TC Ryan
finding calm in the midst of chaos

It is way too easy to decry the excessive materialism of the way our society celebrates Christmas.  It is true that the genuine and historical story of Christmas is overwhelmed by cultural surges of marketing and gift-giving, of entertaining and indulgence, of sentimentality and the reality that we now live in a society of many religions.  Rather than bemoan that America by and large ignores the “reason for the season” we would do better to quietly reflect on the real meaning of Christmas and the place it holds in our own hearts.

The truth is that Christians—like everyone else—can lose their grip on the awesome and life-giving substance of this season.  That is because Christians very often become fuzzy about what the Gospel actually is.  In truth, we don’t have a very firm grip on what Christmas means.  We sorely need to regularly revisit the message of Jesus and his Gospel.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”  (2 Corinthians 13:5).  It’s good advice for all of us, to examine ourselves and see whether we are actually believing and living in the truth of the Gospel.

Every student of the New Testament knows Paul taught a great deal about love and humility and living a life of grace.  Think of his words to these same Corinthians in his earlier letter to them (1:13:2), “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”  Knowing the truth is important, faith is vital, but love trumps all, it seems the great apostle was saying.

So it is important to pay particular attention when the Apostle of Love becomes contentious.  When it came to properly understanding and stating what the Gospel is, Paul became fierce.  In writing to some of the churches in the region of Galatia (modern day western Turkey) he made clear that living a life of love did not mean being muddled about what the genuine Christian faith is and what it is not.  He recounted to them a confrontation he once had in Jerusalem.

Before he had gotten too far along in his public ministry, Paul went up to Jerusalem from Antioch in a fairly submissive and collegial spirit to confirm with the Jerusalem leaders that the Gospel he was preaching to the non-Jews was consistent with the Gospel preached by those who’d kept company with Jesus.  They agreed that it was.

But then Paul added this piece of the story:

“Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Galatians 2:4-5)

Why did Paul take such a strong stand for the “truth of the gospel” as he put it?  Why did he insist that the Gospel he preached—the Gospel he and the Jerusalem pillars agreed on—why did he fight so that that Gospel might be preserved for them, for you and for me?

Paul understood that the Gospel is life-giving.  But when we change it, or others change it for us, it loses it’s effectiveness.  It is no longer the Gospel.  So, let me ask you a very important question:  what do you say that Gospel is?  What do you think of when we talk about the Gospel?

In that same first letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul spoke about the Gospel that he had taught them.  He wrote,

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve”. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)

What do you see in this passage?  Paul referred to the “gospel I preached to you” and I see six distinct pieces to it:

  • Christ—the Jewish Messiah, the promised deliverer, the prophet of whom Moses spoke—died
  • His death was for the sins of those who believed in him
  • His death was according to what had been prophesied
  • He was buried
  • He was raised on the third day
  • He appeared to his chosen followers.

How do these six assertions jive with your own understanding of the Gospel?  Think them over.  Examine your thinking to see if what you believe is consistent with the truth.

It’s important to think about the real Gospel, especially now at Christmas, because the sentimentality of the season can sometimes wash over us all with the notions of love and being with those we love and taking care of others—all good things.  The risk is that we miss the central truth to this season.

The Baby of Bethlehem did not come as a composite of all that is good about us but rather as the ultimately unique person on a mission to remove all that is bad about us. 

We need to consider the Gospel carefully, thoughtfully, repeatedly.  When you look at the six elements of the Gospel above, you may think of other aspects of the Gospel.  We’ll look at some of them in the next four posts.  As with God, so with his Gospel:  there is more.  So let us examine our thinking, because the hopeful result of Christmas is this:  “Jesus Christ in you.”

Happy Christmas to you and to all of us.

Over some years I had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with Brennan Manning. He used to tell us something like this: some days all heaven wants from us is to show up and shut up.

Brennan understands the dynamics of authentic spirituality and human frailty better than most. He recognizes that—no matter our life-calling, declarations or intentions—we all have days where presenting ourselves to the Presence of God and trying to stay focused to the Presence is about all we are capable of.

And Jesus, having come to live among us and do life as us, understands this too. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are…” writes the author of Hebrews.

But if Jesus and Heaven are understanding about our weaknesses, are we as understanding of our opportunities and obligations? For simply showing up and shutting up are not too much for us offer our Creator every day. And yet, the way we so often choose to live suggests that showing up and shutting up are more than we are willing to give.

