Personal Doesn't Equal Private
There are precious few times in our lives when truth so clearly congeals before our eyes. We should not just accept them. We should celebrate them.
Even if they come via fortune cookies.
I recently had lunch with my wife at one of our favorite Chinese and sushi places in Radford (of course, it's really the only sushi place in our small town, but Nagoya is delicious nonetheless). Within my fortune cookie, I discovered a profound little statement: "Faith is personal, but never private." While this profound quip might sound like it arose from Confucius’s own lips, there’s no discernible record I can find that attributes this saying to him or other Eastern wisdom teachers.
However, as I mined online and honest to goodness paper libraries for the quote’s origins, the closest thing to a progenitor that I found was a Jim Wallis quote: “faith is always personal but never private.” Maybe Wallis found the same fortune after his meal one day and added the "always," or maybe some fortune cookie conglomerate heard Wallis's quote and modified it to avoid legal action.
Regardless of the origin, I had something of a spiritual moment as we returned to the car after our lunch-hour date. In a country that elevates the individual and seems to celebrate the privatization of most everything, the notion of private faith has become practically sacrosanct. Many people refer to their own religions or religious paths. Though you might assume this comes mostly from individuals who claim a "spiritual but not religious" identity, or even of those openly agnostic about faith, I've found this disposition at least as frequently in people who claim members in the world's five most influential religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam - as well as those who practice lesser known traditions. Many seem to consider faith an entirely private matter.
Followers of Jesus must wrestle with the incredibly public nature of Jesus's ministry and Jesus's invitation to a faith lived publicly. Of course we find Jesus calling us to private expressions of faith in Matthew 6: “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven...But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you." Certainly, portions of our piety ought to remain private.
Yet Jesus also lives a life of public ministry. He performs miraculous healings in public (John 9), teaches publicly about faith (Matthew 5-7), publicly challenges theological misinterpretation and misapplication by religious authorities (Mark 7), and even commissions his disciples to work on his behalf in public (Luke 10; Matthew 28). The Holy Spirit's even more problematic. On Pentecost, Holy Spirit falls on the disciples and gives them the ability to publicly share the good news of Jesus across the boundaries of language (Acts 2). In that same chapter, the church forms as a public community that shares meals, shares teaching, shares worship, even shares responsibility for all who have need. We can't isolate truly Jesus to certain parts of our lives.
So yes, our faith should inform how we vote. This doesn't mean we should always vote for a particular party, but that God's presence in our lives ought to inform how we think and act on every issue. Indeed, our faith should inform how we shop. Who made our clothes, our computers, our toys, and our food matters, as does how they're treated and compensated by their employers. Surely, our faith should inform how we relate to people in the world. To paraphrase Paul, if we don't live the love of God, we're useless (1 Corinthians 13). No one can experience the fruit of the Spirit if we keep our faith private.
This doesn't mean we ought to become the kind of public Christian who preaches hate on college campuses or hands out Bible tracts on street corners. But it does mean we should go beyond the oft cited, "Preach the Gospel, use words if you must" mentality (and by the by, St. Francis never said that). The problem with this isn't that it's bad advice. It's that people who tend to quote this almost never use words to speak the name of Jesus or invite people into God's good news. A public faith that's truly personal to us will be most certainly lived out, but it will also appear in our conversations, in our invitations, in our work, in every pore of our existence.
As a follower of Jesus, take your faith personally. Just don't forget that it's got a public purpose. After all, God's at work reconciling all things through Jesus.
Anxiety can kill a community. Urgency can lead to exponential growth. What's the difference between the two?
Imagine yourself in traffic. Anxiety's born of fear. Anxiety sometimes leads people to make rash decisions, like cutting off other drivers because they're late for a dinner date. Anxiety can also become insular. Sometimes people avoid decisions because they're afraid to make the situation worse. Of course, that in itself is making a decision, and if your car is headed toward debris from an accident, a lack of intervention won't change the direction you're headed. Anxiety can even lead to distraction. If you're worried about the last fight you had with a friend and your mind is anxiously elsewhere, you may not see the brake lights in front of you.
