Tag Archives: Jesus

3 Things I’m Learning About Cultivating Peace

How do you find peace?

peaceful-sunset-1920x1080-1207058This is a question everyone asks at one time or another. I’ve been on a personal journey to answer it since last year’s Lenten season. The 40 days of fasting and repentance opened my eyes to the fact that in almost any given moment I was unsatisfied. Not unhappy, just unsatisfied. Restless, like I wast perpetually missing something. And I unknowingly tried so many ways to settle my restlessness, but always to no avail. When my mind wandered I would check out on social media, or grab some junk food, or go buy something, or reorganize the books on my bookshelf. Anything to avoid being fully present in the moment as it existed.

When I came home from the office I would often bring my restlessness with me, mostly because I felt like I had accomplished so little at work and needed to get something done. So at work my mind was restless, then at home my mind was restless because I spent the day in restlessness at work!

During Lent last year I gave up meat, which forced me to be very intentional about what I ate. I couldn’t just “grab something” whenever an urge hit. I began to notice that by forcing myself to think about what I was eating, my mind was much more focused on what needed to get done. Since food was no longer an escape, somehow that helped my mind be satisfied with the moment. And when I was able to be satisfied, the other vices began losing their appeal, and eventually I was rarely looking for an escape.

Robert Pirsig refers to three levels of understanding in our search for peace: Physical, Mental, and Value. THIS IS THE FIRST THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our physical behavior (like giving up meat for 40 days) influences our Mental state, which then creates a “Value Quietness” in which “one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, and that seems the hardest of all.”*

Once I realized this, I was forced to ask: “But what was I escaping from?” And that’s where the real journey begins. We fall into the trap of thinking we have no peace because our environment is not peaceful. And, to be sure, we ought to intentionally work toward a peaceful environment. We are a loud, busy, multi-tasking people who rarely stop for the sake of being present. Environment does play a part, but it’s only a small part. But simply removing the thing causing distress doesn’t get at the heart of the problem itself; namely the question Why does that stress me out?

med1I have a friend who is a foster/adoptive dad with a large family. He once told me that shoes on the stairs causes him great distress. As he kept talking he began to acknowledge that the location of the shoes wasn’t the problem, but rather the disrespect he felt as a father by his kids not putting things where they belong.

And that’s where his journey toward peace must begin.

THIS IS THE SECOND THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our environment is not necessarily bad, and can sometimes solve the problem. But more often than not, what is really needed is not a change of environment, but a change of Self, because there’s only so much control we have over our environment. Unfortunately, changing the environment is always easier than changing our Self. As Martin Luther once wrote: “The Self dies hard.

BEGIN TO CHANGE YOUR SELF WITH THREE QUESTIONS

THIS IS THE THIRD THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing your Self is never complete; it requires time and maintenance. It also requires intentionality and a recognition of restlessness when it occurs. For example, I was at my 12-year-old son’s basketball game recently. It was a close game and came down to the final shot. My son’s team got the ball off a missed free throw and immediately called time out. They had 7 seconds to move down the court and get a shot off. I try not to be that obnoxious parent at my kids’ sporting events, but sometimes I get outside of myself and a little too wrapped up in the game. That was the case on this particular night. I just wanted them to win so bad!

So, during the time out, while all the players were off the court, I actually paused and asked myself three questions:

Will I be at peace if they win?

Will I be at peace if they lose?

What must I do to have the same peace either way?

This, for me, has become the central focus. I want the same peace if my son’s team loses as I would have if they won, and I want to intentionally work to maintain it. The work of maintaining peace starts with recognizing how little control we have at any given moment.

As a spectator – not a coach, nor a ref, nor a player – I had no control over any aspect of that game. If my peace were contingent upon my environment, then I would have been fighting a losing battle because it was completely out of my hands. And that’s the case for most of life; life is imposed on us more than we impose ourselves upon it. Loosening our grip in moments like a 12-year-old boy’s basketball game reminds us of this fact, and leads us toward a cultivated sense of peace.

Whether it’s a basketball game, a work situation, family life, marriage, church, school, community, neighbors, weekend getaways…we are always given the opportunity to ask:

Will I be at peace if A happens?

Will I be at peace if happens?

What must I do to have the same peace either way?

