Thursday, May 31, 2012

Making Paths Straight

Ran across this article today, and I think Melissa Turner Jones is saying many of the things I've been trying to say.  I like her reference to making straight paths and the word picture of helping someone to move their fists so that they can see and encounter Jesus.

Monday, May 28, 2012

what is faith?

One of the most challenging thing for me in conversations with others who are on the path toward following Jesus is explaining just what it means to have faith.  Often, one of the final obstacles that a person has to pass through is to understand just what she is going to say yes to.  Does she have to agree with every doctrine of my church?  Does she have to know for sure whether the world was created in seven literal days?  Does she have to believe exactly what I do about who God is?  Does she have to be convinced 100% without a doubt that the Bible is true and that God is exactly as the Bible describes?  So how should we describe faith as we talk about God in today's world?

Jesus, when he was teaching, talked a lot about the kingdom of God.  He invited people to join him in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth.  But even that was veiled in story, and his followers didn't really understand the invitation until later, after he'd died.

The apostle Paul had some very interesting conversations, meeting people right where they were at and explaining how the God he followed fit into what they already understood about the world.  For example, when he was in the town square and saw a statue to an unknown God, he used that as his starting point and introduced people to Jesus.

As for me, I've adopted the language of relationships to describe what faith is.  God is inherently relational because he exists as three persons in one.  His actions in Scripture relate the story of how he has related to mankind, and how he still desires to relate.  And I have many stories about how God has related to me throughout my lifetime.  And as I describe my relationship with God and God's relationship with the world, I try to invite people to begin relating to God themselves.

If they have questions about God, I invite and encourage them to seek answers--first from God himself, then from Scripture.  I try to help direct them to where they might find those answers, but I never want to put myself in the place of God.  I can only tell them what I believe to be true, what I believe is right, what I've come to conclude for myself.  I can help guide and encourage and mentor, but I can't take the place of God in their lives.  Only Jesus has the authority to call someone to follow him, to give them a new identity in Christ.  And it's only in relationship with God that their emotional barriers to faith can be worked through.  I can model for them using my own relationship with God, and I can share the precious stories of Jesus and God's interactions in the world, but it is God who calls and the Holy Spirit who changes hearts.

Ultimately, I don't always know the moment when someone takes that final step into the kingdom of God.  I don't always see it happen.  But I've seen the results often enough to know that Jesus is still calling people to come and follow him.  And I have seen God building the faith of those around me as they learn more about who Jesus is and begin to relate to him, one small step at a time.

What is your relationship with God like?  Do you have stores that you can share about how he has related to you throughout your lifetime?  When might those stories be appropriate to share with those around you?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

working it through

An emotional barrier to faith isn't really like a question that I can just provide information to answer.  It's something that has to be worked through.  Just like in any other relationship, emotional barriers between a person and God have to be worked through one step at a time.  But for some reason, God seems to use other believers to help in that process.  Here are some things that I've noticed can be really important to helping others walk through this process.

Validate the person's feelings - You'll never get anywhere in any kind of relationship if you spend your time arguing that a person should not be feeling that way.  Whatever the cause and however reasonable or unreasonable, justified or unjustified, a person's feelings are there and they have to be worked through rather than argued out of.  The first step to working through an emotion seems to be acknowledging it's there and accepting it.  And it's a lot easier to do those things if we have someone walking with us who can help us to see that the feelings are ok, but who also might gently ask us to consider where those emotions are coming from and what they really mean.

Challenge assumptions by asking questions - A lot of the barriers to faith that I've seen are actually barriers to perceptions about God that aren't accurate.  For example, a person who believes that God is arbitrary and capricious and not inherently good might have a real barrier at an emotional level to putting faith in a God like that.  But I don't believe that God is arbitrary and capricious, and the God that I have known and learned to love does not have those characteristics.  So in a relationship with a person who believed that about God, I can tell stories of how I have encountered God in my own life, and I can invite a person to reconsider whether what they've heard about God and think is true about him is really true about him.

I can do that in a couple of different ways:

I can share how I've worked through those same questions about God in my own life.  This is basically telling stories of what has happened to me--where did that question come from or when did it come up, the questions I asked of God, and how I came to a point of resolution or peace or relationship in the context of that question.

