Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Time With God

In my last sermon, I talked about the principles to keep in mind as we work on this messy life of discipleship and life with God. Now I’d like to talk more specifically about the methods we employ to reinforce these principles. I’ve been involved in different churches with different philosophies. Some stress bible reading and prayer. Others stress service and giving. Different churches suggest different avenues of life with God, many of which are amazing and good, but many of us wonder where to start. Some of us have done it all and still feel like children of faith, so what do we have to fall back on.

Let me first repeat what I’ve said before: a method is not a guarantee of success, any more than having the right tractor is a guarantee of a bountiful harvest. Even less is your method in any way a measure of your success. Success, in this life with God, actually comes from God. It says in Mark 4:
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

This is not the full story, but it is a major part of it. We need to remember first and foremost that growth comes from God. We can’t manufacture it. We can only nurture it. For this reason, I believe that our first priority is to go to God. Spend time with him. Talk to him. Sit still and try to listen to him. There are two sisters who are friends with Jesus, and in one of the stories in the gospels, the two sisters, Mary and Martha, choose different ways of relating with Jesus. Martha works her butt off to make sure everything goes perfectly, just like a dutiful hostess should. Mary lazily sits at Jesus’s feet and gets to just listen to the things he says and spend time with him. If you think about it, Mary’s not being a very good sister or a very good host, but when Martha comes in to scold Mary for just sitting around, Jesus contradicts her. It was in fact Martha who was too concerned with doing, and Mary who had chosen what is better.

This story is clearly not meant to teach people to be lazy and skip out on their chores. But it is setting a higher priority. Sitting still, listening, waiting, and spending time with God come first.

My college professor, Scot McKnight, said some things about the Sabbath that I really appreciated. He said that in our Western culture we think of the Sabbath as a time to get ready for the work week. We’ve moved Sabbath to the beginning of the week, and made it about gearing up for the all the work that needs to be done. But when the Jewish rabbis talked about the Sabbath, it was not something to get you prepared for what’s next—it was the day that you looked forward to. You work all week long, and then finally—the holy Sabbath: rest; joy; deep, luxuriating breaths; time and more time; time to spend with God, worshiping and celebrating. In our culture we’ve idolized work. We’ve prioritized doing above all else. But the way of Jesus prioritizes stillness, rest, listening, and quality time. Our time with God is something to look forward to. And yes, it should help us get through all the work we have to do. In fact, the more work we have to do, the more we need to spend time with God. But let’s not forget that our time with God is the time to look forward to. Psalm 42:2 says, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Our souls are thirsty, so we need to give them time to drink.

With all this in mind, then, my first method for growth and discipleship is to spend time with God each day. Can you spend time with God while doing the dishes? Yeah. While at your job? Sure. Playing games, running a marathon, chatting with friends, walking your dog? Yes, of course. God is all around us and I encourage including him in all your time, all your activities. But there is something refreshing and foundational in taking time out of each day to be still, to do nothing, to quiet your mind and just listen. When you take time out of your day to be with God alone, there is both great joy and great power in that.

Let me delve deeper into this time with God, because I think a lot of us are confused. A lot of us might see this as a chore or a duty. We might sit still and pray and meditate and read the bible and journal and do all the things that we’ve been told should help, but we sit in confusion, and our stillness turns to frustration. Our prayers feel hollow. Our souls feel empty. They don’t always feel thirsty, nor do they feel like they’re getting a drink. Are we doing it wrong?

