Apparent Pilgrim - A Divine Center

I’m thinking through the concept of Christian simplicity. And before I dig into my old text books or read contemporary, idealistic articles about it I am reflecting on the gospel and moments when, in the Bible’s record, Christian simplicity was displayed for us in an exemplary way. While I can think of many things that Jesus said which will assist us in the pursuit of simplicity, discovering an example is a bit more elusive. I have unearthed at least 2. And it seems to me that one relies upon the other. So, I begin with the one relied upon.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”   Luke 10:38-42
It’s those last two sentences that clinch this for me. Martha is only doing what is expected. Mary is doing what is right. Martha is worried and upset. Mary has chosen what is better. This to me is a dynamic picture of simplicity. Martha and Mary have innumerable things to worry about.  But, there is only one thing that is essential: inner clarity resulting in outward singularity. At least for this moment, Mary was living in ultimate simplicity. The world had preset expectations for her. (See John 12 for another look at Mary’s inner clarity. In that case one of the disciples speaks against Mary’s focused act of worship.) Women were expected to act like Martha. Society had a list for Martha and Mary. But Mary had sharp personal focus that cut through the confusion of worldly expectations and lead her to the feet of Jesus.

Christian simplicity should exemplify that kind of clarity. Christian simplicity should clearly separate the things of the kingdom of God from the things that move us away from God.  Then, simplicity should move us in kingdom cadence toward God, free from distraction.

Listen to what Richard Foster says about the inward reality of simplicity.

"The Christian discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style. Both the inward and outward aspects of simplicity are essential. We deceive ourselves if we believe we can possess the inward reality without its having a profound effect on how we live. To attempt to arrange an outward life-style of simplicity without the inward reality leads to deadly legalism.
Simplicity begins in inward focus and unity. It means to live out of what Thomas Kelly called 'The Divine Center.' Kierkegaard captured the nucleus of Christian simplicity in the profound title of his book, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.
Experiencing the inward reality liberates us outwardly. Speech becomes truthful and honest. The lust for status and position is gone, because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance, not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle. Our goods become available to others. We join the experience that Richard E. Byrd recorded in his journal after months alone in the barren Arctic: 'I am learning ... that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.’”
(OK, so that was a quote from one of my old text books.  You got me.)

This is what Jesus taught us in that early sermon on the side of a easily sloping mount, “seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.” The “all these things” that Jesus referred to were clothing, food, and livelihood. (Matthew 6) I find myself quite caught up in providing food, clothing, and things for life. I find myself quite up tight about the things that are expected of me by other people. I find myself short on singularity, clarity, and inward simplicity, and long on worry.   

Simplicity must begin: inside. My outer life can be pared down as an act of symbolic poverty designed to impress others or accomplish some noble earth-friendly, budget driven objective. But if I am to be delivered from the viciously ego-driven, profit obsessed tyranny of fallen living, I must have a simple soul, centered on Christ. This divine center is the only escape from my own insane attachment to things and my oppressive lust for affluence which, together, deceive me into thinking that security is found in property, power, and prestige. Then I am free to live, simply fulfilled to sit with Jesus, full of Him and filled with His grace.

I like the way that the Message paraphrases Romans 12:2.
Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remake you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed. Thus you will prove in practice that the will of God is good, acceptable to him and perfect.
di-vine:  adj.  - addressed, appropriated, or devoted to God
cen-ter: n. - the core or middle of anything


Random Dissonance 5 - Help for the Hurting

"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly.  Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively.  But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."    C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
It's been raining again.  It's the second day of Spring and the skies are covered with clouds.  The rain came in the dark hours of night when sleep had already captured me in its tantalizing spell.  From then on, without a break, the tender drops have fallen relentlessly.  Here in California, a gentle rain may as well be hurricane force winds.  We just cancel everything except work and stay home in such formidable conditions.  While we, beneficiaries of Father Serra's mission exploration, can keep walking and working through a 6.2 earthquake without missing a step, rain seems to disable us.  I don't know how we might handle such conditions as freezing rain or white-out snow.  I suspect we might just surrender to the elements.  I guess that's why we don't live in Minnesota.  No surrender for me.  Today was Sunday.

