Monday, October 29, 2012

a miraculous deliverance

This week I had a traumatic car non-accident when the wheel of my car flew off while I was driving 70mph on the highway.  I spun around a couple of times, but I didn't hit anyone and no one hit me.  When my passenger explained what she saw during this non-accident, she said it seemed like the cars around us were just melting away.  I know I was mere inches away from a cement wall and almost slammed into it head on, but somehow the car shifted directions at the last minute and I ended up sliding parallel to it instead.

When I began to talk about my incident, I was quick to share with everyone that I'd been miraculously delivered from harm.  I shared that God had supernaturally intervened and kept me safe.  But even as I made the choice to say those things, I thought about how careful we have to be about what we claim to know about God.

Because even as I was saying that I was miraculously delivered, I wondered why my roommate's dad was not delivered from his fatal car accident a few years ago.  I wondered why my younger brother suffered from cancer or my own dad passed away after a pulminary embolism.  The minute I make claims about God's supernatural intervention in my life, that same minute I invite the question about why God didn't intervene in another time and another tragic situation.

Formal theologians have several different answers to this question, and each of us who lives with faith in God has to wrestle through those same questions.  Some claim the ultimate sovereignty of God and rest in his goodness.  Others speak about the already-but not yet aspects of the kingdom of God where sometimes it is breaking through and other times it is held back.  Some say that we simply can't know but they are content to rest in the mystery of it all because they trust that God is good.

Whatever your belief about that issue, I think this brings up a really important point, which is that what we say about God has a real affect on how others perceive him and relate to him.  If I walked into a funeral home where the guy had died in a car accident and I told my miraculous story of deliverance, I might unintentionally create an emotional barrier in the mourners' hearts to believing and trusting in God.  If I claim that I know God and he has this character trait or that one, I might cause people to react emotionally before they ever get to know God at a relational level.  What I say about God can profoundly impact another person's life and his ability to relate to God in the future.

So as I was sitting on the highway, waiting for the police car to arrive, I thought and prayed about the story I would tell about the accident.  Was it fair to attribute my deliverance to God?  Who should I tell this story to?  Should I declare that it was a miracle and give thanksgiving to God?  Of course.  But maybe not in every context.  And if I do, and when I do, I think it's important for me to acknowledge that I might be wrong.  That my perception of God and my relationship with him is based in part on my experience, and I'm an inherently limited being.  Yes, I want to praise God and thank God for his salvation, but I also want to respect where people are at.  More than that, I need to be prayerful and sensitive to God's leading about what will be helpful in a situation and what may harm those around me.

What things have others said about God that created an emotionally negative reaction in you?  Did that emotional reaction affect your ability to relate to God?  What things to you tell or claim about the character of God?  Might those things be appropriate to share in some situations and not appropriate in others?

Monday, October 22, 2012

unanswered prayers

About once a year, usually in December, I head off to a silent retreat place to pray about the coming year and try to get a sense of where God is leading and what he wants to do in and through me.  Last year was no different, and I sensed God leading me to pray faithfully for a few specific things.  Among them were prayers for six people that I'd been investing in.  Three of them do not know Christ, and I've been praying for God to break into their lives, that he would reveal himself to them, and that other Christians might come into their lives to demonstrate the kingdom.  Three of them are Christians, and I played a part in helping them to know Christ.  For them, I prayed that God would give them a vision for their lives that goes beyond just an interest in comfort and self, but that they would truly come to know what it means to follow Jesus and be inspired to give their lives to bring his kingdom.

Ten months in, five of the six have disappeared from my life.  They're gone.  Some I can't even find to get a hold of, and some have just moved on to new people and new experiences.  And for those I still talk to occasionally, I can't see any evidence that God has answered my year-long prayers for them.  As for the sixth, though we still hang out, I can't even remember the last time we had a conversation about faith or spiritual things.

