Prone to Wander, Lord I Feel It

Surviving Christmas

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything about my cracked up American life. And now that I have finally survived Christmas and lived to tell about it, I’ve only New Year’s resolutions left to keep and break sometime before Valentine’s Day I suppose. I pondered long and hard about why as a Christian I loathe Christmas so much here in my beloved America.   Perhaps its because it brings melancholy memories of my late Father (who I now identify with), walking around like a chicken with his head cut off trying to get enough presents under the tree so that his conscience could ease his guilt of being a subpar Santa for his kids. I remember hints of joy, but mostly seeing the strain in his eyes of all that he would have to do in his and others eyes to bring Christmas joy to his children. All the while, the one who came to bring hopeful joy free of charge was at last given homage for a hasty reading of the Christmas story before we tore open the gifts. He would not get much runway on His birthday after that, and as I sit here today and recall these moments, I fear not much has changed. And so, I guess you could call me Ebenezer for short.

 

Reasons for the Old Man and the Sea Thing

So at 12:01 on December 26th, when I pinched myself and realized I had indeed outlasted the hoopla of ole St. Nick, I was reminded of a couple of things about my life as of late. First of all, I reminded myself as to why this growing old man moved by the sea in November of 2015. I had already had several people ask me, curious about why I had uprooted what was left of my family and moved to this beautiful oasis; especially now in my 50’s. Their curiosity stemmed from the fact that most have by now grown out of the move left in them, and have settled into some secure form of an American dream perched behind a Norman Rockwell painting of their making. A dream now full of houses, stocks and bonds to begin sorting out, all the while preparing for a grand ole thing called retirement just down the road a stone’s throw or two. Of course that first curious question was easily answered back in 2008 and again in 2014, when I began to realize that my dream would take a much less predictable turn. You see for me, there were no longer any of those things to sort out in the cards for my family and I, so I guess you can say, “I now had options”. Since I owned nothing, and had lost most everything materially that one holds far too dearly to, the sky began to be the only limit as to where I could go. In a sense, I guess you could say I was finally free.

 

That of course led to my second reason for looking for the answer by the sea. Because from the time I have been a child, the ocean has been a happy place for me. I had dreams as a younger man of owning a house on the ocean where I would write and then take breaks to play with my grandchildren, and then snuggle up to my wife with my favorite pipe and hot cocoa on our back deck as the waves quietly roared to the beat of the moonlight. Though this has not yet come to fruition, I was able to find a place about 4 blocks from the ocean, and so a quick six-minute walk almost any given day takes me to my Shangri-La, if to only have five-minutes to remind myself that I’m not that big of a deal, and that He really, really is. Just five or ten minutes to breathe in and hopefully take with me a morsel of what really matters in the world, when everything else I encounter tells me a I’m a fool to think it for too long. It has indeed given some sense of calm to my life, and if I know nothing else, for now, I know it is where God has me–yet for what I do not know.

 

The third reason we ran to the ocean was familial and social in nature–both good and bad. The good side of that decision was simply to give my older sons, who had now gone off in quest of their own version of some dream they possess in their beings, to do so without Mom and Dad just around the corner to catch them if they fall in pursuit of it. It was to give them some space to be free, to finally cut the umbilical cord, and to finally give them wings to fly solo. All the while with Mom and Dad a short 3 hours away with an extra room for their needed getaway, or perhaps a Mom and Dad fix as often as they could ever want. I miss them dearly, but these things have their time and place, and the time for us was now. It felt good and right, and I am very much at peace with the decision we made. The bad side of the decision to leave was that even though we were older and wiser, and knowing full well that you can’t run from your problems, we did decide that sometimes you can at least move a little further down the road from them so it takes a little longer for them to show up at your doorstep. This is in regards to my extended family I might add. A family for whose guilt, manipulation and exploitation was merely a phone call, an episode or a gossip column away. It also had to do with the network of true, Godly, and “real” friends, that seemed impossible to find after a decade and a half, and the lack of friendships for my last young son, for whom parental love needed to be coupled with friends he too could call his own. That of course has gone amazingly well, and ours; well…we’re still working on that.

