Behind our Words

Last week I was chatting with Dennis Nichols (our Lead Faculty for the Master of Arts in Leadership). He had bumped into a stranger in the hallway earlier that day. The stranger introduced himself and told Dennis that the course he took on campus with Dennis six years ago was the best course he ever took in college.
yellingWhat a lovely affirmation.
But Dennis had to candidly admit that he did not remember the stranger, that he only ever taught that course the one time, and that his only memory of the course was a confrontation where one student cussed out another in the middle of a class session. Ugly!!!
It turns out that the stranger was the very student on the receiving end of that verbal beating! He said to Dennis, “Yes, but we got through it, and there were things you said in that course that impacted me more deeply than you knew.”
It turns out that this former student has now returned to campus (after getting a Masters degree) and is teaching an English course as an adjunct for the University.
We’ve all had moments like this, when we assess an experience as average or worse. Yet, the Spirit has a way of touching lives beyond our words or efforts. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit between us.
We often assume that inspired speech (a key ministry of the Holy Spirit) means that we utter profound words with remarkable elocution and deep awareness of the wisdom. Inspiration surely means that we feel terrific; we feel inspired. But over and over again, the Spirit uses ordinary words, even weak words, to produce extraordinary outcomes.
A current student of mine shared his testimony of coming to Christ one Sunday night at a church service. He described the message as unmemorable and unremarkable, except that the Holy Spirit took him by the collar and turned his life upsidedown!
Do we live with such confidence and assurance? Do we speak with the quiet certainty that if we are as yielded as we can be to the leading of the Holy Spirit, that the words we speak (few and fumbling as they might be) can be instruments of hope and life in someone else’s life? Not because we are clever but because He is gracious!
Who knows what He might whisper to others — family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers — through our simple words this week?
Sometimes we bump into the stranger again later, even years later. Often we don’t.
Be encouraged. Behind our words works the One who created the world itself with a word. “Let there be….”
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Belief & Beliefs

Not everyone feels comfortable on bridges.

On the one hand, we can hold firm beliefs (even convictions) related to bridges. We believe that people are smart enough to build bridges that won’t collapse. We believe that engineers understand resonance, tensile strength and the nature of spans and arches. We believe that certain products resist warping, fraying, and breaking.

BridgeOn the other hand, those beliefs about bridges in general have to ultimately give way to a belief about a bridge in particular, or I will not step onto it. If I don’t trust the bridge before me, I’ll not step onto it or drive across it, no matter what beliefs I have about people and products.

So it is, of course, with Christ.

My church community ingrains in me a set of beliefs that I hold to be true about Him; fully human, fully divine, without sin, Son of God, and Savior. I believe Him to have died and been raised again from the dead. I believe that He performed miracles and atoned for our sin. I believe He has sat down at the right hand of God, and is coming again.

But at some point I must trust Him, not just affirm the statements about Him. Eternal life,a thriving life, comes not from propositions but from the Presence of a Person. I am most enriched not by what I know about Him but by what I experience with Him. My beliefs must merge into an authentic, driving, motivating, and life-guiding belief. My knowledge must result in trust.

Our beliefs about Christ may provide reason for believing Him, but trust is a separate and distinct act. I choose, I want, and I am willing to yield everything in my life and everything about my life to Him. And that can challenge us deeply in different seasons of our lives.

Beliefs help me fit into the Church community, but belief is the cornerstone of abundant living. Beliefs give me certainty, but belief gives me peace. Beliefs help me structure my thinking and make sense of the world, but belief transforms my choices and actions. I can hold my beliefs to myself, but belief requires a relationship. Belief is not something we talk about but something we live.

Hope is not the same as hopes. Prayer is not the same as prayers. And belief is not the same as beliefs.

What are we doing today that needs Jesus, depends on Jesus, and explicitly trusts Jesus? For all of our beliefs about Him, do we believe Him?

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Prayer & Prayers

Last week I mentioned a sharp distinction between hope and hopes. This week, an important line might also be drawn between prayer and prayers.

To quote David Steindl-Rast:

Sooner or later we discover that prayers are not always prayer. That is a pity. But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without prayers. And that should cheer us up. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between prayer and prayers. At least if we want to do what Scripture tells us to do and “pray continually” (Luke 18:1) we must distinguish praying from saying prayers. (Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer: 40-41)

WateringI have often defined prayer simply as “attentiveness to God.” It describes a posture of the heart, not simply words spoken by the lips. Some of us find our minds irretrievably distracted during set times for prayer (and prayers) only to find ourselves caught up in wonder and in the Presence of God while watering the garden or watching a child. This is the distinction that Steindl-Rast makes between prayer and prayers.

