Speaking of God

When I was a pastor some people addressed me as “Pastor.” Others called me “Pastor John.” Some called me “Preacher” and a few referred to me as “Reverend.” If they asked what I preferred, I usually said, “My friends call me John.” But what about God? How should we address Him? Sir? Your Majesty? Some other title? He has several in Scripture. Jesus reveals the answer in the opening to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9: “This, then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven….”

Jesus frames our conversation with God in terms of relationship. Speaking of God this way was not something new. God is spoken of as a “Father” in the Old Testament. But there the title generally speaks of His role as creator and deliverer. When Jesus speaks of God as Father in the New Testament He takes it a step further. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to address God as our Father. He teaches us to address God as our Father.

More often than not the thing that shapes our approach to God in prayer is the fact that we want something. It isn’t the only thing we are interested in but it is usually the main thing. It is why we are praying. We are interested in the request itself and the request is certainly not insignificant. But thinking about prayer only in terms of what we want from God can create a problem. Instead of bringing us closer to God, this kind of praying may actually drive us apart.

In his little book How to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “Let us think of our prayers, yours and mine; think of the warmth, the depth and intensity of your prayer when it concerns someone you love, or something which matters in your life. Then your heart is open, all your inner self is recollected, in the prayer. Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject of your prayer matters to you.”

It is possible for the subject matter of our prayer–the request itself–to be so important to us that it overshadows God. The solution to this problem is not to set the request aside but to recognize that prayer is more of a relationship than a transaction. Don’t just approach God in prayer. Approach God as Father. Don’t just approach God as a Father. Come to Him as your Father.

Most of the people I know are disappointed with their prayer life. Ask them if they believe in prayer and they will say yes. Ask them if they are good at prayer and they will answer no. Usually we think that the problem lies in the mechanics. We don’t pray well. We don’t pray enough. We don’t stay on task. We get bored or distracted. But the root problem is really one of relationship. It is not that we have forgotten how to pray or even that we have forgotten that we should pray. Our problem is that we lose sight of the One to whom we pray.

Theologian Helmut Thielicke observed that we would all be orphans if it were not for Jesus: “There would be no one to hear us if He had not opened the gates of Heaven. We should all be like sheep gone astray without a shepherd. But now we have a shepherd. Now we have a father. What can ever cast us down, what can ever unhinge us as long as we look into that countenance and as long as we can say in the name of our brother Jesus Christ: Abba Father.”

How to Create the Ideal Colleague

The other day a group of us were asked to describe our ideal colleague. You wouldn’t have been surprised by the result. The person we came up with was winsome. Generous. Quick to forgive. Patient with everyone but not afraid to say the hard thing. In other words, perfect. It occurred to me when we were finished that the profile we had created didn’t look anything like me. To be honest, it didn’t look anything like any of us. It looked a bit like Jesus. Only shinier.

I am not against idealism. We all need ideals. They are inspiring. But I find that this kind of idealism doesn’t help me much when it comes to living in the real world. My heroes are my heroes precisely because they aren’t like me. I have people in my life that I admire very much. Some of them are my colleagues. But I admire them because I can’t do what they can do. In most cases, I never will.

The problem with our ideal colleague was that we did not really have ourselves in mind when we created him (or her). Not our true selves. Ours was a profile shaped mostly through reverse engineering and preening. It is easy to do. First you catalog the traits you like the least among your peers and describe the opposite. Next add the qualities you admire the most about yourself. The result will be an ideal person who does not look like anyone you hate but who looks like what you think you look like when you are at your best.

There is a word which describes this kind of idealism. I am reluctant to use it because it will seem harsh. This is not idealism at all. It is hypocrisy. The self-pleasure we took in completing the exercise should have tipped us off that something was wrong with our creation. We had been asked to come up with a portrait. Instead we produced a mirror. A false mirror at that.

The greatest challenge of living in community is not the challenge of living up to our ideal. It is the challenge of living together as we are. What we need is not a better ideal but a savior. We do not need better colleagues either. Only the grace to live with the ones we have.