Well, to put it a little too simply, yes. Yes we’re doing it wrong, because we’re doing it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude or disposition. There are different ways of spending time with God. I personally feel a strong benefit from meditation and often from prayer, but it might help some to write down their thoughts or to read a passage from the bible or from another inspiring piece of literature, and some might prefer to go for a walk. The important thing is to employ the method that works for you and then work to fix your mindset. Our mindset, our attitude, our disposition: these things are what make our time with God worthwhile. It’s very much like if you spend time with another person. Not everyone you meet is someone you’re going to want to open up to. And you might not want to spill your guts to someone every time you meet them, but this is not just any someone. This is the one who made you and who loves you unconditionally. You don’t always have to talk, but you do have to open your heart. You do have to believe that this is a person that you like, a being that you trust. We come to God with the mindset that our whole selves are laid bare before him. If we don’t, we end up doing the same thing we do with people we don’t even like. We put up walls. We don’t let them in. We emphasize our personal space, and maybe we stick our foot out a little so they can’t creep too close. We’re uncomfortable. Sometimes you find yourself feeling that way about God. If so, it’s important to figure out why you feel that way. Chances are, you’re either believing something about God that’s not true, or you’re hiding something from God that he already knows, but you don’t want to talk about, or both of these. 

The important thing here is to keep in mind the principles that I went over n my last sermon—primarily, the principle of awareness. Spending time with God (if we can manage to be still and really connect with him) can help us to become aware of God and of our own attitudes, dispositions, and thought patterns. This awareness alone is sometimes enough to hold back that temper or work harder at kindness and generosity when the opportunity arises. But let me also present a warning here. If you are new to this, and you start meditating or praying every day, you are going to feel some resistance at first—hard resistance. If anger is a problem in your life, it’s going to seem like you’re getting angry all the time. If you’re proud or selfish, you’re going to experience those problems all the more. As they say, sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better. This is a natural outcome for a couple of reasons. First of all, sometimes our minds prefer the status quo. It’s like when you start going on a diet, and for the first couple of days you feel really extra hungry all the time. Your brain is trying to get your body to stay the same, and you may have to force it to change. After the first few days, the diet might become routine and the hunger pangs might leave you alone. Secondly, if you’re increasing your awareness, you are suddenly opening yourself up to your true state of mind. It may feel like you’re getting angry more often, only because you notice it that much more. Your awareness, and your connection with God, are bringing your faults and struggles to the forefront of your attention.

It is vital at this time that you apply the principle I mentioned in my last sermon: do not give up. You need to turn things around in your mind. When we try to change and meet such resistance, we often take it as a sign that we’re on the wrong track, that what we’re trying out just isn’t going to work. We might think we were better off before. Don’t believe it. Also apply the other principle, be malleable. Be changeable. Try to think of these experiences as opportunities instead of hardships. Your connection with God has brought you an opportunity to overcome a chronic problem in your life. You’re seeing something for what it is and has been for some time. Embrace this chance that you have to turn things around. Rejoice, because God is working in your life. It is not a sign of failure or a misstep. It’s a clear sign that you’ve stepped off the wide and easy path in search of the narrow one. Stepping off the path we’re used to is always going to feel difficult. Learn to enjoy the challenges that come your way, and don’t give up.

Hopefully, this has helped a bit. I do not recommend any one method as a blanket prescription for all Christ followers, but I do recommend a daily time with God. Feel free to experiment. Try out different things. The important thing is to renew your mind, quiet your heart, and enjoy your time with God. It is a blessing that many followers of Jesus have experienced, and from which anyone can benefit. There are, of course, many things that God’s people can do to live in discipleship, most of which are obvious, but I suggest a daily time with God as the best place to start. After that, let him guide you into the work that is right for you.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It's Messy

Last time, I talked about discipleship, and how we all seem to be struggling with it. We all seem to be stuck in our ruts, making the same mistakes over and over, wallowing in guilt and insecurity. I myself have experienced these issues over and over. Sometimes I pull away from them. Sometimes I get deeper into despair and fruitlessness.

I don’t want to over-generalize. I think it is very helpful for us to remember, that not everybody is in this sorry state of helpless struggle. I myself sometimes read passages in the Bible that speak of overcoming and the power to live life with God, and I wonder why none of us are really there. But there’s yet another false assumption. Though many of us do struggle, a few people, scattered among the churches, are actually doing really well. They are actively involved with God and thriving in the way of Jesus. They have their own struggles, too, but let’s not get into the trap of believing it’s utterly hopeless and pointless to even try.

