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.