 

And About the Wandering Bit

Well now that I’ve told you a little of where I’ve been lately and why I’m here, I guess I should say something briefly about my title today. The words come from perhaps my favorite hymn called Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, written by Robert Robinson in the mid 1700’s. And in that blessed hymn these particular words lately have caused me to ponder their depth and reality for me, and hopefully for all those who call themselves by the name of Christ. The words are:

 

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for Thy courts above.

 

These words have often brought me great comfort, not only because of their rootedness in the gospel of God, but also because of their being true to my own life and experience of walking with Christ on the narrow path. For in so many ways, I know I have grown and bear some fruit that resembles Christ, and yet…still today, I’m prone to wander, with so many distractions that beckon me for their attention and importance, and sometimes I feel it for far too long as I’m derailed from the path I’ve been called to travel. And not only do I feel it, but unfortunately; others from time to time have to see it.

 

I’m reminded of the disciples when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says to them several times in essence, “Could you not watch and pray with me for an hour”. We also are told that each time he came to ask this, he would find them asleep. Now for sure sleep is a natural bodily function, yet in a person’s horrific hour of grief one would think we could put some toothpicks in our eyes or something to refrain from the temptation to sleep on the job. I’m reminded equally of the beloved big fish magnet, Jonah, who while on the boat to Tarshish away from the call of God, while everyone else is frantically trying to find a way to save themselves from the boat’s impending doom, he is asleep to it all. Yet he is especially asleep to the plight of his fellow man, and the call of His God upon his life. Or how about good ole Peter, who gets it right so many times and two seconds later denies His Lord, not too awfully different from one betraying with 30 pieces of silver and a kiss, yet who never lived to tell his own repentance tale.

 

As I have been contemplating these things as 2017 is knocking at the door for me to invite him in, I see more and more of this dichotomy and pull from both the world and my Lord raging within me now at 52. To be sure I’m smarter and wiser now, and also farther along the narrow path. So I’m not as sidetracked by youthful things such as wine, women and song; and have now long ago realized that a fool and his money soon depart, along with any friends they may once have brought. Yet I feel the difficulties of life bearing down, continuing to seek to fashion me into it’s mold and to distract me from what’s eternal and to saddle up with what’s temporal instead. The reason is because as we age, we are more and more aware of our finiteness, and death’s door; though we hope is still a country mile or two away, it nonetheless whispers to us of it’s sure certainty of which we must soon pay attention. This causes us to grasp with all we’re worth for our mortality rather than to pursue with a vengeance our promised immortality. And we begin to see that if the modern adage is indeed true, that “he who dies with the most toys wins”, then we’ve more striving to do and best get on with it. And if we surmise we’ve already lost that game, we can be inclined to resort to a slow easy chair death, where we rock our way into acceptance of a failed and wasted life, content to decay away with a self-injected slow drip of “coulda, shoulda, woulda”.

 

I recall reading one time that Billy Graham had said, if he had it to do all over again, he would have prepared much more for getting old. I was perplexed by that; wondering what exactly he meant. It’s now starting to settle in. For instance, if I had a dollar for every one of my 50’s friends, who when I speak about getting old, they say the typical things such as, “You’re only as old as you feel”, or “50 is the new 30” or something of this nature, I’d surely have a chunk of change. And to be sure, I get exactly what they are saying, and I’m not dead yet, and so I intend on continuing to push forward to greatness in whatever big or small way God has for me. However, I am no longer looking for “6-pack abs”, I don’t and can’t wear skinny jeans, I’m not searching for any fountain of youth, and I don’t think anything good now happens after 10:30 at night:).  I can rock your world till then baby, but after that, I now have to pass the baton.

