Confessions of an ‘Always-On’ Worker

lightstock_179852_xsmall_user_3911910I saw a commercial last night that made me angry. Before I tell you why and you write me off as a basher of all things capitalism, let me say this: I like being an American consumer as much as the next guy: I buy clothes because they’re on sale at Banana Republic (not because I need them), I have multiple pairs of running shoes that all serve the same purpose, I eat food that I like whether it’s good for me or not, and while my car would never be mistaken as ‘flashy’, it is fairly new. So I have bought into ‘the system’. But there are some aspects of the American way that I find unhealthy, and sometimes commercials give us a brilliant and unpleasant insight into our collective heart. This TD Ameritrade commercial is one of them.

The basic premise is that a TD Ameritrade investment advisor is willing to talk to her clients any time of day, no matter what else she’s doing. Running errands, working out, playing with her son, even getting into bed with her husband. It would be one thing if this was portrayed as a woman having an incredibly hard day – I get it, we all have days where work can’t be left alone and there always seems to be more of it. But the message being sent is that this is the standard level of service offered by TD Ameritrade. I don’t fault the company, they’re just tapping into something they see in us – we expect the people working for us to be working all the time. And that’s because we expect ourselves to be working all the time too.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts point out that all humans experience a break in four relationships: with God, with creation, with other people, and with ourselves. Americans tend to see our lives through the lens of economics: each day the news reports gains/losses on Wall Street, and we even call people ‘consumers’. We see working hard as good – you’re contributing to the economy – and the harder you work, the better. The problem is that having a job doesn’t heal my relationship with God or others. In fact, having a job where I get no down time and constantly have to interrupt game-time with my children or bed-time with my spouse is just as much a symptom of the brokenness of my world as not having a job. The expectation that work is non-stop is often rooted in the need to find identity in our work.

I wasn’t angry with TD Ameritrade, I was angry with my culture for telling me the lie that work is my identity.  I was angry with myself for believing it.  The other day I was driving in the car, feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work on my plate, and I thought “Ok, I can’t take on any more.  I can’t fit anything else into my schedule.  Finally, I feel like I’m working hard enough.”  For a long time, I had been feeling like I wasn’t doing enough…but now, when I felt like I was at a breaking point and couldn’t possibly fit anything else in, I thought it was ‘enough’.  I was finding identity in my work, and the rest of my life and some of my relationships were suffering because of it.  But I was working ‘enough’.  That’s scary.

Jesus offers a different view of work, one that flows out of healed relationship with him. He says ‘Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ I don’t think he’s saying ‘stop working hard’. Instead he’s inviting us to find our identity in him. To let work be something that we do well because of who we are in Him, and to be something that we rest from, because it does not define us.  I need to remember that.  Sometimes it takes a TV commercial to remind me.

The Dissatisfaction of Cheese

lightstock_231995_xsmall_user_3911910Cheese. It’s awesome. The runnier, moldier, smellier, the better. I once earned the nickname ‘The Stinking Bishop’ because I bought a hunk of cheese by that name. On the way home, we kept smelling dirty diaper – walking out of the cheese shop, in the car, in the elevator. We thought it was one of my children who needed a diaper change (sorry kids). It was the ‘Bishop’. Yum.

But here’s the thing: Cheese cannot ultimately satisfy me. I mean, I spend most of my week as a pastor either writing lessons or meeting with people, and my theme is pretty constant: Stop looking for life in yourself, in other people, or in things. Life is found in Jesus alone. So you’d think I would remember that cheese is not the source of life.

