Use your tools beautifully

In 1991, a man wielding a hammer beneath his jacket attacked Michelangelo’s David, one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world. In 1972, Michelangelo’s Pieta–in my opinion the most beautiful sculpture in existence–was also attacked and disfigured.

Michelangelo crafted the Pieta in the late 1400s and David in the early 1500s, wielding a hammer and chisels. In the case of David, he was faced with a giant block of marble that had stood rejected by other artists for 40 years. Yet in that shapeless piece of stone, he saw beauty. He released David. Removing rock and shaping limbs, he released the hero, revealing beauty.

Each of us are given daily choices. We can use the tools we have been given to highlight and reveal beauty, or we can use them to destroy. So much of what I see on social media is disintegrating and destructive. People seek to press their opinions without seeking to embody love. Yet divisiveness isn’t limited to social media. How we speak with our families can also prove destructive rather than encouraging and upbuilding. Our judgmental glances, looks, and words toward those who are different from us are destructive.

Each day, we are given choices to seek peace or conflict; to live beautifully or cruelly; to seek commonality or promote division.

What are you doing with your tools?

Seeking Shalom

Yesterday, my oldest daughter and I had a daddy-daughter date. We got matching tattoos with the Hebrew word, shalom, a core theme in how I want to live my life. When I wrote Soil of the Divine last year, my intention was to try to explore the idea of shalom through poetry. In some cases, I believe I succeeded, but in others, I fell short.

Most people upon hearing the word shalom either have never been exposed to it before, or have heard it defined as “peace.” Traditionally, Bible scholars have interpreted it as peace as well. Peace is certainly a part of shalom, but it is incomplete. Doug Hershey makes the observation that “the common Western definition of peace is–the absence of conflict or war–but in Hebrew it means so much more.” In truth, shalom is not so much the absence of something, but presence.

One of my favorite quotes–in fact I shared it at the opening of my book–comes from Neal Plantiga’s excellent Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that employs joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

When God created the cosmos, it was the way it should be; it was true, good, and beautiful. More importantly, it was filled with the manifest presence of God, who is love. Yet when sin entered the world, this perfect state of affairs was marred. We have longed for it ever since.

As believers, I think we are not called principally to avoid conflict, but to seek shalom. We are called to a higher existence. We are called to be, as my friend Curt says, “outposts of goodness and beauty.” Every thought, every action that we engage in moves us toward an integrated state or a disintegrated one. We move toward wholeness, or away.

When we respond to others with disrespect, dismissiveness, or self-centeredness, we are acting in disintegrating ways. When we seek to listen, understand, know, and love–particularly those who are different–we are behaving in integrating ways. We are pursuing shalom.

Every person we meet is longing for completeness. As Christians, we know in whom completeness is found and God calls us to be ambassadors of shalom.

At the Well

This morning, I was reflecting on the story of the woman at the well from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. Sometimes, I find it beneficial to slow down, savoring the story. I think we can learn a lot by stepping into the story and taking a look around, trying to imagine what people were sensing, imagining, feeling, and thinking. When we recognize that these stories are not just flat words upon a page, but real life and blood people, it can deepen our understanding. Today, I tried to envision the woman’s experience and wrote a story. I hope it is edifying. 

With the noonday sun cresting in the sky, she began her daily trip to the well. Working in the sun’s oppressive heat was a small price to pay to avoid judgmental stares and whispered accusations. She walked down the familiar path. Though she had walked this narrow trail a thousand times, she kept her eyes trained a few feet ahead, only glancing further along every few moments. A world-wise woman understands how important it is to be aware of her surroundings.

