Another unemployment lesson

In my last post, I shared some lessons that I learned through 7 months of uncertain unemployment. Of course, the truth is: I’m still learning. And the lessons continue. Here’s one more that I don’t want to slip through the cracks, unnoticed.

And this lesson starts with this simple idea: Be careful of pious phrases. We church people are really good at church lingo and spiritual slogans. Sometimes these phrases are true, and deeply so. But sometimes we speak words we want to be true, we hope are true, but they’re not — at least not in the way that we think.

So, sometimes we say things like: Don’t worry. Just trust God. Pray harder.

Are these words true? Of course. Nobody wants to worry. We all need to trust God more. And who among us thinks our prayer life is ever good enough?

Speaking phrases like this, while true, are usually not helpful. They can often have the opposite effect of what’s intended — instead of helping people connect more with God, they may in fact make them feel as if they are the reason for their struggles. If only I had more faith, or prayed more diligently, I wouldn’t be in this situation.

No. No. No. That’s not how life works. We don’t pray ourselves out of bad stuff, and into good stuff. Instead, we learn to trust God IN the difficult circumstances; oftentimes it’s the hard stretches of life that stretch us beyond pious platitudes, into surrender. A surrender that recognizes that, more than quick fixes and simplistic answers, we need to simply hold onto God right where are. And sometimes it’s a steel cable that seems to bind us to God; and other times, it feels like a thread.

In fact, maybe what God wants most for us during times of duress isn’t clear; maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that He wants us to cling to Him, to trust Him in the darkness, and just take the next step.

Which leads to a couple of other phrases I find of questionable help: God’s got a plan. It will all work out in the end.

Just the other day, I heard about a person in prison for his faith in a country known for its opposition to Christianity. Separated from his family, he has faced 361 days a year in solitary confinement. Now, imagine that on one of the 4 days a year he is given an opportunity to talk with people, you are one of the ones who gets to visit with him. What are you going to say? God’s got a plan? It will all work out in the end?

What if he never gets released from prison; never gets to see his family again? Is that God’s plan? Is that how it all works out in the end?

Now, on the one hand, we have faith that God is working through even the worst of circumstances. And we know that things will work out in the end — even if the end is the End of All Things. But lots of bad stuff happens in this life, and some of it doesn’t get fixed in this life. God will work out all things in the end; we have this promise. But it might be that, in this life, His plan is not to open all the doors we want opened; to make smooth all our paths; to make clear every step we take. In fact, as I heard John Ortberg say recently: sometimes God’s plan is that we use the freedom he has given us to make a choice. It might not be the best choice; it may not take us down the path we hoped it would. But, as Ortberg points out, God is more concerned with our character than our circumstances. And His plan might be less about walking through the “right door,” than it is about the kind of person we are becoming as we make the choices that take us through the doors we decide to walk through.

But overall, my concern isn’t so much with what well-meaning people say; it’s why. And often, I think we toss around pious phrases to people because we don’t know what else to say. In fact, I think that oftentimes we speak a spiritual cliche — like, at a funeral home: She’s in a better place — because we are trying to remind ourselves that this is true. Standing next to the casket with a mom who has to bury her child, we don’t know what to say because there is no way to explain this.

So I wonder if what we are doing when we offer a religious cliche is, in fact, speaking to ourselves. Running into a friend whose husband just walked out, we have no answers. So we give voice to what WE need to hear. It’ll be okay. God’s in control. All things work for good, after all. Speaking these words to our friend, we are in fact also seeking to console ourselves; to make sense of the senseless. To try to hold onto truth when the world is falling apart.

But when we stop trying to speak to ourselves, or come up with the perfect words to speak to our friend in need, we might find this deeper truth: what people need in times of need are not words, but someone to walk with them. Not pious phrases, but presence. Because, it’s easier to drop by and say something spiritual than it is to come alongside and do something practical. It’s easier to speak a cliche than it is to walk with them through the uncertainty.

As I think about the season of life I just went through, the people who were the most helpful were the ones who didn’t have all the answers — but were there for me, anyway. There were times they didn’t know what to say — but they stayed there for me, anyway. The reminded me of biblical truth, by words, yes; but even more by what they did. They showed me God is faithful by their faithfulness.

There was an episode of “CSI: New York” about 10 years ago where one of the detectives, Mac Taylor, befriends a neighborhood kid. The two are walking home from a community event when Mac notices a thief escaping the scene of a crime. He tells Ruben, the 10-year-old boy, to go straight home. The detective begins to chase the criminal, but doesn’t catch him.

Later, Mac is at the crime lab, and he sees Ruben’s dead body; he had been killed by the escaping thief. As he walks away, one of the female cops come up to Mac, looking for advice. What do I say?, she asks. I’m not good at this kind of thing. To which Mac Taylor responds, Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing.

Here’s the truth: None of us is good at that kind of thing. But not having the right words to say is, I believe, one of the first steps in acknowledging that words don’t change the reality that life can sometimes be downright crappy. Recognizing that doesn’t mean that our faith is weak or shallow; it doesn’t mean that God isn’t real and present. It simply grabs hold of the fact that maybe, when we stop talking, we give ourselves, and those walking through the Valley, an opportunity beyond hearing truth — to experiencing it.

For when we were in our deepest valley, when we as creation were in our greatest need, God Himself moved beyond words, to presence. God moved beyond giving Law, to showing Love. For when we had no answer, God answered most clearly, showed Himself most powerfully, by walking with us, becoming one of us — for the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.

