I’m on holiday today, and went hiking, which can be an exciting activity during spring in the Cascades. I begin my ascent at 1900’ and over the course of three miles climb to 3800’ before a slight descent down to my mountain lake destination. There’s not a hint of snow until I get close the lake, but then the trail crosses several avalanche chutes still filled with snow debris from a wild winter. Avalanche chutes are stripped bear of any trees so this means I’m crossing snow that has warm rock just beneath the surface, which means that I’m walking on snow bridges, often of unknown strength. The snow’s been melting out from the bottom up so that the thickness of the snow can vary from a foot or more to less than an inch. Add in the fact that the strength of said bridge varies not only by it’s depth, but by it’s temperature, and suddenly walking across these bridges can feel like you’re playing Russian roulette with every step.
Plunge your pole, hard, into the place you anticipate placing your foot. Look carefully. Step quickly. Go! They’ve collapsed under my weight more than once during spring hiking, but thankfully I’ve never been seriously injured by it. Not everyone is so lucky. There are lots of ways to mitigate this risk, but I’m using snow bridges as a metaphor today to remind you that every bridge in your life will collapse someday. If a bridge is what we depend on in our lives for security or meaning, the reality is that nothing lasts forever; vocation, health, marriage, children, are all destined for change along our journey. Like snow bridges these blessings are dynamic. One day everything appears solid and then, BOOM! There’s a heart condition, or a financial trial and the risk of foreclosure. Even the best of marriages usually end with one party dying first, leaving the other alone, grieving over the loss of that bridge which gave so much meaning to life. Economic boom periods are cyclical, just like the building of a snow bridge through the winter and its eventual collapse later in the spring. The same could be said of political parties, and even of nations. Nothing lasts forever. There’s a cycle of birth, vibrancy, decay, and death, that’s woven into the fabric of world.
Those who embrace this inevitable temporality of all things are standing on the threshold of freedom and peace! This is because there’s a single exception, in all the universe, to this reality. We who believe that Jesus rose from the dead see that resurrection as the shining light of hope, offering “the power of an indestructible life” as the prototype of where history’s headed. IF this is true, then we have a bridge that will never weaken, melt, or be destroyed. In fact, this is the langauge we find in the Bible…
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea – Psalm 46:2
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. – Hebrews 12:26,27
(Jesus) has been constituted a Priest, not on the basis of a bodily legal requirement [an externally imposed command concerning His physical ancestry], but on the basis of the power of an endless and indestructible Life. – Hebrews 7:16
There’s an indestructible life which cannot be shaken, and this life is united with the lives of all who call upon him, so that we become partakers of eternity. This means that we’re part of a better story, a story where God is making all things new, moving the cosmos away from the cycle of birth, death, and decay, to “life for the ages” which is the literal meaning of eternal life.
Where are you putting you weight these days? What bridges are you trusting in to give you meaning and security. I stood on a path today and at one point plunged by pole into the place where I intended to step and it broke through, collapsing the bridge and revealing huge rocks. A fall could have been serious. We need to put our weight where we know we’re safe, where we know that, come what may, our source will always be with us.
We need these truths, all of us, eventually in our lives. My hope is we’ll learn to seek the eternal rock sooner rather than later.
1. we had specific reasons for marrying each other, and through times of difficulty, it’s helped to remember those
Continuing in a series of looking at ways in which the gifts God wants us to know and enjoy are stolen from us, this entry and the next one will consider how millions have lost their sexual joy and identity, and how all of us are paying a huge price because of it. I welcome your thoughts.
We’re sexual beings, made biologically for reproduction, and emotionally for intimacy. We’re made, by our creator, with sexual longings and appetites, and with the physiological realities that sexual arousal is intended to be pleasurable. There are body parts and nerve endings related to our sexuality that have no other purpose than to be a source of pleasure. Sex is a good gift from our Maker.
Alas, though, it’s a fallen world. As a result, this grand and precious gift has been stolen from us. The enemy of the kind of “life abundant”, which is what Jesus came to bring us, has, for all time, been a master thief in this arena. This theft, which I’d suggest likely has affected 100% of us in various measure at various times, leaves isolation, shame, fear, hatred, and heartache in its wake. Further, the strategies of the thief are many. Here I offer a few “theft strategies” , and with them, some practical steps to take so that sexual identity can return to its intended place in our lives as a powerful gift.
