Monuments of Ash – A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

Thinker5B15D In the Old Testament, ashes represented repentance – a realization that we are nothing apart from God but dust and ash. On Ash Wednesday we recognize our own mortality with the sobering phrases, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – from dust we came, to dust we shall return.” It seems so simple, so symbolic.

 But just like everything else in our culture, even ashes have moved from something to be sober about to something to celebrate. As more and more people choose cremation as their mortuary option, some people have jumped on the trend and offered a way for you and your loved ones to put your ashes to good use.

 A typical human cremation yields an amount of ash that’s equivalent to a five-pound bag of sugar. Most people just keep them in an urn or scatter them, but now it’s possible to actually turn at least some of those ashes into a stunning work of art for all posterity to see.

  I cut an interesting article from the Salt Lake Tribune awhile back about a company called “Eternal Arts.” For a mere $3-400, two cups of your cremains can be made into a classic sculpture. Imagine your ashes worked into a replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, or Michelangelo’s “Pieta”. Perhaps your tastes run in the more popular realm – perhaps you’d like to become the Statue of Liberty, or a bust of Napoleon or Alexander the Great. Of course, you can go high end as well – having your ashes worked into a 20-inch statue of Jesus, for example, will run you about $800 and if you want a custom bust made of your face that’ll cost a whole lot more – but it’s possible.

 There’s another company called LifeGem that goes even a step further – taking the carbon from human ashes and turning them into man-made diamonds! Imagine yourself as jewelry! And think of the implications – you get engaged, give your bride a diamond ring – imagine saying not, “This was my grandmother’s but “IT’S MY GRANDMOTHER!”

 It could be a new fashion trend – creepy chic.

 Sure, this kind of stuff would be hard for most of us to consider. But it does raise an interesting question: What do you want to become…eventually?

 That’s a great question for Lent. It’s a shame to think that our lives could simply be boiled down to become a monument of ash…a conversation piece, a ring, a cheesy statue on the mantle. God is calling us to be a whole lot more.

 At some point, the Bible reminds us, we’re all reduced to ash. Death is a reality. But Lent reminds us that it’s not a permanent reality. As we go through these forty days we’re reminded that God has broken into our ash-heap of a world and offered new life – resurrection, a fresh start.

 God’s not interested in our monuments of ash, our tributes to our own accomplishments or (bad) tastes. Rather, God is interested in the person we’re becoming, both now and in the future. In Christ, God has broken into the world and given us a reason to hope beyond hope, to see even death as a means to life. What we do now, who we are now, matters in an eternal context. To borrow a phrase from Russell Crowe’s character in “Gladiator” – “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.” That’s a realization that lives can be lived way beyond this dusty, dirty reality.

 The good news of Lent is that God wants to remold and remake us in HIS image, not our own. The disciplines of prayer and fasting, the sacraments, worship, and study are all means of allowing our ashen selves to be made into something way better than even a diamond – we can become God’s own, masterfully created in his perfect image – the image of Christ. That’s a transformation that is both free and priceless at the same time!

 “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember, but don’t plan on staying that way! That’s the joy of Lent and the promise of Easter.

 Source: Nailen, Dan. “Cremains ‘live on’ in many forms.” The Salt Lake Tribune, October 24, 2003, p. A.1.

 

 

Sabbath: “Where Earthly Things Assume Their True Size”

RestIs We wrap up our sermon series “Ordering Your Private World” today with perhaps the most important of the five principles we’ve been exploring. The other four: examining our motivation, taking control of our time, and renewing our minds and developing spiritual strength all are the real results of engaging the fifth discipline: Sabbath rest and renewal.

Sabbath, of course, was one of the first creations of God, who spent six days laboring to create the world and then ordained a seventh day to be fully set aside for rest. We read earlier that keeping the Sabbath was one of the original ten commandments given to Moses and the Israelites by God. It’s also probably the one commandment that is most broken. We’re a culture of driven people whose schedules are out of control, leaving us with the feeling that we have no time for things like reading and renewing our minds or developing spiritual disciplines. The cycle of busyness takes us to the very brink of burnout and exhaustion on the one hand and depression on the other.

Somehow we have forgotten that we weren’t made to be this way. God gave himself a break after creation—teaching us that we ought to do the same.

Some of you have told me that you’ve been able to get a copy of Gordon MacDonald’s book “Ordering Your Private World” and I borrow heavily from that book today because MacDonald has been speaking right to where I live on the issue of Sabbath. Truth be told, I’m a chronic Sabbath-breaker, which seems a bit inconsistent with the fact that the Sabbath is the day that my week always moves toward. Preachers can be the worst offenders.

