John the Baptist is one of the most colorful characters in the New Testament. The story of John is about a man who prepared people for the coming of Jesus. It is important to point out that long before John showed up, the Old Testament prophets of Malachi and Isaiah told of a time when a person would arrive on the scene proclaiming that the Messiah was on his way.
In Malachi we find, “A messenger of God will go ahead of you.” And from Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the Baptist was the fulfillment of these prophecies. John had a clear purpose in life. To tell people about Jesus, to prepare folks for his arrival, and to encourage them to repent or to turn their lives back to God. He passionately encouraged people to open up their hearts and their lives to God and for what God was about to do through Jesus.
John profoundly affected people around him. He shook people up by what he said, by how he acted, and in fact by how he looked. When people were around John they paid attention.
As a result of John, folks thought about their lives and what was important. They thought about God and what it means to have a God that is fully present. They thought about how they had fallen short and what they needed to do to set things right in their lives and relationships. They spent time thinking about their passions, affections, and attachments as well as their purpose in life.
As I think about John and who he was and the impact he had, I am compelled to offer some questions for each one of us to think about this Advent season.
John’s life proclaimed Jesus. Who or what do our lives proclaim? Who or what do our lives point to? What principles and values do our lives represent? What do people take away from us after an encounter with us? What rubs off of you and of me onto others?
Whether or not we know it or intend it, people are affected by being around us. And what rubs off of us can run the gamut from things that are debilitating to destructive to life changing to healing to leading people to Jesus. So the question is, what do you want to rub off on others as a result of people being around you? What do you want people to take away from being with you?
I know I have fallen short in many ways throughout my life. I have done and said things I regret. Not all of whom I have been has reflected my true values. And sadly, some of what has rubbed off of me onto to others is not what I really would have wanted. Perhaps you have had some of these feelings too.
But I also know that you and I are on a journey. That we can ask God to help us. We can repent and turn back to God. We can take the time to stop and think about the questions I’ve posed and what rubs off of us.
While you and I are not like John the Baptist, there is no doubt that we can have a massive impact on those we encounter. I invite you over the Advent days ahead to take some time to pray, think about, and dig deep within your heart, about what it is that rubs off of you onto others. And my prayer for each of us is that what we exude most of all to everyone we encounter is the love of God, a love so desperately needed at this time in our land.
We now are moving into our second week of Advent. It is a season in which, we as Christians, continue to ready ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birth and prepare and ponder His Second Coming. These themes of the Advent Season cause me to ask another question. Am I prepared for Jesus to come into my life right now?
Perhaps God wants us not just to think about what He did and what He will do, but what He is doing this moment. Frankly, if we spend too much time thinking about what was or what will be, we might not be paying enough attention to what the possibilities are right now.
Long ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote, in effect, “Lord God, we are the clay and you are the potter.”
While Isaiah’s words were to a people who lived and suffered a long time ago, in many ways, his words have a lot to do with us who live in a vastly different place and time. Isaiah said, in essence, “Through it all, the good and the bad, live like a piece of clay and let God be the one who shapes you.”
I think this is great counsel for us this Advent season. We don’t need to wait for His second coming for transformation, healing, or peace within our lives to begin. Jesus wants to come into our lives, come into the changes we are going through, come into the center of our identities and ways of doing things, and have His way with us right this moment.
Are we ready for Christ to come into our lives right now in ways that may change us at our core? Are we ready for that kind of change? Are we truly willing to expand what it is that we are building our lives upon?
Are we willing to finally build our lives around Christ? Not kind of. Not partially. Not sort of. But completely.
So this Advent, over the next days and weeks, I invite you to do a few things.
Have some straight talk with God. Talk to God about your life and especially those places you resist changing the most. Talk to God about those spots you are afraid to let go of. Tell God how you feel.
Ask God to help you build your life around Him. And it you already feel you have done that, ask Him again. Ask God to help you build your life around Him, not stuff, places, relationships, ways of living or a whole litany of other possibilities. Ask God to help you develop a relationship with God in which you are the clay and God is the potter.
My soul is at home in the Mountain and Desert Western United States. It may very well be this way because I was born along the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. It could also be due to the fact that many of my best childhood memories happened in a place where the air is dry, the sky is blue, and humidity is a foreign concept. But perhaps the West is my spiritual ally because of the wide open spaces.
There is something unique about driving along a dusty back road where mountain peaks 90 miles away are visible. And for me, there is nothing like standing on one of those peaks looking out over miles and miles and miles of creation. When you get down to it, I feel the way I do about the mountain and desert West because of the space. The scenery is just so vast.
