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Lynne's Blog

Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

Wednesday October 12 2016

Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we can accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil that we do. . . . Our vocation, I believe, is to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of material.
          —Paul Tournier

My father was an air force pilot, an officer. His precision as a pilot kept him safe while flying fighter planes in World War 2 and while flying cargo planes in the decades after the war. My mother excelled socially. She was and is a hostess extraordinaire, serving guests beautiful food in a well kept home. She thrived at bridge games and charity events. Apart from about 15 extra pounds my father gained in his 30s and could never lose, my parents never gave me the slightest indication that they had any flaws or weaknesses.

I grew up expecting to excel at everything I undertook. I was an outstanding student, Girl Scout and piano player. Imagine my frustration when I couldn’t get rid of my extra pounds and failed to measure up to my slim and well dressed mother. And then when I fell into depression in my first pregnancy – a depression caused by a vitamin deficiency that lasted off and on for 16 years – I was utterly confounded by my weakness, failure and inability to excel.

As you can see, the quotation above from Paul Tournier evokes a lot of reflection for me. For a person raised in a seemingly perfect family, with high expectations to replicate it, Tournier’s words are unsettling, yet also somehow reassuring.

I remember a startling moment when I was a young mother in the midst of my recurring bouts of depression. One of my friends said to me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

I said, “What in the world do you mean?”

She replied, “I’ve been thinking about thank-you notes. I’m not good at keeping beautiful cards handy. I’m not good at writing eloquent notes. I’ve learned it’s better to take some white paper and write, ‘Thanks for the gift,’ and throw it in a plain envelope and mail it, rather than wait around until I can do it perfectly. Because I’ll wait around forever and the note will never get in the mail. So, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

In my family, if you thought you might do something poorly, you didn’t even attempt it. The ability to do many things well creates a myth that our efforts – human efforts in general – can be good and lovely and close to perfect.

In a departmental seminar last week, one of my colleagues said, “There is no part of our efforts that doesn’t stand in need of redemption.” He was responding to the seminar speaker, who had said that God’s truth, beauty and goodness are evident in creation but are also marred by sin in every setting and every action.

The poorly written thank-you note shows a lack of care – a form of brokenness and sin – even as it affirms the value of the gift and the preciousness of the connection between gift and giver. In a very small way, that’s good coming from evil. But does the eloquent thank-you note, written on a lovely card, also need redemption? Perhaps there’s some pride or paternalism or self-aggrandizement in it. Perhaps I can’t identify the part of my beautifully written thank-you note that is in need of redemption, but just because I can’t see any aspect of brokenness there doesn’t mean my action isn’t in need of God’s grace and redemption.

I’ve focused here on thank-you notes, a small and increasingly disregarded part of daily life. I could have talked about other “small” things like meals, clothing or sports. I could have talked about “big” things like jobs, ministries, parenting or marriage. But no matter what aspect of life we talk about, increasingly I see that there is no part of my life that does not need redemption. Yes, we are in danger of running out of good material to work with, whatever we do. Paul Tournier’s words help me remember my need of God every moment.

(Next week: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with. Photo of my father with his P-51 during World War 2. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Do not ride in the car with Lynne . . .

Saturday November 7 2015

Do not ride in the car with Lynne . . .

unless you want to get the occasional lecture . . .

or maybe it was a sermon.

Here’s what happened this past Sunday on the way to church. My husband, Dave, has been studying Jeremiah. Soon after we headed out, he said, “Jeremiah talks so much about idolatry. The Seahawks are playing this afternoon, and so many people will be glued to their big TV screens. I find myself wondering if there isn’t a lot of idolatry going on today, just like in Jeremiah’s time.”

“Wondering?” I burst out. “You find yourself wondering? I don’t wonder about that at all. I know for sure there is a lot of idolatry going on. The challenge is how do we recognize it, receive forgiveness from God for it, and then combat it as much as possible in our daily lives. All of these depend on spiritual practices.”

Then I kept talking. I had three main points, which I’ll outline here. (See, it was like a sermon!)

1. Many spiritual practices help us recognize our own idolatries. I wrote last week about letting fear, ego and ambition drive the bus, and I wrote about practices that can help us figure out who is driving our bus and how to switch drivers. I recommended what I call “the basics of the Christian life”: weekly communal worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer. I also recommended journaling, prayer partners, spiritual direction and silence. In the car on Sunday, I gave Dave a brief synopsis of my post last week.

2. Then I talked about forgiveness. Often the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. We so often have compassion on others, but not on ourselves. God’s tender, forgiving love for us is so great that the psalmist can write:

For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:11-12).