The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they are not necessarily the same.

Yet, many of us measure our piety by the minutes or hours “spent in prayer.” By that, we mean the time we spend working through lists of needs or talking to God. But “prayer without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5: 17) cannot be measured with a clock. It’s descriptive of a heart.

Our quiet moments before God and with God, silent and still, listening and waiting, enjoying and delighting, thoughtful and attentive…are prayer in every truest (and biblical) sense of the word.

Prayer is first and foremost a Presence word, not a ritual. How often have we bowed our heads and closed our eyes while others addressed God, with barely an awareness of either Him or the words until Amen gets pronounced? Then there are those moments when our souls are full and well (despite trials or suffering) because we are profoundly aware that we are not alone. Not a word has been spoken.

It’s harder to teach Presence. Yet, the church throughout history, in small pockets of faithful believers, has always urged Christ-followers to “practice the Presence of Christ.” This is the practice of prayer.

May you experience the best of prayer and prayers this week, not for the purpose of personal piety but because His Presence produces the profound peace for which our hearts truly yearn.

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Hope & Hopes

It’s been three months since I posted — my usual summer hiatus — and it’s been a rich time to read, reflect, and recharge.

HopeThis past Wednesday however, a colleague of mine (Dr. Rex Gurney) shared some insights from David Steindl-Rast. It struck a chord with me and might be worth sharing with you, though I’m sure I am butchering his original intent. My apologies.

Most of us (certainly I) have tended to lump hope into a single category. If I have hopes, then I am hope-filled and hopeful and have hope.

As a young man I had hopes that I’d one day marry and have a family. I had hopes that I’d be able to pastor a church that wouldn’t run me out of town. I had hopes that my kids would grow up and be responsible, thoughtful, Christ-following adults. I had hopes that I’d grow old and not suffer too greatly along the way. Hopes. Lots of hopes.

But what happens when those hopes don’t materialize? What happens when our hopes fail? How do we respond when a marriage partner doesn’t materialize (or leaves)? When the kids struggle (or we can’t have kids)? When the work or ministry dreams evaporate?

That’s when we discover (or need) pure hope. When our usual (temporal) hopes are all stripped away, what hope really sustains us?

When we release our hopes we eventually discover pure hope in what’s left. It is the relinquishment of our dreams that gives birth to certainty and true confidence. It is the release of fantasy that gives us the greatest and most magnificent foundation for reality.

Ultimately, it’s not vision but confidence, that sustains us. Wishful thinking, however noble and well-meaning, does not give us authentic and lasting strength. But pure hope — pure hope — is grounded in faith and secures us in the unshakable love of God.

In the same way that beliefs do not lead to faith, so hopes do not lead to hope. On the contrary, real faith (trust) births and clarifies meaningful beliefs, just as hope gives shape to appropriate hopes.

As followers of Christ, we are called to live in hope, not hopes, though the world around us would have us settle for so much less. What hopes have hindered or undermined your pure hope?

This is not merely a play on words; it’s a paradigm shift that could change our lives.

“Now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

 

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Outside the Dance Hall

As we head into Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, it seems appropriate to re-tell a story I heard from a local area pastor about his family.

Returned servicemenHis grandfather had served in World War II. When he returned home he had quite an adjustment to make.

Many servicemen would go to the local Dance Halls for social connection, and on one occasion he found himself heading there too. As he approached, he noticed a young woman sitting on the steps outside, crying. He walked over to her and asked, “Are you alone? What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”

“Oh, I’m not alone,” she said, as she lifted her ring-finger for him to see. “I’m engaged to be married, but my fiance is inside dancing with other women and flirting with them.”

He looked at her and said, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to take that ring off. And you’re going to go inside and hand it back to him, and tell him, ‘There’s a guy outside who’s going to marry me.'”

And she did!

Three weeks later they were married and they remained married for 65 years until death parted them less than a decade ago.

It’s a wonderful story (and just a little shocking) of love and romance.

Christ has done the same for us.

At some point, we all sit outside the Dance Hall wondering if anyone will love us truly, faithfully, and eternally. We all feel rejected, alone, and insecure at some point. And Christ comes to us. He invites us to let go of the dreams and the hopes that once held us, and pursue an entirely new life (and an entirely abundant life) with Him.