 

What I have been reminded about in wrapping up today is what the Monk at Mepkin Abbey said to me when I asked him what he had learned in the Monastery that he felt he could not have learned from life on the outside. He told me that for years he had served as a Priest in parish ministry, and of course spent a great deal of time ministering to the sick and dying. He said one of the overwhelming things he picked up on in ministering to the dying is that in their last days they became the most selfless human beings he had ever witnessed, and that all they cared about was knowing God and serving and loving others. He then looked at me and said, “That’s what I learned in the monastery that I do not believe I could have learned otherwise: how to be more like those people”. I’ve never forgotten those words and have etched them in my journal perpetually so I never forget.

 

So Yes, I am prone to wander and Lord I feel it, prone to leave constantly the one I am to love first and foremost. Yet more and more each day I am reminded that nothing else outside of knowing Christ and serving others really matters, and I know that I must not let this truth wander away. In fact, I think I’d rather not die first for it to be true of me.

 

Selah

 

 

 

What Has Christianity Cost Us Lately?

An Observation

I’ve been pondering the topic above this weekend at great length. What spawned my brief fixation was the observant mutual back and forth between my wife and I, that by and large Christianity no longer costs very much to the average Joe or Suzy Churchman or woman.  Nor is there a sweeping rebuttal from it’s men of the cloth that this is much cause for concern. Oh some do, to be sure. But they are constantly tempted to quickly change the topic for lack of interest from their hearers. It gives a sort of “yawn” effect to it’s American congregants, and quickly leads to shopping for a new teacher to scratch the itching ear somewhere down the road of buffet-line Christianity.   It’s a problem to be sure, and there are no short answers or long ones quite honestly to fix it I’m afraid. This is what our devolution of the faith has brought us to you might say, and we all share a collective ownership of it.

 

The Organism Suffers

 

And as I’m sure you’ve noted by now, if you have taken the time to read anything I have written of late, you realize that for the most part when I speak of church positively, I am from my heart of hearts speaking as to what I feel that the scriptures emphasize the most; that of the organism rather than the organization—though I am apart of both. But leaving the organization aside for a moment, in fairness to the organism (you and me), I realize that many today sacrifice much.  Not only in the everyday crosses they bear due to living on planet earth, but who add to their cost daily by continuing to fill up what lacks in Christ’s sufferings here on earth, in order to further allow the world to see Golgotha up front and center everyday on their own street corner or on a hill far away. And there are those who suffer not only in this country for their faith in some ways to be sure, but more acutely across the globe in the least concentrated areas of Christianity. Those who suffer in their own bodies and pocketbooks in ways we cannot know, and to whom everyday is a constant test as to their unwavering belief or conceded apostasy. They too are our brothers and sisters, and we mustn’t forget to remember their chains and mistreatment (Heb. 13:3) that is felt as if it were our own.

 

Now the church organism in the West suffers too as I mentioned. For instance, if we have somewhat individually clung to the old rugged cross with all it’s foolishness that the world has attributed to it, and to it’s increasing unpopularity of thought in the public square, this comes with it’s own brand of persecution. And of course despite whimsical and momentary elections that offer the believing masses rays of hope that we’ll be great along with God again, the trajectory of the western world is moving away and not toward anything that we have or have had to say I’m afraid. This is partly our fault, and partly due to the man of lawlessness (II. Thes. 2:3) that has already settled down in the both written and unwritten code of our culture. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I believe inquiring minds have to know this is the new norm if anyone is paying attention; all the while still keeping hope that the church will hold it’s ground and the gates of Hell will not in the end prevail.

 

And so if we are picking up our daily cross, we should also wrestle with what we see everyday that comes at us now in a pop-up window across our various screens waiting for us as we awaken each day. Things such as another police officer being shot, racial tensions mounting, refugees who haven’t anywhere to go, and the President-elect’s new cabinet member that many speculate is sure to do us all in. These are all collectively cause for concern and discussion, but closer to home I think we have bigger fish to fry. And we are in information overload to be sure, which brings about not only opportunity, but I think increased sadness; easily explained by the Prozac nation of which we are apart of now. Nonetheless, we are perplexed as to what to do about that, and not sure we are big enough and bold enough to do much about it other than pray and send an occasional guilt-ridden check or a like on Facebook. However, within our own families and street corners, as we open our eyes for a brief moment, we struggle with what to do about the countless ills that are within a stone’s throw of our own private castles: things like kids with broken homes; homelessness; and Single Mom’s who haven’t a prayer unless someone sees the face of Christ in their hopeless eyes. We struggle with what part we are to play, all the while trying to cut off just a sliver of an American Dream for ourselves and our families, and yet…the two are very strange bedfellows indeed aren’t they? Oh yeah, the struggle is for real isn’t it? Or should I ask, “Shouldn’t it be”?