If God’s love for us is as big as the skies, then shouldn’t we be able to accept that love, coupled with forgiveness?

I like the language of “do” for my besetting sins. “I’ve been doing overeating lately.” Not, “I’m an overeater” or “I struggle with overeating.” I’m not defined by my sins. Yes, I do counterproductive and stupid and even evil things sometimes, but God forgives me, and I start afresh. “Do” language helps me see myself as someone who screws up from time to time and as someone who receives forgiveness from God and then tries to live a holy and obedient life with joy. I am not a compulsive overeater; I just do it sometimes.

My typical idolatry is not the big screen TV with the Seahawks game on it. Mine relates to food and the self-loathing that I sometimes do after I overeat. But even self-loathing, something I do from time to time, does not define me. It’s just a slip into idolatry that God can forgive, and that I can learn to forgive as well.

3. If idolatry is rampant, then shouldn’t we be paying a lot of attention to other people’s idolatry? Should we be thinking and talking about where we see other people failing?

Jesus is pretty clear that our primary business is facing into our own sin:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-3).

So that was my lecture/sermon in the car on Sunday morning. Idolatry is rampant but forgivable through God’s love and Jesus’ grace and the Holy Spirit’s power. Our spiritual practices shape us so we can more easily see our habitual forms of sin and receive forgiveness. Our language – “doing” sin rather than being irredeemably sinful – helps us live as God’s new and beloved creatures. And our primary job is to focus on our own sin, receive forgiveness and live a new life in Christ, rather than criticizing others for spending too much time in front of a big screen TV.

(If you’d like to receive an email update when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Photo credit: an article in the Daily Telegraph about a police officer who got in trouble for tweeting this photo. For those of you who know Dave, he’s NOT bald! And he doesn’t look as old as the man in the cartoon! But after we got to church, I found myself wishing that something or someone had covered my mouth.)

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices, part 2

Saturday July 19 2014

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices, part 2

As an adult, I have seldom prayed the Lord’s Prayer as a part of my personal prayer life, and I have not been in churches that use it regularly. Therefore, I simply haven’t thought of it very often. Earlier this year, a local minister asked me to preach as a part of his series on the Lord’s Prayer. Could I please do a sermon on how the Lord’s Prayer might inform our spiritual practices, he asked. So I began pondering that question.

In my first post on this topic, I wrote about the invitation to intimacy conveyed by the prayer. In this post I want to ponder the intercessory portion of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 5:11-13, NRSV).

I’m struck, right off, by the simplicity of this prayer. In a consumer age, when we are assaulted by ceaseless advertisements designed to create desire, this prayer is lean and spare, focused on essential needs. These intercessions, recommended by Jesus, make me want to be sure my prayers are focused on what really matters – what I need – and not on what the consumer culture tells me I want.

Two spiritual practices that have helped me detach from the consumer culture the most are Sabbath keeping and fasting.* Keeping a Sabbath gives me a day off every week from striving, from pushing hard, from believing I am essential and necessary. That step back from my everyday life enables me to separate needs from wants more easily. Fasting – from food or from other things like entertainment media, electronic devices, or shopping – creates space for prayer and clear thinking and for understanding my need for God.

The Lord’s Prayer also indicates the high priority Jesus puts on forgiveness. In an age when many church worship services no longer include a confession of sin, we need to make time in our personal prayer life to acknowledge our sin to God. This can happen silently in prayer alone, in prayer times with family members or small groups, while journaling or walking or singing a song about forgiveness. Confessing sin with some regularity requires intentional effort in our self-focused world.

Jesus couples two things: asking God for forgiveness and forgiving others. The first is challenging, and the second is sometimes next to impossible, which reveals our need for God’s help. These requests in the Lord’s Prayer trigger in me an awareness of my deep need for God. I need God’s help to know how to pray and what to pray for, to grow in praying in ways consistent with God’s priorities and not centered only on my own desires. I need God’s help to face my sins and particularly to forgive others. I need God’s help to desire not to follow evil paths.

What are the spiritual practices in your life that help you acknowledge and express your need for God? Which spiritual practices help you take steps to forgive others? In what setting do you pray most readily for forgiveness? In what ways do your prayers reflect your own needs, and the needs of others, and in what ways do your prayers reflect your desires? Which spiritual practices help you resist the consumer culture? These are just a few of the questions I think about when I read or pray the intercessions in the Lord’s Prayer.

(*If you'd like to learn more about the Sabbath or Fasting, I've written a book on each of those topics: Sabbath Keeping and Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites. I've also written numerous articles about those two spiritual practices, which you can find on the articles page of this website. The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices, part 1, is available here. If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. )