Encountering Mystery

I had spent a very, very long time trapped in a space mentally and emotionally which felt like complete hopelessness and loneliness, clinging to a tiny shred of hope. It was like the glow of a single, twinkling Christmas light in what felt like an otherwise black abyss. I had started going to Crossroads about 10 months before, and a series of events had made me curious enough to begin asking, “Is there a God? And if there is, is God good? Who am I to God?” This ended up with me landing in India, going to some of the darkest places I could imagine, and challenging this God to show up.

I experienced a moment there that I will never forget. Crossroads partners with several homes in Mumbai and Kolkata, India, that rescue girls and women from sex trafficking. I was in the first group that went to Kolkata and we spent one of our days there putting on a day camp for the girls. We sang, we danced, we played, we taught each other songs and we also did some crafts. One of the crafts was to make a beaded bracelet or necklace. The different colored beads stood for things that were important to us or things we wanted. Examples would include hope, friendship, love, wisdom, etc. I was making a bracelet with one of the girls when she noticed the beads I had chosen to use. “No, no, no. More love.” I was confused, and asked her what she meant and she smiled and laughed at me. “You!” She pointed. “More love,” she said as she pointed at my bracelet, which barely included that color at all. She then proceeded to dismantle my entire bracelet and fill it with the color of love.

My heart broke in the most wonderful way possible in that moment, like walls around it were crumbling. It was as if all the darkness I felt like I was covered in turned into a liquid and puddled at the bottom of me and suddenly, the world seemed to be made of color. Of light. This child who had been through so much could see the very thing I felt I lacked but that I so desperately longed for and she piled it on, unabashedly. She taught me to worship as we sung, “Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, Rejoice!” I was overwhelmed, I was baffled, I was in the process of becoming. If this young girl who had experienced the true darkness of mankind so fully could worship God, could call out for love with a hungry heart, than certainly there was something special happening here. Some kind of extraordinary goodness that could say, “Even in this place I will give you joy. Even in your suffering, you will know love. Loneliness is a lie because there is a God that loves you and is always with you.”

It wasn’t the first time or the last time that I encountered the Mystery of God, but it planted a seed of faith so deep inside of me that it successfully took root. I began a steadfast pursuit of this God that comes close, who moves in our lives today. While I’ll never fully know or understand God, I feel called into this Mystery that is. I get a sense that not only am I welcome to explore the character and nature of my God but that my desire to know God brings joy. When I begin feeling alone or discouraged, I look back on this moment and I remember how God used the ordinary to speak about the extraordinary and I rejoice.

Advertisements

Being Beings and Discovering Mystery

John Shea’s essay, “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light,” outline four different environments that we all share, best understood as “the basic contours of our existence.” (Shea 2) The environments are made up of the self, loved ones, society and institutions, and universe. Our experience as humans may appear to be summed up by our interactions with these four, but there is a fifth environment which encompasses these: Mystery. Our basic experience can be understood in having two points: ourselves and the environment we encounter (for instance, I (1) eat bread (2)).  When this interaction reveals a dimension of Mystery, we experience sacramental awareness (the addition of the third point). In the instance of eating bread, I might understand it to be not only bread but my personal participation in the account of Christ who gave his followers bread and told them it was his body, broken for them.

There are five primary ways Shea outlines as a means of becoming aware of the ultimate dimension of our experience as humans. First is contingency, “what Kazantzakis calls the luminous interval between two darknesses.” (Shea 13) Sometimes it looks like the gift of living fully and joyfully in the moment, amazed by the very experience of it all. At other times, it can be a reminder of how very fragile and finite out lives on this planet are. The second path is dialogue and communion. Through dialogue people discover who they are and in communion they discover a love and acceptance gifted to them by their community. The third path is collapse. “When order crumbles, Mystery rises.” (Shea 16) This is the falling apart of the beliefs or knowledge we clung to and our reaction to that loss. “A fourth path to Mystery leads through a deepened sense of the ambiguity of our moral activity.” (Shea) While we strive for moral ideals, we most often find ourselves falling substantially short.  Last is disenchantment. Well known throughout history, it refers to an awakening which ultimately calls us into a maturing religious consciousness.