 

The Organization, Maybe Not So Much

 

I can remember about a year ago talking with a pastor friend about my wrestling with the question I’ve put before us today.  I unpacked my life before him about my struggle with these things, and about my experience in opening up my home and pocketbook for many years to the face of Christ I have seen in my own life that were hungry, in prison, naked, or needing some cold water. I remember the conversation and sharing the mêlée I had in my own ability to achieve both the juggling act of trying to lose my life and gain it at the same time—an enigma indeed. His reply was staggering, and I haven’t forgotten it. He said, “Maybe Jesus didn’t want you to do all those things you did”. In other words the quick translation was: Jesus would have preferred I gain my life rather than lose it. I refrained from the chuckling that would have possibly disguised my uncontrollable sobbing just behind my sad blue eyes, and perhaps even scoffing at the stereotypical response by well meaning Christians who believe that if we don’t have a savings account, a 401K and own our own home, we’ve missed God somehow, and simply need a Dave Ramsey class! Its unwritten prose, but its lines are there nonetheless to be seen and read, and many of us in the organism have now memorized their response verbatim. And it is this problem that I believe comes first from the organization at large, and from the broader culture that we are all much more affected by than we are perhaps willing to admit.

 

I’ve done quite a bit of reading in my day, and for those who know me, they would probably say that is an understatement. Nonetheless, most of that reading has been devotionally and as a discipline in the scriptures themselves, but also in reading very broadly in all areas where the church is concerned; and also historically–particularly honing in on its infancy. One thing is overwhelming clear in this practice that I can’t shake out of my head and heart and it is this: The church understood it’s call to reach out to the have not’s; the have nones; the crippled and the lame; the sick and the dying; and the mentally disturbed, and brought them into their care. This was often accomplished with the extension of the healing touch of Christ’s power from their hands to restore, and the equally therapeutic power of love, a place to stay, with food and a warm blanket to ease their continued pain and suffering–as well as from the stigma of their vulnerability from a world that would just as soon find a way to decrease their surplus population.

 

Now to be sure, the organizational church has been known for its outreach in these areas that should not be underestimated in the least. In fact, almost everywhere there is suffering in the world, some branch of both the organizational church and individuals that make up the organism will be the first ones on the front line of offering a cup of cold water and some sort of assistance to the disenfranchised that our world periodically spits out of it’s evolutional system of which they cannot thrive in. Yet what has caused me a slight relapse back into questioning the church’s overall approach, is the fact that most of it’s population in America that I am constantly bumping into seems to be mostly concerned with their own self-preservation and achievement of the American Dream.  To a point that the calling to sacrifice has become almost a faint whisper that almost no one is even straining to hear anymore. It has been drowned out I’m afraid by the scream of cultural inconsequentialities and a familiar call to compete with new sets of Joneses.

 

Cost is Caught and Not Taught

 

