Are You Too Mad to Help the Church?

Christianity has its critics and it has plenty of defenders. What’s most confusing for a defender of Christianity is when a former defender becomes a critic. It feels like a betrayal, even if the former defender still claims to follow Jesus.

The number one defense that the apologists for the Christian church use against critics is this: You’re too angry. The assumption is that even those who have been wounded, manipulated, controlled, or abused by people in the church cannot lodge a valid criticism of the church if they are also angry.

As someone who had once defended the church, then criticized the church, and then attempted to adopt a more constructive and redemptive approach to reform and renewal, I can see where many of the folks on both sides of this. I had once been baffled by those who were angry at the church. Then, one day, I got it. I was very angry at the power-plays, manipulation, and hollowness of the many doctrines and rules. Most importantly, I felt their frustration at being dismissed by church leaders.

When I hit the point where I was ready to give up on the sham that is so much of organized American Christianity, with its feel-good platitudes and naked power grabs, I found that there is something alive and vital lingering in the silence and stillness of our very busy and materialistic version of the faith.  Some family members taught me about the Holy Spirit and prayed for me in ways that I didn’t think possible. Others introduced me to ways of praying that date back to the earliest incarnation of the church.

As I have found renewed hope, I still have my angry moments. I still grow angry at leaders who abuse power and who manipulate the people under them. I still grow angry at Christians who are discipled by their bombastic news and entertainment rather than the meek and humble words of Christ. I am angry at the Christians who vote for abusive and destructive leaders who remain poised to unleash suffering and death on untold millions. I suspect that there will always be something to be mad about in the church. There will always be frauds and hucksters who will sell out the poor or vulnerable women and children for the sake of consolidating their power and influence. Anger is a valid response. How could it not be?

If I will always have a reason to be angry, then I need to figure out how to deal with it. If I consumed with my anger, I too can become a force for destruction. My anger will cut me off from people of good will who desire transformation and healing. My anger can deepen wounds and divides that may not be quite so far apart if viewed with a cooler head.

My anger can rule my thoughts and prevent me from pursuing the loving presence of God. If I hold onto my anger, it will poison me and my relationships, as the wounds and pain that I carry begin to become the wounds and pain that I pass on to others.

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the church for me. It isn’t bad enough to be wounded by people who refuse to acknowledge their wrongs or who preach repentance while failing to repent. The worst part is that their offenses to me can be passed on others. If I haven’t dealt with my pain, I will most assuredly pass it on to others. I have become the thing that I have hated, and at that point it feels like I have passed into a point of no return.

In surrendering my thoughts to God through contemplation each day, I am learning to let go of my anger. Centering prayer is a daily letting go, and that has been helpful in responding to my anger. As I trust God with my anger, I can see the difference between being bracingly honest about the church and giving in to the wrecking ball of my anger.

There may be some days where I am too angry to help the church. That doesn’t mean my anger isn’t valid. However, it is hard to love people when you’ve surrendered to your rage toward them. Yes, rage can feel empowering and comforting, but rage won’t work over the long term. It doesn’t bring hope, transformation, or healing.

As I surrender my anger to God, I am doing my best to speak the truth in love—cliché as that sounds. But I have to let God work on my own soul before I can speak redemptive words. I cannot give love to others when I have nurtured anger. There is a process of surrender and transformation that I have seen God work in my own life so that I can find compassion for those still operating within the far too numerous authoritative and manipulative churches in America.

I don’t have easy “next steps” to offer folks who have been wounded, disappointed, or abused by the church. I trust that some may never return, and I cannot blame them. I had a small taste of the authoritarian nature of Catholic priests in my childhood, and to this day I cannot sit in a mass without feeling an extreme heaviness on my soul. The best that I can offer is this evaluation of our situation…

Underneath all of the power, authority, formulas, conferences, sermons, theology degrees, doctrine statements, rules, and fancy suits is a deep, unspoken fear in the American church that the real Christianity that Jesus preached is wholly different from what they have constructed, and the slightest breeze of discontent, let alone anger, can send the entire structure crashing to the ground. These leaders and those who follow them are deathly afraid that it can all be proven false, and the truth of the matter is, they’re right.

Suppressed under all of the rules, doctrines, and titles is the unruly and undignified love of God who longs for us like parents long for their children who have wandered off. We have been so distracted by images of God as judge and conquering king that we have failed to see what Jesus was up to. Why would Jesus take the risk of the incarnation and even suffer the indignity of suffering and death as a human if it wasn’t an expression of the deep love of God for us?