Peace is cultivated, not grasped. Nurtured, not achieved. Peace is maintained. And maintenance is more of an art form than a science. It involves routine and structure, but great perspective is also required. For me personally, I’ve found a few things to be helpful in my effort to maintain peace:

  1. Wake Up Early – Obviously this isn’t going to work for everybody, but waking up before our kids** is the first step toward starting the day in peace for me. I typically wake up around 5:00, then go to our living room and practice a series of yoga stretches and poses, followed by some silent meditation in the dark. I spend about 5-10 minutes being as aware of my surroundings as possible. Some call this mindfulness. The discovery of mindfulness has been an extraordinary gift to me in my search for peace. Usually, though, at that time of morning the only thing to be mindful of is our snoring dog on the couch beside me. But these few moments of waking up peacefully set the tone for my whole day.
  2. Guided Prayer – I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director for the better part of a year now. He’s a retired Catholic priest named Father Bob. We meet most Wednesday’s at the Little Rock diocese where he and a few other retired priests now live. Each week he asks about my prayer time from the week before, then gives me some thoughts and scriptures to guide my prayer for the coming week. I’ve also begun using a prayer book. I’ve settled on The Book of Common Prayer. It provides a daily prayer structure that begins with ancient scriptures and liturgical readings. That way by the time I get around to praying for myself, my prayer is shaped by scripture and by spiritual mothers and fathers so that my personal prayer finds context in the great tradition of our faith.
  3. Deep Prayer Getaways – Here in Little Rock we are blessed with the Arkansas House of Prayer, a beautiful sanctuary on a hillside west of town. It’s on the grounds of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, which is also a beautiful sight. I try to spend a couple of hours on Tuesday’s at AHOP in what I’ve begun calling “Deep Prayer.” That is, a time of deep and focused interaction with Jesus, guided by scripture and liturgies and my own imagination (imagination in prayer is something I hope to write on soon). I also recently attended my first 3-day silent guided prayer retreat at St. Scholastica monastery in Fort Smith, AR. The sisters at St. Scholastica provided wonderful direction, and I was silent for three days, spending at least four hours per day in focused prayer, and the rest in companionship with Jesus. If you ever have a chance to participate in a guided silent retreat, I highly encourage you to take it.

Yesterday I started working on a space in the woods behind our house for an outdoor contemplative prayer space where I plan to spend my mornings once spring arrives. The hill on which our house sits backs up to the Arkansas river and provides incredible views of the sunrise each morning. So when everything thaws and life starts to bloom, I plan to cultivate peace in the nature of our own backyard.

We plan to move out of our current house in the next 18-24 months, and the thought occurred to me as I was lugging rocks through the trees that in only a few months I won’t have access to that space. But that’s the beauty of cultivating peace; you begin to realize that it’s not about a particular place or a particular space or even a particular time – peace is cultivated where you are, when you are, with what you have. In my case, I currently have access to a beautiful plot of woods behind our house. Perhaps our next house will be in a more urban area with only a small patch of grass out back. But peace is not contingent upon my environment, so an entirely new journey toward peace will open up as I will learn to experience it in a new place.

May that be your experience; may you see life as a perpetual journey toward the peace that Jesus offers, that you might be in a constant state of satisfaction regardless of your circumstances or environment. And may you find joy not only in the peace itself, but also in the cultivating work that you pour into it. May your yoga practices and quiet meditations and guided prayers be filled with a divine sense of work, and from that work may a beautiful harvest of peace rise up within you.

 

*Robert Pirsig; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values; William Morrow Modern Classics, p. 302

**Did I mention that my wife and I have eight kids? At the time of this writing they are ages 12, 9, 7, 7, 5, 4, 3, and 2. So yeah, don’t tell me you can’t do these things.

 

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The Rhythm of Prayer

King Saul is a fascinating figure. He reigned as king over Israel for 42 years even though A) he was horrible at it, B) was corrupt, C) was full of pride, and D) was more than a little paranoid. He never asked to be king, or even considered the possibility. One day he went out looking for his father’s lost donkeys, and when he came back he’d been anointed king of Israel. (Seriously, read 1 Samuel 9). His only credentials seem to be that he was a head taller than everybody and, apparently, easy on the eyes. But from the start it was clear his reign would not go well:

▪When he was inaugurated before the people, he hid from everyone “among the supplies.” (Seriously, read 1 Samuel 10:20-22).

▪He repeatedly disobeyed direct commands from God and the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 11-15).

