Lead Pastor's BlogThoughts from our Lead Pastor, Matthew Dyer
I just got back from vacation on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Most people avoid Florida in the sweltering heat of summer, but for me there’s one big draw: sea turtles. The summer months are peak time for turtles to lay their eggs on the beach, and we were staying on the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge—one of the most prolific nesting areas in the world for loggerheads and green turtles. These amazing creatures were reptilian contemporaries of the dinosaurs but survived the extinction and have been swimming in our oceans for more that 100 million years—way before we came on the scene. Ironically, we are now their greatest threat, such that sea turtles are on the endangered list and protected areas like Arch Carr NWR represent a growing urgency to help them.
I was privileged to be able to go out each night until the early hours to surreptitiously watch enormous female turtles lumber out of the surf and struggle up the slope of the beach where, with great effort, they would dig a nest and lay a clutch of 100 or so eggs before returning to the sea. Early each morning I got to help patrol the same beach to rescue hatchlings from older nests that had hatched out during the night but had not been able to successfully navigate the perilous journey of a few yards from their nest to their future permanent home—the ocean. Once there, they swim all over the world and never return to land except to lay their eggs. And quite incredibly, having swam all over the world, each female returns each time to nest on the very same beach where she herself hatched some thirty or more years before. She will continue to do that for all of her fertile life (with many turtles living to more than 100)! It’s one of nature’s amazing navigational miracles, and no one really knows how they manage it.
As I observed these turtles, and in some simple way experienced a small moment of their normally hidden life, I felt caught up in their mystery. As I watched the sun rise in the mornings, and on moonless nights took in the stars and the vastness of the visible cosmos, I felt at times completely overwhelmed. It was a deeply spiritual experience for me. I felt drawn into the mystery of God. There’s so much we know and understand about our universe, but there’s so much we don’t know that remains mysterious. Often we seem to struggle with mystery: we feel we ought to understand everything. If we can’t understand or explain something, we are reticent to trust it and often we fear it. But unknowing, uncertainty, mystery, even doubt and confusion, are a normal healthy part of faith.
Mystery creates a sense of wonder, where we are overcome with awe as we surrender to a reality that is so much bigger and more beautiful than we can fathom. We can fall into the reality of the infinite love of God without fully understanding it.
Mystery provokes a sense of curiosity as we set out on a journey that is seeking understanding. Ironically, religion very often uses mystery to shut down critical inquiry and discourage curiosity. We are told certain things about faith are a “mystery”—meaning, “Stop asking questions or thinking in certain ways as it will get you into trouble!” But we all know that there are many things about life and about faith that are difficult, troubling, deep and mysterious. Perhaps God wants us to be troubled and curious. Perhaps mystery is a divine invitation into an intimate struggle, a quest for more, a call to deeper seeking that leads to more enlightenment and richer personal growth.
Mystery keeps us humble as we accept that we don’t know everything. Healthy spirituality thrives in an atmosphere of openness where there is room for doubt, for change, and for the opinions of others. Certitude often shuts these down and even makes us fearful of those with whom we disagree. But by humbly embracing mystery, we can see one another as fellow travelers who have not arrived yet. Spiritual discourse need not be about trying to convince the other that we are right, but an invitation to explore the mystery of God together: an invitation to swim in the vast ocean that is God’s love.
I’m not very good at failure. That’s surprising really because I’ve had plenty of practice! What I mean of course is not that I don’t know how to fail: rather, I’m not good at handling failure. Failure sends me into a tailspin of self-criticism, and makes me run for cover lest I be seen by others to be the person I really am. Recently I’ve had two such moments. I won’t go into details because they involve other people, but in the first, I lost my temper. It was a situation where it was appropriate to get angry, but I was too intense and prolonged. I was wrong. In the other, I received some disappointing news that made me feel unheard and misunderstood. I sank into the doldrums of self-pity, despair and self-absorbed bitterness, disregarding the impact that would have on innocent bystanders. You’ll be happy to know I have since worked through (and apologized for) my behavior, but I still keep beating myself up for my reactions: “I shouldn’t be like that; I should be beyond this by now. I’m a hypocrite. I’m an angry person, a self-absorbed person—a bad person.”
