Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In your face

So there's been some buzz this week about an SNL sketch about Tim Tebow and an exchange he had with Jesus while in the locker room discussing his team's recent six-game winning streak.  I've seen some headlines screaming that Christians are very offended by this sketch.  And I'm sure that some are.

But what if, instead of being defensive about the doctrinal issues, we took this as an opportunity to listen to what people are saying about Christians and Christianity?  What if we take this very clearly characaturized sketch of something that's going on in our world and see what nuggets of truth we might be able to find about how what we say and do looks and feels like to people who don't believe in Jesus?

So Tim is portrayed as a person who's overeager to please Jesus, and as someone who is really over the top in how he talks about his faith.  In fact "in your face" is used to described the way that he prays to Jesus about everything.

So my question is, what is it that SNL is highlighting here, and how does that reflect the feelings and beliefs of many people who have Christians in their lives?  What is it that we are doing that is annoying or frustrating to people?  Is any of that legitimate--does it highlight places where even Jesus would not be pleased?

In the sketch, even Jesus thinks that Tim's worship and prayer is over the top.  But if you look at the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, stories where Peter and Martha declare him to be the Messiah, or the place where the blind man falls on his face to worship Jesus, I don't think you can conclude that Tim's worship and prayer are too far over the top for someone who recognizes who Jesus is and wants to honor him.

But what about the question of the balance between public and private worship?  There are tons of stories that Jesus told about the pharisees vs. regular people--about people who do their acts of worship before God alone vs. those who worship in order to be seen.

And that's really a question of heart, right?  Of intentions.  And looking at other people, we can't know what their purpose is.  We can't really know what Tim is thinking.  Maybe he is really just thankful for the gifts he's been given, and maybe his prayers are all about praying that God will help him to honor Jesus in everything he says and does while the spotlight is on him.  Only God knows his heart.

But we can certainly take this opportunity to question our own motives.  Why do we pray in public before meals?  Why do we talk about church and the Bible?  Why do we share those stories about who Jesus is and what he has done for us?  How do we approach it--from a position of power or a position of humility?  What are we communicating about Jesus, about God, and about ourselves by the way in which we engage in worship?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas giving and the barrier of grace

I've noticed a strange phenomenon around Christmas time this year.  For the past couple of years, my roommates and I have tried to be "good neighbors" in the most old fashioned and traditional sense of the word by caroling and giving away baked Christmas goodies to those around us.  Sometimes it's hard to get people to answer the door (I live in kind of a rough neighborhood).  But the ones who live closest to us now gladly accept our cookies.

What I've noticed this year is that, without fail, those neighbors come to our door a couple of days later with Christmas goodies of their own.  And one of the neighbors even bought candy from a local shop because they don't really bake, but they didn't want our kindness to go unreturned.

What do you think makes people feel like they have to respond in kind when you do something nice for them?  I'm not sure that this is always true, but it seems like part of the desire to respond in kind is so that we don't owe anyone anything.  Because if you give me a gift and I don't respond, I am now in your debt until I can repay it.  It's the same with getting a Christmas gift that is worth way more than I spent on you.  It makes me uncomfortable because there's this money sign hanging over our heads, showing how uneven the relationship seems.

I would suggest that this discomfort is rooted in our desire to be self-sufficient.  It takes great humility to accept gifts from others, and we want to somehow believe that we earn those things or deserve them in some way.  And if we didn't do anything to deserve them, at the very least we want to repay someone.

Grace is hard to accept.  It's hard to accept that today, I might need you to love me because I'm in pain and I can't be nice to you.  It's hard to accept that I might need help shoveling my sidewalk because I have the flu, and maybe I'll never be able to respond in kind.  It's hard to accept that, when I look at my relationship with God, I'm really bringing nothing to the table.  He gives me grace, he chooses to love me.  I can respond in gratitude, but it can never really repay what he's given me.

If I was trying to identify emotional barriers to faith, this is a huge one.  I think it's a barrier that we all face, and we all have to work through.  But in times like the holidays, I think we can also be a part of bringing this barrier to the surface by seeking ways that we can pour out kindness and love on those around us--even when they have nothing to give back or have done nothing to deserve it.  You never know how your gratuitous gift might open the door to someone receiving the grace of God.

So this week, who in your life can you give to for the holidays that wouldn't expect it and can't return it?  How can you be a reflection of the love and grace of God by giving to those around you?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

one who is loved

I had the opportunity to listen to an atheist's sermon this week.  It stirred up a lot of thoughts, but one has been haunting me this whole week.  While speaking, the man kind of told the story of life from his perspective--it was atoms and molecules evolving over time to come to a place where life has meaning because we give it meaning--because we choose and emote and live, the sun has meaning, for example.  And as he painted this picture of life and how we are all connected to one another and all other natural matter, I had just a moment or two where I felt what I would feel if I did not believe in God.  For just a moment, I identified with the reality he was painting to the point where God disappeared and it was just us--the natural world--existing and moving and living.

And as I imagined the world of space and time swirling and moving--dancing almost--to create atoms and life, I felt a profound sense of emptiness.  The natural world felt distant and cold compared to what I'd felt a moment before.

What I realized in those moments is that my entire reality, my entire identity is built on the belief and experience that I am created and loved by the God of the universe.  I believe and live life like there is a God whose primary character is love who creates and brings order and brings life.  And even though I don't understand why horrible things happen, and even when the world seems so dark and excruciatingly painful because of all the evil that exists from day to day, I wake up in the morning and I go to bed at night knowing that God searches me and knows me, that he knit me together in my mother's womb, that he knows when every sparrow falls, and he knows the number of hairs on my head.  I am precious and valuable because he loves me--not because of what I have done, because of who I am, or because of where I have been or where I am going.  I am one who is loved.

This belief affects me profoundly.  It gives me hope and confidence and a measure of peace and purpose in life.  It gives me reason to love and to live and to care.  It motivates me to be the best kind of human being I can be.  It makes me want to give of myself and make life better.  Because I am loved and cared for, I want to be loving and care for other people.

I've mentioned my studies of stories of people who met Jesus, and how the "eternal life" that he offered people was not so much about life after death, but about life with the eternal one.  In our Sunday night meetings, we often talked about what life with the eternal one is like.  Many times people conjured up pictures of a utopian existence--palm trees and clouds and all the other icons we associate with peace and rest.  But for me, it's this sense of knowledge and relationship with a good and loving God--that's what life with the eternal one is like.  It's being one who is loved, nothing more and nothing less.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thoughts for Berkley

So I've clearly taken some time off from the blogging world.  I think I've just needed a rest for a while, and I haven't really been sure where to go with this.  But I know I need to be writing, and I do hear from people who have read or have been reading from time to time, asking me about the blog and whether I still have things to say.

I've also had a request from the church I'm now attending to send some blurbs each week about reaching out and building relationships with people outside of the church.  I'm thinking I may, at the very least, post those same things here.  Some of it will be iterations of ideas and thoughts that are already here, on different posts.  Other posts may be new.

So the question is still how to live as the disciples of Jesus in a way that we can also be the disciplers that he calls us to be.  You know by now that the passage that has called me since my earliest years is in 2 Corinthians 5--we are Christ's ambassadors in the world.  We are to live lives of integrity and love because in that way we reflect his character, but his desire has also always been that we be a part of reaching the world and inviting the world to worship and follow him.

So what I wrote for the church folks today is a much shorter and easier to digest version of the ideas that are in my book about building genuine relationships and allowing my faith to be a part of those relationships because it's a part of sharing who I am.  But I have to also admit that I choose to build friendships with people outside of the church or who are hostile toward God and the church because I have a deep sense of calling to them.  I want to be there because I believe that's where Jesus would have spent a lot of his time, and I long to see all of my friends know and follow Jesus.  I believe that my life is better because I have peace with God, and I want others to have that same peace.  So practically, I see this life of a dicipling disciple coming out of the following 6 things:

1.    Be the person God created you to be.  God made you you on purpose, and you can uniquely reach people who others can't.  When you find your identity in Christ and live out of who he's made you to be, you will have more opportunities to have significant impact than you ever would have expected.

2.    Create space and time to spend with people outside the church.  It's really easy to become comfortable and secure in our relationships within the body of Christ.  It's much harder to befriend and stay friends with people who have different values, so we actually have to work at it. 

3.    Build relationships.  This works both ways - seek out ways to love and reach out to people, but also choose to be vulnerable with people who aren't from the church.  Pursue, pursue, pursue--even when it's not comfortable and it takes a lot of energy.  But also watch how the dynamics of your relationships change as you invite people to meet some of your needs.

