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Friday, February 26, 2021

Quiet Desperation...

 Poet, philosopher, naturalists, etc., Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." I think his observation is both brilliant and woefully short-sighted. He might have an escape clause, if by "men" he meant the "mankind" all-of-humanity kind of men. I would argue we all live lives of quiet desperation. We can only deaden the ache so much, for no matter how much food, alcohol, and pleasurable company we may procure, the ache still remains.


CS Lewis calls it the "inconsolable longing" for something we've smelled, heard, tasted, or felt from an agonizing distance. We find some comfort in structure, in routine, in "what I ought to be doing," but we can't help but feel that, in the end, we know we're in "The Matrix." We know that something isn't right. We know that we're incomplete. We know that we're missing out...on something.

Most of us succumb to the idea that...if I could just get, become, achieve, or acquire "the next thing," then, all will be well. I think somewhere deep down, we all at least suspect that, even if we do get the greatest thing, find the most loving person, or reach the highest heights...we'll still be left with that nagging ache. Movie stars, rock stars, lottery winners, super bowl winning teams, and billionaires have shown us over the years that whatever earthly height we can imagine will never be quite high enough.

I'm an English and Reading teacher, but somehow, over the last several years, I've been teaching middle school students about careers. In that study, we take an in-depth look at careers over the years, how historical events, technology, and culture influence careers. Studying history can be very revealing. One of the aspects of history that I've noticed is this: as affluence and privilege increase, so does immorality. Don't get me wrong. I am not shaking a judgmental finger, as if I somehow know better than all of humanity. I'm likely just as immoral as any other person on the planet. Honestly, the older I get, the more I feel like we human beings really ought to be cutting each other a little bit more slack.

Honestly, beyond lives of quiet desperation, I'd argue that we're all just stubborn, needy, desperate souls throwing shit at the walls and hoping...praying that something sticks. Why are we pushing up against any and every cultural norm? Why are we searching for alternate identities? Why are we starting to try to identify as things we are not? Why are we aggrandizing sexuality to the point that it is all we identify with? I believe it's because we're all hoping beyond hope that we'll find "something to make sense of it all," whatever "it all" is.

It's at about this time that you expect me to start preaching, right? Batson is one of those born again Christian folk. Of course, he's going to say, turn to Jesus, right?

To be quite honest, Jesus is my ultimate conclusion, but I wouldn't dare to presume upon your lives. I will urge you, however, to be more purposeful searchers. This is no joke. Life, this day-after-day thing that adds up to a lifetime is the most vital thing we have. Invest it in the "finding out." I've done my homework. I've researched science. I've researched world religions. I've investigated claims. I explored my own psyche. In the end, I can't get past God. I can't fathom a world of ten trillion trillion intricacies...that didn't have a lucid cause. Of all the world religions, only one speaks of grace. Only one offers a Christ who would go through all the hell on earth that we're all going through and then cap it all by being tortured and murdered...for me. Only one rose from the dead. But...that's my conclusion. I've done my homework. I am satisfied.

And yet...the ache remains.

I once believed and, for a long, long time, stubbornly held on to the idea that once I became a Christian, my life would all come together. The ache would be so satiated by Jesus that I would never long for more. Here I tread dangerous ground because I'm sure there are many believers who would say unequivocally that Jesus fulfills their each and every need. With all due respect, I salute those contented beings and...I say, "well, that is not my experience." My experience is much more of what the bible describes. "In this world, you will have trouble." Yes, I have Jesus, but I'm living in decay. Yes, I have Jesus, but it still hurts when my children are sick. It still makes me weep when I watch the news. It still feels like everything has gone terribly, horribly wrong. I'm just being honest about my experience. Sue me.




Jesus once said to the woman at the well, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life." In my experience, the thirst comes back. Some might argue that I never really "drank the water that Jesus gives." Maybe I never really believed. Maybe I lost my salvation. Maybe...or maybe not. Maybe what is shortsighted is the popular understanding of the type of thirst Jesus was talking about here. There's physical thirst when our bodies actually need physical water or...we'll dehydrate and die. And then, there's felt thirst. We might not be on the verge of death, or even remotely close to dehydration, but we still want something to drink. In my experience, in whatever version of Christianity I've lived into, Jesus has satiated the physical-need thirst. I have an anchor in my soul that is steadfast, ironclad, trustworthy, and loving. But this isn't heaven. I still want things to drink.

And here, to me, is the difference that Jesus makes. I am hard-pressed, but not crushed; I am perplexed, but not in despair; I am persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed. My thirst has been quenched, but I am still thirsty. The wound that causes the ache has been ultimately healed, but like the phantom pain of an amputee, I still feel the ache. But, for the last time, these are my conclusions after almost 50 years of searching. I've done my homework. I am content to live with the ache.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Dr. King's "The Fierce Urgency of Now," Reflections.

 "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."


Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

One year later, to the day, Dr. King was shot and killed.