Ay, there’s the rub! A bad person! Somehow, I manage to let my behavior define who I am. I am a bad person! Or an angry person. Or a self-piteous person. Or a mean person, a prejudiced person, an insensitive person… the list goes on. But the reality is that most of the time I am actually a reasonably good person, with a genuine desire to be a positive force in the world that often expresses itself in positive behavior. So why don’t I let that define who I am? Rather than seeing myself as a failure, why don’t I see myself as a person in process; an unfinished article that is making progress over time?
Two strong cultural forces seem to overpower us here: our obsession with perfection, and our distain for patience. Somehow, we’ve been sold a lie that the world should be perfect, and it should be that way right now. Whether it’s our job, our bank balance, our popularity, our bodies or our souls, we have no patience with imperfection. The contrary reality is that we all have weaknesses and struggles—but they do not define us. We are all in process, we are all on a journey. Just like a fine wine, we all need time to mature, and there are no shortcuts. Goodness is not a static state of existence, but the practice of willingly engaging with and working at our problems and weaknesses. Goodness is acknowledging our frailty, and this requires great vulnerability, honesty and openness.
At Cedar Ridge, we call this “the journey”: an understanding that we are all in process. We also call it “discipleship”: the practice of following Jesus over the long haul. It’s a journey that takes great courage because it means working at ourselves and choosing to become the best possible version of ourselves. On this journey, failure ceases to define us, and becomes instead an opportunity to see our need to change, and an invitation to grow.
This kind of process thrives in an atmosphere of acceptance. When we begin to see ourselves this way, we see others in the same way—as imperfect people on a journey. Not only does this help us create more compassionate space for others, but it also empowers us to give feedback. Sharing feedback no longer needs to be seen as a way of judging or defining someone as angry, mean, sad or bad, but as way of creating more opportunity for people to grow on their own journey. It assumes that they too want to become the best possible version of themselves.
Ironically, religious communities often create an atmosphere of judgment and shame in which it’s virtually impossible to be honest and vulnerable. Sadly, we often do this to ourselves too—our own refusal to accept our weaknesses and failures shuts down the space we need to engage with them. So we run, we hide, we avoid, we make excuses, and we fake it. But the biggest tragedy is we don’t get to work on ourselves, and we don’t get to grow.
Jesus constantly reminded everyone of God’s love and acceptance, and challenged everyone into a process of transformation. Paul the Apostle urged us to spend life “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12). Both invite us into a journey. So I refuse to hide behind the myth of perfection; I refuse to stay the same. I am renewing my resolve to courageously and honestly accept myself and give myself the space to grow. And I invite you to do the same.
As a young person in my twenties I was in need of safe space: My life was a mess. Failed relationships, moral decline, wrong decisions and harmful behaviors had led to growing anxiety and depression that was becoming paralyzing. But I knew it was my fault, and I didn’t know where to turn. I had been estranged from church for many years and despite a hopeful—even desperate—longing that there was at least some kind of spiritual lifeline available, I knew I couldn’t fake it enough to make it in church. But a close friend created a safe space of acceptance for me. He reached out to ask questions and listened. He wasn’t shocked by my responses and didn’t try to disagree, correct or inform me. He just accepted me and created the safe space I needed to be vulnerable and face myself. That was a turning point in my life and began a journey of healing, although of course, I have and will need many more such times.
Acceptance is a core value for us at Cedar Ridge. Only in an atmosphere of acceptance can vulnerability thrive. In a critical, judgmental atmosphere where you have to earn acceptance, real honesty is almost impossible. And if we can’t be honest, we can’t really be our true selves, face our demons, and begin a process of change and healing. The irony is that spiritual communities are supposed to be the safest places on earth and yet so often become the opposite as they give way to religious dogma. Rather than being places where we can be the most honest and get the most help, they can become places where we have to be the most fake, project an acceptable standard, deny our brokenness, and cover up our sense of inadequacy with religious busyness. But we long to let go; we long for acceptance. That’s surely why Jesus worked so hard to challenge the religious establishment and create a culture of acceptance all around him—interacting with lepers, prostitutes and pagan centurions (the military enemy), and inviting people as diverse as tax collectors and politically motivated Zealots to be in community together. Without this acceptance, healing and the journey to wholeness would be impossible.
Acceptance is rooted in love and its greatest enemy is fear. We’re afraid we might be wrong to accept someone, even though it doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. We’re afraid that accepting might insinuate someone is right, and then what does that say about us? We’re afraid that God is somehow watching and approving or disapproving of who we show love and acceptance to. Perhaps we’re just afraid of the “other” and people we don’t understand. We all have to own the fact that there are people we find it hard to accept. They may not be lepers or prostitutes or tax collectors (we’re way too tuned in to religion to judge them). But it’s certain kinds of people, with certain kinds of viewpoints and certain ways of doing things. We all have them: people we try to keep at a distance; people for whom we hold a certain disdain.
