Monday, February 27, 2012

praying past the silence

"The prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective."  James 1:6. 

"If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you."  John 15:7.

But sometimes when I pray, I feel like my prayers don't go any further than my skull.  I feel the gigantic gulf that separates the material world from the spiritual.  I pray and I don't see any tangible results.  I wonder if any of my prayers that God would reach out and transform my friends are doing anyone any good at all.

I had about 4 years of feeling like that.  4 long years of getting entrenched in my legal world and building relationships with people.  4 years of suffering as I worked to chase after the vision and dream God had placed inside of my soul.  4 years of road block after road block and so many times of wondering how I was going to make it through another day let alone make it to the place I had been called.  It was a lot like what my pastor described this Sunday as he preached the stories of Ezra & Nehemiah.  Discouraging.  Overwhelming.  More than I could handle on my own.

It's hard when you're in that place not to get the idea that you're asking God for something he's withholding from you.  It's hard to believe that he's not waiting for you do do the right thing or say the right thing so that when he breaks through, it's a gold star or a sign of approval.  I have to admit that that's often what I was thinking through those 4 years, without even being able to articulate it at the time. 

And it wasn't that he wasn't answering prayers at all.  I saw some amazing things happen during that time.  I saw people come to have a relationship with Jesus.  I saw people move from outright hostility to a slight openness toward faith.  I saw books written and stories told.  I saw doors opening.  But each answer was usually followed by weeks or months of silence.  And I would forget that God was working.  More importantly, I would forget that when I was connected to him, remaining and abiding in him, listening to his heart for the world and for my friends around me, that when I pray out of that, he wants to answer those prayers.  He delights in answering them.

It is a long, hard road.  The intangibility of loving and sharing a life of faith with other people can be incredibly discouraging.  But take heart.  Your prayers for your friends are effective.  Every moment you spend tangibly loving the people around you is worth it. 

When was the last time you asked God to show you his heart for the people around you?  How can you be praying for your friends and pleading with him to cause Jesus's name to be glorified in their life and his kingdom to come into their world?  How can you be an encouragement to others who are seeking to be Jesus in their world?

Friday, February 24, 2012

The "Talent Society" and the Church

I read an interesting article by David Brooks this week.  The gist of the article is that society has changed from being deeply enmeshed communities to loosely organized and affiliated groups of people.  The author's point was that our more settled social structures often stifled "creative and dynamic people," and at the same time allowed disorganized and disadvantaged people to have supportive community relationships.

Today, he argues, we're living in a totally different world, a "Talent Society."  He says that "the fast flexible and diverse networks allow the ambitious and the gifted to surf through amazing possibilities" and to "construct richer and more varied lives," while the disadvantaged are left adrift without the community they need to feel connected and valued in society.

It made me think about what a challenge and an opportunity the church has to rise up in the midst of this cultural context.

It's the challenge that I've faced as I've worked with my Sunday night storying group.  I've known that part of our struggle of getting together regularly and showing up in each other's lives is because the group is made up of all these talented people.  And our culture teaches us the value of developing our individual talents over just about anything else.  So we show up when it works, when it feels good, when it supports our goals of self-improvement.  So our challenge as people of Jesus is to somehow instill the counter-cultural value of living in true community with other people.  Somehow we have to learn and believe and live that it's more important to serve Jesus and to serve his kingdom purpose than to maximize my own potential.   We need to learn and demonstrate that there is value to serving the community above ourselves.  How exactly to do this, to teach this, and to encourage this within the culture is a constant struggle for me.

But this is also an opportunity for the church.  It's an opportunity for the church to provide a place where people who need the community can find it.  It's an opportunity to use its strength as a remaining bastion of institutional existence in a way that serves the community around it.  It's an opportunity even for the talented ones to learn the joy of serving and sacrifice and seeking others' needs and desires above one's own.  Again, what exactly this looks like is the question.

But if we start by asking these questions, and if we acknowledge that we're bumping up against changing cultural values, we can begin to allow the values that Scripture teaches to direct our approach as we have conversations about how to put it all together.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Are you an island?

I'm a pretty independent person, naturally.  For example, I'd rather look something up than ask someone for information.  I also learned independence at a pretty young age because it was necessary for me to survive.  For a while, I even went overboard on my independence and tried to get along without any community or interdependence (that didn't work!).  Thankfully, I came back from that place to a place with more balance.  But still, one of the hardest things that I have to do is make a conscious choice to let people love me, help me, and walk beside me.

I think that the church in our culture has somewhat adopted the value of self-sufficiency.  Sure, we'll talk about community--about how we should pray for one another and help one another and reach out.  We might even acknowledge that we should be working in the community, bringing justice or providing for needs.  But when we show up on Sundays, we often try to leave our baggage at home.  Because the church isn't always a safe place to bring our brokenness and our needs.  Sometimes we bring those things and people judge us.  Sometimes we bring those things and people don't seem to care enough to do something.  It's always a risk, and so we learn not to try.  It's safer that way.

But when we take that attitude to our relationships with people who don't know Jesus, we're missing out on some amazing things.  First is the way the dynamics of a mutual relationship are so much different than the dynamics of a relationship where I'm trying to offer you something.  When we have a mutual relationship, when there is give and take of information and love and care and concern, then we have a relationship where we are both influencing one another.  We have an opportunity to invest deeply and to get to know someone on a deeper level than if we maintain a position of power in the relationship.

When my dad died this year, my friends surrounded me.  Some of my friends go to church, but many do not, and many are not followers of Jesus.  They showed up, they cared about me, and they loved me.  As a result, I've been invited into their lives at a different level than I was before.  No more are we just casual acquaintances--we're truly friends.  And as friends, we are able to share from the heart about all kinds of things, including faith.

