Weddings and Tabernacles

I think that I probably should have done this earlier. Actually, I know I should have. It seems only natural, if I fancy myself a creative writer, that I would write about the love of my life. Maybe even that I wouldn’t be able to stop writing and that I would be compelled to share it–to cry it out from the rooftops even. Great love does that. It makes you create. It makes even the least “flowery” people blossom in response to the grace that is offered when real genuine love takes place.

Jillian has shown me more grace than I thought a person could show, and she does it with the same ease and elegance that seems to propel her when she dances. In all honesty, I am entranced by her. It is an enchantment that fills me up and then spills over.

So on New Year’s Eve I asked her to marry me. First she cried and then she said yes. I wish it would have been the other way around just for my nerves sake. I wish she would have said yes and then cried. Instead, I had to wait. And the truth is that, for her, I am more than happy to.

But lately I have been wondering why I haven’t created and shared more in response to our relationship. Those who know me, have heard me speak, lead worship, or have come across any project that I am apart of know what great importance I place on vulnerability–the bearing of one’s soul in order to help people engage God more freely. And certainly something as big as this in my life would be always on my thoughts and so consequently involved in my creating.

Yet I have been very careful and guarded. Some of the reason lies in my past. I have had bad relationships that have only gotten worse when people have been permitted to muddy the waters as much as they wish so I am leery of that. Most of the reason stems from what I believe Jillian and I are creating…a sacred place. A place where only God, she and I are allowed. The very thought of it makes me smile.

Creating such a space, in my mind, requires great discernment and patience. It means I have to be careful about talking about that space or creating from it. It means I have to be careful, even reverent, entering into and leaving Jillian’s presence.

And there it is…that word. Presence. Isn’t it interesting how your spiritual formation can run parallel to the events in your life? Lately I have been learning about God’s presence. More specifically, remembering his presence.

There are many threads that weave through God’s story. One undoubtedly being a God who is always present and a people who always forget that. Yet in the midst of their (our) forgetfulness God continues to expand the scope of his presence through Jesus and then through the revealing of The Holy Spirit, by whom God not only dwells among us but within us. Now that’s presence.

But it didn’t begin there. When the Israelites were rescued from slavery in Egypt they were given a list of commandments to follow, which can seem a little harsh especially when we immediately picture Charlton Heston standing on a mountainside with his white locks blowing in the wind and his booming voice reverberating off the rock. It looks a little different when we picture a God giving guidelines to his people so that they might not forget him again and chase after generic freedom instead of the authentic kind he offers–the kind that is born from love and parts seas.

Then they are instructed to do something else–to build a space for God.

“Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.” -Exodus 25:8+9

And then come the instructions. And they keep coming and coming. In fact,Exodus 25-30 is nothing but specific instructions about how the people of God should construct and conduct themselves around this dwelling place…this tabernacle. We’re talking exact measurements, materials, garments, ceremonies. Everything is precise down to the goat hair and the ram fat.

Now what we know, and what the Israelites surely knew, is that God is big. So there is no way that they believed they were building a place that would encapsulate God or contain him. Even the word tabernacle means something bigger than four walls and a roof. It means to take up residence. So there must have been something to the building of that place. Something that God wanted them to know (or remember) about his presence with them–what it meant for the God of the universe to “take up residence” and then how they were to respond.

When God bent down into the dark and spoke life into existence it was awesome for a lot of reasons. One that strikes me especially is how intricate it all is. Science has helped us to see the detailed nature of God’s creation. He wasn’t sloppy. From the very beginning he was saying something to us. Something like…

“Here, I am building you a place. And in every nook and cranny of it I have carefully placed evidence of my intentions. My intent is to love you so much that I dwell in every part of your being. In every blink of your eye and every step of your feet, I am there. This is my tabernacle”

What other response could we have to that than to meet God’s presence with reverent and humble obedience and awe. So maybe the building of the tabernacle for the Israelites was a practice in responding to God’s presence. That maybe through diligent and meticulous building and ceremony they would be able to remember a God who had never and would never forget them.

