A friend posted on facebook this week a video of a young man singing his heart out on an Interstate in southern California. His windows and sun roof or wide open, and he chimes happily along with a song spilling loud from his car. “Fill me up, Buttercup,” he shouts for all to hear, bobbing and weaving to the beat. Traffic is thick, so drivers and passengers to the right and left take notice. He invites them to sing with him. Many do.
It’s brilliant. It’s a little outbreak of the kingdom of God: infectious joy invading a world of grinding routine, gruelling tedium. One man singing subverts a thousand stone-faced commuters, and calls them back to wonder and thankfulness.
I always loved the 60s musical GodSpell, despite its theological shortcomings. Jesus shows up in San Francisco during the height of the Flower Power era. He is the proto-hippy, a bell-bottomed, peace-sign wielding, afro-sporting vagabond grooving to the scene. All that is hokey and oddball. The movie’s genius, though, is this: Jesus comes singing, and keeps singing. And those who follow him hear the song – in the midst of dance recitals, board meetings, traffic jams, domestic arguments – and drop everything to join him in it.
Three biblical texts converge around this theme – well, more than three, but these three I find especially compelling. The first is a question God asks woebegone, sore-afflicted Job:
Were you there… when the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:7).
The second is the picture of God that the Prophet Zephaniah gives to frightened, disheartened people:
Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing (Zeph. 3:16-17).
And the third is the story of Paul and Silas in the book Acts, two men bleeding from a scourging, locked and manacled in the inner cell of a dank prison because of an act of compassion they committed in the city of Philippi:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).
I bet they were, those other prisoners. Who does this? Songs in the night. Songs in the face of brutal suffering. Songs breaking out in the midst of conditions that invite anything but singing – sores from head to foot, threats from powerful enemies, violence from an oppressive system. Traffic on a grid-locked highway. They don’t complain. They don’t curse. They don’t rail against the system.
GodSpell, for all it got wrong, got this right: into this mess and pain, the great Troubadour comes singing, singing, singing, and the kingdom opens to all who hear and join him.
Bunk Mates in Heaven
A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”
I laughed, and then didn’t.
I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.
I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.
Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.
Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?
But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?
Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.
So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):
Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.
There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?
When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.
How’s that going for you?
Joshua Foer’s brilliant quirky book Moonwalking with Einstein documents his year of becoming a prodigy of memory. It was a pursuit he stumbled into. As a journalist researching a piece for Slate magazine on the USA Memory Championship, he decided to take a shot at it himself. On the way, he met some of the world’s greatest (and geekiest) memorizers – Ben Pridmore, for instance, who can recall fifty thousand digits of pi, and recite the precise order of any deck of playing cards after flipping through them for 32 seconds. And he met “the most forgetful man in the world” – simply identified as EP , whose frontal brains lobes were cored like an apple by a virus, and who now forgets everything 10 seconds after it’s happened, though all his other faculties remain sharp.
It all makes for, well, memorable reading. Two overall impressions emerged for me: that too much remembering is a bad thing, and too much forgetting is as well.
One of Foer’s discoveries is that people who train their memories to accomplish prodigious feats (and it is training, not innate capacity, that does it) are no smarter than the rest of us, and in some striking instances less so. These people are mnemonic superheroes – they can memorize entire phone books, recall the exact sequence of 5 decks of randomly shuffled cards, identify the precise location of any given word in a 300 page book, and so on. But none of them navigates life more wisely or deftly than rest of us. In some cases, glaringly worse.
Brilliance is not wisdom. Mastering long random strings of numbers provides no aid to mastering life. An enlarged cranium does not make for a bigger heart. A vast memory is not the same thing as a deep soul.
But forgetting is no better. EP – the amnesiac – greets his wife each day as though he’s meeting her for the first time. “A meaningful relationship between two people,” Foer observes, “cannot sustain itself only in the present tense.” But EP is stuck there, “trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate.”
In some ways, the Christian faith is built on a resolve to both remember and forget. We remember all God has done. We learn to recall and recite his deeds, his words, his character. The central acts of our life together – word, worship, communion – are acts of remembering. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.”