But when I’m home at night, and everyone else is in bed, this gnawing sense of dissatisfaction comes creeping in. I should just go to sleep. I know it. Nothing good happens after midnight. But I’m restless. I’m looking for something, anything, to make me feel better. I open the fridge, and there it is: a nice block of Cheddar, extra sharp (Stinking Bishop is no longer allowed in the house). Three official serving sizes later, and I can’t stop…I know I’m far beyond the recommended daily intake of full-fat dairy. I also know exactly what I’m doing: looking for life in cheese. Seriously? I know another bite of cheese won’t do anything for me – in fact, I’d rather not take that bite because I’ll just feel sick. But I do it anyway, because I’m looking for anything that will comfort/distract me from the vague feeling of being hopelessly unsettled in life

Cheese Is Not Crack

There’s an LA-Times article touting a study that outlines the Crack-like qualities of cheese. Part of me says ‘Yes! I know those qualities well.’ And part of me doesn’t want to minimize the power of drug addiction with a stupid story about cheese. So I’ll just say this: Cheese is not Crack. But Cheese is also not Jesus. And that is so hard to remember.

So where is the dissatisfaction coming from? I’m not sure, and that’s part of the frustration for me. I’m afraid that sometimes I give the impression that it’s easy to remember that Jesus is all you need. I worry that I act like it’s simple when I’m talking with other people about their issues, when in reality I know for myself it is neither simple nor easy. It is a life-long struggle to hold onto this thread of truth: The one who made me also loves me and gave his life for mine, and that is enough.

I was talking with a friend who jokingly asked if my dissatisfaction was caused by my recent move to the suburbs; playing into the caricature of the suburbs as the place where people have everything and are utterly bored with it all. But I really like living here, and anyway I don’t think the suburbs are the issue, any more than cheese is the issue. Stop eating cheese, and my heart is still restless. Move to a remote village or the dense urban jungle, and I still want more.  Life will never be as good or as easy or as exciting as I think it should be.

Finding Rest

I was on a weekend away with our young adults group at church, and one of the women led a devotion from Matthew 11:28 – Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. As she read the passage, I heard Jesus calling me to rest in him. Yes!! I want to do that. I know that’s what I need, deep down.

But there’s the nagging fear that resting in Jesus isn’t enough. That I’m missing out on something…I don’t even know what. So I eat more cheese.

Look, I know cheese seems like a trifling thing. What’s the worst that can happen from eating too much cheese at night? A stomachache? Crazy cheese dreams? A bigger waistline? But here’s the thing: resting in Jesus isn’t just about the big things in life – it’s about the day-to-day too. Everything I do gives a window into my heart and where I’m putting my hope. The fact that cheese is so trivial makes it that much sadder that I’m trusting it instead of Jesus. And still, pathetic as I am, Jesus says to me: ‘Come to me…and you will find rest’.

So what about you? Do you experience that restless dissatisfaction too? Do you think I’m making too big a deal out of cheese?

The (False) Gospel of Home Improvement

lightstock_78938_xsmall_user_3911910

You know that feeling when your clothes won’t dry, so you think your dryer’s broken and go buy a new one, only to discover that the problem was that the dryer vent was clogged? It’s a mix of rage and disgust, am I right? How could I be so stupid not to check the dryer vent? Why did I just pay $180 for a dryer when I could have stuck my arm up the vent and cleaned it out? So went my Saturday evening a couple weeks ago.

Being a good human, though, I didn’t stay mad at myself long. I’d like to say it’s because I was able to let go of my self-loathing and trust that whatever God brought my way with the dryer was part of his good plan. Psshh…I wish.

I’m a master of self-justification, and I was soon able to not only find a new target for my anger – the previous owner of the house – but also to raise myself to new heights of greatness and home-improvement mastery. My thoughts ran like this: Why didn’t someone ever clean the vent? Why was flexible vent used when solid vent pipe was required based on the number of turns and the distance from the dryer to the outside of the house? I would never do something that stupid. That thing was a fire hazard – it’s a good thing I caught it when I did! In fact, I see a bit of melting on the plug from where moisture from the clogged vent dripped back onto the dryer – this whole thing was about to go up in flames. I’m a hero for noticing the problem when I did and replacing the dryer right away – I have saved my family and possibly the entire neighborhood from certain disaster! … I wonder how many other pastors could do this. Gosh, not only is my family lucky to have me, my church is too. I wonder how many people know how awesome I am…maybe I should blog about this so they know…

Ok, so maybe that last part didn’t run through my head right away, blogging it was an afterthought. But the rest of it was there. And I’m sharing this not because I’m better or worse than the rest of you, but because we’re all in the same boat – seeking to justify ourselves by tearing others down (in this case the faceless installer of the previous dryer) and by exalting our own accomplishments. When we do that, we show that we are moving away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and embracing a different gospel – in my case, the Gospel of Home Improvement.

