Creating Life Change

My 6 year old is a determined and headstrong girl. That’s not always a bad thing. I’m sure that she will not be one to succumb easily to peer pressure. But I don’t want her to be so headstrong when I’m trying to give her instruction. We recently had an exchange that went like this (and yes, I wrote it down word for word because I did not want to forget it):

Daddy sees Daughter jumping on the couch.
Daddy: “Please don’t jump on the couch like that.”
Daughter: “How should I jump on the couch, then?”

It was one of those parenting moments where simultaneously you want to laugh and punish the child (please tell me I’m not the only one with moments like that!). Here’s the thing – she wasn’t being a smart-aleck or mouthy. She was completely sincere in her question. Daddy said, “Don’t jump on the couch LIKE THAT” so I will have to find another way to jump that he will find acceptable. Cute, yes. But she missed my intent.

I know we treat God in similar ways. God tells us (through the Bible, our conscience, the Holy Spirit, a pastor – however…) that he wants our lives to look and be characterized in certain ways. And, rather than seeking his intent for our lives, we ask questions to get around his instruction so that we can keep doing what we want to do.

I was recently watching a SyFy show called “Eureka”. In the episode a person went to the local therapist to talk through some issues. The therapist finally got upset with the counselee and said, “You already know what you SHOULD do – you’re just looking for permission to do what you WANT to do.”

Yup. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Rather than honestly looking for God’s guidance and direction we resort to looking for permission and blessing to do what we want (or already ARE) doing. In contrast, the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

Paul says that we’ve got it all backwards! It’s not about finding a work-around to do what we want. It’s about changing what we want and who we are to be more like God and his character. We often approach faith with the attitude: “What’s the least I can do and still be a Christian?” That kind of question reveals that we have not surrendered to the idea that God’s ways are better than our ways – that God is God and we are not. The better attitude asks: “What is God like and how can I be more like him?” It’s about an inward change; about BEING. The more we are like him the better we will know him. The better we know him the more we will understand his will and actually want to make his will our own.

Then we’ll understand that he’s not trying to change the way we jump on the couch.

He doesn’t want us jumping on the couch at all.  😉

Shirt Sleeves

Before coming to pastor in Central Illinois my family had been in Florida (about halfway between Orlando and Tampa). My kids had no real knowledge of what it was to live in a place that experiences real seasonal change. Last year my two year old spent the entire winter in long-sleeved shirts. That’s all he knew that winter. I vividly remember the day the weather turned warm and we brought out the warm-weather clothes. I put a short-sleeved shirt on him for the first time in his life (as far as his two year old memory knew). He spent five minutes tugging at his short sleeves, trying to pull them down like all of his other shirts. It was pure comedy.

Truth be told, we behave similarly as adults. We become so accustomed to our habits, patterns, and ruts that often we fail to see that there are other ways of doing things. There are other ways of behaving. There are other ways of living life. Our ruts become blinders that disallow us to see anything else. “Of course I can’t change. This is the way things have always been. This is the way things always will be.” At least that’s the lie we tell ourselves. And we thus give ourselves permission to stay stuck in the old ways of living life. This is the mindset that the Apostle Paul writes against in his letter to the Roman Church

“[A]re you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life…. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims…. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God….   Romans 6:3-14

There’s a new way of life that is made possible because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are not the people we used to be, so it’s time to stop acting like the people we used to be. A few weeks ago we had the privilege to baptize 12 people after our Sunday worship service. Baptism is the epitome of the life-change made possible through Jesus. It is us declaring to the world: “I have given myself to Jesus and I will now walk his path – not my own.” Now each of those people needs to start living a changed life.

I frequently hear people talk (or see internet memes) about not judging people and that if Jesus loves and accepts without judging then so should we. But I don’t buy it. You know who we don’t judge? We don’t judge outsiders. We don’t judge non-believers. They don’t have the same belief system or value-set. How could we possibly judge them? But we do hold accountable people who profess faith in Jesus. We should not point fingers and say: “How bad you’ve been – you’re gonna burn.” We need to be helping guide others towards Christ and say: “This is the kind of behavior God expects from those who call themselves believers.”