When we read Pigeon Feathers, by John Updike, we see a boys journey to sacramental awareness. The main character, David, experiences these environments in such a way that he becomes disenchanted, one of the five paths mentioned by Shea. David has an encounter with Reverend Dobson over heaven when he didn’t answer David satisfactorily.  “His indignation at being betrayed, at seeing Christianity betrayed, had hardened him. The straight dirt road reflected his hardness.” (Updike 36) He searched and searched for truth, but he was lost in the darkness that can fall when one realizes there is a question but no answer. He saw his classmates and their ill-fated path towards imminent death and eventually lost his desire to read altogether. Although concerned, his parents resolved to give him a gun for his fifteenth birthday. We can see the “universe environment” and it’s influence on David as he practiced shooting, which put fear into his dog who he would sometimes comfort. “Giving this comfort to a degree returned comfort to him.” (Updike 43) Ultimately, David is asked to use his new skills to clear out the pigeons in the barn. Although he didn’t have a desire to, he did as he was asked. As he killed more and more pigeons, he enjoyed it more, feeling the power he held with his gun and his ability to predict the pigeons path. Yet it was when he went to bury them that Mystery entered into his world: “He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair… a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides…And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers….no two alike… designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.” (Updike 50) He was startled by the intention behind them and the fact that they were treated like pests. In this encounter, he rediscovered his God, “….that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.” (Updike 50)

References

Shea, John. “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light.” Stories of God. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2006.

Updike, John. “Pigeon Feathers.” Olinger Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Short Story.

 

 

Wilfredo Choco De Jesús: Paying the Cost of Reconciliation (Catalyst Notes)

Wilfredo Choco De Jesús was one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2013. The senior pastor at New Life Covenant Ministries in Chicago, he is a man not only of the Word but of action. He started his talk with Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” This, he said, is why Jesus came. This is what we are called to: to seek and to save the lost.

How do we lead in a drifting culture dominated by fear? First, we must realize that nobody drifts towards holiness. Holiness is intentional. Therefore, a Church that offers transformation in a drifting world must be an engaged, purposeful, responsive Church. Prayer is not a crutch. It is the start of something, not the end of it. Revelation calls for a response. Understanding can wait, obedience to the revelation of God cannot. “When my Father says do something, I do it.”

Remember: God uses unusual people to do extraordinary things. It’s all over the Bible. Wilfredo De Jesús, also known as Pastor Choco, felt called to buy a farm and amazing things took place to make it happen through all sorts of crazy turns. That farm has, to date, rescued 625 girls and women from prostitution. There is a cost to reconciliation, but we, the Church, should be happy to pay it. He told a story of buying five prostitutes for one hour. They brought them to a place where they laid out a beautiful banquet. They spoke truth over them, that they weren’t born a prostitute and they were loved. Those women walked away from their path and, through the sacrifice and support of the church, ended up becoming leaders in the church. It’s just like in the parable of the lost sheep: the sheep is not rebuked for being lost, it is celebrated for being found.

Or the prodigal son. The son who basically told his father, “I don’t care about your status, I wish you were dead.” He demanded an inheritance he wasn’t even owed and his father gave it to him, sacrificing his status for him. Then that son leaves and squanders it all. Eventually he came to his senses and returns humbled. What does the dad do? He RUNS to the boy. Men didn’t run in the first century; children and women ran. But again, the father disregards status and runs to the son. He embraces and covers the boy, showing that his protection is over him. He gives him jewelry which is a symbol that tells the son and others that he has complete authority to negotiate on behalf of the father with the assets of the family. That’s some crazy sacrificial love.

Why is the older brother upset? Well, this was all at a cost to him, in his mind. The inheritance was rightfully his, and already the father had allowed his younger brother to squander half of it. Now, he was paying for this celebration as well as giving the prodigal son his status back. You see, someone always pays the cost of reconciliation. There’s a cost to bringing others to the table, to gather those that Christ calls us to. The question is, what are you willing to pay so others can be reconciled to God? Are you willing to stand in the gap?

Father Edwin Leahy (Catalyst Notes)

Father Edwin Leahy is impressive, although he doesn’t think so. There’s some videos below that explain a lot of what he has done and what his work is. Some of his insights as he spoke:

  1. Racism is America’s original sin.
    1. White people in power knew what they were doing, starting in the 1800’s, to neutralize black males who were now free, and that neutralization continues today.
    2. Most of the students he is responsible for at his all boy school are missing fathers. They need help discovering and amplifying their voice.
  2. Be quiet and listen. Folks in the community will eventually tell you what they need.
  3. Tell people, ‘God loves me to the cross. But also, love others.’
  4. Recognize attitudes versus the vastness and vagueness of “culture.”
    1. Whatever helps or hurt my brothers and sisters helps or hurts me.
    2. Tend to their hearts.
    3. Create community.
    4. Create leadership opportunities.
    5. Accepting the Other and where they are.
  5. Be okay with arguing; sometimes provoke fights. It’s not okay to stay comfortable.
  6. Remember: the orchestra tunes to the first violinist.
  7. Develop listening skills.
    1. People will teach you how you can best be of service to them.

