Lent: An Awakened Imagination

The brain is the organ of truth; imagination the organ of reality.
{Clyde Kilby}

Many Christian disciplines – and Lent is no different – suffer from a debilitating reputation: that they are activities encouraging us to withdraw from the reality around us, ways of hiding out from the physical, lived-in world. For many of us, prayer is what we do only after we are finished doing everything we can muster. Meditation, we suppose, is for monks who cloister themselves away and who literally have nothing better to do with their time. Even communal worship takes a bit of a rap for being a way the church creates and sustains its cultural bubble.

If ever we use our spiritual practices as a way of disengagement, however, we have entirely missed the point. A constant posture of dependence on God and recognition of Jesus’ sustaining presence (which is simply another way of saying prayer) is not an afterthought, but rather the very oxygen we need to survive, to “breathe and move and have our being.” Gathering with God’s people to retell the Gospel story and to remember that Jesus is with us, redeeming and healing, offers an invitation to more deeply engage God’s work in our world, not a way of distancing ourselves from it.

This is why it is most insidious that the word imagination has become synonymous with detaching from the “real world.” Imagination suffers under the unfair indictment that it is the realm for children who have not yet grown up. However, the constant witness of our best spiritual teachers, from St. Ignatius to C.S. Lewis to Eugene Peterson, insists that the redeemed imagination is actually one of the ways we ground ourselves in real, solid, spiritual truth. Our redeemed, Christ-immersed imagination allows us to see with spiritual eyes and to hear with spiritual ears what is real, what is true, what we might miss if all we relied on was our analytical brain or our five senses. So, in Christian theology, the imagination is neither divorced from or subservient to our physical, rational realities. Rather, they all work in harmony, our whole person engaging all God has for us.

This is why, for me, Lent is a season where God uses my physical experiences to connect my heart and soul to spiritual truth. And, let me tell you, if ever I needed my heart and soul to envision and hear and obey spiritual truth, it is now.

I need to be caught up in a fuller, truer, more alive story than the one I have been living in. My mind has grown dull with shame and fear and the tyranny of a mind locked-in on all that is small and stifling, all that is in opposition to God. I need to be re-awakened. I need prodding. I am a physical being, and I need something tangible, a physical jolt, to blow a little oxygen on the embers of my soul’s imagination.

Today, I do not need a doctrine or a principal or a theological idea (all good). Today, I need the hand of God, the whisper of the Spirit. I need my brother Jesus to walk beside me. Today, I need a fresh vision of what God is doing in my heart, in my family, among my friends and my church. Today, I need to hear God tell me what he truly thinks of me. Today, I need the Spirit to allow me to see another story, a story quite different from the one the Deceiver has been peddling.

Today, this second week of Lent, I need a physical reminder that God is with me, that Jesus is all around me, that the Spirit of the Living God is the one truth-teller. I need the Word of God to again “become flesh.”

So, today, as I pray the Hours, I hear these words: Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. And hope fills my heart. My imagination turns from my small self and hears another truth, another reality. I fast over a meal, and my physical hunger turns my attention toward my deeper craving for God’s redemption. I turn off the computer earlier than normal, and my mind (rather than being distracted by virtual realities or the constant possibility of more information) engages the very present fact that I am a father, a husband, a son of God. Here. Now. In this space. In this moment.

I want all God has for me, all God is for me in Jesus. I want my mind and my heart and my soul and my body to be fully alive, awake to my world. I pray that this Lenten season would offer me another opportunity to see Jesus do a fresh work, a fresh awakening.

It takes imagination to live in God’s world. {N.T. Wright}

hope / Winn

Lent: Mighty to Save

Well, Lent is here, for sure. Almost on cue, this past week, the hammer dropped. I’ve experienced spiritual dearth, oppressiveness, shame, fear, loneliness. In the words of my new friend Kade, “this kind of shit gets old fast.” Amen, brother.

If you want another perspective on the state of things in my house this past weekend, you can peek over at what my wife Miska had to say about it.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all suggesting that Lent = gloom, doom and the need for a large bottle of Prozac. I am, however, suggesting that Lent, if we are courageous enough to allow it, can be a season where we truly open up our heart and provide a wide space for God’s Spirit to do deep work in our soul. Over these weeks, we can allow God the place to do what he is always longing to do: to fill and heal and bind up and reshape – basically, to make us more of our true self, to wipe away the grime and the gray shades of sorrow that have covered our true glory. If we need hope, hope is what God will work to give us. If we need faith or joy or laughter, God’s Spirit, we can be sure, will be moving there.

