Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Listen

I'm currently enrolled in an online pastoral care course through Asbury seminary, and one of the required texts for the course is Michael P. Nichols's The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationship.

Now, I consider myself a pretty good listener. I try to give people my full attention and to be responsive in ways that let folks know I'm listening, but without commandeering the conversation; I'm naturally empathetic; I know better than to go in with guns blazing, trying to solve every problem someone shares with me.
So, when I saw this on the reading list (and saw that it was the longest book on the list), I wasn't exactly thrilled. It's not that I don't think I have more to learn, I'm just a slow reader, and maybe I could better spend my reading time on other things, things that I'm not at all good at. It didn't help when the first page was putting me to sleep.

As it turns out, the book is fascinating, makes a lot of sense, and is totally enlightening. I feel like I'm starting to understand so many dynamics in my interactions with people that I never even noticed before, or that I just could never quite put my finger on. (Be warned! If you and I talk any time soon, I'll probably be listening and thinking, 'ah, now here is a textbook case of ...' You know, since I'm an expert now and all.)

Sometimes people just don't seem to ever listen, or can just be really hard to talk to - we all know about that. But then Nichols points out that "it is possible for people to change; all we have to do is change our responses to each other. We are not victims--we are participants, in a real way, and the consequences of our participation are profound" (53). In other words, two people communicating or failing to communicate always involves... two people. If I want things to change, I have to try changing my role in the interaction - maybe assumptions I'm bringing to the conversation, ways that I'm antagonizing them or enabling them in some bad habits, whatever it is.

Sometimes when you're talking to someone, other relationships of theirs will cloud their ability to hear you clearly. You ask a question about something they're doing, and they hear a criticism, because mom or dad was always criticizing. You complement them, and they hear you trying to get something out of them, because their boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is always trying to manipulate them like that. They transfer the other person's intentions and meaning onto what you are saying, because that's how they've learned to hear people. That's frustrating, because it distorts how they hear you and causes misunderstandings... but maybe, Nichols suggests, if we can get past the frustration, we can learn something from it (46). If someone is always interpreting your words as criticism, maybe that should tell you they need more praise and affirmation in general. Rather than just being frustrated by the misunderstandings, we can use them to help us understand the other person better and relate to them in new, positive ways.

How many times have I found myself 'graciously' allowing someone to speak their piece, all the while searching for the words I can use to prove that they're wrong (or that I'm still right) as soon as they're done? But is that really listening? "Simply holding your tongue while someone speaks isn't the same thing as listening. To really listen you have to suspend your own agenda, forget about what you want to say, and concentrate on being a receptive vehicle for the other person" (77). Set aside your agenda and forget about what you want to say. That's probably not our first impulse. But if I'm really going to love the person I'm listening to, shouldn't I be able to set myself aside for a while and truly focus on them?

The book keeps surprising me and challenging me with simple yet powerful insights like these.

And all of this is starting to change the way I understand and try to practice James 1:19: "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry."

In the US today, with all of the racial division, political division, the divisions within denominations and congregations and families, the general animosity and strife between disagreeing parties, couldn't we use a little more careful and caring (in other words, Christian) listening?

Well... what are you waiting for?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

GM2016: God is a fire

Lärmfeuer 2010.JPG
By 4028mdk09 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9850897
Fire is a really common image in the New Testament.
John the Baptist talks about unfruitful trees being tossed in the fire (Luke 3:9), and so does Jesus (Matt 7:19). There's the famous "lake of fire" in Revelation (20:10, for example), reserved for the devil, Death, Hades, and the faithless. More hopefully, there are the flames of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and the purifying fire Paul describes in 1 Corinthians: fire that tests our works, reveals what was gold and what was straw; we're saved "through fire," he says (3:10-15).

Then there's Hebrews 12:29. It says there that "our God is a consuming fire."

For me, that verse doesn't bring up warm feelings. I think of the members of the Consuming Fire Fellowship who used to bring their bullhorns, their sandwich boards, and their small children to LSU's campus once a week to hand out pamphlets and to tell us that we'd all spend eternity in Hell, in the fire. (The verse also reminds me of the old Third Day song, "Consuming Fire.")

