Ash Wednesday Reflections

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from the earth you came, to the earth you shall return.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of lent, a 40 day preparation towards the cross and ultimately resurrection.  It is a time of preparation, it is a time of in some ways dying. 
Because death is the engine of life.
Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it can never be anything more than a seed.  Lent is a somber time in which we make an inward journey, dying to self so that come easter we might find new life in some form.
But we hate when death comes around.  You get a phone call that a loved one has died, or you get a diagnosis from the doctor and suddenly everything changes.  What you thought you knew about life and faith all come into question.  You now find realities that you never imagined could even be possibilities.  Your world is shattered into a billion pieces and you don’t even know if the pieces can be picked up, much less where to begin. They are gone.  You are going.  
Everything has changed.
Death in this moment seems so big.  In an instant it is able to change your entire world.  And the life you lived, the faith you believed, the dreams you had held dear are gone.  You can never be that person, you can never believe quite the same as before, and those dreams are now no longer a possibility.  In this instant, you suddenly realize how precious and fragile life is and how quickly and easily it can be taken away and everything change.
And in this moment we have to decide how to react.  For many of us we become worriers.  We have come face to face with death, it has destroyed our life, and we know it will be coming again, it’s only a matter of time.  Each time a loved one doesn’t answer their phone your heart sinks and you think, ok, I knew it was coming.  We begin to take every precaution we can to keep death at bay.  We become fearful and serious.  Constantly afraid, constantly worried, constantly trying to control every aspect of life because we’ve lost control of it before and we are determined to do everything we can to keep from losing it again.
To keep from feeling that pain, that loss again.
When death comes near it bleeds onto us.  The loved one dies, but so do you.  You receive the diagnosis and you’ve got a certain amount of time left, but in that moment in many ways you died already.  
The question isn’t whether you die in those moments, you do.  The question is what kind of death do you experience?
Oddly enough when we are faced with death and we become aware of the frailty of life and the fact that we might not make it through today we actually begin to enjoy life less.  We let the fear and anxiety and worry overtake us, we try to control everything and in the process we lose the joy that makes life worth living.  It is in these moments that we should become determined to make each moment more enjoyable and meaningful precisely because it could all end tomorrow.
Lent is a somber time where we die in many ways, but the point of facing our mortality is that we will appreciate the life we’ve been given.  That instead of becoming bitter by our encounters with death we actually become better.  Instead of giving up when everything comes crashing down we realize that it is an opportunity to re-evaluate our lives, to figure out what’s truly important to us, and re-imagine what life could be like if we were to realign our lives around those most important things.  It is an opportunity to live a new life, discover a new faith, and dream new dreams.  
This doesn’t meant that we become glad tragedy has happened.  I’ve yet to meet a person who is glad that tragedy struck because of the new opportunities it gave.  Even if their life overall has become better because of it, most of us would still rather have that person back, or the additional time they thought they had.
Yet, with time we also begin to realize the truth of something that my father used to say regularly, 
“Death is a part of life.”  
Death comes.  It comes to our loved ones and it will come to us.  We can try to fight it, but no one cheats it.  Hopefully, our worst nightmares won’t come true.  However, if it does we want to make sure that the time we’ve had has been well spent.  And hopefully, if we truly learn to live life well, by the time it truly comes for us we can be ready and embrace it as an old friend,  
knowing that resurrection lies ahead.

Is Bigger Better?

“get ready, God is preparing you for something really, really small” – shane claiborne

In a moment of indiscretion I did something horrible in college. I applied to a large university. Now I really say that as a joke, because in actuality I don’t have anything against this particular institution. As a matter of fact I rather like it a lot as well as it’s cross state rival. However, I applied and was accepted to this institution and I thus I began the gauntlet of requirements being part of the school necessitated. Park in this are, then walk/run all the way across campus to get the TB test, then head over to a different corner of campus to file the change of address form, after that make sure to go see a counselor over at a different part of campus, then you can go back to your first area to actually register, etc. etc. And there was this sense that if I were to make one misstep in this horrible process filled with red tape that I was unworthy to be part of the institution. And of course no one was going to help in any way. Often times employees would refuse to give any clearer directions than go to the such and such building, which is great if you know which building that is and/or where it’s at, no help at all otherwise. So I did everything. I did it all right, I filled out my change of address forms and moved just down the road from the school.