So what went wrong?  Maybe God is still working in ways that I can't see.  If so, I don't want to give up too soon.  But maybe my influence in their lives has just come to a natural end so that I should focus on building relationships with and praying for others who've come into my life this year.  Or maybe there's something I didn't do and should have or did do that I shouldn't have.  I don't know.  If it wasn't true that God has been answering some of the other specific prayers for this year in miraculous ways, I would wonder if God was even hearing me...

So this is one of those challenging things about living with a kingdom mentality.  I have to stay sensitive to how the Spirit is leading and be willing to keep pursuing or to move on, as he leads.  And even when I follow him where I think he's leading, I don't always see what I expect to.  If you'd told me last December that I'd lose all these relationships, I don't think I would've believed that was even possible.

I should say that I think it's really important to build relationships with people that are real and genuine and not just based on me trying to get them to meet Jesus.  I mean, I really want to know them and care about them as whole people.  So even when I can't see the Spirit working, that's never a reason to abandon ship.  That said, where I'm trying to build mutual relationships, sometimes the right thing is to let someone walk away.

I should also say that we can't discount the power of evil in the world.  For all that God desires to do in peoples' lives, there is another who desires to prevent people from fully surrendering to God's reign in their lives.  Perhaps the answer to my dilemma is simply that the powers of darkness are holding back the work that God wants to do.  And if that's what's happening here, then I would want to dig my heels in and seek the prayers of my Christian community for my friends.

What about you?  Have you ever prayed for God to move and seen what seems to be the exact opposite happen?  What has that done to your faith?  How do you think God wants us to respond in these circumstances?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday Book Review - This Beautiful Mess

McKinley, Rick. This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God.  Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2006.

This book was written for those whose experience in the orderly, predictable, and antiseptic Western church does not match what they experience in real life. The author acknowledges a conflict between religiosity and real life, and he argues that the conflict exists because the church in does not reflect the truth of the Kingdom of God. The primary message of his book is to invite us to experience the kingdom in our everyday lives. To do so, the author argues, we must acknowledge and live like we have a King, who is the Creator God. We must stop defining spirituality in terms of achievement and move toward a state of being—of being within the kingdom. Once we have done this, we can imagine what living in the Kingdom could look like in our everyday life, and he spends the last half of the book giving us examples of that from his own experiences.

Because the author is arguing that we need to go from an old way of thinking about the Kingdom to a new one, he gives us several steps to take. First, he encourages readers to discover the kingdom of God. He doesn’t want us to reduce the gospel of the kingdom to make it equivalent with the church; he doesn’t want us to spiritualize the kingdom by claiming that it’s already here in all its fullness now; and he doesn’t want us to postpone the gospel by believing that it will not be here until Jesus comes so we don’t have to find a way to live within it now. With a story of being seated next to a guy on a plane who was the king of a small nation, he invites us to consider that to experience God’s kingdom we have to stop trying to control God. He invites us to see the beauty of the Kingdom as it breaks through into the mess of this world.

Second, he argues that we need to re-envision the Kingdom. The author argues that we need to see this Kingdom as God’s Kingdom rather than ours. We need to see it not as a ladder of achievements but a garden that is growing: we can water and weed, but we really are just watching the kingdom grow through God’s efforts. We also need to see the Kingdom as an often-invisible dimension that permeates our world like yeast permeates bread. Finally, he cautions that our ability to see the Kingdom is sometimes hindered by the brokenness of the world. Though the Kingdom of God is made up of all good things, of life and healing and joy and contentment, the realities of this world are full of sickness, death, and suffering. He argues that the Kingdom is still there in the places of darkness when the people of God bring it there in simple ways, mostly by relationally reaching out to those around them.

Third, the author argues that the church can build “signposts” for the world that demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom through our actions of love and care for those around us. He then explores examples what building these signposts looks like in different areas of life. First, the author challenges how we view children and argues that we should spend time with children and learn from them about how they see the world. Second, he argues that the church is called to go into places where we aren’t right now, particularly to the marginalized, and live life alongside them, seeking to meet their needs. Third, he argues that we should treat money the way God does, as a valuable tool for the kingdom rather than as something to make our own lives better. Finally, he examines suffering and argues that we should both walk with people in suffering and choose to suffer for them. The author believes that this suffering must come from a place of relationship with those who are already suffering.