While mild rain seems delicate as it falls, its collective effect can be quite destructive.  Experts tell us that it is the collective effect of long-sustained rainfall that causes mud slides with the strength to carry million-dollar homes down beach-side cliffs.  It's also this seemingly amiable precipitation that causes midwestern rivers to swell over their banks, crushing levies, and obliterating historic communities.

It's hard to know how to respond to someone who is hurting with depression.  And it's hard to know what's really going on.  Are they "just down?"  Maybe they are having a "mid-life crisis?"  Perhaps it's a "spiritual issue?"  Another part of the problem with responding to someone who is going through a season of depression, is that the depression causes an internal desire to retreat from people.  I guess it's obvious that it's an arduous undertaking to love and help someone who wants nothing more than to be left alone, drenched in the bone soaking sorrow that sometimes pours inside them and other times drizzles with relentless persistence.

In my experience, I discovered another troublesome aspect of trying to help someone who is bound up in the throws of that beastly storm called depression.  I think we underestimate the power of depression.  And I think we, for convenience sake, under diagnose depression.  I don't mean that we don't recognize it as depression often enough.  While that is possibly true.  I mean that we see depression as a relatively simple thing: singular, one-faceted, shallow, and easily fixed.

Some of us think of depression as an emotional problem rooted in the troublesome experiences of our past.  If this is our mindset, our approach to encouraging  a depressed person is to go back into the recesses of their memories, dig up some painful memories, relive them, and talk them out.  Perhaps we see the darkened, cloudy storm as a build up of mental problems like stress, worry, failure, fear, anxiety or the like.  In this case our approach is to suggest that the depressed person consider asking their physician for prescriptive psychotropic medications to relieve the physiological causes of the storm.  Often in the Christian world we diagnose all such storms as a spiritual issue.  (Let me say that in my worldview, everything is spiritual and thus every issue is a spiritual one.)  Our tendency is to assume that unaddressed sin is the cause of the darkness that shrouds depression's victim in the shadows of the soul.  Or perhaps that there is a kind of demonic oppression that needs to be addressed through a deliverance ministry.  We then pressure someone who is already a victim to "confess" to something so that they can receive God's forgiveness and restoration, or we endeavor to pray out an evil spirit that we presume to be present.  And then a few of us see depression as a relational issue and counsel its victim to pursue reconciliation.

Looking through the rain-drizzled window pane, past the breaking clouds and now resting under blue skies, I can see that depression finds is power in the collaborative effort of multiple forces working in concert.  And I want to add that I believe in my case that the collaboration was neither accidental nor disorganized.  I believe that Satan, the great opportunist, found just the right season in which to manipulate my mind, heart, and soul through deceptive circumstances and overwhelm me with a torrent that could have drown me.  But the flood did not come in a single downpour.  Instead, in slow constant rain, happenings and hurts, situations and stress, demons and discouragements came at me with relentless determination.  My mind was attacked, as was my spirit, as was my heart, as was my body.  Those who loved me enough to speak up and try to get in to help, missed the mark because of misunderstanding.  In their attempts to address only one area of my struggle, blind to the others, they missed the diagnosis and became part of the rain: stepping on one wound while trying to bandage another.

Ultimately, I would have to read the story of another Christian pilgrim struggling through a much shorter lived depression, before I could identify the multi-faceted weather pattern that had embroiled me in a battle for my survival.  See Shaun Groves' complete story here.  In coming upon this awareness, I had been given the battle armor and spiritual weapons to stand up in the deluge and press against the current.  I stood.  I prayed again.  I addressed spiritual forces in my mind, my heart, my spirit, and my body.  And the clouds cracked.  They only cracked.  But beyond that crack was a golden light that bid me, "come."