But here we are, many of us struggling day after day, sometimes doing well, and sometimes horrible. And many Christians are out there looking for the magic key that will make their spiritual lives take off. We want a formula, some kind of pill would be nice. A simple A + B = C, which equals new life in Christ. And you’ll hear sermon after sermon and attend conference after conference and read book after cheesy Christian book that will try to tell you the secret, the magic formula that will make it all better. These formulas range from a simple “trust in Jesus” to some complicated steps you have to take. And you try one thing after another, from daily devotions to small groups to service projects to incense burning, to anything you can think of to change your way of life permanently, but they often grow stale and ineffectual.

Perhaps you’ll think of this as bad news, or maybe it’s good, but the fact is that there is no formula. There are always steps you can take that will help, but nothing guarantees growth. There’s no magic key to making it all work right. It’s a messy life filled with ups and downs and we can’t flip a switch and become the complete people of God we’ve been longing to be. There is no switch. It’s just… life.

That being said, there are a few principles to hold on to and a few practices to master, which should help greatly in living life with God. Jesus often used agricultural metaphors, and I think it is in part because life works a lot like working the land. You need to work hard and give your crops lots of attention, if you want them to grow, but you also need rain and sunshine and good soil. You might be the hardest-working farmer alive, but if there’s a drought, you’re going to have a tough time of it. A farmer knows these things and has always historically sought God or gods for his/their blessing to send rain and sun and everything they need for the crop to survive. We do the same in life, knowing that times of drought or flood may come, yet seeking God for his help nonetheless—and at the same time, we must do our part to live by the principles we hold dear.

First of these principles, in my mind, is that this is a life with God. More than trying to do your duty to try and curry favor with God, more even than trusting in God to take care of you, The way of life following Jesus is about living life with God. There are a lot of us who struggle with this, and it could take many sermons to tell people all about life with God, and if you’re asking yourself, “what does that even mean?” then you’re not alone. To me, living life with God is about quieting my mind and my heart. I acknowledge that there is a divine power all around me and in me and I try to adjust my disposition to be open to that divine power. It’s not always about talking or doing certain things, but it is about an awareness. Learning to cultivate that awareness can take a lifetime in itself, but that’s the gist of it.

Next of these principles is to be malleable. Sometimes it’s hard for us to recognize if God is trying to tell us something or if we’re just arguing with ourselves. Whatever the case, it’s important to remember that God is involved in some way, and so we need to be ready to change our hearts and minds at any moment. If you’re like me, you’ll have found yourself in emotionally destructive or divisive cycles. You’ll be angry and think you have every right to be. You’ll get depressed or bitter or selfish or proud or abrasive or rude, and it always feels logical, natural, maybe unavoidable. Usually, it is none of these things. And so we need to affix in our minds that we might be wrong at any time and be ready and open to changing our minds and attitudes. You’ll often find if you can maintain this openness to correction and readiness to shift gears, that you’re going to encounter less and less of these cycles anyway. But it is again about awareness. We need to cultivate awareness of ourselves, of our emotional states and of our disposition. If we don’t, we’ll most certainly fall victim to these little traps.

Next is a simple idea that everyone knows but tends to ignore or forget: Don’t give up. For me realization hits maybe a month later, when I realized I got tired of trying, got stuck in a rut, started thinking, feeling, talking and acting like none of it mattered anymore. And I look back and wonder how I got to where I was, because I didn’t notice. But my state of mind and life tells me that somewhere along the way I did give up. We don’t always recognize this for what it is. We might just call it a rough spot. But again, the issue comes down to awareness. Do you know when it is that you’re hitting a wall? Can you tell, when things start going south? If we maintain an awareness of where we’re at, we can intercede sooner in the process.  But this in itself requires vigilance. Sometimes it seems like a catch 22, but hold onto the principle, Don’t Give Up, and that should at least help.

Finally, the last principle is possibly the most important: Grace. First, have grace for yourself. Too many Christians get bogged down in guilt. It is certainly better to humble yourself than to exalt yourself, but the way of Jesus was never intended to keep people in a perpetual state of miserable shame and guilt, constantly beating our breast and begging God to forgive us for our feeble attempts to do good. Give yourself some grace, and give others some, too.

In my last sermon I talked about the fact that we sometimes mistake the method for the goal. The goal, if you might recall, is to be like Christ, bear spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.), and live life with God. There are many methods we can employ to attain this goal. But the methods are not the goal themselves. The methods we use can help us support the aforementioned principles, which should help us reach our goals.Since this is already running long, I'll focus on methods in my next sermon.

For now let me sum up:

It's a messy life with God. There is no secret formula for getting it all right. All we have is the goal of new life in Christ. Attaining this goal requires that we hold on to certain principles and cultivate an awareness of God and of ourselves. 

If you find that you go through a whole day without asking yourself how you're doing, where's God and what's he doing, or any type of question that might cultivate your awareness, then in my opinion, that's the place to start. 

I'll end with a favorite quote of mine from C.S. Lewis:

"The gods cannot speak to men face to face, til we have faces."

A little cryptic, I know, but try to puzzle it out. Or just read the book ("Til We Have Faces").

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Coming Soon

This week's new sermon, entitled "It's Messy," will be ready soon. Frankly, I'm talking about how we're supposed to live with God in discipleship successfully, a question I'm hardly qualified to answer, but one which I think I have a lot to say about anyway. It's taking a lot of consideration, but I should be finished tomorrow or Friday. Thanks.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Discipleship Vs. Evangelism

I wanted to respond to some things in Sunday’s  sermon, because I believe there’s a lot of stuff there worth discussing, and I have a few objections to some of the assumptions inherent in the message.

The pastor on Sunday referred to an issue that a lot of churches seem to have in leaning too heavily in favor of discipleship or on evangelism, either way to the detriment of the other. In other words, it seems like a church is either really good at evangelism and really bad at discipleship, or vice-versa.

The assumption here is really that evangelism and discipleship can be two essentially separate things. I see this as a false assumption which creates a false dichotomy. 

We get this messed up, when we don’t fully understand what it means to be engaged in discipleship and when we don’t have a true, wholesome sense of the importance of “good news.”

Let’s first take a look at discipleship:

I’m going to start with my experience of discipleship as I grew up, because I think it’s similar to what we think of today.

The way I remember it in my church, to focus on discipleship was to learn church doctrines, participate in bible studies and daily personal devotions, and to understand more of God’s love and how we’re supposed to live. There are some very good things about this understanding of discipleship. I still believe spending time with God is essential to daily living life in his way, and the Bible is still a great instrument for hearing God’s voice and understanding his will. Unfortunately, measuring “spiritual growth” in this setting is confusing at best. There is a large emphasis on head knowledge, doctrines and dogmas. And I’ve known enough people who have a lot of knowledge of doctrines and a lot of smart things to say about God and life, who have little to show for it in terms of spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.). Unfortunately, I can often put myself in that category. Discipleship, for too many churches, is about adherence to some understanding of truth, and can often be measured on a checklist, somewhat akin to the Nicean Creed. Do you believe in the Trinity? Can you ever lose your Salvation? How do you understand God’s Sovereignty? What’s going to happen in the future? Your answers to these and other questions can often be the primary focus when you get down to measuring your spiritual growth. When it comes to actions, we ask: are you spending time In prayer and bible reading? Are you giving money to the Church? Are you actively serving at a church? These are all activities that are designed to help produce the fruit of love and kindness and gentleness and patience, but instead they become the standard themselves. These activities become our checklist. I read my Bible this morning. Nevermind that I went to work and chewed out my coworkers and mocked my boss on the internet and then got home and yelled at my kids, etc. Do I look back at my day and say that I’ve grown spiritually, that I learned about kindness, patience, and grace?

When Jesus practiced discipleship, he lived with people. He taught them every day, correcting them, rebuking them, eating with them, loving them. And the things he taught them had little to do with doctrines and much more to do with actions: love your neighbor; love your enemies; forgive your brother every time he repents; even if it’s several times in one day; don’t judge others, or you’re going to be judged in the same way, for the same thing; guard your thoughts and your hearts; the first will be last—don’t put yourself above everyone else, but be a servant instead; be ready to face persecutions and trials; have faith, even just the faith of a mustard seed; and the list goes on. How do we measure whether we’re living up to these standards? How do we measure spiritual fruit? How do you measure love or peace or joy? You can’t collect them like a bushel of apples and say, “Look! I’ve got 126 apples this year. That’s 25 more than last year, so I must be doing pretty well.” And yet, we do need to look at discipleship and spiritual growth more like an orchard or a farm or a garden than the way we currently look at it, like a philosophy test in school.

We’re going to come back to that. But for now let’s just acknowledge that measuring our discipleship is going to be a tricky thing. It’s not going to be black and white. It’s not going to be very mathematical.

Now let’s go to evangelism. It really gets me to hear people say that a church can be poor in discipleship, but really great with evangelism. I have a hard time understanding what this means. And I almost always have a deep suspicion about the nature of the evangelism taking place. Evangelism is about “Good news.” That’s its definition. I find it hard to believe that a people who are not growing in love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, understanding, grace, and gentleness with one another can have any really great thing to say to the rest of the world about any sort of Good News.
Instead, such people seem more intent on converting people to their belief system than to sharing good news. It often becomes clear in the nature of their message. “You’re going to hell, and you’d better believe in Jesus if you want to go to heaven instead,” is not good news. “Human beings are all wretched, worthless sinners in need of God’s grace,” is also not good news. Instead of sharing good news, people who go out in the world with these views in mind seem more interested in sharing very disturbing, troubling news. They need to convince everyone about what bad shape they’re in before they spring the good news that now they’d better change their ways and turn to God for forgiveness.

Others know it’s more than that, and they really believe there is something to be excited about, but they don’t always feel it or know what it really is. They can say it. “It’s new life.” “it’s hope of resurrection.” “It’s forgiveness and freedom.” But have they experienced it? Can we share about peace with God, when we’ve never or only rarely known the peace of God that passes all understanding? Can we share about the forgiveness and embrace of God, if we’ve not learned to forgive our neighbors? We might have good news of new life in Christ, but what are we really talking about if we’re not living it? You can’t have excellent, amazing evangelism, without solid discipleship. Without good discipleship, you have a whole lot of enthusiasm without a lot of substance. Often you have a whole lot of empty words, and at best the appearance of hypocrisy. There is no such thing as good evangelism without good discipleship.

So what does this mean for us? Does this mean we don’t tell anyone about Jesus unless we’ve somehow made it? Do we spread the good news, only when we’ve achieved perfection? Of course that can’t be right, otherwise nobody would ever hear about Christ. Yes, we are a work in progress. Yes, the fruit of the spirit is going to take time, we’ll only see gradual progress, and we will probably never know the completion of being in Christ in this life. And yet… and yet evangelism has to be a natural outpouring of discipleship. It is ludicrous to spread the word of abundant life without having at least some experience of that life.

When I waited tables at a restaurant, our trainers were always diligent to give us a meal during training. Whenever the restaurant added a new item to the menu, there would be a few days of trying it out first, and the waiters would all get samples to taste. The reason was obvious: they wanted us to sell the product effectively. Unless you’re a good liar, you’re not going to be able to effectively sell a product you’ve never tried. You can’t tell people it’s your favorite thing on the menu, if you’ve never tasted it. When people asked about items that I hadn’t tasted, the best I could tell them was, “yeah, lots of people like it.” Hmm… That’s not really the most hearty endorsement. If you’re telling people about Jesus and don’t know what it means to be forgiven or to love your neighbor or to be kind and gentle or to control your anger, then you have the same problem as a waiter who’s never tasted the food. Either you’re a liar… or you tell people how much other people have benefited from knowing Jesus.