As she drew nearer to Jacob’s well, she looked up again, this time seeing someone sitting nearby. She debated whether to turn back, but she knew from experience that the man she was living with would be angry if she came back without a full jar. In her mind, she weighed the risk of encountering an unknown stranger against the guaranteed sting of a slap across her cheek. They needed the water. With any luck, she could avoid any interaction.  Continue reading “At the Well”

The Wrecking Crew

“RIIIIPPP!!!!” While enjoying a silent morning before my family arose, I heard a tearing noise coming from the family room. I went to check on the damage, already knowing the culprits, Benny and Joon, our rescue puppies, now several months old. I found them standing on a beloved quilt, yellow fabric scraps in their mouths. Exasperated, I hollered, “NO!” not caring if I woke up sleeping children. Add the quilt to the list of things damaged or destroyed by the dangerous duo: 3 love seats, 2 sofas, 1 coffee table, a television remote, lightbulbs, a brand new Under Armor sweatshirt. 24 one-dollar bills.  The list could on, but I think the point is made.

I cleaned up the damage and returned to my seat, no doubt with a scowl upon my face. Without hesitation, Joon jumped up next to me, and immediately rolled on her back for a belly rub. She knows that regardless of what happens, regardless of what she has done, I will still take her into my lap and treat her affectionately.

A lot of people wonder why we have dogs. Most days, I wonder myself. But this morning, their antics taught me an important gospel lesson. Even when I wreck things over and over, God still takes me into his lap. Even in my sin, he still treats me with affection.

I wish my dogs would stop wrecking stuff. I truly do, but regardless, they are a part of the family. In the same way, God will never reach a point where he looks at my destructive tendencies and says, “That’s okay. That stuff doesn’t matter,” but at the same time, I am his child and he loves me anyway.

The Hardest Thing…and the Easiest

And above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.-Colossians 3:14

An expert theologian once asked Jesus, “what is the greatest commandment of all?” Jesus told him that the greatest commandment was to love God completely, with heart, soul, mind, and strength. He also said that the second flowed from the first, to love others as well as we love ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). As I was pondering Jesus’s words this morning, I wrote in my journal, “This is the hardest thing in the world to do. It is also the easiest.” The difficulty in the command is that we live in a society of sinners who are at times difficult to love. We treat one another poorly. We act disrespectfully, if not hatefully. The easy part, if we are willing to see it as such, is that we aren’t really given exceptions, or situations where love does not apply. It always applies, but will I heed?

I have decided to stick with love;
hate is too great a burden to bear.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes, I think we lose sight of the reality that our battle is not against other people, but against evil. The devil specializes in creating discord. He isolates us from one another; accusations and temptations carry so much more weight when we have to bear them alone. Yet, we turn on one another. In Galatians 5:15, Paul says that we “bite and devour” one another. Meanwhile, the devil grins.

Are you angry about injustice? Love.
Are you confused? Love.
Do you feel misunderstood, misrepresented, or maligned? Love.
Do you disagree with how another person is acting? Love.
Are you afraid? Love.
Have you been betrayed? Love.
Have you been a witness to evil? Love.

Regardless of your circumstance, seek to put on love. You may fail. All of us do. But keep striving, day by day, to love better. In God’s economy, love is worth the effort.

And above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.-1 Peter 4:8 (NIV) 

 

Binge Eating Disorder and Poetic Wisdom

I have a Binge Eating Disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “Binge eating disorder is a severe, life-threatening and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating. It is the most common eating disorder in the United States.

I cannot recall a time when I was not desperately affected by food. I was thin as a child. My mom would say that even slim-fit jeans would fall from my waist, though I do not remember those days. I look back at school pictures and sometime in the middle grades, I began to fill out. By my sophomore year of high school, I reached 220 pounds and started my first diet. As an all-or-nothing person (I suspect many folks with eating disorders tend in that direction), I quickly lost 40 pounds. Yet it was not to last. I would like to tell you that the thirty years since then have been a piece of cake, but more often than not, it was the whole cake.

I wish that last sentence was tongue in cheek. It isn’t. I have eaten a whole cake at one time. A whole Baker’s Square French Silk pie in a hotel room alone. Pounds of M&Ms behind my closed office door. Dozens of cookies in my car driving home. Not over a lifetime, mind you, but at one sitting. Those who binge eat all have their war stories, but the number of episodes we forget far outnumber those we remember. During a binge, the brain’s executive center seems to go offline, allowing baser desires to take over.  Eating becomes an automatic behavior that nullifies appreciation of food and flavor.