Strategy #1: “Sex as bad” – I put this first because many reading this are Christ followers, and the church has been deplorable in this regard. From the beginning, the early church rightly understood that our sexuality could easily be misused, but the response was to vilify it rather than hold it wisely. Some church fathers forbade sex for any reason other than procreation; others limited the days of the year on which intercourse was allowed; still others advocated castration. At the root of these lies, perpetrated by faith leaders, was the belief that sex is best controlled by killing it. Kill the desire and you solve the problem.
Desire, though, doesn’t die easily, nor should it. Some who manage to attain “purity” do so at the cost of believing in the goodness of sex. Others, who fail, fall into a dung pile of shame – their identity deeply damaged by the guilt heaped on them directly and covertly through an ethic for sex that God never had in mind.
Strategy #2: “Sex as recreation” – At the other end of the spectrum from a fear of sex, is the lie that sex is an appetite just like hunger, and as such, should be honored in a manner similar to our relationship with food. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re horny? There’s an app for that, and a willing partner nearby. It’s a “sex at dawn” mentality, based on the faulty belief that a) we’re nothing more than animals, and b) that the happiest animals were polyamorous. Though “Sex at Dusk” does a marvelous job deconstructing this false edifice with hard science, it’s not sold nearly as many copies as “Sex at Dawn” and appears to be out of print except for the kindle edition. It turns it we’d rather believe the lie.
The fruit of this is that sex in increasingly divorced from any sense of covenant commitment. That might sound appealing, and there are presentations of this lifestyle (such as the classic “Sex in the City”) that make hookup culture appear normal, and relatively risk free.
It’s not. Easy access to commitment-free sex, while superficially appealing to some (perhaps many), more often than not yields the ugly fruits of 1) loss of capacity for real intimacy 2) increased loneliness, which leads to, 3) an increased desire to quench the pain of loneliness, which leads to 4) an increased dependency on another sexual encounter. We call that addiction, and addiction steals huge swaths of your soul, as well as those of your family, friends, and co-workers.
Strategy #3: “Sex as pixels” – Internet pornography, and soon, virtual reality pornography, are creating an alternate universe of sexual pleasure and release ‘on demand’. The effect on the user is a rewiring of the brain in such a way that that began as a “demand” originating from your own will, ultimately becomes a “demand” on your own will creating an arousal addiction. Your brain on porn articulates the destructive consequences of this pathway physiologically and emotionally. Erectile dysfunction is an ever increasing problem among all men, tragically including young men in their 20s.
In addition, all porn users, of all ages, are rewiring their brains so that the scripted fantasies of actors, specifically intended to arouse, become their new “baseline” of what constitutes normal. As a result, arousal in the context of real intimacy (which must, of necessity, be mutual not unilateral, and include self-giving, not just receiving), becomes difficult, sometimes impossible. Thus the spouse of the porn user feels pressured to perform in a certain way, or perhaps doesn’t feel anything at all, because the user has substituted sexual release with pixels for genuine intimacy. The long term effects of either path? Sexual joy is stolen.
NEXT UP: In the next post, I’ll share some solutions to these theft problems. In the meantime, though, consider this read, as a means of re-orienting your brain toward a redemptive view of sexuality: Real Sex offers a way through the minefield, casting a vision of holding one’s sexuality joyfully, in wholeness.
There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem. “Come back! Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!” It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story. She strong, lovely, confident. And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd. Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back. Why? “So that we may admire you!”
They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives. This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate. Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option. Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal. The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta. There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity. The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction. Much of this is cataloged here.
Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science. The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago. You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world. What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same. He/she wants “different”. If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.
What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention. Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required? You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills. But why not play a video game instead? Alone. With no risk of rejection or failure.
In a word: safety. Is this alternate world real? No. Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No. Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel? No. But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.
What’s the way forward?
1. A strong core. If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality. When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping. You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world. Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!
2. A sense of call. When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ. When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.
3. A high view of marriage and sexuality. The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better. It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation. They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O. All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.
4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes. Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world). Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.
The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen! Here are a few resources for your consideration.
There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story. Contact us for details. Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.
The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God. You have a calling, a journey yet ahead. Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you. Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.