It’s like the little boy who was reading in the bulletin that the pastor was going on vacation. "Mommy," said the little boy. "Why does the pastor get a month's vacation in the summer when Daddy only gets three weeks?" "Well, son," answered Mommy, "if he's a good minister, he needs it. If he isn't, the congregation needs it!"

Truth is that we all need the Sabbath, but the reality is that we don’t know how to observe it in a way that is not simply another activity to which we feel obligated.

 The recent movie Amazing Grace looked at the life of William Wilberforce, who was a member of the English Parliament at the turn of the 19th century. Wilberforce was instrumental in leading England to abolish the practice of slavery throughout the Empire,  which testifies to his own spiritual strength and moral courage. It all could have been derailed, however, if Wilberforce hadn’t been a regular practitioner of Sabbath.

In 1801, some years before the anti-slavery measure was passed, Wilberforce’s political party came into power and the new prime minister was forming a cabinet. It was a critical time in England’s history—Napoleon was raging across Europe and the key issue was peace. Wilberforce was rumored to be among the candidates the prime minister was seeking for an important post and Wilberforce was anxious to have it. MacDonald quotes one of Wilberforce’s biographers at this point:

“It did not take long for Wilberforce to become preoccupied with the possibility of the appointment. For days it grabbed at his conscious mind, forcing aside everything else. By his own admission, he had ‘risings of ambition’ and it was crippling his soul.”

But Wilberforce, being a devout Christian, kept the Sabbath as a weekly routine. Wilberforce’s journal during this time reveals the power of that discipline. As his biographer, Garth Lean, said, “Sunday brought the cure” to Wilberforce’s tortured ambition. In his journal, the politician wrote:

“Blessed be to God for the day of rest and religious occupation wherein earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted.”

 When we take a Sabbath, “earthly things assume their true size.”

 Jesus certainly understood this. If anyone had the opportunity to ascend to the heights of earthly glory it was him. Often the crowds pressed in on him, wanting him to be the popular Messiah who would change their world according to their expectations. It was usually at that point, though, that Jesus would retreat into the wilderness—getting away to get perspective. For Jesus, Sabbath wasn’t just the prescribed day of rest but a way of life—taking time to rest with a purpose. His words in Matthew, then, do not come from a sense of exhaustion but of deep purpose.

 Because Jesus himself was well-rested in body and spirit, he was able to say “Come to me, all you who are burdened and I will give you rest.”

 Perhaps even more, Jesus would show people how to rest! For Jesus, Sabbath was about setting aside intentional time to order his private world. Only after he had done that could he engage others. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t choose to rest after the work was completed—but before it could be done. 

What does Sabbath rest really look like? Most people put Sunday in the category of “weekend” which is usually crammed with activity. Even if you have Sunday off, many people try to cram as much “leisure” in as possible trying to get in as much recreation as possible before heading back to work on Monday. For those in ministry, Sunday is a big workday. The truth is that we’ve all kind of bought into that Protestant work ethic that keeps us from recognizing the need for real rest and renewal. Perhaps you subscribe to the maxim that was popularized in a book title a few years ago. Remember the title? When I Relax I Feel Guilty.

Sabbath is not so much about relaxation, though, as it is about renewal. I like how MacDonald defines it in his book—that Sabbath has three very distinct purposes:

1. Closing the Loop

After God finished the six days of creation, God took the seventh day off and looked back on his work, calling it good. God gave his work meaning and acknowledged its completion.

 High tech people often talk about “closing the loop” on a project, meaning that the circuits have all been closed up, the project completed, and every person informed. In a real sense, the Sabbath day was the day God “closed the loop” on creation, which enabled God (and us) to look back on the work. Sabbath in this sense was a time of reflection, celebration, and completion.

 God ordered the Sabbath for humans so that they might do the same. Sabbath rest enables us to look back on our week and interpret our labors, to give some meaning to them, and dedicate that work to the God who created us and our abilities. Sabbath, then, is a time to ask questions: What does my work mean? For whom did I do this work? How well was the work done? Why do I do this?

 Surveys consistently show that the number one question people ask is, “What is the meaning of my life?” Regular Sabbath rest gives us the opportunity to ponder that question intentionally. Says MacDonald, “A restless work style produces a restless person. Work that goes on month after month without a genuine pause to inquire of its meaning and purpose may swell the bank account and enhance the professional reputation. But it will drain the private world of vitality and joy. How important it is to close loops on our activity.”