But just as critically, we learn to forget. “Forget the former things.” Isaiah commands. “Do not dwell on the past.” The Apostle Paul describes discipleship as “forgetting what is behind” and pressing on toward what is ahead. God himself forgives our sins, and “remembers them no more.”
Remembering and forgetting is so central to the Christian faith that most of what stalls our growth is getting it backwards: remembering what we should forget, and forgetting what we must remember.
Foer has inspired me, but not to become a prodigy of memory. He’s inspired me to practice both sacred memory and holy amnesia, to remember well and forget well.
I've been hunkered down two weeks now in my hidey-hole in Wales, this replica of Narnia. Have I changed? My breathing, I think, has slowed to match the easy rhythms of the land around me, and maybe I've lost a few pounds. But I've not improved my Yahtzee skills at all, though I play it most nights. And I almost lapsed into paganism: I had a moment of Wall-Street hubris, of all-consuming corporate greed, when I fought back from near bankruptcy to entirely crush my rivals – Cheryl and Nicola – in a sprawling take-no-prisoners game of Monopoly that spanned three nights. But I recovered from that, and once again am humbly content with the simple life. I do not need a hotel on Park Lane to be happy.
I am, all told, deeply content but otherwise ordinary. I am recognizably myself: a tad impatient, a little fretful, easily distracted, given to spells of brooding. I keep waiting for some epiphany, some startling dazzling insight, to break in on this magnificent solitude, and change me in a twinkling. And then I remind myself that such things are rare, and come mostly unbidden, unexpected, undeserved. You bend one day to fetch a stick of wood, or step out of the shower and reach for a towel, or spy the shape of a face in the clouds, and then suddenly it's on you, flooding in from nowhere and everywhere, turning you inside out.
I haven't had that yet.
And most change takes work.
A line from a book I've been reading has been working me over hard. The book is called A Diary of Revival, documenting, mostly from the personal correspondences and diary entries of eyewitnesses and key figures, the events and personalities that marked the 1904 Welsh Revival. One of the most prominent figures of that revival, the one whose name is most associated with it, is Evan Roberts. Roberts was a coal miner before he was a preacher (indeed, he fulfilled a prophecy that God was going to raise up a man from the mine or the farm, not the seminary, to bring revival).
As a teenager, Roberts was marked by a hunger for God's word, and he read and pondered the Scriptures at every opportunity. He kept a Bible in the mine shafts, to read on his breaks, and one day, when he was absent, an explosion in the mine burnt his Bible and strewed its pages every which way. Roberts went searching for its remnants, crawling through the rubble, digging for the torn and scattered pages. He described it this way: "I had to go out and seek the truth on my knees."
That's the line that's working me over: I had to go out and seek the truth on my knees.
The story that is most often told about the anointing for revival that God placed on Roberts happened on September 29, 1904, at a church gathering in Blaenannerch (not far from where I'm staying). Roberts, in a sudden fit of zeal that stunned those who witnessed it, prayed for God to "bend" him. It was an act of surrender. It was throwing himself utterly on the mercy of God and giving himself wholly to the purposes of God. He was asking to be bent to the divine will, conformed to Christ. It was like Isaiah saying "Here I am, send me." It was like Christ saying, "Not my will, but yours be done."
It's was an amazing moment – an epiphany. I don't doubt, as historians claim, it was the turning point, the spark that lit Revival in Wales and then sent it around the world.
But I think this other moment – a young man, prepared to serve the rest of his days in manual labor if that was God's bidding, stooped and clambering in the dark and mess of a collapsed mine to find one more page, and another, and another, of the book he loved – I think this is significant, too. This is the precursor to being bent, to being sent.
I have been praying two things here: "Lord, bend me." And, "Lord, may I go out to seek the truth on my knees."
I commend these prayers to everyone. But particularly, I believe at least one young man or woman will read this and hear these prayers as God's personal assignment. God's intimate call.
All God needs to start the fire is someone hungry enough, desperate enough, broken enough, available enough, to seek the truth on their knees, and to let God bend them.
Is it you?
