Saturday, November 30, 2013

You Might Be A Pharisee if….

     Yikes, I am (still) a Pharisee (at times)! That was my response when I re-read chapter 5 in Brennan Manning's Abba's Child, "The Pharisee and The Child." Thankfully, though, I appear not to be Pharisee enough to condemn myself. I found myself instead turning to Abba and asking Him to draw me closer and show me why I still find it hard at times to live loved and trusting. I know that the reason any of us resort to empty, performance-based religion is because we are ignorant of Father's love and because of the wounds and lies in us that keep us from knowing Him as He is in all His goodness. But I have written much in that vein before, so I thought it might be fun to draw on Brennan Manning's wisdom and add my own twist to the Pharisee's Guide to Self-Discovery. So here goes. (Quotes are from the Kindle version of Abba's Child.

    You might be a Pharisee (at least when these symptoms occur) if…
  • Your walk with God has caused you to become narrower, uncomfortable with mystery, unfamiliar with wonder. "History attests that religion and religious people tend to be narrow. Instead of expanding our capacity for life, joy, and mystery, religion often contracts it." (Kindle location 729)
  • You find yourself looking to the Bible for just the right principle or promise instead of as a book of wonder about a loving God. "As systematic theology advances, the sense of wonder declines. The paradoxes, contradictions, and ambiguities of life are codified, and God Himself is cribbed, cabined, and confined within the pages of a leather-bound book. Instead of a love story, the Bible is viewed as a detailed manual of directions." (Kindle locations 731-733)
  • Your "Sabbath" is a time to kick back and rest from your frantic life the previous week (including frantic church activity!). "A rest from preoccupation with money, pleasure, and all creature comforts meant getting a proper perspective in relation to the Creator. On the Sabbath, Jews reflected and put the events of the past week in a larger context of saying to God: 'You are the true Ruler, I am but Your steward.'" (Kindle Locations 741-742). "Rest from work was not the primary focus of the Sabbath observance. It was both supplementary to worship and a form of worship itself. But worship remained the essential element of the Sabbath celebration." (Kindle Locations 749-751). 
  • You find yourself preoccupied with doing things right with a nagging sense that you have never done enough. (Underlying, unresolved guilt is a dead giveaway that I am living as a Pharisee and not Abba's Trusting Child! TW)
  • You find yourself either afraid to listen to or unaware that you need to peer with God's Spirit at your self talk and inner world. (Pharisees are often preoccupied with the external world because their ignorance of God's love and mercy make them afraid to look deep within. Note I am not speaking of mindless introspection here, but the deep, Spirit-guided and honest awareness of one's thoughts and feelings.) 
  • Blame, of yourself as well as others, seems to be a frequent companion of yours. You never feel like you will measure up to God's expectations. "Blame is a defensive substitute for an honest examination of life that seeks personal growth in failure and self-knowledge in mistakes."(Kindle Locations 794-795). 
  • Instead of joy and safety, your walk with God seems to breed a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty about your relationship with God.  "A vague uneasiness about ever being in right relationship with God haunts the pharisee's conscience. The compulsion to feel safe with God fuels this neurotic desire for perfection. This compulsive endless moralistic self-evaluation makes it impossible to feel accepted before God. His perception of personal failure leads to a precipitous loss of self-esteem and triggers anxiety, fear, and depression." (Kindle Locations 811-813).
  • Preoccupation with appearances is more important than fascination with God. "The pharisee within usurps my true self whenever I prefer appearances to reality, whenever I am afraid of God, whenever I surrender the control of my soul to rules rather than risk living in union with Jesus, when I choose to look good and not be good…" (Kindle Locations 813-815). 
     Okay, maybe that's enough for now. Perhaps you can see why at least some of these made me stop and say, "Ouch!" I think that the truth is that many followers of Jesus struggle at times with the Pharisee within us. But it would be all-too-Pharisaical to ask "what should I do to fix this?," of course, so perhaps our response if the Pharisee pops up is to bring him/her to God, asking Him to reveal what part of His love for us, demonstrated forever in Jesus, we still don't understand. One last quote from Brennan Manning: "To deny the pharisee within is lethal. It is imperative that we befriend him, dialogue with him, inquire why he must look to sources outside the Kingdom for peace and happiness." (Kindle Locations 832-833). 
     And yes, I am smiling as I write this today. The journey to become Abba's trusting child is not ours to fail nor miss, but rather it is His grace-infused gift that He pursues us relentlessly to lavish on us. It's impossible to remain a Pharisee in the presence of His stubborn commitment to love us to life!

