Thursday, February 16, 2017

Minding the Excluded Middle

In 1982, long-time missionary and missiologist Paul Hiebert published an important article he titled "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle." He was addressing an issue that many missionaries face when they have grown up in a Western culture that is deeply skeptical of anything supernatural, yet are suddenly trying to work in a culture that believes nearly everything is tied to the supernatural.

For example, when Hiebert was a missionary in India, there was an outbreak of smallpox in his village. Western doctors nearby had unsuccessfully tried to stop the spread and so many of the villagers turned to a diviner who claimed they would need to sacrifice a water buffalo to the goddess of smallpox named Museum in order to appease her anger with the village. The elders of the village went around collecting money from every household to purchase the buffalo, and were highly offended when the Christians refused to give them anything because it went against their religious beliefs. Because of this, Christians were excluded from drawing water in the village wells or purchasing food from merchants. Things came to a head for Hiebert when a young Christian girl contracted smallpox. A church elder named Yellayya came to the school where Hiebert was teaching to ask him to pray for God to heal the girl from smallpox. In Hiebert's words:
"My mind was in turmoil. I had learned to pray as a child, studied prayer in seminary, and preached it as a pastor. But now I was to pray for a sick child as all the village watched to see if the Christian God was able to heal." 
Hiebert points out, correctly I think, that sometimes we have created an unhelpful divide between heavenly matters and earthly matters. There are all the great doctrines and theologies about the nature of God, angels, demons, Heaven and Hell. 'Separate and apart' from these are the things we deal with every week that we consider 'this-worldly' things, such as our vocations, visits to the doctor's office, the sources and types of foods that we eat, and the relationships we have with our family and friends. In between these things is an area that we do not address enough of the time. How do Heaven and Earth actually interact with one another?

To the spiritualist who sees angels, demons, and miracles hiding under every rock, the secularist offers a valid corrective, that empirical data matters and we have a role in contributing to the path of our lives. To the secular materialist, who wants to claim that we came from nothing, will return to nothing, and our lives mean nothing, the spiritualist offers a valid corrective, that there is much about the world which matters deeply, yet evades our ability to measure, categorize, or explain it.

Fortunately, as Hiebert points out, Scripture offers us a third path which refuses to devalue either the spiritual realm or the world in which we live. God's call to us for salvation has eternal spiritual implications, but is also deeply rooted expectations for the way we love and treat everyone around us, from the President to the 'least of these'.

It is here in the middle that we find important questions addressed. It gives us a healthy place for reflection about things such as the meaning of life and death for those of us still alive, the way we think about blessings, illnesses, successes, and failures, and the way we navigate life in this world through our own uncharted waters. Even if we're going to Heaven when we die, what is our purpose for being here until then? What is the significance of how we use our time and energy in the lives of people around us? How exactly do we involve God in our lives, and what actually happens when we pray?

Scripture affirms both the spiritual and the physical, and I am convinced that the more our churches learn to live and teach into this middle area which connects them, the more people will find our faith relevant and useful in the world they actually inhabit.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Making Space

If I could summarize meaningful leadership in one phrase, I would call it "making space." This begins with God. God imagined the living things he would create, and he made a space that we could occupy to fulfill the purposes for which we were made. To some degree, every time we empower another person to become more than what they are, we have created a space that they can inhabit in a new way. I think Ephesians 2:10 expresses this idea well:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. 
We have the blessing of participating in God's work, but it took God as our leader to create the opportunities for the good works we are able to do. It has something to do with our own initiative, but it has every bit as much to do with God knowing our potential and taking the initiative to give us the space to grow.

In every relationship, there are power dynamics involved. Generally, whether for reasons of age, experience, title, or seniority, in most interactions and scenarios there is a person who has more power and a person or people with less power. Whether they realize it or not, those with power are gatekeepers for how everyone else is able to function and to experience the possibility of growth. I want to invite you to think about the areas in your life where you might possess some type of control, and how people are being affected by your use of power.

