Saturday, January 30, 2010

Living One Block Over

There’s a quirky short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a man named Wakefield. One day Wakefield wakes up and decides to take a little break from his wife and home in London and rents out a room one block over. He doesn’t tell his wife and intends to stay away only for a day or two. But then the days go on and he watches his wife from a distance for twenty years. Never once does he let her know where he is or even that he is alive. For twenty years. The story ends when one day Wakefield is out walking down the street and he suddenly decides to return home; we see him entering the door to his house as if he had never left.

How many of us have a relationship with God like that? One day we slip away and we think it’s just a short break from the relationship, but the years pass and it’s as if we’re watching God from one street over. Now, by this, I’m not talking necessarily about people who have strayed away from the church. Because the church and God are not the same thing. I’m talking about anyone who has removed themselves from the loving relationship God offers. It can happen for people inside the church as easily as it can for those outside the church. I do hope those of us who are inside the church are there because we want to grow in our relationship with God. I hope we're opening ourselves to the love of God that fills us to overflowing and spills out onto other people who also want to grow in their relationship with the God of love.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a loving relationship with someone and that relationship is in balance, I can feel it. When it’s out of whack, I can feel that too. I suspect that we also know when our relationship is in balance with God, or when it’s out of whack. One way to tell is if following Christ’s commandment to love one another as he has loved us is a burden for us or if it just comes naturally. After all, when you’re in a loving relationship with someone, you want what they want. If Christ wants us to love one another as he has loved us, it’s what we want too. It’s not a huge struggle for us; it’s something that we willingly do. We may not be perfect at loving the way Christ does, but there is no question that we’re not resisting it. What Christ wants for us is the same thing we want for ourselves.

It’s tempting to become like Wakefield and say, "You know, maybe someday I’ll go home, maybe someday I’ll be in a relationship with God," and then the days and the years pass. Of course, Wakefield did go home in the end. We don’t know if his wife was like the waiting father in the story of the prodigal son or not, but we do know that that’s how our God is. He’s always waiting for us to come to our senses and find our way back to him. But in the meanwhile, how much are we missing? Wakefield missed out on 20 years of his life because he was a stubborn old fool. God’s love is all around us. May we have enough sense to open our hearts and let it in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Top Ten Ways Scrabble is Like Life…

My favoritest game is Scrabble and I probably play at least a half dozen games a week. I learned recently that it's a great way to keep the mind working, especially if you want to avoid getting Oldtimer's Disease. But, beyond that, there is much you can learn about life by playing Scrabble. Here are the Top Ten Ways Scrabble Is Like Life.

10. You have to do the best you can with what you’ve been given.

9. You can have all the right stuff, but if your timing is off, it’s worthless.

8. It takes imagination and vision to see the possibilities other people might miss.

7. It’s not smart to put your best stuff in places where you get little return.

6. Just when you think you’re stuck, you can receive an unexpected surprise that changes everything.

5. You may not know what the other person is hiding, but eventually it all comes out.

4. Using more doesn’t necessarily get you further than using less, but you get the biggest reward if you use up everything you’ve been given.

3. You can only receive more if you are willing to part with what you have.

2. Great benefit comes to the one with the wisdom to know exactly where to place his or her “s”.

1. It’s more fun sharing the experience with someone else than it is doing it alone.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Everything Else Is Just Fluff

The psychologist Carl Jung understood the human struggle for health and wholeness as a deeply spiritual matter. He observed that there are two sides to every person: the person we want to be and the person we don’t want to be. The person we don’t want to be Jung called our shadow. Because we don’t want to be this person, we pretend that it doesn’t exist. We may do that by living in denial or we push it deep down inside so that we can’t see it anymore. We work hard to keep the shadow side of ourselves hidden from everyone, including ourselves. You might say, we’re afraid of our own shadow.

Our shadow isn’t always negative. Sometimes it can be positive. For instance, think of the super macho man who spends his whole life denying his feminine shadow. By doing this he cuts himself off from an important part of who he is as a person. If he can acknowledge the positive aspects of this shadow side and incorporate those into his life, he’s taking an important step toward becoming a whole person.

Of course, there are also parts of our shadow side that are negative and a failure to confront them can be a great obstacle toward becoming our true selves, the people God created us to be. When we refuse to see our shadow side, we’re living in darkness. And nothing good can ever come of living in darkness. Think about Roman Catholic priests who, after taking a vow of celibacy, may deny their own sexual needs, repressing their shadow. In recent years we have seen how living in that kind of darkness has caused irreparable damage to individuals and the larger Church.

