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I’m no slouch when it comes to discipline. Granted, it’s usually on or off. I eat and party and I fast and work with equal intensity.
I graduated Summa Cum Laude (even so, I will admit I had to look up how to spell that). Then I earned an MBA with straight “A”s. I did get a “B” in seminary, but that’s only because I adamantly disagreed with a professor (an expert on Pascal) about who discovered the vacuum. I’ll cut the guy some slack; he’s very old. Hell, maybe he was there when the vacuum was discovered.
Anyway, everything I do, from being a husband (20 years, thank you very much) and father of three, to my work at Key Life, I give it all I got.
I tell you all that for two reasons.
First, I want you to know that I’m not just the silly DJ you hear on the radio. Every clown secretly wants to play Hamlet. Either way, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Second, it’s relevant to the topic of grace and discipline.
When I first became a Christian, you wouldn’t have liked me at all. I burned everyone who entered the atmosphere of my self-righteousness. You see, when I came to faith, I was determined to earn straight “A”s in Christianity like I did in every other area of my life.
To this day, my commitment to personal excellence (and the pressure that comes with that) easily drifts into judgment of all the “slackers” who don’t subject themselves to the torture I put myself through. Most recently, I’ve been particularly unimpressed with web designers.
It took a year of trying to wow God with my true quality before I popped. I got high, chilled out and decided that being a “real” Christian is impossible. It was such a relief to give up. I vowed never to try to please God again. (It was years before I realized that Christians don’t have to. It’s crazy to try and please someone who’s already quite pleased. Jesus did say, “It is finished.”)
And so it began, my experiment with grace. I told God he could have my life and make me more moral or less addicted, whatever he wanted. The ball was in his court, but I was not going to drive myself (and everyone around me) nuts with the never-ending, exhausting effort to perfect myself. That would have been suicide.
I got better in some ways, worse in others, and ended up in what I call the cul-de-sac of grace (I had to look up cul-de-sac, too). I went around and around in circles wanting to change some destructive things in my life, but I didn’t know how. I knew what trying got me before and I just couldn’t bear the weight and stink of self-righteousness. Still, even though I didn’t look very much like a Christian, the good news of the Bible assured me that God loved me, not because I was lovable, but because he is Love. That grace is truly radical! I knew God liked me no matter what… but I didn’t like myself.
That’s when I found the spiritual disciplines.
What, you may ask, does the free and unconditional love of God apart from any good works have to do with fasting and praying and service and studying the scriptures, etc.? If we’re free, why flog ourselves? Aren’t the spiritual disciplines just another way the monkey performs for divine bananas?
Richard Foster put it this way in his classic, Celebration of Discipline:
“Picture a narrow ledge with a sheer drop-off on either side. The chasm to the right is the way of moral bankruptcy through human strivings for righteousness. Historically this has been called the heresy of moralism. The chasm to the left is the way of moral bankruptcy through the absence of human strivings. This has been called the heresy of antinomianism. On the ledge there is the path, the Disciplines of the spiritual life. This path leads to the inner transformation and healing for which we seek. We must never veer off to the right or the left, but stay on the path. The path is fraught with severe difficulties, but also with incredible joys. As we travel on this path, the blessing of God will come upon us and reconstruct us into the image of His Son Jesus Christ. We must always remember that the path does not produce the change; it only puts us in the place where the change can occur. This is the way of disciplined grace.”
I read that and I had to see if Foster was full of it. For years now I’ve been experimenting with the classic spiritual disciplines and I’m happy to say that Richard is right.
As an aside, remember, I work at Key Life Network, the Mecca of radical grace. When I talk about my efforts here, eyes roll. They know I’m a self-obsessed overachiever and they figure I’ve fallen off the freedom wagon. With certain things, grace people can be so uptight. Oh well, a prophet is without honor in his own studio.
So, now I find myself deep in the desert of Lent. In the past, I’ve been quite successful with my 40-day commitments. A number of times I observed Lent by eating only raw fruits and vegetables with no alcohol or caffeine. That was my plan again this year, except for the fact that I determined wine is raw so I wouldn’t give that up. I also vowed not to smoke. (Steve Brown is very gracious when it comes to me taking his pipe tobacco, but I could tell I had been pushing the boundaries of his generosity. I was also grossing out my wife with my stank.)
I did well for a couple weeks; lost ten pounds. Then I went off the rails with beer and pizza and whiskey… and I got into Steve’s pipe tobacco while he was gone. There, I said it. I hope the grace police at Key Life are happy!
This Lent has been one of the best yet, but not for the reason you may think. Sure I enjoyed the food and drink, but the reason this Lent is one to remember is because my weakness has been put on display for me and everyone who knew about the promises I made.
