Atomic: More

There is so much more to the story of Jesus turning water into wine than a really cool – and apropos – party trick.  The writer of the Gospel of John, of course, using different source material for his remembrance of Jesus, is the only one with this story and, since he writes with greater theological depth using symbolism throughout, we must take time to notice.  Not to do so would be akin to walking as fast as possible through the Louvre in an effort to see it all.  In the end, you may have seen everything, and yet you didn’t really see much of anything.  This Gospel is a masterpiece.  Rush if you wish, but know that if you do, you are only opting for the most obvious and basic gift it offers, and are missing the heart of the book and in fact, the reason for its writing.

There is so much more to this story than meets the eye in a casual reading of John’s second chapter.  The context of a wedding that brings to memory and imagination not just this moment, but THE moment to come at the consummation of history when the great marriage finally takes place between the Creator and the Created.  The entrance of Jesus just when the wine was running out, when joy was running out, just in time – at the right time – to help and send a message to all about the hopeful presence of God.  Mom/Mary who brought the shortcoming to consciousness, and then instructed the servants to be faithful to Jesus’ instructions.  Faithful servants who found themselves in the miracle – not just bystanders.  A head waiter who probably needed to tell the bridegroom that Jesus’ label was finer than the Charles Shaw that ran out.  An unknown number of guests who were responsible for the wine running out who were now enjoying great wine unawares of its origin.  This was all part of the first sign.  A sign that communicated great hope when it seemed to be running out – more than more-than-enough.  Inherent statements not just about the focal point, Jesus’ connection to the Spirit of God, but about how we engage and interface with the Spirit working in our midst.  It seems experiencing “more” is an option.  We can get in on it or we can just stand around and suck (wine).  But wait, there’s more…

John’s Gospel then brings a strange twist: Jesus going nuts in the Temple, overturning tables and causing a great mess.  John is the only Gospel that puts the story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of the end.  Most contemporary scholars agree that John probably was off on the timeline, but did so purposefully to provide a allusion to what was to come: conflict with the Temple’s leadership.  Spoiler: Jesus ends up getting killed thanks to the Temple leadership’s scheming.

Why include this story here, so closely tied with the wonderful, joyful wedding at Cana?  It’s because Jesus wasn’t just about keeping the good times going at a wedding – he came to get the good times going for all.  Jesus was an underdog.  Jesus was a champion of the underdog – the poor, the foreigner, the outcast, the judged, the widows, the children – all of whom were in their own way at risk.  When Jesus cleared the Temple, he was sweeping away a filthy expression of human greed in the most inappropriate space.  The Temple was supposed to be a space where people could feel connected to God.  It had become a “den of robbers” where the poorest of the poor were taken advantage of to line the pockets of those in power.  Jesus’ ministry was much more than a feel-good campaign with free food and great wine.  His ministry was deeply political and provocative all for the sake of calling out injustice and standing up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves.  Jesus’ mission wasn’t simply about getting people to heaven, it was much more than that – it was about helping as many people on earth experience as much heaven here and now as possible.  An experience of equality and equity, of being loved and respected, of being given dignity.  This is an intractable part of what Jesus was about. To not see this and not accept it as part of the package Jesus came to offer is like entering a marriage only for the purpose of procreation.  Sex.  It’s like saying to Jesus, “I’m a yes so long as we’re only talking about sex (and on my terms) – I’m not really interested in anything beyond that.”  I’m afraid the popular cultural understanding of what it means to be a person of faith – to be a Christian – is like this, where we essentially want God for our enjoyment alone, with little regard for relationship or wanting to be involved with what God wants. Just give me some more wine, please, and please stop saying things that upset the status quo. We know we’re not guilty of such spiritual hedonism when we join God in God’s work in the world out of love for God and the world.

I hope you see that Jesus is so much more, and invites you into so much more.  The Good News is that God is with us now and forever, bringing joyous hope where we thought it was running out, and inviting us to get in on the action so that we can experience it all more fully.  Bringing that hope means bringing it to those who don’t have so much hope, which draws attention to such a reality, which also draws attention to the system which allows and perpetuates the disparity to continue.  Sometimes that means flipping some tables.  Yet that’s where Jesus is, because that’s where the Spirit of God is, because God’s heart is for everyone, and when the deck is stacked against some, God moves in their direction.

Some of you have opted for more already.  You’ve chosen to be like the servants who filled the water jars and took the new wine to the emcee.  Some of you are like the emcee, who let people know what they were tasting because they might not otherwise.  Or you are like Mary who encouraged faithfulness on the part of others.  Maybe you’re even like Jesus, being used of the Spirit to bring hope and joy and equality and equity where it was needed.  Or maybe you’re just standing around sucking.  I hope you always choose more.

Atomic: Seeing

Have you ever had a truly life-altering experience that changed the way you looked at literally everything?  Have you ever tried to share your new insights with people who have not shared your experience?  Have you ever felt like there was no room for your perspective?  Have you ever been removed from a circle you once thought would always welcome you?  Have you ever come into the company of people who have shared your experiences, who understand and welcome your perspective and insights?

For the faith community that is represented in the Gospel of John, every one of the above questions would be answered with an emphatic “YES!”  This group of devoted Jewish men and women – likely living in the city of Ephesus where Judaism was well-represented and supported – were eventually kicked out of their faith community because they experienced something life-changing from the Spirit of God as they lived their Jewish faith from the insights of their fully Jewish model, Jesus.  By the time the oral traditions and scraps of written remembrances were recorded, the close of the first century C.E. was upon them.  Their experiences of God and that of their former community deeply informed what was written and why.

The Gospel of John begins with a poem that would have piqued the interest of any Jewish person as it would recall the opening of Genesis: In the beginning… The Word to which John’s Gospel refers is more than speech – it represents the logic, the mind of God, the ethos of God that provided the impetus for all of creation from the beginning: love.  An ethos which stood in stark contrast to many reigning beliefs that saw the gods and God very differently: vengeful; barely tolerant of the puny, noisy, messy, foolish human beings running amuck on the earth far below.  The view of God as the generative, creative, loving, life-and-light-giving Ground of Being created a very different foundation from which to build a life.  This perspective, which embraces the idea that everything and everyone everywhere is imbued with the Word means everyone and everything has inherent worth and deserves to be treated with dignity by virtue of being a reflection and repository of the presence of God.  Such an idea is dangerous to those who would prefer to measure the love that God has for others based on their personal biases and desires.  Human beings are innately aware of threats.  Our reptilian brains kick into gear when we sense that our security is being challenged – even the security of destructive systems that are themselves a threat to our potential for life.  To weather the storm that reaction-based fear brings from deeply-entrenched systems tests mettle.  What made the Johannine community so steadfast even as they endured the intense pain of being kicked out of the family?

I was born in Missouri, the Show Me State.  When someone says they’re from Missouri even though they’ve lived in Napa their entire lives, they are saying that they need to be convinced in the veracity of what they are being invited to consider.  They need to see for themselves whether or not a thing or idea is true before they buy in.  In a sense, everybody is from Missouri, but we generally don’t know it until we come upon something that, to embrace, would truly challenge our security.  John’s community had experienced something so compelling that they could not not believe and embrace following Jesus.  Individually, they had life-altering experiences that caused them to see everything differently.  Once seen, they couldn’t “unsee” it.

What they saw was what John’s prologue poem was communicating: the Word came to give light and life to everything and everyone.  The Light they saw could not be understood by those who had yet to see; nor could it extinguish the light.  This enlightened perspective was there to stay for this community of faith.  So powerful was their experience that being ostracized from their faith family of origin – and even death because of their new way of seeing – could not and did not dissuade them.  They carried on in hope, proclaiming what they believed as best they could, spreading the Word, bearing light, sharing life.

I think there is merit to a “seeing is believing” way of life.  Apparently, this was a key piece in John’s theology as well.  In the first fifty verses of his Gospel, references to seeing show up twenty-three times by my count.  What they were seeing changed the way they believed.  What were they seeing?  The very Word of God at work before their eyes – a different kind of seeing than simply that which our optic nerves and surrounding components can perceive.  They experienced God.  It is possible to forget even the most incredible experiences of God – that’s a fact (see The Transforming Moment by John Loder). If you are placing yourself in the community of other people who have had similar experiences of God, however, the odds are good that you will not only maintain your belief, but that it will grow as your experience is supported by mutual sharing.  (Side note: Coals grow cold when separated from the fire.  They stay red-hot when in the company of others.  Beware trying to practice your faith in isolation!)