Now you might say ‘What’s the big deal? It was just a dryer, you got it fixed, you were a little pissed at first, maybe a little too arrogant afterwards, but really there was no harm done. Just relax.’ And I’d love to do that. But the fact is that if shifting away from the Gospel of Jesus were obvious, we’d see it easily and avoid it. But it’s not always that obvious. It’s subtle. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s the normal/natural response. Sometimes it even seems respectable.

That’s what was going on in the Galatian churches that Paul was confronting. They had abandoned the Gospel of Jesus to pursue a gospel of respectability, of national and racial identity that seemed reasonable and right. ‘Yes, you need Jesus, we all know that,’ they were being told, ‘but you can’t stop there – you’ve gotta do what God requires – you’ve got to get circumcised, you’ve got to start living like a good Jewish person.’ And that temptation to add something – anything – to the work of Jesus, is the same temptation I faced (and completely caved in to) with the dryer.

Yes, I have Jesus, I know that. But in that moment, he wasn’t enough. I needed to be justified in my own eyes, and the eyes of my family, who I made sure to tell all about the clogged vent and my exploits in fixing the problem and how I had saved us from impending doom. I needed to prove that I was right to replace the dryer, and that I was better than whoever put the dryer in the first time. I have Jesus…but I didn’t believe he was enough for me.

Folks, it’s subtle. It seems the natural response. But tearing others down and justifying ourselves based on comparing our behavior, our decisions, our choices of dryer vent material…it stems from abandoning the Gospel of Jesus and embracing another gospel. Mine was the gospel of home improvement. What’s your false gospel of choice?

When Squeezing Joy Into Life Doesn’t Work

lightstock_232221_xsmall_user_3911910Yesterday, I took the first notes I’ve taken during a sermon in a long time. When I say ‘notes’ I really mean just one note – a 13-word phrase that really hit home. (Technically it’s 15 words if you count the ampersand as a word, and if you count a hyphenated word as two separate words). The sermon was on Psalm 91, which talks a lot about making God our refuge. The phrase that struck me was this: Trying to squeeze all the joy & experiences we can into a short life-span.

It’s exhausting trying to fit it all in

Why did that hit me? Well, partly because I see myself doing just that – trying to squeeze it all in – and I find it exhausting. When I take vacation I am usually frantic to pack so many joy-inducing experiences into the time that I end up needing a break when I get back home. I shared a couple weeks ago in a sermon I preached that I find everything interesting – everything. And that’s a blessing sometimes, because it means whenever I meet someone, whatever they do, whether it’s work in a paper-clip factory or stay at home with kids or sit in their basement playing video games, there’s some aspect of their life that I find fascinating and can engage with them about. But other times it’s a curse, because it means I want to experience everything there is to experience on earth. And no one can do that. I suppose, in a way, it’s another manifestation of the age-old problem of humanity: I want to be God. Instead of finding relationship with God to be the most satisfying thing, I try to cram as much as I can into my short days, always feeling that there just isn’t enough time.

Jesus lived a small life

Wait…what? Jesus’s life was small? Hear what I’m saying: His life was not unimportant – far from it. Jesus is the focal point of history. But geographically and experientially, his human life was small. Jesus didn’t travel very far and he didn’t experience very much. He didn’t visit white beaches in the Caribbean or the dark waters of the Bosporus Straights. He didn’t see the Parthenon in Athens or Stonehenge in the English countryside. His diet probably didn’t include Oreo Cheesecake or a Big-Mac and fries. Fireworks, rollercoasters, airplanes – nope. Apart from his journey to Egypt as a baby, I don’t think Jesus traveled more than 100 miles or so from his hometown.