The author concludes with a message of hope. He points ahead to the future, to the parts of the Kingdom will come but that are not yet evident. He argues that we should be encouraged to live according to Kingdom values now, even to the point that we may suffer for them, because we know what the Kingdom will look like when it is finally realized.

Overall, this book is more devotional than theological. The author introduces many topics about the Kingdom, but instead of delving into them in an abstract way, he illustrates the topics with a story. For example, when he talks about how to bring a Kingdom perspective into how we deal with money, he tells the story of how he received a $100 bill from Shane Claiborne with the word “love” written on it. Shane had taken $20,000 to Wall Street in New York City and dumped it on the ground, and then he sent $100 bills to several pastors and community leaders. The author explained how he viewed that $100 bill differently from all the other money in his wallet because of where it came from. He then argued that we should view our money as something that has the stamp of Christ on it (rather than a picture of George Washington) and how, as such, it is meant to be used as a resource for the Kingdom.

As a devotional work, I thought there were several positive aspects. The cry of the Kingdom, that God’s will be done and his Kingdom come on earth, is evident here. The stories the author told made mysterious and abstract concepts tangible. However, because it is not a theological treatise, the author left many terms undefined and many questions unanswered. So the book’s very tangibility may have also led to a lack of concreteness. This lack of concreteness, in turn, might tend to lead to an oversimplification of ideas around the Kingdom and a possibility of miscommunication if the reader is from a different background or set of life experiences than the author is.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Practicing the Kingdom--living generously

After almost a year of writing these updates for my church, I'm sensing the need to move on to a discussion of some more of the practical aspects of missional, kingdom living that allows me to naturally share my faith with those around me.  For me, one of the hardest parts of living this way has been to figure out what it looks like at a practical level.  One of my goals for this blog has been to create a place where the practical issues can be discussed.

The challenging part is that there's no real formula to faith discussions or kingdom living.  I can't tell you in seven quick steps or five quick tips how to reach the people around you.  For every person, there is a unique set of barriers to faith in God.  For every relationship you have with someone, there are different relational dynamics.  And everyone's life is at a different point, so the questions that they have about God and faith come in no predictable order.

One more caveat and then we'll jump to a practical example:  The invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to be a part of his Kingdom.  And his Kingdom is the rule and reign of Christ as people are transformed by him and begin to see their lives changed.  In addition, as Christ-like people engage in the tasks of everyday life, God is present with them and is working through them to restore and redeem all things.  So if we hope to be "evangelists," we have to be able to both explain this and demonstrate what it looks like.  For me, the demonstration usually comes before the explanation, and there are often thousands of little demonstrations as I practice the presence of God in my world before I ever get to share verbally about what my faith is and where it comes from.

So... let's go back to last week, where I explained I had some money that clients owed me that I sensed God leading me to waive.  It was quite a lot of money, so it was a big deal to tell them not to pay it.  So how did my following Jesus lead me to forgive this debt?

I was working on this particular case with another attorney.  He's actually one of the most generous attorneys I've ever met.  He routinely gives time and money away to people.  I can't see inside his head or his heart to know what motivates that generosity, but suffice it to say that this is not normally what I see in the attorneys around me.  So anyway, I agreed to do this case for a certain amount of money.  The other attorney was going to be making the same amount in legal fees--so we split it up 50/50.  A month or two ago, he sends me an email and says that he's going to give me his second half, so that I'd be making 75% and he'd just take the 25% that he already had.  He was impressed with the job I'd done, recognized that the amount and quality of work was much more than he was expecting, and wanted to see me compensated.

I wasn't sure how to respond at that time.  It made me uncomfortable to take his money, knowing he'd been working just as hard as I was.  It made me thankful for his generosity.  Eventually I just said to him that it was very generous and let it drop (I've been working hard on learning to receive gifts and blessings from other people).