Preaching the Song of Solomon this spring has reminded me of a few critical truths that are mostly lost among Christ followers. In our fear of abusing the gifts of sexuality God has given humankind, we’ve unwittingly taught that our sexuality is a liability to be scorned and controlled, rather than a gift to be celebrated. The Bible tells us otherwise:
This past Sunday’s teaching, “Eros Affirmed” might provide some insight into what I’m talking about. Steep a pot of tea, a carafe of French Press, or a glass of “something”, and have a look and listen – and maybe consider sharing with someone who’d benefit from it. One woman told me on Sunday she’s planning on sharing it with a few folks who’d benefit from it.
(audio or video)
I welcome your thoughts!
There’s a fun little mystery in the Bible. Way back in Genesis, ten brothers are starving and decide to travel down to Egypt because there’s grain for sale there. Little do they know that the man from whom they’ll be buying grain is their little brother, hated as the favored one and sold by them into slavery, over two decades earlier. They show up and he’s changed of course, and speaks a different language now, so they don’t recognize him. They buy grain, but before heading home, the little brother sneaks all the money back into their sacks so that on the way home they discover that they had the grain, but didn’t pay for it. To say there were dismayed would be an understatement, because from the very beginning of time, we’ve all known that “you get what you pay for” and that “there’s no free lunch”. There are a million other ways we get the message too: from demanding parents who shame us when we fail, to performance reviews that populate our employment files with warnings. The best things in life are earned.
This little story of free bread, though, tells us that there’s a different set of rules in God’s economy. God is showing us that the things we need most fundamentally in our lives are not bought, ever. They can only be received as gifts. That’s why later a form of bread will show up on the desert floor when a nation is wandering through it on their way to their new home. Centuries after that, Isaiah will speak of bread that is only available “without cost”, and then Jesus will declare that he is giving us his flesh as “the bread, for the life of the world”.
Give, give, give, means that there can be only one response. Receive, receive, receive. We can’t earn the gift that is Christ. We’ll never be able to repay or reciprocate. We can only receive, like little children. My granddaughter, who just turned one, will be with us this Christmas and I promise you that she’ll have no problem receiving gifts without any guilt. There’ll be no, “Rats! Grandpa gave me some overalls and I’ve nothing for him.” There’ll be a pattern to her Christmas day: receive, enjoy, repeat.
For God’s sake, all of us could stand to become children again vis a vis our relationship with God and Christ: receive; enjoy; repeat.
That requires a radical reorientation from the performance world that is often the rest of our lives, and the way to get there is to recognize that, though we’ve likely earned a bit in our lives through the sweat of our brow, the best gifts that we’ve received are the free ones. We’ve been forgiven, I hope, by a parent, spouse, or friend. We had a flat tire, and someone stopped to help. We were lonely, and a friend dropped by, unannounced. These little reminders put me in the frame of mind to see that the things I need most – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, the capacity to forgive and serve… all these things can’t be bought, can’t even be created through some sort of psychological ‘cross fit’ self improvement program. These things stem from eating the bread of life, and can only be received freely, as the gift it is.
When it comes to sexual abuse, and the treatment of women in general:
Words matter. Mr. Trump spoke on the bus about making unwanted sexual advances and literally grabbing women. He spoke to Howard Stern about walking uninvited into dressing rooms at beauty pageants (a word confirmed by beauty pageant participants). He has spoken numerous times throughout his campaign about the appearance of women, objectifying and judging them. “Locker room talk,” he says. He’s “Sorry. But Mister Clinton was worse.” Let’s take a look at two things that have come out from hiding because of his words.
First, his words have exposed the pain of a nation. Men should read just a few of the #NOTokay posts on twitter, as Trump’s words have led to an outpouring of women empowered to share their story. To say he’s exposed something would be an understatement. Women, by the millions, have been victims of unwanted sexual advances. Many don’t have a voice to fight back, don’t know who to trust with their story. As a result, they suffer in silence. I know this because in the wake of his words, I sat in a room and listened to the anger, the hurt, the stories from women.
There’s a culture of sexual abuse in our country, and it must be named, condemned, and stopped. The problem isn’t the past; it’s the present. And the problem in the present isn’t just a presidential candidate; it’s an entire culture.
Men, we should be offering Mr. Trump a stiff reminder that words matter. “By your words you will be justified and by words you will be condemned,” is how Jesus put it. He also said that, “out of the abundance of the heart” the mouth speaks. So when a man calls women pigs and says the things he said to Howard Stern and Billy Bush, and there’s an outcry from women, Mr. Trump shouldn’t be surprised.