4.    Listen.  Listen to the hearts and needs and desires of your friends.  Seek to understand their circumstances and their point of view.

5.    Love unconditionally and extravagantlyThis is the way that Jesus loves you, and this type of love is almost impossible to find in the world apart from the Holy Spirit empowering a person to love in this way.  Love and pursue people, not because of what you can receive from them, but because of how Jesus loves you.

6.    Share your story and the stories of God.  This must be done carefully and thoughtfully.  But if you're doing all the other things I mentioned, opportunity after opportunity will pop up to share part of your story of relationship with God or stories of how God related to people in the Bible that feels totally natural and understandable within the context of the relationship.  It's not about proselytizing, it's about sharing this important part of your life with your friends.

So my church-based posts for the next month or two will extrapolate on these thoughts by giving examples or further explanation of these ideas.  But for those of you reading this week, I'd like to leave you with a couple of questions to think about and act on:  Who are 2 people in your life that you know are hostile toward God or the church or toward you because of your faith?  What do you know about the needs they have in their lives?  What kind of blessings can you be praying that God will give them this week?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Aching visionaries

A long, long time ago, when I was just learning to walk with God, I prayed that God would give me eyes to see people as he saw them.  Amy Grant's song "Father's Eyes" comes to mind, as it was during that era and I can remember singing along with her on my cassette player. 

When I prayed that, I didn't realize that what I was asking would be so hard.  I didn't realize that I would spend my life working with some of the most broken people in the world, and that as a result of my prayer, I would be facing them and their brokenness without the hardness and cynicism that would otherwise protect my heart.

I went away for the weekend to spend some time thinking, praying, and mourning.  I'm still grieving my father's death of course, but I think the process of mourning has brought out all of these other things that I see on a daily basis that are so, so sad.  And sometimes that sadness overwhelms me.

For example, I met with a couple of people in the county jail this morning.  One of the men is someone who is in the throes of alcoholism and is in such deep denial about it that he doesn't see how it's utterly destroyed his family and has landed him in his legal troubles.  He is blissfully unaware, while those who love him are sitting with their lives in shambles, trying to pick up the pieces.  Another is a man who, for the first time in his life, suffered a psychotic break and is now living with a mental illness that he doesn't even want to acknowledge let alone treat with the medications that could help him.

So many times in the last few years I've wondered if what I'm doing is worth it.  Is it worth my time and my energy and the heartbreak and the mourning?  Is it worth it to see the darkness up close rather than being able to live pretending that it doesn't exist?

In the end, I always tell myself that it is.  I think about Jesus's parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, and think that in Jesus's world, it is worth it.  That every moment I spend listening to, praying for, caring for, and serving the poor and the prisoners is somehow bringing about his kingdom on earth.

Jesus also said that blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.  A book I read this weekend expounded on that blessing like this:

"Who then are the mourners?  The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God's new day, who ache with all their being for that day's coming, and who break out into tears when confronted by its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death.  The mourners are aching visionaries.

"Such people Jesus blesses; he hails them, he praises them, he salutes them.  And he gives them the promise that the new day for whose absence they ache will come.  They will be comforted."  Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, pp 85-86.

Are you an aching visionary?  Do you see the world as it could be and as it will be?  Do you long for that day?  Do you invite God to show you all the broken places of the world that don't reflect the perfection and goodness that he intended?

It's a powerful thing, I think, to mourn.  If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you long for the day when there will be no more mourning, sickness, death, selfishness, or brokenness.  And sometimes, that longing can give you the motivation to get out there and start making a difference now, working to bring about God's kingdom vision of loving God and loving others to earth.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thoughts on the church and missional living

So there’s a lot of talk within the church leadership culture/community/conversation about making churches and church communities missional.  I’ve heard sermons online about how to make your church more missional, how to teach people to be missional, and about why being missional is so important.  I thought I might be able to add something to the conversation because I haven’t heard anything about what someone who’s living missionally within the world needs from the church.  And make no mistake, we need the church desperately.

So, after about 9 years of living and working in the world while trying to live out a calling to be missionally investing of the lives of my friends and co-workers, here are a few of the things that I need from the church in order to support that missional posture:

1) Prayer.  No spiritual fruit is ever borne without the work of the Holy Spirit, and I am completely and utterly dependent on him to intervene in the lives of the people around me.  Day after day, I get up, go to work, have conversations with people about life, about spiritual things, about problems, about struggles.  There are many things that I pray for my friends about.  There are many needs that they have, spiritual and otherwise.  I need you to pray for me.  I need you to pray for my friends.  The work of the gospel cannot be done without the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

2) Fellowship.  Because I’ve chosen to spend most of my time with people outside the church, who probably don’t believe much of anything that I do, I end up feeling very different and very lonely much of the time.  I need the fellowship of the body to be a place where I can go and feel like I’m a part of something bigger than me.  And that the something bigger is not just an idea or a kingdom that exists somewhere in the future, after I die.  It’s a community of people that is following after Jesus right now.  Ideally, I would love it if I could find some other missional people who are living the same kind of life that I am–who would understand what it’s like to count people who don’t know Jesus as some of my closest friends.  I would love the support and encouragement of that kind of shared understanding.  But even if that’s not possible, just worshiping and talking with others who love Jesus and have given their lives to him is refreshing when most of the time, in my regular life, that kind of commitment is viewed as something strange.

3) Understanding.  I need you to understand why I don’t join the worship team, teach nursery or Sunday school, run a small group, cook food for our gatherings, or work as a youth group sponsor.  Even though I could do all these things, and I could therefore add a great deal to the building up of the body in that way, I need you to understand that I’m called to the world.  So I need you to help me guard that gift and bless me for using my gifts for the church and the body outside of the body.  I need you to understand why I don’t show up at all the social or peripheral activities of the church.  I need you to recognize and celebrate my activities outside the church as just as vital to body life as what I might do if I was helping to support or attending all the programs of the church.

4) Opportunities to invite my friends to meet some of you.  Most of my friends are not at a point where they’re going to jump at the opportunity to go to a church service.  Many of them are not even really interested in going to a church program or a church building.  It sounds boring.  It sounds stuffy.  It sounds religious.  However, there is nothing in the world as powerful as seeing how the community of believers loves each other.  Jesus even said that people would know his disciples by their love.  I need opportunities to invite my friends to meet you and to see how you treat each other.  I need places where those of my friends who come from broken homes or who have been abused and neglected and struggle to have quality relationships can find home and family in a way that it’s never been available to them before.  I need you to be the church to each other, even outside of church time, and I need you to be willing to invite my friends into those relationships.  And when you do, I need you to love my friends as much as you love your friends.

So these are the first 4 things that come to mind.  Do any of my readers have anything to add?  Or for those who are in church leadership, any ideas of how to make these things a reality?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who is my neighbor?

So I've been going through the book of Luke with a friend of mine.  I send her a part of a passage each morning with a couple of words--sometimes an explanation of the historical background, sometimes questions about interpretation, sometimes thoughts about what it means to apply those stories to our own lives.  We've just hit Luke 10, and this morning I sent her the story of the Good Samaritan.

I'm sure you know the story, where Jesus was doing some teaching.  A guy came up and asked Jesus how to find eternal life.  Jesus asked the guy what he thought, and the guy answered "Love God and love my neighbor."  Jesus told him that he had it exactly right.  But that didn't satisfy the guy, so he asked who his neighbor was.  And in response, Jesus told a story.  He told a story about this man who was beaten and left for dead.  Religious person after religious person saw him, but did nothing.  Instead, they crossed to the other side of the road so they wouldn't have to deal with him.  And then a Samaritan, that most-hated race, walked by and took care of the guy--treated him just like family and gave everything he needed to get well.  And then Jesus asked the guy, "who did you think was a neighbor in this story?  The answer, of course, was the Samaritan.

When I read this story this morning, I thought of the conversation that's stirring in my community about this billboard that our local atheist group put up in our community, saying that you don't need God to hope, to care, to love, or to live.  This has caused a firestorm of controversy in my very religious community, and some people are saying and doing some hateful things.  Some people who claim to be followers of Jesus, in fact, have not been loving toward the people who put up this billboard.

Is it just me, or does this completely contradict the message of Jesus--the message of the cross--the message of redemption?  I get the fact that people might feel like their ideology is being attacked.  I get that they take this personally, because their belief in God is a part of their identity.  But how can anyone think that responding by publicly disparaging other people or by doing cruel things to people who don't believe in God somehow advances the kingdom or the message of Jesus?