Unfortunately, however, what I need is a size 13 shoe to the backside. I’ve listened to lies too long. In some places of my soul, I’ve waffled and wavered and basically pranced daintily around when I ought to be standing on two firm feet, staring evil down and telling it to go to Hell where it belongs.

I don’t want to be a wuss anymore. I want to be wide-alive. I want to be a reckless man, reckless for my wife, reckless for my boys, reckless for all the truths I believe in. However, I know this is beyond me. I need God. I want God. In the wreck I’ve made of things, in the dark places where evil and weakness and plain ol’ foolishness have cornered my heart, I need God. I need the God who is, as older generations liked to say, “mighty to save.”

We prayed this Lenten prayer on Sunday. I think I’ll pray it again:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Lenten peace / Winn

Day of Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On this day, we embark on a journey toward redemption, a journey toward Easter.

Lent spreads over forty mornings and evenings, beginning today, the day of ashes, and concluding with that beautiful sunrise when we proclaim with loud and joyous voices, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” For these forty days (excluding the six Sundays we will encounter because each of these is a “mini-Easter”), we renounce evil (sin that binds us or distractions that pull at us or lies we have believed) by a physical act of repentance. We give something up (chocolate, sex, TV). Or we take on a discipline (praying the Hours, serving in a shelter). Essentially, we allow Jesus, physical God, to meet us in physical ways.

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent (or Good Friday or Advent or anything else that might align us with those “Christians with the smells and bells”). Like any good thing, these practices can of course be abused, tempting us to flex our spiritual muscle or to try to earn kudos from God. However, I’ve found that I need these physical reminders, these sacramental encounters, to guide my mind and my heart and my body deeper toward Jesus.

A friend of mine who is Anglican priest told me (in flabbergasted tone) how put off he was by a fellow pastor who complained that Ash Wednesday was too somber, too focused on sin. Out of 365, he wanted to know, can’t we have just one single day to repent?

These practices are certainly no end to themselves. They aren’t intended to focus on us: our rigor, our righteousness, our devotion. These sacramental practices intend to turn us toward Jesus, to stir our heart toward our desperate need for a long redemption.

This, then, is the question for us to ask these forty days that will follow: where do we need God’s redemption? Where do we need resurrection? Where is the broken place that – unless God heals us – we are truly without hope?

For me, I want to be released from myself, from my fear. I want to turn away from all the noise I allow to distract me from the work God wants to do in my heart. I want to truly believe that Jesus is life, my life. I want to embrace my full salvation in Jesus. To do this, I need the ashes, the reminders that I am marked by Jesus. I need these concrete actions: turning off both the computer and my appetite for food each night at 9 (the discipline Miska has chosen for me – each of us choose for the other). I need my community to journey with me these days. It’s too long to go alone.

I hope to continue this Lenten conversation with at least one post each week of the journey. I hope to share more of what God will be stirring in my heart. Join me these forty days of hoping and waiting and repenting, these days of believing in Jesus and moving toward resurrection.

We are not converted only once in our lives but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ. -Thomas Merton

Transfiguration and the Lost Art of Listening

I’m tired of feeling the compulsion to always have something to say, to always have a response, an opinion, a wise word. I wonder how much of this comes from the fact that I’m a pastor (a vocation unfortunately far too suited for those of us who like to hear ourselves chatter) or that I’m a writer – I mean, I live by words for goodness’ sake.

Of all the compliments a pastor (a human, for that matter) could receive, this has to be one of the best: “You listen good.” I don’t hear it nearly enough.

Peter was given to bursts of words, particularly when he was caught off guard or was flustered or eager or unsure of what else to do. Of course, his most famous moment was his self-assured declaration that, no matter what, he would never deny Jesus. A little quiet humility would have served Peter well there. I have been drawn to another moment, however. In Mark 9, Jesus took his inner trio (Peter, James and John) up to the top of a mountain to witness an event they would have to see to believe. Jesus began to burn white, glowing brilliantly, as Moses and Elijah, long dead, appeared next to him.

Stunned, Peter did what Peter usually did in such circumstances: he blurted out the first words that popped into his head. “Rabbi, this is a great moment. Let’s build three memorials – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” (Mark 9.5-6, Message)

Peter just couldn’t help himself.

The miraculous had happened. God had revealed himself in Jesus — with white-fire and mythic-like witnesses to accent Jesus’ self-revelation. But Peter had to say something. Worse, Peter felt compelled to come up with something to do, something to create, something to build – a memorial would be just the thing.