Seeing is believing leads to believing is seeing – we begin to see what was always there, now visible because of our belief.  Those in John’s community (and beyond) began seeing God in their midst in everything and everyone because of their belief.  This only served to increase their faith – and resolve – as they moved forward with their lives in community.  They experienced Light shining even while surrounded by the worst forms of darkness and all its violence and death.  This is the vision of faith John wants us to see from the very beginning, because this ethos has been around since the very beginning, because in the beginning, there was simply the Word, the ethos, of God.

The great question for us as we dive into John is this: have we seen the Light?  You will be faced with this question in different ways throughout this Gospel, which was the intent of the author.  During my pre-adult life, I thought I had it – I thought my faith was what it was supposed to be.  A good knowledge of the Bible after having grown up in the church, and a pretty good understanding of the ethic of the Christian faith.  The point was to live according to the precepts of the faith as taught and lived by Jesus.  I only discovered that what I had was only religion after I saw the “more” possible in someone else.  Not that religion alone is all bad – it’s just that it misses out on so much more.  The relationship piece is a real thing, and this reality makes an enormous difference in one’s understanding of the religion and how to employ its ethics.  I think it is fair to say that the Gospel of John is surely on board with this way of thinking.  That belief would allow people to become children of God is a nod to saying that we can experience and be more, but that “more” is predicated on seeing – that’s where the greater power lies.  John the Baptist and the new disciples of Jesus all saw, and their lives were forever changed.

Seeing requires an atomic change.  Very small yet very big at the same time.  The smallest, simplest shift, yet so difficult because of how much we rely on the eyes of intellect and reason so much more than any other receptor.  It’s not that the faith is anti-intellectual or unreasonable – quite the opposite, really.  It’s just that seeing the movement of God requires us to let go of our need to control or understand fully before allowing ourselves to see.  I think it is somewhat akin to various aspects of love.  Love is unreasonable, and yet once we love someone – various types of love for various types of relationships – we know we do.  Our love is not necessary logical or reasonable, yet it is there in all of its power just the same.  Seeing is like that.  We have to lower our guard to be open to Someone else.  Once we do, we have a greater shot at seeing the Divine in our midst.

I have no formula for you – only encouragement to be open to it and pursue it.  It has changed my life over and over again for the better.  It has changed the lives of countless others as well, including the Apostle Paul, who is noted as the author of a letter to the church in ancient Ephesus where he wrote:

     All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.
     God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan…

     Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. – Ephesians 1:3-11, 15-17 (NLT)

May you find yourself truly seeing this week as you open your eyes to the “more” which has been in front of you, in you, around you the whole time, longing to be seen and believed.

Atomic: Introduction

James Clear had a dream to play professional baseball like his dad, who played in the minor leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals.  But that dream was severely challenged the last day of his sophomore year in high school when he got hit between the eyes with a baseball bat that flew from a classmate’s hands after a full swing.  At first, he seemed surprisingly okay.  But as swelling set in, he found himself struggling to stay alive.  He made it through the worst night of an induced coma, which allowed him to be signed off for surgery.  He discovered that his injury was going to make daily life very difficult for a long time.  Cognitive ability was diminished, large motor skills had to be relearned, he temporarily lost his sense of smell, and when he blew his nose, one of his eyeballs nearly popped out.

But James was determined not to let his injury keep him down.  He worked his tail off and made his varsity baseball team his senior year.  Somehow, he got picked up by Denison University to play baseball for them, which felt like a great achievement in and of itself.  He knew that if he hoped to play, it would require a series of tiny decisions to make the dream of playing college ball a reality.  In many ways, he became “opposite freshman” – he got to bed early to develop good sleep habits, kept his room neat and tidy, and integrated study habits that allowed him to get straight A’s.  Six years after his injury, he was selected as the top male athlete at Denison University, named to the ESPN Academic All-America Team which was bestowed upon only thirty-three students nationwide, and received the President’s Medal – the university’s highest academic honor.

While he never played professional baseball, he did begin going after a new dream.  He began sharing his insights about forming tiny habits that make big differences in an online newsletter.  In a relatively small amount of time, he had hundreds of thousands of people subscribing to his work.  That led to the development of his company which trains leaders to develop better habits that impact their work and life.  It also led to the writing of his book, Atomic Habits, which details his strategy and offers practiced insights into developing tiny habits that create the possibility of significant benefits.  One of his convictions is that willpower is overrated.  We blame our lack of willpower for not sticking with things like dieting, exercise, financial habits, etc.  While it does play a modest role, Clear’s findings suggest that we are more behavioral than we’d like to think, and that our habits actually dictate our lives more than we would care to admit.  For him, then, if we change our habits in tiny ways, we change our path, our stripes, everything.  He uses the example of a plane taking off from SFO headed for JFK.  If the plane is off course by only three percent – imperceptible at the beginning – the plane will end up landing at Dulles in D.C. instead of New York.  Tiny changes in our habits make big differences.  Change our habits, change our lives.

Habits are routines or behaviors that we repeat regularly, and in many cases automatically.  I would bet that most of us repeat a similar set of habits every day in our morning routine. Without giving you more detail than you can stomach, my mornings usually include feeding our dog, Banjo, making and eating breakfast, downing my first cup of coffee while reading, getting cleaned up for the day, and away I go.  The order in which I do these tasks is now habitual.  I don’t even think about them.  They work for me.  Some habits, however, are not so good.  I have been known on occasion to overeat unhealthy-yet-delicious food when I’m under a lot of stress.  Or find myself getting distracted with “shiny things” when I need to focus.  Or binge Netflix to the neglect of household projects that need to get done.    Some habits are very good and healthy.  Lynne and I take walks pretty frequently – almost daily when the weather is good.  That’s a good habit.  When we walk, we nearly always hold hands, which is good for our relationship in many ways.  All of these are habits that we have intentionally or otherwise cultivated.  Very small things, really, that have their affect on our lives.

Jesus developed habits – some were instilled in him and others he put in place.  Before he began his adult ministry, we read that he “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people” (Luke 2:52 NLT).  Wisdom – he learned.  Stature – he matured. Favor with God – he was in the Spirit’s flow. Favor with people – he was well liked for the best reasons.  In the Letter to the Ephesians regarding roles played in the church, we read that pastors and teachers have the responsibility “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT).  My hope is to help you follow in the footsteps of Jesus, that you would grow in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and all people.  There are lots of things I do as pastor, but this is my highest priority.  There are habits that can be cultivated which will foster such fruit, and one in particular that I want to encourage you to integrate now, or perhaps tweak what you are doing for a six-month experiment (which sounds big, but is actually quite tiny, and may only require a couple of minutes). 

There is one habit in particular that may have more impact than others in creating healthy, vigorous soil which can then allow for healthy growth in terms of your faith development, which is really your life development.  Some of you already do it, some have tried it but don’t anymore, and others have never tried it for some very good reasons.  The one habit I’m talking about is devoting time to cultivate your relationship with God in a very particular way.  It will do much to help you in every aspect of your life, and it will be slightly different than what you’re used to doing.  It will require some tiny habits to be formed.

In what we call the Old Testament we find the story of a young boy named Samuel who was under the care of Israel’s priest, Eli:

     One night, Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the Lord called out, “Samuel!”
     “Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
     “I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go back to bed.” So he did.
     Then the Lord called out again, “Samuel!”
     Again Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
     “I didn’t call you, my son,” Eli said. “Go back to bed.”
     Samuel did not yet know the Lord because he had never had a message from the Lord before. So the Lord called a third time, and once more Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
     Then Eli realized it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So he said to Samuel, “Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went back to bed.
     And the Lord came and called as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”
     And Samuel replied, “Speak, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:2-10 NLT)

I find it incredibly interesting that the words were included, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord because he had never had a message from the Lord before.”  Of course!  This has little to do with Samuel’s level of commitment to God or his giving assent to the Jewish faith.  It has everything to do with the level of familiarity in his relationship with God.  When I first saw Lynne, I was devoted!  But I didn’t know her voice until I spent time with her.  Surely there are voices you hear and within a split second you know who you’re listening too.  Samuel needed to be instructed on how to develop the relationship with God, to learn God’s voice.  God was speaking, but Samuel didn’t know it yet. You cannot recognize the voice if you never know the voice. 

One of the enduring, time-proven methods of learning to recognize God’s voice is through a practice called Lectio Divina, a Benedictine approach to the Bible which translates “Divine Reading.”  I want to encourage you to develop this habit, with a twist.  Normally, this approach avoids academics, and opts for God to speak through the text itself even if what is being received has nothing to do with the text’s original intent.  That’s what I want to tweak just a little bit.