He said, “I wasn’t called to be successful, I was called to be faithful.” A great joy is seeing boys who graduated return as fathers with their kids.  They are designed to be a community that bears one another’s burdens. He told a story of an expelled student who was a Junior and he never left. He sat outside his office for two days and the Father told the other boys, “No, he’s out.” The next morning, the kids hid him. During attendance, they’d call his name as absent when he was there and then stopped. They spent the year avoiding each other and his Senior year the Father welcomed him back.

Why is there a fence around this school in downtown Newark? It marks off holy ground in the middle of a city in struggle. Like Moses, in the middle of the ordinary we encounter the extraordinary. Remember: Not all fires destroy; some fires ignite us.

Just a little bit about Father Edwin Leahy and what he does.

Remember…

Bryan Loritts: Multi-ethnic Cultural Engagement (Catalyst Notes)

Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church in Silicon Valley, California, a published author and the President of the Kainos Movement. He began his time by stating that multi-ethnic cultural engagement is challenging but necessary. Consider I Corinthians 9:19-23, “or though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” What Paul is talking about is contextualization: the gospel doesn’t change and isn’t open to interpretation but the delivery is. Without the gospel, contextualization is compromised.

Bryan helped to put together a book called Letters to a Birmingham Jail, which includes the entire letter from Dr. King to the churches in Birmingham. He laments the evangelical passivity. Bryan points out that all great examples of teaching and preaching that pastors learn in school are written by middle aged white men; where is their voice? And why is the church silent when deaths happen? The only thing worse than hatred is indifference; when we fail to grieve with those who grieve. Is that the Church that Christ called us to? Yet this is what happens when our relationships aren’t multicultural.

People begin to brew in their bitterness, he said. He referenced Ephesians 6:12, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” and challenges us in responding to each other this way. People, bitter over their experience with the church or white America, also fail to engage. At the least offense, they want to take their ball and go home. He said, “Thank God that he doesn’t judge and condemn us the way we do our white siblings!” It is harm on all sides.

There is a call in the Church for redemptive impatience. This is different than passive! It is patient and aggressive. When we look at revelations we see a diversity in the people in God’s presence. Bryan reminded everyone that if you have a problem with diversity, you’re going to have a problem with heaven. Paul knew that this wasn’t a vertical gospel, focused only on you and those like you looking towards God. We are called to love our neighbor as we love our self. To give this some context, in Jewish culture hate is detachment. Therefore, if you say you love God yet are indifferent to the suffering of your brothers you are missing the point. We are call into a community of the beloved, we a robust orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Relational intentionality is important. Your sanctuary is your dinner table; you need to invite people in. You can’t ask of others what you aren’t doing yourself, you cannot lead people to where you aren’t. Therefore, multiethnic cultural engagement is important. Homogenous churches become racist because your biases become entrenched in your systems and structures. We need people with differences in perspective to keep this from happening. How do we know it isn’t happening in most of the church body? When people get shot our disparity of response tells us we are disconnected. If you don’t see your brother in their death, you don’t mourn, you don’t protest, you don’t seek justice.

Paul says, “I have become…” This is the discomfort of change, where you lay down your rights and your preferences for the other. Bryan says that black folk who are successful necessarily learn the “I have become…” but this is not a requirement of white folks. At no point are white people force, out of necessity, to become. It is worth remembering the ultimate I have become is Jesus Christ: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11

John Gordon: Mission (Catalyst Notes)

John Gordon is an American author and speaker on the topics of leadership, culture, sales, and teamwork. His focus was mission. He said that mission starts with leadership. He gave us 7 C’s that can help leaders in ministries to be successful and effective.