You have to be a disciple of Jesus, to live a life whose trajectory is in the way of Jesus, if you ever want to genuinely spread good news. Earlier I said that there’s no such thing as good evangelism with poor discipleship. The converse is also true. You can’t have good discipleship and bad evangelism. And I don’t mean that the discipleship is bad simply because it doesn’t include learning to spread the word. I mean that good discipleship produces good fruit, and good fruit wants to be shared. It doesn’t take courage to share something wonderful. Ever since I first tasted Honeycrisp apples, I’ve been telling people that they’re the best, that they’re the most delicious apple you can ever try. If people disagree with me I rant about how wrong they are and have trouble believing they’ve actually tried them. If you’re experiencing new life, the natural result is to share it. It doesn’t take courage. So when we hesitate to tell people about our new life with Christ, the problem is not a lack of courage, but a lack of discipleship, which leads to a shortage of conviction. Spreading good news is a natural outflow of experiencing good news.  And really, that’s all we’re talking about. If you’re a disciple, then in some way, you’re experiencing good news. Naturally, you’re going to share that with the people around you.

Think of it this way. If you’ve struggled with depression, but you finally found a therapist that helped you and changed your life, and then you met another person struggling with depression, would it take courage to suggest to this person the same solution that already worked for you? No, of course not. All it would take is a conviction that your therapy was what really did the trick, and some enthusiasm about how your life has changed. But many of us lack that conviction, don’t we. We’re not sure if our lives are any different from anybody else’s, and some of us are not sure if we’re any different than who we were. If we’ve followed Jesus since we were four years old, what can we compare it to? Maybe our lives were never horrible, and they’ve always been generally okay, but we still have loads of baggage: anger, bitterness, confusion, discontent, hatred, sorrow, and all manner of issues plaguing us, just like they plague the rest of the world. We hesitate to evangelize, to spread good news, when we’re not sure how good it is.

The problem is not about your conviction of the truth of your doctrines. When it’s only about doctrines, our fervor dies out. We might dogmatically believe in this or that strain of Christianity for years and count it as our duty to convince others of our own beliefs, but if we’re not experiencing good news, our pursuit of conversion becomes empty and hollow. And so it comes full circle, because it’s really about discipleship. And that’s all about what we’re doing, how we’re living, and what we’re thinking, day after day after day. It’s about living life with God day after day after day. And for many of us, that’s what we want, but we don’t know how, or we lack the real discipline necessary to make it happen.

It seems that many of us know all this, maybe instinctively. We know that we just need more discipline. We know that we need to put our faith in God and look to him for guidance, and for power, to live in his way. We know that spiritual growth is not about praying elegant prayers  or giving powerful sermons, or going to chat rooms and arguing about our theology. We know we just need to submit to God, live in love and consider others’ needs as well as our own. And yet we struggle to get there. We don’t know how to defeat complacency. We don’t know how to keep the concerns of our daily lives from choking out our spiritual determination. We know what to do, and we want to do it deep down inside, but we lack the will. It is in discipleship that we truly lack courage—not evangelism. We lack the courage to sacrifice the things in our lives that are in reality utterly worthless. Often, I lack the will to go to bed at a decent hour or to get up out of bed to spend some time with God before my kids wake me up.

We go on and on, wondering, “what the heck is wrong with us.” We’re in this mess, and we all know it, and we all know that we shouldn’t be there, that God has offered us power to overcome our failures and our weaknesses.

I’m running pretty long here, so I’m going to introduce my next topic for next week: “ It’s Messy: There’s No Formula Or Magic Key.” Hopefully, that gets your attention without starting every word with the same letter or something churchy like that.

But to sum up:

The balance between evangelism and discipleship is a false dichotomy. Good evangelism can only truly flow out of good discipleship. The truth is, a lot of us don’t really know how to do good discipleship, and when churches try to focus on it, they don’t usually do a good job. Often they don’t even know they’re not doing a good job. They claim to see “spiritual growth,” but they don’t know how to measure it. So we need to really get a handle on how to delve into life with God together, otherwise we don’t really have any good news to talk to people about. Stay tuned for “It’s Messy”