People, Pain, and Deconstruction

Friday night we watched, Bridge to Terabithia. It’s about the awkward friendship of two fifth graders, Leslie – a girl, and Jess – a boy.

Leslie’s joy is the first thing to infect her neighbor and soon to be best friend. She was from an artistic family who told stories, wrote books, and slopped bright paint on their living room walls as they danced. Jess is the only son of a working class couple scraping together whatever they can to make ends meet for their five children. His family are faithful church attendees. They have the stern faces and serious demeanor to prove it. Leslie, on the other hand, had never been to church before and seemed to be captivated by the entire experience of it. 

Out of all the high’s and low’s of their story, this in my opinion, is the most compelling scene.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=swcEExbjVMQ

“You have to believe it and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it and I love it.” 

How does that sit with you?

Who do you most identify with in this scene?
– May Belle – certain of a harsh God who’s purpose is to damn people to hell
– Jess – confused as he reconsiders what he’s always accepted as truth
– Leslie – free to embrace the beauty of Jesus without the baggage of dogma

Why do you think that is?  

Whenever I watch this scene I long for the freedom Leslie exudes. I love the simple way she embraces the beauty of Jesus without all the baggage of dogma. 

But I see myself in both of the other characters too. As a young adult I was so certain about things…I felt I had to be. I was so sure about certain doctrines that Jesus and grace got lost in it all. Then about ten years ago I started going through a time of deconstruction myself. I don’t think I was necessarily wrong about all the things I thought, believed, and taught. I just look back and see somethings that were out of focus and other areas that were incomplete. 

God seems to use two primary tools to help us grow. 
1. People – ‘Leslie characters’ in our own lives. If we’re paying attention God seems to bring them into our lives to give us a clearer picture of Him. Some of them stay in our lives for a long time and others only for a season. 
2. Pain – My friend Larry calls, ‘disorienting dilemmas.’ These are experiences and events that rock us to our foundation. They can help us challenge things we’ve always accepted and distill what we believe.   

Who in your life is calling you to live more fully?

Are you in a place where it feels like your belief system is getting in the way of knowing God more completely?

Do you tend to embrace disorienting dilemmas or bury them?

Do you have someone to share that with?

Does it feel like you’ve laid claim to your own beliefs, or more like you’re living a second hand faith of your parents or pastors?

Reconnecting your Head to your Heart

Last week I threw out some suggestions of why we rarely experience long term change even though we really mean it when we declare our resolve to start something, stop something, do more, do less, and change. 
1. Sometimes our goals aren’t big enough.
2. We often don’t have a plan.
3. No one has been invited to walk with us on our journey.
4. We resist admitting that the power to change is beyond us. 

This week I want to zero in on the area of spiritual transformation. 

One of the things I miss about pastoring is being able to stand in front of a group of people and assure them that no matter where they are or what they are experiencing God is near, concerned, and accessible. To be part of God’s awakening process is both thrilling and humbling. I know…Sunday sermons aren’t the only vehicles that God uses…in fact I’m sure he’s had to intercept what came out of my mouth way more than once. But I have vivid memories of people encountering hope. Often times their eyes water, their cheeks redden, their posture changes, and they nod unknowingly.  

The message informs, excites, and moves us toward the mission (the identity and calling) God has for us. Naturally we get excited. We might even get a new Bible or buy a new journal. And for a few weeks we do great. Sermons and podcasts keep us going. Our small group or Sunday school class keep us on track. And for a few more weeks we do alright. We’re doing things…good things…things we’re supposed to do…but if we’re really honest it feels like we’ve just exchanged one type of busyness for another. 

And in our quiet honest moments we hear ourselves wonder, “Where is the life? Where is the joy? Where is the change?”

Do you ever feel like that? I do sometimes.

The answer is not: Leave your church, drop out of small group and put your Bible on the shelf.  

The answer may be: Try something different. Take a few minutes and jot down answers the questions below. It is a brief experience in spiritual direction. 

– Describe your communication with God. How and when are you speaking to him? How are you hearing from him?
– Describe the last time you felt close with God. Be sure to note when that was, where you were, and who, if anyone, was with you.
– If Jesus was sitting in the chair next to you, what would you tell him?

The Enlightenment period emphasized science and reason. Humanity began to seek answers by pulling things apart, observation, and examination. The scientific method was born and applied to all areas of life – including faith. So the spiritual life that once lived in the healthy tension between heart and head shifted mostly into our head. 