Increasingly captured by His kindness.

Tom, one of Abba's children

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Journey Upward

     I have found myself in another season of despond lately, some of it with obvious trigger points, some of it from that mysterious place called "discouragement-without-obvious-cause."  And so it was that Papa began speaking to me while standing with me there in the slough, nudging me to look back at my previous reflections on depression (see here and here for my last two entries) while pulling me to Himself and speaking gently to my disheartened soul.
      As Papa spoke to me, I realized that I have continued to learn lots of things about the journey upward out of the pit of despond, some of which I need to share with others (that would be you who read this blog). Some of these things I have stated elsewhere, some of them I haven't, but here they are all bunched up together. :-)
  1. The journey upward is a journey, not a trip to the emergency room. There's something about American culture that makes us believe that there's a magic pill out there, a quick fix, an instant deliverance--for everything, but most of the time, healing from depression is a journey with its inevitable obstacles and surprises, good and bad. And I now find myself believing that the journey itself is a gift from Papa God. Yes, He could heal us instantly (and sometimes He does), but there are things we learn in the journey: things about Him, things about others, things about ourselves, that we cannot learn any other way than through the experience of His love over a rough and slippery trail. No, God didn't bring the brokenness in our world, nor does He need it to accomplish His purposes now that it's here. But as the infinitely Creative One, He is working with the brokenness to bring beautiful things to light that can only arise from brokenness. (Yes, I know your head will hurt if you try to figure this out, but it's true nonetheless.) And my remembering that the journey is a journey helps immensely during the trips into the valleys--one wonderful truth about a journey is that there is always progress even when it means slogging through a swamp!
  2. Discouragement (and the depression that follows and/or assists it) is based on a lie or series of lies. Please, before I write more on this remember not to try to help someone who is depressed by "shouting the truth" to them! (Read my previous blogs on depression if you haven't). Although I can't name all of the lies I have believed, some of them have had to be rooted out of my life more than a few times, so I know them well. But the root of all of the lies is found in the enemy's smear of God's character. If the adversary can just pour out enough "bad" long enough he may succeed in getting me/us to doubt God's goodness. Once I/we begin to doubt that, all kinds of lies can spring forth from this fertile soil: "now is what always will be," "now is just the beginning of even worse things," "I am the 'great cosmic exception' to God's promises," etc. 
  3. Because the journey is a journey, dealing with the lies is usually a process, oft-repeated, rather than a one time event. My experience in life has shown me that there are seasons when the enemy seems to pile on, and if he succeeds in distracting me away from God's inherent goodness, I will have to be "re-truthed." Rather than feel that I am defective because of this, though, I simply accept this as part of Papa's amazing love for me. Each time brokenness comes and despair follows, my heart is opened even further to a deeper deposit of His truth! Holding onto this truth, even in my despondent times, helps me slowly climb out of the pit. Instead of saying, "I will never learn the truth, I will never learn to trust you," I can say, "I am learning truth more deeply than ever, I am learning to trust you in unprecedented ways-thank you!"
  4. Journeying upward involves a climb, not a slide down the hill. By definition, going up instead of down involves a decision to put forth more effort. Most of you know, I trust, that I am not talking here about striving or mere human effort, but rather the tough work of choosing over and over again to turn to God, trust Jesus in the dark places, keep on going when you want to give up, etc. (Paul captures this paradox of Divine/human effort in Colossians 1:29--take a peek at it. See also his description of pressing on and straining toward what is ahead in Philippians 3:12-14). Now I know from personal experience that thinking about this while one is depressed is not good news, but the perspective that it brings once we begin to be able to make choices (as the depression lifts) helps us make the harder choices that are essential to our cooperation with God's healing in our lives.
     I find myself wondering if I am making sense today. Those of you who never get discouraged are probably mystified by my transparent sharing about these things. And the challenge of writing clearly while in despond is upon me for sure today. But I offer this up simply as one of Abba's children who is learning to trust Him over the long haul, finding His wonder-causing love to be just as powerful in the dark and deep places as on the mountaintops.

