A Holy No

Just say no for Jesus. Nancy Reagan would love it. You see, we swim in the midst of opportunity. It surrounds us like oxygen. Chances to give, to serve, to help. Most of the time we keep our eyes focused on the road ahead of us, windows up, radio blaring, in order to avoid those chances crowding the roadside like so many beggars. We choose not to see to avoid suffering the guilt of saying no to helping those in need.

Then we spend some time with You. We open our eyes, or You open them for us. We see the world in need rushing by, just outside the glass cages in which we live. Either we are overwhelmed and give up, returning gratefully, shamefully to Kubrik’s vision of eyes of wide shut. Or we start doing.

And our doing becomes our undoing. Because we can never do enough. But at least we feel better, having contributed our busy little part to doing nothing. “Remember the story of the starfish,” we shout over our shoulders, running on to the next good deed. “Made a difference for that one!”

So we immerse ourselves in the busy-ness of the good, which precludes and prohibits us from ever attempting the great. We become so busy doing good we never stop to listen to You, to what You may be calling us, to the direction You might give.

Screw the starfish. Why spend our lives throwing back starfish one at a time? Why not dig a whole new beach?

We must be willing to say no. No to the good. And it’s hard precisely because it’s the good. Easy to say no to the dumb, or boring, or trivial. But the good? Ah, so much harder. Yet every time we say yes, we limit other possibilities, other opportunities we may be too busy to notice.

The worst part is we don’t limit only ourselves. Every time I over-work, over-reach and over-commit, I diminish the possibilities for someone else. We’re so busy running around trying to do everything we don’t leave room for anyone else to do anything.

I know. I know. I can hear you now. You don’t want to do it all, but no one else will step up. You have to do it or it won’t get done at all.

Did you ever consider that if it doesn’t get done, maybe it wasn’t worth doing in the first place?

Sometimes we have to create room for things to fail in order to discern what truly should be done.

It’s not that little things are not worth doing. The question is not whether the good things should be done. The question is whether you should be the one doing them. If you hire Picasso to fix your plumbing you do a grave injustice to God’s creation (and probably get a lousy plumber). Hire a plumber and let Picasso paint, for God’s sake!

We must say no to opportunities and chances and possibilities beyond number. We must say no, because only if we say no and no and no again will we ever be able to shout YES!

We must wait. Ooh, but it’s hard. Waiting. Patiently. Actively. Expectently.

We must listen. Ooh, that’s harder. Listening. For God’s still small voice in the midst of the winds of busy-ness. We must be still and quiet in order to hear.

We must let God do His part. Let Him call us, direct us, command. Then and only then comes our yes. And our doing becomes a holy doing, not the worthless striving and vain, inglorious man. But the holy work of a righteous God.

There we find our purpose, our meaning, our true calling. There, living into the holy yes, we dance in greatness instead of settling for merely good enough. Living into God’s yes begins with a holy no.

A Simple Way to Share

It’s the Season of Christmas, the twelve days (yes, Christmas is a season, not just a day) when we celebrate the Incarnation, the birth of Christ our Lord. “Let every heart prepare him room.” Yes indeed, let Jesus into your heart. Just don’t keep him there.

Good heavens, people, we have to move our faith from our hearts and heads down into our hands and feet. Faith which lies dormant inside of us is no faith at all. Abraham wasn’t blessed for his own sake, he was blessed to be a blessing. Jesus didn’t come merely to save us. Jesus saves us from our own sin and darkness so we can share the light of Christ with others.

Look, this is easy. Go serve somebody, anybody, during the Christmas Season (now through Jan. 5). Then do it again in February. You can serve in small, simple ways. Give someone your place in line. Let someone cut in front of you in traffic. Take your neighbor’s trash can back up to the house for him. Babysit a toddler so a young mom has time to return things without kids pulling on her. Help a friend take down Christmas lights.

Or you can serve in bigger ways with others who are already serving. Haven for Hope. San Antonio Food Bank. Taking it to the Streets. They may have extra help around the holidays, so offer to do the work no one else wants to do. Do the prep work. Clean up. Take out the trash. Ask them what they need done, then do it.

But bring an envelope with you.

  • You’ll need to prepare the envelope beforehand.
  • Write your own name on the outside of the envelope.
  • Then write these words, “If I don’t come back for this, open on March 1”.
  • Place a check in the envelope, made out to the ministry or non-profit you’re going to serve. But make it a good one! Don’t wimp out now. Fifty bucks or a hundred or five hundred. Make it just enough that you wince a little when you write it, not so much that you can’t let it go, but big enough that you’d like that check back.
  • Put the check in the envelope and seal it.
  • Bring your calendar with you.
  • Take the envelope with you and give it to whomever is in charge.
  • Tell them, “I am coming back to serve with you again. When I do, I will retrieve this envelope. If I do not, you may keep whatever is inside as a donation.”
  • Then whip out your calendar and set a specific date and time when you will return.
  • Add the date to the outside of the envelope.

