Are You Eccentric?

tilt-a-whirl

If there’s an international anthem, here’s its refrain: I’m so busy, I’m so tired, there’s more for me to do than there is of me to do it.

Or somesuch.

I hear it everywhere. I’ve travelled on five continents, and heard it on every one. I’m scheduled to travel soon to a sixth: I’m sure I’ll hear it there. The anthem is sung across cultures, languages, generations, genders. It’s sung in cities, in towns, in villages. It’s sung in summer and winter and springtime and harvest.

It’s sung as confession, as complaint, as lament, as excuse, sometimes as boast.

I’ve never heard it sung as praise.

Almost all our time-saving devices have become time-drains. Almost all our freedom of movement has been constricted by a list of endless demands. Former generations were busy with actual work – building barns, reaping fields, darning socks, fixing tractors. Our generation is busy with being busy. We’re all going and doing with near reckless haste, but it’s hard to say exactly where we’re going, what we’re doing.

Life is a tilt-a-whirl.

And in a tilt-a-whirl, discipleship is near impossible. Discipleship takes time. It calls for action, to be sure, but it’s action arising from a deep attentiveness born of stillness – Martha-like industry springing from Mary-like intimacy. For a reason Psalm 23 – maybe the best creed of the disciple – begins with God making us lie down. How else can he restore our souls, and how else can he prepare us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death while knowing he is with us, guiding us, protecting us, providing for us?

On the day of my baptism – now almost 35 years ago – I was given a “Life Verse” by my church: Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, all these things will be given to you as well.” The “these things” Jesus refers to are things I typically am anxious about, crave more of, chase after. These things, if I seek them and not God, make life a tilt-a-whirl.

That little church had no idea – or maybe they did – how meddlesome that verse would prove in my life. It has messed with me in a million ways. Jesus lists food and clothing as the two things I might chase after, but I actually have a much longer list than that. Whenever I start chasing them, that verse comes crashing into my life again.

It calls me back to the one thing needed.

Here’s what it’s taught me: when I place God at the periphery of my life, he only makes my life more complicated. God-at-the-periphery just adds to the tilt-a-whirl effect. Only when God is at the center of my life does life make sense. Only then does it take on a shape that makes his yoke easy and his burden light. Only then do I have wisdom, strength, and grace to move through my days, busy as most are, with calm and clarity, and good cheer. Only then do I experience the deep contentment that alone is the antidote to coveting.

Life is meant to be lived from a center, and only God is a sufficient center. Eccentric literally means off-center. It’s how tilt-a-whirls work, spinning in a wonky orbit. Christians are called to be peculiar. But we’re not called to be eccentric.

Any adjustments needed in your life?

A Slave Driver Called Pettiness

Toilet Paper Wars

 

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

 

Ah, yes.

Yes, and ouch.

I wake daily to a battle: the fight to silence my inner voice of pettiness. Left to myself, I boast, I whine, I complain, I scorn, I judge. Most of it is in my head. Some of it spills my lips. I resolve to be better, but can lapse into small-mindedness with hardly a demur. I mask it with coy phrases: “I know I’m not perfect, but….” The “but” constitutes an account of someone else’s imperfections, glaring and outlandish (the way I tell it), against which my flaws seem almost like virtues (the way I tell it).

Here’s another symptom of my pettiness: my heart’s captivity to trifles. I can fret over the smallest things – a chip in the windshield, a delay in my plane schedule, a mistake in my food order – and be oblivious to things that actually matter – the horrors suffered by Christians at the hands of ISIS, the plight of many First Nations people, the struggle of the homeless.

I commit many crimes of apathy.

Sometimes my wife, who’s the least petty person I know, looks askance at all this. “Honey…,” she says.

“Well,” I say, “if this is all you have to complain about me, you’re lucky.”

Then that look of infinite pity: “Honey, if that was all I had to complain about you, I would be lucky.”

Yes, and ouch.

I don’t know what the Apostle Paul’s thorn in his side was. But I know one of mine: the will to be a slave to my own pettiness.

Sometimes entire churches fall prey to this temptation. Pettiness becomes their governing principle. Their ethos. The results aren’t so much disastrous as ridiculous: the church start making decisions and embracing practices that are blatantly self-serving, and they stop being the fragrance and presence of Christ. Which, actually, is a disaster.

A pastor friend of mind told me about an argument that erupted in his church. The issue? The “right” way to load toilet paper on a dispenser – over, or under? It was dividing the church. The board resolved the issue by installing two roles in each stall, one for each preference.

What?

This is not a joke. It may be a caricature, but it’s not a joke: a church actually did this.