“For God alone my soul waits in silence…” the psalmist writes.

And again, “For God alone, o my soul, wait in silence….”

Is this a quaint relic of ancient spirituality? Or is this the most profound key to substantive living, one that easily eludes us?

In giving God specific time every day where we show up and shut up, we create space in our own personal world where God can be God to us. When we make ourselves present and available, when we make ourselves still to listen, we make space in our world for God to be God.

It’s the simplest thing to do. Yet most of us find great resistance doing it.

Even when times were simpler it was always this way with us. But now we’re overcome with opportunities of engagement and distraction and we don’t have to risk the deplorable emptiness of silence if we don’t want to.

Because—and let’s be honest about this—there is great cost in being silent before God and great risk.

The great cost is that I have to develop the sort of self-discipline by which I yield my ability to be entertained, distracted and engaged. I give up letting life pull me along, finding buzz and energy in other sources, allowing outside stimulants to give me focus. Being silent before God makes me aware of the spaces in my soul, of the emptiness in my being, of the chasms in the world. It can be scary, sensing the gaps.

And I said there is great risk, too. But what risk can there be in being quiet, in stilling one’s soul so as to be present to the Presence? The greatest risk of all: God might not show up. He might not show up because he doesn’t want to be available to me. He might not show up because I’ve offended or disappointed him. Or, he might not show up because he actually doesn’t ever show up. He simply might not show up because he is not there.

And yet…when I’ve been quiet, when I’ve yielded, when I have stilled myself, when I have waited…the Presence does make itself known. It’s really the most remarkable thing. Not always, not on command, not on my terms—never on my terms, it seems—but in the silence he is there.

So, it turns out, the ancient admonition, “for God alone, o my soul, wait in silence…” is the most profound key to robust spirituality, to substantive living.

If we are not silent, how can the Creator communicate to us? How does God clarify and emphasize to us things he has made known if we do not be quiet, think, reflect and listen?

How does the Spirit of Grace and Truth administer grace and apply truth to the pathways of our thoughts and feelings if we do not quiet ourselves in a receptive state on a regular basis?

All of creation owes God its attention. How much more those he has created and endowed with his powers of self-awareness, reflection and decision-making? And of all God’s children, who ought to make the most consistent, steady, devoted effort to show up and shut up if not those who say Christ is their Lord?

So here’s how the story goes. A man becomes seriously ill to the point it’s life-threatening. His sisters are worried. They send an urgent message to a family friend who is a phenomenal teacher and healer. Come quickly. Please, it’s urgent.

He doesn’t. The man dies.

For four days Lazarus is dead. Since so few of us have died and come back to talk about it (four days I’m saying) we don’t really know what it was like for him during that time. Was he aware of time? Was he asleep? Was he somewhere else, another dimension?

Whether he was asleep or elsewhere, at some point Lazarus became aware he was now in a very dark place, a cool, deadening place, firmly wrapped in a blanket of cloth and ointment. If he remembered being so gravely ill, my hunch is he didn’t feel like that now. If he remembered hurting with the pain that so often is this life, I think he felt no suffering now.

We can’t know for sure where he was. He might not have known where he was. However strange it was, it had to have been more peaceful than the process of dying.

Wherever he was, and however he was, he then heard a Voice, a familiar voice, the voice of his friend. “Lazarus, come here.”

Where was “here”? “Here” was back into the world where suffering is common and hope often deferred.

He had a choice to make. Perhaps if he ignored the Voice it would go away. He could stay where life in this realm couldn’t hurt him anymore. He could stay safe. He could cling to comfort where he had found it.

Lazarus made his choice. He got up from where he was and he followed the Voice.

Occasionally our lives have moments that bear resemblance to the day Lazarus woke up to the Voice. I don’t mean we find ourselves in a Middle Eastern tomb with Jesus standing outside calling our name. I mean we can be moving along in life, gravitating to those places of comfort and safety where suffering is mitigated and fear is dialed down.

And then we hear a Voice in the distance. It’s not clear. It’s hard to hear over the din and stimulation of our lives. But if we notice it and then listen—which are two different things, let’s be honest here, we hear lots of things we never really listen to—if we notice and then listen, sometimes we get a glimmer of clarity.