And everyday thereafter (even today) we are invited to say “Yes” again to Him. He invites us softly and tenderly to a lifetime and a life-pursuit to know Him more.

Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul was captured by this profound love of Christ (see Romans 8:35-39), and resolved that his real life-mission would be “to gain Christ…to be found in Him…and to know Him” (Philippians 3:8, 9, 10). Whatever we sense to be our calling from God or our mission in His Kingdom, nothing surpasses this; to know more fully and more deeply the One who meets us outside the Dance Hall and invites us to an eternal marriage.

He wipes away our tears.

Pause, even now, and say “Yes” again to Him.

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Memory and Vision

Dave Stone tells the story of a woman facing delicate brain surgery. The surgeon called her in and indicated the risk involved. On the one hand, she might lose her memory. On the other hand, she might lose her sight. All would likely be well, but if she were to lose one or the other, which would she choose? After a day of prayer and contemplation, she concluded she’d rather lose her memory. “I’d rather see where I’m going than remember where I’ve been.”

MemoryDave uses this touching story to illustrate the importance of vision – a dream and a preferred future – over memory. “Death comes when our memory of the past is greater than our vision of the future.”

But our ready abandonment of memory and our preference for vision, innovation, relevance, and growth comes at a cost.

The rise of the non-denominational church has both strengths and weaknesses. On the positive, it breaks free of bureaucratic, power-based, and often divisive structures. On the other hand, it is a church unmoored; with neither roots nor history.

Memory of the past, when it locks us into the past, can certainly create unhealthy and unhelpful wistfulness. Consider Israel in the wilderness, complaining that they missed garlic and leeks (and slavery) in Egypt! But we live most fully when memories inform the present.

Without memories, relationships remain shallow. Depth of friendship depends on increasingly shared experiences (which we remember). Faith itself depends on “remembering what the Lord has done” so that we can hold fast to Him. Loss of memory would, in fact, produce loss of faith and loss of connection. It undermines community, cohesion, and connection.

Vision without memory is nothing but the perpetual pursuit of a new experience. It loses its way. It rings hollow.

We need both.

The disdain that some have for the past is actually a pathway to loss not progress. Families without stories are families without intimacy. Trust itself is the fruit of past experiences.

Let’s learn to honor the past – learn from it, celebrate it, re-tell it – while we also lean into the future with hope and an open hand. If we deny either one (memory or vision), we’ll experience less than Christ intended; in marriages, families, friendships, and churches.

As a leader, parent, marriage partner, or friend, how’s your memory … and your vision?

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Forget the Balanced Life

We hear it all the time; “If you want the good life, get a balanced life.”

BalanceSomehow we have come to believe that the underlying problem for many of us is too much of one thing (work, school, church) and not enough of another (family, play, travel). We’d be happier if we could just do a little of this, a little of that, and not too much of any one thing.

Let’s forget the balanced life. It’s a myth. It doesn’t exist.

It assumes that everything in life is static and should be measured by hours. Is eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of friends, family, or relaxation the balanced life?

Life is not like that. And we know it.

People suffer unexpected injuries and develop unplanned sicknesses. Financial pressures force lifestyle changes. Employment demands can be unpredictable. Anyone who has raised kids knows that there’s nothing routine about parenting. Serving others is messy. Other people’s lives don’t line up neatly with our own…and we don’t line up neatly with anyone else.

Even the discussion of the balanced life is perhaps the luxury of the affluent. Ask the destitute and homeless of our inner cities, the refugees from Syria, the starving families in Sudan, the war-afflicted villages in West Africa, or the poor in India about the balanced life. It’ll make no sense.

So where does abundance and joy lie, if not in balance? It lies not in balance but in Presence. God’s Presence.

Nehemiah reminded the broken and grieved people of Israel that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

It’s not the ordering of our hours but the orientation of our hearts that leads to flourishing.

We want to believe that we’ll thrive when we can work a 38-hour week and play hard on weekends. Or find more time with the kids. Or get a few more hours of sleep (which can’t hurt). But for all the talk, this balance feels elusive. It’s like holding slippery soap. Just when we think we have a grip, it slips away from us.

Let’s lay aside the balanced life, and lean into the obedient life; the life deeply committed to Christ, aligned with His will, and responsive to His leading. Perhaps the real dilemma we face is not so much better time-management as greater surrender, and deeper sensitivity to the Presence of Christ.

How might we embrace His Presence more today?

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