Beauty and the Soul

There is beauty and purpose in each season. Who can deny the delight of witnessing the renewal of nature itself when gusts of warmth bring on the leafgreenburgeoning colours of delicate flowers and tree buds release their fingers towards the sun. We all love it when summer’s lengthy light entices us into taking long nature walks in short sleeves and lazy days abound around waterfronts and barbeques, and oh, the glorious sunsets. Who among us hasn’t ooh-ed and aah-ed as the sight of the bold reds, golds and oranges of autumn begin to herald the end of summer’s green. And then there is the season that gets the least love, especially if you are Canadian where complaining about dark cold days is a national pastime, winter. Yet even winter’s bleak skies and frigid climes has its beauty and purpose.

My soul has seasons too, though not always chronological. Soul-seasons seemingly can’t leafredbe rushed and suddenly change with little forewarning. Spring for the soul is about clean slates, fresh starts, and discovery! Summer is strength, delicate strands of hope taking form. It’s watching with confidence our projects and confidence grow. Fall is maturity, seeing our investments reach their prime. But winter, we are not so sure what benefits to the soul winter brings. It seems life is put on hold. It’s the biblical equivalent to the dry desert.

Looking back to one of my hardest soul-winters I remember the shame I felt during an illness that took months to recuperate from. My veins were alternately pierced and arm tied to an IV pole that dripped antibiotics and salt solutions for ten days into my system. I worried about the expectations of my peers and employers. I could not perform as I had in the past. It was humbling. I was sure that my ‘net worth’ was descending . I tried hard to speed up the process of healing, get myself going again. But my body and mind wasn’t ready for it yet. I think God was trying to teach me, “Slowly I am with you always.”

I understand better now that slow invisible change, both in us and in the way we see life, usually happens in seasons we dislike the most. Of course I still tend towards trying to rush my exit out of desolate dry seasons, cutting cold seasons, brown ground barren seasons and enter the seasons of colour, freshness, warmth and growth. We feel shame and quite useless (almost dead) in our winter seasons. That’s when we need to step back again and let wisdom speak. She whispers to us to embrace the moment, live into the now, leafbrownpossess or be possessed by the renewing power of winter! Let love lure you into the next newness.

The more I think about the rhythms in our lives, the more I realize that God’s steadfast love is the common denominator in each season and his mercies are new just the same. In his time He makes lasting beauty to break forth through the darkness or dryness or the disappointment.

A wise man named Thomas Merton said, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” That’s something to hang onto! Go back and read that phrase again. The slow growth of maturing beauty lasts longer because it’s roots have gone deeper in the soul. Not long ago someone said to my wife, “You have changed and it is remarkable!” I began to reflect on that a bit and smile inside because I saw it too. Often we are unaware of the changes happening inside of ourselves until someone else notices. Until then we don’t properly appreciate the inner coherence of beauty being matured in us.

There is a process to any growth and it entails the mysterious miraculous. We are not simply mellowing out with age, no, God forbid! We are becoming more like original goodness in our soul and adding beauty to the world.  Like the crushing of grapes, it helps to remember that the juice will one day miraculously become like fine wine! It’s a slow but real process. Stop for a moment today and reflect on what is being planted in your soul these days.


Begin with Beauty, Not the Beast!

Bono is known to have uttered a phrase that has challenged church-like folk to be less about opposing and more about embracing the good. It was something like this, “For too long the world has heard about what we are against, but it’s time we let them know what we are for!” In essence we need to stop parading a God that is against us. He’s always for life! We don’t need to shout that He is against divorce and adultery; we speak up to say that God is for passion, fidelity, intimacy, and love. Instead of yelling on deaf ears that God is against this and that, we whisper that God is for beauty, justice, peace, and joy! There much less need to aim the bow of judgement and letting go arrows targeting sinful behaviour than we think. An approach that begins with God’s fingerprints and beauty in others can initiate a transformative conversation better than starting with an original sin conversation.

Don’t you think it strange that we missed this possibility and instead developed divisive brands of Christianity each one being ruled by rules of exclusivity? Of course, ahem,  my brand is better than yours because we are, ahem, more biblical than you! You know it, most religious groups have the carrying-card of inclusion, the shakers and movers of their group, must correctly answer pages of well-formed questions to have this card to belong. I wonder if its time to unlearn some of our exclusive ways and begin with the beauty and not the beast!