One reason I think in particular, and this is sure to get me into trouble with the “I love my church” crowd, stems from the amount of money that goes into the maintenance and upkeep of the machine that is the organizational church. And though many of these same churches have ministries and programs that assuage the picture given that they are involved in the things the church has always been noted for; the truth is: compared to the actual money that comes in the door, 95% in most churches are going to the solemn assemblies and programs we provide the saints– whilst the percentage left to the lost and least of these is negligible to say the least. Part of the reason is because we have become too dependent on paid professionals to do for us what the organism we should be doing for ourselves. And though it is not my purpose today to unpack too much of this, it is simply to point out that this is attributable to a problem I am seeking to highlight–of a Christianity without a cost, where we learn from those who should be exemplars otherwise that self-preservation is to be preferred over giving sacrificially. And while we are commissioned to give more and more to the upkeep of the machine through various tactics and campaigns, we are rarely allowed to peel back the financial statement onion.  Yet when we do, we find that perhaps the church needs financial accountability as well to correct this malaise among itself that has also infected its constituents. As the old adage suggests, “Monkey see, Monkey do”! For if I as a minister of the gospel do not by my own example and admonition to my congregants allow Christianity to cost me something and to wrestle with the various faces of Christ I see each day, then how will I truly teach aside from practice. The devil is in the details I assure you. This to me seems to be a huge problem that should not be overlooked.

 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

 

As I write this today, I am again asking these huge questions in my own life as an individual. Is my sole purpose to provide for my family, leave them an inheritance and provide them the best life now? Perhaps this is the case, but perhaps not. I struggle with this conundrum of late, and it sometimes keeps me up at night. It does so because of the rightful tension it should have in each of our lives as Christians, as well as my own failure to measure up to a Daddy Warbucks expectation. And how will I be sized up as I leave this world if I continually fail in the eyes of the ones I love and in the eyes of others that will no doubt forget me shortly after my body hits the cold, dirt floor? Or did Jesus perhaps really mean it when he said that though the heavenly Father knew we had need of such things as basic to our human survival and well being, that he really did want us to seek first his Kingdom and righteousness? A Kingdom, that while other kingdoms rage all around us and are concerned with their various agendas, should characteristically be concerned with that one that was lost, and the least of these that may knock on your private castle door today. I submit to you that if we call ourselves Christians in any form or fashion, what our Christianity costs us must go outside of our intimate family circle, what’s left at the end of the month, and not to the exclusion of the five loaves and two fish we already have. Until Christianity passes this litmus test, its doubtful that anyone will make much of a fuss about us in the not too distant future. And for a church that once turned the Roman world upside down in just 3 centuries, we have now in just 17 since then turned it back right-side up…and perhaps the writing is now rather chiseled on the church wall.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crosses and Resurrections: A Juxtaposition of How Christians Ought To Live

I’ve thought a lot about the cross and the resurrection lately—two very distinct but cataclysmic events that also have their mystical place in the outworkings of our very real and daily lives.   My contemplations have not been because Easter and its emotive reminders of both events are a few short months away; nor is it because we’ll celebrate the birth of our Lord lying in a manger in just a matter of weeks. Instead, I’ve actually deliberated about it primarily because my experience has been that living in either extreme somehow has not served me quite well–nor has it served others of which I’ve had the opportunity to walk down the path of life with thus far. Let me briefly explain.

 

First of all, living a cruciform life has been somewhat easier for me than most. That is of course not to say that I know it better than many more who have suffered far greater than me in this life, and certainly not to the exclusion of our Lord himself whose Passion speaks for itself. However, I would have to say that the cross is what most coalesces with my feeble existence on this earth. In other words, it’s easy for me to believe that a man dying on the cross and saving a world is good news. And as far as I can tell, the gospel has always been better news to the poor, the downtrodden, the broken and battered; and to the spiritual misfits to whom life has given them it’s daily cross to carry. Jesus said that, Paul and Peter repeated it, and it blends in perfectly with the tapestry that is and has been my life-a life of carried crosses more than glorious resurrections. That is not to say that I have not had great seasons of life, some noted successes, and some say I even have a talent or two that the world has yet to stand up and take notice of. However, let’s just say that the cross to me makes perfect sense. And though the resurrection might be good for Jesus and those of us who await the sweet bye and bye, for me the cross has always been a sentiment that has been easy to stick like glue, and through it I make the most sense of my fragile reality in this world, and to those to whom my misery brings familiar and good company.