I was reading recently in Consuming Fire (does the title make sense now?), the book of daily selections from the 19th century Scottish pastor and inspiration to C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, when I came across this discussion of fire:
The fire of God, which is his essential being, his love, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns--that the farther from him, it burns the worse, and that when we turn and begin to approach him, the burning begins to change to comfort, which will grow to such bliss that the heart at length cries out with supreme gladness, "Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is no one on earth that I desire besides thee!" (Consuming Fire, June 19th, quoting Ps 73:25)
The fire is God's essential being, he says. It's God's love.

"Our God is a consuming fire" is such a frightening phrase, when you think about the menacing "fire that will never be quenched" (Mark 9:43) or Revelation's lake of fire. What does God do to people? But then there's also that idea that Hell is essentially the absence of God, separation from God ("depart from me," Matt 7:23). That's what MacDonald is hinting at here. The blazing fire of God's love only burns when we're far from it. The closer we get - it doesn't burn - it warms us, it comforts us, and it sets our hearts on fire too.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

bad news and the good news

"Protests break out after Baton Rouge police fatally shoot man."
"New wave of attacks on Muslims in America."
"San Diego police investigating 'random' violent attacks on homeless people."
"Islamic State tightens grip on captives held as sex slaves."

That's not to mention all of the headlines about the patent falsehoods one of our major presidential candidates here in the US has been peddling for the last year, or the other candidate's stubborn insistence that an anti-Semitic image created by white supremacists is not, in fact, a racist image.

People talk a lot about all the bad news of horrible things in the world that gets coverage, but this morning I could really feel it. The headlines hung over me like a cloud. If anyone doesn't understand why the church talks about sin, just read the news. Our world is broken.

But, at the same time, to me all of this bad news just makes the gospel, the good news, all the more beautiful.

When I was growing up in the church, I wouldn't have seen that. Growing up, the gospel was all about an eternal life that meant going to heaven (and not going to hell!) when you leave this earth. That was it. It was about 'not perishing' (hell) but 'having everlasting life' (heaven), in the words of John 3:16.
If that's what the gospel is about, all of the mess here on earth doesn't much matter, because once you're dead and gone, it's a thing of the past, like you're waking up from a bad dream. Your only concern with the brokenness is not getting entangled in it, not letting it distract you or obstruct you from finishing the race and keeping the faith. You might also try to combat some of it, either because you feel like it's a Christian's duty (to feed the hungry, for instance), or because you don't want to kindle God's wrath (and so you might vote against things you think will anger God, like abortion).
But when you woke up and the headlines were just oppressive... on days like that, you just thought about how you can't wait to get out of here and leave all of this mess behind. The gospel meant that one day you'd get to escape the mess and go somewhere better. "Just a few more weary days and then I'll fly away. To a land where joys will never end, I'll fly away."

That's how I was raised.

But that's not what I think the gospel is about anymore. Now I know that the gospel isn’t about escape: it’s about healing. 

In Luke, when Jesus first launches his ministry, he goes to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches a sermon that sets the agenda for his mission. Here’s what I’m going to do, he tells them: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).
Jesus talks about repentance more in Luke than in any of the other gospels. He forgives sins; he promises paradise to the dying. But not yet. First, he talks about righting the wrongs in this world, for the poor, captives, the blind, those who are oppressed. First, he talks about bringing healing on the earth. That’s why the Messiah has come; that’s what he’s setting out to do.

The book of Revelation, in one of the most powerful passages in all the Bible, sketches the healing that God has in store for the world:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... And I heard a voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." (Rev 21:1, 3-5)
The gospel isn't an offer to escape this world. It's an offer to heal it and make things new. The promise of Revelation is that one day God is going to make everything right, to fix what sin and death have broken.

That’s why the psalms describe God’s final judgment as a time when the sea will roar, and all that fills it, when the field will exult, and everything in it, and when the trees of the forest will sing for joy (96:11-13; and see 98:7-9). The whole world is excited, not because God’s coming to take everyone away to heaven, but because God’s coming to set things right on earth, to make things new. (And, of course, the Lord wants to start with you and me! Ezek 36:26; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 4:22-24)