 Sabbath, in other words, gives us permission to be “done.” Finished. In a world where there’s always something more to do, being done seems a bit foreign. But God gives us permission, indeed commands us, to be “done” for awhile. If we close the loop on our work week, we can better face the new demands that are surely waiting for us on Monday.

 2. Returning to Eternal Truths

Remember Wilberforce’s words: Sabbath is where “earthly things assume their true size.” Every day we are pushed and pulled by temporal demands on our time and energy. Everybody seems to want something from us. We are asked to make a thousand decisions a day. Sabbath asks, “By what standard of truth do we make those decisions?” God commanded his people to set aside a day dedicated to reorienting themselves to that question. Sabbath was to be a recalibration of the spirit.

 We had a deck on the back of our house in Colorado Springs which was the only shady part of the house. It was an old deck but we enjoyed being out on it in the summer. Every summer, though, I would go through a ritual of taking a hammer and repounding all the nails that had worked loose as the wood expanded and contracted in the weather. Once I did that, everything was snug and good again.

 MacDonald says that this “repounding” is what happens in our lives when we engage in worshipping God. Our spirits and our thought processes tend to get worked loose by the extreme forces around us every day. Sabbath helps us to become solid again, focusing on the truths of God in scripture, worship, and fellowship with others in a community of faith. When we gather together to pray, to say the creeds, to sing songs of the faith and hear God’s Word preached and read we are hammering back the nails of our convictions and commitments.

 There are a lot of people who say to me that they don’t need to be in worship on Sunday because they can worship God anywhere. That may be true, but carpentry of this nature is a lot more solid when you have help! The Book of Proverbs uses a similar building metaphor to hammer this point home: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (27:17) Worshipping together sharpens our focus on God as we sharpen each other.

 3. Defining our Mission

Military leaders are taught a simple maxim very early on in their training which sets the order of priority in everything. That priority is Mission, Men, Myself. Knowing the mission was always first, caring for your people second, and taking care of yourself third. Every soldier needed to know the mission by heart, so it was always the first priority. As a drill, I used to ask my troopers “What is your mission” when we were preparing to go to the field. Everything we would be doing was based on that simple sentence. Failure to understand the mission meant failure in general.

 Sabbath asks us that question, too. What is our mission in life? Indeed, what is my mission today? Do you know your purpose? Have you prepared yourself to accomplish the mission you’ve been given?

 I like the story I heard once about a monk who was heading into a walled city when he was confronted by a guard at the gate. “Who are you and why are you here?” confronted the guard. The monk said to him, “If I could, I would pay you to ask me those questions every day!”

 Jesus clearly took time every day to evaluate his mission. He withdrew to seek times of solitude and reflection on his mission. These were times of rest, but not the rest of sleep (like the disciples). Indeed, Jesus’ own rest was a form of preparation for engaging the next phase of his mission. It’s no wonder that he met every new challenge with fresh wisdom, courage, and energy. Jesus knew who he was and why he was here and he knew this because he was always rested and ready.

 In this sense, Sabbath isn’t optional for us. Without it, we are prone to live lives that are strained, directionless, and disordered.

How does one begin to practice Sabbath? Well, it doesn’t happen by accident. God calls us to set aside a day where we cease the routine of our labor and intentionally work on reordering our lives. Sunday is a great day for this—beginning with the rhythm of worship at the start of the day. What would happen if this afternoon instead of hurrying out to some activity you spent a few hours reflecting on the past week, “closing the loop” on it? What would happen if you spent some time “repounding the nails” of your spiritual life and pondering your mission as you prepare for a new week? Sure, you may want to work a nap in there, too…but Sabbath is way more than a simple “day off.” Use that time to really work on your private world. If God did it, and Jesus did it, it means we probably should, too, don’t you think?

 But Sunday is not the only opportunity for Sabbath. There are times each day where we can partake of a mini-Sabbath—even a few minutes to let our souls catch up with our bodies and check in. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning before you start the day. Maybe it’s just before bedtime when you have a chance to “close the loop” on the day. Maybe you take a lunch break by yourself and do a little reading and reflecting. Whatever it is for you, taking a Sabbath is not optional if you want your private world to be ordered and at peace.

 If you’re facing some serious challenges in your life right now, you don’t need another piece of advice. You need a Sabbath—a place and time where “earthly things assume their true size.” Don’t wait for the “right time.” There’s no better time than the present. 