It's raining outside again today.  It's raining and I want to put on some bright yellow galoshes and run around kicking up the puddles.  It's raining.  It's pouring.  I love the rain!
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.    Isaiah 55:9-11


Random Dissonance 4: Cruel Skies - the heart of the depression

Who knew that at London's latitude the sunlight would shine well past 9PM in the Summertime?  I went back to my hotel room to unwind.  It was a sweet little room in a reasonably priced boutique hotel just off of Hyde Park and close to Kensington Palace.  But regardless of the agreeable accommodations, I could not be comforted.  So at just before 9 o'clock, under a brlightly lit sky, I set out on a walk.  I headed to the park at a aggressive pace. Entering the park two blocks away and determined to maintain my gait, I walked on the first found path heading for what appeared to be the center of the park.  I don't know if I was looking for some kind of distraction to relieve my mind, if I was trying to produce enough endorphins to combat the tension that seized my every muscle, or if I just wanted to escape into the land of fairy tales and 'happily ever after.'  I must admit that London is a wonder-filled place in which to dream of disappearing. 
I walked and walked until I ran into the Serpentine (it's a lake), which forced me to exit the park onto the public sidewalk on the opposite side of the park.  I glanced at my watch at a quarter before 10.  Dusk was finally swallowing the daylight into shadow, and never letting up on my determined pace, I decided I might be safer in that metropolitan area to walk along the busy roadways that surrounded the park than I would be walking through a lightless public woodland that once served as private royal hunting grounds.  And I was soon to discover that Hyde Park is ENORMOUS.  Walking the circumference of the park I made it back to my hotel sometime near 11:00 and went to my moderately appointed room, through narrow halls and around obtuse turns that clumsily joined 3 former row houses, built for the fashionably wealthy English aristocrats of a bygone century.  I laid down without a shower and went rapidly to sleep.   I had not found peace for my tortured mind and broken heart, but had physically worn my nearly rehabilitated body plumb out.  (I had caught a vicious stomach virus in Africa and spent devastating hours the previous day nauseous and achy on an airplane.)
While the long-lit skies of London shone with lustrous indigo on a cloudless evening, the skies of my spirit, which had been churning with scattered showers for some time, turned cruel.  The once scattered showers found the glue to bond them together into the perfect storm.  That glue was sorrow.  A pattern of lost friendships that taunted my mind and choked my heart, blackened the light in my soul with deep mourning.  Alone, the loss of any  friendship is painful and regrettable, and should cause anyone to reflect deeply.  Friendship loss is part of life: survivable, healable, and painful in a way that reminds me of a deep tissue injection - potentially helpful but never enjoyable.  Pastors however, are supposed to take this loss with grace, resonance, and sage-like repose.  When someone we love, no matter how deeply, decides to leave a church we love no less deeply, we are expected to show adequate sadness, strewn with heart-felt compassion, restrained with gothic hero like faith.
The newest broken friendship spun indigo skies into a tempest that, if in the sea, could suck a hearty vessel into its vortex without a ripple in the stormy waves.  Soaked to the bone from a few years of somewhat self-imposed pressure to be successful in planting a church, the fatigue resultant from a malaligned self-perception, fear - cold and disabling - which had been born in a perception of friendships losing momentum and depth, and from a waning spiritual life, spawned a gale-force wind.  A blast that thrust together a weakness of mind, soul, and body, creating the perfect conditions for a devastating emotional typhoon.
I am primarily a relational person.  Others may be known as athletic, musical, political, mechanical, technological, artistic, charismatic, industrious, smart, crafty, jocular (that’s one of my favorite words...), or an array of other descriptions which come from a skill set based on personal values.  However, I have always been a relationship person.  Though I have dallied with attempts to distinguish myself through other ventures, I have always considered my core personality type to be relational.  I even took a bit of pride in being a “good” friend.  That self-definition created in me a kind of magnetic compass point which usually gives me clarity in the midst of rain showers and storms.
Some people have the ability to separate church and friendship. While I have friends with whom I share church and friends with whom I do not, experience has taught me that friendship is rarely (and by rarely I mean only once) ever maintained after someone departs from a congregation in which I pastor.  Oh, I have tried - sent out correspondence, called to have coffee, and the like.  But it turns out that it makes people uncomfortable to talk to the pastor of a church they once attended.  So, someone leaving the congregation that I pastor is a lightning strike at the core of my self - every time.  I love both friend and church.  And, I link both.  
I have heard that someone is leaving the church that I pastor on the heels of a proclamation of commitment.  In a recent case, over months and months I had been reassured through many situations that my friends were deeply committed to our church and to me and that they weren’t going to forsake either.  (Notice how even friends who are not pastors link the church to their firendship with the pastor,)  Then a call out of the blue. [lightning peel]   In another case just 9 days before the call, a determined statement “we are not leaving because God put us here.”  Or more typically, “I’m just so glad that I’m at this church, I don’t know what I would do without you all...” Phone call.  [lightning peel] During the dreadfully dark storm of depression, any and all compliments took on the fearful characteristic of a threat.  It seemed that any kind words were a preamble to a departure and loss of friendship.  And No matter how good my pastor face, I’m sure my cool, protected response pushed people away and added turmoil to the tempest.
Inside the cruel sky screamed at me in thunder rolls, “you don’t really have friends,”  “you’re a bad friend,”  “your only a pastor to them - and you better produce,”  “you’re not a good friend and you’re not a good pastor,”  “whatever you do is destined to fail because you are aren’t good at either thing.”  The deafening sound of thunderous self-critique struck new blows like a 1 - 2 punch to the gut followed with an upper-cut.  Round after round, month after month the fight drug on.  The losing fight drug on, punctuated with hopeful days of clear-skied fighting back, until God’s miraculous intervention brought skies of cobalt again to rule the days.
News of lost friendship in the form of church transition struck me hard in the heart of Britain.  And while daylight holds off the dark of night long in Her Majesty’s realm, darkness swept in swiftly for me that un-foggy day in London towne - just past 1 year after the deadly blog post.