By the grace of God, I have not had an episode of binge eating in over a year, though I’ve lived enough life to know that it is unwise to say that I have beaten it.

Enter the Poets

Perhaps you were intrigued enough by the title to read this far. I hope so. Over the past several weeks, I have had a dawning realization that poets are granting me insight into my binge eating. How so? The best poets bid us to pay attention. In my limited experience, Mary Oliver succeeds at this better than most. I am currently reading Devotions, a remarkable anthology of her poetry. On each page, she invites her readers to see extraordinariness in the ordinariness of creation. Her Instructions for Living a Life capture her invitation well: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” When one binges, the capacity for attention is short-circuited. I am discovering that for me, poets re-awaken those circuits.

In addition, to improving our ability to pay attention, poets whisper, “Slow down. Breathe. Not so fast.” Many writing genres encourage rapid consumption. How many readers have found themselves repeatedly saying, “Just one more chapter”? Not so with the poets. Just this morning, I found myself beginning to rush ahead. I was not listening. I imagined Oliver telling me, “Jason, set the book down. Savor what you have read today. I will still be here tomorrow.”

In our brokenness, it seems that our primary, and often only, response is to seek answers in what the scientists tell us. Often, they can and do offer benefit. But what if, in addition to listening to the doctors and scientists, we also begin to pay attention to the poets and painters and musicians? Or to the farmers and housewives and World War II veterans? Perhaps our deepest healing occurs in a community where diverse gifts and experiences contribute to the deepest wisdom.

Creation Song

In Thumbprints in the Clay, Luci Shaw shared that fully one-third of the Bible is written in poetic form, yet we read it like an auto repair manual. In our desire to “get it right,” we read each line with mechanical precision, but we fail to notice the musical staff dwelling nearby. There is no doubt that God’s blueprints for creation were precise and logical, but I wonder how many of us, while considering God’s precision exclude beauty, consciously or subconsciously. For example, we attempt to wrestle Genesis 1 into submission, seeking to prove our preferred understanding of how God created, rather than wondering in amazement that He created. We fail to feel the rhythm.

Eugene Peterson wrote in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “There are two sets of three days each of creation activity. The first set of three gives form to the pre-creation chaos of [Genesis 1:2]; the second set of three fills the pre-creation emptiness…There is another interesting rhythmic variation. The third day of each three-day set comprises a double creation. So the cadence becomes: 1-2-3/3, 4-5-6/6…When we speak this text aloud, or listen to it being spoken, the text gets inside us. We enter the rhythms of creation time and find that we are internalizing a creation sense of orderliness and connectedness and resonance that is very much like what we get from music.”

As I think about God’s creation, I find myself wondering if God sang the world into creation. Words, yes, but music too. CS Lewis must have wondered this as well; in the sixth book of the Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan sings creation into being.

Christianity is not merely cognitive, but carditive; not merely brain, but heart. As we read the revealed word, we would do well to also pay attention to its rhythms.

And to our own.

Learning to say no

At least once each year, I will reach a state of mental exhaustion, where I am running largely on fumes and stubbornness. I last felt that way in mid-October. I was serving as a staff member at a men’s conference in Kentucky and I had nothing left to give. I was grateful for the leadership; a few of them checked in with me, encouraging me to make sure to care for myself.

Admittedly, these times are largely the result of my own choices. In October, I chose to go to Kentucky two weeks after returning from Nashville, with intermingled ministry work in between. I choose busyness, increasingly aware of its toll. I love my day job. I work as a clinical neuropsychologist, so I spend my days helping people unravel why they think, feel, and act the way they do. I help them to understand their brains so that these things begin to make sense. But I am also deeply involved in ministry. Though working with the embodied brain is a remarkably unique and fulfilling career, I really love helping people meet Jesus. Just as neuropsychology involves a lot of “behind the scenes” work, so too does ministry.