The promise of Jesus is a religion of the heart, God dwelling with us. Pentecost is the supposed to be the new normal, at least as far as the indwelling Holy Spirit goes. Yes, God desires transformation and holiness, but it is a purifying process of love and divine indwelling, not a product of external rules and codes. It is a chaotic process that is perfectly ordered under love and grace.

Over and over and over again in this history of the church, the mystics and the monks discovered this burning love of God that is greater than all of the rules and authorities, and time and time again, the leaders attempted to suppress this move of God. The people who spoke of this burning love of God feared that it would consume their control and influence, and of course they were right.

The life and death of Jesus have become a transaction or legal arrangement for so many of us that we’ve missed the parental and mystical elements that should speak to us on a deeper and truer level. Jesus came to unite us with God. He is the perfect expression of God’s parental love, making us God’s beloved sons and daughters. We need leaders who can lead us to the love of God, relinquishing control and influence. Sadly, not enough have signed up for that role.

I have found this uneasy dance with anger: my anger at the church is often valid, but it can become destructive if I hold onto it. It doesn’t make me stronger over time. My anger has the power to be a catalyst toward something better, but anger cannot bring me to God’s love.

We should be angry that so many Christians have failed to preach this authentic Gospel message and have even cast doubts upon it, as if they could add a footnote to the Prodigal Son story or put fences around Pentecost. However, it would be tragic to miss the deep longing of God for us in the midst of our anger over these Christians. Over time, we may even find a capacity to pity, or even love, these religious people who immerse themselves in the Bible but miss its simple message of God’s parental love and the promise of unity with God.

 

The Problem with Prayer Isn’t Convincing God to Show Up

 

church-pew

“What is your greatest struggle with prayer?” That’s the question I’ve asked hundreds upon hundreds of people, and a striking majority have replied with the exact same struggle.

DISTRACTION

We all love the idea of prayer. Many of us have had positive experiences with prayer. We generally want to pray more. Once we sit down to pray, our minds spin out of control with thoughts of anything but prayer.

Our minds wander, worries assault our peace, and any hope of focus dissipates. Perhaps we turn to making requests or sharing thankfulness to God, which are good things, but any kind of peaceful contemplation, waiting on God in silence, or listening for God to speak appears to be a hopeless endeavor with so many ideas, voices, and fears screaming into our minds.

I’ve often spoke of prayer in terms of God showing up, as if I’m doing my job 100% perfect and any problems with prayer are on God’s end. In my experience, that’s a pretty fast way to turn into an atheist. If you do your part and you don’t sense God’s presence while praying, then clearly the problem is coming from God, right?

Not quite.

The Christian contemplative prayer tradition offers a corrective we need: God is always present. God loves us. The awareness and presence required is our own for prayer. Note that Jesus often speaks in the Gospels of people “coming” to him. He has issued the invitation to us. The problem isn’t on God’s end. Remember, in the Prodigal son story, the father is waiting for the son’s return and was so eager to welcome his lost son that he ran out to meet him.

God is here for us when we pray, and so we need to figure out where distractions and other obstacles in prayer come from and how we can move beyond them. How can distracted people make themselves present for a loving God?

Here are a few thoughts on moving beyond distraction in order to pray based on my experiences:

We Don’t Know We’re Distracted

Until I confronted my distractions, I didn’t know that I was distracted in the first place. Until we stop to face what’s running through our minds, the constant thinking and worrying of each day continues unchecked. Too many Christians have resisted mindfulness practices because they fear connections with eastern religions, but mindfulness practices can be traced right back to the desert fathers and mothers of the church. Even secular psychology praises the benefits of simply becoming aware of what’s on your mind and becoming present in the moment.

It’s nearly impossible to sit down to pray with any kind of focus if you haven’t first taken stock of what’s on your mind. This is why the Ignatian Examen is so incredibly helpful. We can take stock of the highs and lows of our days, confront our worries, and enter into prayer by preemptively facing the very thoughts that could distract us.

This is a process. Richard Rohr suggests that the first year of practicing contemplative prayer largely deals with the junk in our minds. We spend so much time reliving our regrets and fearing the future that we are untrained in the practice of seeking God in the present.

 

We Don’t Know Where to Begin with Prayer

Even if we can face our distractions and bring our troubled thoughts to God, there’s still the matter of where to begin. Should we make requests, offer thanksgiving and praise, or sit in silence? These are all practices that we can use, but for those of us struggling with anxiety about God actually showing up in prayer, the best way forward for a season may be the path of silence.