When I wrote the first paragraph above I wanted to test it out on the Facebook market. Immediately the feedback was immensely popular. It resonated; however not with all. One took offence that I had quoted Bono and with great length stated that the Ten Commandments were not an invention of Evangelicals. Another was quick to remind me that Jesus called out the evil deeds of his generation and proceeded to quote verse and chapter. But was Jesus always condemning and quoting Old Testament ‘Thou shalt nots’? Or was the pattern of Jesus conversations more about the true heart of God than the wrath of God?

Now please think about how Jesus’ life corroborates with life and not death. He was more for acceptance than rejection. Furthermore the thing that got Jesus in trouble more than anything else was his life of inclusion. He was a friend of sinners. He allowed a woman of dubious reputation wash his feet. He engages in a life-changing conversation with a loose Samaritan woman with whom even the women of her village would not speak. He was called a winebibber and the implications of that are shocking. Could this be because He rarely lived up to the expectations of the rigorous exclusive religious systewoman anointed Jesus feetms of the day? Surely he was a disappointment to the sacred stereotype of a messiah, of a prophet-like condemner of sin and sinners à la John Baptist?

It is hard to for us imagine that Jesus never lived in the position of defending morals, nor took on the snarly role of ‘the official opposition’. With a keen sensibility to the rhythms of Jesus’ life we cannot help but to notice he is always for life. He is for relationships. He is for reconciliation. He is less judgment and more grace! Jesus provided the people a better alternative than the Kingdom of religion, He pointed them to the Kingdom of God!

I see Jesus as a bridge builder more than a boundary marker. Wouldn’t that be an honest barometer of His life? I am writing these words from a humble heart, from the position of a learner. Each day I walk in a secular world where God seemingly isn’t included. But it is hard to go through a day, any of us, without wondering about God. I want to be ready to show my Turkish friends, my Algerian butcher, my friends at the Bistro that God is for them, for freedom and offers them a wonderful possibility, the Reign of His Love in their lives. Like a good chef, I want to offer the best presentation of God’s ingredients that whet an appetite for grace. This is an important discussion that opens to us a fresh approach when speaking to the stranger or our enemy and most important of all, loving our friends like God would. Senate Chairman Of Transportation Committee Calls For Investigation Into George Washington Bridge Lane Closures

When Losing is Gaining (Those Necessary Endings)

Have you ever lost something or someone precious that you felt could never be replaced and it was like a part of you just disappeared?

Have you ever had plans or dreams but through unforeseen setbacks, those plans and dreams were turned completely upside down and you felt like a part of your reason for living was taken away?

Have you ever been forced to make some hard decisions because of workplace issues or health issues or relational issues or financial issues and it put your life into a season of transition and into a time of losing your emotional and spiritual bearings?

When I reflect about ‘endings’ I realize they are a normal part of every life on earth.  We don’t always like them though. In the book of Ecclesiastes it tells us there is a time for everything under the sun. It says there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… it continues on for a whole paragraph. Look it up in chapter 3. He continues eloquently in opening our mind to see that there is a time to search and a time to give up searching, a time to keep and a time to throw away and so on. The wisdom of the writer of Ecclesiastes says “On this earth there are beginnings and there are endings.” Sometimes the endings are forced upon us by circumstances outside of our control. At other times we need to be the ones to intentionally end something.

Ending things conjures up the image of uprooting in order to make way for a new crop of uprootbeauty. I know the back-breaking investment of time and energy in preparing the soil for new life. It is just necessary to pull out a lot of the old and unlovely to make room for the new. The idea of uprooting is not contained simply to a garden. It’s about eyes to see new beauty in our own future. In order for that to happen there is a time “to uproot” things, positions, locations and even relationships that have been nurtured for a long time. Does that sound hard? I think it does. I have literally “uprooted” my family  almost a dozen times living as a missionary, both in Canada and Thailand. I know what it is to drive off after a farewell party given by people whom you have invested in for years. Driving off to waving people and then cry so hard that you can hardly see the road ahead is a fairly familiar scenario in my life. However,  the teared-blurred vision will eventually clear up to the opening curtains of new fresh scene for our lives to be played out to.

