Monday, April 7, 2014

I Don't Want To Love You

I've been listening to a rap artist named Andy Mineo a lot lately. He has a song entitled Bitter that describes his struggle with his attitude of bitterness towards his father. In it he mentions the struggle with knowing the right (loving) thing to do and not having the desire to do that thing.

This is a struggle common to all people. We want to do the good and loving thing. We want to refrain from doing what is unloving or that stalls our love towards others. The problem is that other people annoy us, get in the way, and do mean things to us. They make us not want to love them. So it seems.

The truth is, other people don't make us not want to love them, we make ourselves not want to love them. 

Others may wrong us or do things that initiate negative emotions and thoughts but we can only control our own behavior and we all must control our own behavior. If we stay stuck in an emotion it is most likely because we have chosen to dwell in that emotion and given it rule within us. We don't have to do that. Now, standing against our negative emotions can be difficult but it certainly is by no means impossible.

In fact, with God, all things are possible. Even the evil people of this world (like me) can be saved. And through Christ we can endure all things, even hardships, wrongdoings of others, annoyance, and destructive emotions and attitudes. Knowing these truths is key to being obedient to God.

We know we're supposed to love neighbors and enemies. This is not new to us. For the sake of discussion, let's move forward saying that the people we find ourselves at odds with (emotionally, in attitude, and in action) are all "enemies." What does this mean to love these people? 

Loving enemies is explained by Jesus in Luke 6 when he states, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. ...Do to others as you would have them do to you." Basically, do only good things to them, along with extending to them prayers and blessings. This demands a positive, generous, kind, and patient, attitude. 

Easier said than done right? Right. But why? I have a theory.

Too often we think our emotions and attitudes need to lead the way into this love for enemies. We still believe love is primarily a feeling and not an action. We believe a feeling of affection must seize us organically and spontaneously (or after some measure of time) before we can truly act in love towards our enemies. We believe that to act before feeling would be a deception to them and ourselves, most of all to God. In other words, we'd be inauthentic (and nothing bothers us as much as not being authentic). 

Here's the rub: That is a giant lie. 

Jesus never calls for us to feel good about enemies or have affection for them before loving them with our deeds. He never says "Once you have defeated your initial anger towards being wronged, then go and do good." He simply tells us to love them. We must be about the work of love and we must be about it now, not later. We can not afford waiting until we simply feel differently on the matter or person. If we do, we shall wait forever.

Perhaps this is why we are given only the command to do good, to do loving things towards those we are at odds with. Jesus, as Creator and Redeemer, knows that loving actions leads the way to transforming our feelings and attitudes. 

When we depend on our emotions to lead us into the way of love we depend on ourselves, and the least dependable part of ourselves. We must learn to let Jesus lead us into the way of love. When we move our motivational focus from our emotions to Jesus Christ then we find a new mode of operation.

Jesus Christ, sinless, dwelt with us, revealed God to us, was wronged by us,  and was killed by us. As we did wrong to him he healed us. As he was being murdered he pleaded for our forgiveness. While we were at odds with him, Christ died for us. We love others we are at odds with because Jesus first loved us and love is the law of his kingdom.

This is why we treat others how we want to be treated when we don't feel like it. We believe that love is seen in offering our lives to others, especially those we are at odds with, and we have been commanded to live this way by the man who showed us true love when we deserved the exact opposite.

So when someone says something foolish, cuts you off in traffic, insults you, robs you, or brings any aggression your way, do good and bless them for you, like Christ, are here to love as a light in the darkness. Don't fade into the dark by letting your emotions win over you but rather ask God to deliver you from temptation and evil, focus on Christ, and be light.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fred Phelps Has Died. Now What?

Fred Phelps, leader of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, has passed away into the grave. There aren't a lot of details surrounding the 84 year old lawyer's death at the moment but what we do know is that his time with us has come to an end.

For many, this may feel like a time for celebration. After all, Phelps has led a small community of devoted people in the protesting of funerals, bashing of the LGBTQ community, abusing of their own children, speaking against the God of love, and more. Many offenses have been at the hands of Phelps and his family that followed him.

As a Christian who has seen the damage brought to the gospel message in the United states (and further) as a result of Phelps' actions it is easy to be upset by his life. I can understand people's desire to celebrate this death but let us remember that even though a person causes pain and does wicked deeds, they are still a creation of the God who loved us sinners and called us to his kingdom when we didn't deserve it. That person is still someone God wants to save. This God desires for no wicked person to perish and beckons us to love all people, especially the ones with whom we are at odds. Jesus has shown us these truths clearly.

Let us pray that God has mercy on Fred Phelps and his family and that they find blessings in that grace. May we have the Spirit of God so that we may react kindly to them and treat them as we want to be treated. We teach love by loving so let us love and forgive in breathtaking abundance. Whatever awaits Fred Phelps in judgment will be right and just. We can trust that and because we can trust that we can also extend uncompromised love to his people.