But love overcomes fear, and love is the most powerful force in the universe. That’s why Jesus called us to love, and that’s why Jesus lived and died and came back to life. The power of the resurrection we celebrate at Easter is love, and it creates a dynamic new society of acceptance. A community like this will be full of people who are very different: black and white, young and old, republican and democrat, gay and straight, male, female and transgender. A community like this will most likely have a lot of disagreements, but will work them out lovingly and honestly. A community like this will most likely be messy because we are being open about our problems and creating safe space for those who need help. A community like this will not always feel comfortable, but will be a compellingly irresistible place for those who long for acceptance and a safe place to grow.
That’s the kind of community we endeavor to be here at Cedar Ridge: broken people with great hope because we know there is great love.
Easter is a strange time of year. It’s a season when we celebrate new life: spring is in the air, and we decorate with pastel colors, bunnies, and chocolate eggs. And yet in all this sweetness we are celebrating something outrageous and almost unbelievable: Jesus came back from the dead! Really? Can anyone come back from the dead? And if Jesus came back from the dead, that forces us to wrestle with who he really is. If Jesus came back from the dead, as his followers we are challenged with living the kind of resurrected life he taught and demonstrated. Is that possible? Perhaps it’s better to reach for the chocolate. Easter is problematic.
More problematic still is that to get to resurrection we have to come face to face with an awful, bloody, unjust, torturous execution. For me this is the most troubling and most miraculous part of Easter. Jesus dies! He is falsely accused and deserted by friends who assured him of fealty. He is physically and emotionally abused by religious leaders, rejected by the popular culture, and handed over to a brutal empire to carry out the dirty work. The crucifixion is obscene! Why would Jesus subject himself to so much evil and hatred? Why would he make himself so vulnerable? This is problematic.
Easter is a celebration of the vulnerability of God. As Jesus lives out his divine message of love and acceptance for the whole world he runs the risk of rejection. Otherwise it’s not true love; it’s control. And reject him we do: we don’t want to put others first; we don’t want to turn the other cheek; we don’t want to forgive, or be the first to say sorry or let go of resentment; we don’t want to prioritize the poor, the needy, the annoying or those we don’t understand. We don’t really believe that the last and least will be the first and greatest. We believe that love, peace and joy only come from having enough power to be in control of our own environment and outcomes, so we don’t plan on letting go of any of it. We are just not prepared to be that vulnerable. We’re not willing to risk it. Better to put Jesus to death, be done with it, look away and move on.
But Jesus doesn’t shrink back from love. He stays in a place of unbelievable vulnerability. He takes all the rejection and forgives. He takes on all the evil, the darkness, the hatred—the absolute worst humanity can throw at him—and only returns love. At this one moment in cosmic history we seem to be in control of God: we have God in our grasp. God is subject to the outcomes we determine; God is not in a safe place. God dies. But God still loves, even up to and through death, and this amazing love is so powerful that it overcomes and destroys all the evil, fear, darkness and hatred. The power of this love can lead to only one thing: life everlasting, and so there is resurrection. None of this is possible without death. None of this is possible without vulnerability. That’s the miracle of Easter!
Vulnerability is a core value for us at Cedar Ridge. It’s at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. It takes vulnerability to embrace resurrection and to have hope and believe another world is possible. Only if we are prepared to be vulnerable can we take an honest look at our lives and accept that we need to change, rather than pointing the finger at others as the source of our problems. It takes vulnerability to pursue a pathway of personal growth because we risk failure. Vulnerability means we look out for others and take care of others’ needs, not always knowing if our own will be met. It means moving out of our comfort zone to engage with those who are least like us. It means listening and seeking to understand before being understood and working through conflict. It means owning our mistakes, asking for help, confessing our faults, being first to say sorry, first to initiate affection, first to let go of resentment, and first to say, “I love you.” It means being willing to reach out into a hurting world knowing that we too might get hurt, might fail, might be taken advantage of, and might be misunderstood. It means forming relationships and partnerships with those we seek to help rather than trying to control them.
It means love. This is the miracle of Easter!