Space enables perspective. Space facilitates inspiration. Space creates awe, renders silence, enhances the sense of how small we are, and allows us to see things in ways we otherwise would not be able to perceive.
It is only on a mountain top we gain a sense of what a valley is and it is by standing on a desert floor we begin to understand height. Space highlights opposites and exposes differences. Beauty happens because of space.
As I reflect upon geographical space, it occurs to me that space is something that happens within human relationships as well. While space can mean a relationship is strained or that people within a relationship are unhappy, space can also represent a basic truth that all human beings are different from one another. And perhaps rather that seeing such differences as a negative, we should view others who are vastly different from who we are in the same way we view the space of the West.
People from whom we differ offer us perspective, a different way of viewing things, and hopefully enables us to see things in new and varying ways. Topographical space offers us vistas and propels us to ponder and wonder. Wouldn’t a similar reaction to those with whom we differ be just as wonderful and impactful?
If everyone around us thought, believed, and expressed themselves as we do, if would be like living in a cave, a cave in which all people would be the same and life’s beauty and spectacular nuances would disappear. Imagine if the West was flat. Do we want life to be like that?
Recently someone sent me a fascinating article based on some research that has been done at Northwestern University. Apparently, the people we choose to spend time with affects us dramatically. The article notes that “choosing the right friends is important because it causes our brain waves to resemble those of the people we spend the most time with. This means we start becoming alike, and pick up their desirable behaviors and ways of seeing the world without being conscious of it.”
The research suggests that choosing people is more important than choosing what to eat, what to wear, where to go, what to do, or what to order. One person states, “the more important decision we have when going to a restaurant, for example, is who to go with. That is far more important and impactful than the choices on the menu.”
The same person says, “we get on the same wavelength with those we spend the most time with. If people want to make life improvements, such as reading more or getting better at something, then they should spend their time with someone who has those desirable traits and they will naturally pick them up.”
While I find this research fascinating and valid, what if we become more and more like, more and more in alignment with, not just those we spend the most time with, but with whom or what we choose to serve as well.
And the choices of whom or what we serve each day are limitless, both good and bad. We can choose to serve God, assets, an identity, family, our egos, an image, a profession, a political party, or a specific role we have in life, just to name a few. And whom or what we choose to serve impacts everything.
All of this causes me to wonder what might happen if you and I choose moment to moment to serve Christ. What if by choosing to serve Christ our minds get on the same wavelength with Jesus. What if by choosing to serve Christ, our days begin to reflect who God is.
And how might we see the challenges, joys, heartaches, struggles, fears, hopes, dreams, and let downs imbedded within each day if our minds were on the same wavelength as God’s? What might happen if during discussions, meetings, meals, random happenings, and events that occur
I have come to understand that if we want to change our lives for the better, the best place to start is not on the outside, but on the inside. The more we spend time with God, the more we make serving Christ our priority, the more we will find changes happening on the outside. The important thing about all of this is to make daily conscious choices, not only about the people we spend the most time with, but whom or what we are serving. Such decisions will dramatically affect the course of each moment.
We who have lived know all too well that the years we have are all about the ups and downs, twists and turns, good and bad, the pretty with the ugly. Sources of joy and coexisting sorrow are just part of the deal. Said another way. Life is a mixed bag, isn’t it, of great things along with all that is quite the opposite.
In the midst of what is occurring lately, I have found that for many people, including those for whom life is generally good at the moment, a lot of what is happening is creating some fear. Fear over where the world might be headed. Fear over shootings. Fear over massive natural disasters piling up on top of one another. Fear in response to lack of leadership at many levels and within all political persuasions.
Fear over the fact that our children are relating to devices, e.g. cell phones, seemingly more than they are to people. Fear over what our children and children’s children are going to have to live with. Maybe some of us feel not only some fear, but some hopelessness that there is not much we can do about any of these challenges.
Fear is normal, healthy, God given and human. Fear can help us and it is appropriate. That said, sustained fear, fear that goes on and on and on well past the events that triggered it, might, very well, be an invitation from God to go deep inside and explore where it is coming from. “What does this fear tell me about me. What does it tell me about where I am with God? What does it tell me about my faith?” And as an important aside, fear may helpfully prompt us to ask, “is this fear telling me also that I may need some help with it?”
What many have pointed out long before me is that God says, “Fear Not” more than any other command in the Bible. Obviously fear is a challenge for many of us since God has so much to say about it.
Max Lucado, the Christian writer says the following about fear. He said, “Feed your fears and your faith will starve. Feed your faith and your fears will starve.” In other words, the more we focus on trusting God, the less fear we feel. The more we focus on fear and not God, the more we will fear and the less trust in God we will have.
