Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"Break on Through (To the Other Side)"

I have a friend who is always reading wonderful things I might otherwise never think to read myself. For example, he has recently been enjoying Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. He quoted the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s eloquent words…

“If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God Himself. I for God and God for me. I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me. Therefore to possess God we must allow Him to possess our soul.”

I was chatting with another friend late last week. She told me about Maxine, an 86 year old woman who attends her church. Maxine is wheelchair-bound and often unable to see the projected lyrics to the worship songs. The people standing around her unintentionally block her view. She doesn’t know many of the songs. Still, my friend stood next to Maxine one Sunday, watching and listening as the elderly woman threw her arms up to God and, voice strained and broken, with abandon sang out “la, la, la, la, la!” For the most part, Maxine managed to keep in time with the rhythm and follow the melodies. But, if she sounded a few raw notes now and then, she didn’t let it bother her. She had come to worship her Savior. And worship she did. Nothing was going to stand in her way. My friend welled up as she told me about Maxine. What a beautiful expression of deep love between Creator and His creation.

I was reminded of a woman Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote about in their accounts of Jesus life.

Jesus… was surrounded by the crowds. A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding, and she could find no cure. Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. Everyone denied it, and Peter said, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.” When the woman realized that she could not stay hidden, she began to tremble and fell to her knees in front of him. The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed. “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” - Luke 8:42b-48 (emphasis mine)

This woman approached an influential Jewish man, a rabbi (culturally unheard of). She pressed through huge crowds of people, all the while suffering from a physical condition that made her unclean; a social outcast. She pressed through overwhelming personal, societal and physical barriers to touch Jesus. She did it believing Him to be who He said He was. Regardless of what she might hope to gain, it was a pure act of worship.

I think of how many hoops organized religion often expects people to jump through; how many hurdles one must clear in order to touch Jesus, and I am ashamed. There are already enough barriers (doubt, fear, confusion, pride, disillusionment, relationships, deception, etc.) to keep people from the God who created them—who adores them. Instead of working to eliminate these barriers, the church erects its own. Style, tradition, experience, doctrinal elitism… arguments like which Bible translation is best; or how many new or old worship songs we should sing; or whether sermons should be evangelistic, theological or just plain practical. The dispute crowds in around the central message of Christ, blocking the way more and more. God forgive us for missing the point entirely.

I think of Maxine and am all the more convinced that the only essentials here are truly knowing and loving God. I believe we can trust Him to work out anything that's left.

A tax man, in Jesus’ day, thought he could avoid the crowds and get a better glimpse by climbing a tree. When Jesus saw him, he called the guy down and said, “let’s grab some dinner at your place,” because getting a good look is not enough. Recognizing Christ is passive. Following Christ, that’s something else entirely. Pushing all barriers aside, nothing matters more than getting to God’s heart. At least, it seems that’s how He felt when He set aside the benefits of deity and pushed through humanity to get to us.

In the early days of the church, would-be leaders were trying to convince believers it was necessary they jump through hoops other than Christ in order to know and honor God. Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia charging that these guys just want to…

…look good to others. They… don’t keep the whole law themselves. They only want… to… boast about it and claim you as their disciples.

As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. …What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation.

From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. – Galatians 6:12-17
It kind of sounds like that altruistic nun, “I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me.”

Sunday, I told the musicians and worship leadership at my church about Maxine. I found myself welling up as I spoke—and I’ve never even met her. It didn’t matter. I feel like knocking down a few barricades to get to Christ. Anyone with me? “La, la, la, la, la!”

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"The Day the Conversation Died"

I have often considered myself temporally displaced. How is it I missed the age when conversation was a social art form? People don’t converse anymore. They send text messages and emails and write blogs and join social networks… but, somewhere along the way, artful, unadulterated conversation died. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who showed up to pay my last respects. Bummer.

Mind you, talk still abounds. So by way of concession, there is a difference between prolific dialogue and verbosity. The former is intellectually productive. One careful thought may instinctively lead to another in compounding depth and expansion. The latter is just too many words. I should know. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at both.

I process my environment very quickly—in my head, that is. But the depth required for working observations into livable principles usually involves some ruminating, and ruminating some talking out. Therein lies the problem. Catch me on a topic I have processed and my language may be quick, careful and ready for discussion. Challenge me with a situation for which I’ve yet to lay sufficient cognitive foundation and watch out! I have to get my bearings. However, few people these days seem sensitive to the difference between or respective value of both processing-speech and engaging conversation. Though I prefer language, there are other viable means of process. But truly engaging conversation? I believe its value unequalled and frequently discover I’m starved for it. Once found, I am ravenous and sometimes, before I realize it, pick the carcass clean.

I am self aware enough to know I often have too much to say. Sometimes I find myself rattling on simply because I fear the awkward staring if the conversation dies (and I cannot escape). Still other times, I credit a conviction that good conversation has a beginning middle and end (even if it is punctuated with an ellipsis). This, however, requires mutual investment. A one winged plane spins wildly out of control until it finally crashes. A natural, graceful landing takes the balance of two.

Too often I observe and/or experience a profound inequity in substantive verbal engagement. I want to know the people around me and feel as though they know me. I want to hear who and what and where they are and work life out together. There are many wonderful people with whom I’ve had the privilege of doing just that. But, of late, amid all the IM-speak, mobile etiquette and cerebral loitering, finding people who value thoughtful dialogue has become increasingly difficult. Conversation requires thought. It tests defensible opinions. It is an investment in one’s self and others. It is inconvenient. It is extraordinarily worthwhile.

Recognizing how selfish it would be to blankly indict society upon this point, I self examine. A few of the (many) discoveries...

1) My relationship balance may be unhealthy (between protégés, peers and mentors – emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual relationships)
2) I may mismanage how others perceive or measure my intensity in conversation, inadvertently pushing them away
3) I can misinterpret an invitation to deeper thought and exploration (optimistically project shared value)

I yet have much growing to do. Still, none of these considerations disarm my original contention. Where have all the meaningful conversations gone? Is it just me? My humble observation—with the wealth of global information at our disposal, we still don’t really know one another and have, insomuch, lost ourselves. Christian faith is rarely rooted in community these days (read the New Testament epistles and compare). I believe this is one reason the Emerging Church is gaining so much ground. Real conversation sparks real thought about real life. Without it, we live in a cursory world, dangerously superficial. Why are we in such a hurry to get on to the next shallow activity or relationship? What is it we fear?

Here’s to resurrecting the art of great social dialogue in 2008. Vive la conversation!