Category: Reflection

7 Ways to Strengthen your Marriage

marriage

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Mark 10:6-9

Upon the arrival of our son, my wife Bethany and I were reminded of the magnitude of being one in marriage.

The stress of sleepless nights and the unpredictability of a newborn have the potential to catch any marriage off guard. Most married couples are familiar with the temptation to simply “get along” and “make the best of it” in such times of stress or conflict, and it can be easy to believe that letting things slide is the best course of action.

But that’s far from the truth.

Conflict, whether big or small, has a way of disconnecting us if not resolved in a God-honoring way. Unresolved conflict always separates things that are meant to be joined together.

As I’ve observed the older, seasoned adults in my life, I’ve found that oneness is hard to achieve. Instead, many couples seem to become passive aggressive over time, unable to communicate in careful and honest ways, and only getting along in a marriage marked by petty arguments, rivalry and antagonism. I think the problem is that we tend to think oneness in marriage simply “happens.” Like growing teeth, or going to college, or getting taller—it’ll just happen at some point.

But like most things that matter, a healthy marriage is more like a garden that needs tending than something that simply “happens.”  A healthy marriage needs careful gardeners on the lookout for weeds and other pests that poison the potential crop. The flowers need watering and the plants need pruning for that garden to flourish.

The truth is that in every relationship, something is growing. And if it’s a weed, every time it’s ignored, it will grow stronger, establishing deeper roots. If we know anything about gardening, it’s that weeds have the power to kill everything healthy around them. Weeds spread and turn what could be beautiful into something dreadfully ugly.

I often find myself reminding my wife (and myself) that we are a team.

A team is made up of players with different strengths and unique perspectives who are united in goal and vision. A team that wins is a team that works hard to remain so. And in a marriage, you’re either on the same team or on opposing teams—there’s no neutral zone.

We’ve all met couples who are simply married on paper. They stick with it “for the kids” but are clearly on separate teams going separate ways. So here are 6 ways that have helped my wife and I foster the culture of team in our marriage.

1. Commit to honesty. 

A team that works well together knows that anything deceptive will kill oneness. Without a commitment to truth there can be no trust, nor grace. Honesty doesn’t simply mean bluntness or lack of restraint. Rather, honesty in marriage means that we tell the truth in loving ways, in ways that help the other flourish, and not feel belittled or crushed. Honesty means telling the truth when we are upset—even when we know we are being unreasonable or irrational—because we know that truth will always be exposed one way or another.

2. Affirm the other’s strengths.

When a team is infiltrated by jealousy, it falls apart. Every team member plays a unique role which maximizes their strength and the strengths of those around them. For that to happen, everyone on the team needs to know and admit what their teammates are good at. Are there things your wife or husband is better at than you? Affirm these things, acknowledge them, and celebrate them. It will help you and your marriage in the long run. Don’t allow your spouse’s strengths to make you feel insecure or envious. Competition of that sort is dangerous—putting you on opposing teams and making room for weeds to grow. Affirming the other’s strengths, especially the ones you don’t have, will help them flourish, and will build trust.

3. Trust good intentions.

Trusting your spouse’s intentions means believing he or she has your best interests at heart. For a team to flourish there must be a constant trust and assumption that your spouse wants the best for you, your marriage and your family. What that means is that you don’t interpret every comment or action as a means of undermining you. This is called being passive aggressive. For example, if your husband cleans the house while you’re out, trust that he’s just trying to be caring and helpful—it’s not some subversive way of letting you know that you’re not a good wife. 

If you can’t trust your spouses intentions, then there is something deeper that needs addressing. Go back to number 1 on the list above.

4. Ask for help.

Asking your spouse for help can be really hard for the independent type. It means taking a humble stance and recognizing that neither of you is doing this alone—you’re committed to doing it together.

5. Over-clarify. 

How many fights, arguments and regrets have been caused by misunderstanding? It has been said that “the biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It’s often much less complicated to say “never mind” when your spouse doesn’t understand you. Working at clarity takes time, but the effort is worth it.