There should be an outcry from all of us, as well. This is not just locker room talk, or typical banter, but even if it were, it’s not OK. Words matter, and words that treat women as objects to be used for men’s pleasure are far, far from the heart of the life for which any of us are created, men or women.
Second, Mr. Trump’s words have exposed the depth of sexual victimization, misogyny, and sick patriarchy in our culture. I know this because the other trending hashtag has been #repealthe19th, which is a wish-dream to remove the women’s right to vote. That there’s a group of people who are both Islamaphobic and only want men to vote is a bit of irony. That the group is large enough to gain notice is both sad and angering. Our nation has a long way to go, but it’s better than it was in many ways. Women vote. Anyone can sit anywhere on a bus. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back.
History reminds us that redemption is often born out of the depths of darkness. Rwanda’s genocide becomes fertile soil for a profound reconciliation movement. Germany’s implosion in the wake of WWII becomes a context for the rebuilding of a nation on an entirely different footing, where every person has dignity and worth, and the common good matters.
If we can listen to those hurt by Mr. Trump’s words, if we feel the pain of what’s been going on for generations and let the weight of it sink into our souls, this darkness can be a low point, a wake up call when we say “enough” and begin fighting to make honor, respect, dignity, and empowerment the norm. It needs to happen now. Who’s in?
There’s a place I hide the last of my German chocolate, breaking off tiny squares at a time since I likely won’t be heading to that part of the world again until November. It’s tucked away, and I went there today for a bite of comfort because, surprising as this might sound, I’m in the midst of a stress bout, even though I’m a pastor.
The stress is about some frustrations regarding Christians fighting each other. It’s about questions regarding the future because even though they say 50 is the new 40, 60 isn’t the new anything; it’s just old. It has me thinking about the future, and that very line of thinking gives birth to about ten more questions so that by the time I’m done thinking so much, I need chocolate more than anything, and I run to my drawer of comfort.
This time, though, sort of like the Narnian wardrobe thing, I reached for the chocolate in the dark and grabbed a small Bible by mistake instead, it being about the same size as a large Milka bar. I hadn’t touched the cover for over a year, likely, except to move it when I moved this desk for the year. It was my dad’s. As soon as I touched it, though, I thought about my upcoming sermon this weekend about authenticity and said to myself, “Toss it into the bag. Maybe it’s a sermon illustration.”
Then I drove down the mountain, all the while thinking about the many things in my life presently which feel out of control, or at the least, outside of my direct personal control. Lack of control and uncertainty about the future are things I don’t like, and what I like even less is that the answers are often found in only one place: patiently waiting. I’ll quickly confess I’m terrible at this, so much so that when these seasons of uncertainty happen, as they happen to all of us, the stress and anxiety I say are so easily banished in Christ somehow move in and take up space in room that is my soul. Then I think too much – about the o so many things I can’t control, and I often get even more anxious, and then anxious about being anxious. Some of you understand.
i arrive in Seattle and drag my bags into my little place down here, anxious, stressed, feeling overwhelmed. I’m sure many of you know these feelings. Then before I head to a meeting I unpack and there it is, now in the full light of day. My dad’s Bible. I stop and open it because, no surprise, I didn’t read mine this morning in my present state of worry. When I open it though, it falls not to scripture text, but to the inscription from his sister, my aunt, written on dad’s birthday in 1933:
“Happy Birthday Romaine…
May you enjoy many happy hours in the meditation and visitation with our heavenly Father thru this volume of letters He has written to you.
May you never forget that Phil. 4:6,7 as well as countless other wonderful promises will always remain true no matter what happens.
That passage she referenced? Well I thumbed through the Bible and it was the only passage Dad had underlined:
“Be careful for nothing (or another translation writes: “don’t worry about anything”), but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”
“Remember” my aunt wrote, speaking to me from the grave this afternoon, “that Phil 4:6,7 will always remain true no matter what happens”
She wrote those words to my dad in 1933. Yes. No matter what happens:
World War II happened, and countless bouts of pneumonia for dad.
After marrying the delightful prize that was my mom, an early life threatening miscarriage happened. It led to a surgery that put an end to hopes of children. That why they adopted, and where I came into the story, why I’m here writing, rather than somewhere else…
Annual bouts with the flu happened. They would so weaken dad’s lungs that after 40 he could no longer visit the mountains he loved, and his basketball and track days of active sport were gone for good.