 

Developing Spiritual Strength

02.suzy-favor-hamilton We've been looking in this sermon series at how we might better order our private world. We've looked first at motivation–being called vs. being driven, then at the use of time. Last week we explored how we might develop and renew our minds to think differently and think theologically. This week, we look at how we can develop spiritual strength–how we might train our spiritual lives for the marathon of life.

 The passage we focus on this morning is Paul's Letter to the Corinthians and knowing the background helps us here. Corinth, of course, was a cosmopolitan city in the ancient world, sitting on an Isthmus through which much of the commerce of the Roman empire passed. Corinth was also famous for holding the Isthmian Games–like the Olympics. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul used metaphors from the games to talk about how he had developed spiritual strength and endurance and to encourage them to do the same. Paul used this metaphor in several of his letters, including 2 Timothy, where Paul says that all those who run well, all those who “exercise self-control,” all those who “do not run aimlessly,” all those who discipline their bodies and become master of them — will be given the laurel wreath, the prize, the glory! Everyone has an opportunity to gain what Paul describes at the end of his life as a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8). It’s a crown, or a prize, that God will give him, he says, because he has “fought the good fight, … finished the race, … [and] kept the faith” (4:7).

 He also says that his is a prize that the Lord will give him not only, but “all who have longed for his appearing” (4:8) (emphasis added).

 To the Corinthians, he argues, however, that winning is going to take a lot more than “long[ing] for his appearing.”

 To be a winner, he says, you need to train and run with determination. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” he notes (1 Corinthians 9:25, NIV).

You all have a chance to win, but not all of you will.

Oh, you’ll get to the Big Show, you’re already entered in the race. No question there. But will your life, your race, be about anything else?

Here, then, is Paul’s message: It matters how you live your life! It matters how you run the race! It matters how you prepare and train and conduct yourself.

You can’t just get to the event and congratulate yourself for showing up. The hard part is just beginning. In fact, the apostle points to four factors that can influence the race of our lives–four avenues toward building spiritual strength.

The first is self-control. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things” (9:25). A winner is someone who is able to control the self. She or he holds the reins and can think clearly when under stress or temptation.

If self-control is important in sports, it's even more important in our private world. The self does our bidding, and not vice versa. It’s an important concept: Peter mentions it in a list of virtues (2 Peter 1:5ff). Paul includes it in his list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians (5:23).

Someone with control of self is able to say “No” to the self. That person is able to eat one potato chip, is able to complete a task although tired and bored, is able to observe social, moral and ethical boundaries in the commerce of life, is able to delay or defer or even deny gratification. A person who has self-control is a person who is going to go a long way down the track.

Self-control also means being able to do the right thing at the right moment, when the pressure is on. When an athlete performs well at a critical moment, we call them a “clutch” player. Clutch players are able to slow the game down, think through their options, and calmly execute.

When I was growing up, my hero was Roberto Clemente, the hall of fame right fielder for the Pirates. Clemente was one of the best clutch players in baseball history, always giving the timely hit or making the impossible throw. I so wanted to be like him. I used to put on my Roberto Clemente batting helmet and pick up my bat with “21” on the knob and stand out in the back yard with the transistor radio on, imitating everything he did. I had the batting stance down! I wanted to be the one up to bat with two outs, a 3-2 count, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, behind by a run and, like Roberto, make that key hit.

 But what was most interesting about Clemente was that his clutch performances extended off the field, too. He was a person who would do the right thing when it needed done, like ferrying supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua—which cost him his life in a plane crash. Clutch players, people who exercise self-control, do the right thing no matter what it costs.

 How does one achieve self-control? The first step in that is thinking outside of ourselves. Spiritually speaking, one of the best ways we can work out of a self-centered way of thinking is to engage in prayer.

Prayer turns our focus to God and opens us to listening to God. That's what prayer really is. Many people are uncomfortable with prayer because it seems a bit unnatural, but maybe even more because prayer forces us to admit where we're weak. Athletes try to turn their liabilities into strengths and that's what prayer does for us.

 I've never had much success with prayer as an "activity." You know, fold your hands, bow your head, close your eyes…that's just not where A church member once quoted to me an old African proverb that says, "If you really want to pray, move your feet." To me, that means prayer is more a way of life than an activity. I pray best when I'm walking or when I'm reading because I tend to access my spirituality through my mind. Others might find themselves feeling better by being in a quiet place or focusing on a list of people and concerns. Prayer is really about intentionally putting ourselves in the presence of God–however that works for each of us.

