Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vulnerable and Protected

I was not able to watch President Obama’s speech earlier this week but I eagerly checked the news the next morning to read about it. One headline in particular caught my attention, “President Strikes Optimistic Tone as Public Mood Sours.” People seem to feel increasingly shocked and surly about the worsening economic conditions. Some are directly affected – they have lost jobs, taken pay cuts, had their house foreclosed on, put off retirement. Others who are only indirectly affected still wonder where all this will lead.

I received an investment summary today for January 2009 from the company which holds my retirement savings and it reads like a news story the day after Pearl Harbor. “The optimism often associated with the dawn of a new year was thrashed by the realities of weakening global and domestic economies.” And “Housing, the epicenter of the financial crisis, had a few bright spots but overall continued its drumbeat of bad news.”

Sour mood indeed.

Since I am someone who is only (to date) indirectly affected by the economic conditions, I want to take extra care, out of respect for those experiencing real financial hardship, not to offer sunny or glib prescriptions for getting through this mess. Nevertheless, I would like to offer three suggestions which I believe we can all follow to our benefit.

First, view this as a refining time. Testing and hardship can refine our character, our habits, and ultimately our lives if we focus on what we can learn and how we can grow through them. This is the time to correct bad financial habits, if any, and develop good ones. Make the tough decisions and changes that will help you emerge from this stronger.

Second, keep things in perspective. As I write this, one child from West Houston is undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor and another is preparing for open-heart surgery. I can assure you these two sets of parents and their families are not worrying too much about the economy. People and relationships are the most important parts of our life.

Third, consider eternity. As Rick Warren says in his best-selling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” this life is preparation for eternity. Financial stability and having enough resources for the future are satisfying, but as the saying goes, “we can’t take it with us.” Ironically, financial security in this life can even hinder our preparation for eternity by making us spiritually complacent and too attached to this world.

In I Peter 1:3-5, the apostle Peter gives thanks for the reality of our “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (NRSV). I like the way The Message renders the next verse,

“I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime. Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved true; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps all this up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.”

That’s a good reminder during tough economic times. God won’t ask about my investment statements.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Several weeks ago I wrote about the “first threshold” that non-Christians must cross in order to come to faith, 1) from distrust to trust. They must be able to trust a Christian in order to be open to the message. I said I would return to this subject and I want to do that this week. My Series on the Great Commission is finished but the adventure of the Great Commission continues!

In their book, “I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus,” Don Everts and Doug Schaupp identify four additional key thresholds. They are:

2) From complacent to curious. The Scriptures tell us in I Peter 3:15 to “always be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within you.” As we develop relationships with non-Christians and they learn to trust us, they often will become curious about why we behave and believe the way we do. This may not happen quickly, but over a length of time it often happens. Of course, they must see a difference in the way we behave and believe compared to the crowd. “Why do you pray before meals?” “How long have you been so committed to your church?” “I notice you never use profanity, why is that?” These are the kinds of questions that can present opportunities to speak about our faith.

3) From being closed to change to being open to change in their life. The authors note that this is often the most difficult threshold to overcome. Becoming open to change in one’s life is a “heroic, mysterious, deep thing.” We grow comfortable with who we are and fearful of what change may bring. Non-believers at this point may understand how following Jesus will affect every area of their life, which is good, but they may not be ready to accept that yet. They will cross this threshold when they ask themselves, “What am I missing?” and their desire to fill the emptiness outweighs the safety of staying the way they are.

4) From meandering to seeking. This is the point where they “lean into the journey” they are on and decide to purposefully seek definitive answers. They develop an urgency and a purpose about their spirituality. This is often when they start visiting a church regularly. The term “seekers” became popular and almost trite in the 1990’s. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful thing when people genuinely seek to develop or deepen their relationship with God. In John 12:20-21, some Greeks who come to the Temple to worship during the Passover Festival say to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” What a privilege for Christians to be able to respond, in effect, “You have come to the right place. We will take you to him through our hospitality, our Christian love, our worship of God, the Table, and the Word.”

5) From the world to the Kingdom.
This is where the seeker takes action in faith and trust. He turns from his old way of life (repentance), joins with Jesus in his death and resurrection (baptism), and begins participating in God’s kingdom mission to the world as he lives with confident expectation of the eternal life God has given him.