Instant motivation. Just like that. Not that you wouldn’t keep the promise you made to yourself about going back. Not you. But some people find it difficult to follow through with their own good ideas. Just ask any trainer at your local gym.

When you go back to serve with that ministry again, ask for the envelope. Don’t be shy. They’ll be happy to give it to you because it means you are there. Not there during the holiday rush, but there when the need is still great but the volunteers are few. Go back and be the hands and feet of Jesus again. Carry the light of Christ out into the world.

Create room for the Messiah by putting flesh on your faith, faith con carne. As Paul tells us, “work out your salvation,” not to earn it (you can’t) but to use it. Go get that envelope. Then do with it whatever you will.

What Are You Waiting For?

Woohoo! The paper published another column of mine. This one appeared in the religion section of last Sunday’s Express-News. If you haven’t already seen it on Facebook, I thought you might enjoy reading it here. And if you want to see more of what the Express-News has to offer, click the image below.

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Seems like we’re waiting more than usual here lately. Forget construction and traffic and the lines at Target, the holiday season brings its own brand of waiting. Waiting for school to let out. Waiting for sales to start. Waiting for family to arrive. (Maybe waiting for them to leave again?)

As a people, we do not wait well. A few weeks ago my wife witnessed a shouting match between two presumably normal adults waiting in line to buy high school football tickets. People had been waiting in line for hours. People grew antsy, then frustrated, then selfish, then downright hostile. No, we are not good at waiting.

Not a surprise, really. We are microwave, drive-through, 4G people. In a high-speed world, waiting becomes our greatest post-modern sin. It’s unproductive and boring and (pause for a gasp of mock disdain) a waste of time.

Unless, of course, it’s not.

Perhaps the God who created time gives us time to wait as a gift. Could it be that waiting is the antidote to busy-ness? Instead of railing and wailing and wishing that waiting would go away, maybe we should embrace it. Maybe we wouldn’t hate waiting so much if we were better at it. Maybe we could practice waiting to see if we improve.

With practice, waiting might become a time of joyful expectation. Waiting could be the gift that prepares us for what comes next. How do we practice waiting? How do we shift from waiting for something to end to awaiting the arrival of something new?

One word. Advent. Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ. Advent carries us to Bethlehem. Advent shrinks Mary’s nine months down to four Sundays of waiting and expectation. Waiting looks backward, holding our breath until this current time ends. Advent looks ahead, breathlessly anticipating the arrival of something new.

We recognize this kind of Advent waiting, but we don’t see it very often. This is waiting for a wedding day or the birth of a child or the return of a loved one. You know it’s coming. It changes your plans and alters your perspective. It holds a before-and-after quality. “I used to be that, then something happened, now I’m this.”

We know this kind of waiting. We can practice it. We can live in Advent.

Regular waiting is reactive. Kids can’t find their shoes. Someone is late for a meeting.

Advent waiting is proactive. Build time into your schedule when you do nothing, even if only for a minute or two. Push your own pause button. Be still. Pray. Give thanks.

Normally we wait for something to end. End of the week, the month, the season, the year. This waiting turns our heads to see what might be catching us from behind.

In Advent, we wait for something to begin. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on….” Expect Christ to come into the world. Expect His joy and hope and peace. Don’t look back asking, “What if? Look ahead and ask “What next?”

Everyday waiting focuses on us. I’m late. I’m bored. This is wasting my time.

Advent waiting turns us toward others. We get over ourselves by giving to others. “Let every heart prepare Him room” (feel free to sing along). We create space for Christ by doing what He did, loving the least and the lost and the lonely.

Usually our waiting is passive. We stand in line at the checkout counter. We sit, and sit, and sit some more at the doctor’s office. This is time wasted, time being killed.

Advent waiting is active. Don’t kill time, use it. Let someone go in front of you. Pray for those around you. Give your wait-time to God and see what He does with it.

It’s Advent. Jesus is coming. So what are you waiting for?

Thankful Cheese

Beware lest you say in your heart,

‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’

– Deut 8:17 (ESV)

Okay, I know it’s cheesy. I do. But I can’t help myself. It’s the week before T-day, that pagan holiday devoted to gluttony and football, and the good Rev. Michael Koehler (@johnthreethirty) preached a pretty good sermon yesterday at TMI – The Episcopal School of Texas. Any sermon that references both The Simpsons and Veruca Salt (the character, not the band) automatically reaches Level 9 status (though it would have hit Level 10 with “Seether” playing in the background).

His topic was giving thanks. More specifically, his topic question was, “why is this so hard?” Which is a great question. Why is it so hard to live thankfully? We could talk about sin and brokenness and pride and selfishness and find a pretty reasonable theological explanation. Or we could visit any kindergarten playground in the country and see for ourselves. Remember the seagulls from “Finding Nemo“?

Living thankfully comes neither easily nor naturally to us. We may want it to, we may put on a good show, we may even mind our manners in public. But our private selves stroll mindlessly toward the ungrateful. We take soooo much for granted because deep down we foolishly believe we deserve it. Home. Family. Job. Food. Water. Safety. Health. Easy to skip living thankfully when this is our normal, even though it may be anything but for others around the world, or even around the corner.