Then one day I received a notice that my classes had been dropped. I go to investigate and find that despite me doing everything right, they had sent my bill to the wrong address, and since it had not been paid my classes had been dropped. Now the classes were full and I could not get any of the classes I needed. This was all due to their mistake, they were even able to find the change of address form I had filled out and submitted.

At this point I decided I did not like being treated like a number rather than a person, so I transferred to another smaller school where people were helpful and you felt like a person.

Now I don’t think institution number one is evil or anything like that, I simply believe it’s large. And when things get too large people become smaller and smaller, worth less and less. There are great advantages to being large, but there are also drawbacks.

I think by and large in the U.S. we tend to think that bigger is better, and we fail to see the impact that small things can have. But over and again in the scriptures Jesus seems to refer to the Kingdom of God in terms of small or hidden things, bursting forth and changing everything else (mustard seed, etc). When we look at Jesus we see that he did draw large crowds, but it also seems like whenever the crowds really start to grow he begins to teach things that will thin them out (John 6).

I don’t deny that God wants to do big things in our world. The mustard seed does grow and spread, the disciples were told they would preach in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. However, I think that God might be even more concerned with the small things, that’s where the big things begin. At the same time, a mustard tree only grows so large, then it reproduces. While the disciples were told that they would do big things, those big things were to happen through the making of other disciples.

Again, don’t think I’m demonizing big. There are advantages that come with being big, I’m well aware of it. However, often the good that comes with being big comes at the cost of our humanity, so it’s important that we find ways to grow smaller while/if we grow larger. Very often we forget that often times the big things that happen take place because of a few very dedicated people. Jesus’ core was 12, um . . . make that 11 disciples and a few women. And yet they completely changed the world as we know it. I think Mother Theresa said it best, that we can do no great things, only small things with great love. But that small things with great love can change the world.

Luke 15 Critiquing the Pharisees Part 1

As I previously mentioned I am starting a series of blogs about some of the parables of Jesus. Several of these stories have really captured my attention in unique ways for some time, and I wanted to share some of the dynamics and insights I’ve found within them. Some of the posts will be long, others will be extremely short. And of course I’d love to hear your thoughts along the way, get to share in the things that you’ve found that I’ve missed. So with that said, let’s get started. The first parable (or set of parables) I want to talk about is found in Luke 15, the familiar parable of the “Prodigal Son.”

The parable of the man with two sons commonly called the Prodigal Son doesn’t actually begin at verse 11. In actuality it starts no later than verse 1. This chapter begins with a scene in which Jesus is teaching and “tax collectors and sinners” were gathering to listen to him. The Pharisees and teachers of the law are grumbling about the kind of company Jesus welcomes and eats with. It is in response to this grumbling that Jesus tells three parables. The first is a parable concerning a lost sheep, the second is a parable about a lost coin, and the third is a parable concerning lost sons. These stories are interesting in that they serve in very subtle ways to both justify Jesus’ activity while simultaneously condemning the activity of the religious leaders of the day.

Question: Why is the sheep and the coin lost? Now certainly sheep can wander off, but by and large sheep tend to flock together, they’re followers. That’s why you wouldn’t want to mix sheep and goats. Goats wander, sheep follow. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a critique against the shepherd, but certainly could be especially in light of the second parable about the lost coin. Unlike animals, coins don’t simply wander off. The coin is obviously lost due to mismanagement (unless of course she has a two year old, in which case this would be completely understandable). How does someone lose a day’s wages?

Jesus is obviously defending himself, he is the one going off after those who are “lost.” But, could this also be a critique against the religious leaders of his day?
As we move toward the parable of the two sons we will see that lostness can occur for multiple reasons. But, looking at these two parables together we find that one reason for lostness can be mismanagement. Could it be that Jesus is saying to the religious leaders of his day that he wouldn’t have to be the one finding the sheep or coin if they had done their job correctly to begin with?

