Saturday, October 29, 2011

Keep Listening!

     Not sure how long this entry will be, but I have been pondering of late how important it is to "keep listening" to Holy Spirit's nudges, all the time, without restricting what He might say with assumptions as to what He couldn't possibly say (other than the boundaries of Scripture, and even there we have to be careful that we aren't mistaking our understanding of Scripture for what it really says--think about it).
     A number of things of late have re-awakened this common theme in my life and blogs (I know I often remind you to live loved, listening and surrendered!), but perhaps the most prominent one is how God has led me to stay connected to more traditional forms expressions of the church while also deepening my convictions about organic church life. Those two facts would create a lot of tension in me if I weren't able to hear God's voice!
     Perhaps there are areas in your life where tension and apparent contradiction make you perplexed from time to time. I am fairly sure there are areas like this in all of our lives since, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we see everything now only dimly. "Keep listening" is what Papa would be saying to you as well, then, I think!
     Why wouldn't God just make everything clear so we can plan out our lives accordingly? I think you know the answer to that, but in case you don't, here are a couple of my thoughts about this. First, God knows it's best for us to live in ever increasing trust in Him. Life is never certain, dear ones, it only appears to be more uncertain at various times. Who are we to think that we can really anticipate what life will throw at us today or tomorrow? But Papa knows all things and is infinitely committed to what's best for us. And the way we "access" what is best is to live trusting Him, and that means listening each day for the words that continually proceed from His mouth to our hearts (Deuteronomy 8:3). To live trusting is to live listening. Second, God knows that even if He chose to show everything to us, we wouldn't understand it! Think of all the ways that God works at once in just one human life! Now add to that life all the other people's lives that intersect with that one life and then add all the other factors of life, including the unseen spiritual dimension which is far larger than the seen dimension. Do we really think we could grasp all of that even if Papa showed it to us? Nope! So living listening seems to be a much better approach to life and the only reasonable one. I could add more reasons, of course, but the bottom line is that God's answer to all of life is quite simple and all-encompassing: "I will be with you." So keep listening!
     And the really cool thing about all of this listening? It's a remarkably peaceful and joyful way to live! We don't have to figure things out. I find that the only time anxiety or discouragement really gets hold of me is when I forget that I don't have to lean on my own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), and that I really can trust God to speak to me and guide me and change me and... Am I the only one that finds that fear increases to the extent that I think that I am alone in facing whatever? No wonder God's continuing promise is "I will be with you." And how amazing that He is communicating with us all along the way and that we can trust Him to get through to us as we choose to live in a listening mode.
     So how do you listen? I have written about this before, and there are many good books on hearing God (Dallas Willard and Mark Virkler come readily to mind as good resources here). For me, though, the one key factor above all others is the inner stillness that Papa has helped me cultivate over the years. When the stillness is disrupted, it becomes an immediate invitation to stop and re-center my life (not by trying but by resting, collapsing and surrendering). I trust that you have found the same thing to be true.

Listening in the stillness.

Tom, one of Abba's little children

Friday, October 21, 2011

Harmful Clichés of the Christian Religion

I have written before about how deadly the Christian religion is, being a terrible substitute for the vibrant and transforming walk with Jesus that the Bible describes (April 8, 2011). Today I felt I should tackle some of the sad, silly but harmful clichés that express religious rather than relational thinking. You may question why I bother doing so, but I hope to answer that question as I debunk some of these common sayings. The truth is, they not only belie the depth of our religious thinking but they perpetrate it every time we club someone or ourself with one of these clichés. So here's just a few of many.

"I am so unworthy!" Sigh...if you or any human being had no worth (the meaning of unworthy) then why did Jesus die for you? The worth and value of every single human being ever to live on this planet has been eternally established as "priceless" by the infinite price that Jesus has paid to reconcile us to Father. I took a swipe at this one earlier in the week via Twitter. What we are really trying to express is that we are undeserving, not without worth--that what God has done for us through Jesus is far beyond what we deserve. But it's our value and worth to God in His love for us that gives us worth. Why bother correcting this one? I hope the answer is obvious, but in case it isn't, seeing ourselves as "worthless" prevents us from being in a healthy relationship with God and with others. It also tends to make us grovel before God rather than coming boldly as beloved (and highly valued) sons and daughters.