Inevitably, the people who are the most thankful are not the ones with the most to lose, but the ones who have already lost. Want to meet someone who is thankful to have a job? Find the folks who were unemployed for a year. Want to know who is thankful for their health? Nobody is thankful like someone fresh out of the hospital. Maybe this is what Paul was talking about when he said he had learned to give thanks in all situations. Maybe loss becomes a gift when it drives our thankfulness.

And maybe it is just not possible to be thankful on the macro level. Not really. I heard somewhere that for a compliment to be appreciated it has to be specific. Maybe thanksgiving is like that. Not being thankful for jobs and family, but being thankful in the particulars for each. So here are some things for which I am thankful. Specifically. On purpose. Shared with you merely as signposts on your own journey toward thankful living.

I’m thankful for the gifts God has given me. I’m thankful I get to use them in my work. I’m thankful God creates room for me to read and write and speak and teach as the main part of my ministry.

I’m thankful God has called me to the mission of connection in and with and through my church family.

I’m thankful for the faithfulness of Mark Johnson and his heart for the poor.

I’m thankful for laughter, honest, shared laughter, especially at bad jokes.

I’m thankful my nine-year-old still wants her daddy to watch her go to sleep, a nighttime ritual that has been going on in our family in some form or fashion for fifteen years now, and will soon go the way of sippy-cups and night lights.

I’m thankful my son still wants to hang out with his old man; not all the time, or even as much as he used to, but some times, some really good times, which is more than enough for me.

I’m thankful my soon-to-be-driving daughter will still hold my hand in public.

I’m thankful my wife still laughs with me, and at me. I’m thankful she still wants to date me after all these years.

I’m thankful my parents are still married, my sister lives in town and I get to watch my niece play soccer.

I’m thankful I live in a place where I don’t have to wear socks most of the year.

I’m thankful for high school football.

I’m thankful for books – new books, old books, great books, even not-so-great books.

I’m thankful Mrs. Sharmen taught me to read these books way back in first grade.

I’m thankful for Propaganda and the truth of his spoken-word poetry.

I’m thankful for my wife’s mashed potatoes. Seriously. You should come over for dinner some time when she makes them.

I’m thankful for Grace Church and the chance to live out God’s mission.

I’m thankful that God loved me first and still loves me, no matter what.

I’m thankful for a great many people, none of whom will be upset for not being named here.

You Know That Feeling?

You know that feeling? The one you get when you take two steps forward and one step back? That tension in your neck, twisting in your gut, pounding in your head kind of feeling? You know you’re on the right track. You can see progress. It’s right there in front of you, like tracks in the sand. You can even turn around and see your starting point as a marker for how far you’ve come.
But then you turn back around to face your goal and it practically disappears over the horizon. You know that feeling? Well, God hates that feeling, and so do I.

I hate that feeling because it’s so paralyzing. I don’t know about you, but that feeling ties me up in knots. I can’t think straight. I lose my sense of humor. I start to worry (even more than usual).
That feeling ruins my favorite question. My favorite question is “what if?” That feeling inserts one tiny ruinous word. But. “But, what if?” And not in a good way. “What if” opens up all sorts of possibilities and new ideas and creativity and interesting dreams. “But, what if” darkens the door with negative outcomes — trips to the ER and spiraling economies and phone calls from the kids’ school.

God hates that feeling because it has nothing to do with Him. Our God is a big God, a huge God, a God of “what if”. Our God is a generous God. Remember the loaves and fishes? He multiplies goodness on our behalf. Our God is a powerful God. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus cries. And Lazarus does. A dead guy heard the word of the Lord. Tell me that’s not powerful and I’ll tell you you’re nuts. Our God is loving. This is a God who won’t even wait on the porch for the returning sinner to come home. No way, our God runs out to meet us when we’re halfway there.

And that feeling is not generous or powerful or loving.

When I get that feeling I find three simple things help me find my way out of it. Nothing new or earth-shattering. Just some stuff that’s sometimes hard to remember.

I pray. When I present myself to God in prayer, not fancy “can I impress the neighbors” kind of prayer, but honest, realistic, accept me as I am kind of prayer, when I pray like that I find that God’s Spirit changes my point-of-view. It’s not magic, it’s perspective.

I read Scripture. When I open myself to God’s story in God’s stories, I remember things like the prodigal son and the good samaritan and Jesus’ strong words to his disciples, “with God, all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

I talk to a Believer. If I can’t get it on my own, one of my partners in the gospel can often show it to me. It’s funny, isn’t it, how other people so easily see things we keep missing. Other Christians remind me of God’s grace by sharing their stories with me. They show me God’s love for me by telling me of God’s love for them. They point me toward God’s Words which I may have forgotten or overlooked.

Huh. That’s kind of like that verse from 1 Corinthians. You know. The wedding verse. Faith, Hope and Love; these three remain. But the greatest of these is love.

And all of a sudden I don’t have that feeling anymore.

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