▪After David killed Goliath, Saul did everything he could to kill David, a threat to his throne. (1 Samuel 18-31)

▪After driving out all the witches and fortune tellers from Israel, Saul went to a fortune teller at night so nobody would see him. (1 Samuel 28)

Eventually, when Saul’s sons were dead and all his men abandoned him in battle, he fell on his own sword and died so as not to be taken captive by an enemy army.

A shameful end to a shameful reign.

RED FLAGS

We see red flags from the beginning of the story of Saul. He was never going to be a successful king because his eyes, his heart, his mind, his spirit had no capacity for the spiritual realm. Saul lived in the physical world and governed like a person with no expectation that God might break through and do something miraculous. He trusted himself and what he could see, rather than God and the realm that is unseen.

You and I aren’t that different, are we? We lose sight of the unseen. We forget that we have limits while God is limitless.

Perhaps our biggest red flag that we’ve lost sight of God is the absence of prayer.

RHYTHM OF PRAYER

I’ve heard it said that the church’s dirty little secret is that we don’t pray. We do lots of good things, but we are mostly capable of doing them whether God is present or not. So our lives develop a rhythm of self-sufficiency. Church happens with or without God. Work happens with or without God. Families are raised with or without God. All this by we who call ourselves followers of Jesus. Eventually, without reminding ourselves of God’s ability and desire to break into the present realm, our world begins to look a certain way.

Prayer is an invitation into the realm where God lives and moves and has his being. Even the simplest prayer before a meal is an act of humility, acknowledging that God has, in fact, seen you, cared for you, and loved you. A lot of us give up praying because it feels like one more command us normal folks cannot keep. So most of us feel guilty for not praying and, in some cases, even fear God’s punishment.

But prayer is an invitation into “the ineffable,” the indescribable place where God’s supernatural power is the norm. Praying because we’re “commanded” to is fine, but eventually it becomes one more thing we’re capable of doing with or without God.

We also give up on prayer because we don’t always get what we ask for. But getting our requests is not the function of prayer. If it were, Jesus would have avoided the cross, Paul would have had his thorn taken from him, and psalmist after psalmist would have avoided the phrase, “How long, Lord!” Seriously, from what we read in scripture, you’re far more likely to not get what you want than you are to actually get it.

But that’s not what prayer is for.

Prayer is a rhythm. It’s a rhythm that keeps our minds, hearts, spirits, and souls centered in the unseen realm. Prayer reminds us that what we see is not all there is. When we create a rhythm of prayer for ourselves, we begin to see that ineffable realm more clearly. We’re not surprised when God shows up and does what God does. When we create a rhythm of prayer, the line between the natural and the supernatural fades. Prayer is the key to God’s world.

A SMALL RHYTHM

If you’ve lost (or never created) your rhythm for prayer, will you start this week? Make it simple; you don’t need to carve out five hours a day or get up at 3:00 in the morning or buy a prayer shawl or even keep a journal. Start small. Make a decision now to speak briefly to God once each day – at a meal, in the car, tucking in the kids. It’s like the bass line of a good song: subtle, simple, the foundation to something beautiful. As you feel your connection with the Other Realm intensify, expand your rhythm a little at a time, all the while opening your eyes to the realm of God.

Don’t do it because the Bible says to; do it because God invites you to see the world as he sees it. Don’t do it because you feel guilty; do it because you want to feel the presence of God. Don’t do it because you want to be a better Christian; do it because you want to experience a life that can only happen because God made it so.

I Don’t Want Kent to Die

 

How you do life is your real and final truth, not what ideas you believe. -Richard Rohr

THEOLOGY MATTERS. MOSTLY.

I love theology and Bible study and good, healthy debate. What we think about Jesus matters, but only so far as it prompts us to action. This sounds harsh, but I really don’t care what your theology is if you’re on the broad road with everybody else. If you’re part of the individualistic, materialistic, comfort-driven crowd who hasn’t sacrificed so much as a scrap of life for another person, then I just don’t care about your theology. As Jesus said, the wise man hears Jesus’ words and puts them into practice. The fool hears them and does nothing.

Think of the number of us who listen to (and preach) sermons, read (and write) dozens of blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts every week telling us what to think about God or the Church or the latest political crisis. Compare that with the number of people who haven’t got time for such things because they’re actually out there doing it – they’re living their theology instead of reading and writing about it. As Hermann Cain famously said, “I don’t have the evidence to back this up,” but I have to believe there are far more of us preaching and reading and writing than actually doing. That is exactly what Jesus meant when he said there is a broad road and a narrow road. Most of us are on the broad road that’s going nowhere, but only a few are on the narrow road that leads to life.