Urgency, however, is purposeful and focused. In traffic, urgency recognizes that the dangers of speed may prove detrimental to making that date on time because of the possible accident or ticket in the work zone. Urgency understands that self-centeredness, while understandable, is always unwise when surrounded by other autos driven by drivers with other goals. Being aware of them, and even communicating with them through lights and signals, leads to a better outcome for everyone on the road. Urgency also understands that, while you might rather be someplace else or are worried about someone not in the car, to take focus away from the road puts you at further risk for separation from that ultimate goal.
Both anxiety and urgency are responses to stress. Remember that stress, in itself, isn't a bad thing. Appropriate amounts of stress on your muscles help them grow. Certain amounts of stress on your mind help you learn. Yet, how we respond to stress often colors the way that we view stress. If we deal anxiously with the stress we experience, stress seems an enemy. If we respond to stress with urgency, however, stress becomes a catalyst for development.
What's vital, though, is actually responding to the stress. Complacency leads us to avoid stress altogether. When we pay no attention to the things that might stress us, we still suffer the consequences of their presence. We simply live in ignorance of those results until it's too late for our urgency to change the situation. If you see a truck swerve to avoid a deer and don't alter your course because you just believe everything will be alright, you'll still have an accident. Complacency is just as deadly as anxiety, but differently dangerous, because it feels safer for a while.
As you and your community face stresses, look for the opportunities for urgency. How can you best utilize your resources to positively affect the situation? Where do you see God working through the stress to bring wisdom and strength? Acknowledge the temptations of complacency and anxiety, and ask God to instead carry you to holy urgency. There may you find the surprising, transforming presence of God. Like the picture above, holy urgency from everyone can even make traffic beautiful.
It's that time of year again. The time when graduates and transfers depart campus for good, while others depart just for the summer. The time when campus ministers give thanks for the way God showed up in the passed year and look forward to what new beginnings God's got in store for the year to come.
I was blessed that God called me to work with two groups this year. The picture to the left shows Highlander Lutherans with some of our friends from UKirk (PC-USA) and Canterbury (Episcopalian) ministries on Radford University's campus. The blessing of this ministry is that we just began meeting in 2014, and now serve fifteen undergraduate and graduate students at RU. We've found a monthly rhythm of worship, Bible study, service, and fellowship, each beginning with a meal cooked by local congregations, which helps us to live our discipleship. These different experiences stretch us outside of our comfort zones, and as God's promised, we still find the Holy Spirit already at work far beyond our expectations. This Spring, we began meeting with UKirk on a weekly basis to provide a larger critical mass for our life together, with responsibilities for food, programming, and funding spread between the two ministries.
Detailing growth is about much more than numbers. It's about seeing a willingness to take risks that bless our campus community. For instance, we received an Action Team grant from Thrivent Financial to produce "Finals Survival Kits" that included snacks, a prayer to guide their study, and information on how to get involved with Highlander Lutherans. We produced 80 of them in hopes that students would share with their friends. Three of our students, however, took this challenge to the next level. While Lutherans aren't known for their evangelism, Marta, Kyle, and Katie took three boxes into high traffic areas of campus and shared them with students walking to and from their latest exams. They reported back to me that the joyful surprise on students faces when they received the kits was enough to make them want to do more to tangibly bless RU. What a blessing to be in ministry with these people! They've grown from individuals who happened to be Lutheran to an ecumenical expression of Christ's Body wanting to share God's love with more and more of our campus.
This second picture shows The Well, the Lutheran Campus Ministry at Virginia Tech. I served as their interim Campus Pastor while Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, their parent organization, reorganized their staff structure. They're an incredible group of young women and men that showed a willingness to welcome a new leader mid-year and continue on their spiritual journeys.
