Pruning the Good

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At the end of each growing season, the vinedresser prunes the branches that were most productive during the season. Rather than have them sap the energy from next season’s fruit by growing the branch, they will cut the branch back drastically. Even though it has been highly productive, perhaps even because it was highly productive, it will be pruned. When the new growing season starts all the energy stored up in the vine is able to find its way to the new fruit rather than the old branch.

When I read this I had an “ah-ha” moment. Finally something made a bit of sense about the last year and a half. You see, while I wasn’t altogether surprised by my move to Chicago, it wasn’t one I was quite ready for. I felt like I still had so much more to do where I was. Not only that but I had people around me that I was able pour into and who poured into me. I had family, impact, and many plans.

Yet God very clearly moved me to the city. I’ve loved living here, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve often mentioned, Chicago is the first place that I’ve truly felt at home. Granted most of that had to do with my internal peace and healing, but still there is something about this city that makes me come alive. The people, the food, the energy, the lake, the opportunities, the diversity, the brokenness, the beauty that arises even out of the worst situations are all things I’ve found in Chicago. This is where I know I’m suppose to be.

Still I feel like my right arm has been cut off. Outside of a small group of people, I’m not involved in the lives of others as I once was. I no longer do life with people who I could call up at a moments notice, who worked side by side with me in my neighborhood, who I was able to disciple and pour into, who discipled and poured into me. For the first year, I attributed it to moving, getting established in my new work and world, and the reality of proximity. But I think there is something more at work. I have a sense that in this second year, there is something that will come out of the pruning of the good.

Rather than bemoan the fact that I’m no longer tightly connected to the people I love so much, I need to see what is right here. Who and what is God raising up in my life right now? What is God about in this moment? If I focus on then and there, here and now will be lost, as will what is to come. I either trust God and let him prune where he sees fit, or I don’t trust him at all. There is no other choice.

God prunes the good for a good reason. Prune away, Master Vinedresser, prune away!

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Interruptions or Opportunities

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The Bible talks about “making the most of every opportunity.” In that particular context it is talking about allowing one’s faith to be evident as often as the opportunity presents itself. I have learned that the “perfect” opportunity rarely happens and that every moment is an opportunity for our faith to reveal itself.

Often we think of “divine appointments” as those seen in the Bible, especially the one in John 4 where the Samaritan woman comes to the well midday for water. We know that Jesus knew she’d be there, but the disciples certainly didn’t. There was nothing divine, in their eyes, about this meeting. They saw her presence as an interruption. OF COURSE she was an interruption! She interrupted their lunch and their plans to move on, out of Samaria. Only Jesus, the Divine One, saw this interruption as an opportunity.

An interruption is only an opportunity when God shows up. What if it had been Thaddeus or Peter who had met the woman at the well. Would they have talked with her? Would they be so focused upon their pending lunch that they would ignore her like everyone else did? Would they have listened to the Holy Spirit, like Jesus did, to know what was going on in this woman’s life? Would they have even offered to help or requested help from her? No, they wouldn’t have because at that point they did not see the normal occasions of life, which are almost always interruptions, as opportunities to show God’s love and kindness.

If we wait for the perfect or the divine opportunity to show God’s love, we will miss every opportunity every time. This doesn’t mean that we speak of our faith at every moment regardless of what is going on. That is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for. It is what the Church has done to the world with little effect. It’s what most of those street corner preachers do to the annoyance of everyone.

What we can do is show our faith through our attitudes and our actions. Faith isn’t just about the propositions we hold. It is about the truth and love of God lived out, in and through us as his daughters and sons. If we truly embraced who were are as children of God, co-heirs with Christ, then people will see the difference even before we open our mouths. Our actions, our compassion, our empathy, our listening will open the doors that our words – or the words of Christians of the past – hurled indiscriminately have closed. Our words will then have meaning and import.

So let me ask you, are your actions and attitudes toward the world ones that attract people or do they repel? Do you distract people with your vehement need to be right while the love of God gets trashed by your words? Are you more Pharisee than disciple? Are you more American than Christian? Are you living out your life as God’s child, bearing his name and identity like it was part of your DNA, or do you wear it like a coat that you can take on and off at will?