I know what you’re thinking – you’re still picturing that meme that criticizes Christian snobs who judge others’ imperfections. But think about Jesus’ interactions with “sinners”. Did he criticize them for their ways? No, he did not. But look at what he DID do a couple of times. He said: “Go and stop sinning.”

An encounter with Jesus is not a clean slate to behave in devilish ways. An encounter with Jesus calls us to new life and a new way of behaving. I have told my church repeatedly (although not lately – maybe it’s time again) that EVERYONE is welcome in our church and will ALWAYS be welcome in our church. But…once you’re here we expect that you will be on God’s path for spiritual growth and maturity. Come as you are – and then let God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, affect real life change in you.

Have you had an encounter with the Living God? Then don’t keep living in the same ruts you’ve lived in for years. It’s time to break free from those habits and patterns and to begin living a new life characterized by godly growth and maturity.

Otherwise you’ll be tugging at your sleeves for the rest of your life….

No Superficial Relationships Please!

old-ladies-texting

My kids have 14 grandmas. Not biologically, of course, but 14 grandmas in our spiritual family. Our community.

Reality television has a strange love for jamming a bunch of strangers together and watching chaos ensue as these strangers attempt to do life, overcome obstacles, lose weight, cook (or whatever the theme of the show is) together. Invariably someone is voted off, tempers flare, and relationships are damaged. You know how the story goes.

But that’s faux community – it’s a cheap, Hollywood-ized version of what people living in community is supposed to look like. Because it’s a sham of what real community is supposed to be the relationships are superficial and short-term. It doesn’t matter who gets the rose, because the odds are that they will not be together long after the reunion show wraps up.

God doesn’t care too much for faux community. He prefers the real deal. He prefers to see people who live together, love together, laugh together, and weep together. Real community is so much more than simply occupying adjacent space to other people. Community is family.

In the Old Testament, community was based on bloodlines and there was a clear hierarchy of how community was based: family -> clan -> tribe -> nation. This is what solidified the Israelites together as the original community of faith. Then Jesus radically changed things up.

As he was gaining fame and attention he was causing embarrassment to his immediate family. The Gospel According to Mark tells us that one time his family even came to his house when there were a ton of people there to see him. The family had one goal – remove Jesus from the public eye and end the embarrassment. So the people told Jesus, “Hey, your mother and brothers and sisters are here!” To that Jesus looks around and says, “Here are my mother, and my brothers, and my sisters – the ones who do the will of God.” He gives a completely new spin on the definition of community. It’s no longer about blood – it’s about a shared spirituality and kinship of faith.

At our church there is a group of ladies, mostly grandmas with a few great-grandmas, who have intentionally taken on the role of surrogate grandparents to me and my kids. It’s wonderful. Even though my parents, grandparents, and in-laws are thousands of miles away God has given us a family to look after us and care for us. I’m glad that my children have those kinds of godly people in their lives to look after them and assist us in raising them. This is real community.

Real community is not content to live in shallow relationships but strives to make meaningful connections where we care for and ARE cared for by others. Here’s the kicker – real community takes a lot of work to build and to maintain. You don’t get it by attending a worship service once a week and sitting in the same row as someone else. You don’t get it by seeing the same parents when you drop off and pick up your kids at school. Real community requires time and energy to know and be known. It requires vulnerability – sharing your life and yourself with others.

It’s not easy – but it’s worth it. I’m glad that my kids have 14 grandmas. Their lives will be richer because of it. My burden as a parent will be lessened because of it. It’s not perfect, and all family has issues, but a family we are. So my question to you is this: Will you accept Jesus’ radical notion of a remade family? Will you put in the time and effort to establish and maintain community with others around you? If so then I’m sure you’ll find your grandmas too.

Not As Random As You Think

People seem to love coincidences. A good coincidence will really tweak our brains. Sometimes we react wildly – “Oh, man! Can you believe that?!? No way!” It’s almost like a magic trick played on us by the cosmos.

optical illusionIt’s not a trick…it’s an ILLUSION!