The Westboro Baptist family has lost a loved one and they deserve for us to share in their mourning as compassionate people. Let love win out in your heart, your mind, and your feet as you approach this news. May the peace of Christ be with you and with the Westboro Baptist community and may god have mercy on us all, sinners.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. This marks the first day of Lent (a 46 day season in the Christian calendar). This is the season that leads us to Easter. As Advent is to Christmas so Lent is to Easter.

Dismissing Sundays (as the fast is not recognized on the day we celebrate the resurrection), Lent is 40 days and it is meant to reflect Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.  During this time Jesus fasted and faced temptation from Satan before beginning his” formal ministry.” For the Christian, this is also a time of fasting, temptation, preparation, as we draw near to the Father who has called us to him. As we commit ourselves to fasts we also dedicate ourselves to prayer.

In worship services centered on this important day we don ashes upon the forehead as a reminder of our mortality. This is also symbolic of mourning, confession, and repentance before God. In scripture and through church history, people would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes during times of mourning and repentance. The ashes traditionally are made from burning the previous year’s palms used on Palm Sunday (this is rarer in protestant and western traditions).

Lent is meant to help us journey to Jesus’ cross, burial, and resurrection. It is a time to follow him as he ministers to us, making us aware of who we are, who’s we are, and who we should look to for salvation. During Lent we closely follow Jesus and listen to his teachings. We walk with him to his death and find our own death. In walking with Jesus while fasting and praying we discover our frailty as created beings and discover our own sinfulness. When Lent ends on Easter we see the full victory of Jesus over sin and death as we wipes away all impurity and beckons us to join him past the path of dirt leading to the cross and death and into to resurrection and eternity.

If your congregation doesn't hold an Ash Wednesday service, I encourage you to find a local congregation that does so that you might partake in this beautiful tradition.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How To Know You're Ready (For Anything)

I grew up loving pro wrestling. Yes, I was an avid WCW and WWE fan. I loved everything about it and if you asked enough questions you would discover some pretty embarrassing facts about me regarding this affinity. One of the things I recall about watching wrestling is Michael Buffer announcing before main event matches, “Are… YOU.. ready?” Then, after the cheers, he would say “for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching at home, ladies and gentlemen, lllllet’s get ready to  rumbllllllllllle.” 

Michael Buffer wasn’t always around but we’ve all been asked this question throughout our lives. “Are you ready?” 

People weren’t usually asking if I was ready to rumble. It was usually associated with a hockey game, an upcoming test, getting my license, asking a girl out on a date, being promoted, packing for a road trip, or even death. Recently, I heard this question over and over and over on my way to getting married.

“Are you ready?”

It often leaves us asking ourselves “Am I ready?”

I found myself asking this as I drew closer to my wedding. Beyond that, I began to ask “What does ‘ready’ even mean?” Here’s what I learned:

Being ready is either an impossibility, a lie, or really complicated. Maybe all of those. 

A lot of the time we’re asking whether or not we’ve prepared ourselves to a point of confidence. Have we put in the work we know we need to put in that gives us a reasonable assurance of success? Did I study for the test? Did I determine that I like this girl? Do I have all the things needed for this trip? If so, then I’m prepared, as well as I can be. I’m “ready.”

But here is the thing: No matter how prepared you are or how confident you become as a result of preparations, the future is always a mystery and you simply can’t have full assurance or even a reasonable confidence. Any confidence we have towards the unknown is an illusion. 

When I approached my wedding I approached it with the belief that the only people who truly understand marriage are dead people, the people who have a general idea about it are married, and all of us single people are blindly guessing. 

I had talked to lots of married friends and older couples. I read a dozen books about marriage, communication, and conflict. I sought counseling, had my friends give me feedback on my fiance, and did everything I could think of to prepare for my marriage. It didn’t matter how much I prepared, I still couldn’t know the future. On the day of my wedding, I stood in front of my loved ones, awaiting my bride to the words of Derek Webb as he sang, “I don’t promise ‘cause I know I’ll always love you. I make my vows to guarantee I will.” I chose that song because I knew I couldn’t know the future, but I could commit to it regardless. 

Commitment. Willingness. Ultimately, that’s what being ready is all about. Readiness is actually willingness. Through this lens readiness becomes real and possible.

We can prepare for anything until we feel confident but if that confidence isn’t paired with a willingness to commit ourselves to engaging the mystery of the future then it’s all for not. Willingness, more than anything, is what makes us qualified to pursue the unknown future. So if you’re willing then you’re ready. 

Prepare for the unknown as much you can, be confident if possible, but most of all embrace willingness. In the end, no one is prepared for the unknown because no one knows the unknown but we can be ready for it if we are willing to engage it. 

So the next time someone like Michael Buffer asks “Are you ready?” Respond by saying, “I’m willing!”

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Christians, Know Nothing...

A year ago I was in the final days of writing a thesis paper for my Masters of Arts degree. It covered the theological construction of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethics regarding violence. It was to be the pinnacle of my academic career - 2 years in seminary and 4 in my undergraduate. 
By this point, I had spent a year reading every book Bonhoeffer wrote. I had read dozens of books about Bonhoeffer and about the books he wrote. I read books about the books he didn’t write. I even adopted the hobbies and musical tastes of Bonhoeffer during those days. My time, my conversations, my mind, my whole life was filled to the brim with Bonhoeffer. A friend even told me I was beginning to look like Bonhoeffer. I was consumed.
Then, several months later I met a woman and fell in love. I spent weeks researching engagement rings. Color, carats, clarity, materials, costs (oh God, the costs) and all the many details that were so important to know when finding a tiny piece of jewelry that will signify the most important bond I could know at that point of life. I went to every jewelry store in sight. I scoured Pinterest. I surveyed the women around me. My eyes were probably sparkling from the permanent reflection of rings I was constantly gazing upon. 
Then, the wedding. I spent 3 months with nothing but wedding details in front of me. Before my eyes, through my ears, under my finger tips, on my lips; cake, decorations, music, clothes, and more. My Netflix and DVR were made up of a bunch of shows I never imagined I’d watch like “Say Yes to the Dress” or “Bridezilla.” Every discussion I had with people came back to my wedding. Not because I’m a selfish jerk, though I may be, but because all I knew was my wedding. Nothing else existed. I was focused. I was consumed. I had given myself fully to this cause and it formed my life and identity. I had become Travis Blankenship; Wedding Genius (OK, that’s being generous but you get the point).
Tonight, my wife and I both talked about our friends who are about to get married and it reminded us of this all-consuming habit we humans adopt. We give ourselves to things that completely take us over. In reflecting on this I recalled one of my favorite and most guiding scriptures:
1 Corinthians 2:2 “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”
I’ve known nothing but Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve known nothing but engagement rings and weddings. I’ve even known nothing but the Seattle Seahawks recently. I’m sure we can all think of things that have filled our entire vision for a time. Of them all, only one should be everlasting and only one should rule us completely. Only one thing in all the world ought to reign in our lives so entirely that it forms our identity and rituals while forcing everything to come back to it.
Jesus Christ crucified should be all we know.
I’m not saying it’s not okay to allow things in this life to greatly occupy us. My dedication to my thesis or bride were not wrong. My point is that St. Paul has shown us something good and worthy of pursuing: to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified, especially among people. We must allow Christ to occupy us beyond all else and at all times.
What would it look like to embrace this extreme dedication? 
What sort of faithfulness would this require? 
How often would scripture be read or heard each day? 
What would our conversations look like with friends?
Which songs would we sing the most? 
What would our relationship to the poor, needy, and marginalized look like? 
How many luxuries would we lose? 
Would we be able to pray enough? 
What would be done with our free time?
What sufferings would we learn to embrace? 
Would knowing nothing but Jesus Christ crucified look the way my life looks now or would it look different? If it would look different, can I imagine the path toward knowing only this one all important reality? Could the local church help me to get there? (The answer here is ‘yes’)
I am joyfully cornered into believing that if I knew nothing but Jesus Christ crucified that I would gain the wisdom to know how to not become legalistic about dedicating myself to Jesus and giving him every bit of my life while also allowing myself to be fully consumed by him as I walk in the messiness of life as someone set apart in this world, uniquely reflecting Jesus to all. 
Could I pray more? Yes. Could I read and recall scriptures more? Yes. Could I give up less luxuries and find solidarity with the low of status more? Yes. Every bit of me could be given to Christ more. It should be. 
And this is true of every single person. This is not to lead us into guilt as though it were some sort of burden though for we know that the yoke (teaching) of the crucified Jesus is a light one. As we reflect on our own lives let us ask God to show us where to focus ourselves. Let us begin the journey to know nothing but Jesus Christ crucified by embracing new habits, rituals, thoughts, identities, societies, and lives. Let us do it together as the Church and let us do it honestly.
When we fall short, let’s confess. When we succeed let’s not boast. Let’s take the advice of the disciples who once wrote, “if you can carry the whole yoke of the Lord you will be perfect; but if you cannot, do what you can.” As you do so, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) and “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
As you gain knowledge of many things in this world, may you know nothing amongst others but Jesus Christ and him crucified, that you may be formed by him and his victorious crucifixion that has brought you redemption into a person who embodies the Spirit of our Lord.