We should certainly speak our minds to God, but if we don’t have the assurance of God’s loving presence right from the start, silence may save us from trying to coerce God to show up. God is already present when we pray, but it’s so easy to start saying things that suggest otherwise.

Centering prayer teaches us to calm our anxious minds by asking the Spirit to guide us to a “prayer word” or phrase that we can use to quiet ourselves before God so that we can wait patiently on the Lord. Beginning with this simple word can help us grab onto something as a starting point so that we can return to God in silence again and again as our minds wander.

 

We Have Expectations

When I have spoken of God showing up, I’ve also had fairly specific expectations of feeling or knowing God in some particular way. I know that plenty of people have had experiences of God, while others with an indisputable commitment to God more or less sit in silence for most of their prayer time. Our expectations for prayer can trap us and alienate us from God.

Ironically, the contemplative writers of the church assure us that we need to set our expectations far lower for prayer. Seeking God in the first place is prayer. Sitting in silence before God is prayer. God honors even our intentions as we struggle to focus. These are the teachings of the masters of contemplative prayer. Rather than pushing us to reach some particularly high goal, they tell us that our beginning struggles are holy offerings to God, and we can trust that God will continue to guide us forward.

Most importantly, we pray in order to become present for God. We “experience” God on God’s own terms, and so any expectations for prayer can be harmful. I have longed for mystical encounters and experiences, but the contemplatives of the church remind us that this can be dangerous. Seeking an encounter with God is not the same thing as seeking God. This desire highlights my insecurity and perhaps even my pride.

 

We Make Comparisons

While we must learn from the guidance of spiritual directors, authors, and practitioners who have gone before us, we also have to seek God for ourselves and take what is given to us without envying the experiences of others. This has been my pitfall for years. I have looked at the ways other people experienced God and longed to imitate them.

We are always looking for ways to validate ourselves, and while prayer can become the answer to that search, we dare not misuse it. Prayer helps us see how deeply God loves and accepts us, but we can only receive that gift in the timing and manner that God chooses. I have seen over and over again that God chooses different timing and a different manner for each person, even if there are some general trends and patterns that can be observed.

 

We Don’t Know What Prayer Should Look Like

Here is the good news that you need to know about prayer: Struggling with distraction during prayer is 100% normal, and there is hope. The contemplative prayer tradition dates back to the earliest days of the church, even pre-dating the canon of scripture, and it has been preserved throughout the centuries as one way to move beyond distraction and to become present for God.

The bad news is that overcoming distraction will take quite a bit of work. We even have to face the worries and fears that come up as we attempt prayer.

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing passed along this ancient Christian prayer tradition in his simple manual for novice monks, and he spends a significant amount of time addressing the ways that our thoughts invade our prayer much like visitors who barge into our homes repeatedly. By reciting a prayer word, phrase (such as a scripture verse) or returning to an intention for your prayer time, you can gently move these distractions out of your mind over and over and over again.

For about the first six months of really exploring silence and contemplation, my mind was a complete mess. My thoughts flew all over the place. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I had to take my son for a walk every day in order for him to nap, and I suspected that my busy mind was extremely unhealthy. Over time, I experienced greater peace and freedom, recognizing uneasiness and distractions for what they were and gradually building a capacity to be still before God.

I like to say that I “practice” contemplative prayer because I still feel very much like a beginner and I don’t expect to get it perfect—not that getting it “perfect” should ever be the goal! We enter into contemplative prayer as equals who are all equally loved by God and who all commit to practice.

So we pray, we struggle, and we continue to practice.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

 

For more of my journey with contemplative prayer…

Check out my books:

The Contemplative Writer

Pray, Write, Grow

 

 

 

There Is Life on the Other Side of Our Fears

fear-hope-prayer

When I released my first book, an author I knew shared a picture of his book in a bargain bin at a discount book store.

I gasped in horror. What if that was my book? Would I dare to share a picture like that???

Eight years later, my first book has no doubt sent plenty of copies to the bargain bins as well. My publisher stopped promoting it—that’s what they told me.

While I had long taken pride in the fact that my book was still officially in print eight years after being released and selling more copies than the majority of first time books, I started to face my fear about going out of print. This was way beyond the bargain bin. This was THE END.

We all want to be validated and praised, and that’s a big part of what publishing commercially can do for a writer.