I had an amazing encounter not too long ago. Our church was hosting an American Red Cross blood drive. After I had given my precious DNA to them and downed a can of juice, I was about to walk out when I saw a guy who attends my church sitting in the waiting area. I stopped to chat with him. I got to learn some things about him that I hadn’t know before, specifically that he is nearing the end of his paramedic studies and has the goal of eventually becoming a firefighter. I didn’t think too much of the conversation at the time. About an hour later my Twitter feed had a job posting from our hometown regarding an open position for a firefighter. I could not believe the coincidence! So of course I sent him the link to the job posting. Coincidence?

The notion of coincidence is troubled by two key factors: 1) the human freedom to act and behave however we see fit and 2) the biblical concept of an omniscient and omnipotent God.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is a story near the end of the book of Joshua (the leader of Israel after Moses). One time Joshua was talking to the people about their tendency to forget God and to return to the idols and false gods of the Egyptians. Joshua says, “Choose the path you’re going to take – follow Yahweh or follow those others. As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” While God has made the initial steps towards humanity, we have the chance to respond. How does this connect to coincidence? If we have the freedom to choose our paths, then our choices are going to come with consequences (good or bad). That means that human behavior is not random coincidence but a series of results from our choices and behavior.

But sometimes coincidences happen that have NO rational explanation. These are the things that really boggle and mystify us. This is where an omniscient and omnipotent God comes in. The Bible is clear that Yahweh is a God who cares about humanity and interacts in human history. He is not a far-removed deity who merely watches Earth like a little kid watches his ant farm. God chooses to direct the course of human history. This means that sometimes God puts people and situations in our lives for specific reasons. There is no such thing as coincidence. Either we are seeing the result of human behavior and choices or we are seeing the result of an active God steering the course of the world. In Hebrews 13 the writer states:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

You never know what is going to come down the path. The Bible says that our ways are not God’s ways, so we may never understand the big picture. What I do understand is that I need to seize every God-moment and look for his activity in my life and in the world. Sometimes we will face great coincidences. Sometimes we’ll face crummy ones. In the end it’s not about the amazing coincidences that we see in life – it’s about having the perspective that God is at work in the world.

The World in His Hands

Life is not as random as you think, and you never know when God is putting people and circumstances in your life for specific reasons. Don’t think “coincidence” – think, “This is a God thing!” Be open to his possibilities.

May I Ask Who’s Calling?

phone

I’ve picked up a pet peeve from my father. At least I think I got it from him. Let’s just say that it’s an annoyance we share. It really aggravates me when people call me and, as soon as I pick up the phone, launch into conversation without ever identifying themselves. I like people. I really do. But I find it impossible to memorize the voice of everyone I know. Actually, sometimes I even have trouble telling which of my brothers is calling me if he doesn’t identify himself.

But I don’t have any trouble identifying the voices of my wife or my parents. They are probably the three people I have spent the most time with and have the most intimate relationships with. In fact, I can hear my English professor mother’s voice correcting the previous sentence because I ended it with a preposition!

And that’s how intimate relationships work. Not only do you recognize the voice of the one talking to you but you get to the point where you can hear the other person’s voice commenting and talking to you without them even having to be around you.

Recently someone asked me how she could know the will of God for her life and how she could be sure that she was doing the right things to be in the will of God. I understand the difficulty of what she’s asking. Very few people I know have burning bush experience like Moses where God tells us unequivocally what he wants us to do. It seems that many of us have to go through life practicing discernment when it comes to God’s will. And sometimes it’s just plain tough to figure out.

We want the “Wizard of Oz” experience – Dorothy is given only one road to follow (the yellow brick one, of course). But I think the key is not in finding the one road God would have us take but in developing the intimate relationship with him that allows us to recognize his voice and to be able to hear his voice in our circumstances, know what he would say to us, even before he says it. This is the kind of relationship I envision the Apostle Paul is talking about in Romans 12:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The more we allow God to transform us, and the more we are like him and the less we are like the world, we are better able actually to recognize his voice and to know what he would say. But such intimacy only happens over time. Not just quality but quantity as well. Do you want to know God’s will for your life? Do you want to hear his voice and understand his direction? Have you put in the time and effort to build an intimate relationship with him?

Because when he calls, it’s not so great to stop him mid-sentence and ask, “May I ask who’s calling?”