When Love Cuts Through Our Defenses

Sunday at church was an amazing day. It’s Lent, which is always a good season in our church. And this Sunday, we had a special guest – author Peter Rollins – which was great. We’ve been trying to get Pete here for several years and it finally worked out. And then Sunday night  Pete spoke again to a full house at The Fox Pub. It was all so, so good.
And I didn’t really want to be there for any of it.
I’ve wrote here how this season of my life has just been a difficult one, and I keep fighting to keep my head above water, but it’s not getting any better. And this weekend, I was in full “flight” mode. I just wanted to stay in bed. I don’t want to be fake with people. But I don’t want to “talk it out” with everyone I see, either. It’s just easier to hide (hence I sat in the back, darkest corner of The Fox Pub on Sunday night and talked to people I didn’t know very well. It’s so much easier that way.)
And so, in that frame of mind, I sat through Pete’s teaching Sunday morning. And then it was communion time, at the end of the second service, and Pete’s setup – that communion is the divine magic trick where we take the elements, they disappear into our mouths, then reappear as love (you’ll have to listen to the podcast or read his most recent book The Divine Magician to make sense of that!) – made communion super meaningful. And on my way back to my seat, I saw this woman sitting in the back row. I’ve known her since I was 13 years old, and she’s a close, close friend of our family, so I leaned over to give her a quick hug.
And she grabbed me tight, and she said to me, “I love you sooooo much. I love you more than you can possibly know. You are like one of my kids to me.”
Instantly, tears.
Instantly, I had to fight this overwhelming urge to break down in deep sobbing…ugly crying. And then I went back to my seat and fought back tears and trembling hands during the final song, announcements, benediction, until, just before the end, where he says “go in grace and peace,”  I darted into my office so I could pull myself together before facing the world again.
What was it about this that cut through me?
As I reflected on it later, I think it’s something about these moments in my life – and they are few and far between – where I know, deeply, truly, unequivocally, that I am loved.
I think this is what it means to extend grace to another. Theologian Paul Tillich describes grace like this:
 Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.
Sunday morning, a wave of light broke into my darkness for a couple minutes, and I felt deeply loved. And after Pete’s talk it has me thinking about where I can be a wave of light. Sure, not every interaction is going to be as intense as this one, but some are. Sometimes we need to get right in someone’s face, look them deep into their eyes and tell them that they are loved.
In Pete’s words, we are the prestige.

Is “Spiritual Warfare” a Real Thing?

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, one day “Satan” came to God  and the two of them wagered over the allegiance over this man named Job. God gave Satan permission to do whatever he wanted to poor, faithful, unsuspecting Job. And so Satan took away his health, his wealth, and killed his children in order to “test” Job’s faith. At the end of the story, we are told Job passes the test God restores his fortune, and he’s even more wealthy than he was before. And, he even has more kids. Yeah!  That makes the loss better, because if you have a child die, another child TOTALLY removes the sense of loss. (“Detect the sarcasm? Good, cuz’ I’m laying it on pretty thick.”)

In modern, “church people” language, people talk about “spiritual warfare,” almost anytime something bad happens. Do people believe God gives “satan” permission to mess with people like this Job story seems to suggest?

Earlier this week, my son fell off a scooter and broke his clavicle. Is this spiritual warfare? Did God give “Satan” permission to push my kid off his bike? Is this meant to test my faith, to see if I’ll be faithful? Did God give “Satan” permission to give my friend cancer, sabotage the pipes in my rental property, cause a friend to walk away from a relationship?

I don’t know exactly what I think about a character named “Satan” as a sparring partner for God these days. Sometimes I think “Satan” in the Scriptures is more about a personification of evil and not really a real dude with horns and pitchfork. But I could be wrong. When it comes to “Satan” in the Bible, there really isn’t a whole lot to go on.

And I really don’t know what spiritual warfare looks like. If God really does give “Satan” permission to mess with us, to test our faithfulness, as in the story of Job, then following God seems crazy. People say to me sometimes, “as a pastor, I’m sure you face a lot of spiritual warfare.” Is this what we really believe about God? Do we believe God singles out the faithful and allows Satan to target them? (And, as a side note, the idea of pastors as martyrs who are singled out for spiritual warfare kind of nauseates me.)

Or, I was having a conversation with someone yesterday about this stuff and he said that he thinks of “spiritual warfare” as more about a depression like state at the spiritual level. So, like God somehow allows “Satan” or “demons” to cause us anxiety, or depression, or insecure thoughts, or something like that.

I know, there are a ton of questions in this post, but I’m really curious, what do you all think? What does “spiritual warfare” look like to you?

Forgiveness, THEN Repentance

During the Lenten season, I’m posting a series on Mondays reflecting on different aspects of the season. This week is a post-Lenten-sermon mind dump about forgiveness.

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” – Jesus

“Forgivenes means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare…” – Anne Lamott

“What if a forgiveness that has conditions…is not really forgiveness at all…? What if repentance is not the necessary condition for forgiveness, but rather the freely given response to it?” – Peter Rollins

This weekend I continued our Lenten series at church where we are exploring The Lord’s Prayer. As part of our discussion I introduced the two ideas above. The first from Anne Lamott, that forgiveness is an internal choice where I choose to stop hitting people back who have wronged me. The second was Peter Rollins’ parable “The Unrepentant Son,” from his book Orthodox Heretic, in which he points out that in the story of The Prodigal Son the text doesn’t tell us that the Son repented, but only that he calculated that it was better to return. Rollins then introduces a new idea to the parable, that later that night, after the celebration, the Prodigal repents.

I think one of the temptations of Lent is to wallow in guilt and remorse. There are some of us – given to melancholy of temperament – who find some kind of perverse pleasure in denial. I think sometimes, if I just feel enough remorse, if I just feel guilty enough, then, perhaps God will forgive me.

But the challenge (and beauty) of forgiveness is that it precedes repentance. Even though we pray “forgive us our debts,” the truth is that a gracious God has already done so, before we ask. So we don’t need to beg, mourn, wallow. In response, we make a rational choice to not hit back.

And here’s another thing I was thinking about forgiveness…

I want to think sometimes that forgiveness means everything will be put back to right. The romantic in me wants to believe that we can forgive people and then just go back to the place where things were before the event(s) that lead to the need for forgiveness in the first place.

But I’m learning that forgiveness is much less sexy than that. Forgiveness begins – at least for me – as a choice that when that thing gets brought up or that person’s name comes up in conversation, I will make a choice to not say the nasty thing. I will choose to keep my trap shut. Later, maybe, the inner dialogue will change and I’ll stop hitting back. And later still, maybe, there may be some level of reconciliation. (But, this side of God’s kingdom, some wrongs probably can’t just be put to right.)

I think forgiveness is one of the hardest things in the world as a follower of Jesus – both to forgive and receive forgiveness.