Health challenges happened all the time. They would get worse as he got older, and he’d come home and sit with an oxygen tank for a little rejuvenation. Annual stays in the hospital for the flu became commonplace.
Work loads grew as he moved from teacher to principal to superintendent, leading to too much, leading to an early retirement.
The flu shot in October of 1973 happened. It was too much, and became full blown flu, and then pneumonia, and the end.
When my aunt wrote that God’s peace could be dad’s “no matter what happens”, she had no idea what she was talking about.
But she was right. And as I read Phil 4:6,7 today, 83 years after my aunt wrote the inscription, I remember how, in the midst of all that I’ve related above (and there’s much more… too personal), Dad knew peace.
He never complained about not being able to play basketball with me. Instead he’d get high on Oxygen, come outside and play a game of HORSE, and then go re-oxygenate as if he’d climbed Everest. At the time I thought he loved basketball. I now know he loved me. He’d crack jokes about his limitations, and to keep us all smiling, put fake hot dogs in the refrigerator, laughing uproariously when mom tried to put them down the garbage disposal and they shot out like rockets. He went to some of my concerts when I was in high school, and made sure that I was able to go to Europe with the band, even though we couldn’t afford it. “We’ll find a way” he said. And he did.
The man was so very short on self pity, because he was so very full of the peace and love of Christ in spite of the fact that life was, to say the least, not what he expected.
By now there are tears as I write this. They’re tears of gratitude that I have someone to look to as an example as i grow older and also face my own uncertainties, and limitations, and disappointments. They’re tears of gratitude for my aunt who lived her faith and knew her own disappointments, including the early loss of her husband to cancer, and her subsequent years spent ministering to single mothers. Through it all for her too: the peace of Christ. And the tears are the cry of my heart, asking the the God of all peace would be my source of peace right in the midst of the storm that is now, and whatever will be the storms that are tomorrow.
So for lent? I’ll be reading from Dad’s little Bible every day – and I might even buy a fake hot dog.
After a week of meetings in Germany with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship, my wife and I made our way to Schladming for a little bit of rest before I head up to England for a week of speaking at Capernwray Hall. The week is a break in the midst of what has been a very busy time, both at home and on the road.
Because I’m here without obligations or responsibilities, I hadn’t anticipated that the Spring Bible School students would still be here, but as it turns out, today is their last day. What this means is that they’ll spend their morning worshiping, praying, and sharing together the things God has taught them during their time here.
Though I don’t know them at all, Donna and I sneak in the back to listen just a bit and it’s there, in that space, that I remember my time here twenty years ago, in spring school 1995. That spring I spent my free time filling out an application for the role of senior pastor at Bethany Community Church in Seattle because, after speaking there for a week earlier in the spring, I’d been asked to apply for the job, a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but was certain I didn’t want to miss, if it was God’s will. I remember writing answers to questions, printing the whole thing and faxing it to the church office in Seattle, fairly convinced that my lack of large church experience (I was leading a house church at the time) would disqualify me from consideration anyway.
I was wrong, of course, as I often am when I presume to know the ways and mind of God. By the fall of that same year, Donna and I were packing up our things for a move to Seattle where, on December 1st, we began our five year commitment to the big church of 300 in the big city of Seattle. After a year, 300 had grown to 225. After five years though, we said no to some other opportunities, convinced that there was another chapter for us in Seattle and Bethany.
Five years has become twenty. 225 people have become 3500 people. One location has become six. And all of this represents the faithfulness of God in changing one life at a time, one step at a time. The church in Seattle has changed profoundly.
And here in Austria? New facilities. New staff. New leaders. Larger Bible Schools. A sailing ministry in Greece. Yes… God’s been at work here too, and all the outward signs are but the most visible outward displays representing countless changed lives, now scattered throughout the world like so much life giving seed, making Jesus visible. This space has also been a place of change.
All these thoughts are swirling as I run through the mist hanging in the alps this morning. I’m mindful that the church I lead is changing in good ways, as is this school in Austria. New leaders. New locations. Changed lives. It’s good stuff! So I ponder, as the rain falls – “What practices and attitudes help create positive changes?” Though there are many, these ___ seem foundational:
I. Vertical Connection – Jesus said it: “Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit” Those eight simple words are at the core of the work God wants to do in the world. This is because God’s desire is to express nothing less than the life of Christ through the likes of you and me. When it works, his joy, peace, power, wisdom, love, patience, generosity, forgiveness and hope are poured out through us, watering thirsty souls.