Journeying upward,

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Friday, November 8, 2013

Carrying Them In Our Hearts

     This Sunday, November 10, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and November is traditionally the month wherein we put special focus on the persecuted church. See this link for more information (and a search on "persecuted church" will pull up many more resources).
     Many of you probably know that anywhere between 40 to 60% of the world's Christians are being persecuted (some put that number even higher). Some of you may even know how terrible this persecution really is (martyrdom, severe prison, beatings, mutilations, etc.). But what shall we do beyond marking a special day/month? Here are just a few thoughts.
     First, distinguish between feeling guilty and being convicted by the Holy Spirit. Many believers I know tend to feel guilty when confronted with the suffering of others, especially their sisters and brothers in Christ. Please don't feel guilty! Feeling guilty serves no useful purpose and is not the response Papa wants from His children when He blesses them! Persecution is not God's idea nor His perfect will. He wants to bless people, and persecution and suffering are terrible, sin-caused aberrations of what His good and blessing nature intended . So if you are free from persecution, if you are blessed with material and spiritual blessings, your response needs to be one of gratitude and generosity (in every area of your life), not guilt. On the other hand, if Holy Spirit is bringing some gentle but firm conviction to you about your need to be remembering and helping, let Him lead you and empower you to respond as He wills!
     Second, then, is to be listening for God's specific direction for how you are to care from your persecuted brothers and sisters. Not everyone is called to the same level or type of involvement. For example, those with the gifts of serving, mercy, giving, encouragement, etc. (see Romans 12:7-8) may be called to a more significant level than someone with the gift of administration or leadership. One of the less helpful tendencies in today's church world is for those who have a passion for one particular thing to urge everyone to be involved at their level. This is a clear violation of the way God has arranged the parts of the Body of Christ. To paraphrase Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12:17, "If everyone in the church gave every moment of their lives to evangelism where would the nurture that pastors, teachers and encouragers come from? If everyone was totally involved in caring for the persecuted church, where would the care for orphans that those with the gift of mercy come from?" I think you get the picture. In our passion for others to catch God's heart for something we still need to honor God's leadership in their lives and trust Him to lead and empower their role in the Body of Christ.
     On the other hand, there are some things that all of us can do, of course. We can all ask God to help us carry the persecuted ones in our hearts, so that we think of them and God together often and not just in November (that's what I am asking Papa for). And as opportunity presents itself, we can certainly work for justice for those unjustly treated, regardless of whether or not they are Christians. We can all ask God to keep the persecuted ones before our minds and hearts in new ways. (If you want a book that will shake you to the core in this regard, read Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, by Soon Ok Lee. You will never be the same.). And finally, we can all be challenged by our persecuted brothers and sisters to live from the eternal, trust-filled, love-motivated perspective that motivates those who "loved not their lives even unto death" (Revelation 12:11). May God grant me/us the grace to live such love-bathed, trusting lives!

Tenderly carrying them in my heart,

Tom, one of Abba's children

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Preemptive/Proactive Spiritual Growth

     A lot of my posts here come from little epiphanies I have during my Secret Place times with God every morning. I recently ran across one such epiphany that arrested me because of its simple but powerful way of turning a lot of my "Christian thinking" upside down and away from the often negative and reactive approach some are prone to take towards spiritual growth. This is from a journal entry on June 3, 2012. See if it speaks to you in some way. I have edited it just a little but it's mostly straight as I wrote it.
     "Papa, You want to be proactive in terms of how you change our behavior, don't you? Too often I find myself analyzing something I did after the fact, as if that will really help when the issue is always about the heart. Perhaps this is why you don’t spend a lot of time correcting your children (I think it’s your last resort) but rather encouraging us to give you access to our hearts so that you can heal and transform them as needed. And if you do that proactively, it changes the behavior on the front end rather than leaving us to attempt to modify it after the fact or on the fly. 
     This is why you don’t want us to dwell on our failures, or focus so much on our behavior, isn’t it? This is a very big thought, Papa! Romans 8:13, for example, is probably best read as the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the body before they happen, not after, yet I can't ever remember reading it in that way before today. This means that the fruit of the Spirit, produced in us more and more as we live in surrendered intimacy to you, results in 'automatic' changes in behavior. The person who has been transformed by your kindness into a truly kind person will behave kindly, the person who has experienced your gentleness over and over will become gentle and be increasingly gentle with others, etc. Ah, Father. So much of what we 'Christians' try to do is reactive, behavior-oriented, and after the fact. We are more likely to be asking for forgiveness (which is needed, of course) whereas you want to work in us in a way that is proactive, in our hearts and 'before the fact' (preemptive)."
     I could write more about this, I suppose, and I know I have touched on some of the things in earlier blogs, but I think I will let this one stand and suggest that you ask Holy Spirit to expand on it for you. How much of your life is "after the fact," reactive and/or focused on fixing things in you? How often do you find your focus shifting to your behavior in a way that pulls you away from Father's embracing grace and love? You get the picture, I think! I will stop meddling now and let the Holy Spirit do His work. :-)

Looking for His proactive work in us,

Tom, one of Abba's little children