Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Cash is the Cash

I preached Wednesday evening on “The Courage to Choose Your Response to Life Circumstances” as part of the “Living Courageously” series I am presenting this summer. I want to reprise part of that message in this space because I feel it is so important (preachers always feel that their messages are “so important”). Herewith, the condensed version in a few hundred words:

There is a difference between “reacting” and “responding.” We react out of our animal instinct, we respond out of our higher self -- the part that makes us distinct from the animals; let’s call it the “image-of-God part” of us. Responding instead of reacting is a choice, albeit a challenging one. But it is a defining choice. Reaction is a partner of anger, fear and self-pity. Response is a partner of freedom and maturity.

Responding to our circumstances has four primary elements.

1. Assessing the situation: You have to face reality. Call it what it is. Stop living in denial or delusion. For example, “We are spending more than we are earning and this will lead to financial disaster if it continues.” “My spouse and I are spending more and more time angry at one another and this will lead to marital misery if it continues.” “We are spoiling our kids and raising them to be disrespectful, lazy and surly. If we continue this way they will become lousy adults.” There is something powerful about facing reality. At a previous church, due to some financial software glitches there was a question about how much money the church actually had. In the midst of a discussion suggesting various ways to know, one elder pointed to the bank balance and said, “The cash is the cash.” In other words, this is the situation. So many people choose to live in denial or delusion instead of assessing the situation. You must face it.

2. Accepting appropriate blame: If your situation is due to your own choices and actions, accept the blame. If it is due primarily to outside influences, you still must accept part of the blame, even if it is only 5%. This is absolutely vital. You must acknowledge that somehow you have played a role in creating your current situation.

3. Taking responsibility: This began when you assessed the situation and accepted part or all of the blame. Now it becomes the engine of your response. And, oh, what an engine it is! To take responsibility means to be “response-able.” You are capable of responding. You are not a squirrel or a squid. You are a child of God, with imagination, energy, will, character, hopes, and dreams. You serve a God who, by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20), who is able in all things to work for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Romans 8:28). Ask God, “How would you like to help me grow me as we respond to these circumstances together?” Ask him, “How would you like to redeem this situation?”

4. Envisioning the Future: With the previous resolve and prayer in mind, imagine how you can use the situation to create a better future. Don’t run away from the situation; embrace it as the catalyst for needed change. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or anger, find a way to be thankful because without the situation there might have been no catalyst for you to envision this better future.

It is a beautiful way to live.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ten Recommendations

Recently Angela and I participated in a wedding ceremony in which her role was to share reflections from two decades of counseling on what makes marriages work. She and I, in our respective vocations, share a burden for married couples and are often saddened to note how many couples are fighting and how many marriages are unraveling. With a spirit of kindness and encouragement, let me share her “Ten Recommendations for Marriage.” Being a preacher, I of course will paraphrase and add some of my own spin, but the ten principles are hers. Any similarity to Moses’ Ten Commandments is purely intentional.

1. Tell each other what you want. Wives, particularly, want their husbands to be mind readers. Yet, often when you ask for what you want, he will be glad to do it for you. He loves you! Is that as ideal as him knowing what you want without you having to ask? No, but if you hold out for the ideal at the expense of the good, you set one another up to fail.

2. Be polite to one another. Courtesy makes a huge difference. As one marriage expert noted, “Ninety percent of good marriages boil down to good manners.” Say please, thank you, I appreciate it, etc. This sets an overarching tone that cushions a multitude of tensions.

3. Always remember that having a good marriage takes work. You have to work at it. If this assertion makes you exasperated or frustrated, ask yourself this question: What is there in life that is good that doesn’t take work?

4. Choose friends who value your marriage over you as an individual. If you kvetch to your friend about your wife and he commiserates with you, you need a better friend. A good friend will continually point you back to your marriage relationship and speak well of your spouse.

5. Invite God into your relationship. This goes beyond being mutual Christians who each serve God. Invite God into your life together. Pray before meals. Talk about your spiritual lives. Pray for one another.

6. Make having a good marriage more important than being right. “You can be right, or you can be married.” You can win the battle of your argument or issue and still lose the war. Both of you.

7. Say you’re sorry --often. Say you’re sorry even if you think your spouse owes an apology more. This is called a “repair attempt.” It is a marriage-saver.

8. When you disagree, scan for the truth of your spouse’s point of view. There is usually some truth to it. Learn from this truth.

9. Respect what your spouse feels passionately about. If you disagree with your husband, but your passion for the issue is a “3” and his is a “9” (on a scale of 1-10), then yield. Caveat: no one feels passionately about every issue. Own up to the few areas you do, and be willing to compromise on the rest.

10. Put your marriage relationship above everything else: parenting, in-laws, extended family, and friends. A good marriage relationship will better equip you for all of the others.

I am preaching this week on the spiritual discipline of submission for all Christians. Marriage is a perfect place to cultivate it.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Pack Your Suitcase

When Texas minister Jim Denison was in college, he served as a summer missionary in East Malaysia, where he attended a small church. At one of the church’s worship services, a teenage girl came forward to announce her decision to follow Christ and be baptized. During the service, Denison had noticed some worn-out luggage leaning against the wall of the church building. He asked the preacher about it. The preacher pointed to the girl who had just been baptized and told Denison, “Her father said that if she was baptized as a Christian she could never come home again. So she brought her luggage.”

This week I am finishing a four week series titled, “What’s the Big Deal about Baptism?” In these four messages I have tried to let the scriptures speak about the powerful meanings attached to baptism, such as the forgiveness of sins, the work of the Holy Spirit, clothing ourselves with Christ, and undergoing a kind of spiritual circumcision. One of the meanings that is subtly implicit but not pronounced in the New Testament (or in the modern church) is that of “enlistment.” When we express our faith in Jesus and are baptized in his name, we switch our allegiance from advancing our own agenda in the world to joining God’s kingdom work for the world. Sometimes literally but always figuratively, we pack our suitcase in preparation for the ways in which our allegiance to God’s kingdom will change our circumstances.

In Luke’s gospel, we are told that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. He turned to them and said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-- yes, even his own life-- he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). As the preacher William Willimon likes to point out, those of us in the “God management business” (clergy) tend to take a scripture like this and say, in effect, to our congregations, “Now calm down. Jesus didn’t really mean ‘hate’ your parents. Let me unpack this for you in the next twenty minutes and I’ll tell you what Jesus really meant to say if he had had the benefit of a seminary education.” In other words, we take the teeth out of Jesus’ teachings.

But following Jesus, and therefore baptism into discipleship with Jesus, is serious stuff. To enlist in something is “to participate hardily in a cause.” That sounds pretty much to me like what Jesus was saying. Don’t enlist if you’re not willing to consider leaving home or losing friends. Those are ways you may need to carry your cross.

I recall a young lady we baptized at my congregation in Los Angeles. She came from a rough background and had ties to drug sellers and gangs. She knew that if she were baptized she would need to extricate herself from those activities. She also knew that gang members might harm her if she did. As she publicly professed her faith and prepared to be immersed, she quietly cried. She seemed so young and vulnerable, but also brave and determined. I marveled at the power of Christ to touch hearts and change lives.

There is a trend to associate baptism these days with all the blessings we receive, and that is fine, because there are numerous blessings associated with baptism. But baptism is also a pledge to follow Jesus at great cost when called for, which Jesus says will be a blessing in its own way. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Pack your suitcase.