The Apostle Paul told his protégé, Timothy, to keep up the practices which would form his faith:

     But you, Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it. Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived.
     But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. (2 Timothy 3:10-17 NLT)

I am asking you to build a routine of Lectio Divina Plus into your life with the help of tiny habits.  I’m asking you all to read just a portion of scripture together, hopefully every day.  Not a lot – the whole exercise might take as little as 10 minutes (or even two!), yet you might find yourself making room for more.  The text I’d like you to read is the text that I will speak on the following week.  So, for this week, I am asking you to read the first chapter of the Gospel of John every day.  It will take you around six minutes.  Before you read, use Eli’s advised quote, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  Read the text slowly, highlighting what jumps out at you along the way.  After you read it, jot a note about what jumped out at you – not an academic question, but rather what your take-home message might be.  What you are doing is trusting that the Spirit of God is at work in the process, speaking to you through nudges and impressions from the scripture itself.  By the way, I did this my sophomore year in college.  Every day it seemed like something new was jumping out at me.  It works.

Here’s the twist, though.  There is room for study and academics.  At my Wednesday PraXis gatherings, I will share with you key insights from academia that will help you see the text more deeply.  I will also make those notes available online, so if you can’t make it, you still get the goods.  Note: I did my doctoral thesis out of the Gospel of John – I know it pretty well!  We will truly learn from each other on Wednesdays, and your input will shape what I bring back to you on Sundays. 

When you approach the Bible in this way – Lectio Divina first and research second – you get the most bang for your buck.  You’re allowing the Spirit to speak into your life however God wants and needs, and you are also honoring the intent of the author in appreciating what he wrote in context.

To build this routine into your life is going to require messing with current habits.  Here are some quick tips from Atomic Habits to help you get and stay on track.

·       Set the time you are going to do this each day.  According to a research project conducted in Great Britain on the subject of exercise, your likelihood of actually doing this more than doubles simply by writing down when and where you will do this.  This is called implementation intention.  Write down something like this: “I will do Lectio Divina at “X” time daily for at least 10 minutes.” 

·       Stack this habit onto a preexisting habit.  When we attach our desired habit to a preexisting habit, we create a cue to encourage the new one to stick.  For me, attaching Lectio Divina to my first cup of coffee makes the reading even easier, plus, since I love my first cup of coffee, it adds a built-in reward.  Add writing a few notes to the exercise, and you’ve got yourself a nicely stacked set of habits.  It might look like this: pour coffee > Lectio Divina > write down reflections.  You are employing the Diderot Effect.

·       Set your tools out where you’re going to do this to make it easier.  Placing a reminder of what you want to do in plain sight has proven to be incredibly powerful in getting your habit to stick because you’re are reminded of it and you have made it easier to make routine.

James Clear was able to excel in college (and in baseball, too) because he made tiny shifts that allowed bigger changes to take place.  There is no greater resource at your disposal than your life.  Being connected to the very source of our lives and the well from which we draw wisdom will mature us in all the best ways, help us be in lockstep with God, and make a positive impact in the world.  Or we could stick with our current habits and remain unchanged: keep doin’ what you’re doin’ to keep gettin’ what you’re getting’!

A Christmas Carol: Keeping Christmas

Before Ebenezer Scrooge was done with his visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he pledged to keep Christmas the whole year through, and to keep all three ghosts with him as well.  The evidence suggests that he lived up to his commitment given the way he behaved in the final scene of Dickens’ classic novella: charitable, humble, generous, penitent, joyful, gracious.  Scrooge is a fictitious character, of course, but Dickens tells us that his transformation stuck, presumably for the rest of his life.  What might he have done to ensure that he remained born again?  What might we do?

I think a clue Dickens may have given us is Scrooge’s statement that he would keep the ghosts with him.  I wonder if Scrooge reflected regularly on the visits of the ghosts and the lessons he drew from them.  For the Ghost of Christmas past, I wonder if he may have journaled something like this:

     There were choices others made that affected me.  My father, for so many years, left me to the care of my boarding school – even over the Christmas holiday.  This is not what I wanted.  I was hurt, alone, and felt abandoned.  In my apprenticeship years, Fezziwig made a different choice than my father.  My old boss was generous and joyful at Christmas – what a time we had!  During that time in my life I even fell in love – I made the choice to make room for Belle.  But over time, my fear of being poor won the battle over my priorities, and I slowly and surely let my relationship with Belle – my love – die.  I chose who I became.  So I choose to be mindful of the forces that came together to form me: the choices others made that affected me deeply both positively and negatively, and the choices I made that set me on my course.  I choose to be mindful of the choices I make.

There would be times when Ebenezer would have been tempted to revert back to his old ways.  Fears would creep up of being left alone and he would perhaps find himself in spaces of low self-esteem that would trigger his self-protective modes of being.  Or the market might stumble and his fear of poverty would trigger his miserliness to come to the surface.  At those moments, having a journal entry like the one above might just help him remember where he had come from and serve to help him keep Christmas.

For the Ghost of Christmas Present, I wonder if his journal entry might have included a variation of this:

     While I walked around the streets of London, I saw that everyone was in a festive mood, enjoying each other and the season in every way.  Good cheer all around.  At Bob Cratchit’s home there was only love, even though the feast was meager.  Even though I gave no reason for receiving honor that night, Bob granted it anyway.  Tiny Tim, who had every reason to be bitter, was instead full of love and faith.  My Nephew Fred and his friends were carrying on with great joy at the dinner I was invited to.  Meanwhile, that very night I was cold and alone in my room; bitter, angry, and suspicious of the world around me, guarding the wealth that was not serving me or anyone else.  I was the one missing out on life and love and joy.  That was the choice I was making.  It was hurting me, and it was refusing blessing on those closest to me. In truth, I could have made Bob’s Christmas so much the merrier, and I could have brought joy to Fred by accepting his invitation.  I hurt myself, and I hurt them.  I will choose to live in the moment, to choose joy and love, and to offer what I have for the joy of others.

There would come times in Ebenezer’s life when he would wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or get discouraged because it wouldn’t feel like his changes were making any real difference, or maybe the people he helped disappointed him in some way.  Fred might forget to be so cheery, or Bob might buy an expensive toy for himself when his family’s needs were not yet met.  At those moments, going back to what he experienced that night with the Ghost of Christmas Present just might serve to strengthen his resolve even when he didn’t feel like it.

For the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, perhaps his diary had these words within it:

     What an awful visit this was – a clarion call to pay attention to what my apathy was causing and perpetuating.  No more Tiny Tim because Bob couldn’t afford the medical care he needed.  No more me, and no one mourning the loss of my life.  I learned that the life I led was a dead end.  I didn’t take my wealth with me, didn’t do anything with it, and the world was no better for it.  All due to choices I made.  I woke up determined not to make those same choices.  I choose to stay awake today.  I will use what I have to make a difference in the world – with those I know and care about, and with those who I don’t know.  I will be generous with what I have for their sake and mine.

There would come moments for Scrooge when he would forget that his days were numbered and that his wealth would not move with him into the next life.  He would forget that death comes for everyone and that our legacy will not be in our titles or possessions, but rather what we did with our titles and possessions beyond self-indulgence.  In those moments of forgetfulness he may have been less inclined toward generosity and selflessness.  Being able to turn back and remember what happened that night and the insight he gained would perhaps serve to correct his vision and get him back on track.

Put yourself in Scrooge’s shoes.  Imagine taking the same journey with the same ghosts.  What do you imagine your visits being like?  What would you be journaling after each?

There is an interesting note in the Christmas Story in Luke’s Gospel.  After Mary gave birth, the shepherds who were tending their flock came to visit, recounting their angelic visit.  Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often” (Luke 2:19).  I think she was onto something here.  And I think we need to learn from her.  I am sure there were many moments going forward when Mary would remember all that had happened along her journey.  Her reflection undoubtedly kept her centered as she followed Jesus through his highs and lows, not always certain which experiences Jesus thought were highs or lows.

The idea of remembering one’s identity with great intention was and is a key practice in our (and every) faith tradition.  It appears that we human beings have a tendency to forget who we are and who we are called to become.  We get tempted by the pressures of the moment, or the day, or the season, and find ourselves off track.  In the Hebrew scriptures the remembering is directed in two ways.  First, especially when the people got off track and found themselves in a mess, the prayers of the people were asking God to remember who God was, primarily so that God wouldn’t resort to being too harsh on the people God claimed to love!  Remember your children, remember your people, remember your promise, Oh God! 