While I haven’t seen the temple mount in Jerusalem and I haven’t sailed on lake Galilee, I have done all of those things I listed up there, and I’m almost positive I’ve seen more of the earth that Jesus made than he did when he lived on it.

My point is not to actually try to compare whether Jesus or I have experienced more in life – his experience as the second person of the deity pretty much trumps anything else I can come up with.  And I’m not saying that you or I shouldn’t travel – God called the Apostle Paul to travel extensively, for example. My point is that Jesus was sustained by something other than trying to cram as much joy and as many experiences as he could into his life. And if living a rather short life confined to a small part of the world was good enough for him…why isn’t it good enough for me? Why do I feel like I have to do and see more?

Refuge and long life

Psalm 91 has two voices in it – a human voice, and a divine. The human voice says ‘I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress.”’ The divine voice says: ‘Because he has set his love upon me, therefore I will deliver him; With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.’ I was struck by the phrase from the sermon because it exposed a deep brokenness in me: I seek refuge in stuff, in experiences, in food, in pleasure and comfort and laughter. Jesus was fulfilled because he sought refuge in the love of his Father in heaven. And though his life was short on earth, God satisfied him with long life – eternal life. That’s not to make what I experience here worthless; but it does mean that I can actually enjoy fewer experiences and not exhaust myself trying to cram it all in, because I know that God is my refuge, satisfaction is found in him, and I have a whole lot more time coming (way more than the 50+/- years left in my life on this earth) in which to enjoy him and his world.

When Fear Fuels Religion

lightstock_87161_xsmall_user_3911910As I’ve written before, I’m no stranger to fear. I live in one of the safest time-periods of history, in one of the safest places on earth, and yet I have a hard time remembering the last time I wasn’t worried about something. Even if I’m doing something I enjoy, sometimes I’ll catch myself having too much fun, and remind myself that there is always something to dread on the horizon.

In college, I was involved in a Christian group on campus, and one of our favorite sins to confess was fear of man. What we meant by fear of man was that people were more important to us than God, so we worried about the opinions of others and wanted them to like us. Being concerned about what other people think may seem like a natural inclination, and it might not appear on a top-ten list of ‘worst vices to struggle with,’ but it was a big deal to us. I remember sitting at a light on my way home from school one weekend, begging God to help me fear him and not people. But even as I prayed, it hit me: I still didn’t really care about God. I just hate the feeling of my stomach being twisted in knots, and I want God to make it better. I was using God as a tool to take away my fear. Fear was fueling my religion, and it wasn’t pretty.

That’s not the only way fear can fuel religion

I was talking with a group of people this weekend about the recent under-cover videos taken of Planned Parenthood staff and facilities. One of the women was very out-spoken against abortion, saying that abortion is murder. This isn’t unusual – many Christians believe that the life of an individual starts at conception. But then she said something striking: she said that if she found herself in the situation of being pregnant and un-married, that she might choose to end the pregnancy, even though she believes it would be wrong – and the church would be one of the factors influencing her to have an abortion. Her fear of losing her reputation, of being scorned or judged by others in the church, would drive her to do something she feels strongly opposed to. I have a lot of respect for this woman – her assessment of her own heart and motives is honest and refreshing. She said what others probably think, and what some may have experienced first-hand: the church’s strong stand for ‘what is right’ actually pushes people toward making decisions that are wrong.