One of my lessons in contemplative prayer has been to go through my fears, to face them in all of their menacing power and to seek God on the other side. This is very counter-intuitive for a person like me. I have anxiety issues, and the last thing I want to do is to face the source of that anxiety. However, facing the source of my anxiety has been much better than reacting to the sensation of anxiety itself, and once I face the root of my anxiety, I actually have something to pray about.

So I faced my fear about going out of print. What would it mean?

Honestly… not that much. The book wasn’t being promoted. Why did I care about an official listing with a publisher if I could actually promote it better myself?

I was shocked to see how fast my fears melted away. As it turned out, my fragile ego had been fueling all of my fears and anxiety. I didn’t want to be found out as a fraud if my book didn’t stay in print, even if something like that could never determine my identity or worth.

How often do we give such tremendous, absolute power to fleeting, fickle things? Do I really want the business team at my publisher to hold the key to my identity as they debate black and white dollars and cents related to my book?

Once I faced the worst of my fears about going out of print, I started to find new energy for this book. I started looking into which chapters I could revise, and I lined up a college professor to help with the revisions since he’s been using the book for a seminar class for several years.

I still believe in this book, and I wanted to do the work to send it back into the world better than ever.

My agent and I decided that we would ask for the rights back after we got back from a major publishing conference. As it turned out, the publisher sent the official letter offering me the rights back a week after I returned from the conference.

Instead of wallowing in despair, I was delighted to see that the process was already in motion.

Before the files arrived from the publisher, I already had an order for 40 print copies.

There is life on the other side of our fears. Oftentimes, we just need to face them, bringing the root issues before God. The process isn’t neat or pleasant. I’ve certainly had enough devastating failure and struggles to make me desperate enough to find another way forward.

Perhaps you’re living in fear of something today that has power over you. Remember that God has not given you a spirit of fear, so if you’re under the power of fear, it’s not from God. There is healing and renewal for us, and we could end up in a place of freedom and hope that we never ever imagined.

We are loved. God is for us and desires our healing and freedom.

Perhaps today you need to read the words of Psalm 131:

O LORD, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me. But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast, my soul is quieted within me.
Psalm 131:1-3

May we find God’s rest on the other side of our fears.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

When the Truth Doesn’t Help and God Is Hard to Find

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My pastor once asked during a sermon: “Who would you turn to when your life hits rock bottom, the theological know-it-all or the person who embodies the love and compassion of Jesus?”

Some may say that one need not choose between the two, suggesting that an unrelenting, uncompromising dedication to the truth is the most loving thing you can do. My pastor was aiming at something entirely different.

If you get the truth that Jesus and his contemporaries were communicating, you’ll start to embody his love and compassion. In fact, transformation becomes far more important than indoctrination.

I won’t say I’ve hit rock bottom, but our family is in a challenging, isolating season. It has felt like ALL HANDS ON DECK for months now, and we have no guarantee that it’s going to end soon. In the midst of it, someone said to me, “Remember, we have a great God.”

I’m not sure that “remembering” theological statements in this season has been that helpful. I have been far more in need of God’s presence and empathy rather than intellectual guarantees. It’s a similar principle to the story of Job: when difficulty strikes, theologizing should never come before empathy and presence.

I’m not shutting down the “thinking” part of my faith, tossing out my theology books, or leaving my Bible unread. The big picture of my life doesn’t boil matters down to an either/or proposition between theology and love/empathy. Perhaps I’m reacting against a proposition-based, theologically-driven form of the Christian faith that mightily feared not having an answer for a particular situation.

When life becomes difficult, this fragile form of the faith grasps for answers and throws around truth as if the people in a difficult situation could pose a threat to the stability of Christianity. What if someone’s trouble demands an answer that a proposition-based faith can’t deliver?

More than propositions, Jesus came to give us God’s presence. The assumption is that seeking first his Kingdom and his righteousness will ensure that things work out in the end. If anything, Jesus disrupted the answers of theological systems without necessarily tossing out theology all-together.

Jesus pointed us to the place where we can find God’s presence and experience union with God. I have grown suspicious of anyone who wants to debate that point or inserts caveats.

As life feels uncertain, and challenges pile up, I have longed for God’s presence more than ever. The people I’ve turned to for prayer aren’t the ones with all of the answers. I’m taking my weakness and fear to the people who will pray with compassion and love. These are the people who know the Father’s heart and can intercede on my behalf as fellow beloved children of God. These are the people who happen to have a sound theology, so far as I can tell, but that is only  because they have drawn near to the loving presence of God.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

 

Christians Have One Job, and It’s Not Reading the Bible

Open Hands Prayer

Christians have one job, but with all of the “holy” stuff that clutters our lives, you’d think that we had thousands of jobs.