I was reflecting with my wife this morning that each of the last four days, I have been out of the house by 6:00AM or shortly thereafter, and I am typically home by 5:00. I do not envy my medical colleagues who must do evening and weekend call. However, this time of the year, evenings are often occupied as well–high school group, life group, leadership training, and Friday church when we decide to go. Certain weeks, it’s hard to catch my breath.

Having said all that, I am increasingly recognizing how elements of my personality contribute to these patterns. I am a 2 on the enneagram, which suggests that I like to help. At its best I can be encouraging, giving, and other-centered in a way that is not self-damaging. However, I can also have a hard time saying no to people. I thrive on needing to be needed. I am a people-pleaser. When attending to the needs of others without caring for one’s own needs, a host of difficulties may arise from bitterness to physical illness. I am also sensitive to the potential effect upon family, the people lest likely to express their desire for time with me.

As I continue to learn about myself, I recognize that one of the most important spiritual disciplines I could practice would be learning to say “no,” to recognize that I do not have to be…even cannot be…all things to all people. Time is finite. If I fail to set limits if I do not prioritize my commitments, if I do not learn to say no, I fear the damage will not be limited to me alone.

Why do I share this? Perhaps in hopes that you will pray for me. Perhaps in offering me grace when I say to no to you. Perhaps it is simply an acknowledgement, to myself principally, that I too am finite.

Shalom Challenge

What if for the next two months, we intentionally committed ourselves to actively pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty?  What might the world look like if we purposed ourselves each day to look for ways to bring light to a dark world? How might hurts be healed if we actively sought to pursue relational wholeness?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I look around me, I see so much hurt. Our world exists under a smog of brokenness. When all we see around us is damaged, we begin to live as if the world were supposed to be gray. It becomes all we know. We fail to hope because we know from experience that hopes are rarely fulfilled and we become cynics.

We are surrounded by more people than ever, 7 billion and growing. The worldwide availability of technology allows us to communicate with startling speed. We can still handwrite letters if we wish, but we can also call, text, email, message, Snapchat, Skype, Facetime, or Hangout. We have the freedom to share every passing whim on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube. Yet, despite more people and more ways to communicate with them, people feel less known than ever.

When I read my social media feeds, I am stunned by the mix of good and bad. On the one hand, there are encouraging flickers of human kindness and love. On the other hand, there is so much anger, dissension, haughtiness, and sarcasm that the dark clouds seem impenetrable. I watch conservatives criticizing liberals and vice versa; Catholics demonizing Protestants, and vice versa. In any given day, we can find 10,000 things that make us angry and indignant.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
-Isaac Watts

If you have been concerned about this, like I have, or you have contributed to it, like I have, I want to suggest a challenge. For the next two months—November 1st to December 31st—let us actively seek peace, goodness, and beauty.  Here are some ways to implement this challenge:

  1. As you begin each day, ask God’s help in pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty.
  2. Actively resist posting negativity on social media. In other words, do not share things that actively stir dissension or controversy. If someone else posts something controversial and you feel the need to run to your keyboard to “set the record straight,” resist doing so. If you can, let it go. If you cannot, reach out to the person individually.
  3. Similarly, avoid sarcasm. Yes, I understand that sarcasm is often just in good fun, but in reality, it often wounds people in ways we do not know and, if we are honest, it can mask unresolved conflict we have with others.
  4. When you are met with negativity, respond with kindness. When you are met with anger, respond with peace. When you encounter evil, respond with goodness.
  5. Actively seek for ways to demonstrate peace, goodness, and beauty. Stay attentive to ways in which you might encourage and serve others. You might offer a kind word or a listening ear, share something of beauty, or help meet someone’s physical needs. The opportunities are endless.
  6. Look for ways to create beauty yourself. Perhaps your first step here is to set aside your belief that you are simply not creative and then get about the business of creating.
  7. Encourage others to join in to this #shalomchallenge. Think of at least five people to invite to participate with you. An old African proverb says that “when we go together, we go far.”

Maybe this challenge will be fruitless.
Maybe after two months, you will miss engaging in controversy.

But maybe, a life could be transformed and that life could just be your own.

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