Remembering was also a part of the rhythm of the life of faith directed to help people recall who they were and where they had come from.  The intention required to set aside time for personal prayer and reflection, time to gather with others in the faith to remember we’re not alone, time to do things we don’t otherwise do – take communion, sing songs, learn, meditate, give away our time and money – all of these and more serve to remind us of who we are so that we can keep Christmas.  Keeping Christmas is bigger than December 25th, bigger than it’s twelve days, bigger than Advent, bigger than the gift-giving marketing that begins showing up at Walmart in August.  Keeping Christmas is a reminder to keep the Christ part of our daily mass, our daily lives.  God didn’t simply break into our world in Jesus on one particular day.  The point of that was that God breaks into life everyday in every situation.  God cannot not break into life because the presence of God is interwoven into life itself, into the creation that was sourced from God somehow in the beginning.  Keeping Christmas is about remembering, re-membering, keeping whole and together that which might otherwise get fragmented.  Religion’s real purpose is to re-ligament, to keep things connected that would otherwise fall apart.

There is great value in pondering.  Reflecting on our lives as we live life helps us maintain perspective, stay centered, and choose wisely.  We are more likely to make choices that help us become who we long to become and live out of our True Selves.  In light of Scrooge who surely must have been intentional about remembering where he came from, and in light of Mary who pondered things in her heart, how are you going to keep Christmas?

Questions:

1.       How are you keeping Christmas?

2.       How are you keeping the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come with you?

3.       How are you pondering deep things in your heart as you move forward in life?

A Christmas Carol: Christmas Day Reborn

The final scene from Charles Dickens’ classic novela, A Christmas Carol, gives us a lasting testament to the changed life of the central character, Ebenezer Scrooge.  The contrast could not be more pronounced from the opening scene where, you may recall, Scrooge literally and figuratively “Bah Humbuged” everything that hinted of Christmas specifically, and by extension all things that resembled human compassion and decency in general.  The harsh, rude rejection of his nephew Fred’s invitation to Christmas dinner, the insensitive and inhumane attitude toward the men collecting funds for the poor, and the cold, willfully unaware mistreatment of his underpaid struggling family-man employee, Bob Cratchit all painted a picture of a man who was interested entirely and solely in himself.  No hint of charity appeared to exist in the lonely old man.

A visit from the ghost of his seven-years-dead business partner, Jacob Marley, warned him of three spirits who would be visiting him soon: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, all with the goal of waking Scrooge up to himself, everyone else, and what makes life worth living.  With each visit Scrooge’s assumptions and biases are highlighted and challenged by the ghosts, and with each encounter, Ebenezer’s heart slowly softens as his vision gets corrected. By the end of the last spirit’s exchange, our hard-nosed curmudgeon declared himself to be a changed man who would not be the same.  His lips communicated that he was a changed man.  Would the new dawn serve to give testimony to a truly changed heart, mind, and life?  How would we know if he was really a changed man?

The final chapter begins with Scrooge realizing that he is not dead, but alive – really, really alive – and for the first time in forever, even giddy with joy.  He soon discovers that he has been reborn in time for Christmas morning.  His first order of business?  He spends money on an excessively large gift for Bob Cratchit and his family – a large prize turkey for the poor family’s dinner.  Ebenezer even provided a financial incentive for the boy who arranged it, and cab fare for the poulterer to cover delivery.  His first act of the day gives us an allusion to what would follow.

As Scrooge enters the world as a new man, we stroll the streets of London with him, noting his entirely changed mood.  He sings with the carolers he earlier no doubt scorned and wished a “Merry Christmas” to all he passed.  He happened upon the same men who had asked him the day before for a charitable contribution.  They were not particularly delighted to see him given their first encounter.  Ebenezer did more than announce his intention to provide a generous gift: he also acknowledged that he was aware that his name was likely not music to their ears, and that his gift included many-a back contribution from Christmases long passed.  A gift with a confession.

We continue following our born again companion and witness him working his way into his nephew’s home to give Fred a gift – the gift of himself at Christmas dinner, which is the only thing he ever wanted from his uncle.  Dickens included a subtle, additional gift in his written work.  He didn’t assume that he would be welcome.  He asked, “Will you let me in, Fred?”  This simple question communicates volumes about the attitude which was born from a changed heart.  The question itself is a confession – he knew he had been a pig (film adaptations include Ebenezer apologizing to Fred’s wife for his cold-heartedness).  Fred and the rest were more than delighted to let him in.  The festivities commenced, and Scrooge’s participation gave further evidence that his words that morning still rang true.

A final, beautiful scene follows the very next morning where we find Scrooge at his office – early – to make sure he is in his seat before Bob Cratchit arrives.  Bob arrives late due to too much merriment the night before, we learn, and Ebenezer lets him know of his tardiness.  But instead of a reprimand, Scrooge informs Bob that he is to be given a raise, that he will find support for Tiny Tim in him, and is ordered to immediately go buy more coal so as to appropriately heat the office.  Cratchit is dumbfounded.  Once again, we hear from the employer’s mouth a confession that he was making up for many years of humbug.  Two gifts dovetailing into an unmistakable testimony of his changed heart, mind, and life.  A narrator’s voice concludes the story sharing that Scrooge made good on his word in every way and more, that he became as good a man as was ever known in London, and became like a second father to Tiny Tim.  Ebenezer Scrooge stayed reborn.  He truly kept Christmas in his heart the whole year through.  He lived with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come as constant companions which produced fruit of a continually changed heart that changed his mind and behavior.  Or was it his changed behavior that altered his mind and heart?  Or was it his changed mind that transformed his behavior and heart? Yes, yes, and yes.

While the story of the Wise Men is often depicted as part of the Christmas scene in the nativity scenes we place in our homes, they actually would have showed up much later – sometime within a couple of years of Jesus’ birth.  Anachronistic for sure, they still offer some insight for our story today.

     Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
     King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
     “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
          ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
          are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
          for a ruler will come from you
          who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
     Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
     After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
     When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. – Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

These star-gazing scholars from the East looked to the heavens for signs of God’s activity.  They received their own heavenly visitation announcing Christmas – a new star – which in their way of thinking meant that a new king had been born.  Their thinking led to action: at great expense and with effort from an entourage, they made their journey toward Israel, one which would take many weeks or months to complete.  Along the way countless discussions would have ensued about who they were going to visit, and as they learned more and more about the Roman Empire’s occupation of Israel, their hearts most surely began to stretch as they considered what a newborn king might mean about the movement of God.  Upon discovering where the baby was to be born and finding him living in deep poverty, perhaps what happened to them was similar to Scrooge – their eyes, mind, heart, and hands opening further and further?  The gifts themselves were confessions.  All gifts that were appropriate to give to royalty – of great value – they each carried special meaning.  Gold fit for a king.  Frankincense used in priestly ways to connect God and people in prayerful worship.  Myrrh saved for proper burial – a prophetic gift needed in due time.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh for a man who would be seen as a prophet, priest, and king.  Thoughtful gifts that confessed an intentional mind at work.  Heartfelt gifts that evoked passion in the preparing and giving.  Expensive gifts that required extra care in handling to insure they arrived safe and sound.  More than simply tangible gifts, the confessions imbued in them added great depth and nuance that could not have been missed by Mary and Joseph, by us, or especially by them!

There is much present within these two dovetailing stories for us to chew on.  On a very practical level, as you give gifts this Christmas, I wonder if it might be wise for us to take a moment and reflect on what we would like to confess with the giving of the gift.  While the tangible expression is itself sometimes important, I wonder if we, as givers, would benefit much more from the giving if we dialed into the deeper “why” behind the what we give.  My hunch is it might enhance everything about the giving experience for us and the recipient.