One of the challenges of being a prophetic community and speaking out on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed is that we constantly flirt with self-righteousness. The political realm is full of finger pointing, sanctimonious rhetoric and self-vindication. But Jesus shows us another way: a way of love, where we speak and act with great zeal (and even anger) but out of humility and compassion—that also extends to our enemies.
In Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” he challenges us to forgive others, to love even our enemies and to be careful not to judge. Jesus highlights how easily we see ourselves as “other” and separate, whether through hateful speech (Matthew 5: 21-24), objectifying others (Matthew 5: 27-30) or judging self-righteously (Matthew 7:1-5). And he presents an alternative way based on a much deeper reality that we are one with God and with all humanity: there is no “other.”
Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). He dispelled the illusion of separation from God and one another and brought reconciliation. He embodied this by reaching out to people who were considered “other” or even “second class” (women, children, the poor, the infirm, certain ethnic groups, tax collectors, etc.). For Jesus, there is no “other” and that’s why we cannot hate, objectify or judge. This oneness is, of course: love.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters, Father Zosima (a Russian Orthodox monk), calls the other monks in his charge to a radical spirituality:
“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”
Father Zosima’s vision of “an all-embracing love” leads him to call the monks to:
“Love God’s people. For we are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls…”
He aspires to a state of spiritual awareness that leaves no room for religious vanity:
“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth… Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and that knows no satiety. Then each of us will be able to gain the whole world by love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears.”
Rather than judging, he sees himself as part of the whole human problem not separate from it and therefore able quite incredibly to be part of the solution too. Jesus’ way of love not only means we see our oneness with the oppressed, but also with those we perceive as oppressors. This kind of awareness, this kind of love leads us to a place of humility and of compassion for our enemies rather than self-righteous hatred. It does not mean we have to affirm or agree with the actions of our enemies. It does not mean we should remain quiet. It does not mean we shouldn’t be angry. Far from it! But we can speak from a place of humility and take action within the broken system of humanity that includes each of us as well as the oppressed and the oppressor.
As a church community, we have recently been exploring the meaning of Jesus’ death. In the letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to first century fledgling churches he explains that on the cross Jesus put to death all separation between God and humanity, as well all separation between human beings (Ephesians 2:12-18). Jesus “personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity” (Romans 8:3-4 [The Message]). Jesus did not stand separate from humanity and all our evil, hatred and brokenness. Rather he owned it, stood with us, took all the hatred and violence that humanity could throw at him—culminating in torturous execution by crucifixion—and returned only love, praying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus identified with the problem and became the solution, overcoming violence and hatred with love. Out of death came the seeds that could grow into something new (John 12:24-25).
Jesus calls us to the same kind of death. Not death on a cross but death by identifying with all of humanity (even our oppressors and our most disagreeable enemies) and letting love overcome hate. This kind of death means letting go of pride and being right as a motivation. It means seeing the light of God in the other. It means being willing to stand with the vulnerable and oppressed no matter what the cost. It means not removing ourselves when political decisions and policies negatively impact the poor and marginalized. It means working for reconciliation and a new creation, a new world (2 Corinthians 5: 17-18).
In the current political reality, the need for this “new creation” is more evident than ever. Government decisions are creating fear among the poor and vulnerable; among women, people of color, immigrants, refugees and Muslims. Policies of Economic Nationalism, wall-building and “us first” are creating a culture of “them and us” with blame for societal problems being pinned on certain people groups. I do not say this by way of support of or opposition to either Republicans or Democrats: it’s not a partisan issue. I say it simply as one who is trying to be true to the call of Jesus to be a prophetic community. Whether we are Democrat or Republican, we have to own this. We cannot remove ourselves from it. We have to be part of the solution.
As followers of Jesus we must speak up and act out in opposition to this fear and divisiveness. But we cannot do it out of hate or in a way that produces more fear and hatred. We have to die to our own need to be right and our own prideful desire to conquer our enemies. We have to die to our own desire to assign all evil to one particular person or group of people. We have to die to our need to see ourselves as superior and separate from this whole human problem and view our enemies with compassion. We have to die to our own desire for self-protection (“us first”) and stand as one with the vulnerable and oppressed no matter what the cost. We have to die to our own desire to look away and pretend none of this is happening.
Out of this death comes resurrection: a new creation of love that transcends hatred, lifts the veil of the illusion of separateness, and vanquishes injustice. This is why Jesus came, this is what we are called to and this is what it means to be a prophetic community.
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You can hear messages from Matthew and our other speakers right on our website.