In fact, if you’ve given up on Christianity or feel like you’re on the way out, there’s a good chance you are either sick of the thousands of jobs or you can’t believe in a God who would assign all of these jobs.

We have one job as Christians… one job.

These days I’m suspicious of anyone who wants to qualify that, add “nuance,” or say, “Yeah, but…” No, we have one job and one job only, and the more we obscure that, the more likely we are to miss out on what Christianity is all about.

I’ll bet you know where I’m going with this, but there’s a huge, huge catch. So stick with me for a moment.

Our one job and our only job is to love—love God and love others. That’s it. The teachings of Jesus are summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor, but the really, really big catch is this: Where does this love come from in us? How do we love God and love our neighbors?

Do we need preachers to command us to love others?

Do we need to read Bible verses telling us to love God?

Do we need to try harder?

This is where everything has run off the rails for me with Christianity. Look, there’s this invisible God who is generally only felt or sensed in some way. It’s not like you can invite God over for coffee and bagels, go for walks in the evening, or take a road trip to get to know each other better. And even if you want to love your neighbors, they can be mean, inconsiderate, and difficult to like. They drive too fast down your street and leave cigarette butts on your sidewalk that your kids chew on—not that I know about that from experience…

Here’s the rub: We are told that the whole sum of things is to love God and love our neighbors, but we all tend to be very unloving people. It’s really, really hard to love people, so why not aim for the lower hanging fruit of Christianity and call it a day?

I am selfish, controlling, and 100% the “get off my lawn” type. I like quiet. I want to mind my own business. And if I struggle to love my neighbors that I can see, who knows what to make of some unseen God?

So rather than wrestle with the mysteries of love and letting these consume my days and nights, I take the easy way out. I commit to Bible study, I try to live a moral life, I focus on explaining the Gospel, and I try to help other people even though I would rather just read a book.

In fact, I have long deluded myself with thinking that building a well-rounded and informed theology, cultivating good Bible study habits, and embodying the Gospel through my actions is really all there is to Christianity. I mean, of course I paid lip service to loving God and loving others and there were moments when I succeeded in loving others through these practices, but I was often running on fumes. I was driven by obligation and will-power rather than depths of God’s love that are higher, deeper, and wider than I can imagine.

It’s so much easier to read theology books than to delve into the mysteries of love.

How do you become a “loving” person?

How do you fall in love with an unseen God?

I won’t create a false dichotomy with prayer and scripture, but I do know that I have neglected prayer over the years to the point that I shouldn’t have even bothered with it. I should have just said I believe in the Bible, not the God of the Bible.

I hadn’t pursued God personally with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I primarily pursued knowledge of the God in the Bible.

Here’s where I’m at today: the stuff of Christianity is the pursuit of a loving God.

The love of God is where all of the action takes place, and it’s how we become loving people who can fulfill the heart of our faith: loving God and loving neighbors.

Moments of quiet, prayerfully meditating on scripture, and waiting for the Spirit of God to fall are the center and substance of our faith. Experiencing the loving presence of God is really all there is. Sure, theology is fine in it’s place, but it’s just a small part of a much larger pursuit.

I can only love as far as I’ve been loved.

I can only accept others as far as I’ve been accepted.

I can only forgive as much as I’ve been forgiven.

As Jesus said, those who have been forgiven much, will love much (Luke 7:47, NIV).

I firmly believe that any of my struggles to love others are rooted not in my knowledge of love but in my experience of God, which is another way of saying the experience of God’s love.

Christianity has one job: love.

Love has one source: the presence of God.

So, if you want to give this Christianity thing a whirl, seek one thing and one thing only: the loving presence of God. That’s it.

If you want to stick your nose in the Bible, pick out a single verse and meditate on it for a month. Brennan Manning suggests:

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” 

I am determined to stop making Christianity complicated. It’s not. The more I add to the pursuit of God’s loving presence, the further I find myself drifting from the center.

If we live in the center of God’s love, then we have freedom to add on additional pursuits, but I’ll say this… I have studied commentaries, I have read deeply and widely, and I have gone through the Bible countless times, even learning the original languages. There is value in all of these things, but none of them have led me to the very substance of Christianity and center that is the loving presence of God. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time thinking I had found the substance of Christianity, and the Christianity I had found was lacking.