Yes, Jon, We’re All Terminal

I was listening this morning to a speaker, Abby, where she described a recent conversation with her 92-year-old grandmother. Her grandma told her: I’ve been diagnosed with a slow-developing form of leukemia. The doctors have given me 2-10 years to live.

To which, Abby replied: Grandma, I could have told you that.

Yes, the truth is: a 92-year-old has 2-10 years; or less. But the truth is also: you and I may have 2-10 years; or more; or, maybe less.

I remember sitting in a ministry class one time, and one of the students got to talking about a chaplain at the hospital where she worked. His approach was to pray for miracles for the people there. One day, when he was doing it, the patient said, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but shouldn’t you be preparing me to die?

I am haunted and captivated by that question. In some sense, isn’t that the responsibility of a pastor? At a deep level, shouldn’t Death be an element of every life-changing message given by every preacher and teacher?

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean by this what some often  mean. I don’t mean that we dangle people over the abyss of death to spark fear or worry, or to literally scare “the hell out of them.” We don’t point to Death so as to get them simply to make a “decision.” Instead, an honest look at Death calls us to face clearly, as one of my friends puts it, “the reality of my mortality.” And when I do that – when I am honest that Death will eventually come calling – then I can learn how to live.

I love the song “Terminal” by Jon Foreman. In it, he reminds us all that we are, in fact, terminal. He sings:

The doctor says I’m dying
I die a little every day
He’s got no prescription
That could take my death away
The doctor says, It don’t look so good
It’s terminal

The truth is: We are all facing a death sentence. Sound morbid? Not the pick-me-up you were looking for? Maybe that’s true. But isn’t the best way to learn how to live is by remembering that we are going to die? Don’t we get the most intentional about life when we realize we can take nothing for granted?

In fact, what do people usually do when they find out they only have so long to live? They fight. They grab onto life. They love better, live more fully, appreciate each moment. They have that hard conversation. They forgive. Petty things fall to the wayside. And they look beyond themselves – to God, to others, to what really matters.

So, as a minister, if I can get people to face the reality of their death, I think I’ll have done a big part of my job. Because, maybe then, they’ll really learn how to live.

3 Things We Don’t Talk about in Church

There are three things we don’t talk about in church. Or, maybe I should say: there are three things we don’t talk about very often or very well in church.

The first is death. To be fair, we don’t talk about death very well anywhere in our society. It’s easier to avoid death until you can’t avoid it anymore — like when someone you love is very ill, or when you go visit a friend who has lost a loved one. We have gotten so good at dancing around death that there is an entire website devoted to the many, MANY ways we have of talking about death — without ever actually using the word.

The second thing we don’t talk about in church is sex. Again, we have reasons for this, and some of them are good. One, it’s difficult to preach about it when there are people of all ages in the congregation, including teenagers and kids. Two, it can be awkward and personal — kind of like sex itself.

And the third thing we don’t talk about is politics. Now in some churches this isn’t true. They jump into politics very quickly and regularly. (The truth is: some churches also talk about sex and death regularly, too.) But politics can get a preacher into trouble pretty quickly — with good reason.

In other words, some of the more personal and intimate areas of our lives are the ones we are most likely to avoid in church. It is much easier to talk in flowery generalities and abstract theories. It is more challenging to speak about the realities that hit closest to home.

But should it be that way? Should we avoid these things?

For example, what about politics? Should church be a politics-free zone? Well, yes and no. I believe that church is not the place for us to preach in favor of policies and procedures and laws. No one coming to worship should be told that all true Christians vote one way, or support one particular political party. Our goal, especially in worship, is to point people to Jesus, not a flag, or a political figure, or an ideology.

Even so, not preaching politics is not the same as not being political. For the truth is: we are all political. The root of the word, politics, is the Greek word for “citizen,” or “city.” To be alive and human is to be political — to be a part of a community of people seeking the common good. And that we should preach — that we as followers of Jesus are called to be political (small p), while being careful not to be consumed by the Political (capital P). We have a responsibility to be faithful citizens of our communities, state, country, and world — recognizing that we can do this while also holding different Political views.

What about sex? Can we talk about that? Well, if we are going to talk about the life of faith, and how Jesus transforms people from all walks of life, then church must be a place where all of life is discussed. And sex is certainly a part of that. In fact, if the church isn’t talking about sex, then how will our kids learn a healthy view of sexuality? From Instagram? Or Hollywood? Yikes! For that matter, if we don’t speak about sex, how will married people, or single people, or those widowed, or divorced, or with same-sex attractions know how to find God in the midst of their sexuality? If we aren’t honest about sex, how will we point to the hope of healing for those who have had abortions, or struggle with porn, or have been abused?

And then there’s death. As for the question: Should we talk about death in the church?, I would give an unequivocal “yes.” What seems like such a downer, and certainly a conversation-stopper, should, in fact, be something we don’t hesitate to discuss. Because, if you live long enough, you will die. And not talking about it doesn’t make it any less likely to occur, or any less painful, or push it off even one more day.

For, the truth is, we should be talking about all three of these — faithfully, thoughtfully, and honestly.

As for me, though, I’ll start with the easiest. This Sunday I’ll be talking about death. (Which, I guess you could say, is the whole point of this blog: to make preaching on death seem like a walk in the park. And, compared to sex and politics, that’s what it is. A walk in the park — a park with lots of granite.)