6. Make each other laugh.

Karl Barth once said that “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” Without laughter, we take ourselves—and life—too seriously. Laughing at the perplexities and challenges of life reminds us that everything, especially your imperfect spouse, is pure grace. So put your shirt on backwards, stick out your tongue, and do something silly, because humour will remind you that everything you have is a gift, and that will always boost your sense of oneness.

7. Have team rituals.

All great teams have rituals, from practice on Mondays to wings on Wednesdays. A ritual in the context of marriage is something that you do together, maybe weekly or monthly that help you focus on connecting with each other. This could mean a family outing to the grocery story, a good conversation over a special dessert, or an honest discussion over how you’re doing in the areas outlined above. Team rituals gives you and your spouse a chance not only to connect but to practice honesty with each other.

This is not at all an exhaustive list, but a good start to growing in greater oneness in your marriage. Oneness in marriage takes work, patience and a lot of grace. Like a garden, it needs careful tending and intentional planning. But perhaps if we get this right we can create a picture of something beautiful for the next generation—an alternative to the cultural offerings and a testament to the reality that Jesus-inspired, long-term commitment and hard work produces the best kind of fruit.

 

 

What’s the Point of Prayer?

prayer

What do you think about when you think about prayer?

I have a confession: throughout my life I’ve had moments of skepticism regarding the value of prayer. Does prayer accomplish anything or is it simply wishful thinking?

Over the years I’ve learned that a lot of people avoid prayer because they’re afraid that it might not work and by that they mean that their requests won’t be fulfilled. So they keep prayer at a distance, safely tucked away and pulled out for religious occasions.

You’ve likely heard the maxim that “prayer changes me more than it changes God.” Perhaps that is true, but I would put it this way: prayer is the arena in which God changes me. When we pray, we are being drawn into a conversation that has already been going on long before we show up. Prayer draws us into God’s life, helping us align our desires with his.

Henri Nouwen says it beautifully when he writes that “prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us.”

One of the ways prayer changes us is by giving us a new vision. In my own experience, prayer has afforded me the possibility of having a new set of eyes for seeing people and situations.

Jesus was known to say, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”

If you’ve ever tried to pray for someone you dislike, or who has offended you, it doesn’t take long to realize why Jesus invites us to pray for those who persecute us. It’s not simply because Christians should be “nice” to all people, it’s much more. When we pray for our enemies, we’ll inevitably be put in a position to think about what would be best for them. What do we hope for him or her?  What do we want for them? When we pray for those we are against (or those who are against us), we’re not complaining about them or focusing on how they offended us,  but wishing good for them and hoping the best for them.

This is brilliant!

When we pray, we’re letting God give us a new perspective on the people we would otherwise dismisson the people we would otherwise want to avenge, and want to see fail.

It gets better: prayer doesn’t only do this for our relationships, but for any situation in our lives that might seem like “an enemy”the moments in life where we feel like everything is working against us and things seem hopeless, aimless, pointless.

As a pastor, I have had times with people who reveal their grievances and complaints about someone who has offended them. In these situations, I’ve learned to follow up with an important question: “What do you hope for them?” This question is usually rhetorical, but important. It draws them into the transformative practice of beginning to actually pray for their enemy.

Prayer is the place where we are challenged to discover what God wants for a person, a circumstance, a next step.

Prayer gives us a new set of eyes for the people who get on our nerveseven those closest to us. When Jesus invites us to pray, he invites us to develop a future vision to see beyond the faults of those who offend us.

This is what prayer does: it gives us vision. It opens up possibilities. It says “yes” when everything in you wants to say “no.”  In prayer, God takes us away from our present offences to a greater vision of what could be.

So prayer, more than merely a tool for requests, is a means of transforming our very desires. Prayer is a means of changing our “hunger and thirst.” Prayer helps us have the wants that God wants.