Which is why I don’t want Kent to die.

DR. KENT BRANTLY

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I met Kent Brantly – the American doctor who contracted Ebola – a few times. I didn’t know him well. He was two years behind me at our small Christian university in west Texas. Kent’s older brother and sister-in-law were my age. My wife and I knew them moderately well. I remember Kent being a tall, gangly guy whom I never saw without a smile. He was in the same social club (Christian university lingo for “frat”) as most of my friends, so I had an awareness of him and his pleasant personality.

Like many of you, I’ve read lots of articles about his condition and, more importantly, about his life and the choices he’s made. Kent is obviously an intelligent guy, and intelligent people sometimes choose the broad road that leads to comfort and wealth and fame and power. Kent, however, chose the narrow way that leads to life.

His story has weighed heavily on my wife and me. It’s tragic on every level. For people like us, reading and watching from afar, it’s like a punch to the gut. Our hearts break for his wife and children, his brother, his family, and all his friends.

I don’t want Kent to die.

I don’t want Kent to die because the world needs people who look and live like Jesus. The world needs people who see disease, risk, and danger as invitations for going instead of excuses for avoiding.

I don’t want Kent to die because if he does that’s one less person living out the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus in real time, in real life. Not somebody talking about it from a pulpit or reading about it in a coffee shop. Kent strikes me as a guy who believes the Word became flesh so he has done likewise.

I don’t want Kent to die because we need people who are living now like Jesus, without much concern for a proper eschatological view or theology of infant baptism or clearly spelled out explanation of hell and how one arrives there. Sure those things are important, but only if they get you off the couch and into a world full of hurt. We need people who aren’t satisfied with a safe, comfortable theology that gives them permission to lead a safe, comfortable life. We need people who are willing to stand toe-to-toe with death and pain and disease and brokenness because their love for life is so fierce.

I’ve said many times that there’s always a reason you shouldn’t make sacrifices for others. It will never be the right time, it will always cost you something, and you’ll be forced to sacrifice what’s precious to you. There’s always a reason not to move your family to Liberia. There’s always a reason to stay on the road that’s broad, avoiding the one that’s narrow.

But the world moves nowhere when we’re only concerned with ourselves. The world gets better when I sacrifice what matters to me so that I might do what matters to us. It gets better when the Church decides that the Word only matters when it takes on flesh.

As Jesus followers we’re driven by two fundamental practices: incarnation and resurrection. With incarnation there’s nowhere we cannot go, and with resurrection there’s nothing we cannot do.

I pray with great hope for Kent’s healing. I pray his life inspires a thousand others to live with the incarnational spirit of Jesus. I pray his life gets all of us off the couch, doing something in the world that actually matters. May Kent’s life not end here, and may he continue on that narrow road, giving others life along the way.

Two Days with Rob Bell

I did it.

I saw it promoted for a couple years, and I always thought “Two Days with Rob Bell” sounded a little pretentious. But then he changed the name from “Two Days with Rob Bell” to “Craft Lab.”

I was sold!

I booked my seat/flight/hotel/car and spent two days last week in beautiful Laguna Beach, CA with Rob Bell and around 50 or 60 people from all over North America. I met some incredible people doing seriously mind-blowing things, made more foster-adoptive connections, tried (and hated) surfing, and, of course, met Rob Bell.

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Initially there was a lot of what my wife calls “peacocking” – people strutting their stuff, trying to distance themselves from the rest of us lower-tier humans. But then Rob (or Robbie-Rob as I decided to call him) entered the room. An awe-full hush settled over us star-struck drones and without even saying a word, he’d begun.

Eventually, peacocking gave way to beautiful honesty and transparency. And by the end I declared it to be two of the most important days of my entire ministry.

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Rob Bell has a gift. Not just preaching, not just writing, but he has a gift of getting to the heart of what a person is truly saying in a matter of seconds. He’s a relentlessly hard worker and a genuine inspiration. He spent the first morning asking people about projects they’re working on. Within a few moments, he opened door after door after door to each person’s insight and what the project is actually about. It sounds a bit arrogant to say he sat and told people how to make their books-films-sermons better, but that’s exactly what he did and it was amazing. He read excerpts from his new book set to release in August called Yes, You. He shared some personal stories about ministry, about criticism, and about making the move from Michigan to L.A. to find a way to share his message on television. He explained his move this way:

Politics and religion are the two hot-button issues in America. Politics is everywhere on television, but where do you turn for religion? Where’s the religious equivalent to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?