In some ways that shouldn’t be surprising. In Romans 7, Paul says the darkness in me seizes on the law as an opportunity to produce more sin. But, he says, the problem is with me and not the law; and so the remedy is not to create a better law, a stronger set of rules. When the church makes a strong stance for what is right in the area of sexuality and reproduction, it is right to do so. But where we trip ourselves up is when we think that taking a strong stand for truth has the power to make people live better lives. Because when we do that, we end up providing more opportunity for fear to seize on our failures and turn what should be something good into something that actually drives us into more failure.

Grace trumps fear

Paul says the remedy is not more law, but grace. Grace to own my failures AND the forgiveness that comes in Jesus. Grace to let the Spirit of God connect me to Jesus for life. Grace to hear the Father’s voice without a drop of condemnation saying “You are my beloved one, I am pleased with you.” Grace has the power to break the cycle of fear fueling our religion.

What about you – how have you seen fear fueling your religion? Have you seen grace break the power of fear?

Is Your Faith Worth Sharing?

Faith Worth SharingI just finished re-reading A Faith Worth Sharing by Jack Miller. The first time I read it, Jack’s wife Rose-Marie had given the book to me as I was leaving for a mission trip to somewhere in Europe. I read it in one sitting on the plane and wept at the end. Now, nearly 15 years later, I re-discovered it as I was looking for resources to recommend to a friend. It was like stumbling onto a hidden oasis while dying of thirst in the dessert.

I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but here’s the thing: I didn’t even realize I needed a drink of water. Things have been going pretty well at the church where I work. I’ve been here three years and feel like I’ve settled into my role and am starting to get the hang of pastoring as part of a staff team in a large church. My family is doing ok: my wife’s job is stable; my kids are enjoying their summer activities. Even living with my parents while we renovate our new house hasn’t been too stressful. Things are clipping along nicely, and I have no real sense of need. Maybe a vague unease that I’m not seeing God powerfully at work in me, but no real sense of urgency. No desperation.

We Confess

I know the idea of ‘sharing your faith’ feels intimidating for many Christians, and is off-putting for some. At the same time, many of us feel this sense of underlying guilt, like we should be telling people about Jesus, even if we don’t really feel like it. So reading a book about a guy sharing his faith with people might seem like an odd place to find refreshment. Guilt and pressure, yes. But freedom, release, and life?

Toward the end of the book, Jack included a prayer that he often prayed for himself and others:

Father, we confess that we are naturally self-centered and self-exalting. Any humility we have is the gift of your Holy Spirit. Please, please touch us now with a humble heart, and break our pride and self-dependence. Make us feel our weakness and your strength. Then give us a loving boldness in witness that is only from you.

Jack’s sharing of his faith began with confession of his own sin. God was constantly reminding him of his weakness, of his need for Jesus. He was desperate for a savior. And in Jesus, he found one who brought him back again and again to the love of his Father. To the extent that God answered Jack’s prayer, his power was displayed in Jack’s life. It wasn’t that he shared his faith out of a sense of obligation. Rather, his faith in Jesus was all he had, it was precious to him, and through it God was changing him. Jack shared his faith because his faith was worth sharing.

I’m no different

The experience of desperation for God’s rescue in the midst of weakness is at the same time elusive and quite common. Elusive, because we are good at self-delusion, blind to our sin and lulled into complacency by the comforts of this life. Common, because God continues to pursue us with his love in the face of our blindness. As often as we will ask, he is the God who delights to answer prayers for conviction of sin so that his grace may be on display. The ancient Israelite poet-king David wrote this in Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the LORD;

                        he inclined to me and heard my cry.

           He drew me up from the pit of destruction,

                        out of the miry bog,

            and set my feet upon a rock,

                        making my steps secure.

           He put a new song in my mouth,

                        a song of praise to our God.

            Many will see and fear,

                        and put their trust in the LORD.

