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.