What about the person with a great talent who is too shy and uncertain to ask for the opportunity to use it? How about the person who won't be noticed because of their ethnicity or economic status, for whom your influence might could open a door? Who do you know that feels bound by past mistakes and would be deeply blessed if someone were to offer them the chance to be thought of as a valuable person, and not just a "guilty" person? What would it take to create enough space for a second chance for them? What difference could a little of your assistance make? Many of us would not be where we are had there not been someone willing to take a chance on us and give us some space to grow. "Come and help me. Let me show you how."

This is equally true of groups. Need stronger relationships among your people? Create and schedule a space where friendships can develop. Wish that people showed more initiative? Ask them and learn from them what you could do to help remove barriers that are deterring them. Want to move in a new direction? Let your people help you to imagine the world you are all wishing to inhabit together.

People who don't feel powerful will seldom succeed in seizing opportunities for themselves, and might not get up the nerve to try. When you think about people who are a few years behind you, with a little less experience than you and fewer connections than you, I wonder in whom you might could invest a little of yourself so that they have the space to become something more? You--yes, even you--might be intimidating to the person who needs you the most, and doesn't know how to ask for your help. We should be grateful that God sought us out to bless us, even before we knew we needed him. Perhaps we can do the same for others.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything

You can do anything you want if you just put your mind to it. Have you heard that before? Maybe your parents or a favorite teacher said that to you when you were growing up. It is a huge blessing to know people love and believe in you. It is an awesome experience to work hard for something and to have success and achievement. But I wonder if sometimes we've taken the belief that we're capable of doing anything and have mistaken it to mean that in our life we'll actually be able to accomplish everything that catches our interest.

I don't know about you, but I'm a recovering workaholic. Some of the most important people in my life are the ones who have urged me to quit biting off more than I can chew, to put on the brakes, to do fewer things, and to do them well. I have a hard time stopping the cycle where I take on a new task, convinced that with enough time I can master it or make it better, and then before I'm done with it, I've already picked up another. And then another. If I'm not careful, I'll end up with a pile of good intentions, but little accomplished that feels satisfying. 

In a timeless universe where our bodies would never wear down, we could learn to play every instrument, speak every language, build every structure, read every book, win every award, and accomplish everything we intend to do. But that isn't the universe where we live. We live under the restraints of time and of energy which get soaked up with the many thorns, thistles, and unexpected obstructions we encounter.

I'm reminded of the classic song lyrics from Jim Croce: "There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them."

We can do some things very well, but the truth is that all of us will have things we look at and say, "If only I had more time, I could have done more, and I could have done better." Knowing that we are going to have to leave some things undone should make us deliberate about what things we commit ourselves to doing. Jesus said in Matthew 16:24a-25:
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
It isn't just the image of suffering for Jesus--picking up the cross--that's important here. It's also the idea that there will be parts of my life that I have to let go, because otherwise I won't give God the space in my life that God deserves. To deny yourself means giving up something. To lose something means you won't have it. On the face of these ideas, that sounds unpleasant. We really will have to say 'no' to some things in order to say 'yes' to God.

But at the other end of this promise is something more hopeful. Jesus assures us that when we willingly deny ourselves and lose something because of our dedication to him, by some wonderful mystery, it is for this very reason that we'll end up finding it again. "Great is your reward in Heaven," he says. Our losses, whatever they are, will be temporary, and God's generous blessings to us will one day overwhelm any sense of lacking we might have had before. Don't let the many things that interest you distract you from the one thing that matters most.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

How to Get a Fresh Start Without Leaving

Around 2011, all signs were indicating that we were about to take on a new role in a new congregation. Arriving at this willingness took a great emotional toll on us, because we loved the people where we were, and knew without question that we were loved and appreciated there. Having spent a lot of time, carefully weighing our options and what church we might actually be willing to go and work with, we went through an awful, months-long application process with that church.

After some re-assuring comments from several elders at the new location--"We can't wait for you to get started"--a few days later I got an expected phone call, and some unexpected information. They were hiring the other guy. It was a kick in the gut and a cut to the ego.

In the end, I stayed three more years at the congregation where I was, and frankly, ended up doing there what I consider the most important work I've done in my ministry to this point, anywhere. I'm glad I stayed longer than I had assumed I would, and am grateful that the work actually grew in its meaningfulness those last years.