What happened to the message of loving God and loving others--even those who would ordinarily fall into a category of people we might consider our enemies?  Because the Jews and the Samaritans--they hated each other.  They had major ideological and practical differences that made getting along with each other impossible.  But when Jesus wanted to talk about what it means to truly follow him, he used the example of going above and beyond for someone who is your enemy.

What if, instead of reacting to this ideological statement in the abstract, the church actually got together and tried to think about how to extravagantly love the atheists in our community (or the Muslims or the Bhuddists or the Hindus)?  What if we started mowing lawns, providing for physical needs, or having conversations with others who don't believe the same things we do?  What if (gasp!) we actually became friends with those who might never see the need to believe in God?  How would that change the world?  How would that change us?

So I'm heartbroken, personally, as I think about how my community has responded.  I long for the kind of world that we'd be living in if everyone acted like the good Samaritan all of the time.  I wish that everyone in my community who loves Jesus would actually take the time to figure out a practical, sincere, and extravagant way to show the love of Jesus to my atheist friend and all of his friends.

I wish...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Is sin a dirty word?

I have to admit that I don't like to talk about sin.  It feels like that's connected to the idea of judgment--so if I talk about sin then I also have to identify sin in your life and then we have to have that conversation.

But I also have to admit that I have been thinking an awful lot lately about the consequences of sin.  Because I have to live with them.  And right now those consequences are so clear that they're unavoidable.

I'm talking about my dad's death, of course--death being the ultimate consequence of sin.  Reading the stories of God, death is actually a gift from God.  Can you imagine what life would be like if God had allowed a sinful people to eat from the tree of life and live eternally with sin ruling over us?  That's not any kind of life, and it's not the kind of life I would hope to have.  But still, there is something inherently wrong with death, something inherently not-good about it.

But it's more than that.  I see how it separates me from other people too.  I see how my own shame at my sin creates a desire to avoid intimacy--to avoid being known.  I see how I sometimes deal with that by living out of an image of myself rather than out of my actual self.  I see how my sinful acts hurt other people--when I speak out in anger or when I choose selfishness over giving to others.  I see how different belief systems and worldviews and approaches to life make it almost impossible to walk beside people in life--even people that I actually like and want to spent time with.

So I can't deny that sin is real, that its consequences are real, and that ultimately it hurts both me and others in the way I would most wish to avoid.  Sometimes I call this idea brokenness, but I could just as easily label it sin.

When talking about faith, I actually don't think that the topic of sin is such a bad place to start.  I don't know a single person who hasn't experienced some of the consequences of sin.  I don't know anyone who doesn't wish or hope for something better in the future.

And what my faith tells me, what I've learned and seen within my relationship with God, is that there is hope.  Jesus conquered death by raising himself and others from the dead, showing that he also has the power to forgive sins and heal brokenness.  And the most amazing thing is that we don't have to wait until death to see at least some of the results of that healing.  Jesus wants to begin the process of restoration and healing right now.  He longs to, through the Holy Spirit, show us how to live above that brokenness.  Though he's not going to bring my dad back, and I have to wait for eternity to experience the restoration of that relationship, I can learn not to allow my shame to separate me from others.  I can submit my heart and my choices to the leading of the Spirit, and through him, I can choose to say no to sin and avoid hurting other people.  I can begin to live a life of reconciliation and restoration.

And that gives me hope, at least enough to walk into another day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

before & after

Within the whole "evangelism" conversation, an argument has been made that, instead of looking to define people as "inside" or "outside" the church, or as "spiritually dead" or "spiritually alive," it may be more helpful to look at orientation toward Jesus or orientation away from him. 

To a point, I think that this is a good idea because following Jesus is a process.  I don't know if anyone ever just wakes up one day and says, "today I think I'll follow Jesus."  Usually there's a whole journey toward Jesus that happens first.  Seeing the process instead of just one point of decision allows us to focus more on walking with people right where they are instead of trying to force a decision before they're ready to make one.  It also allows us the freedom not to have to label people, but just to pray with others and encourage them at whatever point they're at on their spiritual journey.


As I have watched people over the last couple of years move from hostility toward neutrality toward faith toward relationship with Jesus, every time there has been a point where there is a real, distinct, almost measurable change inside of them.  There is a point where it becomes clear to me, as an outside observer, that the Spirit of God is living inside them and that they are now walking with God.

It's one of the most amazing and miraculous transformations that you could ever see.  I can hardly describe what it's like to observe someone going from one day of disconnection from God to the next day of walking with God.  There's an element of softness, of tenderness, of openness.  There is a recognition of their own internal brokennness and need for God to fill them and transform them.  There's a new interest in the stories or words of Scripture.  There's a kind of peace in the person's soul.  And there's a different kind of confidence mixed with humility that comes from belonging to God.

And the more I see that happening in the people around me, the more I want to see others experience it too.  Even though the problems of life don't disappear, and even though life becomes harder in some ways, it seems to me like that internal transformation is a very positive thing for the people being transformed and that they don't want to go back.  Maybe more importantly, that transformation has usually led them to love God and to love other people more completely than they were able to before.

The before & after--they motivate me.  They motivate me to pray without ceasing for the people around me.  They motivate me to choose to be there for people in a holistic way because I want them to experience the love of God in a tangible way.  They motivate me to listen and look for the move of the Spirit in the lives of people around me so I don't miss out on being a part of what he's doing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

a prayer for my friends

Oh God,

There are some times when the groanings of my spirit on behalf of my friends who don't know you or haven't experienced your presence or haven't surrendered their hearts and souls into your care are more than I can express in words.  I long to see your Spirit move in their hearts and lives, awakening their spirits to your unfailing love and faithfulness.  Like a four-year-old child with a single focus, I beg and plead that you will reveal yourself to them--through your Word, through nature, through stories about Jesus and what he does in people's lives today, and through the true love and repentance of the Christ-followers who are in their lives.

I know that your steadfast love and pursuit of people does not fail.  I know that your heart is broken at the brokenness of the world and at the separation of people from you and from each other because of sin.  I know that you desire that all people will know you and walk with you for eternity.

Come Holy Spirit.  Come.

Without you transforming me from the inside out, everything I say about you is suspect.  Without you illuminating your Word, the words written on those pages are just like any other words.  Without you breathing life into the souls of men, we are blind to see who you are and why we should care.  Without you being present in our lives, we have no way to experience life with Jesus in the here and now.  All is lost, unless you show up.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Monday, July 11, 2011

meditations before the bar exam

So I've mentioned before that one of the things I'm trying to grow into is the reality that, after people have taken some significant steps toward faith, they really need additional support and connection to resources if they're going to continue growing.

Someday I hope to have a whole body of believers who can surround my newly believing friends and help them to struggle through all the questions and challenges of walking with Christ.  Right now, though, I'm in kind of a gap period, so I'm finding that I need to create at least some of the resources that they need.

So I've been hanging out with some former students and some other friends who are getting ready to take the bar exam in a couple of weeks.  When we met together 2 weeks ago (to vent about the bar exam and then practice some essay questions), several of them expressed a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.  Two of them have been coming to my Sunday night storying group and I was feeling like maybe I should work up some sort of little devotional thing that would help them to take their anxieties about this test to God and remember every day that they belong to God.

So I sat down that weekend and created that resource.  I thought I'd post it on my website and link to it here, just in case there's anyone out there reading who might find it useful. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

what I learned from stories of spiritual transformation

A couple of weekends ago I read an entire book of stories of people who were not followers of Jesus who then became followers of Jesus.  I'm trying to understand more about what that looks like and how people go from spiritual death to spiritual life.  I know that there are things about it that are not fully understandable, but I've only seen it happen 10-15 times.  I wanted more information. 

So as I was reading, I made a list of some of the things that the stories had in common and I thought that I'd list them here.

Prayer.  Every single story referenced Christians who had been praying for the new believer's salvation.  Every single one.  I'm sure that not everyone who is prayed for ends up following Jesus, but it doesn't seem like it ever happens without prayer.

Loving engagement with Christians.  All the stories also had the involvement of Christians who acted in love toward the new believers.  Many times they were sharing life with each other, and many times the Christians asked thought-provoking questions to the new believers.  Sometimes it was attending a church service where the interaction with Christians happened, but often the new believers met these Christians outside of church and didn't attend church at all before becoming followers of Jesus.

