A Glimmer of Light

In the second week of the Living Deep sermon series at my church, the topic was a Deeper Walk. John wrote: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth (1 John 1:5-6). Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:6).

John described an “experiential test” of whether a person is truly a follower of Christ: the test is how you behave. If you have been born of God, you cannot keep on sinning as you did before (1 John 3:9). If you have fellowship with God, you will keep his commands. Just as light contrasts with darkness, a person who has been saved should be noticeably different from a person who hasn’t.

In no uncertain terms, John challenged believers to be honest about our sinfulness. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1:8-10).

Pastor Brad said that we should admit our sins to ourselves, confess them to the Lord and to others, and replace the sin we are giving up with the word of God.

In the silent time of prayer, I confessed that I call people dirty, dehumanizing names when I am upset with them (though not to their faces). I am disrespectful like this when I’m driving and get annoyed with another driver or when I’m watching TV and hear someone lying. The other person can’t hear me but God can.

I know that it isn’t enough to control my tongue; my heart needs to change. Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me (Psalm 51:10).

John’s admonitions are humbling. While it is no fun to be called a liar or to be confronted with my sinfulness, it is good for me to be humiliated on a regular basis! I claim to have fellowship with Jesus yet I continue to walk in the darkness. I am too proud of my own spiritual maturity, telling myself that I’m not like “judgy” religious people, that I’m more loving and tolerant. But I fall so short of the example Jesus set!

What does the Lord require of me? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8).

John described the faith walk in very black and white terms; either you walk in the light or you walk in the darkness. I agree that Christians should take sin seriously. But even for those of strong faith, the spiritual journey is not without struggles. Richard Rohr wrote that we never get to spiritual maturity without engaging in “shadowboxing” and the struggle continues for the rest of your life.

When I go for a walk in the sun, I put sunglasses on to protect my eyes, which are pretty sensitive to bright light. As I walk under the trees and the light becomes dappled, my eyes struggle to adjust to the changing light. They can’t figure out whether to dilate or constrict. Sunglasses off. Sunglasses on. I adjust to the changing conditions the best way I know how.

I want to be a glimmer of light in the darkness. I want to have a heart radically changed by grace. I want to be proof that Jesus is who he says he is.

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Selected verses from “Live Like That” (Sidewalk Prophets)
Am I proof
That You are who you say You are
That grace can really change a heart
Do I live like Your love is true
People pass
And even if they don’t know my name
Is there evidence that I’ve been changed
When they see me, do they see You
I want to live like that
And give it all I have
So that everything I say and do
Points to You

A Lonely Believer’s Story

In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik summarized the dilemma of his faith in a three-word sentence: I am lonely. The kind of loneliness he wrote about does not come from being friendless or alone; it is the result of feeling “rejected and thrust away by everybody,” even by one’s most intimate friends. The Rabbi wrote that this experience of loneliness is a paradox: painful and frustrating but also stimulating and cathartic. I am only beginning to understand this loneliness myself.

Sometimes I feel like a stranger in this world. I am surrounded by people who are focused on the material world, striving for money and fame and success. I no longer share their ambitions. I don’t even understand the values of the millions of Christians who have a completely different take on the word of God. The lack of soul connection makes me feel lonely.

In Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,  he said that spiritual loneliness is the natural result of saying yes when all your friends say no.  They are defined by what they are against. I want to be defined by what I am for: the power of God’s redemptive love.

How can I explain my loneliness?

Imagine a four-story building. There is a beautiful chapel on the ground floor where believers gather every week. Many are good, righteous people who come to worship and learn about God. Some of them are here to be entertained and some of them are here to be seen. Although most of the congregants call themselves Christians, many cling to the laws of the Old Testament. They insist that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed both here and outside the building. Others call themselves Evangelicals, but never share the Good News. If you spend any time looking around, you’ll see that modern-day Pharisees have put locks on the doors and bars on the windows to keep undesirables out. They don’t understand that this is God’s house and the doors are open to everyone.

On the second floor, joyous believers gather, grateful for God’s love and forgiveness. They are eager to tell everyone how Jesus changed their lives. You’ll find reformed sinners of all kinds here, people who once had no hope, people who once felt imprisoned by their sins. It’s as if they have been born again! The people on this floor readily share the reason for their hope. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9).

