Thursday, August 28, 2014

Make Yourself Uncomfortable

I value the daily blog posts of Seth Godin because of the way they often challenge me to think outside the box and approach problems from new angles. About two weeks ago, he had this gem that has been rattling around in my brain ever since:

'Doing the best I can actually not the same as, "doing everything I can.”

When we tell people we're doing the best we can, we're actually saying, "I'm doing the best I'm comfortable doing."

As you've probably discovered, great work makes us uncomfortable.'

The italics at the end are mine because that was the part that really grabbed me. It felt like a personal challenge that rings with truth from my own personal experience. I can be safe and comfortable and do okay work, but typically the biggest accomplishments and successes of my life and career have required some difficult decisions and leaps of faith.

It just so happens that this week's Gospel lesson feels like a perfect dovetail to this blog. In Matthew 16, Jesus tells his disciples that being the Messiah will lead to his own death and then challenges them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?"

Exactly what it means for us to take up our cross is a topic that could fill a book, but suffice it to say that what Jesus describes does not sound comfortable or safe. "There is great work to be done," he is telling them, "but it won't be easy."

And it's advice Jesus himself abides by. Jesus could keep teaching and healing people and the crowds would eat it up, but his end game isn't to help a few hundred people; he is there to change the world and reveal God to all people. According to Matthew's gospel, he spends his final night before crucifixion scared, worried, and literally sweating it out. Great work makes us uncomfortable...

I think there are two good lessons for Christians in this passage to ponder. First, how often do we assume that doing the right thing should be easy? If I'm doing what God asks of me, shouldn't it go smoothly? Jesus says, "No." Following Jesus is life-giving and rewarding ("those who lose their life for my sake will find it..."), but Jesus doesn't say anything in this passage about easy or comfortable. If that seems strange, just think of marriage. Almost every couple who has been married for thirty or more years tells me that staying together takes work and learning and patience, but the struggles have made the relationship stronger and richer.

The second lesson is that we need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It seems to me that many or most churches struggle with breaking out of old patterns that proving ineffective at growing disciples or engaging the world because they are afraid of trying something that might fail. There is also the prevailing issue that in practice, most churches work to keep their existing members comfortable and happy. Doing bold and important work takes risks and it will not please everyone, but in an age where religious affiliation is on the decline in the Western World, standing pat is not a success story either. And as a friend is fond of reminding me, because of God's grace, "We have permission to fail, but we don't have permission to be indifferent."

If great work makes us uncomfortable and taking up our cross and losing our lives helps us find life, then maybe I need to be more aware of my decision making. Maybe my question for making decisions shouldn't be "Does this feel comfortable?" but "Does this feel important?"

“Beloved Enemy demands my life and all I am; but then He blesses me and gives it back again.” –Wes King, "Magnificent Defeat"

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reasons to Fight with God

A few weeks ago, the Old Testament reading for our Sunday worship was one of my favorite texts in the Bible: Jacob literally wrestling with God. (Actually, it's not entirely clear who Jacob wrestles, but the traditional interpretation is that he wrestled with God.)

I love the vividness of this story, but most importantly for the wonderful metaphors it offers us about life with God. How many of us have spent nights wrestling with questions of the future, of purpose, of self-worth, of hope? How many of us have avoided these wrestling matches, afraid of confronting God or other wild, untamed truths? How many of us have avoided wrestling matches thinking we must simply submit? Genesis 32 suggests that such wrestling matches can actually be faithful, holy activities.

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about how troubling I find the account of Isaac's near sacrifice in Genesis 22. With Jacob's account in Genesis 32 as a lens, then perhaps that struggle with the very text of the Bible is another example of wrestling with God and can be seen as a holy activity. In preaching, in Bible study, and in conversation with other Christians, I think our grappling with the Bible is an important and faithful thing to do.

One of the defining characteristics of wrestling that makes this episode so vivid to me is that wrestling is a full body exercise. Unlike Abraham, Moses, or Job, Jacob doesn't debate God; he throws his whole body at God. Wrestling is an act of desperation, of using all you are. In that way, this can be a great metaphor for following God, too. After all, if God asks us to love with "all your heart and soul and strength" (Deut. 6:5), doesn't it stand to reason that we will at times resist with all that we are?

Tim McGraw once sang "I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying." I see echoes of that song in this passage. Instead of a blissful, peaceful stroll beside still waters, living with God is also an act of desperation and urgency. And maybe that's good news, because my life rarely feels totally peaceful or simple, so if that were the mark of perfect faith, I'm failing. But if God is present in my struggles, then maybe I'm not as off track as I might think.

In fact, one of the fascinating details of this account is the new name that Jacob is given in verse 28. God renames him "Israel," which means "struggles with God." Not only does Jacob wear this name as a badge of honor, but the Jewish people eventually use the word to name their nation. In contrast, the term "Islam" means "surrender" (as in, surrendering to God's will) and Christian means "little Christ" and we who are Christians often define ourselves as "disciples" (literally: "students") or "followers" of Jesus the Christ. But imagine daily saying, "I'm one that wrestles with God." How might that shape our faith and understanding of God?

Of course, one of the key details of Jacob's wrestling match is that he doesn't win (and his hip is knocked out of joint -- oooouuuuch!) because, hey, it is GOD that he's wrestling. But in the morning, his adversary blesses him as Jacob asks. Likewise, wrestling with God may leave us wounded and almost certainly leave us defeated, but it will also leave us blessed.