Perhaps the lack of hope and vision for our lives (or our children’s lives, our marriages, our relationships) is often due to a lack of prayer.

I know I’ve found this to be true in my own life.

In fact, when Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, he was defining perfection.

“Be perfect, just like your Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good.”

For Jesus, perfection means we live with a deep hope even in the most broken situations; that nobody and nothing in our lives is beyond repair.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Next time you feel anger or offence, ask yourself what God may want you to want for your offender. It won’t be hard to figure out, and maybe in that process you’ll find yourself loving your enemy, praying for your persecutor, and just a little closer to perfection.

My Journey With Election

It was on my 6 hour drive home from my Pentecostal Bible College of which I had recently graduated, that I got serious about being a calvinist.

I was listening to a series of lectures on TULIP, and by the time I arrived home, I walked up to my dad and said, “I think I’m a calvinist.” That was in 2010.

Today, I reject the teachings I embraced many years ago. Here’s some of that story.

(By the way, the basic idea behind TULIP is that we are so totally depraved that we can’t choose God, he must choose us.  Fine, but this is where it gets sticky. When God does choose us, he “doesn’t miss”; his choosing is “irresistible” – when God chooses you for salvation, you can’t resist him.  And since it’s irresistible and God is efficient, Jesus only dies for those God already chose. “Election” therefore, is the idea that since nobody can choose God, nor resist God, God “elected” or “chose” them before the foundations of the world to be “saved.” He chooses by grace, not by merit, I should add.)

I started to engage with the biblical idea of election in my late teen years.

I read and re-read Romans 9-11, Ephesians 1, and other similar sections wondering what it all meant and if I could believe in a God who “chose” some for heaven and some for hell. When I went to college I dabbled in calvinist theology and was eventually on staff at a church where the calvinist understanding of election was taught as orthodoxy. For a little while, I reluctantly embraced calvinist doctrine as most faithful to Scripture.

Over recent years, my stance has changed. What I’ve found is that most understandings of election are read through a thin eschatology of a disembodied heaven as God’s ultimate goal for the world, and a thin soteriology in which salvation has everything to do with arriving at this disembodied destination. In simple terms: being christian is all about securing your place in “heaven” after you die – a place far away from this world.

Things started to really shift when I read Karl Barth.

Barth was an important 20th century theologian who considered himself Calvinist, but in a unique way. He provided me with a new way of thinking about election. For Barth, Jesus is both the Elect one and the Reprobate (or condemned) one. Barth uses Calvinist categories but re-shapes them in a creative way. Jesus is the one that is both “accepted” (or elected) and “rejected.”

That got me thinking.

Barth’s rendition opened new doors for me to think more deeply about the biblical meaning of election.

An important shift in my thinking came when I started to consider the meaning of election in the Old Testament.

I learned that if you misread the story of Israel, you will misread a lot of important theological ideas like election or salvation, or even the so-called “end times.” Most of our contemporary ideas of what the bible says about election, salvation and the end of the world would be vastly foreign to what Abraham, David, and Jesus thought.

Foundational to election in the Old Testament is the calling of Abraham as the bearer of a new tribe, one that would exist for the sake of blessing other tribes.

This story comes to us at the climax of evil in the early stories of Genesis. The extent of humanity’s brokenness is both relational and societal. It’s revealed in the violence of the first two brothers and comes to a climax in the story of a babel: a story of societal domination.

If chapter 1 of the Israel story is about a good God creating a good creation, chapter 2 is about how things went wrong. And chapter 3 is about about God’s desire to bring things back to the way they’re supposed to be: good.

How? Election. God elects a people: Israel.

Abraham’s family becomes those through whom God would use to heal the world and bring it back to its intended goal. That goal illustrated by God’s calling to Adam and Eve to be stewards of creation, making it flourish, and taking it from “good” to “very good.”

Abraham wasn’t promised a spot in heaven.

Indeed heaven wasn’t on his mind at all–not in the way we westerners typically think of it. Just go through the psalms of David–he beleives that he will be in the place of the dead when he dies (“sheol”).

