Friday, July 22, 2016

It's odd that after serving in churches for 37 years, 31 as an ordained pastor with a bachelor's degree in religion and a Master of Divinity degree from a well-known seminary, doctoral work in Community Pastoral Counseling, training and certification in several specialized ministries, having preached thousands of sermons, led hundreds of Bible studies, read so many theological books that I probably should participate in a 12 step program for theoholics...after all of that and more, I've found myself asking over and over again the simple questions: "God, what do you want me to learn in what I'm facing right now? What can I take from these moments/this experience that will bring me deeper into your will? That's what I ask myself.  Sometimes I'll feel the Spirit nudge me to ask someone else:  How's your spiritual life?  What's God doing in your life?  Where do you feel God's blessing and where is God pushing you to grow?  What are you hearing from Jesus?  How do you experience/encounter God?

These questions may be hard for some to conceive.  They are not intended to be intrusive or offensive, but intended to stir up the thought of one's relationship with God.  It's a question asked FOR God--almost as if God is saying to the person "hey, I'd like you to know me better and open your heart to me more.  I love you and want you to know it. I broke the mold after you, you're one of a kind, created in order for your heart's wings to spread fully and catch the wind of the Spirit and soar.  Let's work on that together.  I'm on your side.  Always have been, always will be.  And while I have your attention, I'd like your help in connecting with some of my other favorites.  You are perfectly situated and prepared to help me with that.  As you build trust and rapport with friends, family, colleagues, associates, neighbors--frankly anyone--I'd like you to tell about our relationship--yours and mine--and raise the idea that whoever you are talking with can have an amazing relationship with me too.  Don't worry, I've already been at work in anyone's heart that you may speak to.  I don't expect you to introduce the idea, just tend the garden a little, maybe water it, spread some fertilizer on it.
Before you do any of that though, your first priority is to lean more and more into me. Let me support you when you feel weak or strong, let me feed and nourish you when you feel hungry and malnourished, let me encourage you when you feel discouraged and whooped, let me be your shield when you feel overwhelmed and defeated.  Whatever the problem, don't worry, I'm already aware of it and I'm just waiting for you to ask for help.
Asking another about the state of their relationship with God may seem intrusive, but that's a defensive response, it's fear dictating the future, it's the ego scared of letting go control.  Some may think "that's private!" but it may be so private that they don't even know it.  Some may think "well, aren't you the spiritual giant" but that's being offensive in order to take the attention off of what they're afraid to admit.
There are a lot of ways to avoid growing spiritually (code for having a relationship with God--since we can't grow spiritually apart from that), but that shouldn't put off those who know the richness and necessity of growing spiritually from seeking ways to assist others in their growth.  Why would anyone refuse another starving person from knowing where a never-ending, free banquet is served?
So first, you need to enjoy the rich, spiritually nutritious spread God has provided, build up your strength and confidence. The deeper into God you grow the more gracious you'll be with others because the further you go the more you recognize that it's not you, it's God.  And that's the blossom of humility, which produces the fruit of gratitude.  If you keep it up (and you should, even when it seems nothing is happening) eventually you won't be able to contain the joy.  Remember David, the shepherd boy/king who wrote "my cup overflows"? That's what he was talking about.  For hearts that are willing, I just keep pouring the love and joy and grace in.  It sloshes and spills and overflows and puddles, but it's never a mess.
So go ahead.  Give it a try.  Invite me in.  Let's sit and talk.  No pressure.  No guilt.  Nothing to sign in blood.  My Son signed that contract already.  That's why I'm hoping to hear from you.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Friday, July 8, 2016