"I just want God to use me. Use me, Lord!" Every believer has probably said this one, I think, and from a sincere desire to honor the One who redeems and heals us. But in any other context, one person "using" another is a negative and undesirable thing. How many times have we heard it rightly said, "We use things, we love people"? So why would it be any different for God? What God desires is to flow through us and partner with us to see His Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We humans were not created to be God's servants, but God's children and friends. God created angels to be His servants. He created you to be in intimate relationship with Him. Yes, from that relationship we will gladly serve Him (Paul gladly described himself as a bond-slave), but we serve Him as free sons and daughters, not mere slaves. And we serve Him from intimacy not by being "used." I think you can see why this one is important to get right.

"If we don't, He won't." This one shows up in various forms but the basic idea is that God is somehow unable or unwilling to accomplish His purposes unless we pray, or witness, or whatever...(anyone else suffered through the evangelist painting the picture of people falling into the fiery pit because you didn't share your faith? The problem with this kind of thinking is threefold. First, it flies in the face of God's sovereignty. Ephesians 1:11b describes God as the "One who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will." This leaves no doubt that our failures or successes in doing His will are not going to hinder His purposes. Second, this kind of thinking motivates people to action via shame or guilt or duty, and Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that anything not motivated by and through love brings nothing to us. Third, the whole idea of needing to be motivated by shame or obligation exposes a "slave" mentality rather than a son/daughter relationship with a loving Papa. If I find myself having to be motivated by external pressure, the solution is not more external pressure but to press in even more deeper into Papa's heart so that His love compels me by its overpowering, overwhelming goodness to care about what He cares about and therefore to obey Him with joy and passion. (Ideally! Yes, sometimes the obedience starts from a pure act of the will, but even that can flow from genuine love, not a fear that "if I don't, He can't!" I think you get the picture.

Okay, I think you get the picture here. Or I hope you do. It might be good to ask Holy Spirit to ring your bell when you say some of the things "Christians" commonly say and ask you, "Does Father really say that, mean that?" You might find yourself debunking your own set of clichés--or at least that's what I am hoping :-)

Learning to live loved...

Tom, one of Abba's little children

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Power of Healthy Transparency

     Anyone who reads this blog or my Facebook posts knows that I very much believe in and practice transparency. Big revelation, eh? :-)
     Why am I so transparent? Because I believe that healthy transparency is an essential gift to others. My deep conviction is that as a leader I need to model reality and give hope to others. Being artificial gives a false view not only of me, but of life in Jesus. If I appear to be better than I am then I portray something about the Christian walk that may be unattainable or at least unrealistic for most people. What a cruel thing to do! If I appear to have it all together, which is certainly not true, then I make others feel terribly defective. Another negative outcome of such artificiality is that others put me on a pedestal thinking that by some great power of achievement I have attained what they can never hope to attain. I cannot tell you how distasteful all of this is to me. Thankfully, I have many good examples in Scripture to encourage me in being transparent: David comes to mind (talk about transparent--some of his psalms are scorching examples of what he was feeling, thinking and doing at the time!). And Paul's letters are filled with remarkably transparent insights into his life and emotions. So...I will be transparent as a gift of encouragement to others and as a testimony of Papa's grace at work in my very ordinary life. 
     On the other hand, I once heard a very prominent pastor claiming to advocate transparency by stating that he believed in being transparent but only about things he had already gained victory over. I remember thinking at the time that something was very wrong with that statement. Now I know that what he was describing isn't even being transparent! To allow people only to see the victories God has granted us is not transparency. The truth is that we are always fighting something, I think, and sometimes allowing others to peer into the battle is the healthiest thing we can do, both for them and for us.
     Perhaps you have noticed that I am writing here about "other-oriented" transparency. There is, of course, healing that comes to us through our being transparent. In fact, we cannot make real progress in our Jesus journey without being transparent with some trusted others. That's what the books, Truefaced and Bo's Cafe describe so well. (By the way, Truefaced has now been rewritten and will be released around Thanksgiving under the title, The Cure. I am looking forward to reading it). I love this amazing description of a healthy culture of transparency in Bo's Cafe (p. 74): "What if there was a safe enough place where you tell the worst about yourself and not be loved or respected less, but more? You know what happens...? Hidden junk we've been carrying around for years begins to melt away. People come alive. They start to discover who they really are. They start doing good stuff with their lives. They find their future. They stop needing to be right. They stop trying to fix their symptoms, and pushing everyone away.... They get loved."  
     But I haven't seen many folks write about the blessing to others that transparency brings, so I thought I would highlight it today. Healthy transparency becomes more about you than me as I mature. Healthy transparency is filled with hope, not just misery. As I mature my transparency becomes more and more infused with the promises of God and awareness of His faithfulness even as I also reveal my struggles to lay hold of them. Healthy transparency is as much about you as it is about me, and it is laced through with hope and God's fingerprints! Healthy transparency is strategic in that it matches the ability of others to handle and benefit from it rather than just blurting out anything to anyone. Healthy transparency is shared without the need for a positive reaction from everyone (those still hiding are not comfortable around transparent people, for obvious reasons). I could go on, but you get the picture, I think.
     Note, however, that we don't get to the place of healthy transparency overnight. For most people "sharing their stuff" and being accepted instead of rejected because of it is such a new and wonderful experience that at first they just blurt it out. (Because I am so safe I often have people offload everything and then say in amazement, "I don't know why I told you all of this!" I just smile. :-)) But as they heal up some they realize that transparency is indeed as much about others as about them, and healthy sharing begins to become the norm for them. It's a beautiful thing to see that happen. Papa's fingerprints are wonderfully prominent!
     What about you? Do you have a safe group of friends who love you more not less as you are vulnerable and transparent? I certainly hope so. And are you learning to see that your transparency, wisely exercised, is a gift to others? This is certainly my hope and prayer for you. Let it be, Papa, let it be so!


Tom, one of Abba's transparent children

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Time For Everything

"The season of mourning is over." Those words from Papa God, whispered to me a few days ago were a bit of a surprise to me, but not entirely, and they were powerfully confirmed to me this morning during the message by our guest speaker who encouraged us to "let go of the old and step into the new" and "let go of the grief, pain and sorrow and step into the future," etc. Don't you love the way God orchestrates things so that He speaks to so many of us at the same time in the same way, yet with each of us in different situations? I am sure that many in the room this morning were making their own transitions into the future even as I was. Only Papa could have made sure that I was here in Houston, today, to hear Joshua Mills say those words on the one year anniversary of Jettie's departure!

So this will be the last time that I address anything specifically related to the journey of sorrow related to Jettie's death. These are random thoughts, too, so there may be some repetition from previous posts, but I wanted to put in one place some of the most important things I have learned.

First, I have definitely learned that "ain't over until it's over." I smiled (and sighed) as I looked back at my words on April 29 where I was celebrating how healed up I already was. Maybe I was healed up a lot at that time, but I can assure you that the season of mourning continued on for several more months after that date! Now, however, I can tell that it really is time to move ahead. Why I thought I could speed up the one year process of "firsts" is a mystery to me, but I am a humbled and better instructed man now! When God says something is over, it's over, but not before. 

Second, we know that healing is happening when we are able to enjoy life without guilt and remember things without sorrow. This is how I know that I have indeed finally turned a corner and entered a different season. At the same time I heard those words from Papa about the season of mourning being over, a dear older friend of mine gently told me that I was still holding onto Jettie in some way. That triggered a highly important time with Papa that led to some final surrender that I cannot even explain, but on the other side of it, I knew I was in a different place because I stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the new life that is unfolding for me here in Houston. And only in the past couple of days have I noticed that I can remember things about life with Jettie without sadness. Maybe some folks can get to that place sooner, but it has taken me until now to do so. But I know from both experience and from my reading about grief that enjoying life and remembering without sorrow are big milestones in this journey. And I am so grateful for what God has done (and continues to do) as He brings me into a "time to laugh" and a "time to dance."

Third, I have said this before but I need to say it again: regret is a real hindrance to getting on with life and into wholeness. Thankfully, God addressed this early on in my journey, but it's amazing how many times He had to re-address it before I finally let go of it for good. I realize now that regret is a subtle form of shame, and shame keeps us terribly locked into self-focus and bound up in the past. Jesus died to take away our shame, including the shame of "I wish I had" and "I could have" and "I should have," etc. 

Fourth, God is the best grief counselor in the Universe, but He uses His people as part of His healing process. I could write volumes about this, and maybe some day when I write my book about the journey, I will. For now I simply elaborate on these two points. 1) God will for sure lead you through the grieving process as you lean into Him, collapse onto Him, cry out to Him, listen to Him. Some of my deepest healing moments have come after I wept and even shouted at Him but then stopped and listened to Him--amazing! And He has led and continues to lead this entire journey. The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, really is the best counselor in all of creation! He alone can lead us into the truth that sets us free. 2) God also heals us through other people. One of the things people naturally do during grief is isolate themselves from others (for many reasons), but I don't know of anyone who has been healed up in a truly healthy manner apart from lots of interaction with and support from others. The illustration of the input from my older and wiser friend (thanks, Ray!) is just one example of dozens of how this has been true for me. So I encourage the grieving to reach out, I encourage those who are not grieving to reach out as well, even if all you are able to do is weep with those who weep and hold their hearts close to yours.