Abraham’s concern was the present world. And how God was using his tribe to make it good.

Christian “salvation” has a lot to do with getting us back on track on this mission. Getting us back to being faithful co-creators with God–the very thing he created Adam and Eve for. Abraham, and Israel is “chosen” or “elect” for this very mission, which is later handed to the ekklesia – those who gather to worship and follow Jesus.

So salvation and election has a lot to do with doing something than it does with getting somewhere. Let me illustrate:

When we think about election today, we know that election always has to do with performing a task. The President is not elected to merely relocate to the white house—that’s an added perk. Instead, he is elected for a task—i.e. to lead the country for it to flourish. He may do so successfully  or not.

When people use language of election to mean that God “chose” individuals to “go to heaven” they miss a large part of the Bible’s story. Not only is heaven not the ultimate goal (a renewed creation is), but the elect are chosen (by God, I will grant) for a special task to be the signposts of this goal through the life they live.

But just like in the Old Testament, the chosen or the elect can fail miserably. Yet God, in his grace, continues to invite all people to join him in his mission. Everyone’s invited. And everyone can choose to say yes or no (which is an idea so prevalent throughout Jesus’ teaching).

In comes Paul.

In the New Testament, Paul loves using the concept of election. He knows the story of Israel and of Abraham and talks about it at length here.

When Paul uses the language of election, he is thinking about Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the world. He is thinking about how God “chooses” ordinary people (including himself) to get the world back on track. To bring healing, wholeness, shalom, to a world tainted by the darkness of lies, injustice and dysfunction.

Now, for Paul, all those who put their faith in Jesus are the “elect” because it’s through trusting Jesus that the world could be “put to right” (N.T. Wright’s favourite phrase). It’s through trusting in Jesus that Adam and Eve’s task to be stewards of creation could be restored.

So much more can be said.

But here’s the big take away:

Election has little to do with where you go when you die. Election is a task–a task that is of course initiated by God himself in which we are invited to join. In Paul’s new idea of election, the church becomes the place of the elect – the place where those who trust in Jesus are formed in a new way of life. The church is not marked out by race anymore, but by trust (or faith) in Jesus. When you trust Jesus you become part of a new mission – you become “grafted” into the One who is Chosen (thanks Barth). And you are invited to be part of a way of life that bring healing and restoration to all parts of creation.

That’s good news.

The Challenge of Solitude

We are addicted to being busy.

In the western culture at least, we love to achieve, excel, and be persistently hurried to move on to the next thing. More than ever we need space to practice solitude, to be away from the noise, the frenzied lifestyle that renders us deaf to God’s gentle voice.

A couple weeks ago I went away for a a few days of silence and solitude. On my return I questioned whether I was supposed to feel more rested or not. I realized that in past experienced, I did feel rested, but not this time.

Indeed, the ancient christian practice of silence and solitude isn’t merely meant for us to find physical rest—it’s much bigger than that.

I’ve had times of solitude and silence in the past but this time around, it felt like I was riding a bicycle for the first time. It was a bit shaky, awkward, imbalanced and full of failure. It took some time for me to get into the right headspace. I kept doubting myself as to whether I was “doing it right.” Should I pray more? Read more? Eat less?

It was the first time in a long time—over a year—that I hadn’t had a time of silence and solitude, but I’m encouraged to know that like most spiritual disciplines, they get stronger and more fluid with practice. You start to know where the pedals are without looking, how to have the best possible posture for optimum balance, and you learn to get off and on as though the bike becomes an additional limb.  When the practice of solitude and silence becomes part of your rule and rhythm of life, you will get better at it.

Secondly,  I didn’t return from my day of solitude “rested” because of what solitude is actually for.  Henri Nouwen puts it best when he says that “solitude is the furnace of transformation.” When Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to be alone with the father, he encountered temptations and wild animals. Similarly, solitude is the place where we face our own devils—our pain, our guilt, our shame, our temptations—the things that God wants to set us free from. It’s a place of honest introspection, where everything comes out and we encounter the truth about who and where we really are.