Ebenezer Scrooge pledged to keep Christmas the whole year through.  The Magi kept Christmas their entire journey back to Baghdad and likely the rest of their lives.  At times I believe this keeping of Christmas is effortless.  When we are reminded of the most important things in life, we often find ourselves at our best, deepest, and most thoughtful.  At other times, however, I think we need to be more intentional, setting reminders, carving out time, placing triggers to make sure we stay centered when life’s busyness seems to distract and derail us.  James Finley, on speaking about meditation in an every day mindfulness sort of way, offers this:

     Perhaps by trial and error, with no one to guide us, we find our own way to respond to the unconsummated longings of our awakened heart. We, in effect, discover our own personal ways to meditate. By meditation I mean, in this context, any act habitually entered into with our whole heart as a way of awakening and sustaining a more interior meditative awareness of the present moment. The meditation practice we might find ourselves gravitating toward could be baking bread, tending the roses, or taking long, slow walks to no place in particular. Or we might find ourselves being interiorly drawn to painting or to reading or writing poetry or listening to certain kinds of music. Our meditation practice may be that of being alone, truly alone, without any addictive props or escapes. Or our practice may be that of being with the person in whose presence we awakened to what is most real and vital in our life. . . . We cannot explain it, but when we give ourselves over to these simple acts, we are taken to a deeper place. We become once again more grounded and settled in a meditative awareness of the depth of the life we are living.

For Ebenezer Scrooge and everyone everywhere for all time, Christmas is more than a day.  Christmas is a mindset, an opportunity to live fully conscious and as present as possible to the life we are living in cooperation with all other people and the entirety of creation itself – all in a never-ending dance with God who created it all, who showed up in the most peculiar place so long ago, reminding us to pay attention, because you just never know where God might show up next.

A Christmas Carol: The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come

The last Ghost to visit our softening central character is the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.  Dickens paints the picture of this phantom borrowing from popular images of the Grim Reaper.  A dark, shadowy, hooded, silent, larger-than-life character with long bony fingers that merely point in the direction where attention should be given.  This journey revolves around the death of two people and the responses elicited.  Hospitality workers who were under one of the deceased’s employ, along with his undertaker are witnessed pawning off some goods they lifted from the dead man’s home and person.  No remorse at his death – only a little hope that from it they might profit.  Another scene shows men Scrooge knows at the Stock Exchange, speaking of the death of a man they all knew.  Not one of them felt or displayed any remorse, and they joked that the only reason they might attend a funeral would be to gain a free lunch. Yet another scene depicts a young couple who were in great despair because they were late in paying their mortgage debt, which could very well mean that they were headed for debtor’s prison.  The husband speaks news to the wife: the man servicing their loan died!  They had more time to get their money together while a new mortgage servicer was determined.  The man’s death was truly good news for it meant life for them.  Scrooge, not amused that not one person could be found with any remorse that this unknown man’s life was over, asked to be shown someone who truly mourned the loss of another’s life.

Scrooge recognized Bob Cratchit’s house from the previous ghost’s visit.  Inside that home there was no shortage of mourning.  Not for the old man who died, but for Tiny Tim.  The whole family wept.  Eavesdropping on the scene, we learn that Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, expressed condolences to Bob, and even offered to help set up his older son with an apprenticeship.  Scrooge himself was overcome as well, before heading to a final scene in a run-down, overgrown cemetery, where Scrooge was directed toward one grave in particular.  Before he dared look, however, he had some questions to ask of the ghost:

     “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?... Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!...

     Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was.  I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!...

     Good Spirit, your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

The story of Jesus’ birth features a visit from a different Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.  Mary and Joseph, in particular, were both visited separately with unwelcome news.  They were going to have a son, but not in a way that brings with it baby showers and well-wishers.  Mary’s visit went like this:

     In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
     Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
     Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
     The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.” –
Luke 1:26-37 (NLT)

Joseph’s experience went like this:

     This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
     As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:18-21 (NLT)

For Joseph and Mary, the forecast was a genuine mixed bag.  Good news for humanity that required them to embrace some very bad news personally.  Bad news that was going to exact a heavy toll on their lives yet would be better for them and everyone else in the long run.  In each case, they both expressed their intent with their lips: Mary uttered her beautiful, simple, pure faithful vow, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” Joseph chose to not speak words of rejection to Mary but welcomed her instead.

Joseph and Mary, like Scrooge, were faced with questions only they could answer: what do I want my life to mean?  Will my life have made any real difference?  Will anyone mourn my passing?  Worse, will some be glad I’ve died?

These are excellent questions for every person to entertain throughout life.  Last week we laid to rest Barbara Springsteadah, a wonderful woman of faith who was remembered for more than being an avid Niners fan, Warriors fan, and Cheetoh’s fan.  One phrase prevailed to describe Barabara: “unconditional love.”  She did not live a life of luxury or wealth.  Yet her life deeply impacted those she touched, and her example lives on as one to follow.  Especially toward the end of Barb’s life, you would hear about the hope that drove her: she was looking forward to where she was going next.  Somehow Barb’s belief in the love of God was so complete and real that she didn’t live marked by fear, but rather compelled to love.

Sometimes we are won to faith out of fear of what will happen after death.  Obviously, fear is a huge motivator for all living creatures, and has definitely been used by people of faith to inform decisions from the beginning of time.  Jesus and his disciples used a mixture of fear and hope in their rhetoric to wake people up to the most important questions of life.  I would encourage you, however, to move away from a fear-based faith as fast as you possibly can.  Fear begets fear, not love.  Instead, I would encourage you to immerse yourself in the love of God that compelled Jesus and his disciples to love others radically and in some cases recklessly.  Scrooge came face to face with the reality of his impending doom, but much more than that, he finally saw clearly how shallow and self-centered his life had become, and what little and poor legacy it left behind.  This story is about a shift away from being motivated by fear, and more and more about being motivated by love.  When love is the driving force, everything changes.  The way we think about ourselves, our resources, and our legacy changes. The way we treat others changes: those who work for us, those we work with, those we call family, even those we don’t know yet – we think of them differently when motivated by love.

Nancy Rynes was an atheist, not believing at all in anything beyond the grave.  But then she came face to face with death when she was struck by an SUV while riding her bicycle.  She had an out-of-body experience where she saw herself under the SUV, writhing in pain.  But she also experienced what she believed to be the presence of God which was marked by warm light and deep love (hear her tell her story here). She was so overwhelmed by the experience that it changed her life and belief.  Knowing that what is to come is love beyond limits and imagination, she is now choosing to live in more deeply loving ways, and is choosing not to live motivated by fear.

What and Who we call God is the very source of Life, our Ground of Being.  God’s character and nature, more than anything else, is described as love in great depth.  Love is our birthplace.  Love is our destination.  Love is what generates life. Love is the legacy worth leaving behind. 

What are you building your life on?  Are you more motivated by love or fear?  Who are the people who work for you?  Who are the people you work with?  Who do you call family? Who are the people you do not yet know but are connected to you?  In each of these cases, how are you relating?  In light of where you’ve come from and where you’re going, what is your response to the vision cast by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?  May it mirror our transforming protagonist:

     “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

A Christmas Carol: The Ghost of Christmas Present

It’s easy to get frustrated.  And incapacitated.  One study suggests coffee is bad for us.  Another says it will ward off dementia and Alzheimers.  What’s a sleep-deprived man to do?  Coffee is just the beginning, of course.  There are even more pressing issues (if you can believe it).  Like global warming.  Or border control.  Or Black Lives Matter. Or affordable housing.  Or Income disparity. Or gender inequality. Or discrimination based on sexual orientation. Or…  Lots of issues, all of which are incredibly complex.  It is easy to get frustrated, which can easily lead to doing absolutely nothing (with a grumpy expression on our face).  A Christmas Carol is a story about a very frustrated older man.  In this week’s episode, we encounter the second of three spirits who visited the crusty curmudgeon.

The second spirit to visit Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Present, which brought us from the past directly into Ebenezer’s daily reality.  From the first look, we got a clue about what kind of ride our primary character was in for.  The Ghost was wearing a massive green robe with white fur fringe, bare-chested to boot.  This dude is clearly ready to party!  He’s got great hair, too, and charisma that will bring joy to any room.  He carried a torch that imbued a special, sweet smoke wherever he directed that immediately lightened the mood.  Hmmm.  Apparently a giant doobie…  More than simply being the Life of the party, there is one detail that is so intentionally included that we must notice it: “Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.”  What a peculiar addition.

I think Dickens gave us this detail as a reminder of whose birth we are celebrating on Christmas Day:  the Prince of Peace.  Before he was even born, a Jewish priest uttered a prophecy about the one to come: “Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace” (Zechariah, in Luke 1:78-79 | NLT).    The angels referred to this quality when they gave the birth announcement from heaven:

     That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

     Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” – Luke 2:8-14 (NLT)

Eight days after Jesus was born his parents took him to the Temple to be circumcised – a Jewish ritual that extends nearly to the beginning of the faith.  An elderly, devout Jewish man named Simeon happened to be hanging around when they were there.  He experienced God telling him that he would not die until he laid eyes on the Messiah, the anointed one who was going to bring redemption to Israel.  When he saw them, he said, “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32 |NLT).