I know this is easier said than done. I get that sometimes things are overwhelming and it can be a challenge to work through fear and to trust God. I understand it takes practice. It took Paul who wrote the letter to the Philippians practice. In fact in the letter he said he had to learn how to be ok regardless of the circumstances he was in, through learning and practice.
And so I invite you to join me in practicing something. Practicing something that will have a direct impact on us as we ride the roller coaster of life with all of its amazing and joyful ups and despairing, freaks me out downs.
I invite us every in the days ahead, to simply say something to God like, “God in the midst of joy. In the midst of sorrow. In the the midst of goodness and pain. With all that is happening. Above all else, help me trust you. Please give me the gift of trusting you. I can’t get trust in you on my own, I know it comes from you. Help me trust you. Life is a roller coaster and sometimes the good and the bad happen at the same time. Yet help me trust you and help me not be afraid. Help me feed faith and not my fears.”
Paul, who repeatedly was in prison in dismal conditions, practiced and learned such a way of being by doing it over and over and over again. And it led him to trust and to know, believe and act upon the truth, that “We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
Way back in the 1960’s, I was a citizen of El Paso, Texas. A citizen of Mesita Elementary School. A citizen of far west Texas and southern New Mexico. A citizen of the United States. I was a citizen of all of those places and my citizenship shaped, influenced, and affected everything about me from the inside out. I was who I was and I did what I did all in response to my citizenship.
That said, how each of us defines our primary citizenship impacts how we go through the joyous, horrible, and boring times of life.
To help us drill down on what I am talking about, let us look at the life of Paul. As we learn in scripture, Paul spent a number of years in prison in various places. And yet, in the midst of this terrible time and others like it, these are just a few things Paul wrote from prison.
“I pray with joy. I am confident. I press on and I do not give up. Rejoice. Rejoice always. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Paul wrote at least four letters from a prison cell we know of and in each of them he says things one would not expect to hear in a letter written from such a place.
So how is it, that when Paul was enduring horrible experiences, he was able to express the kinds of things I just shared. Like, “Rejoice. Rejoice always. I am confident. Etc.” I believe Paul answers this question in his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes, “Above all, live as citizens of heaven.” In another place he states, “We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus lives.”
With this in mind, let’s explore what heavenly citizenship actually means. What is it all about? How do we claim our heavenly citizenship? What does it mean to say we are a citizen of heaven?
First and foremost, when we say we are citizens of heaven, it means we know down deep that we are people that belong to God regardless of what is happening. Here are some verses from scripture to help us unfold this.
“Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. We belong to God. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. We are all children of God. We are a chosen people. We are adopted through Jesus Christ.” And there are many other verses like these all making the same point that we belong to God.
Being a citizen of heaven is all about claiming that our fundamental identity is grounded in God. It is about claiming that we are God’s possession. It is about embracing the truth that whatever we might look like on the outside, regardless of what we do in and with our lives, no matter where we might live, despite job titles and all the other ways we define ourselves, at our core, we are God’s.
You and I belong to God as we were made by God. When we see our primary identity as beloved children of God above all other potential sources, our sense of primary citizenship shifts. We no longer are ultimately defined by things that are temporary, which is everything on earth, things like careers, nationality, status, assets, heritage, and place to name a few, but by God who is eternal.
Through it all, God invites us to claim our heavenly citizenship by embracing that we are each made by God and are God’s beloved children.
What is interesting is that the more we see ourselves as God’s possession, the more we will begin to feel like we are In this temporary world but not ultimately Of this world, because we are not from here, we are from God. This is why Jesus one day, in the midst of prayer said, “My disciples do not belong to this world just as I do not belong to this world.”
Paul says that when we know we are God’s, when our identity is grounded in God, when we take our heavenly citizenship seriously, we begin to live for Christ and our actions begin to reflect our citizenship.
When we see ourselves as a citizen of heaven it means we know where we came from, we know where we are headed, we know to whom we belong, our identity is clear, it becomes evident to us who is in charge regardless of circumstance, our actions and behavior reflect Jesus despite it all, we have the peace of God within us, and we understand that our fundamental purpose in life is to love God and love people until we die and are with Jesus. And when we see ourselves as citizens of heaven we learn to live for Christ knowing we are headed to Christ.
In the Book of Job in the Old Testament, Job suffers every conceivable loss and heartache in a short period of time. His grief, confusion and despair are unfathomable for most who have not sat in his shoes. It is in the midst of his torment that three of his friends show up to console Job. For seven days and nights, they simply are present with their friend. In the Book of Job it says, “No one said a word to Job for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.”