I am no expert in the presence of God, but the times that I have opened myself up to God, I have experienced life-changing mercy and love as I confronted my pain, weaknesses, and failings. I have been accepted and held. I have found a shelter that brought peace and renewal. I have found a deep well of love to share with others that moves me beyond my selfish, controlling ways.

The times that I have centered prayer, using Thomas Keating’s sacred word method, have led me to the greatest moments of peace and gentleness as God moved deeper into my life.

I’m not here to tell you the only ways to experience the loving presence of God. I have found ways that help, but there certainly are many paths. The pursuit is what’s it’s all about.

If we aren’t pursuing the loving presence of God, we are missing out on the one and only thing about Christianity that has power and the promise to transform our lives.

The only thing that makes me a Christian is the love of God. If I’m not actively pursuing the love of God, then I’m just playing at dress up Christianity.

I’m not a Christian because I study the Bible, know church history, or engage in service projects, even though I value all of these things.

I’m a Christian because there’s a God who loves me deeply, has actively pursued me, and can be found if I make space in my life. There is an endless well of love from God that is waiting to be found in my life and in your life. How tragic it would be if I passed through all of my days convincing myself that moral living and Bible study made up the substance of my faith!

I have one job and you have one job: find the love of God.

Ruthlessly eliminate anything that can get in the way of God’s loving presence.

May we be forever dissatisfied with any other promise of satisfaction.

May we be forever restless with any other promise of rest.

May we be forever weakened by any other promise of power.

May we be forever agitated with any other promise of peace.

May we fall into the loving presence of God, even as a last resort, and may we become people who shower love on others because we have tapped into the endless well of love that surpasses all comprehension. Though we may feel like we’re calling water from rocks in the wilderness, we have the witness of saints who have gone before us beckoning us to follow along this way.

The silence and simplicity of pursuing God’s love is here for you and me today. May we find in this love the peace that we have longed for and the capacity to generously love others out of the depths of God’s endless love for us.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

Are We Moving Toward Suffering During Advent?

Advent Candles

If I have made one big mistake as a Christian, it’s been wanting to help people from a distance rather than drawing near to them. You know, pretty much the opposite of what Jesus did.

For instance, the author of Hebrews called Jesus a high priest, which made him a mediator between God and humanity. A high priest is supposed to be among the people—all up in their business, so to speak. Despite being so close to us in the midst of our flaws and weaknesses, words like “merciful” and “empathize” are used when discussing the ministry of Jesus. Have a look:

Hebrews 2:17 (NIV)

“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

The author Hebrews goes on to say:

Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

We could summarize the ministry of Jesus like this: Find people trapped in sin and suffering, join them, and restore them to God. He is merciful and kind, empathizing with our weaknesses and then healing us. However, in order to be truly merciful and in order to fully heal us, he has to also be fully among us, present with us even when we’re at our worst.

My church has been talking a lot lately about being present with those who are suffering during Advent. In fact, our big picture mission is “to be a community of prayer that engages suffering.” I kind of hate the word “engage” because I think it sounds a little too impersonal or detached, but it captures the right direction and intention. If there was ever a time of year to think about being present among those who are suffering or in sin, Advent is the time.

Jesus came down to earth in order to be present among us, to show mercy. He wanted to fully see, hear, and understand. He wasn’t detached from suffering. And when he encountered suffering, he drew closer to the people, listened to them, and offered to help those willing to receive it.

I like the idea of helping, but it can be tough to draw near to others and to be fully present. There’s always a great excuse, whether I don’t have enough money, time, or emotional reserves.

For advent, I wanted to ask what it might look like to be present among those who are suffering and how we can help.

Perhaps today we need to begin with a simple truth that will make everything else all the more meaningful: God is present among us first and foremost. We’re not in this alone, even if we sometimes feel like it.

We could be in the midst of a dark night of the soul.

We could be distracted.

We could be traumatized.

We could lack training in awareness of God.

There are lots of reasons why we may struggle to recognize God’s presence among us, let alone experiencing the joy and freedom of God’s Kingdom that is already here.

If we don’t believe God is moving toward us first, we’ll struggle to move toward others.

What if you took 20 minutes each day this week to simply sit and acknowledge of the presence of God. Don’t ask for anything to happen. Don’t expect miracles. Just recognize that God is present. Focus on a simple word like mercy, love, kindness, present, heal, or another word that helps you focus on God’s presence.

Through Advent we recognize God’s movement toward us, but we’ll feel alone and forgotten if we don’t prepare a place for God to arrive and assure us that the mercy and empathy of Jesus, our high priest, also applies to us.