Many people have those epic family stories that they love to recite and retell.  Events, moments, experiences and encounters that are humorous or insightful or character-shaping or turning points or "ah-ha!" moments.
One of my family favorites occurred when I was too young to remember, perhaps even before I was born.  My older brother and sister had been outside playing and had inadvertently gotten into a patch of poison ivy.  My parents, O Wise Ones that they are, acted with lightening speed and brought my brother and sister in, had them strip out of their clothes and bathe.  Crisis averted!
An hour or so later, however, my sister was fine, but my brother was itchy and scratching himself--it was a mystery why one wasn't affected, but the other was--until my parents discovered my brother had simply redressed in the clothes he'd had on earlier.
Perhaps that's amusing, but we all do it--not with poison ivy, but with our preferred sins--we are guilty of some kind of brokenness, some kind of ego-laced attitude, some kind of sinkhole selfishness and in our spiritually lucid moments we, by the grace of God, strip ourselves of the sin-soaked outfit we've been parading around in and we are baptized in the cleansing mercy we are offered.  We cannot remain emotionally and spiritually naked, by virtue of our vulnerabilities and the nature of our human relationships and so we are reclothed.  Some of us are reclothed in a wardrobe of righteousness, some take on some armor to keep ourselves (pseudo) safe.  Most, if not all of us, however, eventually slip back into those exposed clothes we'd stripped out of and we find ourselves itchy and scratchy again.
The apostle Paul admits that he does what he does not want to do and what he wants to do, he doesn't.
For me, this is where I discover the rich nature of grace.  If I am able to manage my own righteousness then grace is simply cutting me some slack, but if sin is so pervasive that I cannot strip and re-dress on my own, then grace is that gift I most desperately need and for which I am most joyfully grateful.
Unquestionably, the latter is the case.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, July 7, 2016

I learned to swim at my hometown YMCA pool.  I don't have many detailed memories of those lessons, but I can still imagine the big room and pool, I can still hear the echoing sounds of the water and voices, I can still remember the smell of chlorine, I can still feel the sensation of water on my body and it running off my face as I would surface.
I advanced quickly through the various stages of swim classes, reaching the last level a couple of years before most my age.  Consequently, I was a small guy compared to my peers in the class. I think the level was called The Sharks, but I may be wrong.  I remember one of the requirements in the last level was to swim as far as I could underwater, holding my breath.  One pool length was expected, but if you could do more, then it was encouraged.  I recall the anxious anticipation of diving in, thrusting my body as far forward as possible while making myself as hydrodynamic as I could in order to increase the distance of my initial jump.  And then as I felt myself slow to a point I intuitively knew I could swim faster than, I began swimming.  Remarkably I came to the end quicker than I expected, so I turned and pushed against the pool wall with all the strength my legs could muster, then began swimming back to the deep end.  Again, remarkably, I made it to the end where I had started.  Now I was beginning to feel my lungs demanding a new breath of fresh air, but I turned around and pushed against the wall again and began swimming toward the shallow end.  As I swam this length I began releasing the spent breath I'd been holding.  I made it about two thirds of the way before rising to the surface and gasping for air.
I didn't expect to go nearly as far as I did and I was excited for my accomplishment.
My experience in learning to swim has opened me to many discoveries about the world, about challenges, about overcoming obstacles and fears, but mostly discoveries about myself.  I've learned that it's easiest to stay in the shallow waters where it's safe and familiar and non-threatening.  I've also learned that the best lessons and most fulfilling experiences are in the deeper waters.
It is in the deep waters I have been filled with awe by the glory of creation, the wonders of the cosmos, the simplicity and complexity of life, the love and joy of The Creator, and the spectacular symphony of nature.  It is also in the deep waters that I have been tested and I've found my own boundaries--some of which I have, by necessity, enlarged; others I have had to humbly accept.  The deep waters present us with more gifts than we will ever be able to unwrap. It is in the deep waters that we are most at risk, but it is also there that we are baptized.
I've learned that there's always a new depth.  Whenever I become familiar and comfortable with a particular depth, it's then that I begin to be drawn to something even deeper, more mysterious and more of a blessing--despite what I may be put through to reach it.
I have discovered that my faith opens me to the presence of God in these depths.  Rather than forbidding me from the deep waters, God has knit into my heart an adventure, one for which God is the treasure I find in the depths.
Just like all the early swim classes, The Minnows, The Guppies, The Pollywogs, or whatever, all the experiences I've had through life have been necessary in preparing me for the deeper waters.  Consequently, I have patience for those not yet swimming in the depths.  I am not better than they.  Each stage of life is necessary.  The only misfortune is when someone reaches a certain point and prefers treading water to swimming further out and diving further down. Sadder still are those who deem the ones swimming further out and diving deeper as wrong in doing so--perhaps they're trying to justify their own fear of the deeper waters by stigmatizing those who swim further than they.
I have come far enough to know that I have not yet come far enough, to know that there is more yet to discover, more yet to explore, more yet to be tested and strengthened by, more of God's deep love in which to swim.  And the remarkable thing is that as I am able to look back to shallower waters and remember how spectacular it was to swim there at the time, yet now it looks so small and confining, I know that I will yet look upon where I am today with the same notion from deeper waters still.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Monday, July 4, 2016