If your gospel doesn’t proclaim the healing that God is bringing to the world, the new creation that God will raise up out of our old brokenness, then your gospel isn’t whole. It’s a half-gospel that doesn’t do credit to the scope of God’s plans, and it probably leaves people confused about the place of service and justice in their faith. There’s no divide between evangelism (sharing the ‘evangel’, the good news) and social justice, trying to make the world a better place, because every step we take towards that better world, every healing word and act we can contribute, brings us one step closer to the world promised by the gospel. We can’t get ourselves there – only the new creation power of God can finally transform this broken world into a new heaven and a new earth. But we can make the good news visible and tangible as we show people what life can look like when Jesus is Lord: it looks like forgiveness; it looks like faithful marriages; it looks like the end of our prejudices and our wars, of terror, of abuse and neglect—because love and peace reign, and reconciliation; it looks like selflessness and human kindness, like supporting and nurturing children, ours and others’, feeding people who are hungry, sheltering the homeless, and caring for the planet and all the incredible biodiversity on it. This is what “Jesus is Lord” means in practice. This is what the good news we’re proclaiming looks like. These are the promises God makes us—and wouldn’t you like to be one of Jesus’ people in this kind of world too?

We need to remember and proclaim that gospel.

When the bad news overwhelms us, that’s the good news everybody needs to hear.

And when the church really commits to this, to the fullness of the gospel, then not only will people hear it, but they'll see it too. We'll tell them that Jesus wants to heal their hearts and lives and to heal all the mess that they see around them, but we'll also live lives that are a breath of fresh air in this suffocating world of bad news.

Friday, July 01, 2016

a prayer for new leaders

Today the city of Natchez inaugurated a new mayor and swore in several other newly-elected officials, and I had the privilege of offering the inaugural prayer at the ceremony. Here is the prayer I led for the new leaders of our city, and I hope you will pray for our community and leaders as well:

Gracious God,
We call on you at this moment of transition, at this new beginning, to seek your guidance for our leaders and your blessing and healing for our community. We particularly ask that you would grant your son, our new mayor Darryl Grennell, all the wisdom, humility, the energy, insight, and support that he needs for the tasks ahead. Surround him with the multitude of counselors that will establish his vision for our city (Pro 15:22). May the words and example of the Lord Jesus always guide and inspire him, and all of our leadership, in their work. Help us all--those who lead, those who protect and serve, who minister or teach, store-owners, employees, parents, those just trying to get by, librarians, nurses, retirees, black and white--help us all to hear and respond to the call of the prophet Jeremiah to seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare we find our own (Jer 29:7). Give us grace to labor together for a new Natchez: a city where people don’t have to leave town to find work; where our schools are renowned as centers of learning and growth; where no one has to worry about being shot and killed in the night; a place of blessing to the young and the vulnerable and the needy. Lord, protect our hearts from distrust, apathy, anger and bitterness, prejudice, fear—all of the things that can poison a community. Keep us safe from those traps (Ps 141:9), so that we may seek a better future together. May Darryl recognize the way forward and, with your help, blaze a trail into that future. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we ask all of these things. Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2016

plum season


Over the last few weeks at the Hixon home we witnessed the arrival and the departure of plum season. It's a pretty exciting time of year, for me, when I can just walk into the backyard and acquire free, delicious food. It's also an exciting time of year for the squirrels.

And this year plum season got me thinking about the Bible.

You see, the scriptures were written for people who knew about agriculture and husbandry first hand. Unfortunately, for most of us reading the Bible in the US today, all of that work happens out of sight, without ever intersecting our lives (except as fresh veggies, sticks of butter, and packages of bacon at the store), and so we don't always hear all the resonances of the images and metaphors that the Bible is using. Paul talks about the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22-23), and I know a lot about eating fruit, but I don't know so much about growing fruit, which is the whole point of the image. This is fruit that the Holy Spirit plans to 'cultivate' inside of me. But the image doesn't mean as much to me as it could, because growing fruit isn't a part of my life.

Except during plum season.