  1. Culture. Many companies have a mission, but how many of their people are ON mission? How many places operate as one team, with one plan and goal? Once you know what you stand for it becomes much easier for everyone to make decisions.
  2. Contagious. Leadership is a transfer of belief. Positive leaders, regardless of circumstances or outcomes, point everyone towards the future. Be aware: one person can’t make a team, but one person can break it (example: energy vampires). If someone is complaining, they should also be bringing a solution to the table. If you are complaining, you aren’t leading.
  3. Communicate. If you are too busy to communicate with your team, you can’t lead. Communication is key.
  4. Connections. Connections build commitment. A team will always beat talent when talent isn’t acting like a team. Be sure to share defining moments in your life.
  5. Commitment. He told this story of a man complaining about giving his wife a shoulder massage after she’d had a tough day. His friend told him, ‘If you don’t give her a massage, someone else will.’ It’s the same with our team. Most of the time, we don’t need a different team, we need to be better leaders. He said that he realized he didn’t want to be a big household name, he wanted to be big in his household.
  6. Care. Great leaders care more. This includes both love and accountability, the two things that help build a great team. Accountability is an act of caring because it doesn’t let others settle or demotivate the team.
  7. Consistent. Nothing happens if we aren’t consistent. Share your telescope with the team, let them see the North Star. Also share your microscope with them when you see critical activities being done well. It all starts on the inside, in the locker room.

Lysa TerKeurst: Disappointment (Catalyst Notes)

Lysa TerKeurst is a best-selling author a dozen times over as well at the president of Proverbs 31 Ministries.  She started her talk asking us to raise our hands if you’ve even experienced disappointment and/or someone being disappointed in you. Of course, all hands were raised. This is a common human experience. She then stated that Satan keeps us isolated through and in our disappointment. In James 1:2 it tells us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” and this is because pure joy is NOT the normal way we understand trials. It just isn’t. But if we sit in our disappointment instead of understanding it through joy, we become the playground of the enemy.

She then walks though Genesis 2. That the man was told not to eat from the tree (and he didn’t write it down, so God was like, ‘Dude needs a helper,’ and women have been making lists for men ever since). As we move a little further into the story, we see the serpent speak. There’s a big difference between how the serpent communicates and God. God speaks in freedom and gives restrictions for our protection. The enemy speaks in restriction first, thinking that God is holding out. But when we read the story we see that EVERY tree in the garden was good and pleasing the the eye. It wasn’t like the tree they weren’t supposed to eat from was this massive temptation shining about everything else in the garden. The real temptation of the fruit was gaining wisdom.

So people ask, why didn’t Adam speak up as they ate the fruit? He was standing right there. We don’t really know, but it is sad that he didn’t. When they saw their nakedness and felt the weight of sin and shame for the first time, they concealed themselves. Fig leaves weren’t adequate because sin requires a blood sacrifice, and so God goes and kills the first animals and uses them to clothe man.

God was merciful in his punishment of them. He protected Adam and Eve so that their death could be a gateway to restoration. That garden was the place for which the human heart was created: to exist in perfection. Even today, we continue to expect perfection from people. Some might wonder why God didn’t strip that part out of our hearts, but it’s so necessary to our life and faith. Stripping us of hat would have taken the possibility for us to realize the perfection of God. In Revelation 21 and 22, we see restoration (and God telling him to write this revelation down), Eden restored. But sandwiched between these two gardens is another: the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus, in existence at the very beginning of it all, would have created this garden with as much intention as he created the other two. His soul was overwhelmed and he asked Peter, James and John to stay here and keep watch. Lysa says that she thinks this ask is as much about keeping watch for soldiers as it is about watching how he deals with what he’s being asked to do; he knows what is coming for them as well. Jesus teaches us how to wrestle well between feelings and faith. Jesus knew the devastation.

And when things aren’t just broken pieces you can glue back together, when all you see is dust. It can be hard not to feel discouraged or hopeless. We can’t glue back together dust. Yet we worship a God who loves working with dust. Dust is a sign that new is just on the horizon. Jesus, in his prayer, tells his father my will or thy will, and he’s showing us how we ought to respond in these times.

The garden, designed by God, sits at the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascends to the heaves and where the bible also says Jesus will stand when he returns. It’s an important place, so it makes sense to ask what we can learn from it. One thing we know for sure about the garden was that it was full of olive trees. What do we know about olive trees?

  1. In order for the olive tree to produce fruit, it must have harsh winds of east and refreshing winds of west
  2. Fruit is not usable straight from the tree; we have to go through a process of removing hardness and bitterness (like that in our hearts
  3. What is most valuable is what comes from being pressed and crushed; an oil that can be used for light

Our God has taught us quite a bit about how to deal with struggle and disappointment, as well as which voice we should listen to and how to recognize God’s voice.