 I think we all need some instruction in how to pray. Jesus' disciples asked him to teach them how to do it, so we should, too. That's a whole sermon series in and of itself! I've read several books over the last few years that address the issue of prayer. If you're wrestling with how to pray, like I have, then I'd invite you to check one of these out (I'll list them on the blog) or give me a call and we'll work on it together. Or, better yet, find a friend or mentor who has a dynamic prayer life and pick their brain (and spirit) for awhile. There's no better teacher than a good role model!

 One of the other ways to achieve self-control, though, involves others. We all need accountability to someone else–people who we can trust and with whom we can share our struggles. I'm very fortunate to have a great spouse with whom I can be fully transparent, as well as a couple of great friends who I can always count on to hear my deepest thoughts and put them in perspective. Knowing that I'm accountable to them helps me keep my head about me when temptation or frustration rear their ugly heads.

A second aspect of building spiritual strength, according to Paul, is a sense of purpose. “So I do not run aimlessly” (9:26). Paul’s saying here that we’ve got to be in it to win it. Without purpose, you’re not going to get very far, or if you do go far, you’ll arrive and not know where you are.

Eighty-seven percent of Americans own running shoes but don’t run. Why? They may lack self-control, but more likely, they have no sense of purpose. They have intentions, but not purpose. There is no agenda, no plan, no vision, no strategy.

So the shoes sit there. Gather dust. We sit there. We gather rust. We lose. You can’t win a marathon by continually stuffing twinkies in your face.

It’s more than just showing up. Like I once heard it said, “Sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” You have to work at it!

Then, there’s the matter of efficiency, choosing your battles. “Nor do I box as though beating the air” (9:26). Boxer Muhammed Ali was a master of getting his opponents to wear themselves out by punching wildly or punching harmlessly. It was the so-called “Rope-a-Dope” strategy. Ali would get backed up into the ropes and let his opponents flail away. After they had done this for six or seven rounds, they tired, and Ali, relatively fresh, was more often than not able to deliver a knockout blow.

Christians in training are not about knockout blows, but they do understand the importance of conserving their energies for the things that really matter in life. They understand that one can get really, really tired of doing stupid stuff that doesn’t matter. Smart Christians invest their training and their efforts in things that build them up and make them stronger.

 Finally, there’s discipline. “I punish my body and enslave it” (9:27). Here, Paul notes the pain that can be involved for those who aspire to win. It’s not to promote a sort of muscular Christianity, but instead to note that being faithful to your faith, being true to the course you’ve chosen, sometimes is going to be very painful.

Discipline is hard. We'd much rather give in to those things that make us feel good but that aren't necessarily good for us. Discipline means we have to be willing to make hard decisions that cost us something. Positions may be taken that will invite confusion and misunderstanding. Decisions will be made that may incite reaction and dismay.

But in that pain you stay the course and you stay on the course.

And don’t think that the race is ever over. It’s not and it won’t be until the last day when Christ appears.

Theologically, what we’re talking about here is the Wesleyan idea of Christian perfection…a goal to work toward. Perfection in this sense means maturity, completeness, wholeness. John Wesley believed that this was the goal of the Christian life…not simply getting to heaven. We strive to be more Christ-like, to live in God’s grace, to grow deeper in our relationship with God. That’s a life-long pursuit. You never graduate from Sunday School, in other words…no certificate to signify that you’ve completed the course. It’s about daily training and growing toward the image of God.

Following Christ isn’t easy and the stakes are much higher. It takes training, it takes effort, it takes perseverance and commitment. Church rolls are filled with the names of people who have fallen by the wayside…lost their will, didn’t stay in spiritual shape, simply quit. If we’re going to follow Christ, we have to be prepared to do it for the long haul.

 Even Paul said that he did not consider himself to have finished the race (Philippians 3). So, let’s be careful to avoid celebrating too early with our tasks unfinished and our goals unmet.

 Just remember Olympic runner, Suzy Hamilton.

 On February 6, 1994, Hamilton competed in the Mobil Invitational track meet in Virginia. Here’s a description of what happened : “Runners needed to complete eight laps to win the mile. That concept eluded Hamilton, who sprinted past the competition at the end of lap seven, then stunned the crowd by doing a Deion Sanders-style victory jig. That every other runner was still doing Mach 3 as they burned by alerted Hamilton that something was wrong. But, by then, she was three time zones behind and didn’t even bother to rejoin the race.”