Peace was perhaps the greatest gift that this child came to bring.  A moment of rest – a day off – but more than that.  Peace with God translating into peace with each other.  A day off of violence to choose love and joy instead.  The Apostle Paul spoke to his audiences about this peace that passes understanding.  A peace that enters during our lifetimes during the worst of times, giving us hope of Peace to come.  The scabbard didn’t hold a sword, and it hadn’t from the beginning.

The test of this peace came at Bob Cratchit’s home on Christmas Day.  His whole family would eventually be present, which gave him great joy.  Everyone tried to look their best, even though they were very, very poor.  Mrs. Cratchit did the best she could, as most Victorian women in England would: only being able to afford one dress, they would wear them inside out when the wear and tear exacted its toll.  On this day, she adorned her dress with bows to hide the stains and sections that were threadbare. 

Bob attended a mass before coming home for Christmas dinner, taking his youngest son, Tiny Tim, with him.  Asked how the lad did in the service, Bob shared with welled-up eyes:

     “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

After a great dinner together the Cratchit family gathered around the hearth to tell stories, sing songs, and raise a glass.  Bob Cratchit even chose to toast his stingy, mean boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, as the founder of their feast.  His wife vehemently protested.  Bob’s response?  It’s Christmas. A day when we walk around with rusty, sword-less scabbards.

Dickens paints the scene as the evening wore on: “There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirits torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.”  The love and warmth in that scene began to affect Scrooge’s icy heart.  He wondered about Tiny Tim’s fate:

     “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

     Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit and was overcome with penitence and grief.

     “Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked can’t until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

The message sunk in for Ebenezer.  After the Cratchit home the spirit took them to his nephew’s home where dinner was commencing – the same dinner Scrooge refused to attend.  Speaking of his uncle, Fred remarked, “He’s a comical old fellow, that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him… I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims! Himself, always. Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence?”

Some things were beginning to clear up for old Ebenezer.  Like Paul’s blindness falling like scales from his eyes, Scrooge was beginning to see just how poorly he had been seeing.  His attitude and perspective – his vision – was coming into greater clarity.  As has been noted, people don’t see things as they are, people see things as they are.  As Scrooge was seeing his employee and his family, and his nephew and friends with reborn eyes, he was also beginning to see himself for who he was, for who he had chosen to become.  He began to appreciate just how cold-hearted he was as the spirit swept him to places where it would be easy to be hardened – a miner’s settlement and a ship at sea.  In both truly bitter environments the inhabitants there sang their songs of Christmas, of joy, of peace.

The closing scene of this stave brought with it a tragic visual hiding within the spirit’s robe:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread…

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

     “Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

     “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

Ebenezer was truly humbled.  And that was a good thing.  Dickens was hoping that the humbling would extend beyond his fictitious character to the real-life Scrooges who hid behind their rationalizing why they needn’t lift a finger to help those who suffered.  Some would do it claiming to be Christians all the while.  To those the spirit gave comment:

      “There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

The world Dickens was addressing is reminiscent of the world into which Jesus was born.  While Simeon was beyond joyful that he could die in peace having seen Jesus with his own eyes, he spoke truly prophetic words to Mary – allusions to what lay ahead for this child who would one day wear a rusty, empty scabbard as well: “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul” (Luke 2:34-35 | NLT).

Both stories sting.  Dickens’ wonderful novella caricatures a part of us we all try to manage, to keep under wraps, yet sometimes emerges from our respective shadows.  Surely his original audience recoiled a bit at the suggestion that they were part of the problem.  Surely the same happens today when we think of some of the great challenges we face in our current time.  The point of the work was to help people see, to move them, to wake them from the slumber of their comfortable state. To open their eyes with the aid of an engaging tale.

In Victorian England, as in First Century Israel, information was hard to come by.  It was difficult to gain broad perspective on what was happening because so much information was inaccessible.  The lack of information created a feeling of being truly stymied. Today we have a different problem but the same feeling.  Now we have so much information, it’s hard to know what to believe.  And, with our political leaders constantly leveraging their binary rhetoric to their advantage, or even calling into question our ability to know anything for sure, we may feel overwhelmed in our sense of incapacity.  We know so much we don’t know anything.  So we don’t do much of anything. And we feel kinda guilty yet a little justified at the same time because of our overstimulation.

But to do nothing – especially at Christmas – is to ignore Christmas itself.  Except for some nods to rulers for the sake of dating the story, nearly all of the key characters in the birth narratives of Jesus are very, very poor.  The Good News of Jesus’ coming came to an elderly couple (powerless), young woman (powerless), a young man (the news of which was emasculating), and a bunch of lowest-rung-on-the-corporate-ladder smelly late-shift shepherds (POWERLESS!)!  All poor.  The only wealthy people of note?  King Herod, who was threatened to the point of calling for infanticide, and the wealthy Wise Men from the East, who were insightful enough to approach such an impoverished newborn king with great humility and deep generosity.  The shepherds ran to see the scene and tell their part of the story.  The Wise Men traveled for weeks or months to pay homage.  They didn’t sit back and do nothing because they just weren’t sure what to do.  They took the next step.

This stave was crafted to show us ourselves and call us on the carpet.  To not let us off the hook because it’s hard to understand due to a lack of information, too much information, or unreliable information.  And this chapter was offered to push us beyond feeling guilty about the status quo.  It calls us to respond with reflection.  Contemplation followed by action.

This story is about more than a stingy man learning to loosen his purse strings.  A Christmas Carol is about a boy that grew into an older man who, along the way became something much less than anyone’s dream.  He only had financial wealth – and even that he didn’t enjoy.  This story is about the hope of birth, and rebirth.  Through innumerable moments throughout his life Ebenezer chose to be more closed than open, more rigid than flexible, more fearful and angry than hopeful and loving.  His world got smaller and dimmer every year, leaving him literally cold and alone.  He needed the Ghost of Christmas Present to open his eyes to what was there all along.  Bob Cratchit wasn’t simply an employee he had to pay, but a husband and father who loved his family and managed to stay out of debtor’s prison even with the extra care a special needs child demanded.  Even though mistreated by his employer, Bob still raised a glass to Scrooge – a great sign of maturity and grace.  Ebenezer needed to see his nephew, Fred, for more than a fool who spends too much money on a Christmas Feast – funds that could have been invested.  Instead, he found a genuinely warm, mature man who intentionally took time to celebrate life with those he loved, who even committed to loving his uncle every year despite the near-certain rejection.  Ebenezer needed to see black-dust-encrusted coal miners and sailors soaked to the bone from the cold sea waves they fought – all of whom sang songs of Christmas, songs of hope, songs of love breaking into the world.  On that day love prevailed and showed itself for what it is: the very source of Life.  The Source Scrooge had been trying to live apart from the majority of his life.  It had caught up with him.  He didn’t know how much until he saw with new eyes what was always there.

I’ve had this experience along numerous lines throughout my life.  Not really understanding at all the feel of racial prejudice until my friend Adolphus Lacey and I roomed together during a choir tour in Iowa.  Simply put, I was clearly treated with great respect and trust, and he was looked upon and spoken to with fear and a hint of disdain.  He and I were both headed toward becoming pastors.  I can say the same for gender equality, having witnessed incredibly sharp women getting overlooked simply because they were women.  I’ve been given new eyes regarding poverty as I have come to see the issue as deeply complex which cannot be addressed with generalities about laziness and evil “users of the system”.  I have, with the help of a ghost in all of these and the ones to come, been given new eyes with which to see religion itself – so often diminishing its call to loving service and instead opting for rigid moral policing.  Over many years my lenses have been corrected in regards to homosexuality.  There was a brief period of my life – as a pastor – when I thought homosexuality was inherently sinful and needed to be categorized like we might do with alcoholism.  Some people are born predisposed to alcoholism and have to manage it their whole lives – I thought the same regarding sexual orientation.  It was easy to adopt such a view when surrounded by people who believed the same and interpreted biblical verses to validate their views with God’s stamp of approval.  But over time which allowed for deep study of the biblical texts, theological reflection, listening to those who struggled, discernment, and experience, my understanding changed.  My eyes saw things I simply couldn’t see before.  My understanding turned into action.  First simply sharing what I learned.  Then taking a stand.  Then living out my stated beliefs in action as I officiated a same gender wedding ceremony between two CrossWalk members who could not have been better candidates to provide me this first opportunity.  Of course, living out this belief caused serious backlash from my broader faith community which does not see things the same way.  With my action came the loss of a fairly prestigious leadership position with our denomination’s regional entity and the income that accompanied it.  Strained relationships, of course, came as well.  I have no regrets about my decision and am, in fact, proud of it and even grateful for it.  And yet I mourn and grieve even though in the long run it will all turn out for the best.  This is the more regular course for most of who do not get all three ghosts in one night.