David cried to God because he was desperate. He was in a pit of destruction, sinking in a bog that he couldn’t get out of, threatening to drown in the mud of his own life. But God rescued him – and that rescue was worth singing about. Many put their trust in the Lord because they saw a powerful God rescuing a desperate David. David’s faith was worth sharing. So was Jack’s. This is why the book was refreshing. It reminded me that I am just like them: desperate for God to work. I am a helpless, hopeless mess apart from Jesus – and even with him, I still manage to find ways to keep getting my feet sucked into the miry bog. The way to find freedom, life, and vibrancy in my faith is to pray for God to convict me of my sin and remind me of my identity in Jesus. I want God’s power on display in my weakness. I want my faith to be worth sharing – because I think that might be the only faith worth having.

When Civility Becomes Ultimate

 

Two girl resolving a conflictI recently moved to Howard County, Maryland. Yes, that’s right – this suburbanite transplant to the city has returned to his roots. There are many things I love about my new neighborhood: people walking/running at all hours of the day and night, tall trees shading the sun, and discovering all the people that I already know who live nearby. If you’ve ever driven through Howard County, you know that our unofficial motto is Choose Civility. The green and white bumper-stickers are everywhere.

 

So when did civility become the ultimate goal of our existence? The answer, apparently, is sometime in 2007. That was the year the Howard County library system started the Choose Civility campaign. The aim of the campaign is an admirable one, and just like last week’s article, I’m not so much concerned with picking on the campaign as I am using it to highlight something about the human condition. It began as a response to a perceived lack of civility in society, and its aim was to expose the harmful nature of bullying in school, the workplace, and online, and to help young people (and adults too) learn better ways of interacting with each other. The campaign runs seminars, organizes Choose Civility Week, and distributes the ubiquitous car magnets. It’s even spreading to other places in the country.

Is civility the best we can do?

But for me, Choose Civility begs the question: Is civility the best we can do? I was sharing with the high-school group at our church last night, and we were talking about the reactions when classmates reveal that they are gay or lesbian. One of the girls mentioned that tolerance was the ultimate value – as long as you accept the person, you’re cool, but if you question their values, you are ostracized, shouted down, and condemned as intolerant. It occurred to me that the obsession with civility that exists in the culture these kids are living in may actually make it harder for them to respond and engage with classmates around deeply personal issues like sexuality.

One of the best one-liners I ever heard (and I don’t even remember who said it…somebody help me out if you know) is that relationship requires conflict. If I am in relationship with someone, we are going to have conflict, because we are, by definition, different from each other (otherwise I would be in relationship with a clone of myself, and while that makes for good sci-fi films, it doesn’t work in real life). The emphasis on civility prevents kids from moving toward each other into deeper relationship by teaching them to avoid conflict over things that matter. Hear me on this: I’m not at all advocating condemnation of a gay classmate – far from it. I just think we can do a lot better than civility or tolerance. In fact, I think if we bag the whole civility thing and start honestly sharing the real mess of our lives, we’ll be less focused on the things we disagree with in our friends’ lives, and more focused on letting them see the ways we fail to live up to our own values. As followers of Jesus, that is, after all, the point. We believe God wants us to live a certain way – and we fail to do it all the time.

God does not tolerate sinners.

Does that sound less than civil? I think it probably is. Because in the Bible it says that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. That’s not tolerance. That’s love. God gives his son Jesus in order to embrace sinners. Don’t be mistaken – this isn’t a divine rubber stamp giving approval to our sin. God embraces sinners in order to recreate us. He doesn’t leave us where he finds us.

While civility calls us to focus on the good and to affirm without judgment, God’s embrace of sinners allows us to see the worst in ourselves, to own it, and to find redemption in Jesus. And this open and honest assessment of ourselves can form the basis for real and deep relationship for others, as we move towards them fully aware of the mess that we are all in together.

Because let’s be honest: Who among us is satisfied with our present state? Do we really want to be told “Everything about you is fine and good” when we know the opposite to be true? Isn’t it far better to acknowledge that we have much that needs to change and move towards each other in relationship that honestly sees each other for who we are – the imperfect, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful?

I’ll say it again: Is civility the best we can do? As for me, I’ll take relationship over civility any day.