I've always been a "seize the day" kind of guy. Ask my students over the years, and they'll tell you that I preach to them, somewhat ad nauseum, that time is our most precious commodity. Dr. King's words declaring "the fierce urgency of now" resonates so deeply with me and in so many different ways that I don't know where to start. I do know, however, where I want to end.

Of all the myriad aspects of life for which God might judge us, I suspect that how we spent the time given us will be accounted quite heavily. Time is an unknown, finite quantity for each of us. Since we don't know how much time, we ought to recognize every minute as it approaches, as precious. The Lord has given each of us gifts, but gifts not to clutch, cover up, or spend on ourselves only. These are gifts to share. God gave me imagination, worlds to create, and hope to spread. As I look back over my life, I'm convicted that if I hadn't wasted so much time, I might have doubled the number of books I've written. But the past is not the way. (Thanks, Mando)

There is only now, only the way forward. What is your gift? Use it. Use it now. The "moving finger" continues to write. What do I want it to write? In the end, I hope it writes, "Well done, good and faithful servant."



Sunday, January 03, 2021

For the World-Weary and Heavily Burdened...

 28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”


I don't know if there are any verses in scripture more comforting than these. And, at least for me personally, I'm not sure if there are any verses in scripture that I've ignored more than these. 

True Confession: I am a card-carrying, senior member of the Burden Builders Club, no affiliation with the BBC, makers of fine British entertainment. (Have you seen Sherlock? Holy cow!) But, I digress. 




These verses from Matthew 11 are in red as a reminder that JESUS SAID THIS. And yet, how many times have we said, "Nah, no thanks, Lord. I think these burdens look great on my shoulders. In fact, there are a few more heavy ones over there I'm going to go pick up."???

Part of my problem is that I'm a control freak. Yes, there's horrendous crap going on in my life, but if I've got hold of the steering wheel, I'm certain I can fix it. And part of that problem is a lack of faith. "Lord, I don't really believe you will fix this, so I guess I'll jump in." And part of THAT problem is me thinking I'm smarter than God. "Lord, there's this problem in life, and well, it's been going on for a while. I'm not sure why, but you don't seem inclined to fix it. Clearly, an error on your part. So, I guess I'll take up the slack and attempt to do what you ought to be doing."

Do you see the chain of errors there? Do you have any idea how HEAVY that chain is to bear? I can hear Jacob Marley screaming at me right now, 




Bearing the burdens in life that are beyond our control, beyond our ability to fix—or even change—is indeed a ponderous chain. Bearing these burdens makes us weary. It's exhausting. And...it's pointless. 

There's a reason the "Serenity Prayer" is so popular. 




When we hear the Serenity Prayer, we are suddenly confronted with our lunacy. How insane it is to allow ourselves to dwell upon, to mentally and emotionally toil over, things in life that we cannot change? Coronavirus, Racism, Corruption in Politics, Cultural Depravity, Getting Old, Changing the Behaviors of other people (Got you with that last one, didn't I? I am so guilty of that)...these burdens, and an infinitely long list of other concerns, are far bigger than us, far deeper than us, and far beyond our ability to change.

Please don't misunderstand me. We can wear our masks. We can each do our part to love others regardless of our differences. We can do our homework, vote faithfully and intelligently. We can support redeeming behaviors. We can take our vitamins and go to the gym. We most definitely can do our best to change the things we can change, but bearing the weight of any those things categorically is madness. 

Start at the micro level, the personal level. There's someone in your life, probably someone very dear to you. You can see that there's something very harmful in that person or in that person's life. What can you do? You can love, support, offer a good example, offer advice, etc. But you can NEVER take responsibility for someone else's change. There's the whole free will thing, remember? With parents this can be particularly burdensome. We raise our children the best we can, but ultimately, they are going to make their own decisions. As my good friend Christopher Hopper is fond of saying, "You are responsible TO your children, not FOR them." You do your best and then let go. {Cue Frozen song, preferably the heavy metal version.}

Here's a link: HEAVY METAL VERSION of "LET IT GO."

Intellectually, on some level, I think we all know this, but we don't want to acknowledge it. We are stubborn and foolish. And the result? We are so bone-weary it can be hard to get out of bed. 

Jesus says, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."  

Here's where a lot of messages would end, saying, "Amen. May it ever be so."

[Side note: does it drive anyone else CRAZY when sermons, devotions, or even whole books spend 90% of the content harping on the problem, only to gloss over the solutions? We already know about the problem. We need some help here. Throw us a fricken' bone!] Rant over.

How? How do we release the burdens? How do we stop picking up new burdens? How do we stop exhausting ourselves with heavy weights we were: Never. Meant. To. Bear?

Fortunately, Jesus tells us how. He says, "Come to Me." Recognize that you are carrying stuff that you cannot possibly handle, and go to Jesus. That might mean go to Him in prayer. That might mean take a walk on the beach and go to Him. That might mean listen to music that takes you to Him. This might even mean, locking yourself in a (hopefully, sort of soundproof) room and screaming, "LORD, I can't take this anymore. You take this GIANT BALL OF CRAP off of my shoulders, please!"