My reason for writing about this now is because what usually comes after a wedding proposal that is accepted is a wedding. And, to be honest, I don’t know how I feel about them. I know they are fun and touching, but really what it is is one expensive and uncomfortable day where you see a lot of people and get a lot of pictures taken–an introverts hell, basically. This admittedly negative outlook has managed to seep into the preliminary stages of Jillian and I’s planning for “the big day” and that’s not good.

So I need a different outlook. How about this…

When I asked Jillian to marry me it was because I wanted every part of my life to be a part of our life, if that makes sense. I wanted every laugh, every loss, everything I do to be a part of our marriage. That even when we’re a part we’re not a part. We’re together. That’s a big deal.

Rarely will you get the opportunity in life to construct a day to represent a commitment like that. So I am deciding to plan this wedding as if I am building a tabernacle. So that every dollar saved and every flower chosen is a sign of my taking up residence with my bride–my intentions to be with her. I will let you know how it goes.

Now the big question…if God created this world as his tabernacle then what does that mean for every moment of my life? If everything around me is reminding me of God’s presence then how might the importance of each second change in response to that?

 

 

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Re: Defining Things

I recently received an interesting email asking me to define “social justice” and “environmental holiness” (their quotes). I doubt the person who sent it was looking for this long a response but I was so glad for the question so that I could flesh out what God has been showing me lately. So glad in fact that I decided to share it here. Check out my response. Happy New Year. 

Friend-

Thanks for the question. It’s interesting how God works within these “man made” terms. To be honest, when I first began to use them I probably didn’t really understand the breadth of their meaning in the everyday life of someone who wants to follow Christ. But God continues to expand my imagination about both things, which makes questions like yours hard to answer not because of a lack of what God has taught me, but because (Thank the Lord) he is still teaching me. And I am still listening and being humbled, being broken and built up again with new thoughts and understandings. 

As for social justice…we are currently working on themes for Credo Journal which is a monthly, topic-based piece that we produce that I have taken the lead on. As my friends Paul and Ryan and myself were thinking and praying about this Paul mentioned something that he was doing with his youth group at church. He was basing his whole next year of ministry on remembering the poor. 

 At first, I have to admit, I thought it sounded thin. How could you base a whole year on just that one thing? So much would be missed, right? But then I imagined seeing the whole narrative from that perspective…

 Remembering the poor in contrast to the abundant giving inherent in creation

Remembering the poor as a result of our shared brokenness 

Remembering the poor in the hope of God’s promises

Remembering God’s presence with the poor seen through Jesus. 

 And on and on. I was blown away. There are many beautiful messages weaved into God’s story I guess I just never thought that remembering the poor was as important as I now believe it is. My imagination was full of “what ifs”. 

 What if every prayer began with a plea for the poor, and not just the economically poor but the spiritually poor and the physically poor? What if families around dinner tables were lead by teens in prayer for those who don’t have anything to eat? What might The Holy Spirit begin to do if we asked for him to move in response to our consistent remembering of the weak and downtrodden? How might systems change? What might be asked of us each day?

 I think this is what living out social justice means. It isn’t telling everyone to go out and be Shane Claiborne or Mother Teresa. It is intentionally remembering the poor in all that we do and then trusting that The Spirit will guide us in what he would have us do to help people who have found themselves outside the “life boat” if you will allow me to use that term. 

 As for environmental holiness…for me it’s pretty simple but not if you know what I mean. My greatest physical connection to God next to interaction with people comes through nature. This is what causes me to not understand atheists. How can you look at the stars, the sunrise, the seasons, the trees, the mountains and the way they all flow together in a rhythm and not see God in all of it?