But at the time, I realized I was going to have to find a way to get a fresh start. I needed some kind of change for me to be able to adjust my attitude and give myself passionately to my work again. I had burned up my vacation time visiting and interviewing at this other church, and so a dreamy trip out of town wasn't a possible solution.

I decided that since my church needed a new minister (I was getting burned out) and I needed a new start, I would have to let myself be the new guy. I adopted a few methods during this time that have continued to help me significantly in my effectiveness, and in my ability to be joyful about my work, even when parts of it might feel tedious.

How can you give yourself a fresh start without leaving? This is what has worked for me. I'd be glad to hear what works for you.
  • Move out, and move in. Since I had been planning to move, I decided to go ahead and do it. I took all books off of my shelves and several things down from the walls. I emptied my desk and drawers. I did all the sorting process I would have done if I were moving away and got rid of a lot of junk and clutter, and donated a bunch of old books I hadn't been using.

    Beyond that, I had a storage closet with permanent shelving that was nice, but not designed well for the needs of the space. I emptied the space, ripped it all out of the wall, and got better, height-adjustable shelving. I painted the walls and got rid of everything that I knew I didn't need in there.

    In my mind, I got a new office and a new closet space. That process was very healthy for me.
  • Have your parting conversations. From the moment we started thinking we were going to leave, there was a series of conversations that I knew I would need to have. There were people who had been significant in my life, whose influence had inspired me and whose encouragement had carried me through difficulties. I wanted to tell them that. There were areas of great concern I had that I didn't feel were being addressed. I had formulated in my mind what I would need to tell the elders as I was leaving that really needed to happen as things moved forward.

    I had framed these things in my mind as parting conversations that would bring a sense of peace and closure to me as I left. But now I wasn't leaving, and I still felt convicted about the need to communicate those things. So I went ahead and did it. I called and scheduled lunches and visits with several different people I wanted to appreciate. I told them how much they had meant to me and how much they had helped me. I discovered that a confession of appreciation is every bit as liberating and life-giving as a confession of wrongdoing. It was great for me to express sincere love and thanks to people who deserved it.

    I met with several of the elders individually, got their permission to be very candid, and told them exactly how I felt about a lot of things. I laid out my struggles, my concerns for some of our blind spots, and some things I really wished we would start working on. It didn't solve every issue, but it took a load off of me to feel like I had done what I could to help them see what I was seeing. And happily, quite a few things got better once we talked through them. In every case, they were highly interested in both my wellbeing and that of the church. (In my next point, I'll share how I've created better dialogue with the elders where I'm working.)

    I have tried to adopt the practice that whenever I have a strong feeling of appreciation towards someone, I try to get with them and tell them about it. Think about how you would feel if someone scheduled a meeting with you just to tell you why they appreciate you? It's been a great thing every time.
  • Seek out spiritual friendship and mentoring. If you don't have a trusted person providing you with an outside perspective on yourself, you're going to develop blindspots. These can be blindspots to weaknesses and unintentional harms you are causing, but these can also be blindspots to your strengths, and things you don't realize that people like about you. Knowledge of either is helpful.

    A man who was not an elder then, but is now, was the first person I asked to be a spiritual companion. We were reading things together, getting together regularly, and praying with and for each other. It became a meaningful friendship.

    My practice now is that every year, I seek out two people: one I view as a mentor and one I view as a peer. Around November I approach these people and I ask them if for the next calendar year, they would be willing to form a deeper friendship with me and agree to get together once per month for the purpose of helping each other to grow spiritually. Most of the time, this has taken the form of getting lunch once per month. "Second Thursday every month." That sort of thing. Set and scheduled on both of our calendars.

    In my role, I have decided that one of these two people for me should be an elder. I generally try to select whichever one I've not had much time with lately to use the opportunity for friendship building. I invite them openly to shepherd me, to help me see my blindspots, and to help me know what they are perceiving about our church family.

    The benefits are numerous. If nothing else, it means that the elders and I always have a direct link, and that our meetings become more like discussions among friends and less like a CEO-Board of Directors gathering. I know what they're thinking, and they know what I'm thinking. Sharing a meal is such a better place to have real conversation than in a stuffy meeting room. But the deeper benefits are my own spiritual growth, and a meaningful connection to the people I work with every week.

