Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Perfection Trap
One of the most persistent challenges in my life is reconciling the things that I can do with the things that I can’t do. I feel very fortunate and very blessed with the various abilities that God has given and nurtured within me. In any given day, I could accomplish a lot of things in many areas of my life. The shadow side of this ability is the expectation that grows within me that I ought to be able to, in turn, fix everything that goes wrong in my life. This is an insidious growth…it begins slowly and imperceptibly until one day I realize that I’m living with the expectation and feeling of entitlement that I ought to be able to fix everything that goes wrong in my life and my world. I feel as though I ought to be able to quickly and effectively troubleshoot anything (and by extension, anyone) operating outside of factory specifications. When it is proven that I am unable to accomplish these fixes, I get stressed, I get angry and I find myself seeking to exercise greater control over other areas of my life both to keep other things from falling apart and to prove, if only to myself, that I’m not a hopeless failure. I know…that all sounds pretty pathological…but as I learn more about this blind spot in my life and listen to others share similar struggles I am convinced that there are many of us in the world who labor in the shadow of this image of personal perfection.
So here is what I’ve learned: I can’t fix everything that goes wrong in my life, in my ministry, with my own father or with a Little League umpire. The question I’m learning to wrestle with is “how can I learn to be faithful to my calling in Christ when there is challenge and adversity in my life?” I have to come to terms with what faithfulness requires of me in these myriad situations. To talk about faithfulness rather than "fixing" in these situations takes me out of the realm of evaluating my actions and attitudes based on the world’s standards of success and failure. Whether or not my efforts to bring change, growth, healing, etc into any or all of these situations are “successful” are not what is at issue. What good would it be for me to “win”, to be successful in these situations if it came at the cost of my soul? What would be the consequences to my soul if winning brought spiritual death through acting in ways that are in opposition to the Gospel and my calling in Christ?
The human condition is to strive, to achieve and to get ahead. This is how we are wired. However, this becomes damaging to us when the drive to get ahead becomes the be all and end all of our existence. One of the things that feeds that drive is a fear of loss, rejection and emptiness. We are averse to these feelings of emptiness and loss, for the most part, because we equate them with absence. However, Easter teaches us that death and emptiness are not signs of absence; rather they are pregnant with possibilities for new life, new growth and new hope. The emptiness of the tomb that the women encountered on Easter morning led them to fear. They saw only the loss of the body of their crucified Lord. Instead the emptiness of that tomb was not loss; instead it was the first sign of the resurrection. It became the tangible anticipation of a new hope. In the emptiness of the tomb God is present and already at work.
This becomes a source of inspiration for us as we face loss, illness, death, experiences of failure or whatever emptiness is born out of the experiences of our life. We need not fear the emptiness. We need not become consumed with the unhealthy and unholy efforts to control or fix everything that is wrong in our life. We can’t fix everything. We can’t cause the sun to shine through the night. Instead we are called to labor through the darkness and emptiness in anticipation of what new life God will reveal when the sun breaks through the darkness and a new day begins. This labor is a work of worship and prayer. It is a work of silence and hope. It is the expectant waiting, trusting that God does not abandon us to the darkness.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Fresh Perspective
I discovered something pretty amazing this week. I had a friend turn me on to Google Earth. This is an amazing computer program that makes use of satellite coverage to get a bird’s eye overview of most of the planet. In the few hours that I’ve had it I’ve toured the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, June Lake, CA, Joshua Tree National Park, Oahu, Maui, my friend’s house in Massachusetts and my own neighborhood. It allows views from more than 100 miles above the earth to just a few hundred feet. So much more can be seen from the bird’s eye view. It is easier to see the spatial relationships between landmarks, buildings and other features. Another feature of the software is the ability to tilt the angle and rotate around a fixed point. This allows for three dimensional renderings of a variety of areas on the map (I recommend the Grand Canyon 3D tour).
Would it surprise you to realize that this has led me to think a lot about perspective today? It is phenomenally easy to become locked into a narrow perspective of thought and action. With all of the things in the world around us, that push in on us, compete for our time and precious resources of spirit, energy and money; sometimes, the only thing we can do is put our head down, focus on the path and keep pushing forward. Sometimes we feel that if we don’t keep moving we might get stuck, lost and/or mired in a rut.