Engagement with Scripture.  I think the woman who used to be an atheist said it best.  She had been challenged to read the Bible.  She had read parts of it years before, apparently, but she started reading it again, from the beginning.  She said that as she was reading the Bible, "the Bible read me."  The Holy Spirit is clearly involved with illuminating Scripture, and she was convicted and challenged and invited into relationship with Jesus.

Stories about transformation through Christ.  For one person, the stories of how God had transformed others was the catalyst for that person's own willingness to seek transformation through Christ.

Dreams.  This one didn't happen a lot, but for some people, dreams where Jesus appears and presents an invitation can be a very powerful and life-changing experience.  This happens a lot in countries that are steeped in spiritual darkness or where there appears to be a lot of demonic activity.  The reason I'm mentioning it is because I think it is sometimes a good thing to pray for--that Jesus will appear to someone in a dream.

I'm sure that I could've read a book that would've outlined all these things as "important steps" or "things you can do" to help people get to know Jesus.  But the power for me of reading it in story form is that everyone's story is different.  I don't think there's a set way of going about spiritual transformation.  So much of it depends on the work of the Holy Spirit and where the person is at anyway.  But I do think that there are some things that we can aim for - like praying for others, always acting in love toward people, telling stories about how Christ has transformed us, and introducing people to Scripture at an appropriate time.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

the world is not right

Today was one of those days for me when the not-rightness of the world is all that I could see.  You know--like the inability to bridge a gap in relationships, the reality that some prosecutors care very little about justice, the seeming distance between God and so many people, or the fact that my father died and my mom has to move all her stuff into storage until she figures out what to do next...  I could go on...

So I went to Lake Michigan and sat under the stars and listened to the crashing waves.  I prayed and cried out to God about all the things that I see are broken.  I remembered the story about Jesus, when he cried about Lazarus's death before he raised them from the dead, and about how many believe that he was crying about the same brokenness that I see.  I prayed for the Spirit to move in my life and the lives of my dear, precious friends.  I lamented my losses and the state of the world. 

And then I worshiped God.  I sang my cousin's song into the wind.  I sang I Will Rise and thought about what it means that Jesus conquered death and that someday there will be no more pain and no more suffering.  And I thought about faith and how sometimes it seems so fragile--transparent, even--like it might all just be in your imagination.  But also about how it really makes a difference in my life on days like today.

I went to the beach in a state of grief and conflict and unrest.  I lamented and prayed and worshiped God.  And I left at peace.  Circumstances are not different, but my perspective is.  I know that I am held and protected by my Father.  I know that one day, all things will be made right.  Even now, things are being made right a little bit at a time as spiritual death is conquered and people are being transformed.  God is good, and his lovingkindness lasts forever.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

just a pile of bricks

So, I'm not an artist, not really.  No training and too lazy to figure out how to do things right.  But I do play with watercolors and acrylics.  A while back I started drawing out prayers.  And then I started taking my colored pencils and sketch pad to church with me. 
It somewhat helps me stay focused on listening.

So here's what I drew today in church:

I don't know how well that you can see it (or even if you could, if you'd be able to tell what's going on here...), but there's a guy standing on this path looking toward the cross, and there's this big pile of bricks in his way.

When I envisioned it before drawing, I started out envisioning a brick wall and it was going to be on the very right hand side of the page.  The bricks representing, of course, someone's barriers to faith in Christ.  But then I thought that, no, these barriers aren't unscaleable, insurmountable walls.  And I really wanted to draw a picture of barriers being broken down, because that's what I'm praying for in the lives of my friends.  So I set out to draw a picture of a barrier that had already been broken down and that was no longer going to be in the way of the person looking to the cross.

But when I got done drawing, I realized that the pile of bricks seemed just as insurmountable as a wall would have been.  It's almost as tall as the guy and the guy just can't seem to see a way around it or through it.  So I sat there for a couple of minutes, wondering what the guy should do.  What can the guy do?

This is how I see barriers to faith right now, I think.  What I should see, what I want to see, is a work crew out there carting out the bricks.  I want to see a whole church there, holding the guy's hand, walking beside him, telling him about the path and the obstacles and the joys along the way.  But all I see right now is the one guy, standing alone, looking for a way across.  Worse still, sometimes I see a guy with his back turned toward the cross, not seeing anything there worth walking toward.

I know that it's possible for barriers to faith to be overcome.  I know that it's possible for people to cross over whatever barriers stand in their way and to kneel at the cross.  I've seen it happen.  But normally people need help to make it past the barriers.  The church is supposed to be that help.  We're supposed to be there, on that path toward the cross, walking with people and loving them and praying for them.

So why is my guy standing all alone?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

New identity

"Conversion to Jesus is best defined as the transformation of identity in Christ, the conversion of a person in his deepest being; conversion means the transformation of an 'I am who I am' to an 'I am who I am in Christ' identity." Scot McKnight & Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith (Baylor Press, 2008).

What would make someone accept Christ's view of her rather than her own view of herself?  If being a Christian is really allowing Jesus to give you an identity, to name you, to tell you who you are, then what would make someone willing to allow him to have that kind of power in her life?

Well, who do we normally allow to tell us who we are?  Our parents.  Our friends.  The people we allow closest to our hearts.

So it seems like one of the most important steps toward faith for a person whose barrier is her identity must be to learn who Jesus is.  More than that, to really know Jesus, as you might get to know a human being in your life, and to learn that he is trustworthy and good.  And even more than that, to actually begin to trust him at an emotional level.

I saw a lot of that going in the Encounters with Jesus stories we've been doing on Sunday nights.  One after one, the people met Jesus.  Usually they'd heard something about him before.  They also had the benefit of seeing his effect on other people within the community before they had their own encounters.  Then they met with him, and they trusted him, and most of them accepted his invitation into a life based on who he is and what he said about who they were.

So it seems to me that the only answer/response to a person's identity barrier to faith is to introduce her to Jesus.  It's to pray night and day for the Spirit to move in her life.  It's to walk with her as Jesus would.  It's to invite her to hear the voice of Jesus in the stories of the gospels, and eventually to hear his voice in her own life.

Intellectual barriers to faith can be discussed at an intellectual level, and there are hundreds of resources to suggest that might answer those questions.  Emotional barriers can be responded to with thoughtful questions and loving listening and a commitment to walk alongside a person.  But identity barriers will only be overcome when a person trusts the One who is offering a new identity.  I think that will only happen when someone truly encounters the living Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Come.  May those in our lives who do not yet know you experience your presence in as real a way as Nicodemus, the woman at the well, or Zaccheus did.  Transform your church to be your true image-bearers in the world, so that those who encounter the church can encounter you.  May your invitation to "come, follow me" reverberate in the hearts and souls and lives of our friends.  Your voice is the only voice that has the power and gravity and love to issue such an invitation and to proclaim a new identity.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come.

Friday, June 24, 2011

praying for discontent?

I've been thinking a lot about Jesus's description of the Spirit's activity when he was talking to Nicodemus.  I keep going back to that word picture of the wind, blowing wherever it pleases.  We can see its evidence, but we can't predict where it's going or what it's going to look like when it gets there.

I've been thinking a lot about that in the context of praying for my friends.  I think that praying for the Spirit to intersect their lives is immensely important.

But the question is, will I recognize the Spirit's movement when it happens?

I wrote here about praying that God would bless people.  I still think that this is important.  But a friend of mine recently challenged me with the idea of praying for people to be discontented, or praying that people will actually see and understand their brokenness--often this can only happen with painful experiences.

I don't like pain.  I don't like the idea of praying that people will be discontented or unhappy with themselves or with their lives.  I don't like the idea that suffering has a place and that sometimes it's exactly what we need in life to make us go deeper with ourselves and with God.

But when I look at my own life, I have to admit that I am who I am because of the difficult times.  I am who I am because God has been with me through those times, but also because those painful times carve out places in my heart and soul that would otherwise be hardened and unreachable.

I want to pray God's blessing on my friends.  I want to pray for God's blessing of spiritual life, above all.  But I think I have to remember that the path to abundant life is always death.  Jesus's first, of course, making life possible.  But then the death of self-surrender.  That has been a painful death for me, and it continues to be as I daily struggle to lay down my life, my desires, my hopes, my dreams.  But it's also a beautiful thing.  And the life that comes from it is always worth the painful process to get there.

So tonight, my dear friends, I'm praying that in your pain and your discontent--in the place where you are right now--the Spirit will be blowing and stirring a craving for spiritual life that can only come through death.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The power of a chosen identity

I am one of those people who has actively chosen her identity.

