In The End

I find that as a fifth grade teacher and as the father of a three-year old and a seven-year old, I am often at odds with myself with regards to my divergent tendencies to want to be loose and care free and my knowledge of the fact that clear guidelines, expectations, and procedures consistently maintained is often a major ingredient in maintaining a productive classroom and, hopefully, loving, well-raised kids. I sometimes second-guess myself when I’ve followed through with administering a consequence and end up with a dejected fifth grader or a crying toddler on my hands. This is largely because I know that every single interaction that I have with a student or my own children is one more step in forming their perception of the world around them and of myself. It is my prayer that, as I’ve seen in many students of mine over the past eleven years of teaching, the structured environment that I provide is the firm foundation that the children that I interact with need to feel safe in applying themselves toward making good decisions and finding success.

But, I also know that some kids, due to various circumstance sometimes within and sometimes outside of my control, just aren’t going to respond regardless of my attempts to redirect and guide them in the right direction. In such cases it must, then, be my prayer that I have spoken enough affirming words and put forth enough good will toward them that, by the time my role as a teacher or a parent has wound down, they come out on the other side having benefitted by my presence in each of their lives.

It should also be recognized that such a goal would apply to my interactions with other adults as well. Too often my mood, my self-centered focus on what is most convenient for me, and my sheer laziness lead me to belittle others around me by either the way I talk to them or by the indifference displayed in my activities while around them and these are surely not the signs of someone who has been given the gift of grace. It when I turn toward myself at various times throughout each and every day that I, simultaneously, end up turning my back on others and on the Abba that didn’t turn His back on me. Forgive me Abba, and help me to grow, I pray.

Jesus says to us: “Either you give life to others in your relationships with them, or you drain them of it.” Life can be taken out of others in rivulets and drops, in the small daily failures of inattention, that bitterest fruit of self-absorption, as surely as by the terrible strokes to their hearts.

Writes Frederick Buechner: “Sin sprouts, as banana trees on the Nile, whenever the effect of your relationships with others is to diminish rather than enlarge them. There is no neutral corner in your human encounters, no antiseptic arena in which ‘nobody else is hurt’ or ‘nobody else knows about it.’ You either make people a little better, or leave them a little worse. You define your faith and moral posture in the ordinary stuff of your daily routine. The Kingdom belongs to those, as artless as children, who love others simply and directly, without thinking about anything but them. The inheritors of the Promise are those unsung folks who lend others a hand when they’re falling. That’s the only work that matters in the end.”

-Brennan Manning, from Devotions For Ragamuffins, Pp.117

Focus At Christmas

I read a daily devotional by Brennan Manning called Devotions For Ragamuffins. It is indispensable to me as a source of encouragement and a lens to focus my perspective through on a daily basis. The month of December features a number of devotions focused on Christmas and the one that I read this morning really struck a chord with me because of its emphasis on what really should be more widely recognized as a central tenet of the Christmas holiday season and Christianity as a whole throughout the year:

The wailing Infant bears witness to a God whose Word is fresh and alive, who is not the defender of the old, the already settled, the well established and familiar. The God we encounter in Jesus is free from preoccupation with his own glory, free to be for us, free to be gracious, free to love and let be.

This Christmas such a God might well expect us to be creatively responsive and thus truly Christlike. Indeed, He might call us to set free captives bound by loneliness and isolation, to share our hope with prisoners of gloom and despair, to invite the unlovely to our table, to celebrate our freedom in forgetfulness about our comfort and convenience, to cry the gospel by ministering to widows and orphans, to be the Church by bringing soup to the poor, to ignore conventional expectations, to call His Son out of Egypt once more.

How we interact with and serve those who are less educated, less popular, less cultured and who have less money says a great deal about who we are as people and where our focus is. The real meaning of Christmas is found in facing those who feel like they have the least reason to celebrate.

 

First posted 12/20/08

Empty Your Hands

An inventory of bad choices should never be reframed or defended as rebellion. Many of us take ourselves far too seriously, seeing ourselves as heroes, legends, urban cowboys and street-walkers who have to face the weather of oppression by institutions/industries/the man, doing whatever is necessary just to be able to call our own shots and still make ends meet. Clinging to the notion that we need to portray ourselves as independent, leather-skinned, true romantics instead of just dropping our elitist costumes and admitting just how ridiculously helpless we really are on our own. Eventually we get so deep into the game that we can no longer tell the difference between love and everything less than love, because, we’ve wrapped ourselves so seemingly secure in our vices that we can no longer remember what it feels like to really be loved for who we are beneath it all.