So this year, as we picked and gathered our fruit, I was thinking about how this plum tree and this time of year might add to the meaning of those passages in scripture. Here are three things that struck me:
  1. There's a lot of waiting, but then, suddenly, you may find all kinds of fruit. After you notice the first buds and flowers on the plum tree, there are months of waiting when it seems like nothing is happening. Maybe there are some baby plums on the branches, but they aren't good for anything. Until, it seems like overnight, they ripen and you have more fruit than you know what to do with. But growing fruit isn't quick. And that's also true of the fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit works in us with the patience of a farmer. Love, joy, peace, and all the other virtues God would cultivate in our hearts develop over time, sometimes very slowly. Eventually, though, maybe without you even realizing what's been happening, you may find yourself radically transformed by God's Spirit, with all kinds of fruit. You may suddenly find that God's been nurturing within you compassion, generosity, patience, or self-control that you've never known before. One day that fruit is going to be ripe for the picking.
  2. Fruit is meant for sharing. I was reminded this year that you simply can't keep all these plums to yourself - the tree is just too fruitful, the yield's just too abundant - you have to share! The fruit on our tree wasn't meant for one person (or even one household). It's meant to be spread around and to bless others too. And of course that's also true when it comes to the spiritual fruit in our lives. God does care about our hearts and minds, and God wants to make us new and whole for our own sakes. But God also wants us to make us a blessing for others. Remember what the Lord told Abraham: "I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:2-3). If the Holy Spirit has raised up joy in your heart, or kindness or love, how are you using that fruit to "be a blessing"? Have you looked for someone to share it with, someone who could use a fresh encounter with God's grace in their lives? Well God's grace is active in you, growing that fruit - so go be the blessing they need!
  3. It's so easy to waste your fruit. The ground around our tree is covered with rotten and split and smashed plums, like the day after some grisly plum warfare. And even if you pick as many as you possibly can, if you don't have a plan it won't be long before so much of the fruit has gone to waste - in a bowl waiting to be eaten or to be turned into jelly. It feels awful to watch all that fruit spoil, thinking about all the things you could have done with it. Don't waste your fruit. That's not why God gave it to you. The Lord has a purpose for it. Try to discern how God wants to use you and the person you're becoming. Is there a need in your church, in your community, in your marriageis there some need around you that God might be preparing you to meet? Don't wait until the opportunity is wasted and all you can do is look back with regret. Use the fruit you've got while you can. Don't let God's timing pass you by.
Jesus said that "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples." (John 15:8) Disciples of Jesus Christ are fruit-bearing people. "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last" (15:16). Where has he appointed for you to go? What fruit has the Spirit been cultivating in your life? It's there to bless you, and to make you a blessing. So spend some time praying and wondering today: what is God trying to do with me? Where can I go, who can I go to, to bear some "fruit that will last"?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

gorillas, zoos, and the kingdom of God

Last week the world couldn't stop talking about the death of Harambe the gorilla.

As you probably know, Harambe was a 17-year old western lowland gorilla (a critically endangered species) living in the Cincinnati Zoo, until a week and a half ago when a young boy fell into the gorilla enclosure, was seized and dragged around by Harambe, and the gorilla was shot to rescue the boy.
It seemed like the news coverage would never end. Maybe there wasn't much else happening last week; maybe it's because the story touched on both people's deep love of animals and deep concern for children; or maybe it just provided a convenient fault line for more partisan bickering (one side disgusted, saying, 'how could this have happened?', the other disgusted, saying, 'why are you so upset about this?'). Whatever the reason, the news just wouldn't quit.

Now, I love animals. I love zoos. But I especially love primates. On those rare occasions that I get to see a gorilla or a chimp or an orangutan, my heart soars. I'm lost in wonder like a small child. The fact that the western lowland gorilla's scientific name is Gorilla gorilla gorilla lights up my world. I just freaking love them.
And so when the news first broke that a gorilla in Cincinnati was shot, I didn't even want to know what it was about. My wife didn't mention it to me when she heard, because she knows how I feel about monkeys (I know, I know - a gorilla is an ape, not a monkey).

That being said, I'm also someone who tends to listen to the experts (especially in fields about which I know next to nothing). So when Jack Hanna came out and said that he agreed with the decision to shoot Harambe "1,000%", that about settled it for me. Jack Hanna loves animals too, and Jack Hanna knows his stuff, so I believe him. I know some people will disagree, and of course it's all hypothetical, but I'm going to accept that it was necessary to ensure the boy's safety.

I hate it, though. It breaks my heart.

All of this makes me think my Old Testament professor, Stephen Chapman, was right when we were reading about Behemoth and Leviathan in Job (see especially 41:1-9), and he said that "They're not for you... and that may be what's wrong with a zoo." Maybe some wild animals weren't made for our pleasure but for God's and for their own (like in Ps 104:25-26).

But there's another Old Testament passage that I haven't been able to get out of my head since I heard the news from Cincinnati. It's from Isaiah chapter 11:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (11:6-9)

This is a picture of the hope in store for God's people and all of our fellow-creatures too. According to Isaiah (also see 65:17-25), the salvation that God is bringing to the world is going to touch humans and animals alike. It's going to bring peace to the whole world: peace between the animals (wolves and lambs don't usually live together), and peace between humans and animals. And the prophet specifically describes the harmony between animals and children. "A little child shall lead them..." (11:6) In this vision, children are safe playing over an asp's hole, sticking their hands in adders' dens, safe around the wolves, the leopards, the lions, the bears.

