The Untamed Wilderness

CS Lewis once wrote, "You'll never tame the lion's of your life until you let God be the untamed lion in your life."

So many times we think, "my soul is unhappy, so I will eat, drink, smoke, have sex, sleep, exercise, work, watch tv, surf the internet... etc." When what we should be doing is stopping all activity. Sitting in solitude, out in the woods, listening for the untamed Spirit of God. Waiting for him to come out and guide us.

We know not where he will lead. In order to follow we must to give up our need for control and our addiction to certainty. We will have no say in the destination. But we know that in the end it is where we need to be. 

Of course, the scary truth is we never really had control to begin with. We started drinking to take the edge off our stress from work. We started eating fast food to give us a little boost when we were feeling down. We started shopping to feel like we look pretty. But in the end all of these things end up controlling us. They lure us astray. Away from God. Away from the image of God within us; our true selves. 

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." - John 10:10

Meanwhile, God roams silently in the woods, wild and free. We are cut off from his energy, his vitality, his life. The only way to recover is to stop following all of the voices clamoring for our attention. To step off of the well-worn path of consumerism, materialism and greed, and into the untamed wilderness of the divine. 

- Pastor Paul

Writing (and Living) With Gusto

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them” - Ira Glass

During my sabbatical I picked up Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Ray is a legendary science fiction writer (although I have never read any of his books). However, this book is as much about living as it is about writing. 

Ray argues that writing is essential to life. We write to remind ourselves that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. For Ray, writing is survival. It can not save us from wars, envy, greed, or old age, but it can revitalize us amidst it all. Ray says, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

Writing is really about living with intentionality. Taking time each day to stop and take inventory of your life. To recognize what is going on in your soul. It is a time each day to slow down, to reflect, and to be honest with yourself. An opportunity to stop listening to all of the voices around you telling you what you ought to think, or believe, or feel. To listen instead for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through your own unique soul. 

The form really shouldn't matter. A handwritten journal, a letter to yourself or to God, a blogpost, or even a sketchbook would be fine. It is more about recognizing the story arc of our own lives, with all of its strange characters, abrupt plot twists, and painful endings. 

  • Where did I come from? 
  • Who am I now?
  • Which direction is my story headed?

Ray says, “It is in the totality of life experience reckoned with, filed and forgotten, that each man is truly different from all others in the world.” Our story is what makes us truly unique, but only if we take the time to actually read it, ponder it, and share it with the world. 

"If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is—excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health." - Ray Bradbury

To write half-heartedly is to live half-heartedly, and vice versa. Let’s stop with the generic, surface level prayers and religious platitudes. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with our God. This kind of living/writing takes real commitment and courage, but the alternative is a story with no real meaning or purpose.

Here are some suggestions to help you get started: 

  • What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?
  • What do you love?
  • What do you hate?
  • What do you want more than anything else in the world?
  • For what are you most grateful? 
  • What makes you come alive?
  • When are you cooperating most fully with God’s action in your life? 
  • When are you resisting? 
  • What habits and life patterns do you notice from the past day? 

"The opposite of a spiritual person is not a person who rejects the idea of God and lives as a pagan. The opposite of being spiritual is to have no energy, to have lost all zest for living - lying on a couch, watching football or sitcoms, taking beer intravenously!" - Ronald Rolheiser

At War with the Soul

"One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important." - Bertrand Russell

This summer I was able to take a six week sabbatical - a time of purposeful rest and recovery. My primary goal was to reconnect with myself, specifically my identity apart from being a pastor. Don't get me wrong, being a pastor is great but it is also very easy move from "pastor" to "performer" and to lose your soul in the process. 

According to Richard Rohr there are three factors in our culture which are at war with our soul. These things apply, I think, to everyone. But they are especially true for pastors and leaders.

1. Narcissism: excessive self-preoccupation
2. Pragmatism: excessive focus on work, achievement, and practical concerns of life
3. Restlessness: excessive greed for more

Narcissism accounts for our heartaches. The heart was designed for relationship. Deep connection with God and our fellow human beings. Ironically the only way to be inwardly healthy is to focus outwardly on relationships of mutual love and trust. Unfortunately it is especially easy when we are in pain to put up walls of defensiveness and distance ourselves from others, essentially cutting ourselves off from the very healing we need. During this time away I realized that I need to get out of my own head. I need to stop being so centered on my own pain so that I can reach out to others. I need to learn to give my heart away so that it stops hurting so much.

Pragmatism accounts for our headaches. When we spend our days focused on building a successful career,  finding the perfect house or on pastoring a successful church our souls begin to wither and die. I am learning I need to stop worrying so much about ministry effectiveness and focus instead on faithfulness. To let go of fear and learn to trust. 

Restlessness accounts for our insomnia. When we feed our ego, we starve our soul. The constant thirst for more money, more success, more experiences, or more followers on social media always leaves us empty. We will only find rest in contentment. I am learning to live a life of gratitude for all of the simple joys I get to experience every single day. My health, family, community of friends and a world filled with beauty and wonder. 

- Pastor Paul

Thoughts on Sabbatical

Dear Friends,

I have just returned from my six-week summer sabbatical. It was a truly remarkable experience filled with travel, family and the beauty of nature. More than anything I had the time and space to really reflect on my life and relationships.