Home is that sacred space — external or internal — where we don’t have to be afraid, where we are confident of hospitality and love. In our society we have not only many homeless people sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in welfare hotels, but also vagabonds who are in flight, who never come home to themselves. They seek a safe place through alcohol or drugs, or security in success, competence, friends, pleasure, notoriety, knowledge, or even a little religion. They have become strangers to themselves, people who have an address, but, are never home, who never hear the voice of love or experience the freedom of God’s children. To those of us in flight, who are afraid to turn around lest we run into ourselves, Jesus says: “You have a home…I am your home…claim me as your home…you will find it to be the intimate place where I have found my home…it is right where you are…in your innermost being…in your heart.”

~Brennan Manning, Devotions For Ragamuffins, Pp.33

TODAY by Poor Old Lu

It is the sweetest thing to know that
To know it is right
And what a sight
To step ahead and see the Son, now…

Not a cloud in mind
Or waiting on time
I’ve emptied my hands
And now I can, I can receive

The most amazing things seem to follow
The darkest of nights
And what a sight
I am saved from the deepest of graves, now…

Not a cloud in mind
Or waiting on time
I’ve emptied my hands
And now I can, I can receive

Today
May be the most beautiful day
I don’t sing alone
And the angels say…

Today
May be the most wonderful day
I don’t sing alone
And the angels say…

Fringe

Perhaps with the bruises and sweat-burned vision of defeat

Comes a fork in the road that the jaded are forced to face

To one side a purely enlivened tilt toward stark truth

And to the other an abandoned farmhouse swirling on

The fringe of a black hole mentality where the poets

And the scientists hedge their bets on a rainbow of pills

With a periodic table of excuses born for

The purpose of blinding their eyes and stopping their own ears

To escape white noise blaring from their own gray matter

Pray I choose the former rather than the hollow latter

From Devotions For Ragamuffins by Brennan Manning, Pp.6

Jesus Christ is not only the center of the gospel but the whole gospel. The four evangelists never focus on another personality. Fringe people stay on the fringe, marginal men remain on the periphery. No one else is allowed to take center stage. Various individuals are introduced only to interrogate, respond, or react to Jesus. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Peter, Thomas, Caiphas, Pilate, and a score of others are background to the person of Jesus. He dwarfs everyone else. This is as it should be, because the New Testament is a time of salvation. When the final curtain falls, Jesus will upstage all the famous, beautiful, and powerful people who have ever lived in the course of human history. Every person will be seen as responding to Jesus. T.S. Eliot put it, “O my soul, be prepared to meet him who knows how to ask questions.” This is the proper theological understanding of the New Testament and the eschatological Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Showing That God Is Real

From Devotions For Ragamuffins by Brennan Manning, Pp.1

God’s love is based on nothing, and the fact that it is based on nothing makes us secure. Were it based on anything we do, and that “anything” were to collapse, then God’s love would crumble as well. But with the God of Jesus no such thing can possibly happen. People who realize this can live freely and to the fullest. Remember Atlas, who carries the whole world? We have Christian Atlases who mistakenly carry the burden of trying to deserve God’s love. Even the mere watching of this lifestyle is depressing. I’d like to say to Atlas: “Put that globe down and dance on it. That’s why God made it.” And to these weary Christian Atlases: “Lay down your load and build your life on God’s love.” We don’t have to earn this love; neither do we have to support it. It is a free gift. Jesus calls out:  “Come to me, all you Atlases who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.”

With this kind of freedom, if we really believe we have it, why are we so often cynical, miserable, and insensitive? I can recognize each of these tendencies in my life whether the focus of my insensitivity, cynicism, and misery is others or myself. Too often, when riding a wave of emotion or a bolt of tension, I lash out at others who I am supposed to love and respect as other children of God. Likewise, I let my own surface level interests, addictions, and fascinations get in the way of living, breathing relationships that really matter. I can either affirm or deny God’s presence, grace, and love in my life with each individual interaction that I have with others and with each decision, whether it results in victory or failure, that I make as an individual. If I don’t focus on this truth, no other aspect of my existence is going to matter. My friendships, family relationships, and overall life experience (short and long-term) will suffer if I can’t remember that I am His, that He has already won, that I have a lot to be thankful for, and that the best thing that I can do is share His grace and love with others.

Broken Christmas

It was just a couple of hours ago that I was watching “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” with my four-year-old daughter and I realized another way to answer a question that a friend asked me months ago. In reference to a quote from Brennan Manning (“To be alive is to be broken; to be broken is to stand in need of grace,”) he asked, “What does it mean to be broken?”

Part of the answer is at least hinted at by the process of Scrooge facing his past, present, and future demons and realizing he deserves nothing more than death, but, then realizing that he’s been given a second chance which he takes advantage of, humbly looking beyond himself and recognizing the needs of others.

