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.
Not long ago, we were in California. Probably because it was so hot outside, I remembered another hot Southern California day from long ago. On that day, I remember I was in the mood for something cool to drink and refreshing to eat. The thought of a good glass of iced tea and a quart of artery hardening ice cream seemed like just the ticket. So off I headed to a local grocery store. As is the case in most places in the LA area, the parking lot was packed. Tempers rose as two to three cars competed for each open space.
Once I parked, I walked into the store and headed straight for the ice cream section. Instead of looking at the ice cream options through the glass, I opened up each door so the frigid air would cool me off. Finally I found a one of my favorite ice creams, a real Lipitor special. I then made my way to the check out line, which like the parking lot, was packed with people.
As I stood there, a man and his wife came up and stood behind me in line. As we slowly made our way forward, the man’s voice got louder as his criticisms of his wife got nastier and crueler. After several minutes, I along with the other shoppers in line became uneasy and uncomfortable. Just before it was my turn to check out, I had reached my limit. The man’s vicious attacks had his wife in tears. While I don’t remember exactly what I said, I tried to suggest to the man that there was another way to work things out. Needless to say, he did not respond well to my intrusion.
I won’t repeat exactly what he said. But he said something like, “who the heck do you think you are?” He followed me into the parking lot repeating the phrase over and over threatening to hit me as I got into my car and left without responding.
Although I was a bit undone by the experience, when I got back home, I sat down and began to eat the ice cream. With each spoonful, I thought not only about the incident, but I reflected on the man’s question. “Who do you think you are?” As I thought about the events that day, I realized that while the man’s actions, hostility, and treatment of his wife were completely not ok, in actuality, his question was and is a good one. “Who do you think you are?”
To this day, the question remains fresh and powerfully relevant. It is a question that is not only applicable to me, but I believe to each one of you as well. “Who do you think you are?” It is a relevant question because how we answer it powerfully determines and influences our thoughts, actions, feelings, and relationships with other people. It is a relevant question because our answer affects how we see ourselves and our purpose in life. It is also a relevant question because our answer reflects where we sit with God.
If we were to go out into the streets of Snowmass Village or Denver and ask people, “who do you think you are?” we would likely get a variety of responses and answers. Some would say, “who do you think you are to ask me such a question, bug off.” Others might say, “I am an accountant, teacher, or retired person.” Some might respond, “Gee, I have never thought about that question,” or “I am a mother with three children trying to make ends meet,” or “I don’t know.”
Regardless of how a person might answer that question publicly, I wonder how people privately would respond. I also wonder how many people would answer the question with God in mind. Do we spend thinking about how God sees us? Does this reflection ultimately determine how we see others and ourselves? Does how God see us, dramatically influence our behavior, thoughts, and feelings?
Who do you and I think we are?
The other day Jayla and I decided to go on a bike ride together. As with many husbands in this valley, it has long been a dream of mine for Jayla to fall in love with cycling. So when she seemed excited about going on an afternoon ride I jumped at the opportunity. We talked about it and decided that it would be cool to combine our bike ride with that grocery store run we so desperately needed. I was thinking that to bike with more weight could be hard, but if we didn’t buy too much stuff how hard could it be to bike back from Aspen? About thirty minutes later, with panniers attached, Jayla and I hit the bike path.
Out of the the Chapel, Jayla turned to go down the Brush Creek bike path. In my mind I was thinking, “That’s a little funny. I might have taken the Owl Creek bike path, but it would be fun to go down and take the Rio Grande all the way into town… “ And so I went with it. In what seemed like minutes we were at the junction where if you turn left you go towards the Woody Creek Tavern. To my surprise, Jayla was turning left! After some confused discussion we realized that she and I had been riding towards different destinations this entire time! While I had assumed we were riding towards the City Market in Aspen, she was planning on getting groceries in El Jebel! I knew I had to think about this. Not only would this be a further ride than I was anticipating, but it would be all uphill coming back home. On the other hand, we had daylight, Jayla seemed ready for it, and this was a route that I had never ridden before (famous last words).