In my identity formation years, those years that we typically sort of separate from our parents and decide who we're going to become, I was living in Asia.  More than that, I'd just moved to Asia.  It was my first time living outside my own culture, so I had all those thoughts and feelings and questions that you have when you move to a new culture.  But those questions and thoughts and feelings coincided with the time that I was going to be deciding who I wanted to be.

I remember realizing that I actually had a choice about that.  And that maybe those choices were broader than I'd grown up thinking.  I remember realizing that my home culture valued dark skin (tans), while all my Asian friends thought it was great that I was so fair.  They wanted my skin.  I realized that what we think is beautiful is so much informed by what our culture tells us is beautiful (or by what we don't have).  That made me think that I could choose.  If they wanted to be white, and we wanted to be dark, why couldn't I just be happy with my own skin, my own teeth, my own hair, my own body?  And that made me think about other things.  Like the political system.  I grew up believing that our form of democracy is the best in the world.  It gives the most freedom, etc.  But they don't have the same system where I lived.  And people were generally happy with it.  In fact, most Singaporeans really believe that Singapore is the best place in the world.  (I learned later in a Sociology class that this is called ethnocentrism, and every culture has it).

Anyway, moving overseas when I did really opened up my eyes to see how many things that I believed were based on my culture.  And it kind of gave me permission to question everything.  So I did.  My process of identity formation was to hold up everything I knew and question its value.  Of course, at this time I had to figure out how I was going to measure that.  How was I going to decide what was good and what was bad?  How was I going to decide which things from my original culture I was going to keep and which things I was going to adopt from my new culture?  And because I was a Christian--I already had a relationship with God that was real and personal and becoming ever more so because of how much time I was spending with him (a whole other story...)--I decided to measure things based on how they held up against what I believed the Bible showed about who God is.  God's character, I guess you could say.

So I went through that process.  When I was deciding what I was going to value or how I was going to approach things or what things were going to take my time and energy, I held them up to God's character and to the moral principles that Scripture taught.  And little by little I chose my identity.  I chose it.  I made a rational decision about who I was going to be, where I was going to go, and what was going to be meaningful to me.

If someone now introduced me to a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new god... I don't think there's any way I would walk away from what I've already chosen.  In all my conversations with my atheist friend, I can appreciate every point that he makes.  I think a lot of them are valid--at least I can understand why and how believing there is no God leads him to make the decisions that he makes.  I can understand how another system, many other systems, can exist that give people a basis for morality and ethics and a philosophical approach to life.  But I have no reason to want to abandon my own.  I have no reason to walk away from my own.  Because I chose it.  I already ascribed value to it.  I have been living according to it now for a good 20 years.  To turn my back on it now would be to lose my identity.  A hard-fought-for, already proven identity.  Why would I do that?

If it's true that Jesus invites us into an identity--or even to our true identity--as created ones, the children of God, loved of God, ambassadors of Christ, then the fact that a person has already chosen a different identity must affect her openness and willingness to consider following Christ.  It's so much bigger for her than for people who don't have an identity yet (like children), whose identities are ascribed to them by others, who don't like the identity they have (like as a "poor" person or a "murderer"), or for those whose identity is not that much different from the identity that Jesus offers. 

What about the identity that Jesus offers is so compelling that it would motivate someone to lay down an identity he has chosen and receive the one that Jesus is offering?

. . . ?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Identity as a barrier to faith

Once in a while I get to know someone whose main barrier to faith, besides the spiritual barrier of pride and self-direction that all of us face, is their identity.  For whatever reason and in whatever way, these people have adopted an identity that they view as incompatible with faith in God.  I wrote about one woman whose primary barrier seemed to be her identity here.

After a lot of years and a lot more conversations with people, it seems to me that all identity-barriers are not the same strength.  For example, identities that we are given by others but don't fully own might not be so hard to let go of.  If I have someone telling me that I'm not good enough for anything, and I believe it and I start to live in that reality, then that can present as an emotional barrier to faith in God.  I might believe that I'm not good enough to be loved by him and I might avoid receiving his love and pursuit of me.  But if I didn't choose that identity and I don't really like it, then maybe it's not going to be so difficult for me to lay it down and walk away from it toward Jesus.  Difficult, yes.  Scary and vulnerable?  Of course.  But not impossible.

But what about those identities we choose?  What about those identities that we go through the process of excavating from the dust of our lives?  What if we uncover or decide to be something after a lot of thought and struggle?  And what if that identity is contrary to everything that Jesus invites us into?  Can that barrier be overcome?  What does it do to the person to lose that identity?  What would it take to make that person want to lay down one identity to receive the identity that Jesus is offering?  Does the process of laying down one identity that's closely held and receiving another identity destroy a person?

These seem like such important questions to me.  At the emotional barrier level, I feel like I've kind of figured the dance of give and take and listening and challenge and prayer that helps people move through those barriers toward Jesus.

But the identity level seems like a whole different ballgame.  First, because the identity I've chosen or uncovered is important to me.  So important that I can't even imagine letting it go.  If I chose it, then I chose it for a reason.  And if I uncovered the identity then I probably don't feel like I have the ability to choose another one, even if that other one looks really good to me.  It seems that here, more than anywhere else, the Spirit has to move and Jesus's invitation to follow and assume a new identity has to come from him.

So these are just the beginnings of questions and thoughts for me, but I think I'd like to take these identity questions one at a time as I process them.  I'd like to think out loud here about the possible implications for conversations and invitations to faith.  I feel like this is my next step in learning to walk with people spiritually wherever they are in that process.

Friday, June 10, 2011

faith in the unseen

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

This is how Hebrews 11 starts out--the great faith chapter, going through person after person who had faith in an invisible God and did the crazy things that he asked them to do.  Chapter 12 then explains that all of these stories are supposed to encourage us so that we will not grow weary and lose heart.

I find myself going back to Hebrews 11 over and over for just that reason.  There were so many times in the last few years, living by faith, that I have been weary and at the verge of losing heart.  There are still so many times when I question whether it is worthwhile to walk by faith in the way that I have been.  Is it worth quitting a prestigious job so that I can work for myself and have all this time to do ministry?  Is it worth living in a blue-collar neighborhood to be close to the people I'm serving as a court-appointed defense attorney?  Is there really an invisible kingdom of God being built--that city that Hebrews 11 says whose builder and maker is God--and am I really a part of it?  Is our Sunday night group really, really building into people and making a difference in their lives in a positive way?  Are all the things I've sacrificed or put off experiencing in life worth sacrificing to do and be the things that I've been doing and being?  Were all the sacrifices my dad made to be in ministry all his life really worth it?

It's just all so intangible.  There are moments when I can see--where I can actually see what is going on and that God is moving and that people's lives are being changed.  But those moments are so fleeting.  And in between them I don't have anything to hold on to but faith in the One who I believe is working and moving.  But he is also intangible.

I used to be a quilter... so even though I couldn't see any tangible changes in the world or the people around me, at least I could see a quilt coming together.  Somehow that made it better, if only for a moment.  This week I posted a couple of pictures in my bathroom that some of the Sunday night folks drew in response to our Sunday night questions.  I'm thinking that maybe seeing those every day will remind me that people really are growing and changing in a positive way because of God and how he's using me in their lives.  But it's a struggle.  It's been such a struggle.

How do you deal with that intangibility of walking by faith?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

another conversation about goodness

Here's an interesting blog post from a guy in New Zealand who was part of a Christian/Atheist debate/discussion.  I thought it was interesting in light of my recent post about the problem of goodness.  It's a little more abstract and theoretical than my own discussion, but there's some interesting stuff there.

I will reiterate again that I'm not so sure about how truly useful conversations like this are at an everyday level.  Either my life reflects goodness or it doesn't.  We can talk about it all we want, but what we say and what we talk about is never as important as how we're living in real life.

But I have to admit that he's right - the Christian story talks about a God who is good.  And And I wholeheartedly agree that the story (which he calls a script) demands that Christians do what we can to conform to that goodness (although we often fail).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Encounters with Jesus VI - Zaccheus

We had another Encounters with Jesus evening.  Started with a barbeque and just enjoyed some relational time together.  And then we did the Zaccheus story.  You can find the story here.

First off I have to say again that this community has become a real community.   It's amazing to me to see how they have pulled together to be there for me.  We have become the church.