Believing is Seeing

I think that the experience of the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry was a lot like ours. The week started with such promise. As Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of acclaim on Palm Sunday, His disciples must have assumed that He was coming into His own.

Yet almost immediately things begin to go South. On Monday Jesus cursed a fig tree and drove the money changers out of the temple. On Tuesday he denounced the religious leaders calling them “blind fools” and “hypocrites.” On Wednesday, at least as far as the biblical record is concerned, nothing happened. Instead of being swept into the city in victory–the whole project seems to have stalled out.

On Thursday there was that awkward Passover supper. The disciples fought among themselves about which of them should be regarded as the greatest and Jesus began acting strangely again, dressing like a household slave and washing their feet. Then, of course, the whole thing fell apart. Instead of being recognized as Israel’s rightful king, Jesus was arrested. On Friday He is tried, condemned, crucified, and buried.

Then on Saturday-nothing but silence.

And this, I think, is where many of us live in terms of our experience. We live in the silence of Holy Saturday. Things haven’t turned out the way we had expected–or the way we had hoped. It may even seem to us as if this whole “Jesus thing” has failed. Miserably.

Our problem, it turns out, is the same problem that the disciples had. We can see what God is doing (more or less) but we don’t understand it. We often wish that God would explain His actions to us. Why has He allowed things to unfold this way? But if the Gospels are any indication, we wouldn’t understand even if we were told. Because Jesus did tell His followers in advance what God was doing. They just couldn’t comprehend it.

In his book A Cross Shattered Church, the late Stanley Hauerwas observes, “We say that ‘seeing is believing,’ but it seems in matters having to do with God that ‘believing is seeing.’ But believing does not mean that we must accept twenty-three improbable propositions before breakfast. Rather, believing means being made participants in a way of life unintelligible if Jesus is not our Lord and our God. To so live is not to try to make the world conform to our wishes and fantasies, but rather to see truthfully the way the world is.” Hauerwas goes on to say that before we can see the world as it is, we must be transformed. Or to use Paul’s language, we must be transferred or translated into the Kingdom of God’s Son (Col. 1:13).

In other words, the only view which enables us to make sense of the strange things that God has done with our lives is the view from above. It is a view from the cross. It is from there that we can see, not only the cross itself, but also the empty tomb which lies beyond. It is not a vision of life which comprehends God but one that comes from Him. Hauerwas was right. Believing is seeing.


Silent Night


star1Now that Advent has arrived, I suppose it is time for my annual Christmas lament. I am reluctant to speak. I am afraid of adding another shrill note to the year’s collective shriek. Everybody, it seems to me, is up in arms. Every word is an affront.  It is tempting to blame our national mood on the election, but I believe its roots go deeper. If the outcome of the election had been different, I do not think that the tone would have changed. It would only have meant that different voices would be singing the same parts. We are all outraged now.

Outrage, of course, is often appropriate. It was the chord struck by the biblical prophets. An ancient aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine says that hope has two daughters: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the same. Without a doubt there is much in the world that deserves outrage. But I am struck by how little modern outrage is able to accomplish. For all its heat and fury, it has not proven to be an especially powerful engine for driving change. Perhaps this is because we are really enamored of a different set of twins. Proverbs 30:15 declares, “The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” The cry of our age is not the cry of love or even of justice. It is the cry of “measureless ambition,” a voice which says “me first” and “I’m here now.”

I cannot help being struck by the difference in Jesus’ tone. It was predicted by the prophet Isaiah who declared, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2). Despite the shout of joy that Heaven uttered at His birth, Jesus came into the world in relative obscurity and deliberately refused the limelight. When they tried to make Him a king by force, He opted for the path of solitude and suffering instead (John 6:15). This was not because He shunned royal office. Jesus knew it was His by right. Rather, He took this route because He knew that the only way to put things right was to take the wrong upon Himself. The beauty of Christmas is not the romance of a babe in a manger but the mystery that poet Richard Crashaw celebrates when he speaks of  “eternity shut in a span.” It is the astonishing fact that God became flesh and lived among us in order to take our sin upon Himself, working justice by His own death and resurrection.