I think you already know what we chose to do. I mean, it was a pretty obvious choice to take the path that is further, steeper, and unknown to get your groceries. What wasn’t so obvious to us was that there would be a point where we had to get off the Rio Grande bike path in order to get to Willits (where the City Market is). So after riding past the Woody Creek Tavern and the old trains (that evidently you can live in… very cool), through the canyon, over the huge bridge that you see on Highway 82, right by Basalt High School, and around the fertile landscapes of Emma WE MISSED A TURN. Now, missing a turn is no big deal if you notice. Our real problem was that we were having too much fun (riding downhill) to realize that we were going too far. The next time I thought about turning was conveniently at the next turn. We took it, and I was confused as to why everything looked so familiar. We rode a little further and on our left were these huge fields and stables that looked liked the polo fields that you see going in the backway to Carbondale. I thought, “That’s weird. How many polo fields does this valley really need?” But hey, it’s Aspen so who knows, maybe there’s a lot of polo going on.
We rode a couple minutes further only to realize that those WERE the polo fields going the back way into Carbondale! We were on Catherine Store Road! We went too far! Although it was still pretty funny to us at this point, we also realized that this excursion was taking a fair amount longer than we thought. So we hustled a bit to make up for lost time and we arrived at City Market. By this point I was starting to get pretty hungry and that burger place in Willits was looking amazing. As we were getting off the bikes Jayla looked at me with a concerning smile. She asked, “Did you remember to bring any money?” Oh no, had we really ridden all that way for groceries and not thought to bring our wallets?
By this point I was very hungry (I even went into Whole Foods to see if they had any samples… they didn’t) and feeling out of control. Periodically, I seem to encounter parts of my life that seem out of control. While these can be uncomfortable, or even painful, they do have a way of reminding me that I’m not in control. In fact, the times when I feel like I have everything handled are the times when I minimize what God is doing in my life. I even wonder if God uses the times when I feel small and out of control to show me how big and all powerful He really is. I mean, think about how out of control you might have felt if you were an Israelite following Moses (a leader who doesn’t even like public speaking) with an army behind you running straight towards the Red Sea… Or how Noah must have felt with a huge half built boat, a town full of critics, and no sea… Or how the Apostle Paul must have felt in jail… Or how any of the disciples must have felt when Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” But in each of these examples where people probably felt like their lives were unraveling, God showed up in a powerful way. So the next time you feel like things are going awry look up for second and ask Him if He’s doing something in your life that you just don’t see yet.
P.S. We made it home. Hungry. Tired. Dark. And thankful.
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.
Last Saturday was an amazing day at the Chapel as we celebrated Charla’s ordination to be a pastor here at Snowmass Chapel. It has been a long journey for her that demanded tons of work, much prayer, learning about herself, and deepening her relationship with Jesus. That said, her ordination reminds me of something else important for all of us to consider.
A number of years ago, long before I was in ministry, I was stuck in a huge traffic jam. One of the kinds that makes you want to get out of your car and simply walk away. This was not an Aspen traffic jam, rather this was an LA rush hour scene. Something that would make the bridge project in Glenwood Springs look like a bike path in comparison.
Anyway, as cars were merging from 10 lanes to 3, a few folks were kinder about letting others in than some people. I’ll never forget this one guy, he was a real piece of work. I could see him in my rear view mirror cutting people off and pushing his way through traffic. Finally he got next to me.
He blasted his horn in a language that means, “hey buddy, I am cutting in front of you, this is my road.” I looked at him with dismay. As I did, I began pointing to my neck with my index finger. The reason? While I was a lay person with a t-shirt on, the fellow was clearly a clergyman wearing his collar.
What was interesting was that as I was pointing to my own neck, in the the hopes he might remember his collar, he appeared to realize something. He stopped honking. Put his head in his hands. And let a bunch of cars go ahead of him.
I need to be clear that my intent was not to be holier than thou, nor to create shame, but rather to try and bring some levity into the whole situation as everyone on the road needed some perspective, including me. Nor is this story is not about me pointing out the erring ways of a clergyman, as goodness knows I’ve been off base often. Rather it speaks to something far more important.
And that is, if we follow Jesus, like it or not, we all wear a collar. Everyone one of us has been given gifts by God to serve God and God’s people. Said another way, all of us are all called to some kind of ministry.
For some it is ordained ministry. Others are called to serve God through music, helping with worship, Stephen Ministry, teaching, working with teens, and the list goes on and on and on. All of us, whether ordained or not, are servants of God wherever we find ourselves (e.g., on the road, at work, at a store, on a busy trail, etc.).
My hope is that Charla’s ordination will remind each of us that we too are called to serve God in difference-making ways. I pray to that we will look at Charla’s call to ministry as pastor as the opportunity for each of us to re-up our own commitment to serving Jesus wherever we find ourselves.