The Apparent Pilgrim - 1 Simplicity Defined

Like the word "love", everyone seems to have a personalized definition of the word, "simplicity."  Since we talked about it on Sunday as part of our discussion of LIVING THE BLESSED LIFE, I thought it might serve well to plumb a little more deeply into the subject here.

Answers.com gives us the following definitions of the word simplicity:

  • The property, condition, or quality of being simple or uncombined.
  • Absence of luxury or showiness; plainness. 
  • Absence of affectation or pretense.
  • Lack of sophistication or subtlety; naiveté.
  • Lack of good sense or intelligence; foolishness.
  • Clarity of expression.
  • Austerity in embellishment.
Wikipedia Gives us this description of the ideal of simplicity as a lifestyle:
Simplicity is a theme in the Christian religion. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, God is infinitely simple. The Roman Catholic and Anglican religious orders of Franciscans also strive after simplicity. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) practice the Testimony of Simplicity, which is the simplifying of one's life in order to focus on things that are most important and disregard or avoid things that are least important.
Current culture has made simplicity very popular (in some circles) as an effort to rescue the planet.  There are many movements to this affect.  However, Christian simplicity is never an end.  It is a means.  Christians simplicity is a means to aid us in the renewal of the closeness with God that is best represented in the life described to us in the Garden of Eden.  When, before the fall, mankind experienced the ideal relationship with God.  As Genesis puts it, "they felt no shame."  God was creator, source, and judge in the garden. Adam and Eve had clear roles and unencumbered relationship with one another and with God.  The garden life was a simple life (not easy, necessarily).  Not because it was boring and they had nothing to do.  Not because it was empty and they had nothing to possess.  It was simple because it was clear.  Everyone knew their role, their reason, their relationship.  All parties involved had clarity and closeness with one another.  The Christian habit of simplicity is a means to aid us in regaining that clarity and closeness.