Second, we talked a lot tonight about transformation--what is it, where does it come from, how does it happen, etc.  The application question was focused on how Jesus has changed us and how we would like to ask Jesus to transform us.  That part was probably the most encouraging to me tonight.  A couple of people shared things tonight about ways they've been transformed, and I think they actually have.  Like I can confirm as an actual witness of how they actually have changed in these areas.  It is a gift to be able to see these tangible changes in people's lives because it's often so hard to see them in my own life.

The questions in my community seem to be changing some.  People seem hungry to know more about how to apply the stories to their own life.  I think that we're going to have to start producing some practical devotionals that people can use to get deeper into the stories and deeper into the ways that God wants to use them to change us.  I think we've moved now from a seeking community to a growing community and we need to provide some more materials to help people on that journey.

I'm struggling too to determine whether we need to keep doing storying or move on to something else.  I am still challenged by the stories I read--they still motivate me to action and transformation.  But it feels like maybe we need to move toward more typical teaching--having a certain point we're trying to make.  Like maybe using the pastoral books or something.  But I wonder if that's because it's more comfortable or because that's what I know rather than what will actually be more effective.

So I don't know.  I don't know what we'll do or where we'll go from here.  But I'll keep sharing how it's going and what we're doing.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

On pride and transformation

Jesus told a story about two men who entered a temple one day.  The first was a deeply religious man who swept into the temple, chin held high, looking and acting as if he owned the place.  He prayed aloud, "God, thank you that I am not like these other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--even this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."

The tax collector, on the other hand, went in and stood off to the side.  He couldn't even look up to heaven when he prayed.  Head bowed, he prayed, "God have mercy on me, a sinner."

Is one of these men better than the other?  Qualitatively better?  The tax collector likely had cheated many people out of money.  He probably sacrificed to pagan gods in order to get his job as a tax collector.  He would have had to swear an oath of fealty to the Roman government, swearing to serve Rome above all others, even God.  Meanwhile, the religious man probably did everything good that could be done.  Not only did he follow all of the religious rules, he gave away a lot of his money.

I've had a question from a very good friend/reader about what I mean when I talk about this internal transformation that occurs through knowing Jesus.  I am working on thinking about how to answer that question in light of my own story.

But I think that the story I just told was Jesus's answer to a very similar question.  The internal transformation and change begins with acknowledging God and my need for God.  God's story of ultimate reconciliation and redemption starts with broken relationships.  Broken relationship with the Creator-God, with self, with other people, and with creation.  Those relationships are broken because that first person looked at what God was offering and believed the lie that he could do better and get more by doing things his own way.  Each one of us follows in his footsteps.  Jesus called that a spiritual death.

Some people do things their own way by following a religion, even the Christian religion.  Some people make following God into a list of rules and regulations and follow those things to a T.  Some people do things their own way by developing a nonreligious standard by which to live and meeting that standard.  Some people don't care one way or another and live out of what makes them feel good in the moment.

But Jesus offers a life of restored and reconciled relationships.  It starts by recognizing that my relationship with God is broken because of my own pride, and there is nothing that I can do to bridge that brokenness.  It starts by acknowledging that the Creator-God has some claim on my life because he created me and formed me and loves me.

Once I acknowledge those things and invite God to work in my life and walk with me, he begins to transform me and to move to heal those broken relationships.  Once I understand my right relationship to God, one of humility and love and obedience, I can learn to walk in that way in all of my relationships.

There is still a battle--there is always a battle while we are still on earth.  A battle between seeking to meet my own needs in my own way rather than trusting in God.  A battle between doing what feels good and what brings me the most immediate sense of happiness rather than doing what illustrates the character of God and brings honor to his name.  And each of those battles is an opportunity for transformation--it's an opportunity to invite God in, to be honest and humble about the struggle, and to ask for the power and the spiritual recreation that would enable the choice to follow Jesus.  Over time, those tiny little decisions of surrender and invited transformation build character and a pattern of obedience that I believe changes and transforms the very essence of a person more and more into the image of Christ.

So it seems like, for Jesus, anyway, the single most important quality a person could have is humility in his posture toward God.  From there, God can do anything to transform and recreate and make new and make good things.  From there, the door to spiritual life is wide open.

You'll have to tell me what you think, but I can kind of see his point.  I don't care how many great things that spiritual guy had done... I'd rather hang out with the tax collector any day.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The problem of goodness

One of the biggest emotional barriers to faith that some people have is the problem of goodness--goodness being found in people who are not Christians, the absence of goodness in some Christians, and a person's own goodness without Christ.

I'm sure there's a theological argument to be made here about original sin and how "there is no one good, no not one," and "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."  But on the ground, the problem of goodness is a real problem.  Many Christians are not living in a way that allows or invites Jesus to transform them.  None of us Christians does that perfectly.  There is much goodness in the world that comes from people who don't know Jesus. 

It's tempting to talk about goodness at that level--to leave it safely there as an abstract discussion about where goodness comes from.  In that context, I would argue that not-good Christians are not truly following Christ.  I would argue that there is inherent goodness in all creation, and especially in people because we are created in God's image.  There is never so powerful an illustration of this for me than when I am working in prisons with murderers--there is goodness and value even in them because they are made in God's image and still reflect a part of him, though in a way that is desperately marred.

But when I think about this issue in terms of conversations about faith, I think there's another place to consider going.  I think I could tell the story about the rich man who met Jesus and then went away sad.  Basically, this man comes up to Jesus and he has the guts to say to him, "Jesus, I'm good.  I've been doing good things all my life.  I've followed all the rules God gave, better than anyone else.  What else do I have to do to have eternal life?"

I wonder if he really thought there was something else he needed to do, or if he wanted to be patted on the back for his ability to live above reproach.  I'm wondering if he was asking Jesus what he was offering that was so different than what the man already had.

Then Jesus looked at the man and said, "There's just one thing that stands in your way.  Sell everything you have & give it to the poor and then come and follow me."

I think in the church we focus a lot of the time on the selling everything you have part because it makes us uncomfortable.  We want to explain and excuse our own materialism so we rarely look beyond that to the invitation that Jesus gave.  But I think the most important part of that story is the invitation to follow Jesus--to be in relationship with him.

Jesus always looked deeper than a person's externals.  He looked beyond whether someone followed the rules.  He looked past what a person said or did to their hearts.  He invited people into something more--a transformation of the very motivations and attitudes of the heart.  Jesus wanted--he still wants--something deeper than mere external goodness.  He wants to free us from the bondage of self-satisfaction and pride and the need to strive to live up to an image we project or a standard that we have set.

And oh, that kind of walking with Jesus is so much harder.  It's so easy to check things off a list.  It's so great to have the 10 commandments and a list of good things to do and be able to cross those things off every night.  It's so much harder to hold your desires, attitudes, and motivations up to the light and invite Jesus into them to transform them into something that will always be life-giving and sacrificial and good and just and pure.

For the rich young man, Jesus was asking too much.  That man went away sad, choosing not to follow.

I think a lot of us follow that man on his journey away from Jesus.  To the Christians who do, I would beg you to change your mind or to drop the name of Christian--you are damaging Jesus's reputation in the world.  Your striving for goodness is no different than the rest of the world's, and we humans are so complex with so many selfish motives and desires that we destroy the good we try to do.  And to those of you who have never claimed or even desired to follow Jesus, I would merely want to say that, although painful and difficult, the process of examination and transformation into the image of Christ is worth every drop of sweat and tears; it is worth every sacrifice.  To be able to let go of striving for goodness and perfection, to be able to rest in the grace and power of Jesus to transform, to be able to walk in relationship with One who loves extravagantly and completely... it is freedom.  It is peace and joy in the midst of trials.  It is contentment with life in all of its up and downs.  It is knowing that you are loved by the One you have given your life to.  It is life with the Eternal One, right now.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Wrestling with God

I wish I could predict who is going to meet Jesus and fall in love with him.  I wish I understood how that process works.  I wish that I could tap God on the shoulder and jump up and down and point to people who I know who need him and who I so desperately want to know him and that that would make something happen.

I wish I could understand how the Holy Spirit works to convict and prepare hearts.  When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus at night about spiritual rebirth, he talked about how the wind blows wherever it pleases--you can see evidence of it but you can't see it and he seemed to be saying that you can't predict it and you can't control it.

I'd normally say that the right idea is to sense where the Spirit is already moving and to work with him there.  Most of the time I'm working to figure out what God has already been doing and I'm just trying to make myself available to be a part of his process of communication with a person about who he is and what he cares about.