Indeed over the course of my life there have been occasions when I felt compelled to heed this counsel and simply sit with the one for whom I was caring. Perhaps I should be taking this Godly advice this week and say nothing about Las Vegas and the horror and resultant unimaginable grief directly affecting thousands of our fellow human beings. Maybe I should just be offering a blank page to create room for us to pray.
But in the midst of such questioning I was hit with another question. A question that I cannot answer for you as I believe we each need to come to our own conclusion. That question, “Is it worth it?”
Two people meet. There is an unexplainable chemistry. When they look into each other’s eyes, there is a look that cannot be replicated with any other human being. A father reaches out and takes the hand of his young daughter. As they walk along, the father recognizes the gift that his daughter is and that such blessings are ephemeral.
A woman, well trained in medicine, travels to a war torn area or a place decimated by a natural disaster to serve those with nothing left. A nanny quietly kisses a sleeping child on her forehead because she knows the parents won’t take the time to do so.
A young fellow pulls over on the highway to help a family who are in a beaten up old van with a flat tire. A minimum wage nurse’s aide stays after her shift is over on her own time to sit with an aged woman whose family has other things to do. A wealthy man believes all he has is a gift so he generously gives money away with zero demand for accolades or credit. An unemployed woman who struggles day to day puts a dollar in the plate each week, it is her widow’s mite.
A neighbor makes a meal for a neighbor. A friend sends a note of encouragement to a far away friend who is hurting. A single mom works two jobs and stays up late at night helping her two children complete homework. A 7th grader goes straight to the kid who had been subjected to teasing and asks him to play. A person says, “I am sorry.” After scoring two touchdowns, the high school player gives all the credit to his team.
A first responder shows up while bullets continue to fly rendering aid to whomever is before him. A man shields his wife from the gunfire saving her life yet losing his own. A person stands in silence at the scene of the massacre and quietly prays to God for healing for those whom she has never met.
Each of these images, while varied, share one thing in common. The action taken happened because the person involved had the free will to choose to do so. None of the actions were forced. They happened because a decision was made. Goodness, kindness, generosity, integrity, and selflessness, are a direct consequence of the freedom to choose. And such actions far outnumber the actions of those who choose the path of evil.
The same is true of love. Love can never be forced. Love can only be love through the freedom to love. I cannot make another love me, nor can any of us. Love demands free will and love cannot exist without it. And love is far more ubiquitous than hate.
Yet it is this same free will, this same ability to make choices, this same freedom to choose, that since the beginning of time has led some to inflict unspeakable harm, destruction, and suffering on others. From Austin, Texas, to Virginia Tech, to Sandy Hook, to Orlando, to Las Vegas, all such things happened because of free will and of course evil playing on it.
And so I wonder, is free will worth it? Or would humankind be better without the option of making choices and acting on volitional decisions? Would we be better off without love, the kind of love that demands free will? Would we be better off as robots without the ability to decide? Is free will worth it? If not, then what? If so, then what?
There have been many times in my life in which I have had nothing to say about the pain before me. All I’ve known to do in such moments is to get on my knees and pray, look at the cross of Jesus and leave the answers to Him. And pray we must as well as love. To love God and love people through the choices we make each moment in light of those who choose the opposite. Take a moment right now and pray for our hurting sisters and brothers in Las Vegas and beyond.
As I reflect upon many dimensions of our culture including politics, entertainment, sports, the news, and even religious institutions and its leaders, it seems that there is a dearth of a vital virtue, and that is humility. I’d like to think that humility appears absent because it is a quiet unassuming quality, but I am afraid there is more to it than that simple explanation.
While not a new thing, at the center of the lives of many, is the unsatisfied hunger for power, influence, control, ego, and financial capital. Obviously when such things are tempered and used for the right reasons, good things happen, but often when power and the like is used for good, humility, not control, is in the driver’s seat.
CS Lewis wrote the following. “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”
Issues of pride and the resultant problems are reflected in story after story in scripture. In the Old Testament, pride was the root cause of the demise of many leaders. Pride was at the core of much suffering. And in the New Testament, specifically it was prideful religious leaders who believed they knew it all that challenged Jesus the most and eventually asked for Jesus to be crucified.
Thomas Tarrants from the CS Lewis institute wrote, “The desire to lift up and exalt ourselves beyond our place as God’s creature lies at the heart of pride…with pride, God becomes smaller and the person becomes larger. The center of gravity shifts from God to the person…They become the center of their world, and God is conveniently moved to the periphery.”
As this same writer points out, pride is the not the same thing as being proud of another, like being proud a child for doing something well. Being proud is all about being pleased about something good and pleased for another person.