We do this all the time. God is speaking. Jesus is burning hot-white among us. And we can’t sit still. We can’t wait and ponder. We have to strategize and market and draw up a flow-chart that flings everyone into action. We have to talk, to spin ourselves in circles with all our words.

Are we tired of hearing ourselves jabber? I am. Are we tired of having more confidence in what we can manage that in what God is busy doing? I hope I am.

I want to see God. I want to hear God. I want to believe that Jesus’ words are more vital to my world than my own words. I want to believe – truly believe – that God’s voice, that God’s shining presence, is truly the center of the action.

After Peter had offered his two cents, a thundering voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my Son…Listen to him.” (Mark 9.7) Listen to him.

Actually, Peter, the Father said, this is not the time for you to say or do anything. This is the time to listen.

There is a time to act, and there is a time to wait. There is a time to speak, and there is a time to listen. My prayer is that I will know the difference.

Listening (hopefully) / Winn

Creative Destruction

A while back, we got a new bedtime book at our house, 1,000 Things to Know About Animals. Giraffes and monkeys and cute little webbed feet penguins, our sons enjoy them all. However, the boys prefer the frightening creatures. Crocodiles with powerful jaws. Vampire bats with eerie eyes. Copperheads. Tarantulas. The more poisonous, the more hideous, the better.

The pictures and the fascination with all things gory prompted Seth, three at the time, to pose a troublesome question. “Why did God make scary stuff?” A conversation on the origin of evil…with a preschooler.

Growing older, however, doesn’t silence the question. A bridge collapses inMinnesota. A crisis escalates in Darfur. A region in the Middle East seems (again) like it might spiral into chaos. God, why all the “scary stuff”?

Scripture provides some clarity. God did not intend or create evil. A mutinous angel rebelled, choosing humanity and the earth as the fulcrum of his insurgency. Forced into the fray, we routinely choose the mutiny, against God. We often invite evil.

The result, however, was that evil did not remain merely in the isolated sphere of individual choices (either of angels or humans). Like a dirty needle pumping heroine into the bloodstream, this rebellion straight-lined evil into the created order. Our planet is now riddled with the foul stench. Disease. Greed. Ruin. Can anyone truthfully look at the human race and the mess we’ve made of our planet and believe our problem is merely cosmetic?

Evil is certainly not all we see in our world. Grace and beauty and kindness abound. However, everywhere we look, we see evil’s imprint. Loneliness. Deception. Abandoned children. Shattered marriages. Hungry nations. How can our sickness be healed? How can evil’s dark stain be removed?

Strangely, the Apostle Peter offers hope via a blistering, apocalyptic picture. The heavens will vaporize with an ear-splitting roar. Falling to the earth, fire will scorch the sky. The earth’s raw chemical elements will liquefy like wax dripping from a candle. “God is going to destroy everything like this…” says Peter.(II Peter 3:11)

But destruction is not the point. With God, destruction never holds center stage. God always moves toward redemption. The devastation will work to clear the brush, to remove all the malignant infection evil has cultivated. Destruction will offer a severe mercy. With power and fire and swift, final authority, God will reach into the bowels of the earth and wrench evil’s grip free, once and for all.

This cataclysmic work is not a final destruction, the earth done and finished. Far from it. The destruction breeds new life. It will be a (do we even have language for such a thing?) creative destruction. From the devastation, God will create again, refashioning the earth once considered ruined into the kind of world He wanted in the beginning. We will enjoy the wonder of “a new heaven and a new earth.”(II Peter 3:13)

On this new earth, there will be no disease, no sorrow. No one hungry. No one lonely. The lion will lay down with the lamb. Not a single hint of “scary stuff.”

peace / Winn

The Moon is Always Rising

God is up to something, always – this I believe. God is always redeeming, always bringing hope out of rubble, always forgiving what seems unforgivable, always speaking truth into lie, always mending what is broken, always restoring what has been taken, what has been lost, what we have foolishly given away.

God often does this mending and redeeming and restoring and forgiving in ways and times and places that do not meet up to our sense of how a mending, redeeming, restoring, forgiving God would work. But then, that’s to be expected isn’t, it? We are the ones who are broken and lost, after all, the ones who can rarely make much sense of anything at all.

But then – now and then – in moments that surprise us, God sends reminders of what he has been up to all along, that we are not alone, that we are not abandoned. That God is doing what God has always been doing – “putting the world to rights,” as N.T. Wright says. Laughter breaks through our tears. Unexpectedly, the music moves us and we find ourselves dancing. A story takes us into a true world we have neglected. A kiss. A Scripture. A friend. A whisper from God. A glimpse of the moon.