I get excited just writing about this! May we never shrink back from joining with God’s Spirit to help people move through the faith thresholds that lead to new life in Christ.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Door A and Door B

Angela and I attended a Relational Living Skills workshop last week presented by a man named Terry Real, whose work we admire and trust. One of the things he teaches that I think is especially powerful is learning to differentiate between your “1st and 2nd consciousness.” Your 1st consciousness is your “Adaptive Child,” the part that you go to easily and by default, the part of you that has set up coping mechanisms and protective behaviors that keep you from getting hurt or harmed but which hinder relational intimacy. This Adaptive Child chooses protection over connection; it is your knee-jerk response. Your 2nd consciousness is your “Functional Adult,” the part that you have to choose to go to, the part that enables you to act maturely and responsibly with love. Your Functional Adult opens you up to vulnerability but enables you to connect more fully with others; it is your learned response. As Real puts it, “You can choose Door A or Door B. Your first reaction is usually to choose Door A. Learn to choose Door B.”

One of the more interesting and penetrating exercises each participant did was to write a letter to our Adaptive Child, thanking him for protecting us all these years, acknowledging what he has given us, specifying what he has cost us, and then telling him that the Functional Adult is now taking over and he can come along but not in the driver’s seat. As you can imagine, this was an intensely personal and even searing exercise. Each of us had to specify in writing the very concrete ways our Adaptive Child has negatively affected the person we have become. We then were empowered to put our Functioning Adult in charge.

If all this sounds sort of airy-fairy to you, I understand. I find it to be very true to my experience, though, and convincing in its reasoning. I also was struck by the parallels between this philosophy and what we read in Romans 8 about the contrast between flesh and spirit. Listen:

"For God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit…" (Romans 8:3-6, NRSV).

The Message refers to “the flesh” in v. 4 as “the disordered mess of struggling humanity.” I love that rendering. As any Christian knows, and as Paul freely acknowledges in Romans 7:14-25, we still experience the struggle between flesh and Spirit. We are challenged to live out of the Spirit instead of the flesh. We react in the flesh; we respond in the Spirit. We protect ourselves in the flesh; we connect with others in the Spirit. We sabotage ourselves and our relationships in the flesh; we grow ourselves and deepen our relationships in the Spirit.

It might be a good exercise for Christians to write a letter to their fleshly self and say, “Here is what you cost me. Here are the ways you keep me from flourishing in my relationship with God and others. I am giving control to the Holy Spirit now in every way I can. I am committing to choose Door B every chance I can so I will live in the Spirit."

It’s never a bad time to tell your flesh who’s in charge.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Dramatic Gesture

Dean Karnazes shares my birthday: August 23, 1962. The similarities pretty much end there. Karnazes grew up in Los Angeles and began running home from kindergarten so he wouldn’t have to burden his mother with rides every day. By third grade he was organizing running events with other kids. By age eleven he had hiked rim-to-rim across the Grand Canyon and had climbed Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. For his 12th birthday, he cycled the 40 miles to his grandparents’ home for fun, without first telling his parents. He became a dedicated and accomplished high school runner. In his mid-40’s now, he is the most well-known ultra-marathoner in the world. He has won the world’s toughest footrace, the Badwater Ultramarathon, running 135 miles across Death Valley in 124 degree temperatures. On seven different occasions he has run a 200-mile relay race… solo. He completed a marathon in Antarctica. He has written a book, Ultramarathon Man, which will be the subject of an upcoming movie, and last year completed fifty marathons in fifty consecutive days. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Oh, he finished with the New York marathon, which he ran in 3 hours, then jogged … to St. Louis.

Could someone pass me a chocolate cake donut, please? I like the ones with the little peanut sprinkles.

The part of Karnazes’ story that has always intrigued me is what happened when he was thirty years old. You see, he had had a falling out with his high school coach and quit running entirely for fifteen years. He found himself on his thirtieth birthday frustrated, stagnated, out-of-shape, and miserable. His inner spirit was dying like a flower without sun. In the middle of the night he threw on an old pair of lawn-mowing shoes and boxer shorts, rushed out the front door and started running. He stopped thirty miles later. It was an impromptu all-night, soul-searching, purging, clarifying, life-changing outing. He returned home to his family, quit his job, and launched the rest of his life as a health food store owner and adventure athlete.

There is something powerful to me about The Dramatic Gesture. How many people are miserable in their jobs, stuck in their ruts, paralyzed by their patterns? We yearn to break free but fear the risks. We want our spirit to soar instead of sag but we don’t know how to set it free.

Whenever I read the first few chapters of Acts, which I am preaching on this week (4:13-23), I am filled with a sense of abandon and spiritual imagination. What if we lived as boldly as these first followers of Jesus? What if we lived even one-tenth as boldly? What if we just “went out the front door,” as it were, and started running until God told us to stop? Is there a dramatic spiritual gesture that might pull you out of your life of lethargy and shackles of stupor? Perhaps an extended fast, or a trip to a conference, or an ambitious goal to read the Bible, or … something. I’m talking about something so big it scares you to think about trying it but the very fact that it scares you throws you into a reliance upon God and a necessary faith that is in itself exhilarating.

Sometimes it’s either that or have another donut and die a little more inside.