With that caveat in mind, the antidote for much of what ails the world is humility. CS Lewis wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
Humility is a fundamental quality to pursue as followers of Jesus. In 2 Philippians we find, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant….and being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
And also from Philippians, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
In reflecting upon this, Thomas Tarrants states, “As we refuse to be preoccupied with ourselves and our own importance and seek to love and serve others, it will reorient us from self-centeredness to other-centeredness – to serving and caring for others as Jesus did. In the narcissistic culture of contemporary America, this is a particularly powerful countercultural witness of Christ’s presence and lordship in our lives.”
As we move into this fall season and as the leaves fall, I invite each of us to ponder, pray about, and explore where we are with humility realizing that Jesus calls us to lives of profound humility. But as we take the life long journey of learning to be humble, let us not be prideful of any progress we make.
We are entering into one of my favorite times of year. The warm days, chilly nights, and astonishing colors are enveloping us all. This Fall I have been thinking about another time a number of years ago when we lived in New Hampshire serving another parish.
My wife Regina and I took a hike up a long, steep and muddy trail on a gorgeous crisp and cool fall day. We were happy, glad to be together, and going along at a nice pace. I took in all of the scenery and each step I took was filled with gratitude for the wonder of God’s creation. But about 30 minutes into the hike things changed.
I began to take my mind off of the trees. I started to think about the slow pace we were walking. I wondered just how long the hike was going to take.
It was then that I noticed that Regina was lagging far behind me. I stopped and waited for her to catch up with me. When she finally did, I said, “If we walk faster, we will get to the top sooner. Why don’t we pick up the pace?”
She then asked me, “Why are you in such a hurry. It is a beautiful day. We are here to hike and enjoy the leaves and what difference does it make when we get to the top?” Although I knew she was right, I huffed and puffed and continued racing up the trail.
I think I reached the peak 20 minutes before she did. When Regina did eventually reach the peak, she sat next to me and together we took in the view of the peaks of distant mountains in New Hampshire and Vermont. And it was then that I said to Regina, “I have come to the conclusion that there are three kinds of hikers.”
“There are those who hike with only the destination in mind. They pay most attention to where they are headed and don’t spend much time thinking about and reflecting on the journey in getting there. Because they are so focused on where they are going, they really miss out taking in what is right in front of them. I am sorry to say that today this has been me.”
Then I said, “There are also those who hike with only the journey in mind. They pay most attention to where they are right at the moment and don’t spend much time thinking about where they are headed. Sometimes they are so focused on taking in what is right in front of them that they lose sight of where they are going.”
“Finally, there are those who hike with both the journey and destination in mind. They pay attention to where they are at the moment and where they are headed at the same time. Not only do they reach their destination, but they take the time to notice what is in front of them on the way.”
As I have thought back to that hike in New Hampshire, I have learned a lot. I have come to realize that just as there are different ways to take a hike in the mountains, there are different ways to live our journey in life. And what we pay attention to the most determines what our journey is like.
Over the course of time, I will have a lot more to say about the subject that follows. It is a topic that many families deal with. It is a reality many in our parish and wider community personally have to live with. It is sadly something that has been on the back burner of most Christian communities of faith, and this is not only unfortunate, but tragic. What I am speaking about is mental health.
I believe it is now time we put mental health care and issues on the front burner of what we do at the Chapel, not only because we are compelled to address a need that is right in front of us, but because Jesus responded to mental health issues throughout his ministry. Such stories in the Gospels may seem hard to find, but they are there, especially if we remember that the language we use now to discuss mental health issues was not the language used then.
Mental health issues and challenges confront most if not all families in one way or another, from substance abuse, to depression and anxiety, eating disorders, disordered relationships, stress, and difficulties in adjusting to changes, including aging, etc.
As a result, members of our team are beginning to talk about how we can move mental health up the ladder of what the Chapel is about. Our focus remains Jesus and worship, but over the years you will note that we have dramatically expanded many programs, including our Stephen ministry program (we now have 19 people providing one-to-one care). In addition, part of our Children, Youth and Family programs are about creating healthy experiences and foundations that counter future mental health struggles.
The point of my letter this week is to share my deep concern and passion about this issue, to encourage our community of faith to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues, to hopefully help those in our community who are silently suffering to come to us, and to make it clear that our purpose at the Chapel is to Love God and Love People (one way we will do this is by expanding what we do to address the mental health needs of our community).
Let’s roll up our sleeves, drop silence and stigmas and hush hush, and together get to work to respond as Jesus does to the often hidden pain that surround us.