Is God Feeling Distant? How Faith Grows Stronger in Deserts than in Gardens

We can wonder if God is even there.

Because we long to feel God’s daily presence, it’s easy to mistake seasons of dryness, while we journey through arid lands, as signs of God’s absence. We wonder if God has left us, we wonder where it happened, we think back to what we must have done to cause this divine quiet.

Have you ever felt that? That no matter what you say or do, pray or read, God isn’t listening, that he’s not even there?

And how does that challenge your thinking?

What do you do?

  • Some of us get frantic, and try everything we can to reverse the trend. We read new books, listen to more sermon podcasts, keep busy.
  • Others get discouraged, and begin to wonder if everything we’ve ever experienced in the past was a mirage.
  • Frequently we award this feeling of disconnection from God with further acts of estrangement, failing to slow down, denying the dryness, acting as though everything is fine.
  • Or we walk away, thinking, “Okay, if God’s not going to speak or make me feel his presence, I’ll do my own thing.” We walk away from community, we stop serving in our local church, we neglect listening for God’s voice through his Word.

But the feeling that God is absent is real, and you are not the first follower of Jesus to experience that desolation. In fact, Jesus himself experienced it, and many others through the ages have, also.

Our ancient mothers and fathers evoked the harsh landscape of the desert to capture that feeling of loss and despair.

And in contrast, like oases in the sand, we can also experience beauty and joy and freedom in the midst of desolate places, marking times when God seems more palpably close.

Our forebearers told us to expect times of both desert and oasis in our life with Christ. St. Ignatius used the terms “desolation” and “consolation” to capture an aspect of this reality. We are to revel in the consolation, but also respect and respond within the aching difficulty of desolation, too, for we find that God is just as present within the aridity of desolation as he is within the verdancy  of consolation.

Or, to put it more simply, God is in the garden and God is in the desert. And while we may not see him or hear him as clearly in the sandstorm as in the jungle, he is no less present to us and no less loving in his care for us.

In my own experiences of the desert, and in my many conversations with fellow travelers who find themselves in hollow, windy places, I’ve found three practices helpful.

First: Self-examination and response.

The truth is, there does need to be an aspect of self-examination when we begin experiencing spiritual deserts. If God seems far away, I do need first to ask, “Have I moved away from God?”

  • Have I been ignoring the Spirit’s voice, convicting me of a sinful habit or the need to reconcile with someone I’m estranged from?
  • Are there patterns in my life which have contributed to this spiritual dryness–disconnection from Christian community, lack of prayer or Scripture, or a failure to slow down?
  • Am I physically sick? Or struggling with depression? Are there other circumstances which could be contributing to these feelings of malaise or distance?

We need to ask these questions, honestly and openly, and respond to what is revealed to us. God’s love is revealed even here, for it could be through this difficult time, we are finally able to see something we’ve been missing, and experience God’s grace and healing and freedom even now.

But I want to be careful here: The importance of self-examination is not meant to imply that spiritual difficulty or dryness is always a result of some failure on our part. While we need to ask the question, the answer could be that nothing is out of order. You have continued to serve. You are not aware of overt sin nor are you ignoring spiritual fundamentals such as Scripture, prayer and community.

We can often go one of two ways–either be too willing to blame ourselves for everything, or too eager to exempt ourselves from any responsibility. Let’s not fall prey to either temptation but willingly allow the Spirit to reveal truth to us, even if that truth is that you haven’t done anything wrong.

Second: Keep Traveling Together. 

More than any other temptation, when we find ourselves in desert places we must not give into isolation from each other. When I talk to people who are experiencing significant desolation, I almost always discover people who are withdrawing (or have already withdrawn) from community.

Nothing exacerbates desolation faster than isolation. We want to pull back from gathering to worship with fellow believers, we cease to connect with friends, we stop serving together. We forget that we are not the only ones who are experiencing times of dryness, nor are we unique in our trials.

It can be subtle, and the people around you may not even notice for a while. But if you withdraw, it will only contribute to and heighten your feeling of spiritual desolation.

Choose instead to connect. Keep traveling with others. Talk to them about your current struggle to hear God’s voice. Get raw about how you are feeling. Don’t hide. Don’t duck. Don’t isolate.

You’ll find that others are struggling, too. And your honesty and willingness to stay connected will not only serve you, it will be tremendously helpful to others. In times of discouragement and difficulty, we must run counter to our natural inclination to isolate ourselves. We must stick closer than brothers, closer than friends–we must stick together as children of our Father.

Third: Take Courage and Trust.

It may come as a shock to you, but we can grow more in faith during times when God seems silent than when God is more recognizably active.

Why is that? Because during times where God is identifiably moving, when you are hearing him speak and feeling him respond, it is relatively easy to stay on track. When the Scripture comes alive every time you crack the Bible, it’s easy to dig into the Word. When worship gatherings feel drenched in the Spirit, how hard is it to keep connecting as a church? When our prayers are being answered, our fears are being conquered and our witness is taking effect in other’s lives, what more encouragement to do we need? It’s pretty easy to keep focused and following Jesus with all that positive reinforcement.

And while I would never want to minimize the importance of these times of fruitfulness and vibrancy, faith is relatively easy to come by when we are there.

But fling us out into the sand, and it gets harder to taste and see the goodness of God. Stop up our ears so we cannot hear, cover over our eyes so we cannot see, and what do we have? Will we keep following God in the fog or the storm, when we cannot know what’s going on?

In other words, will we trust that God is present even when the signs of his presence are no longer as easy to discern?

Because that’s where our faith is built. It’s when we can’t see we have to believe that, in spite of our blindness, God is there.  It is during times when we feel abandoned by God that we must take courage from God’s prior revelation that he will never leave or forsake us, trusting that in spite of our feelings of alienation, God is present.

That’s where faith solidifies. When the roots drive down deep for recessive aquifers. When God invites us to love and listen and follow, even when we can’t feel or hear or see him.

It’s in the desert that we mature in our trusting relationship with the Father, so that whether we are in places where God seems more absent or more present, we are no longer swayed by either. We know, because God has shown himself true over and over, that what we experience in life doesn’t define God’s character or faithfulness to us. God said he would be with us, so he is with us, despite all feelings to the contrary. Jesus said we were to take heart because he had overcome the world, so we will take heart in his victory regardless of how we may be feeling defeated.

And so we trust. We know with a knowledge that surpasses knowledge that Jesus’ love is deeper, higher, longer and wider than our imagination and experience, established on the cross, confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And we will grow, even when it’s windy, cold, dry and lifeless. We grow in storms or quiet, in desert or garden. We put out buds and produce fruit, maintaining our connection to the Father through the Spirit, in the community of his ever-expanding body of Christ.

We will grow because we know that God is near, and in the quiet times, the dry times, the desert places, he is still calling us to follow him. And as we do, we will discover something greater than we expected–that the God who seems silent is speaking still. He is always speaking, always wooing, always calling. Even in the silence, God speaks.

And as we learn to hear him in the silence, we will grow, mature, deepen, become all that he has desired for us, for our good, for his glory.

 

How to be a perfect church (and yes, it’s possible)

Finding a perfect church is hard.

Being a perfect church is even harder. 

You know all the things everyone is looking for in a church:

  • Incredible worship gatherings
  • Awesome community
  • Insightful and inspiring teaching
  • Fantastic programming for every niche, age and inclination
  • Deep Biblical study, combined with laughter, love and care
  • Discipleship happening everywhere, with no one left behind
  • New people coming to faith in Jesus every week
  • Ample finances, with very little pressure to give
  • Pastors who are theological geniuses, caring counselors, compelling communicators, excellent fund-raisers, phenomenal parents, and wonderful visionaries, all the while maintaining a healthy work-life balance as an example for everyone else
  • And all this as a church which asks only just enough to keep everyone engaged but not overworked and burning out

Well, you know what they say about a perfect church. If you ever do find one, don’t join it–you might ruin it! 🙂

But what if a perfect church was possible? And what if being perfect was measured by a different standard?

I’ve got a surprise for you: Jesus himself told us to be perfect–perfect kids of our perfect Father, which by my definition, means being a perfect church.

Where did he say that? Right here, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:43-48‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

Yep. Jesus told us to be perfect. And he’s not looking for a certain quality of worship music or a community of super-saints.

How Jesus qualifies perfection challenges our cultural or religious definitions. Because being a perfect church has little do with looking great or doing everything right.

How can we be perfect? Well, Jesus said it: By loving the people we most want NOT to love. Loving people we dislike or disregard–or worse, loving people who dislike us and disregard us, who even hurt us or despise us–that, my friends, is the MOST VIVID sign that we are being the perfect kids of our perfect Father.

To these early followers of Jesus, this meant loving people who overtly persecuted, ridiculed and rejected them because they have decided to follow Jesus. For us, it may mean loving people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t like us, or who are really difficult to be around.

But that’s a very different way of thinking about perfection, isn’t it? 

We’ve often thought of perfection as meeting some external standard of achievement, about staying out of trouble, keeping our noses clean and our shoes shined up.

We’ve defined perfection as not messing up. But that’s not what Jesus said. Being perfect is not about never having a family issue or never struggling with relationships.  And it’s certainly not about no nasty feedback from the sound system (or parishioner) on a Sunday–not about no misprinted lyrics, no screaming kids and no weak coffee. Perfect doesn’t mean we’re always smiling, never awkward, and super comfortable.

That’s not how Jesus defined perfection for us. No. Being perfect kids of our perfect Father is about LOVING difficult people in the same generous ways our Father loves everyone. In fact, as we can see, being perfect involves getting into the mess. In this teaching, we can’t actually be perfect without difficult people to love. We can’t demonstrate our perfect Father’s “rain and shine” love without the folks in our lives who are a struggle to care for.  The Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  God is indiscriminate with his grace, and Jesus calls us to be the same. We are to love generously, to love like the sun and the rain–without discrimination, without reservation, without judgment on who will use the “rain” properly or really appreciate the “sun” for the gift it is.

A “rain and shine” kind of love, indiscriminate in grace.

When we love across the lines, when we include those who are frequently ignored (by us and others), when we reach out a hand to someone who’s hard to help–that’s perfection.

When we open up our mouths to invite someone to sit down, when welcome new people into our cozy friendship circles, when we overcome prejudice toward others through hospitality, we are being perfect as our Father is perfect.

Jesus applies this two ways within this passage:

First, To Generously Provide Care for those who might actively seek our harm.

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” To his first followers (and for many followers of Jesus today), this is a sacrificial call. Love those who are hurting you. This is Egyptian Coptic Christians offering forgiveness to terrorists.

For most of us reading this, Jesus is calling us to generously provide care, seeking the benefit of people we might deem an “enemy” of our faith or a person we don’t agree with. But the implication is clear: Jesus calls us to mirror the grace of our perfect Father in our love for others most unlike us.

Second, To Openly Include Others who we’d rather not associate with

“And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” To give a greeting in a public place, back in the first century, was an act of association and friendship. You were willing to be seen as somehow connected. Here Jesus is calling his followers to be like him, willing to associate with people they might otherwise ignore. Like Jesus who hung out with sinners, we are to associate with people far away from the Father, in order to show them his love.

In our day, the application of this is astonishingly easy to understand, though it can be hard to do. We must overcome our cozy cliques and reach across the social, ethnic, religious and ideological lines to befriend people who are very different than us. We need to stick out our hands, and welcome people into friendship who others may deem beyond hope or interest.

That’s how we can be a perfect church. And you know what? It’s just us doing for others what the Father has already done for us in Jesus. Our perfect Father loved us when we were his enemies, generously providing care for us when we had no interest in relationship. Jesus, as I already mentioned, was constantly associating with “sinners”, so much so that religious people rejected him.  He ruined his reputation to love us. Will we ruin our reputations to love others?

If you are looking for sinless humans and flawless communities, then you will continue to search for a perfect church and will never find it.

But if you are willing to be part of Jesus’ mission, loving others who are easier to reject, welcoming into friendship people far away from God and far away from us, then you just might find you’ve discovered a perfect church after all. In fact, you might already be part of one. 


This post was adapted from an unrecorded message I gave at our Erickson Covenant Church Father’s Day BBQ on June 18, 2017. 

What’s choking you? 3 reasons Christians don’t grow, and what can be done about it

How can some Christians go years without growing spiritually?

I mean, isn’t that equivalent of getting married, and then ignoring your spouse? You thought an inked marriage contract was all you needed, rather than the flourishing love relationship the contract was designed to protect.

Yes, I follow Jesus, they say. I believe in him, but I’m not growing. I don’t pray. I don’t study Scripture. I don’t serve in the body of Christ. I’m not accountable to Christian brothers and sisters. And I’m not any stronger in faith or deeper in spirit than I was five years ago.

How is that even possible? Jesus gave one answer to that: kingdom life can be choked by lesser priorities.

In his famous parable of the seeds, Jesus pointed out four broad responses to his kingdom message. In his third example, he pointed to people who, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19 NIV)

Lesser priorities choke out the kingdom growth Jesus desired. Worries, wealth and wishes for “other things” are the classic signs of a choked out life. 

How do these three priorities choke our spiritual life? And what can we do?

First, worries choke our minds.

What is worry? Worry is inverted prayer, where our minds comb through, again and again, the areas of our lives we feel in least control. Worry indicates our primary concerns–it’s what we fix our minds upon, what we wake each day thinking about. And worry is powerful, for under its power, it is difficult to experience the peace and power of God in our lives.

What’s the remedy? We combat worry by praying the truth of Scripture. (You can read more about one way to do that here.) Recognizing all our concerns, we express them to God by receiving his truth into our minds, and speaking the truth back to God about our situation. Worry, turned to prayer, produces growth in our own lives.

Second, wealth chokes our hearts.

There’s a reason Jesus calls it “the deceitfulness of wealth,” for it is exactly that: a sneaky slit that leaks away the life Jesus wants for us. It’s not that wealth itself is bad, but we usually have no idea how powerful it is, and how easily we can be won over by our wealth without ever realizing our loyalty has shifted. Jesus warned, over and over again, that we can’t serve God and money. When we try, it’s our relationship with God that withers.

Giving to Jesus’ kingdom priorities is the only way we can get wealth right.

What’s the antidote? Only one thing: generosity. Giving to Jesus’ kingdom priorities–the poor, the church, missions–is the only way we can get wealth right. Don’t think so? Listen to Paul’s challenge: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:17-18 NIV)

Giving generously releases the choke-hold of wealth on our spiritual lives. You can take that to the bank. 

Third, wishes choke our passions.

What do we really want? It’s a powerful question. A happier family, a more comfortable job, a better body, a kinder climate? The answers will be as varied as we are. And under this final caption, Jesus catches everything else which shifts our passions away from him and on to “other things.” Rather than seeking first the kingdom of God, we passionately pursue lesser things. We wish for __________ (you fill in the blank), rather than wishing for a stronger church, a more effective witness, an opportunity to show love to a neighbour, a breakthrough in our relationship with our son, or a deeper understanding of God’s grace.

How can we combat lesser wishes? By utilizing our gifts to strengthen the body of Christ. We can realign our passions by actively realigning our service, for employing the spiritual gifts God gave us for the purpose of building up the church (the only reason he gave them to us) leads us to greater wishes, deeper desires, an increase in passions for the same things Jesus is passionate about: lost people finding him, broken people being restored, hurt people healed, and a people of God more vibrant and alive to him than ever. That’s what it means to seek first the kingdom of God–we desire what Jesus wants more than anything else. And when we do that, growth is inevitable.

So what about you?

Which of these three–worry, wealth or wishes–have been choking your growth the most?

And what will you do about it? Jesus wants you to grow in relationship with him, and he’s doing everything possible to help you do that. But you’ve got to choose to grow: to pray God’s truth into your situation, to give generously from your wealth, and to serve passionately the kingdom priorities of Jesus. Get that choke-hold off your neck, and grow.

What’s one thing you will do this week to respond to stop the choking and start the growing?

You Are More Influential Than You Realize: Take An Influence Inventory

As many of you know, I’m writing a book on influence, specifically on ways we make or break our influence in other’s lives. Personal edits are almost done, and then it’s off to a professional editor. More on that soon!

Public Domain PC: Free Pixabay Images

But the truth is, many people minimize their influence, not realizing how many people or groups they influence (or have the potential to influence). It’s hard to consider ways we might be hurting or helping others if we tend to minimize our connections.

For those of us who think, “I don’t really have a lot of influence,” I’ve got an exercise for you: take an influence inventory. And for those of you who know you have more connections, taking an influence inventory is a powerful way of remembering your responsibility and growing your intentionality.

Take an Influence Inventory

Public Domain PC: Free Pixabay Images

First, start in close. Who are your primary relationships? Family, close friends, people you’ve worked with for awhile–these are the ones who come to mind first.

Move out from there. Who do you see less frequently? This could be a neighbour that you only chat with over the fence once in a while, or a person you rarely meet–but you do have connections of some kind.

Next, what groups are you part of? There’s the ones that you regularly see, such as at church or a hobby group.  These are societies or sports teams or service groups, addiction support groups and small groups of various kinds. And don’t forget your online forums, which, for some of you, are places you have significant voice.

Within those groups, consider the nature of your participation. Are you in leadership? Do you have a role within that group? Are you considered knowledgeable? Are you trusted? Are you able to be heard and to suggest changes? Are you a donor? A mover-shaker?

And then think of those who watch you from some distance. Nephews, nieces, kids of friends, community members at large, clerks at stores you frequent, servers at restaurants, customers–some of whom you may not be fully aware.

Don’t forget to include people that you’ve struggled with. A strained relationship at work or in the neighbourhood, someone you’ve not seen eye to eye with online or in conversation. You have more influence than you can imagine in those relationships because of how you can choose to go forward in your relationship with them.

Think of non-human relationships in which you have influence: the soil around your house, the air you breathe, the local watersheds, as well as the animals, birds and pollinators who live near you.

What about potentialities? Consider local initiatives you could support, artists you could encourage, youth you could mentor, events you could sponsor and people you could love.

I’m guessing that by now, you’ve got quite a list. Even those of you who thought you had little influence have probably amassed a sizeable inventory.

And what about your Heavenly Father, the one who made you and dwells in you by the Holy Spirit? For the Father is responsive to us, and has asked us to come to him, to express our concerns, to ask him for what we need. Surely, in some mysterious way, you have influence upon him?

Now step back: How big is your list? Are you stunned by the size of your inventory? Who did you miss? What surprised you? What other categories and relationships came to mind that I didn’t suggest?

Reality check: We all have influence–some more, some less, but everyone’s got it. We all have the ability to help others grow, or to hinder people from growing, either actively or passively. And the first step toward better influence is acknowledging who is within our sphere of influence.

Consider your list. I’m guessing there’s quite a few names on it. It might even be a bit overwhelming. To make it actionable, identify just a few of those relationships to give more focused attention. Make sure to include both the obvious relationships, as well as potential relationships and difficult ones, too. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to a relationship that you have been avoiding, in which you really could have good influence. Maybe circle 3-5 relationships in which you will invest time and energy over the next months.

And then pray for how God might move you to increase your influence. It could start as simply as an email or phone call. Perhaps it will mean hanging out a little longer after church or when you drop your kids off at the bus. Maybe it will require something more intentional, like asking a youth out for a coffee or signing up to serve in a ministry or service group. Let the Spirit guide you on that, but do choose to lean into a few of these relationships with more intentionality.

For those who were already aware of their influence, and perhaps a bit overwhelmed by it, what were the relationships that surprised you as you brainstormed your inventory? I know I found a few. Someone you’ve neglected. An area you’ve not been thinking about. It could be that God is using this exercise to recall someone or something to your attention, and you can now give it more of your influence and leadership.

We all have influence. Clarifying who is getting it (and who can get more) helps us become more intentional and specific about the nature of our influence, which is the first step in our reflection on all the ways we can make, or break, the influence we have in other’s lives.

 

And then Jesus winked and said, “Love Your Enemies.”

This just in: startling new evidence that Jesus winked when giving his famous command to “love your enemies.”

You heard that right. Apparently two professors working through previously undiscovered texts from the 4th century have discovered shocking proof that Jesus intended his teaching as an inside joke and the disciples bungled it up when writing things down. (Though the sources remain unconfirmed, let’s just go with it for now and hope it’s correct.)

“Love your enemies? LOL.” PC: Wikipedia

What a relief. I always felt that this command to “pray for those who persecute you” was unreasonable and ridiculous, but there it was, written in red, and what were we to do about it? Well, I mean I know what we did with his teaching about enemy love. We ignored it. We felt embarrassed by it. We explained it away. We sped up our reading so we could get on with teachings less weird and more obviously relevant to our personal lives.  And certainly not so out of touch with the complex political realities facing us today. (I mean, clearly Jesus had never heard of zealous extremists or oppressive regimes? He’d never have said things like that if he knew what it was like to be crushed by godless rulers.)

We did what we had to do. But now, with this new discovery, we don’t need to feel guilty anymore for ignoring what Jesus said while we bomb our enemies back into the stone-age. Now we don’t need to dance around in the Old Testament in an attempt to jive our holy wars with Jesus’ seemingly non-violent stance in the New Testament. We don’t need to conjure a defense for our just actions of recompense when slighted at work or our plan to fastidiously ignore our difficult neighbour. And we are certainly off the hook when it comes to welcoming those refugees and Muslims and foreigners into our country.

All of that is gone now! Jesus wasn’t serious after all!

Whew.

Now, I wonder what else he wasn’t serious about?

 

 

A Surefire Test for Self-Righteousness: Try it today! :)

Self-righteousness is notoriously difficult to self-assess.

Pic: Pixabay Public Domain

Those of us who struggle with it the most are the least likely to recognize it within ourselves. When the infamous Pharisee pompously prayed of all the ways he outshone his fellow worshiper, I just don’t think he was quite aware of how self-righteous he had become. We rarely are.

But I think I may have figured out a way of doing just that. Go with me for a moment, and then I’ll try to explain what I’m thinking.

Here’s the self-assessment question that might–just might–help reveal if we are struggling with self-righteousness:

Am I more offended by the sin of those around me, or am I more offended by the sin that is within me? 

What gets you riled up? What makes you ache inside? Is it the sin within your own heart, or the sin you see in others?

That, my friends, is a surefire test for self-righteousness.

The Pharisee and the Publican, baroque fresco in Ottobeuren Basilica. By Johannes Böckh & Thomas Mirtsch via Wikimedia Commons.

Because I, for one, am far more willing to denounce others than expose myself. I can feel very good about my reaction to the pride and superiority in others–in fact, I can feel pretty . . . er . . . great about it. You can see where this is going.

And lest you think this is a soft-sell, I’ll be clear: getting over self-righteousness is not about becoming dull to sin. Sin is destructive. And we can hurt for the damage sin wreaks in someone’s life; we can mourn over the losses, the hurt and the pain, even when the person doesn’t realize the effects of what they are doing. When we witness tragedy, when we are present in the midst of aching chaos, when we see firsthand the devastation of betrayal and selfishness, we respond with broken hearts.

We can even be offended by sin.  I mean, aren’t you rightly offended when you hear of abuse in the home or an injustice in the workplace? Aren’t you enraged by bombs dropped on kids or the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women? Yes. We are and we should be. Sin is offensive. Sin is nasty. Sin hurts and destroys.

But, at the end of the day, as a general posture, who’s sin am I more offended by? Which sin makes me the most sick inside?

Is it “their” sin?

Or mine?

Because our answer to that gives us the greatest clue to the state of our own hearts, if we are willing to listen.

Following his classic aphorism to “judge not, lest you be judged,” Jesus said to first take the log out of own eyes, so we can then see clearly to help others with the twigs in theirs. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t imply “no judgment at all” but rather that we make ourselves the primary focus of judgment first before we then help others. Jesus wants us to be far more concerned with our own junk than the mess in other’s lives, remembering how easy it is to overlook our own sin. Unless we are willing to let Jesus extract the massive ugliness within ourselves, we won’t be very helpful conduits of grace and love for others. In fact, we’ll be dangerously unhelpful. Perhaps that is why the Apostle Paul warned us against harsh judgment of others?  Paul knew from experience how easy it is to forget our own sin in our fervour to “correct” someone else’s error. Prideful self-deception is most powerful when we are focused on someone else, forgetting our own susceptibility, our own ugliness, our own need for Jesus, our own log-jammed eyes.

So, I offer this question to you for thought, for consideration, one more time:

Am I more offended by the sin of those around me, or am I more offended by the sin that is within me? 

What do you think?

Would this question help you discern your own self-righteousness? Would this move you toward a greater awareness of your own need for the Father’s grace, and therefore a greater desire to show the Father’s grace to others?

I’m hoping so. At least for me.

 

Afraid of Muslims? How Christians Should, and Should Not, Be Viewing their Muslim Neighbours

Not a week goes by that I don’t end up in a conversation with Christians expressing some kind fear about Muslims.

Fear that they are coming here.

Fear that they are moving in.

Fear that they are taking over.

This fear is crazy. Why? Because the idea that Christians should be motivated by fear of others is antithetical to the Spirit of God in us and the mission into which Jesus commissioned us. We are not fearful–we are faithful. We go where Jesus sends us and we receive, with joy, anyone we come into contact with, in the name and grace of Jesus, even if (especially if!) they do not follow Jesus and hold a different belief system than we do. Swing open the door.

As I think about the fear I hear, 5 reflections come to my mind. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
  1. First of all, we’ve been sending missionaries into Islamic countries for decades, giving literally millions of dollars so that Christians can go where few others have gone and usually under the guise of something other than mission work. Now the very people we’ve been trying to reach, at incredible financial and personal cost, are coming to us. Muslims are living next door to us, working in the next cubicle, riding on the same bus, and playing on the same soccer team (and you definitely want them on your soccer team!).  Hello, world. Hello, missional opportunity.
  2. Secondly, and this is so important: Muslims are not a theoretical belief system. Muslims are people, just like every other human being out there. Muslims live and love and work and hurt and desire and sin and betray and fail, just like you and I do. Muslims are loved and lovely. Yes, there are some nasty Muslims out there. There are Islamic extremists who do evil things, which we all deplore, including most Muslims. And guess what?There are some nasty Hindus, nasty Buddhists, nasty Jews and–yes, you can be sure of that–nasty Christians out there, too. People can be nasty, and out of anyone, Christians should be the first to acknowledge that reality, starting with our own confession of personal nastiness. But there are also wonderful, caring, hospitable, interesting, amazing people out there, people of multiple different faiths, including Islam, people worthy of your love, people you can trust with your lives. Hello, friend.
  3. And thirdly, Muslims are coming to know Jesus in droves. In a sweeping move of God worldwide, more Muslims are coming to confess Jesus as Lord than any other time in history, more even within the last 25 years since the origin of Islam.  Want to know more? Read A Wind in the House of Islam by David Garrison and get a whole new perspective on what God is doing. Need to be inspired by a compelling personal story? Read Nabeel Qureshi’s book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus.  Hello, Spirit of God moving over the world! Bring it on.
  4. And fourth: most, if not all, of the people from whom I hear fear have never met a Muslim, have never enjoyed a meal in a Muslim home or welcomed a Muslim family into theirs. And they have certainly never engaged in a vigorous conversation with a Muslim friend about faith, which is so much fun and so rewarding. Their fear of Muslims, then, is not based upon personal relationship, but upon news media, television preachers and fear-mongering tales of people “out there” coming “over here.” That whole vision is not sourced by the Jesus who went into Samaria to love the hated enemy, who forgave his violent enemies and died for us while we were yet sinners; it’s not sourced by the good news we believe and share and sacrifice for. Even more fundamentally, it’s not rooted in the fact that each and every human being has been created in God’s image and is worthy of love. As followers of Jesus, we do not stay home in fear; we move forward in relationship, with the good news in hand and heart. We open up our doors. Hello, neighbour.
  5. And fifth, embracing Muslims does not mean agreeing with Islam. What a silly idea. Every day we embrace and love people who think and believe differently than we do (or at least I hope we do). We do not make our love contingent upon shared belief! Where in the world did we get the idea that loving Muslims, caring for Muslims, standing against violence toward Muslims, laying down our lives for Muslims is somehow an endorsement of their belief system? Again, if you know a Muslim and have engaged in any kind of conversation with one about faith, you would know how foolish that idea is. No, in fact, we can embrace Muslims as friends and disagree on beliefs, the most important difference being our belief about the person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, his work on the cross, his death and resurrection. Every other difference, without exception, pales to this central difference about Jesus’ identity (which, by the way, is the central difference between Mormonism and Christianity, The Watchtower Society and Christianity, Judaism and Christianity, Hinduism and Christianity, Buddhism and Christianity–you get the point.) What I love about Muslims is their willingness to engage the faith conversation, rigorously and without rancour. Coming from a worldview that does not separate religion, politics and life, Muslims are not shy to talk about faith, whereas us Westerners, having long lived in a compartmentalized world of privatized faith, quail at such confident conversation. Hello, conversation!

So why is there so much fear? And how can we overturn this fear and embrace the mission Jesus has charged us with, by the power of the Spirit given to us? Only by getting the gospel right, engaging the mission Jesus has given us, and loving the neighbours he sends us.

We’ve got to get this right. Fear has no place in the life of the Spirit-filled, missionary-sent church of Jesus Christ. Have some faith in the work of God, creating this mighty move of people in the world today. The lives of our Muslim neighbours depends upon our love for them. Come on. Let’s go. Oh wait, they are already here. Now we can invite them over.

Pounced on by Pharisees for Partying with Prodigals? Here’s why that’s a good sign.

If you are reaching the kind of people Jesus reached, you’ll get the kind of opposition Jesus got. It’s just true.

In the good news stories about Jesus, religious people would watch and wait for Jesus to make a mistake so they could pounce on him, accusing him of wrongdoing. And what kind of mistakes would Jesus make, you might ask? Oh, you know, just the standard ones: healing a guy with a debilitating disease, restoring a lame man, casting out a demon. You know, those kinds of mistakes.

And then there was the most awful error of all: Jesus’ seeming indifference to the lifestyles and beliefs of people he’d party with–people with nasty reputations, law-breakers, compromising collaborators, deviants and crooks, disgusting wretches (as they were seen). You know, the kind of people we usually don’t want hanging around the kids.

If you take his mission seriously, and begin to love on and connect with people far away from Jesus, speaking their language and hanging in their hoods, you will draw fire from folks who figure you’ve gone off the deep end. You’ll raise the ire of the very same people who found Jesus so off-putting. (And the same ones who ended up killing him, I might add.)

It’s par for the missional course. We should expect it. In fact, more than expect it: if we aren’t getting any push back, we should be wondering who we are missing–who we are failing to reach. Because if we never face opposition from the religiously uptight, there’s a pretty strong chance that we are not taking the risks necessary to reach the people that no one else is reaching. Mission done in Jesus’ way raises religious red flags.

So don’t be disheartened by opposition, when you are loving those Jesus loved. Don’t be discouraged by heat when it comes from people who have never stepped out from their cozy cliques. Don’t be fazed by the voices who claim purity when they’ve never stepped out into the mud to help those who are stuck.

Just keep loving as Jesus loved.

Keep connecting as Jesus connected.

Keep sharing your life with others as Jesus shared his life with you.

And let’s see the prodigals return, the lost found, the broken healed, and the outcasts included.

And what’s that sound we hear over the din of the prodigal party or the murmur of Pharisaic disapproval?

Only the voice of Jesus, cheering us on.

 

Wonder what’s taking God so long to show up? Trust that his delay is for your good.

When I call my boys and they don’t respond, I get frustrated. When I ask them to do something and they drag their heels, look out.

I can feel the same way about Jesus. 

When I ask him to do something, I want a response. And I can get rammy when he’s slow to come through.

In my mind, a delay translates into a lack of care or attentiveness. And when I pray for God to change something, respond in some way, help me, and I don’t get the response I want? I get frustrated with God.

But more than that, I begin to question how much he even cares about me.

Why aren’t you answering me, God? Aren’t you seeing this? Do something! Don’t you love me?

I wonder if that’s how Mary and Martha felt after sending word to Jesus that their brother and Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus, was terminally ill (John 11:3). They expected him to come to their aid, pronto. They looked for Jesus to show up and save the day. They paced and prayed, maintaining their vigil in the sure knowledge that, as soon as Jesus came, everything would be alright.

And then Jesus didn’t show up. And as the hours passed and Lazarus waned, they became more and more anxious.

Where is Jesus? He should be here by now. What is taking him so long? 

But Jesus, miles away, isn’t moving. News comes, and he tells his disciples to chill. “Don’t worry about Lazarus,” Jesus says. “His sickness will turn out right, not in death but for God’s glory and for mine.”

But Mary and Martha didn’t know that. They didn’t know anything. All they knew was that Jesus was failing to respond to the most desperate plea they’d ever sent him.

John writes that “although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days.” 

Did you get that? Jesus loved them, so he stayed.

Jesus knew how sick his friend was, and yet he did nothing.

Jesus could feel the urgency from these women he loved, and yet he sat on his hands for two more days.

Jesus LOVED them, and he DELAYED. What??

Well, if you don’t know the rest of the story, go ahead and read it here. Jesus does eventually show up, and sure enough, he’s too late. Lazarus has been dead four days, with no possibility of misdiagnosis or resuscitation. Stone cold dead.

But wait. Jesus blows through all that and raises Lazarus from the dead, doing what no one could ever have expected, revealing an entirely new dimension to his power and identity.

So why? Why all the delay if Jesus knew all along he was going to come and reverse the situation? Why put Mary and Martha through all that pain and heartache?

For one reason: to grow their faith in him. You see, God doesn’t delay so we lose faith in him. He delays so our faith in him can grow bigger than it’s ever been. If Jesus had shown up exactly when they wanted him to, their understanding and faith in Jesus would not have changed one bit.

Everyone already knew Jesus was an amazing healer. Oh, Lazarus is sick? Send word to Jesus–he’ll make it all right! Another miracle? Yawn. Been there, done that. Jesus had become old hat.

And so Jesus deems it the right time to take everything up a notch–several notches actually.  It’s like he says, “You already know I can deal with sickness–that no longer surprises you.  Let me show you what I can do with death.”

And why? Because beating death was his ultimate mission, the mission toward which all the healing and miracles pointed.

When Jesus waits, and then shows up, it’s like he says, “I’m not just a healer. I’m the very antithesis of death. I’m life itself.”

“I’m not just a wonder-worker. I’m the guy who digs the grave for the grave itself. I’m resurrection personified.”

And on that day, Jesus revealed himself more fully than he ever had: He really is the resurrection and the life. And they put their trust in him, no longer as just the Master over disease (which he is), but as the very Master of Life and the Very Power of the Resurrection. And that, my friends, was worth the wait, however painful it might have been.

You might be experiencing God’s delay in your life right now, a delay that is painful and long and harrowing. Know this: God’s delay is not a sign he doesn’t love you or isn’t concerned for you.

God’s delay, as difficult as it may seem, is for your good, just as it was for theirs. God’s got something bigger in mind than you and I can imagine, and it’s only through waiting that we’ll be able receive it. May you experience God’s grace, love and patience in the waiting.

 

Your integrity is more about your direction than your perfection.

Our ability to influence others is directly proportional to the integrity of our lives.

Without personal integrity, people feel cheated and cynical, for you have said one thing, but done another. The charge of hypocrisy is then justified, from our homerooms to our boardrooms, to our families, businesses, churches, and communities, short-circuiting influence and diminishing what could have been so great.

Integrity is critical to influence.

But integrity does not mean perfection. Having integrity does not mean we never mess up, that we never fall short.  In fact, unless you are talking about something mechanical or structural (in which case I’m kind of hoping that the integrity a bridge or a jet means something close to perfection!), then integrity signals more of our direction than our perfection. When we buy the idea that integrity means perfection, we increase our chances of hurting our influence, for who among us is perfect?

Instead, personal integrity means being honest about where we are at with respect to our higher ideals or goals. We state where we are failing, where we are growing, and where we need help. Integrity means that we don’t hold up a false front suggesting we are more than we say we are, or even that we are more than we are hoping we are! No, integrity comes when we are transparent and honest, authentic with who we are and deliberate about ways we need to grow. And more than that, when we model integrity as direction and not perfection, we are able to invite others to become more honest and open about their growth and their struggles, which will help us all learn and grow together.

So how do we do this? First, by being more honest with ourselves about where we are actually at–naming our failures and reflecting on our steps, humbly and with candor. And then, in ways that are appropriate, opening up to others about how we are growing and failing, reaching but also falling back.

I believe that the more authentic we are about our own attempts to live lives worthy of God’s high call, including our losses and missteps, the more integrity we will have. And the more integrity we have, the influence we will have. And with more influence we have, the more transformation we will experience together, as we come, step by misstep, through surges forward and wanderings throughout, toward all that God has for us.