When was the last time you were vulnerable with someone who's not a follower of Jesus?  Is there a need you have right now that your friends might be able to meet?  Think and pray about who and how to invite someone into the broken or needy places of your life this week.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

of golden calves and certainty

“Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of the mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”  Madeline L'Engle

Sometimes I think that when we are talking about God or inviting others to get to know him, we communicate that we are certain about what we believe.  We communicate that we know who God is (and that maybe no one else does).  We communicate that we know the boundaries of God's character, we can predict his actions, and we know why he does what he does.  And in doing this, we give the impression that, in order to choose to follow Christ, they must be certain of all these things too.

This goes back to the question about what we are inviting people into when we invite them to faith.  Are we inviting people to believe in the idea of God, or are we inviting them to a relationship with a God who is mysterious, unpredictable, and a wholly separate being whom we can't control and will only ever incompletely understand?

It is such an innately human thing to create an image of God in our minds.  I am always struck by this when reading the story of Israel, and how multiple times they created idols and introduced them as Yahweh - the God who brought them out of Egypt.  Why did they do that?  What is it about having a smaller picture of God that is so attractive to us as humans?  Why do we want to feel like we can control him or define him or put him in a corner and forget about him?

But when we realize that he is alive, active, creative, and wholly other, we are forced to relate to him as a separate being.  Knowing him and relating to him that way forces us to change how we perceive ourselves and the world around us.  I think this is a good thing.  This is the kind of relationship with God that I want to be inviting people into.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

created to run

I love to watch my dog racing through the snow.  He has this happy little bounce when he runs short distances, but then when he gets out into a big, empty field, he just races from one end to the other.  Everything about him seems happy when he's running--like there's nothing else he'd rather be doing and nowhere else he'd rather be.

When I see him running like that, I think about how God's creation is good.  He created my dog to run and play and to bring joy to those around him.  And he does that, just by being himself and doing the things he loves to do.

I think that people are like that too.  We're created in such diverse personalities, cultures, joys, and interests.  And I think that God intended that.  I think that he loves diversity and loves for us to do the things that we were uniquely created to do--we definitely don't all have the same interests, gifts, and abilities.  And we each can bring something unique to the world, just by being ourselves.

Each of us also brings something unique to the process of evangelism.  Maybe we're in a world that other Christians just don't get to.  Maybe we know people that other Christians don't know.  Maybe the things that I naturally love to do can be a bridge to other people with whom I can build a genuine friendship that covers the whole spectrum of life issues, including our relationships with God. 

So where do you go regularly that arises from who you uniquely are?  What kinds of things do you love to do?  How can you choose to do those things in a way that will allow you to build bridges and friendships with people who might not know Jesus?

If you want to take these questions a little deeper, here is a resource that may help you analyze your current openness to relationships with people outside your faith community and think about how to increase your exposure.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What next?

So what do you do about an emotional barrier to faith once you've identified one?

So let's assume for a moment that you've had a relationship with a friend for long enough that you have started sharing with each other deeply.  And along the way, you start talking about how your faith has affected your life, and you start hearing stories from your friend about what he thinks and feels about faith.  Maybe it comes out in stories of things he remembers from church as a child.  Maybe it comes out in stories he tells about his father, who went to church all his life but didn't really live it at home.  Because of these things, you see he's skeptical about whether faith is really real in anyone's life.  He's been hurt by the church and by the faith of his father, and he just can't get past it.  What do you do?

Do you have a rational conversation, explaining that all Christians are not hypocrites?  Do you go through the Biblical truth about sin and salvation?

For me, neither of those approaches has been relevant or helpful.  Instead, I'd suggest a few other ideas.

First, I think it's important to engage in active listening.  One of the most difficult things about emotions and emotional barriers is that they're difficult to identify.  We don't necessarily talk about the world in emotional terms, and we often don't like to admit that emotions are driving many of our decisions.   Many times we can't really explain what we're feeling because we were never taught the language to use to describe different emotions.  One thing you can do for your friends is to listen carefully to what they are saying and reflect it back.  Sometimes it's amazing what can happen when you simply articulate back to someone something that he said.  Once they have words to describe what they're feeling and feel like their feelings have been validated, they're often able to interact with it in a different way.

But there are times when a person is not articulating any emotional barriers or anything that you can identify as emotional.  In situations like that, sometimes you just have to pray and ask the Spirit to show you what's going on in their hearts.  Many times he will and this will open up opportunities for you to articulate those things or reflect those things back to the person.

Eventually though, you get to a point where you seem to have reflected back pretty much everything that the person has expressed to you, and there's not really anywhere else to go.  They're not at a point where they're ready to really look for knowledge of God.  Once people get to that point, it seems like the next thing they generally need is to be connected with a group of people who are following Jesus.  They need to see authentic faith lived out by different personalities and within a group.  It's at times like these that I start inviting my friends to hang out with my Christian friends.  When I don't have a Christian group to invite them to, then I start praying that God would bring other Christians in their lives.  He is amazingly faithful to do that because he loves them so much more than I do, and he's the one who is pursuing them.

And then, finally, there usually comes a point when people are ready to seek more information about God.  At that point in my relationships I have begun to invite people to my house to go through the Encounter Jesus stories.  You could also invite someone to do a more formal Bible study or to come to church.  It kind of just depends on the person.  But this is where the stories of God and the stories of how God has impacted your life begin to make sense and bear fruit in another person's life.

So this is the general ebb and flow that I've noticed in my relationships with people who may have started out hostile toward God and eventually chose to follow them.   What point in the process do you think your friends are at?  Do you have a group of Christians that you would want to invite your other friends to know?  How might you begin to think and plan now for how you would share the information about God that a person moving toward faith would need?