He starts filming his show in a couple weeks, and it airs in October on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

He gave us priceless advice on the craft of presenting our thoughts like:

Be tight and ruthless

No B-minus stuff

Be able to tell the gist in 30-seconds

Structure breeds spontaneity

Use the particular to explain the universal

These have already had a profound impact on my preaching, and I’ve only been back one week!

Yes, Rob Bell has a gift.

It’s interesting to me that he receives so much criticism. I get it, I mean he says some things that are knowingly on the edge, if not over it. I don’t agree with 100% of what he says or writes or teaches, but I’m drawn to him because of the way in which he speaks and writes and teaches. He approaches God as I think God should be approached: with wonder and awe, fully aware of the mystery. His teaching style models that of ancient rabbis in that he asks far more questions than he has answers for. Questions unlock the door to mystery. Questions tell us more about who we are than any answer might. Questions are the way we move forward through time and space. Answers are the end of a trail, questions are its head. I think many people struggle with Rob Bell not because of his answers, but because of his questions. He doesn’t seem afraid to ask “the big ones,” nor is he afraid to arrive at an answer different from the one we’ve all be conditioned to regurgitate. I find that beautiful and inviting. I see in that a genuine sense of wonder at who God is. I see the disciples doing the same thing with Jesus, especially in John’s gospel. It’s there that John repeats over and over that the disciples had no idea what was going on, and it took them until well after Jesus’ ascension to begin to understand what his life meant.

Asking questions to which you’re unsure of the answers is the way of the disciples, and it was the way of the rabbis, and it’s a beautiful way forward for any and all who are tired of regurgitating the same old answers we learned as children. We will never fully grasp the enormity of God. We will spend our entire lives searching without fully knowing even a fraction of God’s Being, and that reality sets us free to explore and wander and ask and doubt and struggle and resurrect our faith time after time after time. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? Resurrection? Death to one way of being and new life to another. We experience resurrection on large and small scales every day, and in resurrection we find the powerful love of God drawing us deeper into himself.

If you ever get a chance to spend two days with Rob Bell, I suggest you take it. You may not agree with everything he says, but you’ll find yourself sucked into the mystery of God and discovering a new side of the Kingdom you’ve never before explored.

Happy Ash Wednesday, Dirtbags (Parts 1 and 2)

PART 1

I attended an Ash Wednesday service today at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was everything I hoped it would be – very high-church, dripping with symbolism, the imposition of ashes, and participation in the Holy Eucharist. As a dye-in-the-wool Church of Christ boy, this formal celebration of Jesus and a pious participation in Lenten repentance was refreshing.

One thing I was not expecting was such a focus on mortality. At the imposition of ashes, the Celebrant rubbed an ash cross on each person’s forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That’s right; we’re all living, breathing, dirtbags. Not the pick-me-up most people are looking for during their lunch break. But, as I learned, it’s actually a crucial element to the Lenten season.

Lent was originally a period of fasting and repentance in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday. Participants in Lent spent 40 days preparing themselves for their new life with Christ. And what better day to celebrate one’s new life than on Easter Sunday, the day celebrating the moment that all of creation was made new!

In the past, the Episcopalian tradition at the imposition of ashes was to say, “Remember that you are dust ONLY, and to dust you shall return.” But the “only” was dropped several years ago because it was believed to have contributed to a spirit counter to resurrection. Without Jesus, sure, we’re ONLY dust, and to dust we will return. But, because of the resurrection, we are MORE THAN dust, and we will be MORE THAN dust at the final resurrection of all things.

And THAT’S the pick-me-up we all came to hear!

PART 2

My (informal) Lenten journey this year involves fasting from all social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I often find myself preoccupied with what people are saying about me, how many people liked my status or retweeted my awesome picture of the burrito I was eating. Fasting from social media isn’t about saving time (though that will certainly be an added benefit). Instead, it’s about getting my heart right. It’s about reorienting myself in God’s Kingdom instead of my own. I say all the time that we are never further from Jesus than when we’re being selfish, and social media has become a self-glorifying medium for growing further and further from Jesus.