I just couldn’t pull it off. I gave up. I told my wife I blew it and she said, “You suck,” and then walked away. (Don’t hold it against her. She gets grumpy when she hasn’t had any sweets for a month.)
I got a different reaction from God when I told him about my fall from works. He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
With the Apostle Paul I replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
I am so very weak. My wife is right. I do suck. I broke my promises. I don’t have what it takes. But my Lenten failure has been a catalyst for me to celebrate Jesus’ success on my behalf. All those times I kept my Lenten commitments, when I got to Easter I was able to point to the “A” I got in Religion 101 as a sign of my discipline. Not this year. On Easter I’ll be pointing to the one who remains faithful when I flounder. This year I will boast in my weakness, so the power of Christ may rest upon me.
What does all that have to do with spiritual disciplines? Everything. It was my whole-hearted engagement in the discipline of fasting that put me on a collision course with the revelation of my weakness and God’s grace. How can you fail if you don’t try? And how can you know God loves you unconditionally if you don’t fail?
Remember, the spiritual disciplines aren’t about showing off, they’re just about showing up. They’re about creating the conditions for an encounter with the reality of yourself and the transforming reality of God. Listen to Richard Foster again:
“A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He puts the seed in the ground where the natural forces take over and up comes the grain. That is the way with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace … God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we are placed where he can bless us.”
So pray, and when you just can’t pray anymore, our great High Priest will pray for you. Serve others, and when you’re spent, go to him, weary and heavy-laden, and he with give you rest. Fast, and when you just can’t live without pizza one second longer, thank the One from whom every good and perfect gift flows.
Radical discipline and radical grace go together because the spiritual disciplines are a means of grace. We don’t use our strength to try to improve ourselves or to earn God’s approval. That leads to self-righteousness. Still, we don’t cease all effort either. No, we use our strength to practice the spiritual disciplines in order that we may set the stage for an encounter with the healing presence of our God, our weakness, and his grace.
As the season of Lent began, the priest put ashes on my head and we asked God to help us “remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
As Lent draws to a close, I can see that my failure has answered that prayer.
I never knew that there was an ammunition shortage because I long ago quit shooting expensive bullets at paper targets, or cans, or at empty beer bottles. Well, usually I don’t, it depends on how much I’ve had to drink. But the fact is, over my sixty-plus years I’ve collected enough shot shells, bullets, and BBs that I just didn’t think I’d ever need any more.
Then my nephews came for a visit and they left me with a seriously depleted stock. I still didn’t care. But then one day I figured I’d go get a hundred rounds of .22 bullets. You know, those little 2 cent things that you can buy bricks of 500 for $9.99?
Nope. Not anymore. I went to every on-line distributor and they had SOLD OUT on every block. I went to Wal-Mart and was told I needed to get in line at 7:00AM and wait my turn and maybe if I was lucky I could buy a box. Nope, not me. I went to Bass Pro Shop, (Surely they would have .22 rounds, I mean, come on!) but they told me the same thing. What were people doing with them? Sprinkling them on their cereal?
I asked one of my students and he told me that people were stock-piling them against the coming Armageddon. Really? .22s? I lapsed into disbelief surrounded by holiday cheer and spirits. Lots of spirits. Here it is 2014 and I am still no closer to buying any .22 rounds, and now I’m wondering what the hell is wrong with so many fundamentally normal people that they would be stupid enough to hoard little .22 rounds for the coming battle against the… what? The devil? The anti-Christ? Democrats? Republicans? Incumbents? Big Business? (No, clearly buying all that ammunition is good for big business…) I don’t have a clue, so I went back to that aforementioned student and asked him.
“Do you have a lot of bullets?”
“Sure, thousands of rounds for each gun I own.”
“What do you do with all the bullets?”
“I keep them in my safe. Or rather, in one of my safes.”
“Why?” I asked.
“So people won’t steal them. I keep all my guns in my safes too, except for the two or three I carry and have stashed in my car and around the house.”
“Do people know about all the bullets you have?”
“Some people do. I just told you.”
“Do people know about all the guns you have and carry?”
“I guess some people do. I just told…”
“Yeah, I got that. So if people know all about the bullets and all the guns… Why do you need a safe?”
“Never mind.” I said.
My biggest problem is that I have actually survived alone on my wits, a knife, a shotgun, and a tarp for several months up in the high country in Colorado. I just wanted to know if I could do it. I was smart enough to know that a .410 shotgun loaded with number 6 shot will bring down a grouse or a rabbit. I also knew I could put a slug into the breach and kill a mountain lion or a deer. Same would be true for some 000 size buck-shot. A shotgun is an extremely versatile weapon, one that can be used easily to put food on the table and help defend the house.