Are you seeing interruptions? Or are you seeing opportunities?

Kairos – A Time to Change

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Kairos indicates a pivotal time in life, outside of simple chronological time. Kairos signals a game changing event is poised to happen. In Mark 1:15 Jesus said, “The time (kairos) is come! The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe.”

In “Building a Discipling Culture” by Mike Breen, the kairos moment is integral to the discipleship process because it is in these moments that God is trying to get our attention. We use those moments to hear God (repent/change) and then do what he says (belief). It sounds simple, but often we get stuck trying to know what God is really saying. Even if we do have people actively helping us to discern these things (and most people do not), knowing what God is really saying can be a challenge.

What I have found is that God uses our deepest emotions to get our attention. When I feel dis-ease or anxious, I know that God is trying to alert me to something off or broken. He is wanting to move me out of that dis-ease and into peace and power to do his will. So often though we prefer to stay in the known angst rather than move forward into the unknown journey God has prepared. Perhaps we realize that we will be required to change. Perhaps we know that everything that once was will be no more. We cling to the old, the broken, the painful because we simply cannot imagine something better for us, not really. We may sigh and daydream about “if only” but when it comes down to it we do not want to leave our baggage behind.

Yet once we take the step to hear what God is saying to us and actively begin to do what he says, the freedom we sense ahead of us beckons ever more loudly. It doesn’t mean, however, that the road will be straight or simple. Obstacles are bound to be in the way, and the journey will be intentionally difficult. Just like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, we may go through the “valley of the shadow of death” far longer than we ever expected. The purpose in that journey is to rid ourselves of old habits of belief and toxic behavior that keep us from realizing the whole of what God has for us. If God were to short-circuit that journey, provide a short cut around Mt. Sinai, we will enter the new land with old idolatry and a sense of self-sufficiency, rather than worship of the One True God and a healthy dependence upon God and an inter-dependence with God’s people.

As we move further in our journey the kairos moments are less like the 10 plagues of Egypt (huge, painful, catalytic, unmistakable) and more like the cloud that gently steers our steps or the fire that lights our way. All along the way we must make choices to rid ourselves of the past and tighten our hold upon our trust in God. Sometimes we need to camp out for a while, taking in the new territory and the new reality of life. Sometimes we move with lightning speed to our promised land.

If God is prompting you through deep emotion or external pressure (usually they work together), then observe what is going on, reflect on it and discuss it with someone else. What are you believing that is a lie? Rather than looking at what others have done and blame them, look at what is being triggered within you. That is the place to start. But do not just end with the discussion. Make a plan, be held accountable to the plan and then do it. Maybe the plan works, maybe you need to make another one, but at least you are doing something about it.*

What kairos is God using to speak to you? What is God saying? And what are you going to do about it?

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* The Learning Circle is the first piece of the discipleship process as outlined by Breen’s book. A kairos moment occurs which should be followed up by observation, reflection, discussion (initiating change); then progressing to creating a plan, being held accountable, and finally acting on the plan (walking out belief).

Learning Circle Graphic

Looking for Family

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I’m looking for a family. I’m looking for kids, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins and crazy in-laws. I’m looking for people to do life with. I’m looking to reproduce, add to, and grow a family.

I’m looking for a church.

In a family, as in a church, it isn’t about what I get out of it, but what I can contribute and belong to. It’s about being accepted as I am, encouraged to be the best form of me I can be, loved even when I’m far from my best, and expected to give back for the whole’s benefit. This sounds idealistic, and it is, but I know that it is exactly what God intended for his kids. He intended for us to live life together, on mission, and drawing each other and the world closer to him through it all.

I had a great family while in Wauconda, and the last year has been spent missing them and not trying to place any other family (aka church) in competition. I have not wanted to compare, thus I have not made a commitment to another family. I’ve just been hanging out at their various family events. Yet I feel the time is coming soon for me to join a new family.