Note that this is not a passive step. This is an imperative, active movement of our will and possibly physical action, as well. "Come to me." If you're carrying the weight of the world, go directly to Jesus, any way that you can. Maybe it sounds too easy, but be honest, how often in the midst of being burdened, do you actually, actively, and repeatedly, go to Jesus? And when you're with Jesus, how often do you actually cast off all that junk with the full recognition that you cannot possibly fix it yourself? Not just lip service either. There's a Polish proverb that I've come to love, and it surges to mind here: "Not my circus. Not my monkeys." 




The phrasing of this proverb makes me smile, but the truth within is a holy 2 X 4 that we need to get smacked with repeatedly. Say it with me, "Not my circus. Not my monkeys." We need to recognize that we've done what we CAN do, but the rest is in YOUR hands, Lord."

I'm not belittling physiological anxiety in the least. I understand that burden from personal experience. Some of us have predilections to anxiety and have compounded such physiological chemical problems by wearing a deep rut in our minds. The needle on our spinning record keeps finding that rut and falling into it. And we fret and we worry and we consume ourselves with the impossibility of the task without recognizing the impossibility of the task. We need to ask God to create a new rut. Better? Ask God to create a New Groove. The Lord's New Groove.

{I'm hearing Kronk saying, "Riiii-iiiight."}

That "new groove" is the second and third imperative in this pivotal scripture passage: "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me..." This is also part of the HOW. Many of us have been bearing burdens for so long that it has become a daily habit like putting on shoes, brushing teeth, or...breathing. We cannot just chuck our burdens on Jesus because our sinful flesh shoulders are burden magnets. No sooner will we dump "the future" on Jesus than "the past" will hop right onto our backs. We have to replace the burden with something else. Jesus's yoke.  




See that wooden harness-thingy in the drawing above? That's a yoke. Brannon Diebert of Christianity.com defines a yoke in this way: "Essentially, a yoke was a harness used by oxen and other animals to ease the work of hauling a load. It was also meant as a designation of servitude and carrying the burden of a task or mission." Jesus tells us to take His yoke upon us, and yes, IMHO, in the metaphor, we are the dumb steer who need...er, steering.

How do we take that yoke, His yoke, upon us? There are certain elements that are common to all of us: learn Jesus's way. Watch the Master work in scripture and in life. And submit. Part of giving up the burden is submission. We need to realize that God is the only one who has the power to change things that are impossible for us to change. Likewise, {and this stings a little} He is the only one smart enough to know how and when, or even if, something needs to be changed. Who among us have known the mind of the Lord that we should be His tutor? Ehrm...not me, but that hasn't kept me in my vanity from functionally presuming that role. 

Just as I wasn't there when God tossed all the stars into their places, I don't really know which evils of the world need changing or what my "perceived" solution would cause in the world. Why did God allow a certain tragedy to occur? That is way WAY above my pay grade. I don't want it to be. I want to point fingers. I want to blame God. But that is utter insanity. I am finite. He is not. I cannot see with an eternal perspective. He can. As Gandalf says, "Not even the very wise can see all ends," but God can. So we must submit to the Lord.

"Jesus, please let me wear Your yoke." Whatever that looks like, I want it. Similar to defining "coming to Him," I think that "wearing His yoke" can be a highly customizable act. What has God called you to do? Teach? Write? Cook? Plant? Paint? Code? Run? Build? The list is endless. Whatever you do, do unto the glory of the Lord. The thing is, you've got to own it. I am doing X for God's glory. Lord, please put Your yoke on my shoulders and steer me wherever you like. 

Jesus says His burden is light. His yoke is light. But isn't it an incredibly heavy burden to be God's ambassadors on Earth? Is it really? Think it through. Why is that such a burden? Could it be that we are (once again) weighing ourselves down with faulty expectations? Can a human being convert another human being? Are we responsible for generations believing in Jesus? No. No, we cannot and no, we are not. God saves. God recreates. God wields the power over life, death, time, salvation, and everything else! Imagine doing some gardening with a young child. You might give the little one a spade to dig a crude hole. Or maybe you sprinkle a few seeds in that tiny hand so that he can push them into the loose soil. As the adult in the scenario, you give the child what he/she can handle and you do the rest. Even more so is this true of God. He gives us all kinds of things to go out and do, but He doesn't expect us to do what only He can do. 

At this point, we may sheepishly look at our burdens and our foolishness and feel too ashamed to bring all this junk to Jesus, but He tells us He is gentle and humble in heart. He's not glowering at us scornfully as we carry our sacks of filth into His sterile throne room. He comes leaping from the throne to take hold of those sacks, to gently relieve us of the crushing weight they represent. Why should we ever doubt this? He's already humbled Himself by putting on human flesh and living in our conditions. He's already humbled Himself by taking on the most hideous, weighty burdens of all: our sin. He already carried all that evil junk off and buried it. How much more then would He now be willing to take on our worldly burdens? 

And what does Jesus offer in exchange for tons of exhausting, anxiety-producing crap? Rest. "Here, let Me take that for you. There, there, that's better now, isn't it? Of course, you're spent. Time for a nap. Rest."