And, presumably, the apes.

That's why I told the congregation this past Sunday, while preaching on the pictures of eternity in Revelation 21 and Isaiah 65, that in the new heavens and new earth, no one's ever gonna have to shoot a gorilla to protect a child. All of God's creatures will have a place, and there will be peace.

I love Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom paintings based on this passage. (There's a snippet of another one in the banner at the top of the blog.) For me it helps to see Isaiah's prophecy, to see the children there with the beasts.


The kid's petting that jaguar.
Here, in this world, that's not possible.
In this world we need enclosures, with tranquilizers and guns at the ready, just in case.

That's because we live in a broken world.

But in the world to come, God's going to set things right.
There, there's going to be peace.
There, in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:1, Isa 65:17), this picture will come to life.

In the meantime, we're called to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33), and we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth..." As Christians, working to see glimpses of God's kingdom here on earth is our mission, and visions of the kingdom like that in Isaiah 11 should inform that mission.
In The Bible and Ecology, during a discussion of the animals in Isaiah 11, Richard Bauckham (if you ask me, one of finest biblical scholars alive today) points out that "Biblical prophecy is not merely predictive but calls its readers to appropriate action now in light of the future it outlines."* In other words, because we pray "thy kingdom come," when we hear a description of that kingdom, we need to get to work to see that picture come to life, "on earth." After we read Isaiah 11, we have to ask ourselves, "what can I do today that will help bring some of this peace to God's world?"

Maybe that means volunteering with your local humane society. Maybe it means getting some of your groceries from a dairy where you know animals are treated well and have a high quality of life - check at your local farmers' market. Or maybe it means supporting gorilla conservation efforts (you can read about some of that work and how to give here).

We're probably not used to thinking about it this way, but when you do that, you're seeking the kingdom of God.

Even if you're not an 'animal person', or primates don't rock your world, we should all mourn the loss of Harambe, because his death reminds us that we're still stuck living in the middle of the mess, still waiting for redemption and freedom (see Rom 8:18-25).

But in the meantime... in the meantime, let's seek the kingdom. Let's seek the peace and hope that God desires for the world - for us, and for our fellow-creatures.

-
* Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation, 125

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

GM2016: Obedience, not speculation

 
As I've shared before, this year I'm slowly working through a daily reader called Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love - it's adapted from sermons by the 19th century Scottish Christian author, George MacDonald.

And I'm loving it. Let me share a recent passage with you.

MacDonald has been reflecting on the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18, which ends with the ominous question: "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (18:8) MacDonald writes,
The Lord seems here to refer to his second coming - concerning the time of which, he refused information; concerning the mode of which, he said it would be unexpected; but concerning the duty of which, he insisted it was to be ready: we must be faithful, and at our work. Do those who say, 'lo here are the signs of his coming', think to be too keen for him, and spy his approach? If, instead of speculation, we gave ourselves to obedience, what a difference would soon be seen in the world! Many eat and drink and talk and teach in his presence; few do the things he says to them! Obedience is the one key of life. (Consuming Fire, April 29th)
His talk about the second coming brings to mind the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 and the parable of the man returning from a journey in Mark 13, not to mention the times Jesus said "about that day or hour, no one knows..." (Also, see 1 Thess 5:1-2!) Instead of ignoring Jesus and trying to guess the day or hour anyways, instead of end-times speculating, we should give ourselves to obedience and see what a difference that could make on this planet.

In other words, instead of staring into the sun, looking for a glimpse of a kingdom Jesus assured us we won't see coming, why don't we put our money where our mouth is every time we repeat the Lord's Prayer and say "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"?

Why don't we pursue obedience instead of speculations? (The one Jesus encouraged, the other he actually discouraged!) Maybe then we'd start to get glimpses of that Kingdom - only not off on the horizon but in our neighborhoods and prisons and nursing homes - as the Holy Spirit works in us and through us to transform hearts and lives and transform the world. "On earth," just like we always pray.

'Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?' If we take our Lord's Prayer seriously, if we take our obedience seriously, the answer can only be "yes."

And what a difference would soon be seen in the world.