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In our desire for transformation, our head has been trained to take over and we default to persuing more information and mastering certain skills as the answer. “If I only knew more about the bible…or better understood what Christianity is about…or could explain it better…that would help me grow and be the evidence that I’m changing.” Not true. 

Author Dallas Willard said, “Spiritual people are not those who engage in certain spiritual practices; they are those who draw their life from a conversational relationship with God.” (Hearing God) 

Our process for spiritual growth must bring our thinking and feeling back into a proper tension. Spiritual direction helps reconnect your head to your heart and reframes your thinking. Our perspective ceases to be, “I need to learn more,” and becomes, “I need to pay attention more.”

A few things I don’t get about the Christian subculture

I don’t get our infatuation with youth. Let me say, youth is awesome and I wish I were younger but stick with me here. Like you, I get industry magazines one which is specifically designed for those who plan religious gatherings and meetings. On it’s cover was, “Top 40 under 40.” 

Now maybe I reacted negatively because I’m quite few years north of 40 these days. Maybe I’m jealous because I never made anyone’s list like that. But I want to believe my visceral reaction came because this mostly Christian focused publication shouts, “We’ve bought into the same things everyone else has; new is better than old, shiny is better than worn, and the talent of youth is more valuable than the wisdom of the aged.” 

I look back at what I did by the time I was 40 and there are a couple things I’m very proud of. I planted a church with some wonderful people. It continues to impact a community that I love. I also did a pretty good job as a dad. I had two teenage boys and an 8 year old daughter by the time I was 40. But I also look back on those days and realize I didn’t know jack squat compared to what I know now. And the things I thought I knew…I’ve changed my position on most of them. Looking back, I didn’t belong on anyone’s list! 

I don’t get our fixation on the phrase, “The Word.” That can almost always be translated, “Bible.” Whenever I hear someone say that in an authoratative insider tone of voice, I want to ask, “Are you talking about the written words or the living Word that John talked about…you know the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and is God, the Word that became flesh and lived among humanity?” I don’t say that though because I was brought up to be polite and that would be nasty so I smile and nod.

I don’t get what people mean when they say, post, tweet, “I just want to see revival break out.” The statement comes with a lot of assumptions…like we all know what revival means and what it looks like and what will change if it comes. The more I hear it the less I get it. And the more it’s left to one sentence like that, the more confused I am. I’m not against revival (whatever we decide it is). It sounds really good, but on this Friday I need to confess something. In spite of going to revival services and even helping to plan semi-annual revivals (wow that sure seems weird to see that in print), I don’t really know what you’re talking about.  

If you’re still reading…and I hope you are…there is one more thing I don’t get. It is something I plan on writing about all next week.

I don’t get why we so uncompassionate with ourselves; the negative self talk, self hatred. A friend shared an old hymn with me a while back entitled, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” by Frederick William Faber

Here is verse 1 and 11
1. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.

11. But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

Have a great weekend

Letting Others In

Tip of the Iceberg

This image makes me think of our lives. There’s the part that people see, that we promote on Facebook and Instagram, the image we craft and protect. That which is above the surface is only just a small segment of the whole at best, and a total projection at worst. There’s a lot about us that people don’t see.

I’ve been asking a lot of questions this week. Today’s maybe the most important.

Who knows what lurks beneath the surface of your life?

* If you got really bad news from your doctor, where would you turn?
* If you did the worst thing imaginable, who could you share that with?
* Who would you call if you felt like you were having a crisis of faith?
* If you were worried about the choices your child was making, what would you do?
* Who could you talk to if you thought your marriage was in trouble?
* If you were offered your dream job, who would celebrate with you?

I am fortunate to have a few in addition to my wife. I have them not because I’m anybody special. I have them because they are loving, trustworthy, wise, and I believe God has placed them in my life to speak into my life. There are people like that in your circle too. Not everyone in your circle but certainly one or two.

I also have people who know what’s beneath the surface because at some point or another I took the risk of sharing one or several of the things above. I fought off the idea that they will betray me like someone else did, or that I’d be bothering them with it, or disappointing them, or what they would think…and said it.

The questions I’ve asked this week are all good to think about and answer honestly, but lasting change comes when we let someone else in on the answers.

Bonus Question

The question that I didn’t post yesterday was, “What truth can we help you remember?” Think about that for a while. What do you know to be true but when difficulty, stress, loneliness, etc comes you default to a lie?

The most common response to that at our family weekend was some form of, “I need help remembering God will show up or come through at the right moment.”

At the heart of our worry that God won’t show up or come through is the fear that he either untrustworthy, he has lost track of us, or he just doesn’t care.