The moon is our monthly proof that darkness gives way to light, endings to new beginnings. — Starhawk

God.In Time

If God is real, why can’t we see him? If God is with us, why isn’t he saying anything?

Simple questions, so well tread that they run close to cliché. Still the questions dog us. Many of us can’t shake them free. Near his death, the apostle Peter faced a similar stinging question. Jesus had said he was going to come back to earth in a blaze of glory to once-and-for-all set this wreck of a world straight. However, several decades (at least) had passed since then, and…nothing. Not a single break in the clouds. Not the slightest sighting of an angel army or a radiant Messiah warrior on a brilliant white steed. Not a whisper of hope.

Rome still ruled. Liberation seemed no closer than before. Violence and poverty and despair were very much with them, growing even. As rebellion and disillusionment slithered in, their accusation took shape. “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” Their sarcasm was heavy. “Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (II Peter 3.4)

Nothing had happened. Nothing was better. The world just kept rolling on…without God. Some began to view hope in Jesus as pure poppycock.

If this question was sprouting decades after Jesus’ resurrection, it is downright colossal today, almost two millennia later. There has been a lot of evil between there and here, a lot of hoping, a lot of hopes left empty. Every human decade has seen its disaster and its genocide, its famine and its plague.

If God is here, what in God’s name is he waiting for? It’s like Jan Eliason, a member of the UN envoy to Sudan, said in reference to the grim realities there: “Time is on nobody’s side.” In the world we see, evil appears to use the time quite nicely, but where is God?

Peter’s answer was salty. The problem wasn’t God’s delay. The problem wasn’t God’s silence or absence. God was always speaking; he had never stopped. His speaking brought the world into existence, and his speaking was now vigorously at work holding evil at bay until it would finally be cut-off. (II Peter 3:5-7) If it weren’t for God’s active presence, there would be nothing left of us. Evil would have consumed us long ago.

Our problem, Peter said, is that we forget the story. We forget how God is always working goodness. We forget that God is rich in patience and mercy. We forget that God has spoken the beginning and will be speaking the end – and he is speaking and working every moment in between.

We also forget that time is an entirely human internment. “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (II Peter 3:8). And God spends his days, his years, bringing us salvation. Time might not be on our side, but God is.

peace / Winn

Strange Redemption

For several weeks, I’ve been buried in the first three chapters of Genesis. It truly is the ultimate story: aching beauty, tragic deception, carnage and ruin. However, I find strange glimmers of hope in places I would not suspect, hints of redemption imbedded in the very place where the devestation is the most severe. Here are a few, with only first thoughts. I’d like to leave the commentary to you.

// Adam and Eve ate, and their world immediately shattered, a fissure rippled through creation. Their soul must have taken a harsh jolt. Immediately, they hid and began to snatch leaves in a frantic attempt to cover themselves – and God’s first action was to come to where they were, to pursue them with a question, “Where are you?” God would not leave them in their hiding.

// Adam and Eve’s fig-clothes were sad attempts at modesty. Worse, they were the very symbols of their rebellion, of how they gave God the finger. Yet God met them in this dire place they had made for themselves – and gave them better clothes. God would not leave them naked.

// Strangest to me, the more I look at what has classically been called “the curse,” I see mercy (a severe mercy, to be sure) even there. God actually did not speak a curse to Adam or to Eve. God only used the word “curse” against the ground and the serpent. It’s as though God would not use such language against his own image. What God did level against our father and mother seems to me to be -not a curse- but a redemptive judgment. God’s judgement infected Adam and Eve’s primary roles, their primary place of strength and competency (Adam working the elements of the earth and Eve nurturing life and relationships in her world). Was this hardship and struggle necessary for Adam and Eve to realize (in stark contrast to the lie that led them to their destructive choice) that no, they were not God, that no, they could not manage life on their own, that yes, they actually would be dependent on God for life and purpose and relationship and joy. God would not leave them in their delusion.

Pascal said that two things pierce our heart: beauty and pain. God’s first choice had been to flood Eve and Adam with beauty. And he had. Beauty everywhere, in everything. But they did not listen to the beauty. Perhaps, now, they would listen to pain. A strange redemption.

peace (even if it’s strange),

Winn

A Prophet and a Roaring God

I have spent a lot of time recently conversing with a Biblical prophet named Amos. He is tucked away in the often neglected corner of Scripture known as the Minor Prophets (the designation – minor – is unfortunate and misleading). My time with Amos has been difficult. My first hurdle is simple: my three-year-old son Seth has a stuffed monkey named Amos, and it is just hard to hear the gravity of a prophetic voice when I imagine it coming from a wide-smiled 18 inch chimp. My main difficulty, however, is that Amos is true to his calling. Amos is a prophet.