 And just like any great gift it comes with a choice. I have a recycle bin out in my garage and every time I finish a soda I am faced with this simple decision. My trash can is conveniently located in my kitchen where it is warm and close. Going to the recycle bin includes opening doors and entering my cold garage and finding that green box in the dark. It would be easier to just lean into the kitchen and toss the can into the trash, but when I make the effort of recycling I do it because it is a simple way of showing God that I want to be a good steward of what he made. The same goes for the garden that I tried and failed at last spring. I remember how great it was to get my hands in the dirt and see the plants grow. I also remember how the work was hard and how uncool it was to have raccoons eat my tomatoes. But that’s all a part of it. 

 I believe that we are connected to the earth and environmental holiness should be our way of remembering that. The not so simple part is trying to get through all the systems we have set up that caused us to forget. What to buy and what not to buy. Where to shop and where not to. How to conserve water. How to minimize waste. Being informed is tough and I won’t ever pretend that I am great at it. But we try. 

 Man, I know this might have not been what you were looking for but I am not much of a one line definition kind of guy. I learn best in stories so this is usually what you’ll get when you ask me a question like that. Thanks for taking the time to check out our stuff. We pour ourselves into it so it’s always great to hear people are taking the time to really give it a look. 

 Let me know if you have any other questions. Sorry it took me so long to get back but I was out on winter break. I hope this message finds you well.

 Peace.

Jason

A World Unbroken-UNEDITED

Note to reader: I originally wrote this as an intro to the student piece I worked on for a project called A World Unbroken. After the magic of editing only the tail end survived, which made sense for the book but I figured I would post it here. I am very proud of this project for a lot of reasons. Maybe the most of which being that it reflects the gospel by not asking students to merely manage brokenness but to UNBREAK IT.

When I was seventeen I was struggling. This most likely isn’t a surprise. In fact, most likely, when you read that sentence you had the almost uncontrollable urge to nod your head in understanding. As life stretches us out, it seems that we become very aware of the struggle. The crazy thing is that often times…no, all the time it is this struggle that defines us. It is the trouble that we go through that makes us who we are. It is how we learn and, more importantly, it is how we change.

So this is what we are doing here…we are struggling. And then out of our struggles, out of our conflicts, out of our battles change blooms and God is present. Now don’t get me wrong, if we are paying close attention we can feel, hear, taste, and touch God in all of it–both the famine and the feast. But it is in these moments of change, it seems, that God’s glory sits around us like a dense fog in a deep forest. And whether we are resting by a tree or running for our lives we are simply unable to see past Him. The shades of mercy all around us are simply too thick to ignore any longer.

And we know, without doubt, that things will never be the same.

So when I was seventeen I was struggling and out of my struggles came a poem. There is nothing particularly cool about this poem. You have probably written better. I don’t really even know why I wrote it, but I am 28 years old now and I still look at these words everyday.

I stumbled upon a crumpled up something

I could call it a blossoming dream

I picked it up and put it in my pocket

And now it is always with me

Recently I led a small group and I gave all the participants a copy of this poem and asked them to take a week to look at it and come back with thoughts and ideas about what it meant to them. The responses were all unique and intriguing—everything from “I didn’t get it” to “I related” to “Oh my word, what a dumb poem. Why did you waste my time”.

But with a little effort everyone had a story to share about what the short verse meant in his or her life. And as I sat and listened to each person in the circle I started to visualize a single strand of string carefully lassoing each soul before weaving it’s way to the next until everyone was neatly knit together.

It wasn’t the stories themselves that connected us. To be sure, the stories were as different and as colorful as the people that shared them. There were stories of broken homes, broken relationships, broken bodies, and broken dreams. It was the words that were used by each individual that began to strike a chord in unison. Words like “broken”, “hurt”, “lost” that then turned into a million different ways to say one simple and common phrase…

“but now…”

Whether it was a dream of what could be or the reality of what had come to pass, the common thread that bound us together was the beautiful idea of things made new, made whole, restored.

Now I want you think about that for more than a moment. Let the thought sit in your mind like a seed and then don’t neglect it. Nurture it. You may find that the roots of that idea extend into your own story as well. That in some weird and mysterious way you could have been sitting in the circle with me and my friends, and the common thread that joined us together might have gracefully entwined your soul just as easily.