I can also introduce people to Jesus in a way that engages their emotions and encourages them to engage Jesus relationally.  Again, I think that telling stories about Jesus is the most powerful way to do this because stories grip the attention and invite us to imagine and experience something in a way that we might not have been willing to before.  This might be as simple as paraphrasing a story from the New Testament.  It might also be using materials that others have created that focus on this.  Over the last year or so I wrote seven stories of peoples' encounters with Jesus in the New Testament, and I included questions for discussion or reflection.  They were meant to invite people to engage with Jesus with in an emotional and relational way.

One important thing to remember is that when Jesus told people stories to engage their emotions and invite reflection, he often didn't tell them the answer or impart his knowledge in a kind of lecture.  He could tell a story and let it sit with people, and he trusted that the Holy Spirit was working and would illuminate truth in that person's heart.  It's something like telling a fairy tale without having to add the moral of the story.  When you leave the moral out, you invite a person to do the work of allowing the story to penetrate the heart.  That's one of the reasons I think Jesus's parables were so powerful.  It's easy to disregard another person's conclusion or moral as something that works for them.  It's harder to ignore when a story gets inside you and rolls around in your head and your heart and begins to challenge your assumptions and your values and your choices.

What does it mean to engage with Jesus relationally (as opposed to intellectually)?  How could you invite someone to do that?  Do you have words to describe your relationship with Jesus in terms of relationship rather than belief system?

Monday, May 14, 2012

seeing what's not being said

Many times when the church teaches about evangelism, the church teaches that you present the gospel story, and people take it or leave it.  And when we're not teaching that, we teach people to answer rational questions about faith, and that any other issues that come up are just excuses not to surrender their lives to God.  At least, this is what I heard at church.

But this isn't all that effective in our culture.  Because we seem to be more about feelings than anything else these days.  We fall in love, we fall out of love.  We chase our dreams and follow our hearts.  We evaluate things based on how they make us feel, not so much based on right or wrong or even what we think.

So if we buy into the belief that the only barriers to faith are rational ones, we are stuck talking about faith only on a plane where very few in our culture are actually living.  We present the ideas, we "do our part," and then we're free to walk away.  It was God they rejected, after all.

But over the past few years, I've really become convinced that the only way to reach a majority of the people in our culture is to engage their emotions and face those emotional barriers head on.  And I firmly believe that we can have a huge impact on helping others to see a way through those emotional barriers to find a fulfilling and life-changing relationship with Jesus.

But the first step is to be able to recognize the emotional barriers.

One challenge is that emotional barriers are often disguised as rational questions.  A person who's struggling to understand God's goodness and trustworthiness will often want to talk about how God could allow so much evil in the world.  But no matter how many times we walk through the theology and reasons that deal with that question, a person isn't going to make it through that question until they start to see themselves in relationship to God and start to bring that issue to him in a relational way.  I want to talk more about this part of things next week.

For now, I think the important question is how to you figure out what the emotional barriers in a person's life are?  How can you identify them if the person is using all rational language to describe them?

The first thing I'd recommend is prayer--pray that God will supernaturally reveal a person's barriers to faith to you.  Pray expecting to be a part of walking through that barrier with the person.  Pray knowing that God longs to see all people reconciled to him through his son.

Second, you have to listen to another person's story.  Listen for the experiences and challenges that have a lot of emotions tied to them.  I remember having a conversation with a very good friend... we were just talking about life, and I brought up something spiritual as it related to my own life--I was just talking about my own experience.  And he went off, and told me this whole story of a difficult experience he'd had with his parents' church a long, long time ago.  I learned a lot that day about things that were holding him back from faith in God.  But the emotional outburst was the clue that I needed to be listening very closely.

Third, listen for a person's distorted ideas about who God actually is.  A person's emotional responses against God are often against a particular idea they have about who God is rather than against God himself.  Sometimes helping a person through an emotional barrier to faith consists of helping a person to let go of misconceptions and meet the real and living God.

So what about you?  What emotional barriers have you faced in your own relationship with God?  What are the emotional triggers that set your friends off?  What are the true emotional questions that stand behind those trigger points?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

stepping out

What keeps us from being willing to take a step out of the boat, like Peter did, and ask Jesus to save us?

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that there were layers to our hesitation.