But there are times in the stories of the Bible when people have tried to change God's mind.  Moses begged God not to destroy his people.  Abraham begged God not to destroy Lot's city.  Jesus told the story about the woman who asks for something over and over again and finally it is given to her.  What part do we play in asking God to move in certain people's lives?  Are his works dependent in some way on who we love and how we love them and how we pester him to intervene in their lives?

I actually do believe that, in other areas at least, when God's people go into a place we take his presence with us.  So the fact that I'm working as a lawyer in an imperfect justice system, praying that God's justice will be done, might bring God's justice to a place where it otherwise might not show up.  Sometimes, I might be the catalyst for what he wants to do and I might provide the opportunity for him to act and move through me to accomplish what he longs to.

Today I am wrestling with God.  I am begging and pleading and pestering.  I am trying to understand.  I know that his heart is that all will know him.  I know that he will not interfere with a person's free will to choose him or not.  I know that the Spirit does work to bring a person to the point of being able to choose him.  I don't know how it all works together.  So I am praying.

After my dad's death, I think I am longing to see the transformative and creative and restorative power of God at work.  I do believe that Jesus conquered the grave with his death, and I do believe that in the end, all things will be made right.  But they are not right.  A good man has left the world and has left a void.  A man who followed after God's heart is gone.  Who will take his place?  Who will walk the sacrificial walk that he did to bring the message of the Gospel to people far and wide?  If death is Satan's temporary victory, then I want to see God restoring and reconciling and making things right--not just someday in the future, but now.  I want to see people go from darkness to life with the Eternal One.  I believe that's what God is in the business of doing.  I believe that we're here to be a part of that.  So that's what I am pleading for.

Will you pray with me, that the Spirit of God in its unpredictable way will be freed to blow among the people I know and who I am walking with and who I am praying for?  Will you pray that God will show up?  Will you pray that in all my fragility and vulnerability God will work and guide and give opportunities and protect?  I can't wrestle alone.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Cloven Viscount

One of the challenges of sharing the story of God is knowing where to start.  In my experience, in today's culture there doesn't seem to be much question that the world is broken or even that we ourselves are broken.  But I've been talking recently to someone who's probably philosophically a secular humanist.  From our conversations so far, this seems to impact her view of her own brokenness and the brokenness of the world.  I have been trying to think of meaningful ways to illustrate or bring up the question of what is broken and if there's a way to fix it.  I'm interested to hear her opinions about that and I'm curious to know whether she has a desire for redemption and restoration of all things, or whether she just thinks that we're stuck with things the way they are.  I'm curious to know how far she thinks that humanity can take fixing the world on its own.

So this weekend I read a book a friend lent me about a man who was cut in half by a cannon and he was running around in the world in 2 pieces--one good and one bad.  Here's what the man had to say about his experience:

The bad half said:
    “If only I could halve every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying face down on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness.  I was whole and all things were natural and confused me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind.  If you ever become half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you’ll understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole.  You’ll have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious.  And you too would find yourself wanting everything to be halved like yourself, because beauty and knowledge and justice only exists in what has been cut to shreds.” (pp 191-192)

A little later on, the good half described his experience:
    Then the good Medardo said, “Oh, Pamela, that’s the good thing about being halved.  One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness.  I was whole and did not understand, and moved about deaf and unfeeling amid the pain and sorrow all round us, in places where as a whole person one would least think to find it.  It’s not only me, Pamela, who am a split being, but you and everyone else too.  Now I have a fellowship which I did not understand, did not know before, when whole, a fellowship with all the mutilated and incomplete things in the world.  If you come with me, Pamela, you’ll learn to suffer with everyone’s ills, and tend your own by tending theirs. (p 217)
Eventually, after a sword fight with himself, he gets patched back together and becomes a whole person again.  This is how the author described that:
    So my uncle Medardo became a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness, that is, apparently not dissimilar to what he had been before the halving.  But having had the experience of both halves each on its own, he was bound to be wise.  He had a happy life, many children and a just rule.  Our life too changed for the better.  Some might expect that with the Viscount entire again, a period of marvelous happiness would open, but obviously a whole Viscount is not enough to make the whole world whole. (245)       

Quotes taken from Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (trans. by Archibald Colquhoun) (Harcourt 1962).

I think there's so much to this story that I could use as a foundation for a conversation.  I deeply connected with what the two halves of the viscount said about life.  What I would like to ask my friend is how she felt about the two statements.  I would like to ask her whether they match with her understanding of the world.  Does she feel that things are broken?  Has she ever gone through a time when she began to see that, to identify with pain and suffering of others?  And finally, I'd like to talk with her about whether she sees that there's any way to overcome that.  Once recognizing the brokenness of self and the world around, what can be done?

I don't know that this would lead to the kind of conversation I'd be hoping for, but I think it presents an opportunity.  Sometimes I tell my own stories as a foundation for dialogue.  Sometimes I tell God's stories from the Bible.  But lots of times I am looking around at the world and seeing something profound or interesting and trying to figure out how to use that as a starting point to listen to another's beliefs and approach to the world.  Who knows what, after listening and connecting and relating, I might have the opportunity to share?

Because for me, following Christ is a little bit like that viscount's story.  Before Christ, I walked around thinking that I was whole and seeing the world incompletely.  But after surrendering my rights and my identity, I could see things more clearly - I could see the brokenness of the world, I could see the brokenness of myself, I had more compassion and understanding.  And it's only in recognizing that brokenness and surrendering to the ministry of the doctor that I can be made whole again.  It's not a wholeness that will save the whole world, but if God can recreate and restore me to wholeness, then I think he is also doing that with the world.  And I want to be part of that.  

In the bad half's statement, I also see echos of what it is like to lose your life to Christ--what it is like to give up everything.  Jesus said that to find our life we must lose it for his sake, and that's what I hear in the bad half's statements.  Even though it doesn't make sense, it's been my experience that when I voluntarily give up my rights and surrender my choices to Jesus, I live life in a more fulfilled and deeper and more meaningful way than I ever did when I was living a whole life all for myself.

So I don't know... it's an idea.  We'll see if it ever makes it into a conversation with my friend or anyone else.  But I connected with the story so deeply, I think that it probably will.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

When storying becomes community

If I’d questioned what kind of community we’ve been building on Sunday nights, I don’t any longer.  If I’d questioned that we had built community at all, I don’t now.

The last few times I set up to have a Sunday night storying group, no one showed up.  People got busy, maybe they didn’t feel like coming, the weather turned nice, whatever.  So I wasn’t sure where we stood or how hard to push to maintain something that maybe no one else cared about.  I felt like maybe we’d accomplished everything we needed to in at least exposing everyone to who Jesus is and how he lived while he was on earth and how he impacted the people around him.  I was kind of ok with letting it go if we needed to.

But my father passed away this week, and I felt so much support from this little band of friends.  They showed up.  They showed up the minute I got home from the hospital where my dad died.  They showed up to keep me company between visitations.  They loved on me and ministered to me and prayed for me and walked beside me.  Even the people who I haven’t heard from for weeks or even months showed up to be there with me.

This is what the church is supposed to be like.  I think we are becoming the church.  I think that they actually view what we have as their spiritual community.  It may not look exactly like what church usually looks like.  We don’t meet as regularly, for example.  But it seems like we’re doing something the right way if this is the way people respond during tragedy.

One of the most powerful things that I think we’ve done on Sunday nights is the time after the story where we pray for each other.  I don’t think that I’ve talked much about that when I’ve been debriefing the stories.  But from the very first week we started, after we shared with one another how the story impacted us, we prayed for each person specifically.  We prayed for the spiritual needs they’d identified during the discussion and we prayed for anything else that came up.

In order to reach this level of community, though, you have to be vulnerable.  One of the refreshing thing about people outside the church is that they don’t seem to have the same barriers to sharing who they are as people who grew up in the church.  They’re generally willing to share, so long as it’s a safe environment, the things that they’re struggling with.  They aren’t trying to hide their weaknesses or pretend to be perfect so that no one will know how much they’re struggling or how awful they are.  They accept humanity and they accept their own humanity and they’re willing to share from that.  Within this context, we successfully created a community culture that is built on interdependence.  And when I had needs, they all came–every single one of them. 

That kind of community is a gift.  I don’t exactly know how to go forward or what shape it should take, but I feel now that I must go forward.  We must go forward together.  We’ve got to find a way to continue to build spiritually into the lives of the people that we’ve been given so that we all can continue to be transformed into the image of Christ.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How can you be friends with an atheist?