Now as you water that thought, allow it to become a question…

Why?

Why are we drawn to stories of restoration? Why do we dream about things being redeemed? Why does our soul react to broken things made whole again? Why is this the one thing, amidst a world of differences, that seems to bind us together?

The idea that the things which are hurting need to be healed.

As I sat in that circle surrounded by forming and finished pictures of God’s faithfulness I had a quick moment of idiotic arrogance. Maybe it was the words of my simple poem that had done this. Maybe, by some act of dumb luck, the scribed lyrics of a seventeen year old kid often overly distracted by girls and sports had years later created this atmosphere that tapped into the community of all humankind.

After an internal laugh I came to my senses and realized that my somewhat coherent poem had little, if anything, to do with it. The common thread we were discussing that night is one that is as ancient as time.

It is the reason you have picked up this book. It is the reason you will turn the page. It is the reason…

So now we begin.

I can imagine that people will flip through this Student Guide and call us crazy. How can we possibly think that you might be capable of all this? The time commitment, the courage, and the motivation it will take to complete this experience will be immense. This will be hard. This will be a struggle. But it might just be the struggle that defines your life.

I tend to think that the same skeptics who would doubt you would be the ones who would tremble at the idea of you embracing this mission. What might happen to your church? What might happen to your campus, your community, the world?

Look around you. This world is just as full of pictures of God as it is pictures of His broken intentions for us–His created ones. And whether you realize it or not, you have been included in a story that began long ago and is still being told today. It is a story of things lost and things found. It is a story of great sorrow and great hope. But above all, it is a story of love and it requires your response.

It is not enough for you to be moderately or relevantly interested in things like holiness, compassion, social justice, and environmental stewardship.

Encountering the story of God, and embracing God’s mission means being swept up in a wave with no certain path, but a certain destination.

So I leave you with another question that is also a challenge…

Look around you.

What if…

We could see the world…

As a blossoming dream?

Conspiracy or Trick (2 of 2)

2nd and 3rd read

For those who are tracking, this post is my response to reading the 4th chapter of a book called Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard and looking at The Sermon on the Mount, especially the “blessed” statements differently as a result.

The title of these two posts is not calling into question the title of Willard’s book but instead pondering at my own “silliness” in the way I have read and found meaning in Jesus’ first words on that hillside. As I stated the post before the big question that really has begun to change in me as I have wrestled with Willard’s words is this:

What if Jesus’ words on that hillside weren’t about striving to be a certain way or trying to maintain a certain mindset in order to earn my ticket into the kingdom, but instead about what I need to give up in order to even begin to grasp the tangibility of Heaven here and now?

I am clumping these last two reads together because as I thought about it I realized that the only distinction in my pondering between the two reads was the spark of this question and the affirmation of it being the topic that interested me most.

The spark was my realization that I wouldn’t have been there that day. If I were alive in the time of Jesus, living in that region, and exchanged my quality of life right now for whatever that would have looked like then I most likely would not have bothered to go see this miracle-man from Nazareth. The people that were coming to him were the hopeless and deeply afflicted–those who, with each step toward that hillside, were driven by one thought: It couldn’t possibly get any worse.

How amazing must those words have sounded to those sitting in the heat around that hillside? How incredibly life-changing it must have been to hear him say that the Kingdom was theirs even when they were poor, sick, hurting. Even before they were healed. It would have changed things I think. It would have made them realize that Jesus’ healing wasn’t offering them something that had been held back. Instead, his touch–his presence–was expanding their vision to something that was there all along.

And if that’s true then maybe the fact is that I can’t understand what it means to be blessed. I just need to know that I am. Any attempts I make to construct or adopt an equation for my blessedness is not a conspiracy…it’s just a trick. It’s just kind of…well…silly.