WEEK ONE: Yellowstone trip with my family
WEEK TWO: Directed Spiritual Retreat at St. John's Abbey Guesthouse in MN
WEEK THREE: Okoboji trip with my family
WEEK FOUR: Habits of Heart Retreat with Parker Palmer.
WEEK FIVE: Writing and reflecting in Des Moines
WEEK SIX: Camping with my family in Pennsylvania

Church planting and pastoring can become pretty all-encompassing endeavors and it is easy to forget who you are apart from these roles. During the sabbatical I was able to reconnect with my true identity as a beloved child of God. This wasn't always easy, looking deeply into one's own soul can be a challenging and even painful experience. But the Lord was faithful to walk with me, even through some of the darker chambers of my life, in order to make me well. I thought it would be good to share a few of the things I learned, in hopes that my story may provide some insight into your own unique spiritual journey.

"A coalescence of music, Scripture, and other people in a worshipping congregation had brought me to my senses. I had been dwelling in a drought-stricken land, like the famished prodigal, who, envying the pigs their husks and slop, suddenly remembers that he is a beloved child who has a home." - Kathleen Norris

"A coalescence of music, Scripture, and other people in a worshipping congregation had brought me to my senses. I had been dwelling in a drought-stricken land, like the famished prodigal, who, envying the pigs their husks and slop, suddenly remembers that he is a beloved child who has a home." - Kathleen Norris

We will never change until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. According to Richard Rohr human beings always hold on to three things:

  1. The need for success
  2. The need to be right
  3. The need to be in control

The only way to be spiritually healthy is to let go of these three things and entrust yourself wholly  to God. In the desert, Jesus was himself tempted with these three things:

  1. The temptation to be relevant
  2. The temptation to be spectacular
  3. The temptation to be powerful

Instead he affirmed God as his only source of identity. In our culture we unabashadly value success, power and control in our leaders. But Jesus calls us to the opposite. To live in truth, not pretending to be someone you are not; to live in humility; rather than a false sense of ego and pride; and to live in wonder; not at your own gifts and abilities, but constant worship of the beauty of our Lord.

You have to be you, as you are, rather than a desperately striving, lesser version of somebody else.

Thoughts from my Prayer Journal: Paul, come out of hiding. Come home to your Father. Tender your heart, open up your soul. Come out of hiding. I want to heal your heart, restore your soul and reshape your will. Follow me, I will show you a new pattern, new way. The old has gone. The new has come. Come home.

Jesus, I surrender, myself, to you. Take care of everything.

God wants to welcome me home. To embrace me despite of my sin, disease and mistakes. Maybe even to embrace me because of those things. Come home to the father. Follow his voice in nature. In laughter. In song. In dance.

- Pastor Paul

The Wrath of God

 

"They exchanged the truth of God for a lie" - Romans 1:25

 The quality of our relationship with God depends on the way we imagine God. Which means that what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. Our spiritual health and wellbeing depend on a trustworthy image of God.

 The problem is there are so many distorted images of God in our world - and even in our churches. Is God angry? Full of wrath and fury? Is God apathetic, disengaged with human affairs and careless of our pain and suffering? Is God discriminatory, electing some to eternal salvation while consigning billions more to hell?

 How did we come to the place where it is so hard for us to actually see God for who he really is? This question takes us back to the beginning. Out of love, God placed the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” in the Garden. It was God's way of reminding human beings that we do not have the right or the capacity to judge God, others or even ourselves. God alone is the judge, which is good news because the "LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression." (Numbers 14:18).

 But the serpent took God's loving protection and gave it a diabolical spin. He told Eve that the reason God forbid her from eating from the tree was because, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Satan painted a petty and untrustworthy picture of God. He made it seem like God was threatened by the potential the forbidden tree offered Eve.

Suddenly Eve's image of God became marred, and since her picture of God was no longer trustworthy, she stopped trusting God. In other words, the original sin was not the eating of the forbidden fruit, that was only the result. The original sin was buying into a distorted image of God.

 The good news of Christianity is that God looks like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always know this, but now we do! Jesus announced, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14v9). Jesus is "the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Satan distorted Eve’s picture of God and he’s been distorting peoples’ pictures of God ever since. He knows that if he can instill a fearful, untrustworthy, or apathetic picture of God in our minds, we will fail to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength.

 Behind all human rebellion and sin is a faulty picture of God.

In Romans 1 the Apostle Paul tells us our core sin is exchanging the truth of God for a lie (Rom 1:25). We suppressed the knowledge of God that we should have derived from the creation (vv. 19– 20), and as a result we created idols to take the place of our Creator (vv. 22– 23).

We reversed the originally intended order. Human beings were created to 1) worship and serve God and 2) to rule over all created things in God’s name. Instead human beings came to 1) worship and serve created things, and therefore (2) the created things came to rule over us.

Paul says it is for this reason God's wrath is being revealed from heaven (v. 18). There is that awful word, "wrath." Doesn't this prove God to be an angry and vindictive deity? The answer depends entirely on the nature of God's "wrath."

 "God's wrath is His withdrawl"

Paul says God “gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (v. 24). Because they “exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” God “gave them over to shameful lusts” (vv. 25– 27). Because “they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God,” God “gave them over to a depraved mind” to the point that they became “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” and were “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” (vv. 28– 29).

Greg Boyd explains, "Because the consequences of sin are organically related to the sin itself, God only needs to stop protecting people from these consequences for them to experience divine judgment."

God is the source of all life. When we sin and walk away from his loving protection, death and destruction are the natural result. God's "wrath" does not involve Him actively, violently punishing sinners, but rather releasing them to go down the self-destructive path they have chosen for themselves.

In Romans 1 Paul says God in his wrath gives us over to our strongest desires. But in Romans 8 we read that God in his love gave himself over to die for us! God is not a violent, angry or apathetic deity. He’s a beautiful God who would do, and has done, anything and everything possible to save us from our self-destructive sin and restore us into a life-giving relationship with Him. God is love and we know this by looking at the cross.

- Pastor Paul