But then we get to the end of the case, and it turns out that my client was innocent--really and truly innocent.  He'd been charged with a serious felony, and he'd had to mortgage his house and take money from his retirement to pay his bond and our legal fees.  And this other attorney and I had talked a lot about justice and our broken system and all the ways we try to hold back the injustice that we see.  And he knows I'm a Christian and that I do what I do (representing indigent clients) because of my beliefs.  And I just kept thinking about how justice is bigger than getting my client a dismissal.  It's unjust that the client had to go through 10 months of turmoil as the case meandered through the system.  It's unjust that a false accusation led to a huge financial burden of legal fees and court costs.  And I can't do anything about the first issue, but I don't have to take more money from the client than I need.  So I began to pray about the fee I was still owed - both the money I originally agreed to take and the money that I was going to get from the other attorney's share.

And then I thought about the other attorney's generosity.  Whatever his motivation, how could I not be as generous to other people as he was to me?  Hasn't God been generous with me by inviting me to share in Jesus's inheritance?  How could my actions related to this money best demonstrate the character and generosity of God?  How could I show what it means to live in God's kingdom and according to his values?  How could I show that my faith is real and affects every area of my life, not just what I do on Sundays?

And as I prayed over these questions, I really only had one option--taking no more than what I needed and forgiving the rest of the debt.

The challenging thing, going forward, is that the kingdom of God is invisible.  It's like yeast working through a whole batch of dough.  You can't really see what each grain of yeast is doing, but after a while, you see their combined effects.   Similarly, I may never be able to see exactly how my actions affect the Kingdom of God.  I think it gives a validity to my faith--I'm not just talking about Jesus, I'm living like he'd want me to.  But will that ultimately transform peoples' lives?  I don't know.  Maybe it will be one thing that makes my attorney friend interested in knowing more about Jesus.  Maybe it will be a huge blessing to my client so that he can bless other people.  Maybe it'll lay the groundwork so that other Christians will have the opportunity to share their faith.  Maybe someday soon I'll have the opportunity to tell more of my story to my attorney friend or my client.  It's not for me to know the end, only to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

Monday, October 8, 2012

the first step

"And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'" Luke 9:23 (NIV).

There is nothing easy about taking that step across the line and following Jesus where he leads.  Because, before we go anywhere else, Jesus leads us to sacrifice.  We must sacrifice our dreams, our expectations, our desires.  We must sacrifice our time and our resources.  We must daily look at Jesus and choose his way instead of our own.

Tonight I sat with a friend who is struggling to follow Jesus into a sacrifice of unconditional love.  She knows that that is her calling, but those first steps are always the hardest.  There's so much risk that's involved.  If I sacrifice all those things, will I get anything in return?  Jesus promises reward and inheritance of the kingdom--but will those things be worth what they have cost me?  And what will it cost me in my deepest soul to give the things he is asking me?

This week I also had the opportunity to forgive the debt of some clients.  They owed me money and I really sensed God leading me to let it go so that the message that he is a God of justice and compassion would be experienced by them and another attorney.  And in those moments when I struggled to let that money go, I thought of the things I might like to do with the money--the home-repair projects and the comfort-inducing things I might buy.  Even the charities I might like to give a percentage to.

But in the end, it always goes back to this.  Do I love Jesus more than I love myself?  Do I want to see his kingdom carve new paths as the water of life flows out of these sacrifices?  Do I want people to meet the Jesus that I know and follow?  Do I really want to bring him to my place of work and my home?

Each of us will have to answer these questions in life time and time again.  This denial of self for the sake of Jesus--it happens daily.  But it really is an invitation rather than a command.  Because what comes after the sacrifice is amazing.  Nothing compares to seeing God transform your very heart as you walk in faith in the direction he leads.  And nothing compares to seeing other people coming to know Jesus.

As you walk with Jesus, how has he invited you to take up your cross and follow him?  What have you seen him do in response?  And what is he asking you to deny right now for the sake of the kingdom?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

an innocent man

Today I walked into court with an innocent man who was facing life in prison for something he didn't do.  By the time we got there, we had an offer from the prosecutor--if he'd just plead to this two-year misdemeanor, he'd walk away with no jail time and maybe 18 months of probation.