Being broken is when we come face to face with the stark reality that we are self-centered, self-righteous, damned people. It is when we realize that all that we have that is good has been given to us and, in a knee-jerk, natural, and instinctual response, we desire nothing more than to be able to give to and serve others.

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death grip to one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything…They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it! All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional, and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them reexamine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess, but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
~Brennan Manning, Devotionals for Ragamuffins, Pp.357

I wish you a broken Christmas.
I wish you a broken Christmas.
I wish you a broken Christmas,
and a broken new year.

Originally posted 12/1/07

Spaghetti Reading (part 1)

I have a couple of tendencies the seem to keep me from reading a book in a reasonable amount of time. I love reading because of what I get out of it. Unfortunately, however, because of various circumstances I tend to have at least two or three books going at a time. These are in addition to a daily devotional book and almost daily bible reading that I do. My point is that progress with any one text, with the exception of the daily devotional, is always less than steady and seldom more than slow. That being said, I did actually finish a book today. So, I felt this would be a good time to document some of the most worthwhile reading that I’ve done lately.

Over the past few years I’ve read four different books by Brennan Manning. These are in addition to Devotions For Ragamuffins which I read on a daily basis. I learned about Manning after finding a reference to him on the Myspace page of former dc Talk member Kevin Max. After reading a bit about the background of Manning on his Myspace page I decided to give him a shot and checked The Ragamuffin Gospel out of the local library. The book was the first tremor in the landslide of change that has churned inside of me over the past few years. I went on to read Abba’s Child, Ruthless Trust, The Importance of Being Foolish, and I recently started The Wisdom Of Tenderness. Now in his 70’s, Manning’s personal, humble portrayal of his own alcoholism and life lessons immediately appealed to me, a skilled sinner, much more than any suit behind a pulpit. Manning masterfully blends down-to-earth honesty with humility in an effort to communicate the truth about God’s grace. Grace was just an overused religious buzz word to me until I read the writing of Brennan Manning. Through Manning’s writing and speaking (I attended a retreat where he spoke in Savannah, GA in February 2007) I’ve learned to accept God’s love for me by realizing that it is not dependent upon me. All men have sinned and fallen short and nobody has any hope for salvation, but, by the grace of God. We can not earn it and nobody can take it from us if we confess our faults and realize our need for him and accept that His grace is sufficient. Of course, salvation and grace don’t carry much weight with somebody if they think that they’re doing fine on their own. But, because I knew and still know that I am a flaw-laden man, I’ve been able to realize the magnificent gift that is His unconditional love.

My interest in Brennan Manning led me to a Christian bookstore one morning where I asked if they had any of his books. While they didn’t have any, the salesperson showed me a book with the foreword written by Manning: Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing To Heaven – His Life And Legacy by James Bryan Smith.

I owned one Rich Mullins CD when I was in high school. A Liturgy, A Legacy, And A Ragamuffin Band was an odd CD for me to own because most of the others in my collection had a much more adolescent spin. Mullins, on the other hand, represented a more mature, sophisticated, and less flashy Christianity compared to other Christian music that I listened to at the time (e.g., Michael W. Smith, DC Talk, Newsboys). The music that he and his Ragamuffin Band presented on that album had a unique, and beautifully folk aesthetic quality to it that was juxtaposed brilliantly with his profound, yet down to earth, lyrics. The Manning-Mullins connection exists because of the manner in which Manning’s message of grace touched Rich Mullins. A Liturgy, A Legacy, And A Ragamuffin Band (the term Ragamuffin is drawn directly from Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. Songs like “Hold Me Jesus” convey a real and honest humility from the perspective of someone who truly understood our role in relation to God, our Abba.

Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing To Heaven – His Life And Legacy provided a sketch of the life of Rich Mullins sprinkled with insights, thoughts, and commentaries excerpted from interviews with Mullins and articles that Mullins wrote while he was alive (he passed away in a car accident in 1997). The life of Rich Mullins and the manner that he chose to live his daily life made his life such an interesting and inspiring story that a Rich Mullins biography can’t help but to be a worthwhile read. But what is most memorable to me are not the many accounts of things that happened in his daily life, but, how he interpreted such events and how he reacted to them. The life of Rich Mullins is a story of a dirt-in-the-fingernails life led by someone who sincerely sought God and turned his back on the glory and acclaim that was available to him as one of Christian music’s most influential and talented artists.

“Hold Me Jesus” by Rich Mullins

Spaghetti Reading To Be Featured Soon:

The Beautiful Mess, by Rick McKinley

Unfinished Work, by Kevin Max

Save Me From Myself, by Brian “Head” Welch

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller