Thursday, July 30, 2015

Welcome Mats


Let me begin with a confession. I am not a naturally hospitable person. I do not always handle impositions or interruptions with grace. Yet, if you asked me about hospitality, I would tell you that the practice of hospitality is the primary Christians are called upon to manifest the virtue of love in their lives.

Hospitality is about more than hosting people in your home. It is about being an open person—open to impositions, interruptions, and the neediness of others.

I can recount times in which I offered hospitality to strangers. I listened as they shared their stories. I purchased food for them if they were hungry. I have let them into Caritas to find clothing. I have been hospitable. Sometimes I get it right.

I have also dodged phone calls from needy friends. I have walked the other way when I saw a stranger in a parking lot who was about to ask me for help. I have avoided eye contact with people to discourage conversation. I have also been inhospitable. I often get it wrong.

But before I got it right or wrong, God got it right. We are all recipients of God’s hospitality. Our lives exist and are rooted in space that God has carved out for us. Without God’s hospitality, we could not exist much less survive. In God we live, move, and have our being.

If we think about God’s act of creation as an act of hospitality, then we cannot think of ourselves as people without needs—needs that can only be filled by others—often at no obvious benefit to the people who help fill our needs.

When I withhold hospitality, I generally do so because I am experiencing another person’s neediness in a critical way. I see them as needy in ways that I am not and cannot imagine myself being. We may invoke terms like laziness or cite another person’s lack of self-control. But, however we see it in others, we are enabled to see it that way because we have neglected to see the ways in which we are in the same position.

 As Americans, we recoil at the idea of being or being perceived as needy. But neediness cannot be avoided. We have needs that we cannot meet ourselves: air, food, water, companionship, shelter from the elements. We may play a role in meeting those needs that minimizes the impact on other people, but we cannot meet those needs for ourselves in the same way God can for God’s self. Every breath we take is an act of dependence upon the hospitality of God who created the world in which we live. We cannot survive on the moon or in any other place in the universe of which we are presently aware. But here we are. Alive and well. Free to take each breath of air for granted.

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we are to be people who forgive others as we are forgiven by God. A reminder about the hospitality of God should function the same way. We are to be people of hospitality just as God has shown us hospitality. If called to share our belongings, we share as God has shared with us. If we are called to listen, we listen as God listens to us whenever we pray. If we are called upon to befriend, we befriend as God has befriended us.

Just as God’s Son has become God’s welcome mat for us, we likewise should become welcome mats to others.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Purge


Hell hath no fury like children who catch their parents throwing away their old stuff.

So…we are thankful for camp.

While our daughter was away this week, we updated her room. When we moved here, she was 4. She wanted a pink room and we obliged her. At ten, she is sick of pink and she has been begging us to paint her room a different color. We also sorted through her belongings and purged. Whenever we do this in any of our children’s rooms, we are amazed at what we find there. Apparently, they do not throw away anything. Homework assignments, artwork, birthday cards, candy wrappers, toys, artwork, missing library books, long neglected stuffed animals…and did I mention artwork? That says nothing about the out-of-place coat hangers, Legos, and tiny rubber bands used to create friendship bracelets.

I stopped counting how many trash bags we carried out of her room. She will not miss many of the items we discarded, but if she had been there we would have had to negotiate every single item. Like a dragon nesting atop a hoard of treasure, a child cannot bear to part with any item they once enjoyed.

So…we are thankful for camp.

Children aren’t the only ones of us that could use a healthy purging. And I am not referring to the people featured on Hoarders either. I am talking about all of us. We carry hurt, disappointment, anger, and habits from the past that encumber us in the present. When was the last time you purged?

There is no shame in having been hurt by another person. We are humans and humans hurt one another. Yes, some of us have been hurt in ways that the rest of us could hardly fathom, but purging requires us to forgive the ones who hurt us regardless of how deeply we have been hurt. Forgiveness is the only action a victim can take to be freed from the power those that hurt us hold over us.

Disappointments are difficult to bear. We are people that are fueled by goals and those goals become expectations. When we fail to meet those expectations, the sensation of failure can be hard to bear. Marriages fail. Careers stall. Children make mistakes. Yet, most of us would be happier if we could forgive ourselves. Yes, we could all do better if we had a second chance at living our lives. But you only get one go at it and while you think you could have done better, I bet you could have done a lot worse. Give yourself the grace you would give your children or your friends and you can begin to purge your disappointments.

Holding on to anger? Anger is a secondary emotion. Is it covering for hurt? Disappointment? You cannot purge your anger until you determine what is causing it. You weren’t born angry. Don’t settle for a life lived in anger.

And what about old habits? Lust. Gossip. Chemical dependencies. Yelling. Defensiveness. Do you have any on your list? Is there something in your life you figured you’d have eliminated by this stage of your life? Purge it today. You will be glad you did tomorrow. It will be like arriving back home from camp to live life in a happier and more peaceful place.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Cultivating Grace


Do you remember the first time you planted a seed and watched it grow? I remember plunging three toothpicks into an avocado at school. The toothpicks held the seed atop a glass of water. A few days later, the seed had a tap root descending into the water and a shoot growing from the top. I am confident that the seed did not go on to produce a fruit growing tree, but it could have if it had been planted and cared for properly. The concept amazed me. Yet, what amazed me most is that the seed inside an avocado could produce a tree. If I had loved guacamole as much then as I do now, I might have found a way to keep the plant alive.

None of this is news to you, but stop and consider it anyway. Avocados come from avocado trees and avocado trees come from the pits inside a single avocado. Only God could have  managed to imbue such elegance into reproduction. Imagine a new car sprouting from the engine of your old car or a new computer from the motherboard of an older model. Nothing besides living creatures can do that.

Well, almost nothing. There is at least one other thing and it too originates with God.

Grace.

A little grace is like a little seed. The size doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it takes root and, when it does, it can disseminate grace itself.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables tells the tale of Jean Valjean. Valjean served a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children during an economic depression. When released from prison on parole, he sought refuge in the home of a bishop. During the night he stole valuable silverware from the bishop. He was caught by the police, but the bishop insisted to the police that the treasure had been his gift to Valjean.

The bishop showed Valjean unwarranted grace. He had no reason to assume the grace would take root, but it did. The grace changed Valjean’s life. Valjan became the source of similar gifts of grace to others in need throughout the rest of his life.

That is how grace works.

As recipients of God’s grace, we demonstrate whether or not that grace has truly germinated in our own hearts by how much grace we extend to others. Do we become sowers of the seeds of grace ourselves or do we remain callous toward those who wrong us? If the latter, we are no better than the unmerciful servant who denied his debtor’s pleas for mercy after receiving greater mercy from his lender (Matthew 18).

I find it too easy to approach grace as though it was a scarce resource, but you cannot waste grace. Grace is not depleted by liberal dispensation. It is depleted when its dispensation is limited.

If grace was a scarce resource to be preserved, we’d be justified in our reluctance to extend grace to those we suspect will waste the opportunity that grace affords them to become gracious themselves. Yet, conserving grace is as absurd as conserving acorns. We can afford to extend it to everyone in every direction in the full knowledge that, while grace will frequently fail to germinate in the lives of others, it will occasionally surprise us as it takes root in the hearts of those we expected to abuse our graciousness.

That is why asking Jesus how many times we are to forgive a brother or sister is absurd.  That is why Paul tells us to think about what is most noble and lovely in the people with which we are in conflict. That is why God extended all of us forgiveness when we humans least deserved it: at the cross of Jesus. You never know when an act of grace will change someone forever.

As recipients of grace, we must be cultivators of that grace if we have any hope of demonstrating that God’s grace has taken root in our hearts.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Sin of Paranoia


You are so paranoid, you probably think this article is about you.

Paranoia can be natural. It is cultivated in the soil of distrust. When subjected to constant passive aggression, spouses can become paranoid that every gesture of displeasure is directed at them. When a family’s home is burglarized, members of that family can be startled by the slightest sound in the night. When citizens learn of high crimes by government officials that were themselves followed up by elaborate cover-up schemes, they begin to see evidence of nefarious conspiracies where none exist at all.

Yet, whether it is a spouse who assigns motives to dishes left in the sink or Texans worried about American troops staging an invasion from abandoned Walmarts (up next: Canada will stage a take-back of Quebec from a Tim Horton's outside Montreal—you heard it here first), paranoia never paints us in the best light. But the real problem with paranoia is that it is a symptom of an infection. Paranoia is evidence that you’ve been infected by other sinful attitudes.

Like a runny nose, paranoia is not always the symptom of the same sinful attitude. More than one can surface in the form of paranoia. Let’s take a look at two.

1. It is easiest to think others are actively opposed to us when we habitually think the worst of others.
The actions of others have to be interpreted before they can mean anything to you. You have a choice about which motives you will assign to the other person. If you constantly assign bad motives, you are likely falling into the trap of the speck and the plank. Jesus accused the Pharisees of fussing over the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the planks projecting from their own eyes. They were obsessing over who worked on the Sabbath by plucking a head of grain while harboring sins of hatred and pride in their hearts. It isn’t just the Pharisees. We too find it easier to spot the sins of others than to identify our own.

To avoid falling into the trap of the speck and the plank, we can appropriate a piece of advice Paul issued to the Philippians. Paul was addressing an unspecified conflict between two leading women in that church. To address the conflict, Paul does not try to determine who is right or wrong. Instead, he says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

If paranoia is the symptom, then Paul’s advice is the prescription. It’s the opposite of paranoia.

2. Whenever we panic over current events and live in fear of the potential implications of Supreme Court decisions or presidential elections, we demonstrate a lack of trust in God. Our lives are short.


History is long and winding. And while peoples and nations have preferred to craft their tellings of history to make their causes and values appear triumphant, the people of God have preserved an alternative history.

The history of God’s people can be messy and present its own issues (e.g., divine sanctioned genocide in the OT), but the Bible is remarkable in that it frequently paints its greatest leaders (i.e., Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul) in an unfavorable light. Yet, whether it is Abraham’s deceit, Moses’ murder, David’s adultery and attempted cover-up, Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, or Paul’s murderous persecution of the church, God proves to be trustworthy.

The story is not dependent upon these human heroes, but rather on their faithful, unthwartable God. If God can overcome the missteps of God’s own leading characters to preserve the flow and purpose of the story, then adversaries do not stand a chance. Ask the Egyptians. Or Nebuchadnezzar. Or Saul of Tarsus. God is worthy of trust and is underserving of paranoid worshipers.

So, perhaps this article is about you.

But paranoia is only permanent if we let it be. Think better of others. Trust God. Eradicate the infection of sinfulness that manifests itself in paranoia.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Counter-Intuitive Nature of Self-Care


You were up early this morning and it looks like you will be up late tonight. Your day has been a near endless stream of tasks—all deemed urgent or at least necessary. You have accomplished much, but it hardly feels like victory because tomorrow will be the same. So too will every other tomorrow in your foreseeable future. Emotionally, physically, and spiritually, you are running on empty. You know you need self-care.

Where do you turn? What do you do to take care of yourself?

A few of you naturally turn to exercise, solitude, and prayer. Good for you. While the rest of wish we were more like you, we tend to turn elsewhere.

Like the fridge or the pantry. Or alcohol. Maybe even drugs. We turn to mind-numbing television or an escapist novel. We call the friends that won’t judge us for the way we choose to unwind. We surrender to pornography. Or we fire up a video game.

Most of us use at least one unhealthy behavior to help us cope with stress. And since the unhealthy behavior reduces stress (at least for the moment), we justify the behavior.

It’s my guilty pleasure. My one vice. No one is perfect. Don’t judge me.

The problem, however, with these forms of self-care is that they do nothing to alleviate our stress. They merely numb us to it for a time. And as good as it feels to numb ourselves to the stress of our lives, numbing is not a long term self-care strategy. Conversely, it can be dangerous.

Consider the last time you paid a visit to a dentist to have a cavity filled. The dentist injected a numbing agent into your mouth so that you would not experience pain during the procedure. That is a good thing. Yet, when the dentist finished filling the cavity, it took an hour or two before your mouth regained feeling. In the meantime, the dentist warned you to be careful not to bite your cheek or your tongue.

Unable to feel pain, people have gnawed holes in their mouth with their teeth while their mouths were numbed. The numbness was a good thing while the dentist operated the drill, but it became a bad thing when you chewed a hole in your cheek unaware of the damage you had been doing.

So if you decide to watch a television show tonight as you relax and try to escape your stress, fine. I probably will too. But what else are you doing to take care of yourself?

The ways we need to answer that question tend to be counter-intuitive. It’s when exercise is the last thing that we want to do that we need it most. It is when silence and solitude are the most frightening that we need them most. It is when prayer seems the most pointless that we need what prayer does inside of us the most.

And it will always be easier and bring more instantaneous gratification to have a beer or a bowl of ice cream instead, but numbness can be dangerous. It can make you forget that your current lifestyle is unsustainable without healthy self-care strategies. It can lead you to believe that numbness is the only way to cope. And once you’ve gotten there, you’re no further than a step or two away from finding yourself under the power of a self-destructive addiction.

How can you take better care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Stop numbing and start tending to what you really need.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"What If" Questions that Motivate


I spend significant portions of my day in an effort to motivate others. I try to motivate my children to do their chores, their school work, and to treat each other with love and respect. Other parts of my day are devoted to writing articles like this one, planning sermons and Bible classes, or meeting with brothers and sisters in Christ who want to make changes in their life. Sometimes I wonder if I am any good at motivating others, but even on my worst days I would have to admit this: it is easier for me to motivate others than it is to motivate myself.

I struggle in all the typical ways: self-discipline in regard to diet and exercise, procrastination when I don’t want to do what I need to do, cleanliness and organization, etc. But I even struggle in areas that I am embarrassed to admit. I often have trouble motivating myself to pray, to genuinely engage another person in meaningful conversation, or to even exert the minimal energy required to extend courtesy to strangers. Why any of these areas cause me trouble is a mystery to me, but, over the years, I have found a few “what if” questions that I ask to motivate myself to follow through on my intentions to become the person Christ calls me to be.

1. What is my duty to this moment?

Every moment is different. During the middle of the night, my duty to the moment is to get a good night’s sleep, but at other times it could be to wash the dishes, plan a sermon, or pay attention to my kids. I need to focus on what my duty to the moment is without being distracted by what I would prefer to be doing or what I need to do next. When I am with another person, I need to put my phone away and be present with that person. Few experience connectedness with someone who is only present in body. Whatever your duty in a moment is, the goal is to be fully present.

2. What if this person was sent to me by God? (Or what if God has brought me to this person?)

A mentor of mine in college said that he tried to treat every interaction with another person as though it were a divine appointment. We bring different expectations of ourselves to encounters when we are fulfilling a duty to our employers, do we not? We are more polite to people when they are rude. We are more conscious of how our verbal and non-verbal communiques affect them. What if we exerted that kind of mindfulness to every encounter, but we did so on behalf of God instead of our employer? I find that I fail at this more often than I succeed, but by merely attempting such an approach in my encounters with others, I have found myself in more conversation that I felt God working in than I ever dreamed possible.

3. What if I actually believed that how I behave forms who I am becoming?

Just like what I eat for lunch today will impact what my body weighs and looks like tomorrow, how I behave will impact the kind of person I am becoming. I can be a force for good when I have the proper mindset. I can be a real jerk when I have the improper mindset. Good behavior begets good behavior. Bad behavior begets bad behavior. Just like a good diet and exercise can make a big difference in your body over time, so too can choosing good behavior (especially when it is hard) over bad.

Can you think of other “what if” questions we can use to motivate ourselves to be the kind of people we want to be?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Our Relationship with the Bible



One of the most common reasons Christians read the Bible is to find encouragement and inspiration. No surprise there. The Bible is often encouraging and filled with potential for inspiration. Yet, your relationship to God’s word can be limited to a superficial nature if you only go to the Bible with these motivations.

Consider your friendships. If you are like me, you have friends with whom you feel the need to keep your conversations pleasant and upbeat. You don’t confide in one another about your struggles. You don’t trust each other to point out each other’s flaws. You are both content to keep your relationship superficial. It can be for any reason. It might be due to a lack of trust. It might be from a fear of losing the friendship if you overshare. But whatever the reason, both parties know the limitations of the friendship.

Other relationships are one-sided. One friend is the helper. The other is the one who needs help. Maybe it is a mentor-disciple relationship. Maybe it is parent-child. These relationships aren’t always bad. They can be good for both parties. (A good rule of thumb, however, is to seek balance in the energy you use as a helper and the energy you derive from those who help you).

Our relationship with the Bible can sustain this dynamic. It is certainly a deeper relationship than the superficial arrangement in which the Bible is limited to encouragement and inspiration alone. If we go to the Bible as a helper, we can go to the text with harder questions like, “What do I not want to hear from this passage?” By asking such a question, we are giving God’s word permission to help us see even that which we would otherwise like to ignore. We may want to avoid feeling challenged in our materialism, our judgmental disposition, our politics, or our other forms of selfishness, but if we allow our relationship with the Bible to grow to this stage, we accept its guidance, repent, and seek God’s help in moving forward.

The best kind of friendship, however, is one that is neither superficial in nature nor dependent upon the top-down dynamic of a mentor/disciple relationship. In these relationships, both parties are vulnerable with each other. Both parties feel permission to speak truth to the other and both are committed to receiving truth (even if it is tough to hear) from the other.

You might think it is impossible to form that kind of dynamic relationship with the Bible. In many ways, you’d be right. The Bible maintains a place of authority that our best friends do not. But the Bible can become a friend of which you can ask the toughest questions. Every person who studies the Bible has at least one thing about the Bible that bugs them (e.g., violence in the Old Testament, an apparent contradiction between one passage and another, etc.). My point is that at the most mature stage of our relationship with the Bible, we feel free to ask those questions while still opening our hearts up to the tough questions it asks us. At times, our questions can be addressed and our minds can be set at ease. At other times, our questions linger.

Is it not the same in our closest friendships? What makes close relationships special is that they are not dependent upon immediate resolution to tensions or tough questions to thrive in the meantime.

At what stage is your relationship with the Bible? What would it take to take that relationship to the next level?