The word prophet conjures up other images and associations for me. I might think of the guy we saw on the edge of the street last Saturday wearing a “Fear God” shirt and preaching (loudly) to everyone unlucky enough to pass by. I might think of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules, quoting Scripture before a hit job in Pulp Fiction. I think of crazed eyes, wild voices, strange words.

In part, it’s all true. Prophets have a wildness to them. They could never be called mainstream. They don’t ask permission to speak. They don’t spend much time trying to convince us to listen or to persuade us that they really do know what they are talking about. Walter Brueggemann has said prophets are God’s uncredentialed spokesmen. A prophet – a true prophet – is only a messenger. From God. God speaks, and God’s prophet passes the word along.

How then could a prophet’s words not be a bit wild, a bit strange?

Prophets aren’t particularly concerned with balance or with getting across the whole story. They aren’t typically big on nuance or subtlety or quiet ponderings. Those things are for another time, perhaps another person. A prophet speaks because something is drastically wrong. The moment is urgent. It is not time for deliberation or dialogue. We must listen. God is speaking. Our very life depends upon it.

When Amos spoke, urgency pushed along every word. Humanity had forgotten God, and as a result, humanity was cannibalizing itself. They had crushed and robbed the poor. They had perverted the systems of justice so the marginalized had no recourse. They had enslaved whole tribes and villages. They had violently abused the most helpless: the underprivileged, the pregnant, the elderly, the children.

This would not do. This was not the world God had created. God was angry. In fact, Amos puts it plainly: “The Lord roars.” (Amos 1:2) What’s a prophet to do when the world has gone mad, and when God will not gently let it be? What’s a prophet to do when God roars? What are we to do?

The problem with a prophet – a true prophet – is that they have little raw material to work with. Their scope is limited; their creative license is small. They can only speak what God says. And in a precarious time, when humanity is sabotaging itself and defacing all that is good, what God has to say will rarely be docile or sweet. It will “thunder from Jerusalem,” causing, as Amos says, even the mountains to wither. (Amos 1:2)

I see the destruction in my world, the pain and the violence and the evil. I see it all, and I long for God to get angry. I long to hear God roar – and to hear a strange prophet simply pass it along.

peace / Winn

Shamelessly Naked

I think some of the most beautiful words in the Bible are found at the end of Genesis 2 where the author paints the stunning description of humanity during that short pause between creation’s completed wonder and the disastrous Fall: The man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame. (Gen 2.25)

In an age where our body image is god, where we nip and tuck and incessantly pluck and flex, where even the most gorgeous among us refer to themselves as a “fat pig” (as I saw a sex icon refer to herself on a magazine cover this past weekend), where we are forever judged by Madison Avenue as well as by our own mirror, these words seem impossible. This physical exposure was not only in moments when Adam or Eve were prepared to be naked (and most all of us have varying comfort levels for this), but all the time, at every moment. There was no covering, ever.

The Genesis story, however, obviously speaks of more than physical exposure. The narrative vividly describes human relationships as we have never seen them: wide-open, unreserved, entirely unguarded. In this first sacred couple, love was better than you or I have ever known it. There was never a reason to hide a thought or to silence a voice. There was never reason to wonder if the other person was a safe place to pour out our soul. In our relationships, we must constantly battle the urge to hide, to guard ourselves from the harm we suspect might come our way if another truly saw all the grim, sordid places inside us.

But with Adam and Eve, our first father and mother, their body and their soul were entirely bare, not a stitch of cotton or a speck of emotional distance to hide behind. I fear this shorn, unshrouded life because I can’t imagine someone seeing all my ugly spots and not pulling back in revulsion. Contrasted to our experience, however, in the Garden, there was “no shame.” Perhaps no more beautiful words have ever been spoken. What would a world be like if shame were completely removed from the mix?

I think I’m pondering along these lines because this week is Miska’s and my tenth anniversary. Our marriage is quite imperfect, and we certainly do not know the intimacy and emotional safety Adam and Eve enjoyed. However, we want to. We are hoping and moving that direction. Every one of us needs a friend (a spouse, a father, a sister, a soul friend) who sees who we truly are, who helps us see what Jesus is crafting in us, who speaks against the many shaming voices in our life.

I hope you have one. I hope you find one.

peace / Winn