Monday, May 25, 2015

This is a joke that many preachers have used over the years, so my apologies:  A minister was painting the exterior of the church and as he did so, he realized that he was going to run out of paint, so he began thinning it to make it go further.  He’d thin the paint and then apply some realizing he still wasn’t going to have enough so he’d thin it some more.  He went on this way until finally he was able to finish, but only with a faint color of what he had started with.  Still, he was glad to be done and just in the nick of time.  Clouds began to gather and lightening began to light up the sky followed by rolling thunder.  And then the rain came.  First it was lite and small drops, then bigger and faster, until finally it was pouring down buckets and before you know it, he could see his new paint job running down the sides of the church walls.  Almost as suddenly as the storm started, it stopped and the skies cleared except for one remaining cloud.  The minister, feeling quite demoralized, shouted at the sky “Why? Why? Why, Lord?” And from the cloud a booming voice returned with “Repaint and thin no more.” 
This is one of those jokes that won’t translate into other languages because it’s a play on the sound of the words and their similarity to the Biblical phrase in English: Repent and sin no more.
Sin and thin.  I think one of my common sins is to thin—to try and get by with the least amount of work.  I try to stretch or squeeze my efforts so that I can fudge my way with a passing grade or a finished task or an okay relationship or an adequate apology or a decent enough job.  This often, too often perhaps, works.  Albeit, it has its drawbacks—I don’t really learn the material, or feel the depth of accomplishment, or know the richness of love, or feel the freedom of repentance.  I continue to thin. 
There is probably no other aspect of life where this is most evident than in spiritual growth.  Spiritual growth—it doesn’t sound difficult or even worthy of much attention.  Some of us scoff at spiritual growth and think its for priests, nuns, missionaries and religious nut-jobs.  Some of us probably shudder at the thought of spiritual growth and we ignore it all together.  Some of us say a few prayers, drop into worship on occasion, try and remember a verse of scripture or two and think that’s spiritual growth. 
My experience with spiritual growth is that it is the most arduous endeavor of my life.  It has to do with my posture and attitude toward everything.  It has to do with pruning my heart and behaviors in ways that are not fun, but often painfully difficult.  There is no thinning our way to spiritual maturity.  It takes all we have, all we are and more.  Yes, more than we have or are.  How?  Because spiritual growth is a gift.  But being ready to receive it and recognize it and celebrate it is the hard part.  I have experienced unimaginable joy and freedom through spiritual growth--the growth that is given and not earned in any way. 
So let me refine what I wrote: there is no thinning our way to be prepared to receive spiritual growth.  What I have sometimes imagined to be spiritual growth has been the strength I feel from exercising my spiritual muscles through various kinds of spiritual disciplines.  While these are valuable, they are not spiritual growth.  The spiritual growth is something that comes, not as a result of the effort, but because our hearts are hungry and willing to receive it. 
Imagine a gardener who sees a weedy patch of ground and begins pulling weeds and clearing the area.  It takes a long time and seems to never be finished.  Just as one size or type of weed is removed it seems another has sprouted up to take its place.  Finally, the gardener has it ready for tilling and hoeing—more work.  The gardener completes this and begins planting seeds and watering and tending the garden plot.  The gardener continues to find weeds and pulls them.  Eventually, tiny sprouts begin to appear and grow.  Now the gardener has a new challenge:  keeping vermin away from the tiny stems and eventually the fruit growing on the vines. 
Did the gardener make the seeds?  Did the gardener cause them to germinate?  Did the gardener teach them to grow toward the surface and find the sunshine?  Did the gardener program any fruit-bearing code into the plants?
The gardener cleared the plot, prepared it, tended it, protected it, watered it.  The gardener knew all the things necessary for producing the vegetables and fruit in a garden, but the gardener couldn’t make the plants produce no matter how much effort was made.  In truth, the gardener is really just a steward.  The Real Gardener is the One who makes the seeds and causes them to grow.  
Such is spiritual growth.  We prepare the plot of our hearts and God brings about the growth.  While we must thin the weeds, there is no thinning of the work we must do. 

© Stephen Carl

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Some of you may be familiar with Frederick Buechner.  He's a pastor and a writer who has a way of capturing experiences, thoughts, and ideas and articulating them in unique and accessible ways.  He has a book called Wishful Thinking that is a collection of definitions on theological and Biblical words/concepts.  I've been jotting down my own thoughts on some various faith related words over the past couple of months and so I'll share them here.  A few of them are quotes of others that I've included, since I couldn't add anything to what they already said or wrote.  I hope they'll provide you with something to think about.

