Decisions in the light or dark

pink pencil on open bible page and pink

Never doubt decisions in the dark that were made in the light” is a phrase my kids heard from me while they grew up. I really thought I made it up until shortly before they left for college, they googled it and found out that an acquaintance of mine was credited with originating that phrase. I was labeled a poser by my kids, but I still think that acquaintance may have heard it from me. However, I am not worried about who said it first because she is smarter than I am. There is a lot of wisdom in the phrase.

Often, I see people make great decisions after thinking, praying, and consulting wise advisors, only to later doubt that they made the correct call. It isn’t that they received more information that cast the decision in a new light; rather, most often, their emotions or some comment by another caused them to rethink the decision while under the influence of fears or anxiety. 

The examples are numerous. It is often seen by parents who watch their kids make great lifestyle choices regarding sexual boundaries, drugs, alcohol, and relationships as they are surrounded by wise adults or reading resourceful books. But, then, in times of passion, peer pressure, or emotions, teens totally ignore their prior decisions, sometimes resulting in lifelong negative consequences. Decisions in the light versus decisions in the dark.

The single person who clearly and carefully scripts the type of person they want to spend their life in a relationship with God is another example.  As the years pass by, they fear that their opportunities for an appropriate spouse are fading, so they commit to someone who falls so short of the godly spouse that spurs them on toward love and good deeds. It is one thing to adjust naïve expectations, but it is quite another to abandon foundational characteristics out of fear.  Decisions in the light versus decisions in the dark.

“Buyer’s Remorse” is another example of this very thing. If appropriate resources (prayer, thinking, and counsel) are used before one makes a purchase, then don’t let your fears, doubts, or expectations of others leave you doubting the very thing you were so sure of before you purchased. Decisions in the light versus decisions in the dark.

And what about taking that job, seeing a therapist, pushing the speed limit, making that long-awaited trip, eating that dessert, clicking on that link, or going for that run? Decisions in the light versus decisions in the dark.

It is interesting to me how darkness can take many different forms; however, most often, it involves emotions like the many types of fears (FOMO), comparisons, inadequacies, insecurities, worst-case thinking, weariness, lack of sleep, and yes, even the enemy of our soul. Decisions in the dark happen to us every day when we are challenged not to fulfill commitments out of the pressure from immediate emotions.

So we compromise on decisions that we made when we were in a better-lit place.  Decisions made in the light are almost always made in an environment of openness before God, others, and ourselves.  Being in the “light” involves first being totally honest about our true desires and emotions.  It is okay to be totally honest with yourself, even if it seems selfish, be honest about it because you are fooling no one.  Decisions to serve oneself can be healthy at times.  Just be honest.  Spending time with our loving Creator dwelling on His desires for us, and considering our own desires is the next step.  Just sit in his presence and dwell on his word, seek his wisdom, and allow God’s Spirit to commune with you.

Lastly, discussing this with someone who has no emotional investment in our decision yet has great discernment into the situation. If you want to live in the light, find someone older than you.  I recently made a big decision and asked my mentor, who is ten years older than I am. He gave me great wisdom and, ultimately, peace.

Though darkness can look very different, being in the light almost always looks the same. Unfortunately, I have changed many decisions in the dark that I had previously made in the light, to my detriment.  But I am finding as I age, the emotions that so often darkened my perspective are now losing their luster.  Remaining in the light seems easier.  I think that is why the scriptures elevate the wisdom of the elderly.

Death and Relationships

These last few weeks have been challenging for Mary Kay and me because we have two immediate family members facing imminent death. I have thought a lot about death since my mom died when she was younger than I. But I am not sure we are ever fully prepared to lose those close to us until it smacks us in the face. It is difficult to comprehend the emotional cost of building deep long-lasting relationships, and even more difficult to comprehend bringing these same relationships to a healthy ending. 

