Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fish in Sea, Sea in Fish


Today I was overwhelmed for almost an hour by a thought. This happens to me quite a bit. Basically I was paralyzed in contemplative wonder at an idea so perfect and mysterious I was unable to do anything until the idea ran its course. 

My favorite band is called mewithoutYou, and they are my favorite band because the lead singer, Aaron Weiss, is one of the best writers I've ever read. His lyrics are challenging, creative, and directly in line with what God is showing me in my own life. mewithoutYou is a welcome companion to me on my journey. Today, I was listening to their song "The Dryness and the Rain" and one of the lines stopped me in my tracks.

"A fish swims in the sea while the sea is, in a certain sense, contained within the fish!"

What a mystery. The reason this struck me so completely is how it relates to one of the themes of the New Testament scriptures. Many times St. Paul refers to believers as "in Christ" and then other times, he and other writers will refer to "Christ in you." We are in Him and He is in us, just like the fish is in the sea and the sea in the fish. The believer doesn't just move through a world of visible and invisible obstacles, the believer moves through Christ. I move through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, while Christ resides inside of me working on me.

Not only that, but St. Paul also says, "to live IS Christ, to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose." (Phil. 1:21-22) Life is Christ, death is being wholly with Christ, we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. There's nothing else around worth paying any attention to once you realize what you already have. Like the poet Neruda said to his subject "My words become stained with your love/ you occupy everything, you occupy everything/ I am making them into an endless necklace/ for your white hands, smooth as grapes." That should be our prayer each day. Christ occupies everything, and our desire should simply be to live up to our already-attained status as "in Him," while we continue to investigate what that fully means. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Interior Exercise

"I'm going to throw up the next time down the field."

It had been a long time since I had played a full-speed game of ultimate frisbee. It's been a long time since I've played a full-speed game of anything. My workouts now include riding my bike, yoga, or maybe a jog, but those aren't the same as playing an actual sport. My cousin Charlie, my roommate John Adam "J. Barrelroll," and I went to the park by our apartment to throw a frisbee around. We do this quite a bit. When the weather is as nice as it was in Dallas last weekend, you have to take advantage of it. 

We threw a few times, mostly laughing at how difficult the windy day made any throw, and were talking about walking back when a guy approached us and wanted to know if we wanted in on a game of ultimate. He and his buddies play every week. They were wearing athletic clothes and cleats, we were wearing chaco sandals and khaki shorts. We agreed to play with these guys, knowing we would be the worst players on the field.

Within seconds I was winded. Around the third or fourth time down the field I knew I was going to have to play a "YMCA ball"-style game here: picking the moments to run full speed and then basically walking around the rest of the time, like old men playing hoops at a YMCA. 

Ascesis is a word used often in Christian history. It's a word that means self-denial, self-restraint, or the ability to deny your desires in order to better control your impulses. It comes from the Greek word for exercise. Spiritual disciplines are like physical exercise. You have to learn to control yourself so you are prepared for both the weight of trials and the joy of God's calling for your life. The ascetic is one who has exercised himself to the point he can handle what God has for him, and can resist what the world throws his way. In the same way I need to trim some physical fat from my midsection, I also need to trim spiritual fat. An early church father Evagrius of Pontus once wrote, "Spiritual fat is the obtuseness with which evil cloaks the intelligence." 

Ascesis isn't devotion to a set of rules. Instead, proper spiritual exercise sets us free to live and act as the Spirit guides us. Our spirit becomes lithe and we move through the world with supernatural fluidity. When you feel it, you know. Another early mystic, Benedict of Nursia once wrote, "For as you advance gradually in a holy life and in faith, your heart is enlarged and you run the way of God's commandments in an ineffable sweetness of love." 

The great basketball stars don't think about over-working themselves during games. They've gotten in good enough shape fatigue doesn't even factor into their thinking. Instead, the greats are able to play the game with complete freedom and control of their abilities. Lebron James seems to move at a different speed than everyone around him, making snap decisions and expressing himself through a nearly poetic playing-style. In the same way, spiritual exercise like the observance of Lent or fasts will trim spiritual fat and allow us to move freely through God's love. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

To Live and Love Lent

Right now we are in the first week of the season of Lent. These 40 days of fasting, contemplation, and self-denial are always the most formational days of the year for me. I already feel God working in this year's season and am expectant of great things. My church has allowed me to write a Lenten reflection for each day of the season, which you can see here. Fasting and prayer and supplication to God mark the life of a penitent, trusting believer, but there is another quality of the faithful man which I lack and hope to acquire over the next 40 days.