I'd never paid sheep much mind until I came to Wales. Here, they're impossible to ignore: they bleat outside the window, and stare, curious or indignant, as you walk past, and polka dot most every green hill with puffs of white. When you call to them, they fling their heads up with a jerk and fix you with a look, annoyed or disturbed. They seem variously skittish or aggressive or befuddled. The ewes walk in a slow stately manner, like they're trying to hide their bulging girth with a show of decorum. The rams walk in a kind of defiant stride, like they're trying to compensate for their fear or impress the lady folk. And the babies – of which there are many just now – run and romp and leap, oblivious to it all. Sometimes, a group of sheep – as many as 20 – will gather in a knot on some knoll of a hill or bend of a river, looking like they're hatching a conspiracy to take over the farm, but mostly they just mill about aimlessly, eating and eating, pooping and pooping.
I'm a bit insulted. This is what Jesus compared us to.
I don't think he was trying to flatter us. He was just telling the truth. At first, it hardly seems a truth to set us free.
If I were to pick an animal to represent me, sheep is the last one I'd pick. I'd sooner be a newt. But given my druthers, I'd take lion, or bull, or war horse, or even komodo dragon. I'd even take gibbon or gazelle, something lithe and agile, master of forest or grassland. There's something in any of those creatures to dignify my sense of self.
They need to be herded, guarded, tended. They can barely think for themselves. They are fearful and, it seems me, testy. They appear to want the nearness of other sheep, but not their closeness: the comfort of the crowd without the burden of a neighbour. They want to do their own thing, just like everyone else. They conform but never unite. They never seem full. They're easily spooked, easily distracted, easily disrupted. They appear to love comfort, and when it's taken, to complain loudly.
I'm probably missing a lot here – I'm sure some Welsh sheep farmer, before my sojourn ends, will pull me aside and set me straight – but I think I've captured the general idea.
Which was what Jesus was saying. As much as I want to think more highly of myself – to portray myself to others and to myself as some noble, nimble, powerful, daring thing, to be admired and feared, the unadorned reality is I'm a sheep.
As are you.
We need God, simply put. We are not nearly as smart or independent or amiable as we think. We are not as unique, or brave, or venturesome as we want others to think. We are, instead, sheep: needy, stubborn, complacent, complaining, ravenous, easily upset, wandering about with our heads down, paying little attention to where our appetites are leading us. Not knowing our way home.
We need God, simply put. Thank God that Jesus did away with flattery and told us the hard truth. And thank God that, telling us that truth, he told us one thing more: he is not too proud to be called our shepherd.
Is he trying to lead you someplace that you're resisting to go, thinking you know best? Will you accept truth – you're a sheep – and believe the greater truth, he's a good shepherd?
Many people have asked me if I’m excited about my upcoming Sabbatical, which begins February 1 and ends July 15, and which takes me and my wife and one of our daughters to Wales.
I am excited.
But actually I’ve had little time to think about it. January’s been a whirlwind.
That’s largely because I’m trying to cram too many things into too little time. This entire month I’ve felt like a traveller running late, breathlessly trying to catch up to my next point of departure, while the scenery blurs past. I’m speaking to a gathering of youth pastors this weekend, and my topic, ironically, is Sabbath rest.
I’m not sure whether God is laughing or weeping.
But I think laughing. There are times when we must go flat out. The pace is not sustainable over the long haul – you can’t sprint a marathon – but sometimes going hard and fast is the only option. I will, by God’s grace and my church’s generosity, have several months of slow and easy. A month or two of burning the midnight oil is small recompense for that.
In recent years, I have been fascinated with two ideas: soul seasons, and spiritual rhythms (indeed, my last book, Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of the Soul, swelled to over 300 pages as I probed both ideas). The basic concept: our soul, much like the earth, moves through seasons, and we best steward each season by finding the right rhythm for it. We cure firewood in summer and burn it in winter. To reverse this is wasteful and unwise. So with soul seasons and spiritual rhythms. The Bible warns us that to sleep during the harvest is shameful, to idle during plough-time is disastrous, to fast at a wedding is rude, to only watch while others worship is barrenness.
For everything there is a season.
I am right now in a season of hard work and about to enter a season of deep rest. Each has its rhythms.
And you? Know the season. Find the rhythm.
And in due time, you will reap a harvest.