On the third floor, mature believers sit in groups of two or three having deep conversations about spiritual matters. You’ll also find individuals sitting in quiet, contemplative solitude – people like me. These believers have been humbled by life’s experiences. The concerns of the first half of life no longer have any appeal. They no longer feel the need to prove that they are worthy. They see the world with grace-filled eyes because they have experienced God’s mercy firsthand and know that we’re all flawed and in need of grace. Look around, and you’ll see the Jesus Creed prominently displayed: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

The fourth floor is a very busy place. Here, you’ll find servants and activists, people who were called to put their faith into action. Some are busy caring for refugees, or the sick, or the homeless, or the imprisoned. Others are advocates for social justice. They are the hands and feet of Jesus. In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. (Luke 22:25-26).

There are no elevators in this building. There is no easy way to climb from one floor to the next. It is a painful climb. The stairs are steep and unevenly spaced. Those who ascend do so stumbling and falling upward.

Visualizing the dilemma of my faith in this way helps me to understand the confusion and despair I’ve been feeling over the past year or so. I expected other Christians to see things the way I do because we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Now I see that even if we share some common beliefs, we are not on the same plane spiritually and perhaps never will be.

When I gather with a small group of friends from my church, the difference in thinking is abundantly clear. My Christian friends are stuck on the first floor, building walls to keep other people out. They say ‘no’ to anyone who is not like them – gays, Muslims, immigrants, liberals. But I am on a different journey and my capacity for loving other people is growing. As Rohr says, “if your politics do not become more compassionate and inclusive, I doubt whether you are on the second journey.”

Changing Expectations

Richard Rohr has some good advice for people like me. “Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary. ” Groups are often not receptive to change because they are focused on protecting the group’s identity and preserving the status quo. Rohr’s book reminded me of the parable of the soils. Seeds don’t grow on a busy path or in rocky soil. If the soil is not receptive, seeds won’t grow. I used to tell myself that I could influence my friends by sharing my perspective. But now I see, that if their hearts aren’t ready, I might as well be chasing the wind.

Embracing Solitude

Soloveitchik found something positive and stimulating about this loneliness. Rohr would agree. He said that the confusing feelings of spiritual loneliness are far outweighed by the happiness that comes from spending time alone. Soulful people like me need alone time to “unpack” all the stuff that life gives and takes away. I am naturally contemplative and thoroughly enjoy time spent alone reflecting. At the same time, I find myself wishing I had a spiritual mentor or a small group of friends who are at the same place in their spiritual journey.

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Image credit, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art:

Joseph Pennell
The Times Building, 1904

Standing My Ground

2017 was emotionally exhausting. Everyday the news brought concerns about what would happen to immigrants or refugees or the poor or the environment or democracy or freedom of the press. It is no wonder that I ended the year feeling sad and depressed. But as discouraging as the year was, I learned some important spiritual lessons.

Live like there’s no tomorrow. My brother-in-law passed away unexpectedly last year. He was only two years older than me. His death reminded me that not one day is promised to any of us. Time and chance happen to all. There’s nothing like losing someone to remind you that you should not take this life or the people you care about for granted.

Trust that God is on the side of truth and justice. Sometimes it seems like people will get away with lying or covering up the truth. I find hope in what Jesus said: For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open (Luke 8:17). Jesus said that we will be held accountable for every careless word we have spoken (Matthew 12:34-36).

Trust that the good news is still the good news. No matter how many bad things happen in this world, the good news is still the good news. Jesus still loves and forgives sinners. He still comforts those who mourn. He still offers a path to salvation. He is still the most powerful example of love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, and humility that I know.

I will stand my ground where hope can be found. Lauren Daigle’s song O’ Lord reminds me that “until this race is won, I will stand my ground where hope can be found.”  I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I know that he will take all that is wrong and make it right. I will not be discouraged.

Lauren Daigle
Though times it seems
Like I’m coming undone
This walk can often feel lonely
No matter what until this race is won
I will stand my ground where hope can be found
I will stand my ground where hope can be found

Oh, O’Lord O’Lord I know You hear my cry
Your love is lifting me above all the lies
No matter what I face this I know in time
You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right
You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right

 

 

Shadowboxing My Way to Maturity

Sometimes we feel so validated by our inner voice of conscience, so sure of our internal convictions, that we confuse our own voice with the very voice of God. In rereading Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, a passage about the deeper voice of God brought tears to my eyes. I hear a voice that sounds a lot like risk, trust, and surrender but I keep pushing it away because there is too much safety and security in my protective shell.

There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self, of soulful “Beatrice.” – Richard Rohr

Discharging my loyal soldier

Rohr wrote about how Japanese communities helped soldiers return to civilian life after World War II. Faithful soldiers were first thanked for their service and then were told, the war is now over. We need you to return as something other than a soldier. The communal ritual gave the returning soldiers the closure they needed to move on to the next phase of life. Rohr called this transition process “discharging your loyal soldier.”