What is selfishness?
Selfishness is a hole you dig so that you can sit in it alone with the crust of bread you wanted for yourself. The only thing that changes is that the bread is moldy. 

What is lying?
Lying is walking on a path that you have told others leads to water, but really only leads to a dry, desolate valley.

What is pride?
Pride is being the best, winning the prize, standing on the pedestal, pinning on the blue ribbon, announcing you’re number one and doing all of this in an empty arena. 

What is hate?
Hate is the tiniest of soldiers who carries the biggest of weapons to defeat an enemy one can only overcome with love.

What is sloth?
Sloth is trading the benefit and joy of industry and purpose for doing nothing in order to store up despair about lost opportunities.

What is greed?
Greed is an appetite for something with no taste or nutritional value.

What is lust?
Lust is treating another like he or she is a mealy apple core after you’ve enjoyed the delicious fruit.

What is resentment?
Resentment is drinking poison so that your enemy will die (Nelson Mandela)

What is despair?
Despair is what one feels from losing what you never had in the first place and in the process giving up what you had all along

What is revenge?
Revenge is taking something from someone else that you believe they owe while forgetting that you owe the same thing.  (Matthew 18:23-35)

What is happiness?
Happiness is the red laser dot that the cat chases around the room unable to ever catch it because as soon as it pounces then the red dot isn’t under the cat’s paw, but on top of it—except happiness is something other than a red laser dot and it is usually us chasing and pouncing on it. 

What is faith?
Faith is knowing someone or something is trustworthy despite a lot of loud evidence that claims otherwise.

What is hope?
Hope is the life-vest the castaway wears in the middle of the ocean waiting for the rescue.

What is love?
The greatest love isn’t a thing or a feeling, it’s an action, a doing, a demonstration of care and selflessness.  It is giving another castaway your life-vest and treading water.

What is church?
Church isn’t a place or an institution or a set of by-laws or an organization; it’s a people: people forgiven for what they cannot repay who are sent to let other debtors know about the deal and the One who offers it.  In the process these people do what they can to make things better for any they encounter, usually giving away their life-vests.

What is salvation?
Salvation is something you can’t achieve on your own that comes by giving up something you can’t keep in order to receive something you will never lose.  (Based on Jim Elliot

What is peace?
Peace is the windless place inside one’s heart while sitting in the middle of a hurricane. 

What is sacrifice?
Sacrifice is the sacred act of seeing everything and everyone as holy and beautiful and worth setting free.

What is freedom?
Freedom is what happens when everything requires one to act and feel justified in anger and arrogance, but not acting or feeling that way. 

What is joy?
Joy is the light one sees even when the world throws dark blankets over you. 

What is humility?
Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. (C. S. Lewis)

What is Courage?
Courage is having no alternatives you can live with, and when the fear of giving up is greater than the fears that have kept you hiding. 

What is Steadfastness?
Steadfastness is holding onto something or someone no matter what is pulling you away.  God’s steadfastness is how we experience God’s love for us, since it is God holding onto us even as we push God away. 

What is truth?
Truth isn’t being right and others being wrong, it’s right being for wronged others. 

What is justice?
Justice isn’t getting even and it isn’t being fair.  Justice is stripped of all prejudice and cultural baggage in order to lift everyone up who is bent over and grant everyone the opportunity to stand upright. 

What is grace?
Grace is inconceivable and without any human terms to really explain it.  It is something that must be received to be understood—not with the head, but with the heart.  It is scandalous, to say the least, since it releases the recipient from the debt, burden, brokenness, estrangement and any other sort of terror that haunts the human heart.  It does so without any condition or expectation.  For some, this translates into immense gratitude, the kind that seeks to express itself in responsiveness to the Grace-Giver. 

Grace is indefinable, because the human psyche is so bent out of shape that it makes no sense.  Grace is the sweetest of gifts that comes to the undeserved, not out of pity or weakness, but out of the remarkable strength of love.  It is given, not to shame, but to redeem; not to forget the sin, but to forgive it; not to indulge the sin, but to transform the sinner.  Grace cannot be equaled in any way for it is divine and holy and borne out of God’s womb of love. 
Grace is the treasure you discover after you realize that you’ve squandered everything you thought mattered and despaired that life was over only to realize you had believed smoke was solid and shadows were the things casting them.  Grace is the thing we cannot reach ourselves, but are lifted in order to grasp it.  Nothing else compares to it.  It is God’s secret weapon used against self-imposed spiritual death. 