Death is an interesting process from a relational perspective. Relationships go through big challenges in death. This is true for the person who is dying as well as for those around them. Most of us just don’t deal well with death because we don’t talk about it or prepare for how to deal with it. Let me suggest that struggling with death can be as much about the death of the relationship as it is about a person physically dying. As Christians, we believe that death is about so much more than simply ceasing to exist. But even we use terms which soften the concept such as:

  1. Passing away: This is one of the most common and gentle ways to refer to someone’s death.
  2. Departed: It suggests that the person has left this world.
  3. Expired: Often used in official documents, it indicates the end of a person’s life.
  4. Gone to a better place: Implies that the person is in a more peaceful or pleasant state after death.
  5. Lost their battle: Typically used when someone has been struggling with a serious illness or condition.
  6. No longer with us: A softer way to say that someone has died.
  7. Crossed over: Suggests a transition from life to an afterlife or another realm.
  8. Resting in peace: Refers to the idea that the person is now at peace after death.
  9. Passed on: Similar to “passed away,” indicating the transition from life to death.
  10. Joined the angels: Often used in a religious context, implying the person is in heaven.
  11. Going to be with Jesus: Expresses spending time in eternity with our God
  12. Going home: i.e. to be with Jesus

These euphemisms are often employed to convey the idea of death in a more sensitive or comforting manner. We do this to comfort the hurting, but in so doing, I think we may miss so many steps to grieve the end of the relationship.

There is a terrible tearing of the relationship when the person dies physically.  Much of a grieving process can be the result of the loss of the relationship. How do we end relationships well? This is an important part of grieving. 

In the case of an accident or sudden death, we aren’t given the opportunity to do so.  Therefore there is the need to keep all relationships healthy and deal with issues when they arise as Ephesians 4.26 tells us not to let the sun go down on your anger.  

In other relationships, we have time to heal relationships or at least create an opportunity for a healthy end to our earthly relationship. 

I fully appreciate as believers, we know we will see those who are in Christ again for all eternity, but death still involves the ending of the earthly relationship we have now.  We really don’t fully understand what it will look like in eternity.  Jesus tells us that people won’t be married in eternity (Matthew 9.29), so relationships will look different in our lives after death. I also fully appreciate that the deceased continues to live on in our hearts. However, it is hard to touch or talk to that person in a visceral sense, which is an important part of relationships. 

In death, the relationship, as we know it, will end. How we prepare for this ending of relationships really matters. Too many of us don’t know how to talk about death, so we don’t. Atul Gwande, a Hindu and general surgeon, wrote Being Mortal to offer a non-religious perspective on death and dying. It’s a good book that reminds us of all the reasons we refuse to face the fact that we will die and cease to be in relationships with those we leave behind. Let me suggest that we don’t ignore one of the most concrete facts around us: we all will die and pass on from this life as we know it this side of death. Everyone one of us.

When my mom was terminally ill with cancer for seven years, I and the others around me just didn’t want to talk about her impending death. We talked a lot about her life, but not her death. However, she continued to bring the conversation back to what life would be like without her in our presence. She died a radiant death. Not in an awkward way, but in a gentle and gracious manner that encouraged conversation about life after she would be gone. She helped us to prepare for her death.

Unfortunately, we didn’t call hospice until a few days before her impending death because of our fear of admitting the reality of it. Once we did, they asked my mom why she was “hanging on.”  She said she wanted to see my sister one more time, and my sister wasn’t coming down for another month or so. I called my sister, and she came the next day. My mom died about 24 hours later. There was a relationship that needed attention, and my mom refused to die until that was taken care of. 

Healthy relationships are essential to healthy living and healthy dying. Healthy relationships produce our joys and our pains.  And relationships take a lot of work to help them grow and die! 

I close with the prayer that Dallas Willard prayed every semester for his students, according to Gary Black in his book Preparing for Heaven.

“I pray that you would have a rich life of joy and power, abundant in supernatural results, with a constant, clear vision of never-ending life in God’s world before you, and the everlasting significance of your work day by day.  A radiant life and a radiant death.

Dallas Willard in Preparing for Heaven

…and I would add before the emboldened text, “and a life full of healthy relationships to continually nurture and expand your horizons.”

Will you be my friend? (Part 3)

After I wrote my blog last week, I wondered if family relationships can count as some of the seasonal relationships that I wrote about.  In that blog, I described how some relationships are for a season and not for your entire life. It is, therefore, appropriate for seasonal relationships to die a natural death as seasons change.  So is it possible that it may be healthy to not keep all extended family relationships active for a lifetime? 

I am not talking about the kind of “cutting off” that is practiced today in some family systems where the kids and/or parents suddenly go dark, cut off all forms of communication, or intentionally remove themselves from the other’s lives as if there was no family connection. 