I’m learning that as part of my spiritual discipline I need to rise above the daily grind and look at all the pieces of my life and ministry again. The spiritual life is often like the constantly morphing jigsaw puzzle. As things change the contours of life and faith are continually transformed by grace. Just because all the pieces fit together once doesn’t mean they will always fit together the same way. Some of the pieces of our life grow continually and other pieces no longer fit at all. It is only when we take the opportunity to rise above the daily push that we gain the needed perspective to see if we are who and where we are.
This perspective is clearest when we keep our examination rooted in prayer. It is the Spirit who witnesses to us the truth about God and our self. It is also the Spirit who will witness to us the image and vision of who God has created us to be. That vision and calling will be rooted in the images of God’s continuing reign of love, mercy, justice and reconciliation. We will see our life as God sees it and as God hopes for us. In this image there will be grace and strength, power and promise to live into that vision. What’s more we know that as our life continues to be transformed in grace, the pieces of our life will continue to fit together. On the other hand, if the examination of our life is rooted in the world rather than the Spirit we will find that we are examining ourselves according to the world’s standards. We will be mired in the world’s standards of success. We will be trapped by the world’s standards of life and wealth. The world’s standards are at odds with God’s standards. To examine our life according the world’s standards rather than the Spirit’s grace we will be rendered a hollow shell, perhaps beautiful on the outside, but empty on the inside.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Taking a Step Back to Reflect
Lifting up the faith of Abraham is a common preaching theme in the church. I suspect it has been from the time that Paul used Abraham’s faith as a teaching tool in his letters. I’ve always marveled in the Abraham story. Who wouldn’t; after all there is something compelling about the story of a person advancing in years, picking up and moving to a foreign land at the request of a voice (or a God) that he had not previously known, with only a promise (whose fulfillment was suspect from the start given the nature of biology and the world) to hold on to. What an incredible story this is. The promise of God’s ongoing presence with Abraham and Sarah grows and blossoms over 25 years. As their faith grows, God reveals more and more of the nature of their covenantal relationship and pieces come more and more into place. However, the pinnacle of the promise is yet to be fulfilled. The son promised to them is not yet born. Then, as if to leave no mistake as to where the child comes from, when it seems that train has forever left the station, the son Isaac is born. Abraham and Sarah remained faithful, though not perfectly faithful they always came back to the path and the promises that guided them for so many years was fulfilled. Their faith was vindicated. As powerful a story as this is, I never really understood it as my story.
That changed this week. The Abraham story is my story…In fact; I truly believe that it is our story. I’m convinced now that Paul recognized Abraham’s faith not that it is a paragon of faith, the pinnacle of what we seek to achieve, but it is where we all begin with God. When I first began to wrestle with my call to ordination I didn’t trust it. Twice in 5 months I had recognized that God was trying to get my attention and even could have been calling me to ordination and yet each of these experiences came from very deep emotional events. At the moment, the emotion cluttered my discernment and I determined that God wasn’t calling me. About six weeks after the second call, I heard the sound of God’s voice in no uncertain terms. In that moment it was as if all of my previous life plans had never really existed. It wasn’t a thunder and lightning experience but it was nonetheless crystal clear. At that moment I could only say “yes” and I made a prayer of faith. God I know you won’t lead me astray…I trust you. What was striking was that there was nothing about my previous faith and understanding that provided what you might call a “rational basis” for answering that call. I knew God. I was growing in my faith in Christ. But those faith relationships were superficial at best. There was nothing in my relationship that would have made it rational or logical for me to turn away from my plans and my path and to follow what God had for me. And yet, that is exactly what I did. And now, twenty four years later I have no doubt that I made the right and faithful choice. Moreover, I have no regrets. Abraham’s story is my story.
Abraham’s story is our story, too. When God calls us to serve in different ways in God’s Kingdom what it takes to answer the call is not perfect faith. God does not expect perfect understanding (i.e. a graduate degree in theology). What God asks of us is the willing to trust. We have the extraordinary opportunity to step out in faith and trust not knowing where our next step will lead us, but being confident enough to know that wherever our foot lands, God will be there.