I started gardening a couple weeks ago and it’s not going well. I am fighting raccoons and poor sunlight, but I am doing my best. For some reason as I was placing my “macho grande” pepper plant into the ground I thought it right to say a quick prayer for my little garden. That God would bless it and that it would be a reminder of his provision and his goodness.

As I go out and look at my withering garden I can’t help but think I could and should be doing more. I have thought of replanting my plants, buying special plant food, irrigating, whatever it takes. But then I remember my prayer.

Now, I know that there is a process to gardening and I might be failing at that but who am I to say that my failure wouldn’t be God’s blessing on my garden? And if I was out there everyday slaving and worrying instead of submitting to the process then how much would his blessing become what I feel I have earned instead of what I am given?

My roommate asked his mother about our sad little garden and she gave us hope by saying that sometimes plants have to adapt to the new soil before they can grow and during this process they look dead, but it isn’t so. Under the surface they couldn’t be more alive.

I don’t know if that’s true…but it sounds familiar.

Conspiracy or Trick? (1 of 2)

Conspiracy is a serious word. It holds a certain weight, doesn’t it? Talk of a conspiracy will send ripples across the populous. A trick on the other hand makes you think of Bruno the magician pulling seemingly endless amounts of cloth out of his bulky left shirtsleeve at your nephew’s birthday party. Not quite the same, and yet essentially they mean the same thing. This is the power of language. Conspiracy strikes a tone of grandeur while a trick is kind of silly.

My friend Paul recently suggested a book to me called The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. More specifically, his suggestion was the 4th chapter of this work as Paul and I are working to construct a study on character formation for a group of student leaders and will be basing this around the beginning of The Sermon on the Mount. This is a heavy undertaking. One that we don’t take lightly. So I have listened on audiobook (my preferred method of reading) to Willard’s chapter on the beatitudes 3 times and each time has birthed in me a different realization, but with one connecting thought…

That I have been tricked. That my thinking on Jesus’ words on that hillside have been somewhat, well, silly.

Willard alludes to this explaining that we can be glad in our silliness because we are blessed even there, but it always causes me to be in awe at how easily I am fooled and maybe it will cause you the same reaction, maybe not. Either way, thanks for reading.

1st read

to say that my first reaction was “American” seems right, but I don’t completely know what that means. it was definitely consumeristic. I realized that there were certain things I wanted from Jesus’ words about being blessed. Most prominently I wanted a concrete equation. I wanted to know that x+y would equal blessed. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to sacrifice, quite the opposite, I simply wanted to know what I needed to do or not do in order to be “in”.

Even as I write those words it strikes a certain chord of security. I want to read the words of Jesus and be able to say “Great, so if I do this then this will happen”. In other words, if Jesus says the poor are blessed then I will strive to be poor and I will be blessed.

This safe shine loses it’s luster in the light of real life–the practical stuff that Jesus was always talking about.

I have a friend who is going through a divorce that was not her choice. She sings with me at church, and her voice is incredibly beautiful. It has been heartbreaking and marvelous at the same time to watch her sing as she goes through this process. Heartbreaking because I see the pain behind her usually solid demeanor. Marvelous because she sings with a kind of conviction that is captivating to all who hear.

And even as I wonder at her blessed singing, I know that it would be stupid for me to envy her situation. It would be silly to wish I could also go through that heartbreak so that I could attain or earn my “in-ness”.

Reactions from my 2nd and 3rd reads will be posted next. They both build on the first and there are certainly solid questions that begin to materialize. Maybe the most prominent for now is this:

What if Jesus’ first words on that mountainside had nothing to do with what to do or even how to be, and everything to do with what we must begin to let go of to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

The Radical Middle (2 of 2)

Here are some stories. Two are my own, and the last one you will recognize until the end and then you won’t.

Story One

My best friend James serves as a chaplain in the Army. He got married last summer and we have hung out less and less since. I don’t mind. I understand that life moves, but it was weird at first because our time together had to be planned. We had been roommates for around 5 years before he got hitched, so when I came home he was just there and we would chill.

Our chill time was often filled with television and silence. Our planned meetings were full of words. We had to catch up. One of the first of these meetings James was filling me in on a dismal situation he was dealing with. Part of his many duties as an Army chaplain is to deliver bad news to soldiers and to council them through at least the beginning process of their grief.

James is very good at this. He handles it with an ease that staggers me, but this situation was different. He didn’t want to do what he was going to have to do. I could see it on his face as he told me the story.

A soldier was in the air–flying home from Afghanistan. During his flight his wife and children had gotten into a terrible car wreck. one of the kids, a teenage boy, was driving. He went left of center and there was a collision. The mother and wife took the worst of it. The doctors planned multiple surgeries but they explained how they would be shocked if she made it through even one. The gory fact was that she had been separated in two.

So instead of the face of his wife or kids, this soldier would get off the plane and see James. And James was preparing for the inevitable words he would have to say…”Your wife is dead”.

My heart pounded as I listened. I felt God asking me a question. He was asking if I believed he could change the situation. If I believed she could enter in. I didn’t know, but I began to pray boldly. And speak boldly too, telling James he wouldn’t have to deliver that news. I told my band the story that night and we joined in that same bold prayer. I spoke with the youth pastor at our church and asked her to pray with the teens for healing and nothing else. We cried out together for a woman we didn’t know.

As that night dragged on I became very scarred. I had prayed for one thing–for her to live, and everyone heard it. I hadn’t given God any outs. I broke out in a cold sweat as band practice lingered on. I couldn’t focus. Just as we wrapped up for the night I got a text from James.

She would live. The doctors were more than amazed. She would be paralyzed from the waist down, but that teenage boy would get to hear his mom say “it’s not your fault”. Those boys would have a mom. That soldier would have a wife. It was a miracle. We all celebrated. God is good.

Story Two

A couple weeks after that I received an email prayer request at work. It was asking us to pray for Everett. He had been diagnosed with bone cancer and it was very serious. Again I felt God asking me to respond. All I knew to do was pray so I did that, but as the weeks passed my spirit felt soaked with need to do something more.

I fought it with practical reasoning. I didn’t know Everett, other than our shared love for Ohio State football. I had no means to get near him without seeming strange because he wasn’t working in the office any longer. When I heard about his retirement party taking place in the building I knew I was stuck.

I shakily walked down to the party like a prisoner facing parole. I walked up to Everett and asked if I could pray for him. I took his frail hand in mine and prayed an awkward prayer that Everett would be healed.

I stayed updated on the situation through emails and conversations. from what I gathered, Ev got rapidly worse after the day of our encounter and it was only a couple months before he passed away.

Since then I have wondered why God made me do that. I have been angry, felt confused, felt real doubt. I went from saying “God is good” to “is God good?”.

Story Three

Three men were ordered to kneel down and worship a statute of the king. Their belief in God lead them to refuse and the consequence of this refusal was extreme. They would be thrown into a fiery furnace so hot that anyone who came near it would perish. The king, enraged, gave them one more chance to bow. The three men respectfully declined, explaining how they needn’t defend themselves. Their God was more than capable of saving them from this punishment.

Then the three exclaimed something radical–that even if they were not saved from the fire, their loyalty would not move.

At this the king’s fury burned as hot as the furnace and he ordered them to be bound at once and tossed into the flames.

It took only mere seconds for the flames to swallow the three men whole. Days after their death, the people who witnessed the killing of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were still dumbfounded by their behavior. They didn’t fight the guards binding them, or make a single sound as they were tossed into the flame. It was as if they were sure of something. It was the look on their faces that haunted people. They were neither happy nor sad. The truth was the expression was hard to place, but it seemed somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

This is a long blog post. Too long in fact, because I believe it could be summed up with a question. When seeking justice and seeing the lack of it, when getting the healing we ask for, when searching for God and finding doubts, when feeling overwhelming love for no apparent reason, when watching a sunset, when watching a war–is God changing?

The easy answer is no. God is good. But how do we live like that–in the middle?