Foundational as this is, it is also the most elusive piece of the puzzle for many. We’re raised to believe that we have what it takes to make a grand difference in the world, and that with enough planning and projects, metrics and media, goals and objectives, we’ll reach the promised land of fulfilled vision, or meaningful work, or perfect children.
Um, no. That’s not going to happen. To the contrary, the story that God will write through any of us will, in the end, declare that it’s those who are mindful of their own thirst and need for the reality of Christ that God will use to express God’s life to the world.
Our thirst for God and for the enjoyment of Christ’s real presence in our lives are the most important realities we can pursue and experience. They’re as vital as air and water, critical resources for the kind of life Jesus invites us to live.
II. Patient Expectation – My techno watch tells me two things while I’m running this morning. First, it confirms the glad news that I’m running at pace that keeps heart happily ticking along between 130 and 140 beats per minutes, sort of a sweet spot for my running. Second, I lean the even better news that I’m travelling faster in this same sweet spot now than I was last summer when I was here. Same heart rate; faster running! How did that happen?
Gradually. In his book about training for alpine adventures, Mark Twight introduces the acronym: TINSTAAFL, which means “There is no such thing as a free lunch” It’s his way of saying that nobody can compress the time it takes to get in shape for a big climb, thinking that a few cross fit sessions where your heart pumps and your muscles ache and you feel like throwing up will never be able to do the job. “Gradualness is the only way aerobic adaptation is gained” is the essence of what he says.
I just focus on staying between 130 and 140. It’s my body, and the magic of health and exercise that make me faster. My own attempt to go faster nearly two years ago resulted in a strained Achilles, the result of which was a total ban on running for about a month. Faster? My attempts at self improvement were in the toilet. It was then that my physical therapist said, “you’re going too fast – keep your pulse under 135” My first days on my urban running path were an exercise in humility. As person after person passed me, I wanted to shout, “I’m faster than this!!” but I kept quiet and kept doing my turtle thing.
Slowly faster. I’m convinced that those who want to look more like Jesus need to find out what it is that Jesus wants us to actually DO, and what he promises to do in response. This is where my II Corinthians 3:16-18 favorite stuff comes in. That’s where I’m told to “behold his glory” and that if I do that, I will be transformed, slowly, yet relentlessly, ‘from glory to glory’ – so that I look more like Jesus. Little by little, hope will evict despair, light will overcome darkness, love will overwhelm hate, and the whole complex thing that is your personality will be infused with a hope, quiet confidence, and joy that I can’t be made in any self improvement program any more than the guys who make potato chips can fabricate, a butterfly.
Our transformation, you see, is divine handiwork. We are his workmanship, we’re told. So we can all just relax bit, drop our program of self-branding and building a following, stop worrying about what the other moms think of our recipes and living rooms, and simply make getting to know Jesus as a friend our chief aim in life. Then he’ll do the changing while we focus on other stuff, just like my body produces whatever it makes so that i run faster now than a year ago, not because I’m trying to run faster, but because I’m showing up more consistently.
No single devotional, or utterance of gratitude to God for a sunrise, or receptivity to what Jesus is saying through that difficult person – none of these things are deal breakers. The sky rarely opens up and pours out fire, or doves. Instead, like mitochondria multiplying in response to the stress of running, little unseen things are happening, just because we keep showing up.
Then one day, we open our eyes and realize that, in spite of ourselves, the years have given us more joy, more contentment, and more grace, than we’d every have hoped, surely more than we deserve. When that happens we’ll not only thank God for the work God has done, we’ll realize it happened in spite of ourselves, while we were living.
O Lord Christ…
You promise to change us, starting with the gift of rest, if we’ll just relax and learn of you. But we’re religionists, busy, striving, making ourselves holy for you, or effective for you, or at least less guilty in hopes you won’t destroy. Forgive us Lord, for the image we’ve made of you is an idol, and our souls are parched because of it. Staring now, we pray, may you be our pursuit, our joy, our companion. Teach us this, so that we’ll keep seeking you… and then we’ll simply thank you that, without a lot of perception on our part, the deepest changes of our soul needs will ripen. We’ll wake up some day, see the changes, and give thanks.