On one level, the most obvious level, is the issue of reasonableness.  How reasonable is faith, really?  For Peter, it was insane.  He sees some dude, who has, of course, been doing some pretty amazing things, walking out in the middle of a tempest on a lake, and he decides to get out too.  I can think of a hundred reasons that's a stupid thing to do... you can't walk on water, for one.  And yet he believed that Jesus was Lord of the wind and the waves and he put his faith in Jesus to save him, so he got out of the boat.

The next level is harder to see, but it's kind of in the background of everything.  That's the spiritual issue of pride.  Going way back to the beginning of the world, the reason that people's relationship with God is broken is that we have wanted to be like God in naming good and evil.  We have wanted to measure our own choices and even God's choices by the rod of our own value system.  We have kicked and screamed and rebelled against even the idea that someone should be telling us what to do and how to live.

And then there's the level that we all know is there, but we tend not to talk about: the emotional part.  I don't get out of the boat because I feel like I'm gonna look stupid.  I don't follow Jesus because I don't trust him. 

For those rational questions about faith, we've had hundreds of people over hundreds of years answering those questions.  We have books and resources and access to information that dialogues with and explains those issues.

For the spiritual question of faith, we are dependent on the Spirit of God to transform and change us--to breathe life into us like Jesus talked about when he spoke with Nicodemas that night so long ago.  We can fast and we can pray and we can beg God to intercede, but at the end of the day, this part of faith is a mystery.  The Spirit blows as a wind and we see the evidence but don't know where it came from, where it is going, or why.

But those emotional issues... we don't talk about those much.  Somehow we think that all it takes for a person to have faith is the right knowledge and the Spirit's work.  But as I've gotten to know a lot of people at a lot of different points in life and faith, I've noticed that the emotional questions seem to be gaining importance in whether people ever start to follow Jesus.  They also seem important in whether we're ever able to follow him with complete abandon.

Why doesn't the church talk about this?  Why don't we interact with these emotional barriers to faith?  We can pretend that they aren't there, but they don't just go away.

I want to talk a little more about how to interact with these barriers in our own lives and when we recognize them in others.  But for this week, I just want to ask you to identify the barriers in your own life.

What keeps you from following Jesus?  What keeps you from following him with all your heart and soul and mind and spirit?  Invite Jesus to meet you there and to start knocking those barriers down.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Tomorrow morning I'll be heading to a jail an hour away to visit a guy who's been in and out of jail since he was a teenager.  He's probably in his thirties now, and in all these years, he hasn't been able to figure out how to follow the law.  He's like so many of my clients.  Many times they have no family support--not a single person they can ask to write a letter of recommendation or support before sentencing.  Many times they have mental health issues that prevent them from living productive, healthy, love-filled lives.  Many times they break the law because their culture tells them to or because it's the only thing they know to do.

Society doesn't agree on much, but almost everyone wants to send these criminals away forever.  If you read my local newspaper, after every crime-related story, there are comments flippantly calling the community to banish them forever.  An occasional commenter will challenge the cost and result of incarceration, but on the whole, we'd like them to get out of our backyard and as far away as possible.


It's a simple word, but it's oh, so hard to practice.  It's the art of acknowledging that a wrong has been committed but forgiving and moving on as if it had never happened.  It's the act of choosing to believe that in the future the person will not reoffend.  It's believing that change is possible, and believing that a person's hurtful actions in this situation are not the sum of all that they are, but a reflection of the brokenness that we all share.

And although we could never practice only grace without judgment in our society, we are called to have grace as followers of Jesus--because he gives us grace each and every day.    And I'd venture to say that it's one thing that, when actually present in a community of believers, sets it apart from other communities.

It was the grace of my local community that first began to plant and water the seeds of faith in a friend's life.  As she reflects on her journey, she points to our interactions and explains that they challenged and ultimately changed her.  It is grace that I struggle to find in my relationships with people who don't follow Jesus--grace for when I can't pick up the phone or when I say something wrong or when I simply fail to be the kind of person I want to be or that I'm called to be.

It's grace that, when offered to another person along with personal vulnerability allows a deep and lasting friendship to form.  It's grace that calls people into the heart of God, and makes us believe that it's even possible to find grace there from him.  If we can learn to receive grace from those around us, we are one step closer to receiving it from God.  And since it is by grace we are saved through faith, that's a lesson that we all have to learn.

How can you show grace to those in your spiritual community?  How can you show grace to those in the world around you?  How might you be an instrument of grace in the darker places of the world--like jails and hospitals and nursing homes?