I am also studying the book of Isaiah over the next 40 days. Isaiah seems to be a book Jesus loved, and for good reason. Isaiah is often called “The 5th Gospel” because of its abundance of redemption passages and images of God restoring and resurrecting his people. Today I read and studied the first five chapters. Man, oh man, is it AWESOME!

The first five chapters are a flash-forward to the things God is GOING to do to the people of Judah because of their sin. And what was their sin? Injustice! The leaders of the nation were getting filthy rich off laws and loopholes that allowed them to exploit the poor and further-marginalize the marginalized. Widows and orphans and poor people were being left out in the cold – sometimes literally – and God had seen enough. So from the start he shows all his cards, he tells all the reasons why he’s angry with his people, and all the things that are going to happen to them, both good and bad. His anger is fueled by their injustice:

See how the faithful city [JERUSALEM] has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her – but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (1:21-24)

Their punishment – Assyrian exile – was all because they were corrupt, favoring the rich and exploiting the poor. They developed a system that kept the rich rich and the poor poor.

But God had – and still has – a vision for what his people will someday be:

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple [JERUSALEM] will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and ALL NATIONS will stream to it…

The word here for “all nations” is “goyim.” Goyim is typically a derogatory word used in reference to everyone who was not from Israel or Judah. Like the way your grandfather talks about “foreigners” with a little spite. That’s goyim. The Law of Moses spoke harshly about the goyim and warned the Israelites against falling into cahoots with anyone outside their own nation. Goyim were the outsiders that God’s people spent their lives avoiding.

But here, Isaiah says that God’s vision for all of creation is that one day all nations – all the goyim – will come to the Mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem. This means everybody on earth, including both the rich and the poor. They will come not out of fear, not out of obligation, but because God has something no other nation and no other god has. Here’s what he offers:

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations [GOYIM] and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The people – the GOYIM – will come because there will be unsolvable disputes. War and violence and death will have run so rampant that nobody will know what to do anymore. There will be no answers and no peace. No government or judge or arbiter can settle the violence and destruction. And on that day when the world is on the brink of total destruction, all the nations will turn to God and say, “Help!” And God’s answer, God’s solution, God’s ruling, will be to lay down the weapons and end all the violence. To turn weapons of violence into tools of rebirth and resurrection. God’s law will be a law of peace and renewal. And, as one people, the whole world will walk in the light of the Lord.

The problem in Isaiah, though, is that God’s dream of seeing the whole world come together as one is thwarted because his people refuse to lead the way. If God’s own people won’t act in ways that lead to peace and unity of all people, how in the world can anyone else be expected to?

The next few chapters are loaded with destruction and punishment for Judah’s corruption and neglect of the poor and marginalized. God has to rid his nation of everything that prevents his dream from becoming reality. So the rulers and leaders of Judah will be driven into exile, and some of them killed. While this might sound counter to God’s dream of peace and love, it’s necessary in order to see the dream fulfilled.

Our mortal selves are prone to chase after what’s temporary – money, power, sex, pleasure, self-gratification. But Easter brings something new, something better. Easter brings God’s vision for earth into a much clearer focus. At the start of this Lent season, may God’s vision become our vision. May we be a people who bring about peace no matter the color of one’s skin or the number of zeros in their bank account. May we be a people who lay down our weapons of violence – be they physical, emotional, or spiritual – and become a people who fulfill the dream of God.

Together, may we all walk in the light of the Lord.

4 Reasons Why Comparing Kills

I’ve been a minister for about 12 years in some form or another. And, like many men and women in my profession, I often find myself playing the Comparison Game. The first time I read The Irresistible Revolution I felt guilty for weeks that I don’t sew my own clothes.

I wish I preached like that guy.

I wish I connected with people like that lady.

I wish i had the creative vision like that church.

I wish I was wise like that group.

We all do this – it’s part of being an American human. We’re constantly told to compare ourselves, sometimes subtly and other times not. For instance, just count the number of fitness centers between your current location and wherever you’re going next. American capitalism  and culture are driven by our belief that we don’t measure up.

I am learning to avoid the Comparison Game, though, especially as a minister. The past year-and-a-half I’ve preached for a little church in Arkansas that has taught me much about obedience and the power of a few people to transform a city. I am still tempted to compare myself with what’s on the other side of the fence, but I thought I’d share a few of the destructive outcomes I’ve experienced when we compare ourselves to others.