Another interesting question my friend asked me this weekend was how my Christian friends would respond to me being good friends with an atheist.  He seemed to think that this might cause some controversy.

He's definitely right that in some circles my having a close friend who doesn't even believe in God's existence would be a huge problem.  Thankfully it's not something that my closest friends fear or don't understand.

It makes me wonder though where that controversy comes from.  I definitely have belonged to Christian groups in the past where it would be a big deal.  I think that in part it goes to a person's interpretation of being in the world but not of the world--that desire to be separated and holy and pure.  Is there a fear of contamination or of allowing yourself to be corrupted by the world?  I don't know.  But I can't make that approach fit with what I know about Jesus, who sat with tax collectors and sinners and spent much of his time with the people that religious people despised.  He was in the world but ever calling and inviting people into a deeper and more meaningful life of service and sacrifice.

And so on a daily basis I follow Jesus into the world and seek to love and listen to and serve people the way that I see he did in Scripture.  I can't help but think of this song by Gungor...

I do find Jesus in the prisons and in the streets and with my non-believing friends.  Learning to love and to relate and to listen and to serve calls me ever deeper into being transformed to be like Christ.  Yes, sometimes it's difficult.  Yes, sometimes it is uncomfortable.  Yes, sometimes I put my heart and soul at risk.  But I'm not happy with the antiseptic life that's lived within the walls of a Christian community that will not reach outside of itself.  I have been there too, and I have found that life wanting and more dangerous than anything I have encountered on the outside.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A prayer for the church

If there's one thing we can't escape as Christians it's that how we live and what we say affects how people view God.  God kinda set it up that way with his people long ago, calling first Israel and then the church to be his image-bearers and ambassadors in the world.  I so often wonder why he did that as I think we often end up preventing people from having a fair chance of seeing God for who he is.

When this image-bearing goes right, it can be a really powerful thing.  You can have people who don't even believe in God questioning their beliefs or at least willing to talk with you about the possibility of God's existence.  When we live like Jesus and love and serve and protect and sacrifice and love and love and love, people can be drawn first to us and then to him.

But when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.  It devastates a person's desire or ability to seek God or to follow him.  It creates animosity.  It creates barriers.  And over time, the wealth of injuries the institutional church has caused to humanity's ability to see God is overwhelming.  It seems like it's impossible to get over.

I had a conversation with my atheist friend yesterday--a really long conversation and I'll probably have post after post of things to say as I process the conversation.  But this is the first of many things that sticks out to me.  His objections to God are actually objections to the God that the church has preached through her actions and through her words.  It's not the God that I know or run after.  But I find it overwhelming and nearly impossible to think of how to overcome all that history of all of us Christians who have lived lives aimed at having as little pain as possible and protecting ourselves from what we perceive as the taint of the world.

God, we have failed you.  We have put our need for comfort and safety above all things.  We have so often been filled with a passion to preach or convert but not to love or to serve or to sacrifice.  We have not cared about justice.  We have not loved the outcast or outsider.  We have wanted our own place in society to be preserved at the cost of inviting and sharing and being hospitable.  We have been threatened by people who believe differently.  We have allowed race and social class to divide us.  We have been like the pharisees instead of like the fishermen.  God, transform us, the church.  Make us over in your image and in your likeness so that we can be the picture that we are supposed to be of who you are and what you care about.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Preparing to share...

I've been working on formulating the story of my whole spiritual life to share with a friend who considers himself an atheist this weekend.  I am very much looking forward to the discussion--both to sharing my own story and listening to his.  But it's different than sharing with anyone I've talked to before.  Most of the people I have known in the past have had some sort of religious experience or position.  It's somewhat intimidating to think of sharing with someone who doesn't share even the basic assumption that there is a God in the universe.

I mean, how can I explain why I've done the things I've done?  How do I explain how I've interacted with God?  How can I explain that I sense God leading me to do certain things at certain times?  How can I explain what a relationship with an invisible God looks and feels like?

I think it's really important to share my struggles with God over the years.  I think it's important to be honest about the questions I've had and the questions I still have.  I think I have to own my doubts and my issues and my fears and my frustrations.  I think it's important that I don't pretend that I have all the answers--because I don't.

It kind of has me wondering though--what's the core of this whole relationship-with-God thing?  What is the most important thing to communicate about it?  I know that I don't have to take responsibility for presenting God in a certain kind of light--he's God and he can defend his own honor.  But I don't want my own human questions and frustrations to get in the way.

I've done the preparation of thinking through my journey and the spiritual signposts along the way.  I've thought through the major events of my life, spiritually and otherwise.  Now I'm simply praying that when I describe my life and what I perceive as God's interactions with me, God will be able to speak through me.  And I'm praying that I'll be able to hear his questions and objections with a humble and loving spirit.

It's such an amazing gift to have friends like him and to have the opportunity to share so deeply from my heart.  If you're reading, I hope you'll pray with me, that the Spirit will lead and guide and be present in our interaction.  If he doesn't mind, I'll try to debrief the convo afterward here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Harold and the Purple Crayon

If you struggle to conceptually understand the different between a modern thinker and a postmodern thinker, this link may help.  It's a video remake of a book that was written over 50 years ago.  It's about a little boy who creates his own reality by drawing what he wants to see and experience.

I don't want to say much more about it because I think to truly see the differences in the ways of thinking, you probably have to experience the book yourself.  But it's as good an example as I've seen of postmodern thinking.  The book itself is available here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

marching to the beat of a different drum

I've talked before about how I believe that doing what I call the works of God helps to authenticate the message of God.  I would count things like taking care of orphans and widows, loving neighbors and enemies, living within a community of people dedicated to loving and serving one another and the world as works of God.  In my own life, I would also see working hard to help the community find justice and protect people from oppression as something that falls right in line with God's character of loving justice, which also serves to authenticate the message of God.

So I haven't been surprised when, as I have conversations about spirituality and my own relationship with God that these are the things that people who are not Christians appreciate about the way I live my life.  I have not been surprised that they sometimes want to communicate a deep respect for those activities and the kind of person that God has made me.  Now they would never put those words around it of course--they usually give me the credit instead of God.  But that always gives me the opportunity to share that it really is God working in me that allows me to do what I do even in the midst of struggle or even when I don't see the results that I would want to.

What's been surprising to me is actually that I'm finding more affirmation and acceptance and even love from people outside the church than I ever did from those inside.  The person I am becoming because of God's transformative power in my life is inherently attractive to many people outside of the church.  They want to spend time with me.  It's kind of shocking, particularly in light of how on the fringes I always felt within a church community.

And the funny thing is that my values and activities and actions don't necessarily match the people's who appreciate who I am.  I am still very much living counter-culturally and marching to the beat of my own drum, as it were.  I suppose the reality is that I'm also living counter-culturally to the culture of the general West Michigan church.  But inside the church that life creates controversy or discomfort.  Outside it appears to be intriguing and somewhat attractive.  I wonder why that is.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

on blogging

I had a conversation with a friend a couple of days ago that reminded me how careful I need to be when I am using language to describe my perception of reality.

This blog is an attempt to observe and describe my reality, particularly as it relates to having spiritual conversations in everyday life.  But in order to do that, I find myself having to draw bright lines around categories of people - people who are "outside the church" or who are "post-Christian" or who are "unbelievers."  The very need to label and categorize people is counter-cultural and makes me very uncomfortable.

Yet I find that in order to share what's going on and to analyze what's happening and to perhaps suggest some things that might "work" or have a positive effect in the real world, I have to do it.  But I'm always afraid that I'm going to violate the privacy or trust of someone I love.

So I find myself walking a very thin line.  I want to be able to talk about what's going on in my world because I think that the successes and mistakes can be instructive for my future actions and those of anyone who might be reading the blog who cares about the same things I do.  But things said on a blog can't really be erased and there could be a few people reading who come to their own conclusions about what's being said without ever asking for clarification.

I guess what I'm saying is that I realize that this medium lends itself to conversation without relationship.  Part of my hesitancy in writing the last month has been trying to balance that.  I don't want to alienate the people I care about by what I might flippantly say on here.  And no matter how carefully I word things, it's still possible to say something the wrong way.

And I guess what I'm asking is that if you're reading this and you're a friend of mine, then I'd like for this to be a dialogue instead of a one-way conversation.  I actually want to know what effect my words might be having and I want to be able to clarify if I haven't been as careful or as precise as I should have been.  I really don't want to alienate people or make friendships impossible because of how I speak about what I observe and experience.