 You have to finish well, and run the whole distance.

 My prayer is that our church can be a place where people are training and getting energized to live lives worthy of Christ. That we don’t simply rest on our laurels, quit early, or burn out too fast. That we are not a church of “wanna-be” Christians, but diligent followers of Christ who are willing to pay a personal price in order to be Christ’s partners in changing the world.

 The immediate awards are few…the eternal ones significant.

My mom was the one who really taught me about spiritual strength. Mom was not a runner by any stretch of the imagination, but she was certainly in training her whole life. My earliest memories of my mom are of her studying her Bible at the kitchen table–a really big parallel Bible. I saw her praying often and knew that she prayed for our family and others. She never missed worship and made sure we were there, instilling in me a sense of the importance of being in God's presence. Even after she passed away, I still went to church every week because it had become a habit, a discipline.

 I think that one of the greatest ways we develop spiritual strength is by watching and imitating others who have it. For me it was my mom and, later, others who I've admired for their character, their devotion, and their faithfulness to God. Many people here use a personal trainer when it comes to their physical workouts, but the truth is that we need spiritual trainers as well.How would you evaluate your own spiritual strength? What kind of program of growth would be helpful to you?

How will you develop the disciplines necessary to really "go on to perfection?" These are the questions that can really help order our private worlds.

 

Kairos Moments

Camera 024 A couple of weeks ago, I invited members of the congregation to share with me some of the stories of their encounters with God in unexpected moments. Sandy Ice submitted the beautiful picture of a sunset, and Michelle Fariss sent me this story: 

Because my family has always spent a lot of time out in the woods, I have long ago made a habit of marveling at the beauty with which God has surrounded us.  And I also have come to realize that God speaks to me and presents me with many opportunities.  Sometimes it’s a quiet communing, but at other times (usually when I am focused on things “I” think are important) it is more of a rude awakening.  Let me tell you about one of the quiet times.

My job had become quiet stressful.  Hours were growing longer, demands were growing more unrealistic, and, as so often happens, I was becoming consumed with the issues.  After one particularly stressful day I came home late and it was getting dark and starting to snow.  Despite that, I realized that I should take the dog for a walk on the 4 mile trail near my rural home, as was our habit.  I bundled up and trudged the first two miles, my mind running over the problems that had consumed me all day.  Slowly I began to realize that it had become dark.  The wind had quit blowing and the snowflakes had become huge, drifting down slowly and beginning to cover me and the forest floor at my feet.  I stopped in awe, and then realized that it was silent, with no cars or other sounds to be heard.  I love the snow, but this was the most beautiful snowfall in which I have ever been (or maybe at that moment God just knew I needed something that pure and simple).  I sat down on a log, dumped all the problems of the day, and became awestruck at the beauty of the moment that had been given to me. 

When the ground had turned to white, I finally got up and made my way home.  The problems of the day had been replaced with a deep sense of peace and joy.  God helped me realize that we truly can cast our cares on Him and that he will provide what we need.  I truly needed that time of peace and stillness. 

 

P.S. – I left that job not too long after that!

 

Don’t Check Your Brain at the Door

Brain-Power We've been working through this series on "Ordering Your Private World" by talking about five major areas of the inner life. We've talked about our motivation–the difference between being called and being driven. Last week we talked about the use of time–how we can recapture time and look for those God-moments in the midst of the ordinary.

This week, we look at the third dimension of our private worlds–one that is often neglected. That's the realm of the mind. How we train our minds, how we think, is a key to ordering the inner life.

 I say that this part of our lives is often neglected because we live in a culture where mass media makes it quite possible for people to abdicate individual thought in favor of allowing some self-proclaimed "expert" to think for us.

 It used to be that people went to a political debate to hear ideas, like in the 1850s when Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglass squared off over the issue of slavery and states rights. Interestingly, the format of those debates went something like this: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other spoke for 90, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30 minute rebuttal. Can you imagine? Today, in our sound bit culture, we wouldn’t sit still for it. Those debates are classic in their expression of ideas, with the ideas being central.

 Nowadays, candidates are more concerned about looking good and playing to their constituencies than expressing any independent thought. And, of course, after each debate there is a phalanx of pundits filling the screen to tell us what we should think about what took place. One side or the other is constantly setting up straw men and then knocking them down with hateful vitriol. Talk show hosts make their living by gathering legions of people who think like they do or, more precisely, who allow the person with the microphone to speak for them. Listen to some of this stuff and it's easy to believe that despite the fact that we have access to more information than at any time in our history, we have actually become dumber as a culture.