Most churches don’t descend quite to this level of silliness. Actually, often it’s worse: their pettiness is, not silly, but vicious. But all of us know of churches deeply damaged, and sometimes split, over squabbles about things that should never have even risen to the level of discussion. Someone should have had the wit and wisdom to dismiss the issue before it ever saw light of day. Simply, those of us called to be ambassadors of reconciliation should not squander a single breath on debating trivialities. We have better work to do.

I think the Apostle Paul may have been dealing with this issue in his letter to the Philippians – not toilet paper, but pettiness. Near the end of that letter, he addresses two women, Euodia and Synthyche, whose friendship had turned bitter. He pleads with them to resolve it, and for others in the church to help (Philippians 4:2-3).

That actual incident adds poignancy to what Paul says earlier in the letter:

 

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain (Philippians 2:14-16).

 

So much depends on our not being slaves to our own pettiness. Heschel may be right, that nothing is as hard to suppress as this.

But for the sake of the gospel, nothing is as urgent.

We have better work to do.

Bless me too, Father

Jacob means wily. He was aptly named. He had, from the womb, both a vise grip and light fingers, a tenacity for laying hold and not letting go, and a skill for taking other people’s stuff. He rode into this world, literally, on the heels of his twin sibling Esau, and then spent his early years getting the upper hand on him – tricking and tempting his poor dull brother out of his birthright and then, most grievously, his blessing.
After Jacob, by posing as Esau, steals the blessing, this:

After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”
“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”
Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”
Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?”
Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.
His father Isaac answered him,

“Your dwelling will be
away from the earth’s richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.
You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck” (Genesis 27:30-40).

Bless me – me too, father!
That’s the heart cry of every man and every woman throughout the ages. Bless me – me too, father! We long to hear our own fathers speak words like those Isaac spoke over Jacob:

May God give you dew from heaven and make your fields fertile! May he give you plenty of grain and wine! May nations be your servants, and may peoples bow down before you. May you rule over all your relatives, and may your mother’s descendants bow down before you. May those who curse you be cursed, and may those who bless you be blessed (Genesis 27:28-29).

May you be a winner. Spectacular. May every thing you touch flourish, and everyone you meet be wowed. You have what it takes. Go!
This entire story is echoed in a famous New Testament passage, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That story has been misnamed for years. It’s not mostly about the young rascal with his bent for hard drugs and fast women; it’s about the older brother, with his dour piety and rigid sense of duty. And, especially, it’s about his seething resentment over his younger brother stealing the blessing.
After the young hellion returns, only to be given more, to be met by a weeping, laughing, dancing father whose first impulse is to throw a lavish “Welcome Home” party, the older son’s bitterness erupts. His cry isn’t, “Bless me too, father.” It’s a scathing accusation: “You’ve never blessed me.” Thus:

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours…” (Luke 15:28-31).

You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
This is subversive. This changes everything. Before Jesus, blessing was scarce. It was meted out. It was rationed carefully, sparingly, grudgingly. There was generally one blessing per household: miss it, you get the dregs.

But now “out of the fullness of [Christ’s] grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another” (John 1:16; GNT).

You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.

The words the Father speaks over his Son Jesus are in one sense for him alone. But in another sense, everything he has is yours. And so it is right and fitting that you, right here, right now, hear the voice of the Father say this to you, directly, personally  (adjust the gender as called for):

You are my son, whom I love, whom I have chosen. With you I am well pleased. Everyone, listen to him (Mark 1:11 & Luke 9:35).

Whether or not your earthly father has ever spoken such blessing over you, your heavenly Father says it, again and again.
Out of his fullness, he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another. Everything he has is yours.

The-Rest-of-God-193x300

The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath (Thomas Nelson, 2006) (Thomas Nelson, 2006)

The-Rest-of-God-193x300I wrote this during a sabbatical leave, which was the perfect setting for writing about Sabbath days and Sabbath hearts. In part, I document how my own drivenness nearly threw me over a cliff, and how discovering Sabbath brought me back to sanity. The book unfolds Sabbath?s gifts, and offers a practical approach to Sabbath-keeping.

Your-God-is-Too-Safe-194x300

Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control (Multnomah, 2001) (Multnomah, 2001)

Your-God-is-Too-Safe-194x300This was my first book, and it’s close to my heart. It’s really a book of spiritual disciplines for Jonahs: God-evaders who want to become God-chasers. I coined two phrases in YGiTS that have had far-reaching impact: ‘Borderland’, which describes half-in, half-out Christianity; and “the Holy Wild,” which describes life to the full with the God who is not safe, but good. YGiTS is really a sustained invitation to leave Borderland and live in the Holy Wild.