I realize how foolish such measures will seem to those who are focused on tales of power. Yet it is God’s own self-admitted folly, designed for those who would rather exclude Him from their world than make room for His definition of justice. As for me, I will kneel in silence with Richard Crashaw and wonder at the sight:

To thee, meek Majesty! soft King

       Of simple graces and sweet loves,

Each of us his lamb will bring,

       Each his pair of silver doves;

Till burnt at last in fire of thy fair eyes,

Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.

The Yoke of Rest

crossJesus the carpenter would have been well familiar with the yoke as an implement of agriculture. A piece of wood shaped to fit over the neck of animals that have been drafted to pull a heavy load, the yoke seems a most unlikely metaphor to use in conjunction with the idea of rest. What could be more antithetical than to be compared to a beast of burden? As a farm implement the yoke was itself a burden and its function was to enable the animal who wore it to bear someone else’s load. No wonder the yoke is a common symbol of submission and oppression in Scripture (Gen 27:40; Ex 6:6-7; 1 Kings 12:4; Is 9:4; 10:27; Gal 5:1; 1 Tim 6:1).

The yoke, after all, was more than a tool. It was an instrument of exploitation. The yoke was the means the farmer used to gain full advantage of the animal’s strength. It is true that the beast received a kind of benefit from the yoke. It enabled him to bear the weight of the load. But the load itself was a burden the animal would never have taken up if not for the intrusion of the farmer. The farmer thinks nothing of it. To the farmer the only reason the animal exists is to bear such burdens. The animal thinks nothing of it either, since it is a brute beast and lacks the capacity to reason. But we are not animals. We do not want to be anyone’s beast of burden. Why would Jesus think such an image would appeal to us?

The answer is that we are already under a yoke. Wendell Berry is right: “We are all to some extent the products of an exploitive society, and it would be foolish and self-defeating to pretend that we do not bear its stamp.” It would be equally foolish to pretend that the church does not bear its stamp. When Berry contrasts the values of the exploiter with those of the nurturer, it is hard not to feel that the contemporary church lines up on the wrong side: “The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care.”9 The exploiter’s primary interest is return on investment. The nurturer is concerned about health. As a result, Berry explains, “The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, ‘hard facts’; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.”

Of course, we do not consider what we do in the church exploitation. We have more spiritual words to describe our values and behavior. We speak of our programs and our efforts at branding as positioning and contextualization rather than consumerism. Our congregational busyness is a way to activate the ministry of our members, not use them. We justify our actions by saying that we are only trying to be effective. Perhaps we are.

Yet God in his dealings with the church betrays a disturbing a lack of interest in effectiveness as we have defined it. He does not seem interested in numbers. The people he sends to us are not strategic at all. They are a rabble who look more like the laborers, hookers and marginal people that Jesus consorted with in the Gospels than the gifted individuals we had hoped would fill out our ranks. And they are far from effective. Their lives, if they are not a complete shambles, are at least in serious disarray. No wonder we prefer our elegant systems to the roughhewn implement Jesus offers. Jesus does not offer us a system or a method. He offers us a yoke (Matthew 11:28-29). The yoke of rest that Jesus offers can be taken, but it cannot be seized by force. We do not manage ourselves into it, acquire it by bargain or even attain it by discipline. Rest as Jesus describes it must be done for us. This rest is as relational as it is experiential. We come to Christ and he refreshes us. We do not come to Christ, receive our rest and then go our way. By offering us rest, Christ offers himself.