This may be emotionally and physically burdensome.

Indeed, the place of solitude is a place where one might feel quite far from God, because they are coming to grips with their own godlessness.  In the classic book on contemplative prayer, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” the writer speaks of a “cloud” that seems to separate us from God when first seeking him in long  periods of contemplation, silence, and solitude. God may seem distant, far, even angry.

This is why Dallas Willard reminds us that  “we can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.” Having our emotional trauma and baggage show up (when we thought we were done with it all) can be distressing both physically and emotionally—this is the “furnace” part that all transformation requires.

Henri Nouwen beautifully describes what silence and solitude with God can cause us to feel:

Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born…

In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing.

It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. 

But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive – or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory…

The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ (The Way of the Heart, p. 27-28).

This is the challenge of solitude: to make room for us to see our own need for Jesus and to truly trust him to make us new. Even when everything in us wants to run way, go to our usual comforts, and take matters in our own hands.

There’s a greater goal to solitude than rest—it’s trust.

Trust that God is not a far off punishing and angry God, but a close, loving father, who loves us too much to let us stay the way we are.

The challenge of solitude is the challenge of the furnace—the fire—of transformation.

Confessions of an Introverted Pastor

I sometimes get the feeling that being a pastor is like fitting a square peg in a round hole. It’s as if something’s not fitting right — something’s missing. The ideal pastor, in my mind, is someone who always want to be around people. He’s the spotlight performer, eloquent and articulate, with the right amount of witty. I’m not sure where I got this image, but it certainly hasn’t been the case for me or many pastors I know. Don’t get me wrong, I do love people, but at times I find myself too drained to be around others and unmotivated to help. In these moments I start to wonder if maybe I’m not cut out for this job. Maybe there’s someone else who should do what I’m doing, and maybe I need to find another path.

In the midst of these questions, which often go unanswered, three reminders help give me a new perspective:

Leadership isn’t supposed to be glamourous.

One of the most encouraging reminders when experiencing self-doubt is realizing that it is a normative experience for many prophets and leaders in the Bible. I think of Moses: the paradigmatic prophet-leader who, from the beginning, finds excuses not to do the job, and wants to give up along the way. Or there’s Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, called to a life of sadness for the sake of God’s people and the world. I think of many of the prophets, who in no way glamourized their job the way many self-proclaimed prophets do today. Elijah was depressed, and Jonah wanted to die after seeing his enemies repent (Jonah 4). God doesn’t condone this kind of behaviour but Biblical leaders often find themselves doing a job that they wish they didn’t have to do.

In some odd way, this is comforting.  Someone once told me that the pre-requisite to Christian leadership is not wanting it. In God’s pecking order, not wanting to have the spotlight makes you the perfect person for the spotlight. Maybe this has something to do with Jesus’ words about greatness and service.   Our culture celebrates leadership as something that sounds like a great idea, but they have no idea what they are up against. It’s not for no reason that leadership and loneliness are known to walk hand in hand. Leadership isn’t supposed to be glamourous.

People are sacred.

In my self-doubt I’ve discovered something so profound yet so simple. Christians always talk about how all people are created in God’s image, and are therefore worthy of respect. Usually what they mean is that people in some way reflect God because he created them. But I think we need to take it a step further: not only do humans reflect God, but God is in them.

If all things live and breathe and have their being in Jesus, and if Jesus is present and at work in every human being, then whenever we encounter a human, we experience a chance of encountering God. I’m not saying humans are God, but that God is in some mysterious way present in people, and that God reveals himself in our encounters with people. People are sacred. C.S. Lewis says it best:

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

When this occurred to me, I started to see people differently — and not just people I know, or Christians, but every living person, regardless of age, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Jesus spent a lot of his time with the rejects the renegades and the religious leaders. There wasn’t a speck of favoritism in him, and the idea that people are sacred runs through the whole of his teaching (Matthew 5:24).