The greater truth of Dickens’ classic is that we all are visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future all the time. Some traditions refer to the Spirit of God as the Holy Ghost.  I believe this Spirit is constantly with us, urging us to see through the eyes of God, through the eyes of Love, that we might truly live full and free.  Deeper than a feeling, Love is the undercurrent of creation itself, and was manifested in the birth of a child in the most peculiar circumstance over 2,000 years ago.  Those who can see even a little still sing of it.  Perhaps the continual singing will foster new seeing as well.

What are you going to do to understand the complexities of the serious challenges we face today (and have faced with limited success since the dawn of humanity)?  Poverty.  Income disparity. Immigration. Undocumented immigrants. Racial prejudice. Gender inequality.  LGBTQ discrimination.  The list goes on.  What are you doing to gain a fuller perspective?  What are you doing in response to what you are learning?  How are you being Christmas – being and bringing Good News to our real-life characters who inhabit our world who need to know that the heart of God beats for them as it did when Jesus was born?

A Christmas Carol: Marleyed

What kinds of causes are really easy for you to be generous toward?  Seriously – think about this for a moment.  There are lots of good causes that ask for our financial support – what are the ones that move you to action?

It’s easy for me to give toward Furaha Community Center – the work we support in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, where mostly orphaned kids attend school and get a couple of meals that truly make a life or death difference.  It’s easy for me to be generous toward victims of disaster – wildfires, tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and the like.  Shelters for domestic violence victims that house women and children (both here and Tijuana) move me to action. And, of course, CrossWalk – a truly unique church that welcomes those who have been outcast from other churches due to their gender, sexual orientation, or incessant questioning of doctrine; a community that seeks to be generous toward Napa and beyond with a wide range of resources including food, legal help, space for recovery (and more).  That’s easy.

What is it that ties all of these together?  It could be a range of things.  They are all good causes.  For each need that I try to support, the management of the funds used is wise – there’s not a lot of administrative waste.  Each project gets results, too, which makes it easier to support.  But I think the bottom line difference is that I see what is before me, clearly, and cannot be idle.  There are, of course, different levels of seeing.  We can casually glance and see problems everywhere as well as problems with how the problems are being addressed, which are sometimes so problematic that it presents a real problem for us to do anything at all!  The kind of seeing I’m talking about is different.  It’s deeper.  It’s seeing with more than my physical eyes.

When people take a trip to see Furaha, they are forced to see.  Extreme poverty on that scale does not exist in the United States.  There is a scent in the air in the slums that says it all.  Once there, it is hard to unsee – only time and distance soften what once was a clear view of the horrors of humanity.  Perhaps because Furaha is not on our soil, and not familiar, and not tied to our own politics and culture and country, we can see things for what they are as less biased observers. 

Similar experiences happen at our own Food Pantry at CrossWalk.  When you walk people through our pop-up grocery store and look into the eyes of the recipient, a lot of assumptions about those who are resourced challenged melts away into a different glimpse:  One of shared humanity.

Seeing – really seeing – is what captures our attention, our hearts, and triggers our instincts to move with compassion.

In Charles Dickens’ Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, readers are transported into new vistas as they join Ebenezer Scrooge through four sessions of vision correction.  In the first Stave, we get a view of Scrooge.  He is a stingy, mean-tempered older man who treats his poor clerk in ways that are dehumanizing – not caring for his physical needs while also creating a hostile work environment.  His disdain extends even to a family member, his jovial and generous nephew, Fred, who invites him yet again to Christmas dinner (in vain), met with harsh words and criticism.  Finally, we see Scrooge interact with two men making the rounds to collect donations for the poor and destitute in London.  Scrooge responded, “Are there no prisons?  And the Union workhouses – are they still in operation?  The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then? I was afraid… that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course.”  The men, in response to Scrooge’s clear insistence that the taxes he paid were all he was interested in providing, and that the recipients had better use what is already available to them, the charitable hawkers stated a reality of the day – many among the poor would rather die than be subject to the awful conditions provided by “the system”.  “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” Scrooge shot back. “It’s not my business.  It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.  Mine occupies me constantly.  Good afternoon, gentleman!”

Surely Scrooge was not alone.  We know this to be quite true, in fact.  At that time in London, it was especially bad to be poor.  Should you run up your debt and fail to pay your creditors, you might find yourself in debtors prison where you would be forced to live and work (with your wife and kids) until your debt was repaid.  Your job?  The Treadmill – you would become a beast of burden to turn the milling wheel.  Dickens was intimately familiar with “the system”.  His father, a military veteran and father of eight (Charles was the second), found himself and his wife thrown into debtors prison.  At a very young age, Charles was forced to work putting labels on boot-black, at one point on display on a busy street.  Humiliating.  Unsafe.  And – by the way – this was a privatized system.  Part of Dickens’ agenda in writing this tale (among others) was to highlight the plight of the poor to rouse those with power to do something to make a change.  Those who held power were fine enough with the status quo because frankly, they were fine and didn’t have to see the system or their part in it if unless they were intentional about taking a look.  Scrooge was quite intent on not looking.

That very night – Christmas Eve – Scrooge was visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who came to inform Scrooge that he would be visited that night by three spirits – all with the purpose of opening Ebenezer’s eyes to reality past, present, and future.  Marley had his own message to share – a warning not to live the life Marley lived, which was the life Scrooge was living.  Such a misused life resulted in deep regret and untold damage to his fellow human beings:

     “Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

     “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. 

     “Business! cried the Ghost,” wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

     “At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

A Christmas Carol was written in 1843.  Unfortunately, the plight of the poor has been a human-created reality since we hit the planet.  In the first half of the first century C.E., Jesus lived in Roman-occupied Northern Israel near the Sea of Galilee.  In our time and place, we are familiar with income disparity communicated with the vernacular of the 1%, suggesting that one percent of our population owns and controls the purse strings that impact the remaining 99%.  If we shared such information with Jesus and his contemporaries, they might respond, “Oh, what would it be like to see such an improved state!  In our time, 99.9% of the population is controlled by just one tenth of one percent!”  Similar realities existed in Jesus’ day.  If you were poor and couldn’t pay your debt, you might be enslaved until your debt was paid. Mothers and daughters simply trying to put food on the table might find themselves resorting to prostitution, which carries a much higher price than that at the point of sale.

Jesus offered a parable to help people see themselves and their context more clearly:

     "There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man's table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.
     "Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, 'Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I'm in agony in this fire.'
     "But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It's not like that here. Here he's consoled and you're tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.'
     “The rich man said, 'Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won't end up here in this place of torment.'
     "Abraham answered, 'They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.'
     "'I know, Father Abraham,' he said, 'but they're not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.'
     "Abraham replied, 'If they won't listen to Moses and the Prophets, they're not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.'" – Luke 16:19-31 (The Message)

Jesus made some bold statements with this parable.  First, the scene was shocking: the state of Lazarus was horrific, and the indifference of the Rich Man was unconscionable. What happened after they died was equally shocking: the one society revered due to his wealth ended up not being impressive at all to God, and the one everyone in life assumed was surely cursed by God was welcomed and honored in death.  A great reversal that surely prodded listeners then and now to wake up and smell the coffee.  The final point is not to focus our attention on our potential afterlife residence, but on what we are doing with our lives now to care for those who have serious needs we can help meet.

According to Gallup Research, the average American will spend more than $800 on Christmas gifts each year, with 30% of us spending more than $1,000, and six percent of us still paying off Christmas debt by next October.  Scrooge seems timely when he says, “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer… If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” Apparently, the more things change the more they stay the same. Scrooge could easily say the same of us today. And yet we know from Dickens’ story and Jesus’ parable that while overspending on ourselves is not good, not being generous to those in need around us is also bad.  We need to see things more clearly.  We need perspective.

Ebenezer didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be Scrooge.  He became the epitome of what his name has come to represent.  His response to the circumstances of his life slowly and surely shaped the lens through which he ended up seeing the world.  The visits of Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future all came to redeem Ebenezer’s vision of himself and the reality of the world in which he lived.  His hardened heart affected the way he saw everything.  The eventual Christmas morning which presents us with a born-again Scrooge required new ways of seeing his past, insight into his present day, and a vision for what his future could look like.

