The Polar Vortex

Few of us made it through this past week without hearing of the “polar vortex” that brought a drop in thermometers to the northern part of the United States and Canada.  For some, it froze soap bubbles.  Others reported never seeing their town in such a blanket of white before.  Still, others were glad that school wasn’t cancelled, a testimony to the hardy stock of their neighbors. 

What impressed me the most with this year’s first big icy storm were some Niagara Falls photos, where our mild winters of recent years haven’t allowed something so stark and frozen for a long time.  And the photos of a white wonderland where the Falls appear nearly frozen are a reminder of our journey of faith, where rarely does the Christian walk go in a linear fashion.  Instead, like the polar vortices of the soul, the process of following Jesus requires a continual submitting to the unknown and uncontrolled.

As we journey forward in 2014 with hopes renewed—maybe this year I will lose those extra pounds, or go on this trip, or have that conversation with that certain someone…you know where you fit—may we remember that our journeys at times look like the Falls this past week.  Having visited there in a balmy August some years back, I never would have imagined the area to look as desolate—and scary—as it did this past week.  But it is still the same Niagara Falls.  The same place where people have descended in a bucket, the same place where tightrope walker Nik Wallenda recently crossed on a highwire like many others before him, the same place where our jaws drop to the floor in awe.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).  Like the frozen falls of this past week, may we remember that the hiccups of life that come our way and cause us to question what is going on are not places for doubt.  Instead, they are places for faith.  It’s this faith that C.S. Lewis described as “the art of holding on to things your reason once accepted in spite of your changing moods.”  Neither mood nor Polar Vortex can change who Jesus is, and that is a great outlook at the beginning of any year.

A Life Well Lived

After announcing a quiet and private battle with cancer just earlier this week, it was announced today that philosopher-theologian Dallas Willard passed away today at 77.  Having heard Dallas a few times in my own studies of Christian spiritual formation, I’m appreciative to have rubbed shoulders with one who is so humble regarding his impact on the lives of so many and who has so fervently longed for each of us to walk hand in hand with Jesus as Savior.

Yesterday, Willard’s son-in-law Bill Heatley posted on Facebook an excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy:

“Those who live in reliance upon the word and person of Jesus, and know by experience the reality of his kingdom, are always better off ’dead,’ from the personal point of view … we live in the knowledge that, as Paul elsewhere says, ’Jesus the Anointed has abolished death and has, through the gospel, made life and immortality obvious.’ (2 Tim 1:10).”

Today, Willard brings this quote to life and does so wholeheartedly.  May we, too, long to be better off dead.

Model Airplanes, Super Glue, and God

As a kid, I loved model airplanes. There was something fun about saving up enough coins and one-dollar bills to be able to buy the model of a Grumman F-14 Tomcat, a Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter, or a Boeing 737 (occasionally, there was even a model car or two.). I enjoyed the super glue, way-too-expensive paints and decals that took quite the finesse to get just right.

Imagine if all I had done with my model kits was taken them home and oohed-and-aahed over the plastic parts. “What amazing parts,” I might have thought. “Look at the wing half on this one!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” you say? You might even argue that the purpose of buying a kit was to put it together, that in putting it together, I’d learn the way things worked and went together. And you’d be right.

I think that, oftentimes, we theologians do the same thing with God. We can get some sort of knowledge—a new Bible study, a lecture, a book on this or that—and learn plenty about God, but can miss really knowing Him, miss the interaction He longs to have with us as people He created, miss the intimate relationship He desires to have with us. I know my own hang-up in “unwrapping the box” and going deep with God is because there are parts of my soul that don’t believe that Jesus is who He says He is. And that is true for each one of us. And so, where we are aloof in our walk with Jesus, may we cast off this hesitancy and shout the cry of the father of the demon-possessed boy, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And may all our pursuits of knowledge, theological and otherwise, help us dive more deeply into knowing Him more fully.

Join Us: Upcoming Marriage Retreat

Theologian Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul says that we can love one’s soul—our own and that of others—by simply taking interest in it—finding what makes it excited, getting to know it and see its inner core:

Taking an interest in the soul is a way of loving it. The ultimate cure, as many ancient and modern psychologies of depth have asserted, comes from love and not from logic. Understanding doesn’t take us very far in this work, but love, expressed in patient and careful attention, draws the soul in from dispersion in problems and fascinations. It has been noted that most, if not all, problems brought to therapists are issues of love. It makes sense then that the cure is also love.

Think of how one interacts with their child, who simply wants to have that moment of eye-to-eye contact where they know they really are being listening to. That’s at the heart of what Moore is saying. This ultimate cure to be known comes not from a logical plan but from a wild and infecting love. Perhaps this is why true intimacy for our culture—and that of many others—is so hard to accept. To be known and accepted as I truly am does not make sense. In fact, many of us would reject this notion logically. “How can she love me?” one asks. Moore is right in his suggestion that love cannot be fully understood as there is a part of it that we quickly want to reject. More rightly, with patience and care, we begin to see that our own varied problems fade and make way for sharing, for relationship, and for being known.