    Every year, I end the year sad that the current arrangement is changing, but for the sake of continual renewal, I change up my partnership every time. I continue getting with many of my previous companions as well, but I make a formal, scheduled commitment with at least two new people every year.
  • Take a spiritual retreat. Note: If you do not currently provide this opportunity for your minister, I beg you to do everything within your power to make this possible for them. You'll get a new minister every year without having to hire or fire anyone. Jesus needed significant time alone to pray. We are both arrogant and foolish if we think we can be healthy leaders without doing the same.

    I arranged in my contract at my current church that every fall, the elders give me one week without any teaching, preaching, visiting, or administrative responsibilities, and I dedicate the entire week to finding quiet places, spending hours in prayer, hours in Scripture reading, and seeking God's direction on what I should be preaching to our people about the following year. The best way to do this is to find a place away from home you can stay. I like going to Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, about 60 miles south from Corpus Christi at the old Kenedy Mansion in Sarita, Texas. As part of this, I actively solicit prayer from the congregation for me as I go away to pray and reflect. I fast from technology. I journal constantly about the movements of my mind, heart, and the ideas that come to me while I'm there.

    I will spare you stories for now, but let me say with conviction that I have experienced significant insight through these times that has given me strong conviction that (a) God wants me to be where I am, and (b) that God has been and will continue working through my ministry here; imperfect as I am. These weeks have grown me more than almost anything else I've ever done in my life.

    For those of you not in ministry, or for whom a full week is not possible, I encourage you to take a weekend, or at the very minimum, a half day to go somewhere beautiful and connect with God. At these times, rather than bringing tons of Scripture to read, print a single passage of value, a chapter or so, and read it over and over again, seeking to go deeper. Pray until you have nothing left to pray, and then focus on the presence of God, inviting God to be near, even if you aren't verbalizing anything. Resist the urge to be productive, and focus on being present.
I don't think it's possible never to feel frustration or burnout, but these actions, some of which are occasional, and others of which are regular, have helped me significantly to feel contentment and purpose where I am.

What has been helpful to you?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Discerning the Spirits

In our minds and in our hearts, all of us experience movements. Most of our emotions result in some way from these movements, bubbling over into our attitudes, and into what we believe about ourselves and our relation to the world. Purely based on the drama playing out in our head, we could either walk out of the house ready to conquer the day, or we might scramble for an excuse to stay home and hide. The battle begins in our minds. As people of faith, we believe there are always competing forces at work within us; some for our betterment and others for our detriment. Of all the thoughts bouncing around in our heads, how do we know which ones to accept and trust? 
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God." - I John 4:1
I have drawn wisdom from Ignatius of Loyola on this subject, who spoke of the competing movements of our hearts as two different spirits at work within us. He describes the spirit of Consolation--the Spirit of God, and the spirit of Desolation, the influence of our accuser. To discern which of these your inner thoughts is coming from, you would consider the direction a given thought was moving your heart.

If we are influenced by the Spirit of Christ, our hearts should move closer to God. The more our life is in tune with the Spirit, the more we can expect the fruit of the Spirit to become characteristic of us, the first of which is love (Galatians 5:22). Our heart should become more like God's heart. Influence that comes from God will move us to think more about the good of others, and less about getting our own way. Likewise, because the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Truth, we can be confident that when a thought invites us to greater honesty and sincerity, this is from God (John 14:17). Along with these, the Spirit of God invites us to be at peace (John 14:27). This is a peace that gives us a sense of solidarity in our salvation, confident that God is working all things together--ultimately--for our good. The Spirit of Christ draws our hearts away from our smallness and doubts, and moves them towards the unfathomable, incomprehensible love of God which embraces us and holds us securely, producing confidence within us (Romans 8:38-39).  

Our Accuser--the spirit of Desolation, as Ignatius calls him--tries to move our hearts in the opposite direction. When you feel yourself sinking into fear and powerlessness, this is not something that comes from God (2 Timothy 1:7). When you believe you are the worst sinner, and that everyone's sins can be forgiven except for yours, this is a thought from your adversary. When you feel a need to wear layers and layers of masks because you don't believe your authentic self is lovable, this is a lie, told to you by the Father of Lies (John 8:44). In every way, the spirit which does not come from God will move your heart toward yourself, to the unbearable weight of your problems, your unworthiness to receive the help that God provides, and great doubt about whether you have any hope at all. 