We see the world in large part because of how our eyes have been shaped by our responses to our experiences up to now.  We all have biases that move our hearts in certain directions more than others and also keep our hands and feet and wallets from helping more than we do.  This series has as its goal the redemption of our vision, the healing of our eyes, so that we might see more clearly the world in which we live and the people with whom we share the same breath.  That we will find redemption and healing of past wounds and present biases. That we will recognize our potential going forward to perpetuate great harm or propel humanity toward greater good.  The greatest hope is that we would all wake up renewed, refreshed, and reborn on Christmas Day to live fully and well not just for our own benefit and pleasure, but with generosity toward those who need help all around us.

We are generous toward certain causes because we have truly seen them.  When we truly see, we can genuinely care.  When we genuinely care, we are naturally generous.  Scrooge needed renewed eyes.  So do we.

Me Free 12: What Comes Around Must Go Around

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. – Step 12

"Simon, stay on your toes. Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me, like chaff from wheat. Simon, I've prayed for you in particular that you not give in or give out. When you have come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start." – Jesus, Luke 22:31-32 (The Message)

I am well named.  Technically, I was named after my grandfather, Pieter Smit.  I do carry some of his resemblance both in appearance and in passion.  But I think I’m more like the disciple Peter.  Unfortunately.   I think this is true because my journey has been one of ongoing sifting, learning the hard way – from failure, from putting my foot in my mouth, from hitting the wall time and time again, for getting in my own way.  This list goes on.  I wonder, is your name Peter, too?

Jesus changed Simon’s name early on to Peter.  Isn’t it interesting that in this scene, Jesus refers to his given name?  It’s a nod, I think, an allusion to the fact that what Peter is going to be going through will be akin to starting all over again, choosing to follow Jesus all over again.  What an incredible principle Luke gave us here.  The journey begins anew.  Jesus even brings Satan into the equation, essentially saying that the disciples will be experiencing some serious temptation – which they did.  Don’t get stuck on the Satan figure here – when we get overly caught up in this personification we can lose sight of the bigger picture of evil in our world.  We can be blindly giving in to some horrible ways of life and belief while we’re looking for the dude with the horns, tail, and pitchfork.  Evil lurks in systems all over the world in plain sight – how are you doing in the face of those temptations?  Power, Fame, Success, Prestige, Wealth – all of these temptations loom for us.

The bright side here is that Jesus said he prayed for his disciples that their faith wouldn’t fail them.  This tells us that we can have confidence in this faith thing not to give way.

Jesus finishes this little episode by instructing Peter to look to his companions and encourage them, giving them a fresh start.

In brief, Peter could expect a new cycle of learning to be a Jesus follower which would be challenging in a sifting kind of way yet would not be the end of him.  Once the struggle passes, he is told to help his brothers in their similar struggle.

Start over, and help others in their journey as you cross paths.

This is a tough pill to swallow, I think.  We’re also not wired to think this way.  Our culture is upward-oriented thinking.  To go backwards is a sign of failure.  Nobody wants to be demoted.  Sometimes people would rather move to a lousy new location and maintain their status than to weather the storm on their pride that a demotion might bring.  What do you think about this?  How do you feel about the notion of perpetually working the Twelve Steps throughout your life?  I bet some people are thinking “hamster wheel” – lots of effort to get to the exact same place you’re running from.  Who wants that?

Perhaps our perspective needs to change on this?  Parts of our lives may reel against anything but moving upward, but our natural lives actually have this built in whether we like it or not.  Aging is a thing, apparently.  Our bodies really do change with time.  When they change, we are forced to think in new ways – a form of starting over.  Relationships change.  The way we relate to our kids changes.  The way we relate to our spouse changes from the first few years to the later years.  It’s not necessarily better or worse, just different.  New.  Starting over.  This is just the normal reality of life.  Perhaps the sooner we get our brains around that, the more we can enjoy the ride, and the more helpful we will be with those we run into who need what we have.

As it turns out, part of our success working this spiritual transformation process is dependent on helping others wherever we can.  Do you know who learns the most in any given classroom?  Not the star pupil.  Not the least interested.  The teacher.  The teacher is the one who has to learn the material well enough to pass it on, and the teacher is the one who experiences the greatest depth of learning as they share it with someone else.  Our personal and spiritual health is dependent on our giving away what we know.

Have you ever met a spiritually constipated Christian?  They are no fun to be around, let me tell you.  I met one of these miserable persons a number of years ago.  He really wanted my help.  He felt dead spiritually.  He couldn’t understand why.  He was constantly reading the Bible, listening to Christian radio for music and 24/7 preaching.  He only watched wholesome TV shows.  And yet he felt so distant from God.  After thinking about it awhile, I let him know what I thought.  He was constipated (spiritually).  Lots coming in.  Nothing going out.  The thing he needed most was to practice all the stuff he knew was good, as the need arose right in front of his face.  But he couldn’t imagine such a thing – all the people around him were stupid jerks and fools, he said.  Hmmm.  Another sure sign of constipation.  You know I’m a doctor, right?  Nevermind what type, just roll with me here…  If you suffer from a stagnant faith, if you feel like you’re surrounded by a bunch of no-good heathens, and if you are able to identify a hundred things wrong with everyone around you from a hundred yards away, I’ve got troubling news for you.  You are likely spiritually constipated.  Your faith isn’t doing much for you, and it certainly isn’t doing much for anybody else.

A vital spiritual life requires our doing what we know to do.  Jesus noted this in one of his parables that he used to close his greatest sermon:

     "These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit [and wildfires and cancer diagnoses and mass shootings and divorce and pink slips and market crashes and drunk driving and…]—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.
"But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don't work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards." – Jesus, Matthew 7:24-27 (The Message)

Jesus’ brother, James (or his disciples), thought the same when he wrote:

     But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. – James 1:22-25

The Apostle Paul lived this reality of starting over and over and over and helping others in their journey.  He saw the real beauty in it:

     All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – Paul, 2 Corinthians 1:3-7

If you want to be successful in the program, start over, and over, and over.  By the time you are done you will be a different person with new challenges to mature through.  The fantastic news is that as you move through the steps, you will meet people who need what you know.  The more you give love away, the more you have.  You can’t lose.  As a CrossWalker recently shared a way to think about this that is more attractive to our Western sensibilities.  Starting the 12 steps over isn’t regression, she said. Completing the Twelve Steps is the first rung on a ladder.  The next Twelve Steps workout is the next run up.  I like that a lot – definitely works with my Enneagram #3 way of thinking.  Going through the steps again and again is an intentional act to become more mature, more self-aware, and more God-aware as well.  That’s all good.

Especially since we’re in Thanksgiving week, I encourage you to take time to reflect on how God (or your faith) has helped you in specific ways recently and also in your past.  Simply slowing down to think about these things will do some amazing things in your life.  First, you will realize that God has indeed been at work in your life, which is amazing.  This will build you into a more grateful and gracious person.  It will also keep the incredible power of God to change lives at the front of your mind, so that when the Spirit’s wind blows you and another into the same air space, you just might have opportunity to be just what they need at just the right time.  When that happens, it’s magic.  It’s God.  It’s vitality.  Constipation alleviated.  The frown gets turned upside down. 

May you dare to recognize where you’ve grown and give thanks to God for being with you.  May you hear the invitation to start over for even deeper life and love.  May you be open to serve knowing your experience may be just what someone needs.  May you give thanks again when you get to make a difference along the way.

 

*This teaching summary is part of a series that dovetails the deep spiritual components of Twelve Steps and the rich insights of the time-tested Enneagram.  Understanding your Enneagram Type can provide helpful insight into how you “do life”.  There are several free tests that will surely narrow things down for you, but the Enneagram Test from the Enneagram Institute by far offers the best assessment and provides the richest feedback (look for the RHETI test).  In addition, we will be drawing insight from two books as we follow Jesus through these steps.  You can get Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water (and its companion journal) and Christopher Heuertz’ The Sacred Enneagram online and in digital formats.  CrossWalk will have a limited supply of the books on hand.  In addition, you may find songs for different types helpful in understanding what you’re working with, as well as the story behind the creation of the songs at the Sleeping At Last podcast (search for “Sleeping at Last” on your podcast app).  Also, search for the “EnneApp” for your phone – a great on-the-go option for your mobile devices.  Also, look through 12Step.org for tons of helpful resources from the recovery community.