Mindfulness.

Living with a mind full of the moment in which I find myself. I have a hard time being completely present in any moment. Call it ADD, call it 2013, call it the curse of the post-modern American life, but I am a million places at once and can't focus long enough to hear God.

I am struck by the account of the burning bush. Moses didn't take off his sandals because the ground all-the-sudden became holy, he took them off because he just realized it had been holy all along. How many times did Moses walk pass the bush before he saw it burning?

How many burning bushes have I walked past?

St. Anthony found God in the desert. I've done that too. The most spiritually significant week of my life was probably a week I spent in the deserts of west Texas fasting and praying. I felt God all around me and became upset with myself for not feeling Him that way all the time. Too often, I busy myself and blow right past Him. It's funny how good it feels to have an experience with God and how quickly I forget it and move on to the next thing.

God is always with me. No fact is more assured through Scripture and personal experience. God doesn't promise to constantly give us gifts, but He does promise to give us Himself. In Lent we remove things from our life to better realize the amazing gift his presence is. As Dallas Willard says, "Our contentment lies not in his presents but in the presence of the One whose presents they are." Or, as Thomas a Kempis wrote, "A wise lover regards not so much the gift of him who loves, as the love of him who gives. He esteems affection rather than valuables, and sets all gifts below the Beloved. A noble-minded lover rests not in the gift, but in Me above every gift."

I wish I didn't have to starve myself or change my life to experience the God who never leaves me, but that seems to be the case. God is always around me, and I have to remove my own walls to see Him. Learning to love Lent is learning to love the constant assurance of Immanuel, God-with-us. It is to cast aside the false reality of this material world and set our eyes on Jesus, the savior and lover of the world. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Against Judgmental Christians

If you don't currently own "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" by Thomas Merton, you should. In fact, you should leave this page and immediately go to Amazon.com and buy it for yourself. I have read this book several times, and keep it around as a trusty companion. Merton was a modern mystic and his writings make him a sort of spiritual director for me as I seek to see what a mystic Christianity looks like in a world growing deeper and deeper into cynicism.

In one of his more convicting sections of this book, Merton poses the question as to how Christians can come to be so judgmental. This is the seminal question I have for modern Christianity as well, as it seems to be a constant complaint of non-believers. What is wrong with us? How is it possible for us to miss the point so horribly? Who are we, recipients of undeserved Grace, to call someone else a "sinner?"

In simpler terms, if a non-believer finds you judgmental, they are finding you unChristian. If you at any point think of yourself as better, more loved by God, or more worthy of eternal communion with the Creator, then you are lost.

You can't be convinced of Christ's sacrifice and free gift of a love you don't deserve if you act like you deserve it.

Grace is opposed to your judgement, it is against the idea we have of hierarchy of sin, and it transcends our theological nonsense about who is "in" or "out" of the Heaven we hope to escape to. Who is this grace for? Everyone. The worst offenders. The scum of the earth. The people we don't want to be friends with because they are "living in sin."

The one place all people are truly equal is at the bottom of an ocean of undeserved Grace.

Coming to understand Grace, the idea Jesus thought we were worth dying for even though we are decidedly not, is the hardest part of the Christian journey. Coming to understand everyone is equal to us in unworthiness--yet God loves all of us more than we can imagine, is the first step toward a complete and holistic understanding of our identity in Christ. We are all in need of reminding of the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, "Christ came to earth to save sinners, of whom I am foremost." At the same time, we must also remind ourselves of Christ's love for us, and his desire to call us brothers and sisters. The dichotomy of the Christian life is found right there. We are guilty of disrupting the Peace (shalom) God had planned for us and the world, yet God's love for us won't allow for that to be the last word. He makes a way for us to experience union with Christ, to be seen by God as in Christ, and to be with Him forever--starting right now.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Persistence

Few things excite me more than reading about the lives of the Saints. I find encouragement and challenge in their stories of working for God. I find reason to believe in the possibility of heaven on earth, of being a co-laborer with Christ, and of experiencing the work of God in everything I see.