I once had a room-mate that bought a tiny .380 pistol and a thousand rounds of ammo for the coming Armageddon. Back then I just thought he was a fucking idiot. I asked him if he had ever heard of a shotgun.
“You can’t really conceal a shotgun.”
“Who cares?” I asked.
“Well you don’t want to get arrested by the police.”
“During Armageddon? You’re worried about police and concealed weapons during Armageddon?”
“Dan, you just don’t understand.”
See? The other big problem I have with all these thousands of rounds of stockpiled ammo is the mere fact that in every gunfight I have been involved in, there were rarely more than a few shots exchanged unless it was a major offensive or an ambush with a large force of enemy combatants. Most gunfights don’t last very long. You would really have to be entrenched in order to shoot more than an extended magazine.
So, why stockpile thousands of rounds?
Fear? Okay, I can think about that at least. I’m afraid of a few things. I’m afraid for my health care. My doctor just told me he won’t see me anymore. Boy does that suck; I’ve been dating him for 25 years. (Sorry, that’s a prostate joke. Just you wait.) Thanks, Obama. My health care cost just went way up. Thanks, Obama. My grandchildren’s future is bleak because of the ridiculous financial burden placed on the American people by… Obama. I can’t buy any ammo since… Obama. I’m sensing a pattern here.
Okay, people are afraid of the future. I get that. People are unemployed or underemployed. People have lost their homes. People are seeing the American dream dissipate before their very eyes. But… Armageddon?
Isn’t that a bit much, folks? And wouldn’t all that ammo money go a long way if you’re worried about food and housing? I think we are at least a few decades away from Armageddon and by then the use-by date on most of that ammo will have expired. Sheesh…
What else? Phil Everly died. Bad day for music. Auburn lost, bad day for Alabama. Planes crash, just plain bad. The world (despite all the hopes of global warming advocate ass-monkeys) is sunk in a deep freeze and old people are burning their furniture to stay warm. Thank God I have a house in Florida.
Brother, can you spare a .22?
Jan 7, 2014
Utopian idealism makes utopias impossible. The impure, those who don’t measure up to the utopian ideals, eventually must be cleansed from the ranks through dystopian violence. This has proven true throughout history by tribes, governments and religions alike.
The divisions continue in my own faith tradition, if not through physical violence then through severed communion in the name of doctrinal purity. This from a body of believers who claim the name of the one who prayed that we, “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
So, what to do, separate from those who refuse to acknowledge the unity of all believers? Are we to eventually be one by forming new denominations of one within which we are the only true believer left? It sounds silly, but that’s what utopian idealism gets you… isolation and loneliness.
What if we stop trying to answer Jesus’ prayer and instead realize that our Father already has? We are one. It is finished. None of our efforts to purify ourselves and our communities can add anything to our union, they only serve to lessen our experience of a gift freely given by an unconditionally loving God.
God in us and us in God, union with the one who is Love, what a beautiful reality. We have to stumble within it and dare to hope it is true, every day, every minute, if we are to dwell with each other in greater degrees of peace and love.
Now, you may not give a shit about what religious people suffer because of our religion, but everyone wants better relationships. We all suffer from a lonely thirst that is only quenched by the living water all around us… even within us. This is the way to healing for both a broken church and for our broken relationships. The alternative is more pain and division.
Check out this extended quote from Henri Nouwen about the futility of burdening those we love with “divine expectations.” I hope seeing the problem clearly helps point you to more love and unity in the coming year.
“When our loneliness drives us away from ourselves into the arms of our companions in life, we are, in fact, driving ourselves into excruciating relationships, tiring friendships and suffocating embraces.
No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. And by burdening others with these divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often only partially aware, we might inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other. They ask for gentle fearless space in which we can move to and from each other. As long as our loneliness brings us together with the hope that together we no longer will be alone, we castigate each other with our unfulfilled and unrealistic desires for oneness, inner tranquility and the uninterrupted experience of communion.
Indeed, it seems that the desire for ‘final solutions’ often forms the basis for the destructive violence that enters into the intimacy of human encounters. Mostly this violence is a violence of thoughts, violating the mind with suspicion, inner gossip or revengeful fantasies. Sometimes it is a violence of words disturbing the peace with reproaches and complaints, and once in a while it takes the dangerous form of harmful actions. Violence in human relationship is so utterly destructive because it not only harms the other but also drives the self into a vicious circle asking for more and more when less and less is received.”
- Henri Nouwen (Reaching Out)