There's an invigorating pool of leadership within this group. Students becoming nurses and engineers, leaving to work alongside Jesus in areas as different as the ELCA's Young Adults in Global Mission and for AMD. Students following Jesus to work as leaders in the local Lutheran camps like Caroline Furnace and as leaders in VT's student political organizations. They express their love for Jesus as artists, as educators, and as friends. Perhaps the most exciting part of their growth together was seen in their sharing of milestones, our weekly time of sharing something that we faced, whether a challenge to overcome or a joy to share. The willingness to bear one another's burdens in this way showed a growing maturity for which I'm grateful. This shows more than just a compassionate group of students; it reveals the kind of leaders we'll have for our church and world in the coming years. Thank God for that!
What I wish people could comprehend about campus ministry is just that: the vast opportunity we have for discipleship and leadership in ways that benefit the church in present and future forms. When we relegate to another form of youth group or consider it an expendable outreach ministry, we separate ourselves from God's active work in the lives of students, faculty, and staff on our campuses. More fundamentally, we lop off a fundamental portion of Christ's body.
This is a desperate mistake, especially in an age where the dominant ministry voices on campus are evangelical and Roman Catholic. I don't mean these ministries shouldn't exist; far from it! Rather, we as ELCA Lutherans provide a via media that incorporates the Reformation tradition with a theological commitment to social justice and an ever-present trust that God's Spirit is moving in ways of justice and inclusion far beyond even our most creative imaginations. We're able to let students know that, even if they feel unsafe in those traditions, there's a Christian tent big enough even for those with questions and doubts.
I was fortunate enough to walk alongside two groups of students that lived this, and I'd love for you to see the ways our campus ministries across the ELCA provide avenues for young leaders to grow in God's image. Get in touch with your local campus ministry to learn more by visiting lumin-network.com. If your local campus doesn't have a ministry and you're interested in starting one, reach out to me! I'd love to get you in touch with nearby ministers who have the skill and experience to develop new ministries on campus.
Growing Old(er) is a Blessing
I've come to believe that growing old(er) is a blessing. For those that know me well, this may come as a surprise. Though I'm frequently told I look younger than my age, I don't take the aging process gracefully. When I turned thirty, I had something like a 1/3-life crisis, at least until I realized my brother would be 40 nearly ten years before I would, which gave me enough perspective to sigh in relief and enough bragging rights to tease him the next time we spoke on the phone. Still, I felt old, and hated the feeling of growing older.
Until someone I loved, only a few years older than myself, was diagnosed with colon cancer that's moved to the liver. That changed everything.
There's not much you can say to a ridiculously healthy thirty something who's more fit than most of the planet, whose diet is better regulated than most Americans, who has rambunctious children, a wonderful spouse, and the last thing anyone like that wants to hear is how growing old is so difficult, about how another birthday isn't something to celebrate.
Of course, we're all hopeful that the treatments will prove healing, that remission will come, that we'll kick cancer to the curb. This person is young enough and healthy enough that their body's better suited to handle the chemo than most of us, Yet, this has brought a lot of perspective into my life, and that of my family. Growing old(er) is a blessing that we want to afford all people, and especially this person.
There's plenty of biblical warrant that speaks to the blessings of age. Job 12 tells us that wisdom belongs to the aged, but I'm less concerned about wisdom in itself. I'm focused more on an abundance of life well lived. That appears in Proverbs 20, where we hear that "Strength is the glory of young people, while the gray hair of experience is the splendor of old age."
Lines like "the splendor of old age" sounded ridiculous to my teenage self, whose paternal grandfather had died of Alzheimer's. The line still sounded stupid when medical complications took my maternal grandmother's life. Aging didn't look splendid. It looked difficult. I'll even admit that my time in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), the hospital chaplaincy internship required by the ELCA for ordination, was most difficult when I faced the slow struggles of seniors losing their abilities. This all seemed patently unfair. Yet, something I've seen in my ministry too often but didn't fully comprehend until this recent diagnosis, is that growing old is a luxury deprived of too many and afforded to too few. High school classmates succumbed to addiction only a few years after graduation. Suicide touched too many of the campuses I attended or worked on. Even while in CPE I witnessed firsthand the ways that cancer, cystic fibrosis, and other diseases that took the lives of children, teenagers, and young adults. Those who live beyond such difficulties experience a life not available to all people. That's an invaluable splendor.