 We could chalk all that up to our cultural proclivity to choose style over substance, but I think there's something more at work here. It's quite possible that in our busyness as a nation, in our quest for productivity and success, in our desire to have and do more, we've actually abdicated real thinking in favor of convenience.

 It's not just politics or cultural issues where this happens. It happens in churches, too. You look back at the early centuries of Christianity and you see that many of the great thinkers and theologians were lay people. When the Church became institutionalized, though, it began to move toward professional clergy. In the Middle Ages, for example, most people couldn't read, thus the most powerful person in the village was the priest, who could essentially make the Bible say whatever he wanted. Widespread abuse of power and bad theology was the result.

 You'd think that the Protestant Reformation would have changed all that, but the reality is that when it comes to matters of theology, many people would rather simply be told what they should think and believe. We've seen the results of that taken to the extreme in places like Jonestown, Waco, and other places where strong charismatic leaders can manipulate seemingly intelligent people because those people became intellectually lazy and refused to question anything that was being said or done.

 When I went to seminary, I was pretty convinced that I had received all the knowledge about Christian faith that I was going to get. I had been thoroughly indoctrinated in a very conservative environment where the mantra was, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." I remember one of my first classes, where I did a research paper on some theological issue. I quoted numerous sources, said all the right things. The prof pulled me aside. He said this: I'm giving you a good grade on this because you obviously did the work. But here's the thing–I really want to know what YOU think about this. All these guys you quoted have PhD's…I have one, too…but that doesn't mean they've earned the right to do your thinking for you. Based on the evidence, what do you think? You'll do a lot better asking questions than making pronouncements–in this class and when you get to the parish."

 That was a moment of clarity for me. No one had ever given me permission to really think about theological stuff–to question, to doubt, to wrestle. It changed my whole outlook. How faith and reason work together in our inner lives is one of the keys to ordering our private worlds.

 It's interesting to me that we live in a world where many people see faith and reason as being mutually exclusive. A number of bestselling books recently, like Dawkins' The God Delusion say that faith is irrational and only pure reason will save humanity. On the other hand, I hear fundamentalist religious leaders trumpeting faith while quelling people's capacity to reason. The truth is, however, that God gave humans the capacity for both faith and reason and one doesn't necessarily trump the other.

 Here's where someone like the apostle Paul fascinates me. Paul was a person of very deep faith but also one who was a prolific and expansive thinker. This passage from Romans 12 captures Paul's idea of the relationship of faith and reason. For Paul, real transformation comes not through blind faith but through "the renewing of [the] mind." In other words, Paul says, you can't be a Christian and think as the world thinks, nor can you be a Christian and neglect the intellect.

 Many Christians see the faith as being guided primarily by rules, doctrines, and regulations. While the Scriptures do provide boundaries for living, Paul would say that real transformation comes as the result of a searching mind that can "discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect." Remember that in the framework of Paul's Jewish worldview, the mind and the body weren't separate but a unified whole. We train our bodies for health and strength, thus Paul would say we also need to train our intellect in order to truly grow strong as God's people. You can't be mentally flabby and expect to grow as a Christian!

 John Wesley would have said the same thing. Wesley was a child of the Enlightenment, that time in history where the world was turning from superstition to learning and education. Wesley's understanding of how one grows in the knowledge and love of God involved the use of one's reason. In Wesley's understanding, Scripture was the primary source for the life of faith, but Scripture needed to be read through three important lenses: human experience, the tradition of interpretation and through human reason. In other words, you can't read the Bible or understand faith if you check your brains at the door! For Wesley, Christian faith was a marriage of head and heart.

 Back to Paul–how do we then "renew our minds?" Well, first we have to understand that it's a discipline. It's not something that happens by osmosis. Last week we talked about how we use our time, and training the mind requires time and effort–particularly for those over 40. Recent studies have shown that people in middle age often develop cognitive problems because they don't introduce any new thoughts or patterns in their lives. The brain can actually atrophy. Think of training your mind as a way to keep from losing it!

 In his book Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald gives some ideas for how we might be transformed and how we might "renew our minds" to grow. I just want to paraphrase a few of these ideas.