Even more deceptively, the spirit of Desolation might get you to settle for a temporary good feeling, mistaking a temporary emotional move for the ongoing peace that would come from knowing God. The critical difference has to do with the direction of your heart. Even if this is making me feel a little better, am I preoccupied with feeling good, chasing an escape from anxiety, thinking mostly about myself, or does my good feeling come from understanding the promises of God, accepting them as my own, and thinking more about God, and what God cares about? Will I soon be chasing another way to feel better, or is this a deeper kind of satisfaction? 

I continue to find great significance in what Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus, that they would come to a deeper knowledge of the love of God, which leads to a significant strengthening of their inner person, and I believe, a greater ability to know the voice of the Good Shepherd when we hear it, as opposed to the voice of an imposter.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. - Ephesians 3:14-19

Familiarity Breeds Confidence

It's amazing how people will twist a situation around in order to maintain control. In Acts 3-4, Peter and John heal a man who had been lame from birth, and was over 40 years old. Think about that: To have become a community fixture, carried by kindhearted people each day to the Temple gates in order to beg for enough help so that you could merely exist. Undoubtedly, his hopes and dreams, if they ever existed, had long been abandoned. When the people saw him running, jumping, and shouting praises to God as he accompanied Peter and John that day, they couldn't help but celebrate with him. After all, they'd walked by him thousands of times on his mat, and undoubtedly knew who he was. How could you do anything other than celebrate with him?

Incredibly, the Sadducees and Jewish leaders managed to find a way to be unhappy about this. If only they didn't talk about Jesus being raised from the dead or attribute this miracle to the authority of Jesus' name. You see, Jesus' resurrection is the starting point of God's work in this world to put everything the way that it ought to be. Christians believe and stake our lives on the hope that if we endure wrongs and injustices in this life, God is going to restore even more to us in the day we meet him face to face. But this is not good news to those who maintain their position by taking advantage of people. Your money, your title, and even the buildings that bear your name don't get the final word on your legacy. God does. It might just be the person you sent packing--because you could--sits at the seat of honor at God's banquet, while your name might not even be on the guest list. Resurrection means that things will end up the way they ought to be, and that's a threat when you've been crooked.

So they pulled the ultimate intimidation tactic. They gathered everyone in town who was of any importance among the Jewish people, they formed a big circle, they put Peter and John in the middle and began shooting them with questions. They weren't asking about what had happened--it was indisputable; they were asking, "Who gave YOU the right to do this?! In whose name? By whose authority? I know we didn't authorize this."

Peter's response was incredibly sharp and incredibly bold. It was in the name of Jesus of Nazareth that this good deed was accomplished. And if you don't like it, since you think you are in charge, why don't you tell us: Is it better to obey God or to obey people? We know what we've seen and heard.

It became clear in this moment what a difference it makes to know the Lord. Any one of those Jewish leaders would have absolutely crumbled and cowered, had they been in Peter and John's shoes. They created the most intimidating scenario they could invent, but these ignorant redneck fishermen weren't even thinking of budging.

I think a lot of people think that Christian boldness is something that kind of pops up in an extreme circumstance. Like a deus ex machina in a classical play, they are hoping that God suddenly springs up and gives them a brilliant response to stump their opponents and that their courage will appear from nowhere. And if God wants to do that and give them that, God is certainly capable. But take a closer look at what helped Peter and John to be bold, clear, and confident in their response.

Amazed that people so common could be so bold, the Jewish leaders "recognized that they had been with Jesus." (Acts 4:13) Peter and John stood firm when told to quit preaching, "we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:20)

They had been companions of Jesus during the years of his ministry. They had listened to him in the forty days after his resurrection before he ascended. In talking about Jesus, they weren't talking about an abstract idea they had read about in a book somewhere; they were talking about someone who had been a significant part of their existence for several years. Though the situation would have been intimidating for anyone, they were totally confident in their ability to speak about Jesus, because they knew him well enough to talk about him instinctively.

I don't know about you, but I don't begin every morning with a fresh study of apologetics, convincing myself that I exist, that God probably exists, and that Jesus was a historical person, crucified under Pilate's authority, and raised from the dead. There are phases where we look at hard evidences, and these might help us come to initial faith. But at this point in my life, I have plenty of my own reasons for believing in God and feeling increasingly confident that Jesus is who he always claimed to be. These reasons include the stories of Scripture, but they also include my story, and the stories of people I know. I've watched people whose lives have been totally redeemed from a useless existence after they came to Christ. I've seen prayers answered in amazing and sometimes spontaneous ways. I've had blessings and surprises that have given me great confidence that God wants me to be doing what I'm doing in my life.

Just like Peter and John, our confidence in God comes from walking with God. You can talk much more easily about someone you know well. You're much more ready to lay your life down for someone who is your friend.

My challenge to you would be to make your walk with God more personal and more intentional, and see if God doesn't give you even more reasons to believe. The more God is a part of your story, the more you'll have to talk about. Make your prayers more specific, and be more vulnerable with God about what you're really thinking; not just what you'd want to appear to think. Take a weekend trip to a quiet place, and challenge yourself to spend at least half of a day in prayer and Scriptural meditation, asking God to show you what he wants you to do. Carve out time to test the teachings of Jesus to find out if they're really true. When you go out of your way to show love to your enemies and to pray for those who mistreat you, what effects does this have on your heart? When you ask, seek, and knock to find out how God will use you to strengthen his kingdom, what do you find out? When you consistently humble yourself, do you find that God manages to lift you up?

If you are easily shaken and lacking confidence, I invite you to take God's hand and walk with him more closely. I'm convinced that those who know God closely have an easier time being like him, regardless of what anyone else thinks about it. I absolutely believe we have those moments where God gives us the extra boost we are needing, but I believe that real, consistent confidence in God comes from knowing him. Familiarity with God breeds confidence in God.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reckless Generosity

What happened to his drink, by the way?
I bet you can remember some of the times in your life when you've spilled something; especially if it was something valuable. I can remember where I've been sitting at certain restaurants when I've heard a huge crash caused by a server dropping a tray of food. I can still picture the bits of plates, meats, and veggies go flying across the floor, bouncing off of my shoe. On some such occasions, I can remember customers erupting in sarcastic applause, to add insult to injury.  

A few of my favorite spilling mental images come from infomercials. People trying to open a cabinet, sit on a recliner, or pour a beverage are suddenly pelted by whatever they're handling in ridiculous quantities that can only have been stacked and spring loaded. The advertisers seem to really understand our discomfort with spills. Unless you didn't grow up being taught the "three second rule"--it's nearly Scriptural, isn't it?--once something has been spilled out on the floor, it has lost all value and is functionally "unclean". It is only a mess to be cleared. Spilling makes us uncomfortable because it is needlessly wasteful.

Mark 14 tells the story of a woman who spilled something on purpose. And it wasn't a glass of sweet tea or even a plateful of prime rib. It was an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume; the kind that would have cost as much as a year's income by the disciples' estimation. It would be like taking the money you would need to pay cash for a new car, and using it as kindling to light the fire in your grill, as they saw it. As the woman anointed Jesus with this perfume as a way to honor him, the disciples had only sharp words for her in response. "Why this waste of good perfume?!" Of all the possible ways to use that much money, each of them could have produced a list of things to do with it, not the least of which was helping the poor.

Jesus teaches us a different way of looking at money. To begin with, Christians don't get overly attached to our money or our material possessions, because we believe they belong first to God, and that God is more than capable of giving back to us far more than what we share. For some reason, God insisted that in Israel's calendar, there would be festivals and feasts and times of celebrating the harvest, rather than putting all of the harvest into savings. This must have been partly because of a trust that God would later provide another harvest. Memories made by celebrating God's goodness are not a waste, as God sees them.

Our hope is not in our bank account, nor should be our greatest treasures, because the location of our treasure will determine the deepest cares of our hearts, according to Jesus. Jesus valued the great cost of this gesture the woman made towards him, and when it comes to honoring God, there's something to be said for trying to do things for God that are beautiful, and that mean something to us. On one occasion in 2 Samuel 24, a man named Araunah offered to give David a threshing floor and some oxen so that David could offer a sacrifice to God. David's response? Absolutely not.
"No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing."
David's view? Worship isn't worship if it doesn't cost me anything. While there is no precedent to be needlessly wasteful in how we use our possessions, there is certainly precedent to do things that are beautiful, and even attention grabbing to honor God. It is appropriate that some of the world's greatest paintings, artful compositions, and charitable organizations exist because of people's desire to do something beautiful for God. Something worth remembering. Sometimes a few acts of random kindness and reckless generosity are just the things we need to remind ourselves that our trust is in God's provisions, and not in our possessions.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Etching Our Character

It is, in my opinion, impossible to solve absolutely the centuries-old debate about whether we are shaped primarily by our nature or our nurture. Are we the way we are because we're born that way, or because of how we are raised to be? This is not only a discussion of how we know what we know, but also of why we do what we do. What exactly is our character, and what produces character?

Some will speak of character as something that is already residing within us, just waiting to be revealed. Since everyone is already talking about Mariah Carey this week after her New Year's Eve performance fiasco, let me reference her song "Hero" as an example of this sort of thinking:
There's a hero
If you look inside your heart.
You don't have to be afraid of what you are.
There's an answer
If you reach into your soul,
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away...
...So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you'll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.
On the one hand, we would want to affirm that as people made in God's image, all of us have incredible potential to accomplish good and important things, and even more so when we work together. In that sense, we all have an inner hero that needs to be let loose. But this type of thinking is somewhat removed from the way a person's character is actually developed. It is not by an increasingly inward, self-centered focus that we find the best answers or our sorrows melt away. The English word "character" comes from a term for engraving. It meant a mark or symbol branded on a person's body, or engraved into an item of property. To have character meant going through the process of being scraped and scratched, often with harsh instruments, in order to bear this mark. For a person to have good character, it would involve good craftsmanship and a lot of patience.

Many teachings in Scripture place character in the realm of one's actions. Jesus says that when Satan lies, he is speaking from his own character because he is a liar (John 8:44). Paul teaches that endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:4). Job was known as an upright and blameless person because he consistently feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1). In all of these examples, it is a person's persistent action that defines what their character is, and not whether they think in their hearts that they are probably a "good person" if you would just get to know them.

Paul's description of his own character formation sounds a lot like a boxer preparing for a fight: "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (I Corinthians 9:27) In physical training, our bodies tend toward whatever motion feels easiest. The only way to get stronger is to identify our weaknesses, and to target them specifically with better form and deliberation. If we fail to correct this, our growth becomes unbalanced.

If you are not quite sure how to approach your own desire for better character, a good baby step is to figure out what good thing you are most inclined to resist, and systematically challenge yourself to do it. Whether it's the social dimension of Christian fellowship, the thinking required to study Scripture more deeply, or the inward urge we must rebuke that demands we keep checking our notifications every 5 minutes, our character is etched into us by what we choose to do with what time we have. Is God being given enough time and opportunity to do his etching work in your life? It is through scratching, hammering, and enduring that our character becomes strong, but only you can decide to allow it to happen.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Something Old for Something New

Any time something comes to be so universally accepted that we take it as given, it might be time to take a step back and reconsider. I suggest that one such mindset we ought to challenge is that new is always improved. The "new" must be better some of the time or we would never adopt it, but ought we welcome with enthusiasm every thing available, simply because it's new?

In their book, Mindhacker, Evans and Evans point out:
We've heard it observed that as Western societies grow richer, with a higher level of technology and more leisure time, they tend to adopt hobbies that used to be considered tedious jobs, such as candlemaking
The Ghostbusters, re-imagined as Steampunk.
The more people are stuck with inevasible technology and suffocating connectability, the more they seem to crave a simpler time. Along this line of thought, the Steampunk movement is likely one of the largest world phenomena that you may not have heard of. It is driven by an obsession with Victorian-era technology to produce modern solutions, and is in some way a colorful protest against the seemingly inexorable advance of modern technology. When you see a reignited love for old materials like brass, copper wood, glass, and ornate engravings, you are seeing an impact of this mindset. Even the great thinkers who launched what would become the Renaissance were obsessed with classical Greek poets and philosophers. "Ad fontes!" they would say. "Back to the original sources!"

On a personal note, I have become a devoted practitioner of bullet journaling as a way to organize myself, and have made a deliberate effort to reduce my own dependence on technology for productivity where possible. If you want to have your mind messed with a bit, click around on this collection of links about why paper is still a superior medium to any other option.

This sort of inclination can also inform our faith. Because publishers need to sell books and because authors desire to speak and be heard, there will always be people trying to say something new about God. Some of these things will be useful. But rather than chasing after whatever the newest thoughts are and accepting them uncritically, we will often be better served to chase after what is true, good, and beautiful, because these things will be valuable, regardless of their age. Some wise people have told me, "Always spend more time reading the Bible than reading about the Bible."

The prophet Jeremiah says in 6:16:
Thus says the Lord: "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
The true, good, and beautiful will sometimes be new, but even when they are old, they have a newness about them when experienced. The end result of chasing incessantly after any trend will be exhaustion. As you think about how you plan to live differently next year than you did this year, I want to encourage you to think about what it is that you are chasing. What is it that is making you exhausted? Must you really do all the things that you are doing and in the way that you are doing them?

If you're trying to grow spiritually, the truth is, the tools through which God shapes us are pretty much the same as they've been for thousands of years: steady practices of reading from Scripture, calming ourselves in God's presence and praying, practicing self-control, choosing to spend our energy on acts of kindness and mercy, etc. Before you try to find a new way to Google yourself into a better way of living, why not first consider the ancient paths, as Jeremiah calls them. They are less flashy than some other options and are generally more difficult than the other roads, but they've been found reliable paths by many generations before us, and they lead us to a place where we find rest for our souls.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Great Revealing

Mystery is interesting. At Christmas time, with God's help, we mature to where we enjoy giving more than we enjoy receiving. But the excitement of gift giving comes in part from the mystery involved therein. Whether you're the young child trembling in anticipation of what could be underneath the beautifully colored paper and ribbons, or you're the giver, watching for the look of joy that appears on another person's face because you've blessed them in some way, it is the cheerful unveiling of a mystery by someone we love which provides us with a deep sense of satisfaction. If it weren't so satisfying, it is hard to imagine this tradition in late December would have persisted for the many years that it has.

While we wait for the mystery to be revealed, most of our focus is on the packaging. It's the shape and size of the box that gets our imagination going. It's the patterns and colors in the wrapping that keeps us guessing what could be inside. But once the gift is revealed, the packaging is discarded, because the gift itself is greater than the packaging.

In Romans 8:19, Paul says that all of creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. The earth, subjected to many centuries of bloodshed and corruption, stands trembling in anticipation, waiting for Christ to return and for all of God's faithful children to be revealed, to receive their crowns and their beautiful white garments, and to have their proud Father say, "Well done!"

But for now, we're stuck most of the time looking at the world's packaging, and it has not always been well wrapped. Some of this is because of the ugliness of people's choices, their dishonesty, and their corruption. Some of it is shiny and gaudy, because people shower themselves with luxuries, never thinking to share with those who struggle to get by. If you look at history books and magazines, you'll see leaders and dictators, tycoons and socialites. But underneath this crinkly thin exterior, God has many children whose stories remain hidden from sight.

People tend to look past or even avoid the things God thinks are beautiful. The family member who puts their own life and ambitions on hold to be a caregiver for another family member. The person who quietly sends anonymous support to another family who needs the help. The person who accepts a thankless responsibility that no one else wants so that others can be blessed. The quiet things you do because of your love for God are the hidden treasures in this world that, for now, often only God knows.

Jesus has told us to stay dedicated and not to be afraid, because one day all things covered are going to be revealed, and all things hidden are going to be made known (Matthew 10:26). God is going to tear off and discard the world's shallow packaging, and reveal the beautiful treasures that have been hidden from everyone but himself. The real stories will be told, and those quiet souls who've shared God's love without reservation or recognition will be held up and celebrated as the gift to the world that they are; the pride of their Father. It will be the cheerful unveiling of a hidden mystery, and one that we hope to make even more beautiful because of our own unseen devotion. Spend your life showing kindness and mercy with God as your only intended audience. God is watching, and everything is more beautiful when it is revealed in God's good timing.