Even in spite of marrying my best friend and favorite person in the world, the move to Bentonville has been challenging. My first job was at the Parks & Recreation Dept. I liked it but it was only part time. As savings dwindled, and I mean really dwindled, I was stressed and wasn’t sure what to do vocationally.

For the last 3-4 years my ultimate desire has been to work with pastors and leaders. Most of the coaching out there is church growth driven. There is a need for that but I’m more suited for and passionate about spiritual direction and developing the heart within the leader. So Krista and I began to pray, “Is this the time to keep the part time parks job and launch out into consulting adventure by faith? Or is this a season when I do something completely different? You have to make this clear!”

That sounds good and was the right way to pray, but honestly, I was also saying, “God, I feel like Joseph. Everybody has forgotten me and so have you!” Basically saying, “You’ve lost track of me.”  After a couple weeks of praying together specifically and systematically about this, Krista got a text from someone in town about my interest in a job. That was on a Friday. Saturday I reviewed my resume. Sunday I emailed it. Monday I interviewed. Tuesday I was offered the job. Just like we’d asked, God made it clear that for now ministry would look different. Weekend retreats, a handful of spiritual direction/consulting clients, and one camp next summer is about all I can handle.

Please don’t hear me saying that if you just pray correctly, with the right words, in a certain way everything will turn out rosey. If you know me at all you know I’ve had very non-rosey periods of life. What I am saying is God is trustworthy, he knows where you are, and he does care.

Isaiah said it much better:
Why would you ever complain, O Jacob, or, whine, Israel, saying, “ God has lost track of me. He doesn’t care what happens to me”? Don’t you know anything? Haven’t you been listening? God doesn’t come and go. God lasts. He’s Creator of all you can see or imagine. He doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath. And he knows everything, inside and out. He energizes those who get tired, gives fresh strength to dropouts. For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall. But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind. (Isaiah 40:27-31 MSG)

Suggestions for fighting the “Where are You” fight:

  • Tell God exactly what you think and how you feel about his silence, he can take it
  • Put his assurances from scripture (like the one above) back on him
  • Find ways to remind yourself that God is trustworthy he knows where you are, and he does care (post-it notes are underrated)

Monday Questions

My kids have taught me that we have to do important things on purpose. One of those things is talking about heart issues. They were all in Bentonville with us a couple months ago for Labor Day weekend. I asked them the questions below and I think they would be good for all of us to ponder on this week:

If you could pray only one prayer this year, what would it be?

Where do you sense God delighting in you?
– What makes Him smile when he thinks of you?

Where is God gently (or maybe not so gently) calling you to change?
– Is there something He seems to be asking you put down, stop?
– Is there something He seems to be asking you to pick up, start?

What are you relying on only God for in this season of life?

What might God be relying on you for in this season?

Does your attitude suck?

As I wade into the blogging pool again, I need to begin with an honest confession: My attitude sucks. If you work with me or only know me socially you may not detect it. I can fake it for short periods of time but those who live closest to me know my attitude sucks.
So why does my attitude suck?

It sucks because I’m short sighted.

  • Humanity in general and western culture in particular is short sighted. If we don’t see results in three easy steps we want our money back. If there is no evidence of change – in an often unreasonable amount of time – we jump to a different track. We don’t do well with the in-between times of what was and what will be. Historically, I’m talking 600 BC  historically…not the 1950’s, the people of God had a very long view on things. Their songs of praise and cries of lament were anchored in the day of redemption that would come whether they saw it with their own eyes or not. My sight is so short it usually lands on me. Their sight was long enough to focus on us.

It sucks because I’m forgetful.

  • Not only am I forgetful of the heritage that I was adopted into, I’m forgetful of God’s activity in my own life. If I would stop stewing for one minute I could fill pages with stories of when God came through. Places to live. Jobs. Conversations that changed our family’s trajectory. Checks in the mail. Opportunities that superseded my hopes. And on and on. If only there was a way to remember…oh wait…that’s part of the purpose of gathering on Sunday…that’s part of the point of quiet reflection in the morning…that’s part of the point of expressing gratitude before I eat. Maybe if I started to remember on purpose my attitude wouldn’t suck so bad.

It sucks because I think I’m alone.