1. WE’RE DRIVEN BY POPULARITY, NOT OBEDIENCE

One of my 5-year-olds, Judah, is notorious for watching how my wife and i treat his brothers. He’s always measuring, making sure he receives the same treatment as everybody else. It’s not uncommon for us to offer our boys rewards for going above and beyond. We might say, “Titus, if you will pick up everybody’s shoes you can have an extra ten minutes on the Wii.” Judah sees Titus playing Wii while everyone else marches to bed. When he asks why Titus gets extra time, my response is usually: “Is your name Titus or Judah? What did I ask Judah to do?”

This is one problem with comparison – we forget, or completely ignore, that God has given us a job to do. Your job might be to preach twenty-seven services every weekend to thousands of people, or your job might be to wash out the communion trays. Either way, your job is not their job, and their job is not yours. Your job is important because it’s been given to you by God. You can either do your job well, honoring our Father, or whine that you didn’t get somebody else’s.

I recently spoke to a group of inmates at Wrightsville prison south of Little Rock. After i was done, an inmate came over with a glass of water. He hugged me and said, “Thank you for being obedient.”

No one has ever said that to me after I preached, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Are you obedient to the call God has given you? Do you believe your job matters, or are you perpetually waiting for your big shot at something better?

2. WE REJECT PEOPLE WHO LOVE US FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER HEARD OF US

If you spend your days wishing you had a bigger reach, if you wish more people retweeted you or shared your blogs, or if you wish your podcast had more listeners than just your wife and your mom, perhaps you’re missing something crucial: the people who are actually listening.

One day when I was a youth minister, I showed up to an event i thought would be really, really big. Tons of kids signed up, and most of them were bringing lots of friends. But one by one I got texts saying why kids couldn’t come, and by the end we had maybe a dozen teenagers show up. I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes stewing about those who didn’t come until one young lady spoke up: “Sorry we’re not enough.” She said it sarcastically, and it certainly lightened the mood, but man did it sting.

Imagine going to a soccer field and watching somebody else’s kid play. You get out your phone and start recording their big shots. You cheer when they score and talk to all the parents about how good that kid is. All the while your own child is sitting beside you, wondering if you’ll ever notice them.

If you’re a teacher, pour yourself into the students you have. If you’re a mechanic, work on every car like it’s your own. If you’re starving artist bussing tables, make sure your tables are the cleanest in the restaurant. Be committed to the work before you, because if you’re not, well, just read number 3…

3. YOU’LL NEVER BE SATISFIED

Jesus told a parable once about a king who left his servants in charge of his money. When the king returned, some of the servants put the money to work, but one didn’t. He told those who put the money to work that because they were faithful with a little bit of money, he knew they could be trusted with a big piece of his kingdom. As for the servant who did nothing, he was thrown out and punished.

Here’s the point: if you are faithful with your “little” job, you’ll be faithful with your “big” job when it comes. But so long as you live like a person waiting on her ship to arrive, you’ll miss the work that matters now.

4. WHEN YOU GET IT, YOU’RE STILL YOU

Remember the original Blackberry? I wanted one so bad. I had a friend who used one for work and I was always jealous when he’d send me an email with “SENT FROM MY BLACKBERRY” arrogantly scrawled across the bottom. This was before the days of smart phones, so a handheld device that could get email and internet was mind-blowing.

Around 2007 I got a Blackberry. A small one, but still a Blackberry. I liked it and used it for everything I could, but it was never the wonderful gadget I’d dreamed about. This usually happens when we get what we think we want. But it’s not that we discover the product or the job or the family or the paycheck is unsatisfactory. It’s that we discover we’re still the same person.

Most of us compare ourselves to others believing that having what they have will make us be who they are. If you think landing that job will suddenly make you a respected authority in that field, you’re in for disappointment. If you think a bigger paycheck or nicer clothes or the latest gadget will open the door to really become the man or woman you dreamed you’d be, you’re going to find only your same old self with new clothes.

Collin Cowherd hosts a radio show on ESPN, and he once said, “Money makes you more of what you already are.”

Money, jobs, clothes, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, none of those things changes you. You’re still you no matter who is listening. So do your work faithfully and with integrity.

Quit comparing yourself to other people. Get to work doing the job right in front of your face. You may live your entire life in the shadows, never being famous, never hitting it big, never making the New York Times Bestseller List, never cracking that 200-follower ceiling on Twitter. But if you do your job faithfully, as though the world depends on it, the world will be better because you were in it.