I may not be special, but I am invaluable. 

This one is so deeply foundational to healthy ministry, and for me, probably the hardest one of all.

We all like the idea of being a unique snowflake with brilliant abilities. But in reality, the things you and I say and do are not that special at all.

Yet they infinitely matter.

This is a difficult tension to keep: 1) you are ordinary, 2) what you offer the world is incredibly valuable. I find myself wanting to share my opinion only when I think it’s the most creative and clever in the room.  I think it’s good for me to speak up only when what I have to say has never been said before.

Do you believe that what you have to say, no matter how ordinary and common and non-unique it is, truly matters? I think this is what meekness is all about. Meekness comes from an unwavering trust that I am deeply, and unconditionally loved, and that what I say and do, though average, is extremely important. If you don’t believe this in a healthy Gospel-informed way, you have no chance of loving others well. This is the fuel for loving others–you can’t give yourself to another if you don’t believe the “you” is worth giving. You’ll merely be giving out of an empty tank, and it will rob you of joy and make you resentful. The only love I can give to others flows from the reservoir of love that exists for myself.

These three reminders make a big difference for me. When I remember that leadership isn’t supposed to be glamourous, that people are sacred, and that thought I am just another person, what I have to say and offer matters in ways I can’t even imagine.

 

Jesus’ Words of Life

wordsWords kill, words give life;

they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

Proverbs 18:21 

One of my favourite stories in the Gospel of John is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. Jesus is left alone with this woman and the disciples are off to find food.

What we quickly learn is that Jesus is not only talking to a woman, but a Samaritan woman, and not just any Samaritan woman, but a woman who’s “been around town” and most likely has no friends. We’re told that she was getting water at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, alone, which is weird, because in the ancient world, women always traveled in packs and the time for hauling well-water for the day was always in the early morning, not at the hottest time of the day—everyone knows that!

So Jesus talks to the outsider. The loner. The ex-communicated. Which is encouraging because we are all in some way or at some time been this woman.

But something else happens:

“Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.”

Shocked. Couldn’t believe. That kind of woman! Their faces showed it. I wonder how awkward this would have been for the woman. Jesus speaks words of life to those who only hear death.

Isn’t Jesus still leading his followers into these shocking, uncomfortable places? I wonder if we’re not given her name on purpose, because every reader of the story is challenged to think of the Samaritan Woman that Jesus is pointing out to in our own life.  Or perhaps a certain kind of person—the kind I would normally avoid. I wonder if there’s a “Samaritan Woman” that is in close proximity to me that I need to pay attention to.

I shared this with our youth this past Friday and they could all relate to the story. They all know what it’s like to be the Woman at the Well. They also know what it’s like to be the uncomfortable disciples when that person is suddenly in my friend group. Teenagers know first-hand the difference between “words of death” and “words of life.”  We learnt that Jesus is calling us to a way of life that takes words very seriously.  We left challenging ourselves to be intentional and attentive to any woman at the well that Jesus is asking us to talk to this week, with words of life. We ended with this prayer:

Dear Jesus

It wasn’t that long ago that we felt like an outsider, it wasn’t long ago that someone made fun of us. Not long ago, we felt worthless. But you welcomed us into your family and showed us a new way to live. No matter where we are, please help us speak up for people who do not have a voice and to use words of life to those who are hard to love. In Jesus’ name we pray.

AMEN

Thomas Merton Prays for God’s Will

In honour of Merton on his 102nd birthday:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Thomas Merton on Faith and Doubt

“Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false “faith” which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our “religion” is subjected to inexorable questioning… Hence, is it clear that genuine contemplation is incompatible with complacency and with smug acceptance of prejudiced opinions. It is not mere passive acquiescence in the status quo, as some would like to believe – for this would reduce it to the level of spiritual anesthesia.”

  • Thomas Merton

Reflections on Gratitude and the Holy Supper

gratitude

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 1 Cor 10:16

Eucharisteo is the Greek word for gratitude.