What's a guy going to do?  Risk trial and face a possible life sentence?  Cop a plea to something that he didn't really do, but that keeps him out of prison and without the horrible stigma of the other conviction?  I know that most of you would like to believe that innocent people never get arrested, and even if they do, never plead to something they didn't do.  But that's just not true.  So many times, I'm standing by a client who's pleading guilty to something, and I wonder if this is the just result.  I wonder if it's the right thing.  I wonder if they really did what they're claiming they did.

Many, many people who are arrested for crimes are guilty of those crimes.  I'd venture to guess that more than 95% of them are.  And most of my clients who are actually guilty are prepared to plead to something.  So mostly my job is just to figure out how to mitigate the damages that they've already caused to their own lives.

But the innocent ones who maintain their innocence all the way through, they have to have a lot of faith in the system.  They have to trust that a jury of their peers would see through the inconsistent testimony of the complaining witnesses and the shoddy investigation and find him not guilty.  They have to trust their attorneys have their best interests at heart and have been working night and day to prepare for their day of reckoning in court.  And maybe they even have to believe that there is a God who cares about justice and who cares about them.

The only reason I can do this job is because I believe that God cares about justice.  And I believe that when I pray that God's kingdom would come and his will would be done on earth, in part I'm praying that his justice would reign even in the midst of this very unjust world.  I hate that my client had to anguish about this case for the last year while the case plodded its way through the court system.  I hate that he had to pay me and my co-counsel to represent him.  I hate that his life will never be the same again because of what he was accused of.

But my client's case was dismissed today, just before the jury would be called in for trial.  This small measure of justice--not full justice, and very late--but this small measure of justice is an imperfect, incomplete picture of the kind of justice we can look forward to in the fullness of time when Christ finally reigns.  I look forward to a day when there will not be suffering but peace, when no one is victimized and no one is falsely accused, and when there is no more brokenness but everyone is healed.

Until then, I will continue to follow Jesus to this place of opportunity to serve the poor and the oppressed by seeking the kind of justice we can find through our broken system.  And all the while, I'll continue to pray that God will bring his kingdom and his true justice right now to the pain and brokenness that I see every day.

Monday, October 1, 2012

preparing to share

Preparation.  It makes all the difference between doing well in court and doing mediocre.  I've been preparing for a big trial for the last couple of months, and you wouldn't believe how many hours I've spent working on it.  I've spent even more time just thinking about it.  I simply can't hope to represent my clients even adequately if I'm not prepared.

I don't know why we don't give as much thought to the evangelism and other ministry that we do in our communities.  For example, I wouldn't consider putting someone on the stand if I hadn't had a personal conversation with him and talked through all the questions that might come up.  I need to know what they're going to say and how they're going to say it.  Similarly, if you're going to effectively minister to your friend, you've got to know where he's at or what he's thinking and feeling.  You've got to figure out what the things are that make faith easier for him and what might make faith more challenging.  You've got to know what sets him off and what makes him happy.  If you do, you'll be able to prayerfully consider how and what to speak about to challenge that friend to know and follow Christ more deeply.

Or what about research?  If I'm going to trial on a case, I've got to know the statutes and case law inside and out.  I have to know what issues might come up and how to direct the court to the rules it's supposed to follow.  Similarly, I think you have to prepare for conversations you might have with friends by thinking ahead of time about the relevant issues that might come up.  What are the things in her life that she's considering doing or has been doing that she might ask about?  What life questions is she trying to work through?  And what stories from Scripture might model how to work through that question?  How did the New Testament church work that issue out in their lives?

A lot of times we think about spiritual conversations with fear and trepidation.  We don't want to mess up or to say the wrong thing.  Or what if someone asks me a question I can't answer?  But I think we really can prepare for these conversations by praying and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal the important issues in our friends' lives and then by thinking and praying through what we might relevantly share.

How about you?  When was the last time you brought a friend to God in prayer and asked for wisdom about the issues they're facing?  Where might you be able to look for stories or ideas about how to walk through their questions with them?