirit of this perfectly:

Brother Jesus, you have reminded me of my need to anchor my soul in a place of prayer, a place where we can come together to worship the Father.  Free me from my restless activity, my slavery to the clock, my habit of bobbing along on the open sea when you have called me to be still.  When I consider how you consented to enclosure in Mary’s womb, in a narrow manger, in a carpenter’s home, on the wooden cross, in the bread of Eucharist, my heart is moved to seek enclosure with you. (From Richard Foster’s “Prayers from the Heart“)

Christianity teaches us that the Infinite God bound himself up in the Finite by becoming Flesh in Jesus (John 1).  As such, our finitude – this present moment – is not an enemy to our participation in the Divine life.  All the contrary, it is our ally.  Indeed, it is the only way we CAN participate in it.  Baptismal waters become a portal into New Life, bread and wine become Body and Blood, “now” gets caught up in eternity.

So in all that you do today… whether you eat or drink or sleep or work or play or study… do it all to the glory of God, leaning on the ever-present Spirit to help you participate in the sacrament of the now.

To (merely?) participate… A moment of gushing affection for my church

Last night I had the good privilege of (merely) participating in one of our worship services at Bloom.  Normally, when I’m at our gatherings, I’m uber-involved.  And that’s okay, since I think that one of the tasks of a pastor is to lead the congregation into a God-soaked imagination… which means that part of a pastor’s task, to put it one way, is to lead worship.  And I like doing that.  Leading our community through the liturgical exercises (preaching included) that help orient our imaginations toward the beauty of God is one of the things I delight in.

But man… it’s nice to have a night off.  The way our summer scheduling worked out, Michael was scheduled to preach the night after we returned from our Wisconsin vacation, which meant that I was afforded the opportunity to play a minimal role in the gathering.  A (mere) participant, as it were.

Truth be told, I come to develop a low tolerance threshold for “going to church”… or at least “going to church” in the part of Christendom that I’ve been brought up in – the more or less evangelical world.  I find most worship to be pathetically shallow and self-serving.  I find the “liturgy” of most services to be thin or nonexistent at best.  I find most preaching to be… well… dull, dry, boring, moralistic, overly therapeutic, self-helpy, pedantic nonsense having nothing to do with God and Scripture would be but a few of the criticisms off the top of my head.  And I find all attempts to compensate for this by making the “cool factor” go up in these gatherings through the same kind of sound and light gimmicks used at rock concerts and the like to be an outrageous desecration of the (intended) holiness of corporate worship.  Gag, gag, gag.

That said, I gained a (re)new(ed) appreciation for my church last night by (merely) participating.  As a pastor and leader, my mind is constantly cluttered with things we need to do better at, improve at, grow in, stop doing, etc etc etc.  Sometimes, that clutter prevents me from seeing what is beautiful about our community NOW… the glory right in front of my face.

Perhaps the best compliment, then, that I can give to my church is this – if I did not work for you, Bloom, I would without question worship with you.  You sing your hearts out with un-hyped sincerity.  You listen to the Word with earnestness and a desire to walk faithfully.  You are at once able to confess your faith (“we believe…”) and yet at the same time acknowledge with total honesty your doubts and struggles.  Your gathering SIMPLY DRIPS with familial love and affection – for God, for each other, and for the world He so desperately loves.  God is worshiped and glorified in your midst… and you bear all the evidence of his glory shining on and through you.  Well done.  Well done.  WELL DONE.

So there you have it… a pastor’s unembarrassed, gushing affection for his community.  You are one beautiful Bride, Bloom.  Keep it up.