As a young pastor in Austin, back in 1985, a dude wandered into the church I was serving and eventually was directed to my office.  He and I sat for a while and talked when he began explaining to me his theory of the end of the world.  For him it was immanent.  He had made his way to Texas from Seattle, WA where he claimed that street people were required to have a barcode tattooed somewhere on them in order to receive government help—of course, at the time, the use of barcodes was in its infancy and therefore suspect and perceived as one step closer to Big Brother, at least to this guy.  He claimed the barcode tattoo was the sign of the beast, mentioned in the book of Revelation and that this was just the beginning, that soon everyone would need to be tattooed to buy stuff.  I didn’t have any class in seminary that mentioned that ministry would be like this, but I honored the man by agreeing that if that was the case it would be alarming.  In the end he asked for bus fare, which I gladly provided.

Since the life of Jesus Christ there have been well over 155 documented “end-of-the-world” predictions. The majority of these have taken place in the last few hundred years as cultures began to bump up against each other and explorations and new discoveries increased.  Furthermore as technological advances increased there have been more predictions that we would soon see our demise.  There have been 60 predictions during my lifetime of 55 years—more than one a year.

Why are there so many end-of-the-world predictions and such a fascinations with them?  Novels and movies are based on apocalyptic themes that are well received.
Why?  Answering that question is worthy of extensive research, but I think it essentially is because  
1. change is frightening and the effects of change are feared
2. It’s easier to prepare for a known end than to navigate the unknown landscape created by change
3. Change often requires people to release false beliefs about themselves, others, and the cosmos—in other words, admit they were wrong about something they earnestly believed; as well as accept that persons of authority in their lives are wrong.
4. End-time believers tend to cluster with other end-time believers, further reinforcing their belief of the end, while excusing them from the difficult work of being with people different from themselves

There’s a lot more to it than that, but as we ride the roller coaster of human history and we are whipped and jerked and jostled by the dramatic shifts occurring around us—whether technological, social, or political—it is helpful to realize that “the-sky-is-falling” scenarios are a dime a dozen.

Does this mean we disregard the effects of change or cast away any concern?  Certainly not, but we should also be sober in our interpretation of them.  There is a lot of money and power tied up in causing people to panic, but who profits from these predictions?  Certainly not those who believe the predictions and freak out.

It’s been 31 years since the fellow showed up in my office and in that time I’ve never seen a barcode tattooed on someone’s body that was required by the government.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Saturday, July 2, 2016

“I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I am worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine.”
― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Amen.  Furthermore, I cannot imagine God encouraging, supporting, being pleased with, or even mildly appreciative of anything done in God’s name that is destructive to another—even if that other is being destructive to God’s reputation.  God has to be bigger than that.  God has to be beyond being annoyed that people, whom God created, are not being good as God intends.  Instead, I would imagine God being more compassionate toward such people since they are not experiencing the fullness and depth of God’s love and purpose for us.

I might be annoyed, even angry and bitter toward someone whom I have helped who, in turn, speaks or acts in a way that dishonors me—but the God I believe in is stronger than I am, more capable of transcending such nonsense.

I am thinking of this because of the basis of so much violence and rhetoric that claim to speak and act on behalf of God.  Why would God create us and then use us to punish each other for our own foolishness?  I believe that acts of terrorism in the name of God as well as judgments made in the name of God against people for their beliefs or lifestyles are equally an abomination.

God is love.  If you believe this, then it must be demonstrated in acts of mercy and compassion, with all humility in recognizing how utterly guilty each of us is in offending God and yet receiving generous patience and love.

© 2016 Stephen Carl