John Koessler’s latest The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap is now available from InterVarsity Press

The Weight of a Soul

The Radical Pursuit of RestIn 1901 a scientist named Duncan McDougall believed he could ascertain the weight of the soul. He tried to accomplish this by measuring the weight of six patients as they died. Based on his experiments, he concluded that the human soul weighed twenty-one grams. Unfortunately subsequent attempts to reproduce McDougall’s experiments were unsuccessful, leading scientists to conclude that his methods were flawed and the results invalid. Yet even if the soul is weightless, it is clear that it can be weighed down. Our personal experience is proof enough that such burdens are real, even if they cannot be calculated in grams or pounds.

The soul can be burdened by anxiety (Prov 12:25), a state of mind in which concern is amplified by fear. The concern itself is often legitimate, which is the very thing that enables fear to grow so easily. When Jesus warned his disciples not to worry about what they would eat, drink or wear in Matthew 6:25, he was not implying that such concerns were trivial. If we don’t eat, we die. Food is necessary to life. Clothing is necessary too, required by most cultures for both warmth and modesty. Even God recognizes this—food and clothing were among the first things he provided for those he created. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, he gave him the freedom to eat of all the trees but one (Gen 2:15-17). After Adam and Eve sinned, God replaced the makeshift garments they had thrown together with garments of skin he crafted especially for them (Gen 3:21).

Jesus acknowledges that food and clothing are necessities in Matthew 6:32. And it is this very recognition that underlies his instruction to cast worry aside. Why shouldn’t we be anxious about such things? Because God already knows we need them. He always has. Anxiety as Jesus diagnoses it is not the result of misdirected concern so much as it is a consequence of misaligned confidence. We feel the weight of anxiety because we have placed our trust in the wrong thing. We depend on the means of production. Or we rely on the things that are produced. Jesus says all these things come from the hand of God. As he puts it, there is more to life (literally, the soul) than food and more to the body than clothing (Mt 6:25).

Jesus indicates that we have more important things to worry about. There is a life that is greater than physical life and a death that is worse than physical death. We have better things to pursue than food and clothing. It is the pagan who runs after these things; this is what people do when they have no God.

But more than anything else, Jesus’ words direct our attention beyond our daily concerns to one who is greater than they are. He redirects our focus from the concerns themselves to the one who is concerned for us. We do not need to be anxious about food and clothing because our heavenly Father knows we need them. Thus the weight of anxiety is the soul’s misapprehension. It is the thinking of people who see themselves as orphaned. Such anxiety is the anguished cry of a soul that has forgotten it has a Father in heaven.

From The Radical Pursuit of Rest by John Koessler now available from InterVarsity Press.

Resurrection and the Worrier

jesus_prayingI have mixed feelings about the future. I know I am supposed to look forward to it, but experience has shown me that the future is not always an improvement on the present. My health can decline. My dreams may dissolve into regret. I do not really know what lies before me, and even when I do, it sometimes turns out to be something I dread. Even Jesus shuddered as he contemplated the looming shadow of the cross in Gethsemane.
It is hard to deal with the anxiety that comes hand in hand with the future. We cannot plan for it. We do not seem to be able to overcome it by sheer force of will. “You do not get over being afraid by trying not to be afraid,” Stanley Hauerwas warns. “Indeed we usually find that attempts to will our way out of being afraid only make us more fearful.” According to Hauerwas the most effective remedy for fear is to replace it with a different kind of fear. This sounds counterintuitive. But commonplace fear is really only a lower order experience of what in a nobler form we refer to as awe.
This was what Jesus meant when he warned, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). On the surface this sounds as if Jesus is merely replacing one threat with another. It is as if he said, “You think it’s bad that they can kill you? Just wait until you see what God can do!” But when we look beyond the sad events of holy week to the shining hope of resurrection, we see his words in a different light. We can be killed but we cannot be dispossessed. No earthly power can remove us from the sheltering love of God. The one who has power to do more than our enemies has also numbered the hairs of our head. He does not forget the sparrow that is sold for small change. He will not forget us. We have nothing to fear from the future.