© Stephen R. Carl

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Several years ago, when my boys were much younger, I awoke one morning to go for an early walk, went downstairs after getting dressed, got a drink of water and as I stood at the counter I noticed an assignment one of our boys had at school.  It showed a drawing of a town from a bird’s-eye-view.  There were buildings and stores and houses and streets and playgrounds—your average sort of town.  The assignment was to circle in different colors, different types of locations:  Circle in blue a place where people work; circle in green a place where people live; circle in red a place where people have fun.  I looked to see what one of my sons had circled for each:  Red circle around a park; green circle around a house; blue circle around…a church!  I smiled and looked to see what else he could have circled.  There was a city hall, an office building, gas station, a library.  And my son circled a church! 

As I was walking I began to think, however, that might not be so great.  Not because he faces what a lot of preacher’s kids face:  the dilemma of the absent mother or father who is almost entirely focused on other people’s lives—to the neglect of her or his own family.  Rather I thought it wasn’t so great because of what the lesson was implicitly teaching our children:  there are places where we work exclusively; places where we live exclusively; and places where we have fun exclusively.  Frankly, that’s a sad and violent paradigm.  It dehumanizes us, steals from us the splendor of life that is fluid.  We compartmentalize our lives and our work and our faith in ways that may make some things a little easier, but in the big picture does not help us live balanced lives
Why can’t work be fun?  Anyone, whether you live alone or are married or have a dozen children, ought to be offended by the implication that there’s no work going on under the roof!  And every armchair psychologist knows that for children play is their work.  While we may segment life in these ways, it’s not as simple as changing hats—one for work, one for home and one for play.  We have so divide faith and life and work and play, there’s no wonder we’re weary and stressed and fatigued and depressed!

I thought about the discussion it might have created if this assignment had been given to high school or college students, or what about an adult Sunday School?  What if my son had circled the whole picture in each of the colors in order to say that we work and live and play everywhere?  Would the teacher give him a passing or failing mark for understanding and following the instructions or would he, in her estimation, have missed the point of the exercise? 

Which brings me to the insidious lie for us who might see the church and circle it in blue:  Is the church building really the place where the work of the church takes place?  Is it just the work of “professionals,” the clergy and staff?  Just how much of Jesus’ work took place in the places of worship?  If you read through the Gospels, you’ll find that very little says anything about the synagogues or the Temple.  Most of the “work” took place out in the streets and where people were living and making a living.  And though I certainly have found the “work” of living faithfully is sometimes challenging and difficult, I have also found it joy-filled and fun. 

I got home—and this is the really amusing thing—and started to tell my son how proud I was that he recognized the church and circled it as a place where work is done.  He looked at the picture and said “that isn’t a church, that’s a fire station.” 

My son hadn’t circled a church, but a fire station!  Talk about popping my bubble!

I decided to do what I hadn’t done earlier and put on my reading glasses and take a closer look.  Sure enough, it is a fire station.  I looked around the picture and realized there wasn’t a church at all, or synagogue or temple, nothing—no buildings that might give the idea that people had religious or spiritual lives.  Sure, this is a public school assignment, but shouldn’t children be educated about the reality of belief systems and religious traditions—at least as a cultural reality? 

Okay, that’s an argument that doesn’t need to be made again.  So instead I got to thinking about my mistake of thinking the fire station was a church.  I looked closer and, besides the large garage door on the side of the building, it actually did look like a church building.  It had a steeple-like top, complete with a something I mistook as a cross, large windows that could have been stained glass and a long section that could have been the nave of a sanctuary.  I pointed this out in order to justify my mistake rather than accept that my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be.  But then I thought “that’s a great metaphor for the church—a fire station.”  It is a unique community whose purpose is serving and protecting the community around it.  That’s the same point I had come to earlier when I thought it had been a church.  The work of the church is out in the streets and other buildings and homes and parks.

Okay, so I over-thought an early elementary classroom assignment.

But then again, maybe not.

© Stephen R. Carl