I’m torn now between two good, mission-oriented, community-impacting, Bible-centric, imperfect families. You know, my kind of family.Yet I almost feel like this choice between the two might not be the right “choice.” Is it possible to be a part of both? When you marry, don’t you have two families you are now actively a part of? My heart is disinclined to choose. So I wait.

I have a life mantra that always serves me well when I follow it (and has always been proven true when I have not): “When in doubt, don’t.” If I don’t know what to do, then I’m to wait until the way becomes clear. It always does. So I wait. But I don’t think the time is long for the direction to be clear. And quite honestly, I miss being a part of a family. A large, crazy, blended, diverse, passionate, messy family.

Weakness: A Vehicle for Mission

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Why would God make me so aware of a desire I could not fulfill? What is the point? And is it even important for mission?

Two weeks ago I saw a play with a friend about two older pet lovers who stumble upon each other and come face to face with their own broken human desires and relationships. On a human level, the play hit very real emotions. On a spiritual level, it completely ignored the reality and power of God.

After the play my friend asked me, “So what was your marriage like?”

I barely remember my answer, though I clearly remember the dissonance that sprang from deep within as the question resounded in my head over the next few days. God was getting my attention.

My marriage was lonely. Very lonely. And coming from a girl who grew up lonely that is saying something. This loneliness was exacerbated by my expectations, some realistic, others not.

I went into marriage with a full commitment to make it succeed and trusted that my husband felt the same. While my trust was real, it was not mature. Ill prepared in so many ways, what I thought was a mutual foundation of faith was not. Without telling a story that is not mine to tell, that marriage was doomed to fail no matter what I did.

Looking back and realizing how little I could do to make it change, and then knowing how lonely I was throughout, God used the play and that seemingly simple question to galvanize my desire for something more, for something real and mutual.

I do not know why God chose now to bring this to my attention. I know one day I want to grow old with someone, but right now I am content and on the whole quite peaceful. This year of “Going Deep” has been incredibly life-giving and joyful. Yet God did get my attention, and I am obligated to do something about it.

Discipleship is all about asking two questions: “What is God saying to you? And what are you going to do about it?” Too often we talk (ad nauseam) about what we are going through, but rarely hear what God is trying to tell us. Most church small groups do this with great alacrity and little benefit. We can’t act on what we do not hear, so the second question is moot until the first is answered.

God was speaking to me about acknowledging and owning my desire to be desired, and to understand why. What then am I to do about it?

The first action step is to tell others. As a Challenger, this vulnerability is very important to my overall health and growth as God’s daughter. It reiterates my utter dependence upon God which flies in the face of my self-reliant tendencies.

The second action is to absorb this desire into myself. It is just one more facet of who I am. I should not ignore it, put it on the back burner, or flaunt it. I cannot deny my desire anymore than I can deny I am right-handed or curly-haired. It is a part of me.

The third action is to draw a line in the sand for anyone who might be a potential “suitor” if such a man exists. While I am no wall flower unable to know my own mind or heart, I am not going to chase anyone. I take relationships as they are presented and give back in the same vein. Knowing my desire to be desired protects me from the what if’s in my male friendships, friendships that are vitally important to me. If a man wants something other than friendship, he’ll need to say so. I don’t and won’t speculate.

The fourth action is to live joyfully in the situation that I am in, no matter if it is for one year or thirty years. I need to rest in the knowledge that God is fully aware of me, my needs and my desires. I do not need to strain or stress or manipulate events to meet my wants. He loves me so much he is going to work out what I need when I need it. My job is to trust him. And I do.

I do not take this part of my job for granted, though I am much more adept at trusting than I used to be. Trust in God is a beautiful and precious gift that I love to show others. Some might try to take it, but even if another takes it out of my hand it still exists. God’s trust cannot be broken, destroyed or mutilated. It can only be spread, shared and multiplied.