So now, I pray for old age, especially for those closest to me, who have so much life yet to live. I pray for all young people, that they might experience the splendor of a silver shadow on their temples. That we might all experience a time when we're not as strong as we once were, but the strength of others supports us in life, and so we still rejoice. That no parent would ever have to bury a child, and that when we bury our parents we'd do so in view of a long life well lived.
More than that, though, I pray for all those through whom God is working toward health and wellness. This includes neuroscientists and yogis, oncologists and dietitians, psychiatrists and counselors, artists and personal trainers, pastors and researchers, truly anyone through whom God is not merely extending life, but making life more abundant. Life itself can be abundant, no matter how many years we spend on this plane of existence. I'm thankful for those that make it so bountiful, so full of vibrancy, that growing old(er) isn't something to scoff at, but a splendor for which we give thanks.
How many times have you walked into a room, only to realize you have no idea why you're there?
How often do you find yourself irrationally angry, becoming more upset by small things than you should be?
And what the heck do these questions have to do with prayer?
Well, you see, there's evidence in neuroscience that tells us focused, prolonged prayer not only increases our relationship with God, but actually proves physiologically beneficial. More simply, prayer can make your brain healthier. Of course there's reason to be skeptical of such an apparently radical claim, but there's also a balm to assuage those fears.
This comes from a book, in which I'm currently engrossed, called, How God Changes Your Brain. While you might expect this kind of title to come from devoted practitioners or even fundamentalists of a particular religion, neither Dr. Andrew Newberg or Mark Robert Waldman are bound to a particular religious community. Newberg professes agnostic tendencies while Waldman identifies as a naturalist. In other words, there's a heavy spiritual skepticism from the researchers, and yet, they together conclude that meditation and prayer increase your brain's healthy activity. So it's actually healthy to say a (not so) little prayer for yourself everyday. I say more than a little prayer because these positive physical changes are seen when people pray daily for minimum of ten minutes. Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns, who've spent hours in prayer daily their whole lives, show the most profound neurological effects.
I've got a number of friends who are spiritually curious but have expressed a profound skepticism about prayer. And who can blame them? Talking to a wall or fidgeting amidst an uncomfortable silence doesn't make a whole lot of sense on the surface. What Newberg and Waldman found, though, was that people who prayed, regardless of their belief, experienced the same benefits as devout believers, as long as they undertook the practice intentionally. In other words, if people desire to become holistically healthier, focus in the prayer, regulate their prayer's embodiment (such as following beads with the rosary or performing another simple, repetitive movement as you pray), and practice that daily, and expect that they can get achieve the goals they've set, then the benefits appear regardless of belief. That's the good news for us all: prayer, undertaken seriously with a desire to change can actually change us.
I can understand why some people of faith might view this as problematic. One might ask if we're leasing our spiritual practices to scientific research. However, we must remember that, theologically speaking, we're embodied spirits. As creatures, we have an intertwined spiritual and physical existence, so it makes sense that there's spiritual benefit to physical health and physical benefit to spiritual health. This means that prayer, for Christians, is both a spiritual truth of engaging with God and a physical truth that exercise makes us healthier.
We wouldn't scoff at the orthopedist who told us that exercising our joints with low impact cardiovascular movements like cycling or using an elliptical would keep our joints healthy as we strengthen our heart and other muscles. Why, then, would we balk at a neuroscientist certified in internal and nuclear medicine who tells us that exercising our mind and body together in focused, contemplative modalities can actually change the physiology of our brain? To me, that says God created us to be fully integrated creatures, that our prayers relate not only to heavenly thoughts but earthly realities. That's good news.
So, wherever you're at on the spectrum of spirituality, take some time to develop a more focused, devoted prayer life. At the minimum, it can strengthen your brain, which helps your memory, increases your compassion, and reduces anxiety. As we Lutherans believe, it does even more than that: it connects you with the God who created you, who loves you, and who works for the salvation of your whole being, body and spirit.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.