The posture of thanksgiving is what the biblical narrative points to as the proper posture of the imago dei in man. This stands in contrast to our North American culture of excessive hoarding and addiction through the gratification of insatiable desires. Hans Boersma makes the observation that this is quite understandable since our words is astonishingly beautiful: “When we smell, when we taste, when we hear, when we see, when we touch—the pleasure that follows can be overwhelmingly powerful.” But the purpose of our lives is not for increased gratification of the instinctual sort. What separates us from animals and what makes us rightful candidates of the imago dei—that uniquely human calling to image the Creator—is a posture of eucharisteo: gratitude. But not just any gratitude, but the kind that leads to self-giving, the kind that recognizes that all of creation—all that we can taste, touch, smell, hear and see—is merely a gift to be offered back to God.

In response to Jesus’ instructions, christians have made what has come to be known by countless names (holy communion, eucharist, holy supper, etc) as the definitive marker of the Christian identity.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. Then word “communion” refers to the greek word, koinonia, which is also translated as fellowship, and participation. This special Christian act is precisely that: fellowship, participation, a unique and unexplainable mystery of entering into the Trinitarian life. And as we enter into the life of the Trinitarian God, we are launched into a life of eucharisteo.

To be authentically human, according to Christian faith and practice, is constituted by the posture of thanksgiving that leads to self-giving.

Paradoxically, and in opposition to everything we’re told by a culture of rampant consumerism, a life of gratitude is the life that is most satisfying of all.

Studies have shown that gratitude in itself is a healthy posture, and daily practices of expressing gratitude will contribute to happier life. But who are we to thank? How we answer this question will determine whether or not we will move from thanksgiving to self-giving.

God’s Plan For You is to Be a Gardener

A couple of weeks ago I had a sudden impulse to have a garden.

I bought some soil and some planters and the next you know I was in my garden gloves, watering basil, tomatoes and cucumbers in a raised garden bed made of an old bookshelf. The idea of having a garden sounds nice, but unless I learn to prune and water it, it’s going to die. If I want it to flourish, I will need to be intentionally present to it.

The beautiful thing about gardening is that it’s the primary image used in the Bible to describe what humans were created to do: to be gardeners of the world.

In the first pages of the Bible we’re introduced to God as a gardener: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8).  And like any gardener, God’s desire for His garden—His creation—was that it would flourish. In other words, when God created the world, He created it with the intention that it would be a place where goodness, truth and beauty would abound. The Hebrew word for this was shalom.

The surprising part of the story is that God did not choose to do this by Himself. God’s plan was for man and women to be co-gardeners with Him. Humans, made in the image and likeness of God, were created to join God in His creative work to care for the world in a special way.

All the pain, hurt, suffering and shame we’ve ever experienced is a result of our failure to be responsible gardeners of God’s creation.

The good news of God becoming a man and entering our world is not that we get a ticket to escape the world, but show us the way to be proper gardeners of the world.

Unfortunately, salvation is often misunderstood as a story of escaping this world because it is just too damaged and corrupt for any hope of redemption. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. See, God did not become flesh to get us out of the world, but so that we would be fully human, fully alive, in the world and for the world.

Because of Jesus, a new creation has penetrated our world.

One of the earliest Christian teachers captured this idea when he said that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” What he meant was that in Jesus, we find our true human fulfillment. This is why Jesus often talked about offering “abundant life” to his followers. It doesn’t mean that he gives us a lot of things but that he makes it possible for us to recover our human calling to be co-gardeners with God.

This has a lot of implications with how we view and inhabit our world. Christians are called to be the shapers and makers of culture. We’re called to be present, like a gardener is present to his garden, caring for our world, our city, our neighborhood in ways that reflect the ways of Jesus.

When we follow Jesus into the way of life he calls us to live, he will make us more human than we could ever be without him.

Following Jesus means that we learn to be present to people, places and things in every sphere of culture we find ourselves in for the sake of cultivating shalom.