I’m wondering if cousins, aunts, and uncles can be seasonal relationships.  I think they can.  I think they can also be oaks or bushes.  For instance, my Uncle Don was an oak in my life, and he was one I could go to for advice throughout my life until he died.  But other uncles and aunts weren’t. I went to some of their funerals but not others.

I don’t think it is a given that every family relationship, especially extended family relationships, is meant to be a place of support and nurtured throughout our entire lifetimes.  It is okay to allow some of them to fall away when seasons of time, geography, and culture change.

Relationships are hard work.  They require constant maintenance.  If you don’t think so, I would suggest your relationships may not be very deep.  For me, the deeper the relationship, the more effort is required. 

What about parents or siblings?  I feel they are different; however, some may argue the same as I have with extended family.  As our world has “become flat” and people are not geographically tied to their family or culture of origin, then relationships will suffer. I identified this as a season in last week’s TT.

I think there are times for toxic relationships to end. However, too often, toxicity is in the eyes of the beholder.  I have seen too many parent/child relationships end abruptly and prematurely because the child or the parent labeled it toxic and walked away.  The one truth about relationships that has taken me a long time to embrace is that we cannot control another’s behavior or attitudes in a relationship, only our own!

It seems to me that there is today a tendency in Christianity to elevate the family to an idol.  We may fall prey to the Mormon doctrine of The Family.  Family is a given unit of Spiritual Formation and needs to be appreciated for such.  But I don’t believe it is appropriate to worship the family as an idol. Jesus addresses this in Luke 14.26.  Our immediate family is to be appreciated and acknowledged for the gift of God.  The family must also be used for God’s Kingdom.  But the family unit is only one method of God’s means in shaping our character and Christlikeness. The Kingdom includes the Church and other influences of the community like friends, mentors, spiritual directors, etc. 

We are called to mission as followers of Christ, and again our family is one such mission field.  However, it isn’t the only mission field. I have been amazed at the number of individuals who are amazed that we would move farther away from some of our grandchildren.  Our kids and grandkids are our mission field, and we have seen them as such since birth.  But God has also called us to reach a lot of other individuals in this world, and we have a lot of spiritual kids and grandkids who are not related to us by our blood but by the blood of Christ.

Will you be my friend? (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about three principles I am learning about relationships that are in flux today because of social media. I suggested that social media, by nature of its homogenizing relationships, can cause us to fail to appreciate the diversity of relationships. As social beings, we were created with a need for healthy relationships. We are told in the opening chapters of the Bible that after God created Adam, God said it is not good for man to be alone…(Genesis 2.18). So God created a partner with whom Adam could have an intimate relationship. 

Since the very next chapter of the Bible, relationships have suffered because of sin. All relationships take work and involve humility, forgiveness, and restoration. Different types of relationships involve different types and amounts of effort. I have learned that all relationships were not intended to last forever, and yet some are. So, let me give an overview of at least the five kinds of relationships I believe are critically important to a healthy relational person.

  • The first kind of landscaping is the grass, which provides ground cover. It takes a lot of grass to cover the entire lawn, and with grass comes a lot of weeds.
    • We will have many acquaintances, including shallow relationships and, yes, even some pathological ones. Grass has shallow roots and is, therefore, subject to the environment around it. 
    • We can have lots of relationships (grass) that continually need some attention, feeding and weeding (at least in Orlando!).  We should have plenty of these relationships.
    • Their roots may not go very deep, and most have trouble surviving traumas like droughts or disease.
    • So, if we don’t continually spend time grooming them, they will fade away, and that is okay.
    • When we move geographically or demographically (e.g., get married), they may not survive, and that is okay.
  • The second kind of landscaping is annuals, which provide beauty for a season. These plants are selected because of the beauty they bring to our lives for a specific season.
    • We have fewer people who fall into this type of relationship than the grass type. These are those who bring energy and joy for a specific time or season into our lives.
    • These relationships need attention at the beginning of a season to plant and nourish early and then provide joy and beauty during that season. 
    • These relationships achieve more depth than casual relationships (grass type). However, often, they were for just a season.
    • When the season changes, so does the relationship, and that is okay. These relations change and die with the season of our lives.
  • The third kind of landscaping is perennials, which provide beauty through multiple seasons. They survive more than a single season because their roots go deeper and have more resilience than annuals.
    • We have even fewer relationships with people that transcend any one season of life.  These relationships are with individuals who bring energy and joy through multiple seasons of life.
    • These relationships take effort to plant and nourish at the beginning of a season, but they then last several seasons,
    • They may require attention to keep them alive during the beginning of each season, but they seem to survive multiple seasons. 
    • Because these relationships survive multiple seasons, we often mistakenly assume they will endure for a lifetime. However, as we look back at our relationships, we can identify relationships with people who survived several seasons but they eventually died, and that is okay. 
  • The fourth kind of landscaping is shrubbery or bushes, which provide beauty and protection from the wind or sun through many seasons.
    • These relationships provide protection from the ups and downs in our lives. They last across many seasons and are necessary and give stability to our lives.
    • They require effort to invest in and to receive from.  We find that investing in these relationships returns a deeper sense of stability and continuity in our lives. These take pruning and attention, and their roots go deeper than the previously listed relationships. 
    • We can count on these individuals from season to season to show up and be there.  They provide not only depth but protection from many of the perils in life. 
    • They may last several seasons and even a decade or more, but they, too, may fade and be replaced with newer shrubbery. 
  • The fifth kind of landscaping includes mature trees with deep roots that grow through decades of challenges.
    • These relationships comprise very few of our relationships. We are privileged if we can count five or ten in our lifetime. Jonathan and David seem to express this kind of relationship in 1 Samuel 18.1.
    • These relationships provide protection, shade, and oxygen necessary for us to thrive.
    • They are the relationships (hardwood trees) that grow over a lifetime of seasons and seem to survive challenges. Seasons only make them stronger.
    • They change during various seasons but are resilient to seasons and climate changes.  They grow through traumas by growing deeper roots. They may lose their leaves and even be scarred, but they survive because deep trust, history, and commitment transcend the immediate challenges of any season.

I have talked of seasons throughout this discussion on relationships, how would I define relational seasons? It would seem to me that many have been geographically defined in my life.  When we move physically, our relationships change.  Other seasons are defined by demographic differences. When we have young kids, we may build relationships with other parents of young kids and we enter a different season. We go through a divorce, our relationships change, and we change seasons. We retire and we may enter a different season. Our financial situation may change and at times this causes a change in season. Even changing churches we attend can cause us to enter a different season. 

This is where social media can inhibit these types of relationships maturing to healthy endings. When we go through different seasons, it would be natural for some relationships to fade so that we could build new ones in our social context. We should not try to keep all our old ones alive. It is like trying to keep all the grass, annuals, or perennials we have ever had alive forever. The plants aren’t biologically intended to be kept alive indefinitely, neither are all our relationships.

I fully appreciate this may be difficult for some of us to accept, but it is a reality for most of us. I think this is a great reason for multi-generation and multi-cultural relationships.  More on that later.

Will you be my friend? (Part 1)

This last week, Mary Kay and I got to spend some time with a mentor and friend of mine, John and Judy Boedeker. As we reflected on our lives and ministry together, I realized how many friends I have been privileged to have in my life. As I thought about my friends, it became obvious they would fall into several different categories of impact on my life. 

Some of these relationships began rather casually, while others I intentionally pursued.  Ironically, as I reflect on these relationships, the beginning of these relationships doesn’t seem to have any connection to their eventual impact on my life. In other words, some relationships that began as a chance meeting or email ended up having a long and deep relational impact on my life. While others I pursued and intentionally poured energy and time into inevitably had little impact. 

As I look at my life, some people have come in and slowly faded from my life.  Prior to my relationship with Mary Kay, I probably unconsciously picked my friends by those who I connected with or who could add value to my life.  Ironically, some of them continue today, while others slowly faded as I moved and built other social networks.  Still, others ended abruptly when an event or two revealed they weren’t healthy for me.  I also find it interesting that some relationships start slowly and stay shallow while others grow slowly and build great depth.

Some relationships are seasonal, meaning they serve a purpose for a season, while others may survive multiple seasons and serve many purposes in our lives.  I think we often don’t realize that building relationships carries responsibilities.  These responsibilities may consume a lot of future time and resources, which we seldom think about in advance.  I am amazed at how a certain relationship may directly impact our future lives, but we seldom give them thought today.  We don’t realize the relationships we are building today could cost us greatly in the future.  This isn’t bad or even a warning to limit relationships. I don’t think we can develop a rigid cost/benefit system for relationships, however, there are just some principles to be aware of while building relationships.  Here are a few principles I am learning as I reflect on relationships throughout my lifetime.

The first principle is that relationships do take resources to produce depth.  These resources are both giving and receiving.  Relationships may build naturally, but they do take effort.  We may very much see the cost as worth it, but it is simply impossible to pay a high cost for deep relationships with everyone we meet in the world.  We have practical limits on our relational capital as limited human beings. If we don’t accept that, we simply overpromise and underproduce in the sphere of our relationships.

The second principle is that every relationship will not develop depth, and expecting them all to do so is naive.  One of the fallacies that social media encourages us to believe is that we can develop and maintain unlimited relationships.  We develop expectations of those relationships which simply are unrealistic.

The third principle, which follows naturally from the second, is that relationships come in all types, shapes, nuances, needs, and impacts. The truth is that we need a large variety of different types of relationships for a healthy social life.

I have used an analogy of relationships and landscaping to understand these principles.  Think about the landscaping around your home or apartment, we need a variety of foliage to create a nice appearance.  Like a well-planned lawn or garden, there is a mixture of all kinds of living foliage.  They all serve a purpose.  Next week, we will look at five types of foliage in landscaping and how they relate to relationships.  Let me suggest we need all five kinds of relationships in our lives, but we must appreciate each type has different needs to serve a different purpose with a different impact on our lives.  The five types are:

  • Grass—which we have a lot of, but shallow roots
  • Annuals—which we have few of, but provide beauty for a season
  • Perennials—which we have few of, but provide beauty for several seasons
  • Shrubbery—which are few but deep and live for decades
  • Trees—which are those that follow us for a lifetime.

Next week, I will unpack each of these and how social media tends to blend and homogenize them all together.

Living NOT on purpose

militray men sky diving

I am not a detailed planner by nature, as most of you have figured out by now. One of the frustrations for Mary Kay is that I just figure out what I need to do “in the moment.” This is because she is a detailed planner and desires to have contingencies thought through long before any of them are even a possibility.  

I would rather have a big plan for the future and then handle the challenges as they come. 

So is that living not on purpose? I don’t think so. I continue to learn a lot about myself each year that I live.

I have come to be aware that I have been fairly passive over the past couple of years. I think I have slipped into a more reactive lifestyle. Which is interesting. As I discussed it with MK, she asked if I was depressed. I said no because that carries such a clinical and overused meaning. I simply think I was listless because of too few challenges in my life. With few challenges, I find myself simply checking out.

I wonder if this is what men in retirement demonstrate. They seem to check out, that is until they go out on the golf course!

Recently, however, I have been waking up earlier, I have more energy and am more engaged in my relationship with Mary Kay and others. I find myself with much more mojo in all that I do. Why?

I, again, think this is some of what Peter is referring to in Acts 2 as he quotes Joel that “old men will dream dreams” once they are in-dwelt with the Spirit. The Spirit challenges again the minds of old men who have disengaged from life. It is obvious that only a Spirit-driven passion, as Peter describes, can again enliven men (and women).  It is too easy for older people to just settle into maintaining the status quo. 

I wonder if some of this is related to the lowering levels of testosterone. Testosterone drives men to accomplish more and take on challenges they may otherwise pass on. So as testosterone drops, the man’s desire to prove himself and/or engage in activities that are stretching also drops. They no longer feel the need to prove themselves or stretch to accomplish difficult things, so they settle into a routine of maintenance.  

I also wonder if my issues of falling into a maintenance mindset results from simply no longer accepting my Spirit-led role as a catalyzer. I am hard-wired as that kind of a person. As I have written elsewhere, I love starting things that haven’t been tried before, or at least haven’t been tried the way I want to try it. That is my wiring, and I gain energy and become alive as I pursue this kind of activity.  Sometimes we get tired of trying things and hearing people say, “That is foolish” or “Why try that now”; so we just settle down into a more sedentary lifestyle. We wear down.

However, as the Spirit works in me, I am again reminded of his wiring of me and his call on my life. His call surely has seasons, but it is a lifelong call. 

So why am I finding I have so much more energy recently?  Why, during my waking hours, am I more excited about life? Why am I more engaged with everyone around me?

I know it is due to me pursuing a vision again for our lives. As I evaluate my desires, motives, thoughts, and emotions, I find that I am excited about where Mary Kay and I are headed. I have a vision, a dream about which I am passionate. This dream has enlivened my spirit, and I believe it is aligned with The Spirit of God. 

We are now building a new home outside of Greenville, South Carolina. We are going to leave Orlando, which has been our home for more than 36 years. It is the only place our kids and grandkids have known. Mary Kay and I are fully aware of the myriad of details that need to be covered before this becomes a reality. Well…okay, Mary Kay is aware of the myriad of details; I will “build the bridge as we walk on it.”  But together, we will begin a new season of ministry and life. 

Again, I am excited about being used by God to change the lives of people there in a different way than we have been doing here.  It is part of my wiring, and I feel I am again walking in his Spirit to dream dreams for Him. 

Pray for us. Pray more for Mary Kay.

Those who don’t care about Jesus


I recently read a book entitled I once was lost by two IVP guys: Don Everts and Doug Schuapp. I was challenged to think about how to reach people with the Good News around me who have been exposed to all that has happened in the last twenty to forty years. Their work primarily centered on college students, but I felt the five thresholds they identified from working with students apply as much to everyone and every generation. They concluded that individuals cross five thresholds as they come to faith in Christ.   

Each of these thresholds must be crossed before individuals can work through the next threshold. Ironically people can become stuck in one threshold for decades and then quickly move through another. 

Their five thresholds are:

  1. Trusting a Christian
  2. Becoming Curious
  3. Being Open to Change
  4. Seeking after God
  5. Entering the Kingdom

We’ve seen many examples of these transitions over decades in working with people who are far from Christ. The book nicely treats the process of individuals becoming followers of Christ as both organic and mysterious. It is far from a scripted or rigid plan. While these thresholds are simple and easy to understand, the process is rather complex because we are dealing with individuals and life transformation.

Their objective in writing the book is to help Christians identify where a person is in their journey or walk toward entering the Kingdom of God.  So often, we assume they are ready to enter the Kingdom, so we blurt out the four spiritual laws, Romans road, the bridge, or some other prepared presentation. It is like a salesperson asking us to sign a contract to buy a house before we have even decided we want to move. When that happens, I feel put off, as do those who feel the gospel is being shoved down their throat.

I have worked hard at building trusting relationships, but I’m not sure I have promoted curiosity in the lives of those who trust me. The authors discuss how questions promote curiosity, not answers. Ouch! I am often too quick to give answers. They write:

Jesus is asked 183 questions in the Gospels. He answers just 3 of them—and he asks 307 questions back! As our friend Tom says, “Jesus does not have Q and A sessions. He has Q and Q sessions.”

I Once was Lost, p. 54

I realized that when I am insecure, I give answers. When I am secure, I am free to ask questions. I need to be more secure and ask a good question. I don’t have to have all of the answers, I need to be able to ask good questions. I find questions really aren’t hard to think of or ask, but I must be fully present with the person and not think about myself. 

It happened last night. We had dinner with a couple, and the husband went on and on about his current job. I listened and asked questions. I affirmed and listened more.  Eventually, I felt my interest wane, and my mind wander. I was done with him. I tried to bring the conversation back to something personal. Eventually, I shared how Jack Shitama’s book (If you met my family, you’d Understand) has made a significant change in the way Mary Kay and I communicate within our marriage recently. I said it was built on Family Systems Theory.  He said, “Oh yes, I understand that and use that all of the time.” 

I had just sat through a very difficult dinner listening to him talk and watching him almost abuse the wait staff, who had told us it was her first-time waiting tables. She had asked for patience and understanding. But I felt the husband unloaded inappropriately for new or inexperienced staff. I was so uncomfortable, I wanted out. I tipped the wait staff a lot. 

The point was when he made the statement about understanding Family systems, I was trying to think about how to respond with lessons we have learned. Instead, I should have asked him, “What in Family Systems has helped you in your relationship with your wife?”  But I wasn’t engaged, so I copped out.

I am good at building trusting relationships with those far from Christ, but still learning how to bring them to be curious about the Gospel. It is a great book and one that I highly recommend to all who sincerely want to be an effective ambassador of our Lord.

Loving Differences

neon signage

After what seems to be a lifetime of studying people, I am only now beginning to appreciate how different we all are. I used to hear people say, “Aren’t you glad the whole world isn’t like you?”, and deep in my mind, I would think, “That wouldn’t be too bad!” Okay, maybe I was a little arrogant, but I would suggest I was more naïve. I saw the differences between people as challenges to overcome. 

But now, I see this whole situation differently, call it age, wisdom, humility, or just plain being worn down. I no longer see differences between people as threats, but as strengths that forge linkages between people. 

I think this first occurred to me in my relationship with Mary Kay. Seldom are our disagreements over whether something is right or wrong but merely over our differences.  She sees a situation or decision to be made from her “fearfully and wonderfully” perspective, and I see the same exact situation/decision from my much different “fearfully and wonderfully” perspective. 

But during the discussion, often I do not appreciate that her “fearfully and wonderfully” uniqueness is a God-given perspective. It has taken me years of help from God, others, and reading to come to the point of being thankful for her perspective. I no longer see her view as lacking faith or being negative or…but now I know that she has been given to me to ensure I appreciate a variety of views on any one issue as helpful.

So we first must own our own perspective and offer it as simply that, “my view”.  I must be careful not to attach a right or wrong designation to either my own or MK’s perspective. As we have been able to own our own positions, we find that we can actually hear what the other is saying. As I am able to become secure in my perspective, but not see it as the only right solution. I can consider the merits of her insights and suddenly find it much easier to make a much better decision in light of both of our insights than we could have made with only one of our perspectives. 

I learned this skill in working in the context of teams. As I was able to be a non-threatened presence in team discussions, I found we made much better decisions as a team which were much different from what I first felt needed to be done. 

I must admit that it has taken me decades to develop this non-anxious presence and learn this engagement skill without owning the result. I must trust the process and everyone on the team to also engage.  At the very minimum, I must model this.

Now, I can honestly say that I don’t see differences between people as weaknesses, but these distinctives are what make our ultimate outcomes stronger. The differences are not liabilities but rather linkages that truly form healthier marriages, relationships, and teams.

Leaning into Freedom in Christ

dry canyon with narrow path in antelope valley

For the last two weeks, I have been thinking about how to grow closer to God in my walk with him. I have thought about learning to change behaviors or habits which impeded my walk with Christ. Then I wrote how easy it is to think we are more spiritual because we do or don’t do certain things, which causes us to be condescending toward others. So how do we find balance in our walk between developing healthy disciplines and yet being free in our life in Christ?

I would like to share a quote that comes directly from the Introduction to the book, The Good and Beautiful You, by James Bryan Smith, which is part of the Good and Beautiful four-book series. He writes:

Before my mentor, Dallas Willard, passed over to Glory, I asked him what he thought about the rapid rise of the Christian spiritual formation movement. He said, “It is a wonderful thing, but my fear is the Christian spiritual movement will continue to grow so rapidly that the difficult work of establishing an anthropological foundation will not happen.” By “anthropological foundation,” Dallas was referring to a clear sense of the nature of the human person.

I asked, “Without an anthropological foundation, what will happen as a result?”

Dallas said, “The spiritual formation movement will degenerate into technique. It will focus on practices and not on the soul.”

My sense is that Dallas’s prophecy has come true. Much of the teaching and writing on Christian spiritual formation focuses primarily on the disciplines—on the practices. And, of course, the spiritual disciplines are wonderful tools in our formation. But why do we need a solid understanding of who we are in the process of spiritual formation? We need this foundation because Christian spiritual formation is not primarily about practices or the feelings they might engender. It is about becoming who you are in Christ. Walking a labyrinth or engaging in lectio divina can be powerful practices, but the practices themselves are not the point.

Christian spiritual formation is not primarily about helping you feel more spiritual, but it is about forming you in Christ.

The Christian faith is not primarily about belief and practices; it is primarily about what kind of people Christians become.

In short, the Christian faith is not primarily about belief and practices; it is primarily about what kind of people Christians become. And who we are, who we become, is a deep longing in our embodied souls. God designed us with a deep longing in our souls to be wanted, loved, alive, and connected to God. In Christ, we are all of these and more. And when we live into this reality, we become the unique person God created us to be.

A writer who greatly influenced this book, Fr. Adrian van Kaam, once wrote,

I must become the unique person I am meant to be. The more I become what my Creator called me to be originally, the more I will be united with my divine origin. I must find my original self as hidden in God. The original life of a Christian, as St. Paul says, is hidden in Christ.

Our true self—our original self—the one created by and for Christ, the one made in the image of Christ, is hidden in Christ. Christian spiritual formation, then, is the process of allowing that original Christ-created Christ image to emerge. I have discovered that inviting the Spirit to help me become more like Jesus produces much better results than trying to be “the best version of myself.” The practices we engage in are important in that they are the means God uses, through the Spirit, to shape and form us. But we must never mistake the means for the ends.

Nothing more needs to be said.

For freedom you were set free

closeup photo of sprout

Last week I thought about how I’ve tried to establish healthy changes in my life. Obviously, I succeed and fail because it is not a mechanical process. In fact, I have noticed that when I make lifestyle changes, there is a little danger lurking behind these healthy changes.  Because I believe these habits will make me healthier and more vibrant for Christ, therein lies a seed of either arrogance or self-righteousness. I have noticed for me when I make some healthy changes in my life, I run the risk of falling into these two unhealthy attitudes. 

Let me first deal with the self-righteous attitude. This is where I begin to think God likes me better because I display healthier attitudes.  Whoa, this is very hard to detect, and it poisons the soul slowly.

I used to keep track of how many days in a row I had my devotions.  As the streak grew to a thousand, I would compulsively try to maintain it because I was so driven by the practice. I would get home late at night but not pillow my head until I had written several sentences in my journal. In doing so, my devotional time had little impact on my love life with my Lord.  This was because I slowly adopted the perspective that God loved me more than others because of the consistent time alone with him rather than the quality of my time with Him.  Instead of my devotional time being a result of our relationship, it became the basis for my relationship with Him. 

It would be no different than following a rigid rule to spend an hour a day with Mary Kay, regardless of what was going on in our lives.  Eventually, Mary Kay would sense she was just a time slot on my calendar, not the love of my life. Love cannot be defined by such rigid time restraints.

The same is true of my running, eating, serving, giving, and just about anything else in my life. When I see God’s acceptance of me as dependent on how I perform in any of these areas, I am headed for trouble. 

I think this is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the 1 Corinthians, in 13.1-3 (The Message), he writes:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

1 Corinthians 13.1-3 (MSG)

Basically, he says you can perform everything very well, but if you don’t love God and others amid all you are doing, your efforts are wasted. 

God loves me like I am, and healthy habits help us experience life as He intended, but they don’t make me any more acceptable to God. Period.

The second danger of becoming rigid in our healthy habits is that we tend to look down on people who aren’t as disciplined as we are in certain areas. We can become critical or condescending of those who aren’t as good as we are in controlling one area or another.  We tend to create rules for our spiritual life.

There are many Christ followers who think they are more spiritual because they do or don’t do certain things. Some think they don’t drink alcohol or smoke cigars, or drive fast cars, so they are spiritual. To my amusement, the converse is true for others who think because they are free to drink alcohol, smoke cigars, and drink fast cars, they are more spiritual as they experience God’s grace and freedom. 

To my amusement, some think abstaining is a measure of spirituality, while others think participating in them is a measure of one’s spirituality.

Paul addresses both perspectives when in Colossians 2.20-23 (NIV), he writes:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Colossians 2.20-23 (NIV)

I love what he says to the church in Galatians 5.1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…”

Paul reminds us that neither perspective is closer to experiencing God’s grace. God’s grace and being truly free is to be freed up from thinking that these have a spiritual influence IF THEY BECOME AN END IN THEMSELVES. That is, when individuals feel better about themselves than others.

Neither I nor Paul are saying there are no absolutes.  Paul is clear about the areas which step outside of what he describes as “self-imposed worship” and plain sin. But we will save that for another blog.

There is a dynamic, mysterious, and organic factor to growth. It is not a rigid adherence to rules but an internal construal toward what produces a radiant relationship with Christ in each of our lives. What produces growth in plants is rain AND sunshine, soil AND air, wind AND stillness, external nutrients AND internal DNA. Healthy growth is not a regimen of rules but a dynamic interaction of many factors dominating and then subsiding. 

The same is true of our lives.  We establish healthy norms in many areas I have mentioned, but then we live life amid that “normal” while not allowing it always to dominate.  We must be freed up from judging others and feeling self-righteous in ourselves.

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