 We are transformed when we learn how to listen. Driven people have a hard time listening because they're always talking. I've always admired people who were good listeners, but the reality is that all of us can learn to listen. The first step to good listening? Learn to ask questions. How many times in a conversation do we not so much listen to the other person speaking but instead think of what we're going to say next? The people around us are a wellspring of knowledge. Children, older people, co-workers, others whom we take for granted have stories to share and experiences to process. What would happen if you intentionally took a day this week and began every conversation you had with someone with a question? And not, "How are you?" That's lame. But a real question. Take someone to lunch and ask them questions to let them talk about themselves. Listening is a discipline. I know it's one that I need to work on.

 But listening also involves being open to other people’s ideas as well. We have become so entrenched politically in this country that no one listens to the other side or to any voice that doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Jesus rarely told people what they wanted to hear, and yet as Christians we celebrate him. I wonder if what would happen if we allowed ourselves to listen to all sides of a debate or listen to the stories of other who are different from us. To listen without dismissing, to hear without being angry, to dialogue about ideas rather than hurling epithets. Failure to listen is, in my opinion, what’s really hurting our country. As Edwin Friedman puts it, one of the real markers of madness is the inability to stay in relationship with those with whom we disagree. Can we learn to listen, can we take the time to understand, are we willing to hear something other than we expect?

 We are transformed when we learn to think theologically. One of my seminary professors once said that the primary role of the pastor is to be the resident theologian of the local community. He also said that we weren't to be the only theologians–that everyone has the capacity and, indeed, the need to think theologically. Problem is that many churches are set up to merely dispense information, fill in the blanks, make sure everyone knows a particular theological system. Just like we ask questions of others in order to be good listeners, we need to be able to ask questions of our faith, of the Bible, of our tradition in order to understand. A lot of people are intimidated by the Bible because it seems to come from a strange world, but my approach is to look at it like an exploration into a foreign country. You have to learn the language, know the geography, understand the people. Once you do that, you begin to feel right at home. That's why Bible study groups are so vitally important–we learn to think theologically when we get together with a group of people and hear their responses and wrestlings with the text. I get no greater joy than when I'm working with a class and people are beginning to see that world open up before them. If you're not intentionally learning to think theologically, it's very hard to grow spiritually.

We are transformed through reading. It's really interesting to me that while we push our kids to read in school, many adults have altogether stopped reading for themselves. We've become a sound bite culture, a visual culture, where speed trumps thought in the information age. Reading is a way of really digesting a new idea. I love books, of course, but I love reading from a wide variety of disciplines. I even like to read things I don't necessarily agree with. Every word I read expands my mind just a bit more. I love it when someone from the church recommends a book. I love reading the New York Times Book Review to see what's new. Reading, and particularly reading the scriptures, is (as the old commercial says) FUNDAMENTAL to our understanding of life and faith.

We are transformed through disciplined study. When we graduate from high school or college there's a sense that our days of studying and "homework" are over. Well, not if we want to be renewed in our minds. Setting aside time each day for disciplined study is a real key to learning and growth. Study actually burns new pathways in our brains and increases our capacity for thought. If you're married, make space and time for each other to give over to study…maybe even read a book or engage in a study together. I always give homework in my Bible study classes because learning isn't a one shot deal.

 We are transformed when we apply wisdom and knowledge in the service of others. The knowledge we gain from using our reason isn't for us alone. When we are transformed by the "renewing of [our] minds," we can in turn transform the world. Sharing knowledge, sharing ways of learning with others is important for our own retention. I think the old adage is true that if you are teaching someone you are really learning yourself. Someone out there needs the knowledge you have so that their own life can be transformed.

We are always trying to recruit Sunday School teachers, for example. A lot people say, "Well, I don't know enough about the Bible, etc." To me, there's no better way to learn the Scriptures than to teach them. I'm always looking for new ways to bring knowledge to my classes or to the congregation through my sermons. I always wind up learning more than the people I'm teaching! I challenge you to look for ways to share what you know and to learn what you don't. If you're a financial planner, for example, there are people out there in need of help with managing their finances. If you're in business, there are young people trying to learn a trade who could use your wisdom. The list goes on and on.

Here in Monument most of the people who come to church are highly educated, more so than the national average. The question is what we'll do with that education to transform the world. If we have the capacity to learn a business or a trade, we have the capacity to learn and be transformed by deeper spiritual truths.

I'm proud to serve a church in the Methodist tradition where "head and heart go hand in hand." We want to be a community of listeners, learners and teachers.

 We’re providing multiple opportunities for you to exercise your mind and be transformed. I want to challenge you to be a part of a class, read a book we’re recommending, be a Sunday School teacher, learn something new. May we all be transformed by the renewing of our minds!