Since the fall from garden living, mankind has had an ever-growing propensity toward complexity.  We plan, scheme, prepare, implement all kinds of activity for ourselves, looking to "gain" blessing (soul-deep happy fulfillment).  And all of our schemes and plans fail to provide a sustaining joy.  So, we move on to plan and scheme for more acquisitions and accomplishment to provide that sense of blessing that we are missing.  All the while, adding layer and layer of complexity to our lives.  New responsibilities, new goals, new debts and obligations, new contracts, new activities on the agenda... And our minds are so cluttered with ideals of blessing that clutter and complicate life through the acquisition of things, money, and accolades, that many of us never experience soul-deep happy fulfillment.  Because we are less clear about who we are, who God is, and how to relate to one another and to God in shameless relationship.

But, Jesus entered the realm of His creation to bring the Kingdom of God.  And on a hillside in Palestine he delivered a sermon describing a lifestyle of decluttered objectivity.  One in which principles long accepted by humans as wise and right are turned upside down and backwards in order to uncover simplicity and truth beneath the surface of things.  (See Matthew 5, 6, & 7 - an easy read for a simple evening at home.)  It is clear that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom that has been redeemed from the human philosophies that rule the fall from garden living.  It is clear that redemption is a re-establishment of garden relationships.  It is clear that simple living is the best environment for kingdom living.  Christian simplicity is a means to aid us in our pursuit of the communion presence of God which was best experienced in garden living.  Blessed living in its truest definition.

In an unfolding experience of inspiration from God's Spirit I have been given a fresh vision.  I see in front of me a road to travel.  It is a road that seems a bit rocky at first, but a few feet ahead of where I stand the road both becomes level and straight.  However, just as it does it fades from my view.  I do not know where exactly this road will take me or what the journey will look like, but I know it is my road.  I know I will know what I need to know as I travel.  I know it is the kingdom road for me.  I know that I will not journey alone, but in closeness with God and with my fellow travelers.  I know that this journey will take me into clarity and closeness and that it begins with simplicity.  And so, I am inviting you travel with me on this road.  I will begin a new blog series on the idea of Christian simplicity.  I hope that it will be a discussion with your input as you travel along side me.  I hope that together we can take hold of a life a clarity and closeness, "seeking first the kingdom of God."  Look for installments at the end of each week.


Random Dissonance 3 - Scattered Showers

Depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent.  It is plain and simple reduction of feeling...  People who keep stiff upper lips find that it's d#*n hard to smile.
Judith Guest

To have passed through the storm of deep and lasting depression and come out on the other side brings a great deal of circumspect to one's life.  Today I stood in the middle of a grassy field, bathed in uninterrupted sunlight, basking in the warmth of restoration, and allowing the sun drenched heat to sink into my bones - far beyond my skin, down to the deepest parts of me.  I am well.  I am well and I refuse to take it for granted.  I am well and I will not waste this wellness on pointless busy-ness.  I am well and well-pleased to thank God for my wellness.  I thank God that He spoke into my storm and said once and for all, "peace."  And the storm became still.  The storm became still and the clouds - once maverick and malicious - began to drift away, out of my sight and beyond my horizon.

Before my storm I stood in the bath of wellness and did not know (with any particular awareness) that what I had was a gift.  So I took that gift and I used it.  I used it up and I abused it.  I treated it much as early American land owners treated their slaves.  I owned it without regard for it's significance or grandeur.  I took advantage of my wellness and never felt any regard for the damage I did to it.  I felt myself generous when I invested wee hours in prayer, reflection, meditation, or any other such method of care.  Like a slave owner considered himself exceedingly generous to give a large family of African slaves a single chicken with which to celebrate Christmas, I thought my investments - meager and emaciated - to be something magnanimous and noteworthy.  I took pride in my paltry investment.  I was a fool.

