Sunday, May 17, 2015

Which Way Is Up?

Pilots say that when flying you can lose your sense of what is up and what is down. In murky water, scuba divers can mistake the bottom for the surface. Skiers buried in avalanches have thought that they were digging through the snow toward the sky only to strike dirt and rock.
Literally, none of these people know which way is up. They have at least momentarily lost the defining markers for spatial orientation: up and down. And in each case, such disorientation can have life and death consequences.
Figuratively, we say that someone doesn’t know which way is up when they seem confused, disoriented, or simply struggling with a task that exceeds their abilities. They have lost the principles that guide and anchor their lives.

Hiro Yamagata's "Balloon Race"

“Up,” in this case, does not refer to one’s spatial orientation. Instead, it refers to one’s sense of what’s real, what’s important, and where we’re heading in life. In other words, knowing what’s up means that we are spiritually grounded and oriented. Our spiritual orientation or lack thereof bears directly on the quality of this life and the life to come.
The Ascension teaches us that following the risen Christ involves a radical redefinition of “up." Luke and John offer us different perspectives on the Ascension. Luke gives a chronological, sequential account of events. John is more concerned with theology than chronology.
We can’t simply blend the two accounts, but neither do we have to keep them completely separate. By bringing the two Gospels into conversation with each other, the meaning of the event of the Ascension as well as its significance for us can emerge more clearly.
We’ll start with Luke.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Friends Are For

God is apparently not a helicopter parent. He does not hover over our every move like a mother  who does every homework assignment with her child, walks her child to the mailbox, and watches her at every meal to insure that she’s chewing with her mouth closed.
And yet God is present. Deists—you know, the gang who say that God created everything and then became an idle spectator—are so 2005 (and 1776).
Shockingly, God is along on the pub crawl and during Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Mind you, he probably thinks that this is not such a great idea, but he’s in it with us for the long haul and all of that long haul’s less than stellar moments.
In other words, God’s love doesn’t always take the form of a spiritual fitness trainer or a theological tutor. Sure, God’s love transforms us. It stretches us and molds us. But God also spends a lot of time just getting us. He is that into us.
William H. Johnson's "Three Friends"

In Christ, God sits with us in whatever juniper patch or crummy dump or tornadic wreck that our life has become at the moment. And he is all in. He lays his life down for us. As The Message puts it, he puts his life on the line for us. (John 15:13) God makes himself vulnerable, infinitely vulnerable to our circumstances. He responds not in judgment but compassion.
Jesus, you see, says that we are his friends. And he really means it. (John 15:15) The Greek word translated as “friend” can be translated as “the beloved.” And that word is derived from one of the three words commonly used for love: philia.
In other words, Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s love for us, only that love looks different from what most of us have been taught. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Loving What God Loves

Before the Owensby family departed for seminary at Sewanee, our parish priest Richard Turk offered my wife Joy some advice for our marriage. 
“Take up golf,” he said.
Seminary would demand much of my time. Richard wanted to help us maintain our close relationship. And so he gave Joy a well-intended suggestion.
Richard loved playing golf, and I’m sure that he would have loved to have had his wife Davette by his side on the links. Since Richard and I were alike in many ways, he assumed that Joy and I would enjoy our time at the local golf course in Sewanee.
Ethel Carrick's "Loves Me, Loves Me Not"

Joy and I loved Richard. So she just didn’t have the heart to tell him that she has no interest in playing golf and that I have even less. Our interests lie elsewhere entirely. Just for the record, among other things Joy and I spend lots of time walking together.
Despite Richard’s misfire about golf, he was spot-on about one thing. Loving someone involves learning to love who and what they love. 
Now this is true in a restricted way for our love for other human beings. As Augustine said, our loves can be disordered. We can love the wrong things or love things in the wrong way.
But when it comes to our love for God, there are no holds barred. God loves perfectly. To love God is to learn to love what God loves. And to love God begins with Christ's love for us.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wants and Needs

Miss Beth was my oldest son Andrew’s first grade teacher. She ably and lovingly taught her little charges how to read and write. Increasing their knowledge base was part of her job description.
And yet like all truly good teachers she understood that her vocation included much more. Miss Beth intentionally nurtured the humanity of the children under her care by imparting life wisdom.
For years in the Owensby house we would repeat one of her practical questions for sorting out our motivations: Do you want it or do you need it?
Edward Hopper's "Morning Sun"

Wants and needs are the engine that drives our lives. They are our fundamental motivators. All of us wither and fade when our needs go unmet. Miss Beth also recognized that some of us—children and grownups alike—grow frantic and miserable when we cannot have what we want, even when we don’t need it.
Her life lesson was simple but profound and fundamental. Be clear about what you truly need. This clarity can keep your life focused. Everyone will experience wanting things we can’t have. Recognizing them for mere wants we liberate us from the tyranny of perpetual dissatisfaction. After all, there’s always something to want that we don’t have.
Initially you may think that Miss Beth advocated a bottom-line existence. Many people think that our needs are very minimal: food, water, air, safety. And we do need these things. 
But as Abraham Maslow once taught, humans have higher order needs. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

More Than We Bargained For

The Christian hope rests entirely upon the resurrection. And yet, paradoxically, the disciples greeted the risen Christ with fear and hesitation. 
Jesus saw it immediately. He greets them with words of peace and then asks them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:37)
Why indeed? Why did they take an emotional step back when they saw the risen Christ? 
To be honest, we have to ask the same questions about ourselves. And the answer is clear.
Resurrection is more than they bargained for. Resurrection is more than we bargained for.
Norman Rockwell's "Surprise"

Eternal life, you see, is not about merely enjoying the mortal life we have now forever and ever. God is transforming this mortal life into a new kind of life. As we follow Jesus in our daily routines, his presence in our lives is changing who we are at our very core.
It is this prospect of transformation that gave those disciples pause. And our own spiritual heartburn arises from the realization that our relationship with Jesus is stretching and molding and recreating us all along the way.
At this point you may be scratching your head, wondering what on earth I’m talking about. After all, you are deeply comforted by the idea of a secure afterlife. But what I’m trying to convey to you is precisely this. If you have been thinking about resurrection solely in terms of the afterlife, you may be keeping the risen Christ at arm's length.