The last action is to use my very real, very human need to connect with a world that is longing to be desired. People seek fulfillment in human relationships, much like the play I saw, when the deepest desire is to be loved by the Creator of the universe who is also our Maker. God is not separate from our human desires but longs to be the center of those desires and protector of our hearts. He is the source of ultimate love and such love cannot be imitated or supplanted.

God connected me to my weakness so that I can connect with others in theirs, for His sake and His glory. Weakness thus becomes the vehicle for God’s mission. A powerful, unstoppable vehicle.

 

Real Disciple?

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There are two things in life that make me supremely happy: 1) making disciples – helping people grow in their knowledge, faith and journey with God, and 2) caring for people who are poor and oppressed.

On the surface it would seem that these two passions are aligned. To me they are. Yet for the vast majority of the Church, they are not. Not in practice. Too often not even in theory or theology.

This is a historical problem. The Israelites had two things that God continually had to call them on the carpet about: idolatry and ignoring the poor and oppressed. They neither loved God nor loved their neighbor. After awhile God had enough and sent them into exile.

When they returned, part of the lesson was learned, but it was not the full lesson. Sure they no longer practiced idolatry. Indeed, they set up more rules than God. Co-mingling with non-Jews was verboten and self-righteousness became the rule.

Jesus comes on the scene at this point. He continually challenged the religious people for their lack of care for the poor. Their self-righteousness separated them from the heart of God. Jesus was never angry at the sinners, the poor, the non-Jews. Even if he didn’t initially answer their plea, he was never angry with them. That cannot be said for the religious folks. He called them all kinds of names, as did his cousin John. He called them out on their duplicity and their callousness to those in need. Jesus never pulled any punches with them but hit them hard with the truth that their hearts were far from God. No wonder they killed him.

Over the last two millennia the Church has found itself more often aligned with the religious people of Jesus’ day than with Jesus himself. I think the main reason for this that it is easy to keep life in the black and white. Don’t do this. Only do that. Stay away from people who do _________ . We fill in the blank for the thing that is wrong, just as the Pharisees did, yet the blank keeps changing with society. No drinking, smoking, dancing were popular over the last century. None of those fit the bill for real discipleship though. It made it easy for us to keep a life externally “pure” but internally we were just as far from God as the Pharisees.

James, the brother of Jesus, helps us to understand the unity between discipleship and care for the poor. “Pure religion” is keeping oneself pure – right with God, in on-going discipleship – AND caring for the most vulnerable of our society. It is both/and, not either/or. It’s not a choice. In James’ day the widows and the orphans were the most vulnerable, and they still have a place in that pantheon of care. Yet we also have others who are vulnerable: the isolated, alone, unable to care for themselves, abandoned, abused, alienated, wrongly judged. These are our poor and oppressed.

Jesus told us to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. What seems to be a problem is the kind of disciples that are being made. Too often they do not resemble the Person they are supposed to be following and learning from: Jesus. Jesus took his disciples into places that made them cringe and question. He talked with and cared for people that his disciples were too good to talk to. He led them into houses of sinners, had them hang out with nefarious people, and it still took them far too long to see the rest of the world the way that God did. Jesus trained them by doing, not by reading books. His teaching was in the real world and had immediate real world impact.

The “disciples” we have today look very little like Jesus. I know. I use to be one of them. We have a great deal of knowledge of God’s Word, but it hasn’t entered our hearts enough to allow us to get our hands dirty. When we see someone in need, maybe we’ll donate an item that we no longer need – that’s good, keep doing it! – but we won’t get to know the person with the need. We won’t listen to them, hear their challenges, their joys. We don’t understand the core issues they face. Instead we drop off our goods, feel good about “giving to the poor” and then we move on. But what if we were able to help find or create jobs for people who can’t work traditional jobs? What if we shared our networks of friends? What if we sat down at their tables and let them tell us how to fix the problems in our world? What if we looked more like Jesus?

Jesus cared for the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten and the shameful. He cared for them in a transformative way. As a disciple, I must do the same, not to the exclusion of making more disciples but as an outflow of who I am as disciple. Being a disciple of Jesus means I care about what Jesus cared about. This must include the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable or I can’t say I’m really a disciple of Jesus. I could be disciple of someone, but it would not be Jesus.