So there are endings that we must play a part in. There are life situations when ‘goodbye’ is the best thing you can do. There are phases in our lives that need to be shaken off to enter a new phase. There are habits and behavioral patterns that need to be cut off. Yet when we are put face to face with a possible ending, what makes it so difficult for us is the question of perspective. We think (we worry, we predict) that the outcome will be negative or too difficult, so we avoid, postpone, runaway from endings. It could be that most of our endings have proved so painful that we willingly stay in a less than preferred situation for fear of another painful ending.

I think life experience tells us that we can become best friends to things that are not in our best interest. There are things that should have ended a long time ago in our lives but because of uncertainty, or an unhealthy dependency or fear of losing our position or security in the future, we have remained in the same state of mind for far too long. Yet, and I repeat, endings are sometimes what the good Lord has prescribed and brings to us health and wholeness. It’s a positive thing.

ImageWhen you have a tooth that is throbbing in your nerve center so hard that you can’t even think a coherent thought, it’s a good thing to get allow a wise dentist to prick and prod and finally pull that wisdom tooth. Yes it is painful. But it is what we call ‘pain with a purpose.’  As Dr. Henry Cloud states in his book, Necessary Endings, pain with a purpose is a whole lot better than pain for no good reason!

Losing can be gain.

John 12:24

Good News Translation

24 I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains.

So understand well that the words,  “The End” is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to us, but often it is exactly what you need to have happen in order to experience the words: “A new beginning!” “A new freedom” “A new level of understanding” “A new sense of purpose and destiny.”

The cry of Jesus on the cross: “It is finished!” wasn’t a cry of despair that meant, “It’s all over with.”

The disciples thought it was over and done with, it was time to go back to the old job of catching fish.

Pilate and the Roman soldiers thought it was over and done with, no more craziness from the Jews for awhile.

Everybody else in the story thought it was over and done with, Jesus was finished.

But God and Jesus had the inside scoop, they knew something that none of them could fathom. This was no whimper on the cross, it was a victory shout! One more stage towards a new heaven and a new earth was accomplished. Soon there would be a new beginning, a new season, a new day, a new dawn. Yes, a new humanity was about to be birthed!!!!

I can remember a period of 12 months of my life that I had to make some difficult life choices. I laid down leadership of a community that I loved dearly, Newsong. Soon after I agonized over the decision to resign my role, after 12 years, as the Field Director with my Mission agency. After that last decision I was cleaning out the Field Rep office I loved and worked in and was feeling really lost. I had been identified by these roles for so long that it defined me and gave me influence, respect and to a degree, control. While filling up yet another cardboard box of books I felt like a powerless nobody. It was like falling off the ladder and restarting the climb from the bottom rung. Yes, I knew well that Patricia and I were going to start something new (Verge@50) out of our house, but even that seemed to be so insignificant in comparison to what I was doing all these years.

Then the Lord began to teach me all over about following. While packing a few remaining decorative items that graced my office, my friend Dave Gibbon’s came on-line and asked if I wanted to chat. At first I ignored him because I was in no mood to be cheered up. I was feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, let alone allow Dave to see me in this sad-sack state. Then Dave sent me this link of Ed Dobson’s story of losing his ability to lead a vibrant congregation because of ALS, a terminal illness. I stopped what I was doing and watched. I watched and sobbed should be a better description. The truth of Ed’s life mirrored exactly what I was feeling. It was a reminder that losing a position or a platform is not the end of the world. Ed’s life began to take on new meaning and new opportunities opened to him to influence.

Now I am re-learning that my main job as a leader is following His, (Jesus) lead. Perhaps that is the greatest task of all of us, to learn how to follow Jesus personally and daily. Maybe the word ‘leader’ in our communities of faith  should be used sparingly and the words ‘follower’ should be used consistently? It more completely describes our true identity.

For me this losing is slowly being understood as becoming gain. Yes, I have lost my title as ‘field leader’ but I have gained new freedom too and I have relearned the posture of a disciple. I haven’t thrown out my leadership books yet, but some are making their way to other people’s libraries and some may stay in their cardboard boxes for awhile yet!