Now That Christmas is Gone

saintnickNow that Christmas has come and gone, I have a confession to make. I am happy to see its back. Christmas is one of those guests who look better from a distance than then they do close up. The holiday is resplendent in its approach, drawing near in garments that speak of transcendence. But upon closer inspection they prove to be threadbare and garish. More gaudy than gaudia. Christmas is a high maintenance guest with an extravagant diet. It takes over the whole house, declaiming like the duke and dauphin in The Royal Nonesuch.

Don’t get me wrong. There are moments of transcendence. But they come at awkward moments during the holiday and in unexpected situations. They are more likely to occur when Christmas drops its guard. They show up in the grace notes more often than they do in the melody line. They are more liable to happen in the car than in church. The glory manifests itself the silence of familiar companionship more than in the buzzy conversation of celebration.

I confess that I am relieved when Christmas finally departs. I watch it trundle off with all its packages and my anxiety subsides. But I suppose I should not blame the holiday for the stress. The fault is my own. I am the one who is distracted. The expectations are mine. I am the one who thinks that one magical day can wipe away my disappointments and reset the years. Now that it is past, I can lower my expectations. Everything can go back to normal.

At least for a while. In a few days we will have another visitor. It is that insufferable brat New Year Year’s Day, which will announce its arrival with fire crackers and dissipation. But at least New Year’s Day is less demanding than Christmas and departs more quickly. In a matter of hours I will have forgotten all about it. And begin counting the days until Advent approaches once more.


Still Wonderful

nativity3A popular song calls Christmas the most “wonderful” time of the year. But some pastors might be tempted to use a different word to describe the season. Christmas is to churches what Black Friday is to retailers. It is the busiest time of the year, when attendance reaches its peak. Church’s Christmas services are viewed as the most important of the year. Pastors feel pressured to exceed last year’s numbers and to tell the familiar story in a way that is bigger and better.

Unfortunately, this often leaves us feeling exhausted, depressed, and cynical. Attendance may reach a high point at Christmas, but when January comes it dips again. The visitors who showed up at Christmas will not reappear until next December. The heady excitement generated by families coming together at church is mixed with a dash of melancholy for many pastors who serve at a distance from their own extended family. Consequently, we go about our business grumbling like Scrooge, reciting Paul’s warning in Galatians 4:10 about observing special days, and reminding people that Christmas wasn’t actually celebrated by the church until the fourth century. Humbug!

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Jesus’ affectionate reproof to Martha in Luke 10:42: “Only one thing is needed!” The wonder is not in the day or in the season but in the birth that they commemorate. We do not need another extravaganza. We do not need to tell the old story in a new way. There is enough wonder in the story of Christ’s first advent to last for eternity. Perhaps we have grown jaded because we have co-opted the story for our own purposes and turned it into a marketing tool. We have allowed our voice (and our interests) to drown out the song of the angels. This Christmas, do not be afraid to say it simply and to say it again: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

Shepherding the Suffering

visittothehospitalWhen I was a pastor I thought it was my job to make suffering people feel better. I was dismayed at how unsuccessful I was at it. I counseled the hurting and prayed for the dying, Yet people seemed no better when I left than they were when I arrived. Their condition had not significantly improved, at least as far as I could tell.

In time I came to see that it was not my job to make suffering people feel better. That is God’s job. My job was to remind people of God’s presence. Most of the time pastoral ministry in the context of suffering is the ministry of presence not the ministry of repair. We may sit in silence or we may speak words of promise but we do not fix. We cannot. The problems are too great. They call for a remedies that are far beyond the scope of our skill or ability.

In the moment of suffering this ministry of presence seems terribly inadequate. We leave the hospital bedside confounded. Or we feel a mounting sense of panic as the counseling session progresses and we realize that we have no simple solution to recommend.

Days, months or even years later, when some someone reminds us of the crisis and thanks us for being such a help, we are astonished. “What did I do?” we ask in honest wonder. With a gentle smile they answer in kind, offering truth for truth: “You were there!”