Why BS?

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Tonight we had a leaders meeting for our YBS group. YBS stands for “Youth Bible Study”. It also stands for “Why BS?”. The double entendre is intentional on my part. Since our group started as a Bible study for kids in Wauconda middle and high schools irrespective of church affiliation, the first name was easy to arrive at. Yet with my background and particular bias in youth ministry, the second name “Why BS?” is the more accurate.

One clear outcome of my life experience is my intolerance for BS in Christians, including myself. Having been a witness to another person’s life lie, I have a deep compassion and empathy, however, for a person in conflict. I feel for those who think they must hide their struggles and temptations. My heart goes out to them and the strain they endure in silence. If people are not allowed to ask the hard questions of life and of God, then they will never seek him with their whole heart or knock on the door to get an answer.

My compassion for those who struggle is paired with a passion for truth. This is the main reason why I will be brutally honest about myself, how I feel and what I’m dealing with. If I don’t model authenticity in myself, others will not be able to reciprocate and learn how to deal with their issues. This passion for truth also means that the Bible, the source of ultimate Truth, is critical to life and understanding.

With teenagers, authenticity and truth are mandatory. They are in the process of forming their identity, determining who they are independent of but in relationship to their family. They are testing boundaries and exploring who they are and want to be. If they do not have the ability to do that, while forging a deep and abiding relationship with Christ from whom their true identity should come, they will be like a ship tossed about on the sea. Without deep roots in Christ, the cares of adult life will break them down and tear them up. College will chew them up and spit them out. If those aren’t enough metaphors for you, it simply means that God will have no part in their adult lives. And this breaks my heart.

Therefore, it is upon this compassion and this passion that Why BS? is founded. With the purpose of making disciples whose lives are transformed forever by Christ, we strive to be authentic children of God who seek to know our Father through his Word and through relationship with each other and with the world. We strive to learn how to be in the world but not of it. We strive to be honest in everything, even our confusion and doubt.

Doing so means that our work is not fast nor is it showy. It is guaranteed to be awkward at times. It is chaotic, fun, deep, purposeful and invigorating. It requires the leaders to be growing in their (our) own walk with Christ and to be dependent upon each other as brothers and sisters modeling God’s family. It requires a healthy dose of grace, mercy, patience, tolerance and love. It also requires the leaders to remember what it was like to be teenagers, as painful as that is.

If you are to work with teenagers in Why BS?, you need to keep a few rules in mind:

  1. Don’t BS them. Speak truth or shut up.
  2. Invitation is critical as most teens in their search for identity need to be wanted. They need to belong to something greater than themselves.
  3. Do not be afraid to challenge the students. If they know they belong no matter what, you can challenge them to do and be more than they think possible. Most youth groups under-challenge and over-entertain.
  4. Expect them to be conflicted and to have questions. Students who don’t ask or seek will never knock. Encouraging them to dig for their faith now means the roots will be deeper when the trials of adult life come. Don’t be afraid of their questions.
  5. Love them unconditionally through those mess ups and screw ups. Love them in their narcissism and ego-centricity. It’s a part of their development. Have patience.
  6. Let them feel. Help them understand what their feelings are and help them to express them, without pushing. Boys and girls do this differently but both can be equally shut down. Most often they themselves don’t know what they are feeling, so they need help in naming the emotion.
  7. In love confront their selfishness and egotism. It is a part of their necessary development, but they also need to begin to see the world around them. To do this in a healthy way, it must be done with compassion and love. Which means, you have to deal with your own crap and egotism first. If you don’t, you will be defensive and offensive to those for whom it is a necessary phase.
  8. Treat them like adults, the adults you want them to become. Teach them to read the Bible for themselves, to ask the hard questions and how to find the answers. Give them tools and skills so they can forge the relationship with Jesus themselves. If they don’t own it, they won’t live it.

In the end, the goal is not perfect behavior. The goal is a thriving relationship with Jesus that impacts the world.