Just as this is true for in a parent-child relationship, we also see this in marriage. This kind of love and intimacy was at the heart of the love relationship shared between Sheldon Van Auken and Jean Davis, better known as Van and Davy, who wrote A Severe Mercy. Van writes that…

…total sharing, we felt, was the ultimate secret of a love that would last forever. And of course we could learn to like anything if we wanted to. Through sharing we would not only make a bond of incredible friendship, but through sharing we would keep the magic of inloveness.

For Van and Davy, their marriage relationship grew more in love as they saw value in the things shared in which the other was—at first—more interested. Sailing, convertibles, Christianity, England and dying well were all things one of them like more originally. But, because of the intimacy in their relationship, they saw that there would be something worthwhile in the likes of the other, which lead to a greater “inloveness,” their word for keeping the marriage fires burning, even during some of the very cold times they endured.

How do you see inloveness and intimacy in your own relationships? I’d be interested to know how you keep things going in our busy and disconnected world.

Want to work on this love and intimacy in your own marriage? You may be interested in an upcoming seminar on intimacy in one’s marriage. We hold our inaugural Creating Oneness marriage retreat on the evening of September 18th on “Intimacy with the Other: God and Your Spouse.” For more info, to register and for future retreat info, click here. We hope to see you there.

Burnout and the Willing-Doing Gap

I’m back from my travels. Great to be home, great to have caught up with friends and good to put the suitcase away for some time. Having not been on the road for awhile, I’d forgotten what it was like to catch a plane here and ride the rails and have a meeting there all while trying to have some semblance of rest and peace. Needless to say, I feel for many of my fellow Americans for whom this is the norm.

One of the main things I saw during my travels was the effect of burnout—long-term exhaustion and diminished interest—in the workplace and in the Christian life in general. Many of the people I saw and even new folks I met in passing told me of their busy lives and how that lifestyle does not help them to rest or connect well with God. James Bryan Smith in The Good and Beautiful God talks about how the number one enemy for Christian spiritual formation is exhaustion and that we live beyond our means not only financially but physically as well.

Oftentimes we believe that if we just try harder in the spiritual life, things will get better. Yet this belief is false. If we’re to have any long-lasting impact in how we counter burnout, we need to slow down, which is quite a paradox from the “try harder” mentality we might usually think would work. Theologian Klaus Issler says that “willpower alone was never meant to carry the weight of right living. It is too limited to defeat the various temptations we face and to change the sinful habits and compulsions we have developed over a lifetime. Will power is also too weak to bring about positive change—we cannot will joy, peace, kindness. We can will certain actions, but not character traits. Rather, as Jesus taught, our mode of life is primarily directed by our inner life or heart.”

May each of us this week examine our lives and see where we are nearing burnout. Let’s also take Smith’s suggestion of sleeping more so that we can be more alert to others, our selves, and to God.

Try this with me this week (quoting Smith): “At least one day this week sleep until you cannot sleep any more. If you need to, find a day when you can sleep in. Your aim is to sleep, or stay in bed, until you can finally say, ‘I am completely rested. I do not need to sleep or stay in bed a minute longer.’” As you practice this discipline this week, what, if anything, did you learn about God or yourself in the process? Keep me posted on how you progress in this easy way to fight burnout in your life.

Lessons from the Garden

Recently, I’ve participated in two events that I wanted to share with all of you ETS readers–this past week’s The Journey retreat with The Leadership Institute and a wonderful Garden Tour at our home to help raise scholarship funds for our church’s women’s ministry.

Both are relatively different, yet there was a common thread through them both of God’s goodness. We’d known of both events for quite some time. The past couple months have involved slowly getting the yard ready for visitors–pruning this plant here, sweeping that corner there–and an internal excitement about sharing our passion of gardening with yet-to-be friends.

Early last week, I left for The Journey with a bit of apprehension. Still, while the yard was generally ready to go, part of me was ready to stay home to ensure every detail was covered. And yet it was during The Journey that one of my colleagues taught a lesson that made a big impact. He reminded us of Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the vine in John 15, a passage I tend to be in at least weekly. My colleague said that early in his Christian walk, this passage freaked him out–specifically “every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (v. 2). Why would a good Gardener prune branches that were healthy? I instantly thought of my garden and all the work we’d been doing these past few weeks. My colleague continued on to talk about how God the Father, before we were ever born, with a great and passionate love for each one of us, prepared a place for us in His garden, knowing where He wanted to place us so we could be the most fruitful. I’ve done that with each of my plants in the yard when they were just little seedlings, figuring out which side should face out, repositioning them in the ground just so so they could flourish. God the Father does this with us as well, and it brings me joy to know this great truth!

As each of us lives out our day today and the rest of this week, may we be mindful of this great fact: we are where we are because God is aiming to teach us something, something about ourselves, about one another, about Him, that we may have His life abound in us all the more. Amen.