“I get up from the canvas swinging like I think I might just win.” -Jars of Clay, “After the Fight”

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Happiness and Simplicity (Addenda to Last Week's Blog)

Last week I wrote a blog article about the documentary "Tiny" and how the subjects of the film had found happiness by simplifying their lives. Since writing that blog post, I've continued to mull over the themes and ideas in the movie. And as I've continued thinking about these things, it just so happens that I've stumbled across a couple of related nuggets on the interwebs this week.

One of the inevitable questions that arises from pondering the happiness of living in what is roughly the size of a walk-in closet is "What is happiness, anyway?" I mean, this is something we all strive for and we are bombarded with advice throughout our lives about how to earn it or buy it or make it or find it, but what is happiness in the first place? Is it a state of being? An action? Is it even reasonable to believe it should be our default emotion?

An article shared by a pastor friend on facebook this week suggests we may have our assumptions about happiness all wrong. The article, titled "5 Scientific Reasons Your Idea of Happiness is Wrong," from can be found here. (Yes, I realize that isn't exactly a reputable news source, but, hey... internet.) Knowing your time is precious and attention is short (at least if you're like me), here's the Cliff's Notes version of the article: 1) for most of human history, it was assumed that happiness is like luck, meaning it just happened or it didn't, 2) you physically cannot feel happy for very long, and 3) having lots of possessions, having lots of choices, and making personal happiness a major goal in life all tend to decrease happiness.

The article's scientific advice for being happy? "[S]top worrying about being happy and instead divert your energy to nurturing the social bonds you have with other people." So stop thinking about myself and work at loving others? Why does that sound familiar? (All this reminded me of this great 10-minute TED talk by Michael Norton on "How to Buy Happiness." Hint: you can't spend it on yourself.)

The second nugget I found this week was a posting by a facebook friend who is decluttering her life through an online activity. There is a group on facebook that is challenging people to simplify their lives by going through closets and drawers and recycling, giving away, or throwing out at least one thing every day. There was a game element to it (something like electronics on Fridays or 12 things on the 12th), but I can't seem to find the official page anymore. I'm going to contact my friend for the name and I'll post it in the comments. (Or if anyone else knows what it is, please do the same.) It seemed like a happy coincidence to find that just days after writing my last blog article.

As for me, I haven't jumped whole hog onto the tiny house or trash something everyday band wagon yet, but I did take the initiative over the weekend to clean out my tupperware cabinet of mismatched or broken things. That felt like a big accomplishment and now I feel happy every time I open that cabinet. At least for a moment.

"Clap along if you know what happiness is to you." -Pharrell Williams, "Happy"

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Big Insights from Living Small: A Reflection on the Film "Tiny"

Tonight I took advantage of some free time to watch a documentary called "Tiny." The film follows a 30 year old on his quest to build a tiny house under 200 square feet and profiles several people (including couples and a family) who have built and moved into similar-sized homes. (If you're interested, it's currently streaming on Netflix.)

I've mentioned before that I'm interested in the concept of design and I've been fascinated with the way design intersects with architecture and living spaces in particular to create spaces that can be simple, beautiful and functional. Therefore, I tossed this movie into my Netflix queue as soon as I discovered it. (Have I mentioned that I also love documentaries?)

As I was watching the documentary, however, I was surprised by the comments made by the people who had moved into tiny homes. Time and again, they made comments about how happy they were living in a small space. One man talked about the freedom it gave him because he didn't need to spend so much time and money cleaning and doing maintenance on his house. Others talked about how the small space focused them into deciding what was really important for them. (Some had moved into tiny homes after the Great Recession led them to lose much of what they had or reevaluate what they wanted from life.)

And then one woman in Olympia, Washington, made a comment that really brought out the spiritual theme that was running (unintentionally?) through the whole movie when she said that our culture doesn't give us many opportunities to practice humility and gratitude, but building a tiny house from scratch did. She had to learn to ask for help in building and to live with less, which made her more aware of what she did have.

Humility? Gratitude? Freedom? Is this a documentary on architecture or spirituality?

Our culture is built largely upon consumption and collection. The more we own/possess/control, the more successful and enviable we are perceived to be. Many of us shake our heads at this fact, but we all participate in it in some way.

Watching the movie made me think back to my first tiny apartment and how I thought if I just had a second bedroom I'd be happy. My second apartment had two bedrooms and I wished I had a dishwasher. My third apartment had a dishwasher and I wished it had a laundry room. And so on.

I like to believe that I live fairly simply, but I was amazed at the joy and satisfaction demonstrated by these people who had given up much of what my younger self thought would make my life perfect precisely because they'd given them up.

As I watched "Tiny," I couldn't help but think of a quote attributed to St. Augustine: "From what you own, set aside what you need to survive. The rest belongs to God." As I watched these people happily live in 200 square feet, it made me question exactly what it is I "need to survive." I can sit in my living room and see more things than I'd like to admit that I don't use, need, or even want any more. And if humility, gratitude, and joy (as expressed by these tiny home owners) are indeed spiritual fruits, then does having less space to live paradoxically make more space for God?

“If I die before I learn to speak, can money pay for all the days I lived awake but half asleep?” -Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand”