Archive for the ‘Responsibilities’ category

Letting go

February 14, 2010

In a recent sermon, our pastor mentioned something that’s really important for spiritual growth: letting go.

Specifically, letting go of a certain false sense of responsibility: the sense that it all depends on me, or that I can control my world. Really, I can’t control much; I can barely control myself! It’s the Lord who controls heaven and earth; he is God and I’m not.

It’s remarkably freeing to know this, because if I think it all depends upon me, I’ll be a prisoner of everything around me. So for example if I think I can and should control how things go at work, I’ll constantly manipulate people; I’ll “need” them to do things my way, see things the way I see them, and so on.

This is an awful way to be if I’m insisting things be done my way, but even if my objectives are the “right” ones (that we not waste the company’s money for example) it can still be toxic: when things don’t go well (shareholders’ money goes to buying the wrong thing, or doomed projects get started) I’ll be second-guessing myself. “Maybe if I’d made a stronger case…” and similar thoughts can rattle around in my head, keep me up at night, and distract me from being truly present with my loved ones.

What if my objectives are not only the “right” ones but eternal ones? I want all people at our church to feel ownership for the activities they’re involved in; nobody should feel useless or disempowered. This is a great desire, but what happens if someone says a discouraging word? Might I start second-guessing myself then? “I should have coached this person more” or “Maybe if I had affirmed that person more, or more wisely” or “If only I had…” — this kind of nonsense results from the belief that I’m in control, or that l even could control things.

So here’s the truth: Even if my motives are 100% pure (hey, it could happen someday!), my wisdom is complete and my technique is perfect, people won’t necessarily do what I want them to do. And since I’m full of flaws myself it’s mathematically obvious: I can’t control things.

Why then do these things still bother me? Why do I vainly try to control stuff? And what can I do about it? Here’s what I think: I need to meditate upon God’s great care for me, and cast my anxiety upon him, as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 5:6-7.

Easier to say than to do, right? Yes it is.

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Fantasy and Reality—for men

January 6, 2010

…that is, “especially for men.” Why especially for men? Because women have a lock on reality and men don’t? No, because

  1. I’m not a woman; and
  2. I’ve been looking at Mike Erre’s Why GUYS Need God, which has some really important things to say on this topic.

If you haven’t seen the book, the back cover has this provacative note:

Why, after years of being
told otherwise, do we still
chase after bigger paychecks,
better homes, and cuter women
to define us as men?

Why does the church often
seem so fake and irrelevant
to guys?

So here’s a little about fantasy:

Reality bites. … God, the universe, other people, traffic, disease, death, love, risk, pain, and depression all refuse to bend to my will….

And I suppose this simple truth is what fuels a bewildering (and in some cases bizarre) array of options for escape from reality.

… If reality disappoints us, we can find substitutes at the click of a mouse. Video games gobble up countless hours of youth, lust engulfs healthy sexual desire, and the anonymity of cyberspace creates the illusion of community and friendship without the real demands of true intimacy. Wherever reality falls short, fantasy promises a quick and painless escape.

Fantasy also exists in the church. Instead of engaging in real discussions about the pressing issues and concerns that confront men today, we often accept a caricature of masculinity that bears little resemblance to the portraits we find in Scripture. Instead of anger, we learn about serenity. Instead of ambition, meekness….

Erre, pp.27-28

As long as we pretend (“No, I’m not angry [dammit!]” for example), we never confront our weaknesses, and we never have to face -gulp- growth!

The Bible has a phrase for this sort of pretending; here’s what John says about it.

If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:6-9 (NIV)

To make progress, to be purified from sin and unrighteousness–in short, to grow–we need to face the truth, to face reality.

Reality has both good and bad news, like “modern” gospel presentations from the BGEA or the Navs always say: The bad news is that we are weak and easily distracted. We are not the men we’d like to be, or the men we’d like others to think we are. Even worse, as Erre says, “God is the one who led us into this mess.” We can’t blame the media or the feminist movement or Hollywood (or Bollywood for that matter either).

The good news for us, as it was when we were sinners, is that God will lead us out of this mess (Erre, back cover).

It’s really part of the same gospel: we were foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, spending our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another, and God by his mercy saved us. That’s the gospel, right?

But wait — there’s a lot more! Paul goes on to tell us about the Holy Spirit who makes us heirs. This is the same Holy Spirit that Jesus promised, who would lead us into all truth (i.e., reality). And as the passage above says, the way we get purified, the way we grow, is by accepting and acknowledging reality and confessing our weaknesses, not by escaping and pretending.

May the Spirit of the Lord help us to do so!

Why did God put that tree in the garden?

November 7, 2009

…where “that tree” is the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil — Genesis 2:16-17, The Message.

What a great question! I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. My assumption was that this incident wasn’t historical, that this story was in Genesis to say we’re a race of a moral agents rather than a race of mindless slaves (the predominant creation myth of the day implied the latter). But looking at Romans 5:14, as well as other passages, it became clear that Paul considered Genesis 2-3 historical.

So the tree was historical — why did God put it there? I looked at an Old Testament commentary (Keil and Delitzsch), which said the tree was put there “to train his (Adam’s) spirit through the exercise of obedience to the word of God” (p. 84–parenthesis mine). This reminded me of what Lewis wrote in Perelandra, book #2 of his space trilogy: that some commands are given just so we’ll have an opportunity to obey.

I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless he bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason? When we spoke last you said that if you told the beasts to walk on their heads, they would delight to do so. So I know that you understand well what I am saying.

C.S. Lewis, Perelandra
(MacMillan Paperbacks Edition 1965) p.118

In other words, we can’t exercise obedience by doing what we were going to do anyway; it’s when we do what we wouldn’t otherwise do, and we do it because God commands it — that’s exercising obedience.

Keil and Delitzsch have more to say about the tree, and the effects of this kind of voluntary and joyful obedience:

The tree of knowledge was to lead man to the knowledge of good and evil; and, according to the divine intention, this was to be attained through his not eating of its fruit. This end was to be accomplished, not only by his discerning in the limit imposed by the prohibition the difference between that which accorded with the will of God and that which opposed it, but also by his coming eventually, through obedience to the prohibition, to recognise the fact that all that is opposed to the will of God is an evil to be avoided, and, through voluntary resistance to such evil, to the full development of the freedom of choice originally imparted to him into the actual freedom of a deliberate and self-conscious choice of good. By obedience to the divine will he would have attained to a godlike knowledge of good and evil, i.e. to one in accordance with his own likeness to God.

That is, Adam was supposed to learn about good and evil by abstaining from that fruit. As he continued in abstinence, he would

  • come to see that [against-God’s-will ⇒ evil ⇒ to be avoided];
  • develop real freedom (become better at resisting evil); and
  • come to a true knowledge of good and evil.

This knowledge would have been of a “godlike” nature, i.e., corresponding to the fact that we were created in God’s image. That sounds really good, actually! If only he had listened….

This idea, that obedience brings strength and knowledge, reminded me of a theory that if we obey God in little things, we become better able to obey him in the big things. Oh, right, that theory came from Jesus, in Luke 16:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

I’ve usually taken this to mean that if we esteem material things correctly (i.e., not taking them to be more important than they actually are), that’s a kind of prerequisite for being trusted with really important things — the care of men’s souls for example. So that’s why it’s important for me to tell the truth on expense reports and tax returns, even if I were certain I wouldn’t ever be caught. And why it’s also important to be kind to all, patient when wronged, etc. (from 2 Timothy 2:24).

One more thing this reminded me of:

[Y]ou need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

This passage, too, points to the way things work: by obedience, we gain strength and discernment and maturity. I’m not saying we should go looking for more things to obey (e.g., giving up bacon and shrimp), but that by doing what we already know we should do and avoiding what we know we should avoid, the Lord will help us to grow up in every way (Ephesians 4:15 NCV). That sounds pretty good.

What’s my real mission statement?

October 18, 2009

The past few sermons have knocked me rather off-balance. I think this is a good thing, if not entirely a comfortable one. Let me tell you about them.

On October 4, we looked at Mark 12:28-31, where the legal professional asks Jesus which command is the most important. Jesus answers with two of them: Love God; love your neighbor. Matthew 22:38-39 has: “This (i.e., love the Lord your God) is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (parenthesis added) Our preacher pointed out that before Jesus, no one juxtaposed those two commandments like that.

But more importantly, he challenged us to consider what it means to love your neighbor. What should someone do, how much should they be involved if their teenaged nephew, say, has been making some really bad decisions? He’s not their kid, after all. The challenge is this: “If I were this boy’s mother or father, how would I want my relative to be involved with us?”

This is a challenge! If I had lost my home due to flooding or earthquake or landslide, how would I want someone to come alongside me?

Closer to home, here’s a challenge to me: odd fellow on the train. Rather than being annoyed with him, the easy thing for me to do is just walk on by and sit in another car. Why would it be so hard to just sit nearby and be friendly toward him? He gets off at the 3rd stop, so it’s not like my train ride would be taken over or anything.

I don’t always get to the station the same time he does, but when I do, I could be kinder to him; I could treat him more like the neighbor that he actually is.

Then on October 11, the question arose: what’s my real mission statement? Is it “Love God, love people, serve the world”? Or is it something more like “Take care of your kids, get ahead, build your 401(k)”?

Note that the challenge isn’t necessarily an exhortation to neglect your kids or career, but rather a question about the primary factors, the driving force. What do my checkbook and my calendar say? What would my wife, my colleagues, my boss, my children, my neighbors say?

I think their answers would be mixed. What should you or I do? I don’t think that the answer is “well, quit your job and divest your 401(k)” — at least, not for most of us. But speaking for myself (i.e., not for you) I need to make a conscious effort and take concrete steps to serve others. Some comments about this are in the October 4 study guide, on page 2. I hope you’ll have a look at it.

Meanwhile, several of us had a good time serving at CityTeam last night. Not that I have this wired, or that we’re done with regard to balancing our lives, but I need to figure out my next steps around this. Should I make this a more regular part of my life? Or something else?

May the Lord guide us as we consider our next steps.

What Is Worship?

August 30, 2009

Is “worship” more than singing and praying on Sunday mornings? According to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven® Life, it encompasses everything we do that’s aligned with what God wants us to do. I think Rev. Warren is correct, though practically, I often think of worship as what happens for about an hour on Sunday morning.

Along comes Mark Labberton with his 2007 book, The Dangerous Act of Worship–subtitled “Living God’s Call to Justice”–as a corrective to my thinking. Rev. Labberton points out that if we worship God, if we say we live our lives according to his will, then our values must be aligned with his. And that means paying more attention to justice–social justice, not just criminal justice–than many of us (myself included) tend to.

What would that look like? Here are some things that come to mind for me; I don’t know what it might be for you.

  • Feeding the hungry and healing the sick as in Matthew 25:31-46: when I see someone begging for food or money on the street (at a traffic signal for example), should I be prepared to give them something? Not money, but some ready-to-eat nourishment?
  • Do justice, as Amos 5:23-24 or Micah 6:8; does this mean I should donate “extra” money to International Justice Mission (I’m not a lawyer myself) or other organizations, rather than spending it on luxuries?

Well, it’s about at this point where mutterings are heard from the congregation: “The preacher’s left off preachin’ and gone clear into meddlin’.”

But I think part of Rev. Labberton’s point is that worship should change our lives; it’s not just an activity that we indulge in every now and then.

[G]et rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

Obedience and Discerning God’s Will

July 13, 2009

We heard a great sermon yesterday about guidance from God. One very important point was this: If you get a clear message from God, and it really is from God (check your understanding with the Scriptures and with your faith community), then you have to obey it; don’t get side-tracked by your own importance (“God showed this to me first,” etc.).

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether something is a prompting from God vs something I wanted to do anyway, and here is where the right attitude can help. Jesus said in John 7:17, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, they will know whether my teaching is from God, or whether I’m making all this up myself” (my adaptation of J.B. Phillips’s version). I take this to mean that if I sincerely say to God, “I can take this job or that one, move to this place or that, pursue this line of work or the other, whichever you want,” then I’ve got a lot better chance of knowing what God wants than if my heart is crying out, “I reallyreallyreally want to move to this place (or whatever) and I want it to be God’s will.” So if I want to know what God wants me to do, it’s very helpful to cultivate a willingness to obey. If I want to find out first and then decide whether to do it or not, that’s not as effective.

The other thing, also mentioned by the Master himself, is this: if I do what he says in one case, he’s more interested in telling me what to do the next time. It’s actually a little more complex than that, but here’s the passage:

“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

In other words, we get to know him, we get to learn how he thinks and come to understand what he wants, as we continue to obey him.

In other words, the plan is: Cultivate an attitude of submission “Lord, I’m ready to obey, whatever it is.” This will make it easier to see what his will really is.

Then, when we find out what it is, to coin a phrase, just do it! Then we’ll be in a better position to know God’s will for the next decision.

And of course repeat for 20-30 years, or whatever it takes.

Means of Grace? Spiritual Disciplines?

June 7, 2009

At lunch the other day, “Zack” and “Charlie” and I were talking about “the means of grace” from chapter 3 of Embracing the Journey. That is, what does God give us to help us grow spiritually?

The book has a great illustration: a young boy, recovering from typhoid fever (I think), was carried by his mother to a window seat, where he could receive sunlight. Healing came from sunshine and fresh air, but he had to be put somewhere that the sun’s rays, and the fresh air, could reach him.

In the same way, it’s God, and only God, that causes us to grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7), but we must be put somewhere that the “means of grace” can reach us. If we never pray, never spend time in worship with the community of faith, never read his book, then how can we expect to grow?

1 Peter 2:2-3 talks about growing by “pure spiritual milk”. The King James version (which has “the sincere milk of the word“) sounds like it’s talking about the Bible, but whether it is or not, both the NIV and the King James tell us that the “milk” is something that helps us grow, and that we have to do something (“crave” it, per the NIV; KJV has “desire”).

This is the part where I usually say something about spiritual disciplines. Those are great, but today I’ll add a caveat, based on Zack’s experiences at various churches.

In the past, Zack said, he went to churches that talked a lot about the disciplines: praying, fasting, memorizing and studying the Bible, evangelism, and so on. He and his family switched to their current church, where a lot more is said about grace and God’s great love than about things we should do. Zack reports that it was only after starting at this church that he had a clear vision “of how much I’m a sinner and how much I really need God.”

What’s that about? Here’s my take on it: If we focus too much on the disciplines and not enough on God’s amazing love, we might start to feel good about ourselves because we’re “doing the job.” We’re doing all we can to seek the Lord — we study His Word, we worship with our brothers and sisters. We “fast twice times a week and donate a tenth of (our) income” (Luke 18:12).

Whoa, let’s not go there; let’s not go completely off the rails, as these Pharisees did. Now I’m not saying it’s good to be a slacker about seeking God, and I’m certainly not going to suggest that we try to compromise on this. Instead, let’s ask the Lord to search and guide us (Ps 139) and to protect us from sin (Ps 19).

He does it all! He alone supplies the grace and mercy that we need (Hebrews 4) — and truly we need him every hour; we can’t even pursue him without his help. Thank God that he loves us and loves to help us!