Controlling Life

I’ve been reading this book, and it’s full of wonderful information. At the same time it comes from a “christian” perspective and the scripture work in it is pretty horrible a lot of the time. It spot quotes verses, takes them out of context and tries to make them mean things different than how they were really intended (and I don’t mean in a that scripture is kind of but not really related to that kind of way, but in a that has nothing to do with what you’re talking about kind of way). Normally I would put the book down and walk away, but this one was written by psychologists, and as I said the information (beyond the scripture work) is really good. I’m finding it helpful to me and I would imagine it would be to plenty of others that I know. So, I’ve continued reading, but it has gotten me pondering all kinds of questions about “Christian” perspectives.

On top of reading this book I’ve had a couple other experiences recently. I came across a blog post where both “Christians” and “Atheists” were posting comments. And, I came across a couple of presentations done by skeptics and scientists. And I’ve begun to notice something. I’m noticing that a lot of times our perspective on the world isn’t about truth as much as faith, and it isn’t as much about faith as control. Let me unpack this a bit.

We long to understand life. We want to know the best way to live, how to live and move in the world. We want success, ease, joy, comfort, excitement, and all the other good life has to offer. There’s this sense that if I can figure out life, the key to it, the secret, then I can make the most of it and be happy. And we’re bombarded by a million perspectives and according to each it is offering the fundamental rubric through which we are told we should ground our being. We can pursue money or power, fame or success, excitement, experiences, adventure or any number of perspectives that can serve as our lens for trying to understand how to conquer life.

And that’s what it’s really about, control. Some of us are afraid, so we pursue safety. We think if we can just keep things from going wrong everything will be ok. We buy insurance thinking that things will be ok no matter what, because I’ve got insurance and supplemental insurance. Others pursue fame. We think that if enough people know us, then we will have significance and fulfillment. Others pursue success. We think that if I do something of worth then I’ll be of worth. Or, money will allow me to do what I want, then I’ll be happy. Or, excitement and adventure will bring me a rush and I’ll feel like I’m truly alive.

And to be honest, I’m not ever sure what exactly it is we’re seeking. But, we have this sense that there is some kind of void in our lives and we need to do something to get rid of it.

Now, the anchors beneath all of these perspectives tend to gravitate around either religion or science. Either what we see and can measure and test is all that there is or there’s something more. One of these two tend to lie underneath whichever perspective(s) we choose. Something is going to be the thing through which all that we do will be grounded, thus both are a type of faith. What we’re looking for we tend to find. How else could such brilliant people come to such different conclusions on almost everything (I’m thinking specifically about a debate I recently saw between two unbelievably intelligent men regarding whether moving toward nuclear energy is a good idea or not – and they directly contradicted each other in their basic statistical information. In the end it seems to comes down to an in faith value judgment on the part of each.)

Science is concerned with the “natural world”. And because of it we’ve learned much and made great advances. We need reason, we need science because it pushes us toward truth. It doesn’t accept doctrine or myth. Thanks to science the faith of the Church is more accurate. We know that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe like we once thought, like our interpretation of scriptures once said it had to be. At the same time most of us have this nagging sense that something isn’t completely right about science. We don’t completely trust it because yesterday’s miracle drug now has law advertisements telling us that if we took that drug and developed a certain condition we are entitled to a settlement. We’re hesitant to completely trust science in a world where today’s dream come true miracle medicine could be tomorrows nightmare. We have this depths of our bones understanding that love is more than chemicals in our brain, I, my conscious self, am more than simply mind meat, and in between those two realities, the tangible and the intangible, the scientific and the philosophical lies something real, something meaningful. So, we look to religion.