Finally, the past year has only made me appreciate more than ever what an amazing woman Jettie was and is. I will always respect, honor and esteem her and always be thankful to God for giving me 41 years with her. But I will not cling to her, live in regret nor fail to move into my future (that would actually dishonor her). And so I step into the future, treasuring the memories while living in the joyful fullness that life in Jesus always brings.

Tom, one of Abba's children

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Transfer of Trust

I will probably repeat myself in this post because I am once again going to write about "faith," and I wrote quite a bit about that during the season of testing our family went through in 2009-2010. But I thought it would be good to write about trusting God on the other side of things during a time when I am once again being challenged to trust Him at uncomfortably deep levels. So here's a few things I am learning.

First, more than ever I am aware that "faith" is something that is present in every human being. The question, of course, is where a person chooses to place his/her trust. We exercise enormous amounts of faith every day. We trust other drivers to stay alert and in their own lane of traffic, we trust those who worked on the airplane we are boarding to be responsible, we trust those who prepare our food to exercise good hygiene practices, etc. And, most of all, we trust ourselves and our own perception of things. It's that last truth that creates the challenges for us as we hear God invite us to trust Him. We are conditioned all of our lives to trust "self" and self alone, and this self-trust is so automatic as to be almost invisible and unconsciously exercised. But God invites and challenges us to transfer trust from a very limited and highly ignorant person (that would be you or me!) to Himself, the infinite, all-knowing, completely loving One. Sounds good when we say it, eh? But learning to transfer trust to Him is a lifelong process that is often fought tooth and nail by both our adversary and our self. Big revelation there, eh? We all know this fact all too well. But it does help to bring this to the light, I think. When I realized that I wasn't trying to create faith or generate more faith but rather transfer my trust from self to God, it helped me both to want to do so and made me see how possible it is to trust God (I just shift my trust from unreliable self to totally reliable Papa God!).

Second, "faith" is best built mostly during the good times so that it's there to sustain during the bad times. This isn't what I was taught in church, though. I was told that times of testing come to grow my faith (exercise my faith muscle, etc.). But this isn't what scripture says, and it isn't what life experience teaches us! Trust grows in our lives in response to our experience of another's trustworthiness. We learn to trust another person by their showing us through their actions that they are trustworthy. The more experience we have of their trustworthiness, the more we grow to trust them. Eventually our trust is deep enough that even when they ask us to trust them in something we haven't previously experienced with them, we do so because their character has been revealed through our experience with them  up this point. I think you can see how this applies to the God journey, too. And Scripture bears this out, showing us God's trustworthiness over and over again as experienced by people just like us, and telling us that struggles come not to grow our faith but to reveal it in the midst of the test (see, for example, 1 Peter 1:6-7).

But how does the above truth help us? I am learning that paying attention to God's faithfulness during the good times, taking time to be grateful and to reflect on His goodness when things are going well can actually build my trust level in Him in wonderful ways. That is indeed what happened during the season of pain that we went through. The trust that had already grown in our hearts sustained us and invited us to trust in uncharted waters even in the midst of the storm. And God, of course, was also continuing to reveal His trustworthiness during the troubled times in many different ways. (So, in fact, faith can grow during times of testing, too, but that shouldn't be the primary place, in my opinion).

Third, by its very nature, faith is meant to increase and grow in any relationship, and especially in our relationship with God. We were meant to trust God, born for that very purpose because we were born in order to be in relationship with Him! But because increase is part of the journey, we will often find ourselves faced with a new choice to trust God in a new way. Personally my sense of self trust is so deeply ingrained in me that I find God's invitations to trust Him in new ways rather stretching at the very least and downright annoying and scary at the most! Yet the invitation continues all the days of our lives: "Trust in the LORD with all of your heart and don't trust in your own understanding." And so my anxiety becomes God's call to trust Him more deeply, not blindly but based upon His character as revealed by our experiences of His faithfulness and the testimony of many others. (But it's still scary and annoying at times! It wouldn't be faith if the need to trust weren't involved!).

Finally, I have discovered again that it really does help to translate belief, believe and faith as "trust" when we read scripture. There is something wonderfully down to earth and easy to understand about Jesus asking the disciples, "Where is your trust?" instead of "Where is your faith?" Because of our religious conditioning, faith often sounds like a commodity or something we do, whereas "trust" is easy to understand as a relational concept. Try it, you may like it. The word "trust" will fit in all of those places where believe, belief or faith show up.

And so here I am, facing the uncertainty of life in multiple dimensions, with no sure end in sight. But as happened during the painful journey, I hear again the words of Lamentations 3:57 and cannot do otherwise than transfer my trust once again to the One who alone is trustworthy.

Tom, one of Abba's children