  • I lived alone for a long time which I now realize was a blessing and a curse. Blessing in the sense I learned to be alone and not be lonely. Curse in the sense that my first instinct is, “It’s up to me to figure out, make happen, and do.” When I got married this summer that instinct didn’t switch off. I see my challenges through the lens of being alone and not through the lens of community. My wife is so good at echoing the sentiment of God, “We are a team. It’s not just up to you.” And yet I act as if I were alone.
This morning I read a passage that I’ve read hundreds of times, shared it with others dozens of times, and even taught on it a few times. But today it pulled all these threads together.
God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus! Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes! (Ephesians 3:20, 21 MSG)
Hopefully your attitude doesn’t suck as bad as mine but if it does (and chances are some days it does), pray with me that…
…our sight will focus on the life that is and is to come
…we will remember God is always near and up to something
…our default will begin to be reset from alone to accompanied

A Familiar Cart

The other day I had to pop into a big box store to grab a few things, five items to be exact. No big deal. It was early in the morning so I would run right in and right back out. Naturally I got in the express checkout after collecting my stuff. You know the one. The lane that is clearly marked for people with “20 Items or Less.” I was fourth in line.

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The man standing at the front of the line had a cart full of bags and more on the conveyer belt. To top it off he was waiting for a price check on something. I started reassuring myself that it was no big deal and he probably had a very good reason to abuse the posted limit. Then my eyes shifted to the person behind him. I couldn’t get a good a look at her cart but she appeared professional, like she stopped at the store on the way to work. The person directly in front of me had 27 items, mostly prepackaged items for breakfast, lunch and after school snacks. Oh wait, make that 28. She grabbed a box of Krispy Kreme’s while we waited.

Call me a control freak, a compliant, a rule follower, or just a plain jerk if you want, but I was getting steamed. Why do so many people consider themselves as the exception to such a simple rule? As I stewed, the checker finished up with ‘full-cart price-check guy’ and we all stepped forward. ‘Professional lady’ started unloading and I started counting; 18, 19, 20, with a handful of items still in her cart. “Her too? Come on!” But before my simmer became a rolling boil I started noticing the contents of her cart instead of their number.

  • Cleaning supplies, a trashcan, mop, a set of pots and pans, a set of dishes, paper towels, garbage bags, and a few kitchen utensils.

I recognized the cart. I’m pretty sure she was starting over.

Instantly I was confronted with how judgmental I was being. Then the question in my mind went from, “How can people arrogantly thumb there nose at something so clear as, ‘20 Items or Less?’” to “What are the people around me going through?”

That’s probably a question we all need to carry with us. It helps us focus on what’s important: people, and it leads to other better questions.

  • Is anyone walking through whatever it is with them?
  • Do they have needs we can meet?
  • Has anyone spoken the truth to him or her in a loving way?

But the question followers of Jesus need to be asking is, “What is the good news for this person right now?” Sharing the gospel doesn’t always mean presenting a plan of salvation, sometimes its giving grace in place of judgment, smiling instead of glaring, offering help rather than staying at a distance.

Hidden Gifts

I met with my spiritual director last week. What’s that you ask? Well, I define a spiritual director as “a companion on the journey of growing in intimacy with God. She/he bears witness to the activity of God in your life and encourages you to respond to His love.”

Anyway, she asked about my practice of Advent…basically how do I observe it and how is God speaking to me.

With a sigh I went on to describe the love/hate relationship I’ve had with this season since 1978. Parents who have passed away, miles between my children and me, and relationships that aren’t what they used to be all contribute to a sense of loss that often hangs over me like the thick gray clouds that fill December skies. She listened patiently and without judgment. And then she posed a question that has transformed my perspective.

What are the gifts hidden within the sense of loss that this season often brings?

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While I knew I had time to consider the question I began to see the gifts right away.

  • We raise our children to grow up and be independent. As much as I love my kids and enjoy being around them, I’m glad they aren’t living in my basement. They are sharp. They are healthy. They are adventurous. They are working hard and navigating adulthood in a way that any parent would be extremely proud of.
  • Advent is a time to consider and prepare for Christ’s coming. With His return I anticipate the gift of a great reunion. My parents were people of faith. Though they are absent from the body they are present with the Lord. They have joined the great cloud of witnesses and I believe we will be reunited.
  • Hiding under the boughs of subtle sadness is the gift that I am enjoying life in many corners of my being as life is supposed to go.
  • The greatest gift I reclaimed is the fact that not all of my relationships have changed negatively. My relationship with Krista is not what it used to be. And for that I am eternally grateful. She has gone from friend to best friend to special lady pal (her favorite term I’m sure) to fiancé…and next summer to wife. We are living in the already but not yet, which is not without it’s challenges but is both a mystery and a gift to people of faith.

 

Let me play the role of your spiritual director today.

What are the gifts hidden within the sense that this season often brings for you?