While I was ignoring the gift that nurtured me, fed me, made me rich - there were clouds gathering on the horizon.  Instead of seeing those clouds for the impending storm that they were, I ignored the clouds and scattered showers as if they were so insignificant that I could not be affected by them.  My wellness in tact, I did not know the threat that these rain-sprays represented.  I did not know that they could join together like the allied forces of an enemy attacker. But, like terrorists they would indeed sneak into my midst under the radar and infiltrate my heart, mind, spirit, and my physical body.  And these clouds would deliver a devastating blow...  These scattered showers, with well-coordinated cunning were soon to crash into my life like a fuel laden airliner into a steel scraper.  And they would nearly melt my frame from the inside.

"That one looks like Thomas the Tank Engine," said elder child with all the sugar that one can only possess at the age of 2.  In the tender days of childhood, cotton like clouds take on the form of our favorite things.  My life filled with childhood whimsy, this time as the parent and not the child, I have often found myself looking for favorite forms in the white billows of precipitation that bound across the big skies of Central California farmland.  And with uninfected innocence I watched clouds laced with nuclear rain drift into my emotional and spiritual environment.  Instead of recognizing them for the threat they presented, I childishly stared at the sky with unconcerned naivete.

I cannot now look back and clearly identify which cloud bore which name as they drifted into my life.  I cannot say that I first felt the rain of overwork, or overconfidence, or sadness.  And I am not sure that I can even yet identify each cloudy rain burst by its true name.  But some, I can see clearly.  Some I recognize as the ingredients of a terrorist storm.

Falling gently, like a drizzle in my soul, these are the things that floated into my life and, unattended, joined forces to imprison me in depression.  What seemed like determination and dedication turned into overwork without warning.  A little less sun.  What appeared to be visionary resolution morphed into blinded overconfidence.  A little less sun.  There began a small shift in spiritual disciplines, from a fluid daily conversation with Almighty, finding moments in scripture, prayer, reflections, and meditation.  My spiritual life became a stilted regimented responsibility, motivated by 'keeping up appearances' instead of empowered by closeness with Everlasting.  The rain drops graze my skin.  People once deeply connected to our congregation and to me leave.  Showers become storms.  Friendships silently wane, weaken, and teeter on the edge of ruination.  I make mistakes, owning all of the fault.  An infectious dissatisfaction invades the congregation I am devoted to.  Wailing winds blow torrential streams in horizontal rainfall while the bleak, black clouds surround.  And at first it doesn't seem that I am being smothered.  Instead I am embraced.  And I embrace the clouds.

This storm eventually becomes poisonous when the whisper of the gale tells me I'm no good, nothing will work, there's no hope.  And I believe it.  Then every effort and every attempt is infected with depression: infected and doomed.

I am well, sun-bathed, and hearty.  I can now share the story of my storm.  Some of you have sent me messages expressing parts of your own story of depression.  Some of you, like me, are in roles of Christian leadership and have felt 'required' to suffer your storm in silent solitude.  I hope that in some small measure my story breaks the bondage of that loneliness, frees you to feel God's generous love, and connects you to the smile He smiles over you.  Love rejoices in the truth and these small installments are the unfolding truth of my experience.  Rejoice!  The truth sets us free.  Free from shame and loneliness.  If you have never been through depression, be patient.  The story may seem to unfold too slowly for you, but it would be unfair to those of us who have lived through stories like this one to tell this one as if it were a 20-minute sitcom, with all of its plot complications settled in a single episode.  Smile.  Smile because God is in the valley of the shadow of death with His rod and staff to comfort.  He is following us with goodness and mercy.  And on the other side of that valley, the sun shines brightly in fields of grass, soaking us through with warmth and peace, hope and freedom.

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