 

Now I know, I know. Already you’re starting to slip off because it looks like there isn’t going to be good news to this short story. That’s the resurrection in all of us quite frankly, and to the world of which we are apart. And the truth is, we as Christians are at somewhat of a disservice talking about crosses in a resurrection world are we not? And it’s not hard to believe; as history bears this out repeatedly in the blood of martyrs, and the accompanying growth or decline of the church as a result. It is equally not hard to believe in our own daily experience if we take notice. For each and every time we attempt to give a cross response to a resurrection belief system, it is often met with opposition and checkered results. I for one have experienced this time and time again in my own life; when sacrificing something for someone else (a cross), was somehow mixed in with the hope of a good outcome in the end (resurrection); yet like Waiting for Godot, its actualization never came. And this same repeated story has been written in my own blood, sweat and tears; and in forever missing dollars and cents. So yeah, I get the cross; and you could say it gets me–a little more than I would care to be familiar with. And so, it’s equally not hard for me, like Paul, when I am with you, to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified, to the exclusion of the rest of the (resurrection) gospel story. In fact, throughout my short tenure in ministry as a Pastor, I preached this message, and saw a cross under just about every bush and around every corner. Not only did it make sense to me, and echoed from the unity of the book to which I’ve spent my life’s attention to; but as I mentioned earlier, it made sense to my own daily experience and to the via dolorosa of those who were attracted to my message—those to whom the cross was something they could identify with, and to whom it had become a close and endearing friend.

 

But secondly, what of this mysterious resurrection? This experience that only Jesus himself has achieved in the natural order of things, but to which we only aspire to in the kingdom somewhat here, but still not yet. What of the victorious Christian life to which we are given admonition week after week in our Sunday worship services, to whom many claim they have a stake on, but to which many of us are always a day late and a dollar short? We are suspicious of their claims, and yet equally we know somehow that we are to live somehow juxtaposed between these two worlds; with the cross in one hand, and the rolled away stone in the other. I’m familiar with the former, but uncomfortable with the latter–and so are all my rowdy friends. I realize there is no question as to what we are to become, yet like Paul, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing”[1]. Or perhaps it’s not the missing of the virtuous mark, but achieving the promise on the other end of my periodic obedience, to which my life may very well depend on; yet seems to be stuck in transit somewhere outside of my experience. Do I live in taking up my cross and bearing it as my daily modus operandi, or do I hold out hope that my resurrection of triumph awaits; or do I experience madness somewhere in between?

 

My take on these things as of late is that they are not an “either/or” but rather a “both/and”; a reconciliation of paradox’s of which I am no one’s expert.   I know that God answers prayer, but the answers seem to be slow and at a snail’s pace in their delivery to my inbox, while others boast of a God who speaks and answers before the clock strikes dawn. I step out in faith with everything on the line, but God often seems to be busy with world wars, or perhaps the election; or a million other things instead of meeting me halfway into the next thing I have endeavored to do for him. I’ll settle for the sun will come out tomorrow, but often it’s anything but. As a result, I’m inclined to nestle back up to the cross (splinters and all), awaiting the roll that is called up yonder, rather than holding real faith and God’s occasional silence in a delicate tension. I must learn to live in plenty and in want, and also know that God is still very much in control and attentive to the needs and cry’s of His children. I can ask for the moon and stars, all the while in full recognition that sometimes my same old address is all I might expect today. Meanwhile, tomorrow is another day of hopefulness, another day of faith in the unseen and yet eternal one who knows my name, and who loves me warts and all; and who even says I can call him Father. I can lay hands on the sick and pray to remove mountains, and accept when mustard seeds weren’t quite enough this time around. I can believe in victory, even when sometimes my failure is my more constant companion. More and more, I can continue to walk with my hand in the hand of the man from Galilee, aware of Golgotha’s nearby hill, but equally engaged in the possibility of a miracle happening somewhere along the way. It is into both of these worlds that I must equally pay attention to; never letting either one this side of heaven define who I am for far too long; and yet always holding out for the resurrection of hope that the world also so desperately needs to know and see fleshed out in mine and your shoe leather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Romans 7:19 ESV