Similarly, to grow spiritually in the second half of life, we must transition from an egocentric to a “soul-centric” worldview. We have to let go of or “discharge” the ego-driven “loyal soldier” that served us well in the first half of life. While the loyal soldier plays an important role in early life, giving our lives shape and purpose and stability, at some point, he starts holding us back from the life we were meant to live.

Who is my loyal soldier? What persona has served me so well in the first part of life? I would describe my loyal soldier as a dutiful Guardian, the name David Kiersey calls the Sensing Judging personality type. “Guardians are the cornerstone of society, for they are the temperament given to serving and preserving our most important social institutions.” Guardians are concerned with rules and procedures and right versus wrong, with making sure that people do what they are supposed to do. Guardians police social behavior by laying out the should’s and should not’s.

In his book, Please Understand Me II, Kiersey used the phrase “preoccupied with morality” to describe the Guardian personality type. I am not flattered by that description. I see the sinfulness in myself and I see how much I have struggled to do what I know to be right. I see that when I try to attack evil, I produce an ugliness in myself – anger, impatience, condescension, hypocrisy. And most importantly, I see the beauty of forgiveness and grace.

I have learned to let go of my innate compulsion to control or dictate what other people do and to let God do the work of changing people.  I am free to be something other than a finger-pointing Guardian of morality. I am free to be the grace dispenser I was meant to be.

Shadowboxing with myself

Rohr said that your persona represents how you choose to identify yourself and what other people expect from you. But we also have a shadow self – the parts we don’t want other people to see and that we don’t want to see in ourselves. He said that we never get to the second half of spiritual life without engaging in the inner work of shadowboxing with this false self.

Growing spiritually means letting go of the false self. For me, the self that filters and censors herself is a false self. The self that protects people from hearing anything critical, even when it is for their own good, is a false self. The self that avoids offending fellow Christians when she knows that God is on the side of justice and mercy – this is my false self.

Unfortunately, the work of confronting our own faults never ends. I am learning to face my faults, my contradictions, my fears. Just as David did long ago, I’ve invited God to shine a light on my faults.

Search me God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).

Getting out of my foxhole

Early in life, I learned to go into self-protection mode when I felt threatened by too much attention or too much social stimulation. I was socially awkward and easily embarrassed so I withdrew into my protective shell, my foxhole. If I kept quiet, I wouldn’t say the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time. If I didn’t approach other people, they wouldn’t reject me.

In contrast to the analytical, thinking me, my Protector is the sensitive, feeling part of me. My Protector is considerate of other people. She has empathy. She doesn’t want other people to feel bad. She doesn’t like to criticize. She respects the fact that other people have a right to their own opinions so she avoids controversy and conflict.

Now, I find that the self-protective mode that served me well in the first part of life keeps me from being obedient to the deeper voice of God. No one can hurt me. I don’t have to prove that I am worthy because I know that God loves me just as I am. I have experienced the power of God’s grace. My protector has outlived her usefulness.

I no longer want to be silent about my faith because I am afraid of offending someone, whether it is atheists or other Christians. When I hear Christians complaining about welfare recipients, I want to speak out on behalf of the poor. When I hear Christians say that we should live in fear of gays or Muslims, I want to talk about God’s love for all people. When Christians say that we should turn our backs on refugees, I want to ask them, what would Jesus do? But instead of speaking up, I hide in my foxhole and avoid confrontation.

I hear the voice of God calling me to be a voice for justice and mercy, to be a voice for genuine Christian discipleship. He has shown me that my purpose in life is not accounting; it is loving other people as I love myself. My purpose in life is not making sure that everyone follows my rules. It is seeing to it that no one misses out on the grace of God. I hear the voice of mercy with tear-filled eyes.

I hear the deeper voice of God telling me to bravely, courageously, and gently speak up. He did not give me a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). The thought of obeying this call is frightening. It means going against what feels comfortable and safe. It means stepping out of my foxhole and possibly into the line of fire, even from fellow Christians.

I will be honest, fear has held me back all too often. Rohr wrote, “once you have faced your own hidden or denied self, there is not much to be anxious about anymore, because there is no fear of exposure – to yourself or to others.”

I’ve said goodbye to my loyal soldier. Now it is time for me to get out of my foxhole, to say hello to the voice of risk, to surrender to the voice of mercy and love.