However, when I read stories of St. Teresa of Avila getting completely enraptured by the love of Jesus that she would write on the ground in an ecstatic fit, I get uncomfortable. Or when I read about her praying in front of people and just floating off the ground like David Blaine in Church, I begin to feel inadequate. I've walked closely with Jesus at times. Sometimes, I feel Him next to me in a way I can't describe without sounding a little kooky. I know what it's like to feel like Christ's breath is blowing on the back of my neck or His arms are literally wrapped around me.

But I ain't levitating in church, y'all.

St. Teresa challenges me and I have a tendency to get cynical when I read stories about her, but more and more I am struck by her humility. She could have been extremely removed from society, become a hermit, or become uninterested in this world. Instead, she chose to work for reform in her monastic order and bring more people into her way of looking at God. She would write about how to pray, instructing her followers on ways to pursue an experience of Christ's love. She also would go into great detail about her own shortcomings even to the point of saying she found it hard to find any virtue in herself at all. She found spiritual progress to be laborious and painful. It didn't come easy.

I can identify with that.

A woman who would levitate under the power of the Holy Spirit found spiritual progress difficult. No matter how far we progress in sanctification, we can always use reminders of the struggle inherent in following Jesus. The language used in Scripture isn't lollipops and roses. Not every day is going to be Friday. We are told to die to self, to take up our cross (an instrument of torture and death), to forsake the world in order to gain the eternal. If our eternal life begins the day we are born, and I believe wholeheartedly it does, we are given countless opportunities to feel glimpses of glory while still in skin. In order to attain the holistic experience of Grace I seek, I have to be persistent. I have to work. Not to earn love, because love is given freely and undeservedly, but to experience heaven. We have to be persistent and labor in order to experience something that is there for us all the time, waiting for us to strip away laws and rules and religious ideas in order to grab hold of it.

The work we must do is like building a fire. We don't do anything to make the fire burn the wood, but we must make a place where the fire is welcome to do what it does. Getting our hearts to a place where fire can burn us from the inside out is labor-intensive, but instead of building something it usually requires us to clear space.



Friday, February 1, 2013

Growing Tired of Cynicism

This morning in the USA Today, a full page advertisement simply read "Slavery Still Exists" and had a short description about how many people in our modern, progressive world are still enslaved. At the bottom of the page was a link to www.enditmovement.com, where more information can be found concerning the plight of modern slaves. I first heard of this movement a few months ago and then it got a lot of traction at the annual Passion conference when it was announced to thousands of young evangelicals all wanting to do their part to make a difference.

I'm excited about the idea we might be the generation to finally put an end to the Sex-trade, to finally complete the work of emancipation that started hundreds of years ago. In 960, the Doge of Venice Pietro IV Candiano was the first Christian leader to abolish slavery legally. Since then we have been a people marked, for better or worse, by the way we respond to this call to set the captives free. In the United States, there was a time it was perfectly normal to think of slavery as a biblically justified practice, but we have fortunately progressed past those days and hopefully are standing on the threshold of a new collective consciousness of equality for all people.

A new problem has become apparent to me. It's a problem I see in myself and many of my peers. When I first heard about the End It movement, my initial reaction wasn't excitement, it was cynicism. "Oh, cool a movement," I thought, "let's see how long we're excited about this."

Cynicism is the worst enemy of Christian action. It seems harmless as we tweet derisive comments or make fun of someone for taking a chance or making a stand, but really we are just acting from a place of insecurity. We act like we know everything and anyone acting different from us--braver than us--is just some sort of weirdo. I'm the worst offender of this. I make fun of Christians in my head or out loud on a daily basis. I run down their ministries or think I have some better answer for how to do church when in actuality I'm just scared I'm not as brave as them.

Cynicism is pain disguised in fabricated wisdom or humor. We want to look like we have the answers so we make snarky comments about weirdos or anyone who doesn't fit into what we think is cool or acceptable behavior. When someone tells us about a "miracle" in their lives, we are quick to want to qualify the word "miracle" instead of rejoicing that to this person, Jesus' resurrection is still a daily reality.

The End It movement is a force for good in the world and cynicism is not. As I press on to understand more of how to live the mystical union I know Christianity to be, I have to put my cynicism to death. I have to completely surrender to the excitement of the new things God is doing in the world and I have to rejoice in daily miracles. Seeing God in everything is easy, but you have to be looking for Him.

About Drew

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A follower of Jesus, trying to build myself and others up from the inside out.