But, oftentimes popular “Christian” culture doesn’t seem to help. Between the tangible and intangible lies an unspeakable mystery. Yet by and large we aren’t invited to step into it. Rather we are given easy answers to questions for which there are no easy answers. Life is wild, it can’t be controlled. The Divine is untamed, beyond us in such a way that we never know what to expect. Yet, instead of admitting this and inviting people to delve into the mystery, into the wonder, we offer a religious science of “timeless principles” that are “true” because “the bible says so” all the while forgetting that scripture is always interpreted, rarely does it ever just “say so.” Or, we take something God once spoke to someone and we take that as a promise for us here and now, because if it’s in the bible it must be for me specifically. But, because scripture is always interpreted, what’s really being offered isn’t the mysteries of God and the universe, but rather just another perspective filled with over-simplified answers to make us feel like we are in control of life. And that’s really what lies underneath all of this, our fear and anxiety and attempts at controlling both life and God. We do everything we can to place life and God in our little box of timeless truths and eternal promises. But, God cannot be tamed and life is beyond our control. We can influence life, but we can’t control it. There are truths, but we will be infinitely exploring them because they are mysteries too large for us to attain. Much of what we talk about as truths are more like guidelines, things that will work by and large, but not something that is a guarantee. Because we were never intended to be in control. We are to guide and direct and influence, but you can do everything right and things still go wrong.

But, what I think I’m beginning to learn might be that learning to control and conquer life isn’t the point. It’s fools gold that only disappoints. Some of the perspectives will work for some people, some will work for others, and some will only work for a little while. But, all they allow us to do is stay so busy that you run from the void. If controlling life isn’t the point, what is? I don’t know, I’m in my twenties and live in Alabama. I don’t even really understand the theory of relativity. But, I’m pretty sure finding the point begins with embracing the mystery between the tangible and intangible. It involves going beyond the easy answers on both sides of the tangible/intangible coin to that place where something real and significant lies. There is something meaningful in searching and living, in joy and wonder. Good can be produced even out of bad. Living is really about being open to what’s happening around you here and now, communing with the untamable God at this moment, and trusting that whatever chaos life throws your way this God is bigger than it. It’s about learning in the midst of it all to trust this God and ground your life in your connection with this large, wild, untamable Being who often can be found in the most ordinary of places and moments. Even this one.

On Business Marketing

I’m not much of a fan of advertising, by and large I’m against marketing. I struggle with the balance between making sure things are known about and much of the manipulation that goes on in marketing today. I want to know when a product I’m excited about is being released, and I always enjoy a funny commercial. But, ads are designed to capture (and steer) your emotions. I fear that having so many ads telling us that our lives are deficient (until of course we buy their product) has a negative psychological impact on us. And of course the products never deliver what the ad promises implicitly or explicitly (I’ve never enjoyed Herbal Essence shampoo as much as the people in the commercials). And I’ve been amazed that the message has gone from implicit to explicit. The, “buy our product and you will be happy” message used to be implicit, but with the recession all that has changed. Walmart – Save Money Live Better, Best Buy – Buy Happy, and the list goes on.

In a world where many businesses are solely about the bottom line, so much so to the point of down right being unethical, there has also been what is for me a welcomed trend. There have been businesses springing up that aren’t simply about making money, but also making the world a better place. For example, when you buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes a child in a third world country gets a pair as well. This mindset has begun to spill over onto marketing strategies.

I recently discovered HotelsCombined.com who is doing something I think is a stroke of creative genius. Instead of spending their money on a traditional marketing campaign they are donating that money to charities. So, I join their facebook page then write on their wall where I want their donation to go, or post a tweet that contains HotelsCombined.com in it, or I do a blog post like this and send them an email to make them aware of it, and they send a donation to the charity of my choice.

As you may know, I’m trying to raise money to build a well in Africa for my 30th birthday, so I’ve begun the Herston 30 for 30 campaign. The idea is that I invite friends to share in my 30th birthday by giving $30 to blood water mission with Herston 30 for 30 in the comments box. So, I have facebook, I have tweeted, and now I have blogged, and they should be sending $35 to Blood Water Mission on my behalf.

I know very little about this company. I haven’t used their service (although I did do a quick hotel search on their site and found some pretty good prices). I can’t vouch for them beyond what I think is a brilliant marketing campaign. But, for me that is enough to give them a try next time I’m shopping for a hotel. I just find it inspiring to see a company think beyond traditional marketing and use that money to support good causes. If you would like to have them donate to your cause go to http://www.hotelscombined.com/Charity.aspx