And if we hear and then listen and then recognize the glimmer of clarity, we have a choice to make. Do we get up? Do we risk laying aside the blankets of insulation and comfort we cling to? Do we risk walking out of our shadows of safety into vulnerability and exposure?

This is the question we have to face time and again if we’re interested in a genuine spirituality.

The search for a robust spirituality is to hear the Voice of heaven (Jesus) through the gauze and goo that so easily enwraps us in this life. And not only to hear the Voice but to listen to it and to follow it.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” writes the psalmist.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” writes the author of Hebrews, repeatedly.

So hearing and listening and obeying the Voice has to do with our hearts. Our hearts are easily hardened. Some of our hearts are hardened because we don’t think we’re worth speaking to. Think about your own heart. Does your heart feel like you are a person God is interested in? Cares about? Will speak to?

So, hearts that are willing to believe that we are worth speaking to are open, softer hearts. Others of us have hearts that are hardened because we’re too busy, or too preoccupied. And some of us have hearts that think they know better than anyone else; these are hearts that need no other voice.

It’s openness that matters, and then paying attention to the specifics. Because the Voice is usually not vague. “Come out, Lazarus.”

Come look at this. Come out of there. Come do this with me. Come give me that you’re holding onto. The Voice gives us direction, and the direction is life.

“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

I’m learning that recovery and the truly spiritual life are flip sides of the same coin. The genuine and robust spiritual life is a life of recovery. It may be recovery from independence or codependence or dependence. It might be recovery from isolation or pride, envy or resentment, or other things entirely.

Spiritual growth is moving from disintegrated to integrated living, from and fractured thinking and feeling to wholeness. And that’s what recovery is.

Each day is a gift. Each day is opportunity. Are we hearing? Are we listening? Are we following?

A curious dichotomy marked me as a young person. I had a desire to perform, to impact others and at the same time was shy and reserved, to the point of keen embarrassment when noticed by others. Maybe a lot of us are like this? But for me it was a sharp contrast of competing interests. Of wanting to push out into the world of others and wanting to pull back where I felt hidden and safe.

As I emerged into adulthood and ministry, I continued to be ambivalent about being known, about being a public personality. On the one hand, there was a certain stream of craziness in my life that fed a sense of grandiosity, of wanting to be a significant person making a sizable impact.

On the other, a sincere spirituality fed in me a desire for genuine humility, of quietly serving others and not seeking the limelight.

That was enough for a healthy tension, plenty of push and pull for any life. But I had another stream, too, one of secrecy and shame. Caution was advised. Others couldn’t be trusted. Better to avoid attracting attention.

So there is a curious irony in where I find myself at this stage in my life. I am a man who has succeeded and has failed. I have messed around and wasted a lot of my life. I have some formidable accomplishments, none as satisfying as an enduring marriage to a remarkable woman and being father to four grown, equally remarkable children.

Given the nature of some of my failure in life, the attraction of quietly blending in is quite strong. Hence the irony: I’ve written a just-published book, I am writing this blog and occasionally I even tweet—which still sounds so odd to me—to share some of my failures, and much of what I’ve learned, and it doesn’t feel safe to me at all. So why would I do all this?

We have a problem, we meaning our culture, our society, our families, our churches. We’ve got a growing epidemic of obsession with arousal, distraction and compulsive sexual behaviors.

There’s always been a certain percentage of guys—and some women, too—who were particularly vulnerable to compulsive sexual behavior. How could there not be? Sexuality is so wonderful, so powerful, so intoxicating, and as human beings we so easily get important wires crossed. But the dynamic has changed. A lot more people—men and women—are stumbling into compulsive lifestyles they didn’t seek and may still not recognize and the cost is high.

Families are wrecking as partners and parents disappear into the abyss of arousal attraction. Companies and organizations suffer the loss of productive contribution as employees and volunteers are increasingly marginalized by dis-integrating distractions. Personal lives are fractured and self-worth is denigrated and the pace of craziness ramps up to a scream.

And it turns out there is a way through this.

There are observable dynamics and workable strategies, things that we can know, of which we can learn to be certain. There is mercy and compassion. There are others who know, who care, who walk with us. And there is Help. Wonderful and mysterious, soothing and challenging, life-altering Help.

Truth. Grace. Each other. God.

The more things change, the more they continue as they always have.