Like a Fire in my Bones

Yesterday I led the Bible study time at River City Ministries, an organization serving the poor and homeless around Little Rock. I’m on a rotation with several other ministers and typically speak there once a month. I enjoy being with the people, and especially the staff at RCM. They have a clear love for the Lord and for all of his children – especially the poorest ones.

As I pulled into the parking lot yesterday, I was overcome with a supernatural reluctance. I did not want to teach. I did not want to see the people. I did not want to get out of my truck and go inside. I sat staring at my phone, wondering if I could somehow call in sick and still escape the parking lot before I was noticed.

But then I was noticed.

I heard a voice say “Thanks Curtis!” When I looked back, there was Curtis Zachary, the Kindest Human Being on the Planet and a member at our church. He was there dropping off some supplies on his lunch break, just one of his responsibilities as the Kindest Human Being on the Planet. Curtis’ kindness and obvious joy serving the people at RCM made me feel all kinds of guilty.

He came walking through the parking lot with a big grin and his hand out-reached.

“Hey, Cory!”

I probably left him wondering why I didn’t return his enthusiasm. Because any other time I would have been thrilled to see Curtis. I mean, who doesn’t want to see the Kindest Human Being on the Planet? But this time he blew my cover. This time he forced me inside.

That wasn’t even the worst part. After I saw Curtis, I met Edward.

Edward is an African-American man who, I’m guessing, is in his late-40’s or early 50’s. He wore a black track suit with a cap and looked at everyone over his thin reading glasses. His voice was like thunder, really happy thunder. Without looking at him you could tell he was smiling.

Edward saw me carrying my Bible and hurried over to meet me, floating on his Holy Cloud of Joy and Goodness.

“You must be the preacher man today!” He smiled.

“Yes sir,” I fake-smiled back.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “But if you didn’t come, I was ready to share the Word. Psalm 121, that’s what I was gonna teach today if you didn’t come.”

“I can leave,” I thought. I didn’t say it, but I was really close.

I found a seat on the far side of the room, between the guys who never want to talk to anybody. Edward, of course, followed me.

“I’m a former drug addict and convict. But now I know Jee-zus and I have a joy cain’t no devil provide! You knowaduhmean? Cain’t NO devil provide my joy!” This time he screamed “no” and people jumped.

“God’s word says to taste and see that he is good. Well I’ve tasted it, and it’s sweeter than honey!”

I wasn’t sure what to say. But it was obvious the right man wasn’t teaching.

I printed off several copies of my text for the day just in case people didn’t have a Bible. Edward caught a glimpse of the scriptures, snatched them out of my hand and was handing them out before I knew what had happened. He controlled the room, telling people to smile, telling people God loves them, he even told one guy to shut up.

Everyone did just what Edward said.

As I watched him float around on his Holy Cloud, I couldn’t help but think of a verse in Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet who was terrorized, humiliated, and persecuted for speaking God’s word. And, as much as he lamented his duty, he couldn’t bring himself to stop. So in Jeremiah 20:7-9, he says:

O Lord, you misled me.

and I allowed myself to be misled.

You are stronger than I am,

and you overpowered me.

Now I am mocked every day;

everyone laughs at me.

When I speak, the words burst out.

“Violence and destruction!” I shout.

So these messages from the Lord

have made me a household joke.

But if I say I’ll never mention the Lord

or speak in his name,

his word burns in my heart like a fire.

It’s like a fire in my bones!

i am worn out trying to hold it in!

I can’t do it!

That’s Edward. The word of God is a fire in his bones, and he cannot hold it in. And there I sat, a professional preacher, wishing I could do anything but share God’s word with the poor. In case you’re wondering, it’s not a great feeling.

Edward’s energy fueled me through my lesson. When I got back to the office I looked up Edward’s passage he wanted to preach. Psalm 121 says:

I lift my eyes to the hills –

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip –

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you –

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.

I should have left.

Better yet, I should have stayed. I should have listened to Edward, the homeless recovering drug addict with God’s word burning like fire in his bones, tell me why God is his protection. I should have listened to Edward tell me how God doesn’t let his foot slip. How God is his shade. His protection. His help. Because of all the places I go for inspiration – books, videos, blogs, podcasts, other professional preachers – sometimes I just need to be with somebody who cannot, for the life of them, hold God’s word inside.

May God’s word be a fire in your bones. May you and I be worn out trying to hold it in.