If you might be wondering what your own shadowy make-up is, here’s one indicator. Think about the people who really get under your skin. What disturbs you most in their behavior? There’s a good chance that what you’re reacting to is your own shadow side that you can see in that other person. In fact, the more irritated you are with another person, the less likely it has to do with something about that person and the more likely it has to do with something about you. It may point to the part of you that you’ve been repressing because it’s not the person you want to be.

Jesus seemed to understand this when he counseled people to remove the log in their own eye before going after the speck in someone else’s eye. Our shadow side sends us railing against the actions of others rather than looking within ourselves. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to look at our interpersonal conflicts in the light. We’d much rather cast judgment and blame and act out in all kinds of other ways that keep us living in the darkness. After all, in the darkness no shadows exist.

Jung makes the important point that evil is not the shadow, but it is our refusal to meet the shadow. It’s not the shadow part of ourselves that causes pain and suffering in our lives, but it’s disregarding and repressing the shadow that does us in.

We can only see our shadow in the light. For Christians, our light source in Christ. He is the light who always encourages us to acknowledge our shadow. He does it with a gentle, nonjudgmental approach that brings us to true repentance. By accepting us completely, including our shadow side, he frees us to see ourselves in the light of his love. When Jesus is a part of our lives, we’re living in the light. We’re no longer afraid of our own shadow. That's when we grow into our authentic selves, the people God created us to be.

This is what salvation means to me. It's not a ticket to heaven. It's an unfolding relationship with God that is leading me toward wholeness. That's why I can say that Christ is my light and my salvation. I believe my mission as a pastor is to encourage and support people who are also on a journey toward authenticity and wholeness. The best way I know of helping them do that is leading them into a deeper relationship with Jesus. Everything else is just fluff.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Spend More Time at Home

There’s something about Christmas that gets people thinking a lot about home. Songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” seem to tap into the longing we have to find ourselves in the place we call home at this time of year.

I have struggled for a long time with what home means for me. When I was growing up, it was a place called Hamilton, Ohio. That’s where all my aunts and uncles, and cousins and grandparents lived. When I got older, I started moving around a lot. The location of the city I called home changed from year to year, but I clearly knew where home was. It was where I was living with my husband and my children. Then, about a dozen years ago, my marriage ended and my children set out to make their own lives and, all of a sudden, for the first time, I was living solo. So, where is home for me now?

I just returned from a trip to Ohio where I spent time with my children, my best friends, my brother and sister, nieces and nephews. And I did it in places I once had called home. But they’re not home for me anymore. It’s always weird to be in one of those places. It feels like whatever life I lived in that place was lived by someone else, not me. And, in a way, it was. It was a former life. So, maybe home is where I’m living my current life.

As I was flying back to Charlotte from the Dayton airport, the trip I thought was going to take a couple hours ended up taking all day. I was exhausted. I just wanted to click the heels of my sneakers together three times and find myself home. I was tired of visiting my former lives. I wanted to be back where I’m living my life now. To that degree, I realize that Charlotte is the place I call home. But it’s a transient home. And even as I return to this home that I’ve grown to love, deep within me I feel like a homeless person.

I don’t know yet how many homeless people will be reported in our upcoming census. But I can already tell you that the number of homeless people in our country far exceeds any number those statistics will reveal. There are millions of homeless people like me. We may have roofs over our heads. We may have addresses where UPS can leave packages at the door. We may have ample closet space to store all of our earthly possessions. But we’re still homeless.

I thought a lot about that when I went to see a movie the day after Christmas called, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney. Everything his character needed he slipped into a roller suitcase that was small enough to stow in the overhead bin on an airplane. He had no connection to real people, but lived his whole life flying from place to place. Appropriately, it was his job to come into a large company and inform people that they had been fired. He represented millions of homeless people who will never be counted in a census. They’re not the people who are sleeping on the streets. They’re the spiritually homeless. They lug a longing for home with them everywhere they go. They may not always be able to name that longing, but it’s always there, tucked away in the overhead bin.

Saint Augustine understood this kind of homelessness when he said, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We spend a lot of time and energy in our lives trying to find our home, the place where our hearts can rest.

John's Christmas gospel tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The word for lived is often translated dwelt. In the original language, it means literally to pitch a tent. God came and pitched a tent in our world. God became a human being, like us, and made his home in our world. And because God has made his home with us, we have a place where the heart can rest. We are always home.

If you're considering New Year’s resolutions, here's a suggestion. It’s really quite simple. But it can change your life on a deeply profound level. This year… spend more time at home.