Karma, Abundance, and the Prosperity Gospel

“God is able to bless you abundantly so that …” – 2 Corinthians 9:8

Let’s start with a Kingdom definition of abundance.

Paul tells the Corinthians that God is able to bless us abundantly. I suspect Paul is saying not just that God is able, but that God wants to bless us abundantly. I lean for evidence on what Jesus teaches. He tells us we leave things on the table all the time because we don’t ask (John 11:22, John 14:13, John 15;7). He tells us we misunderstand the character of God, treating him for all practical purposes more like a cosmic zapper than a good father (Matthew 7:11).

Paul says, “God is able to bless you abundantly.” This is not just his ability but his desire and if this is our Creator’s desire, then this must be our created design. We are designed to operate out of a spirit of abundance. Our design yearns for an abundant (lavish, ample, full) connection with our Father, while our fallen nature tends toward scarcity. In other words, our design yearns to trust God, while the unsaved parts of us suspect that maybe God does not have our best interests at heart.

Meanwhile, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” His teaching doesn’t square with our fallen tendencies. God’s great desire is to be faithful to us — a desire God can make good on because God is able. God has been … is … will be faithful, because that is who God is and what God promises. Jesus said so. “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

That brings us to the two words that blow the lid off the prosperity gospel. Paul tells the Corinthians why God gives abundantly. It is not so people can be fat and happy; it isn’t about physical rewards at all. Paul couldn’t make it more clear when he tells the Corinthians, “God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things at all times, having everything you need, you will abound in good works.” We are enriched so that we can participate more fully in the harvest, so that we can increase our participation in righteousness, so that we can experience abundance that way it is defined in the Kingdom of God.

Paul says we are enriched so that we can be generous. Pastor Alec Rowlands of Westgate Chapel says this, “The blessing of God always goes hand in hand with holiness.” Amen. Always.

The premise of the prosperity gospel — the idea that our giving results in material blessings — seems at every level like a gross misreading of the scripture, not to mention a conscious blindness to the lifestyle of Jesus himself. Let’s be clear: the biblical understanding of abundance has nothing to do with the prosperity gospel. We don’t believe that if you tithe, God is going to give you a Mercedes. That isn’t Christian; that is the Buddhist principle of karma and Christians don’t believe in karma. Faith for us is not a lever we pull to get Jesus to do as we please or a manipulation that requires God to give us things. That kind of thinking is sheer heresy.

Paul’s “so that” says nothing about making us rich for the sake of comfort. We are enriched so that we can be generous. “So that” is all about Kingdom advancement. It is for the purpose of fulfilling the work of Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Our sense of abundance is inextricably tied to Kingdom advancement.

We are enriched so that we can practice the art of holiness and participate in the coming Kingdom.

Does God give extravagantly? Absolutely. Why? So thatprayer in one hand, a shovel in the other — we can be gratefully positioned at the center of the next great move of God. What better pay-off could there be?

So here’s your sanctification question for the day: Does your access to abundance lead to an excess of generosity? If not, you are not only missing the biblical principle of sowing and reaping, you are missing out on God’s promise of abundance. When we give time, talent, gifts, service and witness to Kingdom projects — when we engage the world with Kingdom motives — we position ourselves at the center of Kingdom advancement and through our witness God is glorified. His glory is the fruit of abundance, and it is what we are after when we boldly talk about and enter into giving for Kingdom causes.

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Sanctification: Exegeting My Self

It is not what the pastor is out there doing that counts, but what Christ is doing through the pastor.Steve Seamands

The most challenging part of ministry for me — as I assume it is for many other pastors — is that tension that exists between a demanding ministry and the need for personal spiritual health. As an extrovert who is driven by new ideas and fresh challenges, I struggle to “be still and know that he is God” (Psalm 46:10). I struggle to sift through multiple good ideas to set priorities. In the natural, I prefer a crowded life to a focused life. As a spiritual entrepreneur with a natural desire to start new things, I prefer to generate new ministries rather than develop existing ones. What motivates me is both blessing and curse. I can accomplish a lot, but at what spiritual cost?

As a pastor, ministry leader or faithful Christian, what motivates you? Before anything is accomplished through you, what has been accomplished within you?

Transformational ministry begins with a right heart but for too many of us, the motives that move us are less than mature. Consider these symptoms as you perform a little honest self-exegesis:

  • over-compensating for incompetency
  • fear of failure
  • pressure from others
  • unexplained/ unexplored compulsions
  • competitiveness (preaching to myself here)
  • arrogance
  • an inability to self-limit
  • feelings of powerlessness
  • an immature knowledge of what Kingdom advancement requires
  • productivity sheerly for productivity’s sake

Peter Scazzero writes about the havoc wreaked “when we become so preoccupied with achieving objectives that we are unwilling or unable to listen to others and create an unsustainable pace for those serving with us. The shadow motivation might be a desperate need to receive praise from others for our work …”

I’m exposed by Scazzero’s insight. Laid bare. Lord, have mercy.

If immature and unhealthy motives are the sickness, then what is the cure? Sanctification is the work of confronting our impure motives and finding ways to heal them. Scazzero calls it “self-exegesis.” It is the hidden, quiet, spiritual work of examining ourselves, piece by piece, drawing out every impurity and laying it before the Holy Spirit for scrutiny and healing. It is about being still and knowing not just God but what God knows about me. It isn’t just confession, but a willingness to change.

How can we stimulate this spiritual work within ourselves? Seamands offers several options:

  • Seek out a liminal experience. A liminal experience begins with where we are, then breaks with our routines and comforts in order to return us at a higher level than we began. It is to cease being what was for the sake of becoming a new thing. Spending time in another culture can create a liminal experience. Retreats can have this effect. Time in a monastery works. Even a day by the water or in a forest can contribute to this result. Can you make room in this year’s calendar for at least one extended (a weekend or more) liminal experience for the sake of your own sanctification?
  • Experience contrasting views. Intentionally shifting perspective can help to develop empathy as well as create new solutions to current roadblocks. Do you expose yourself to viewpoints or lifestyles other than your own? Are you rubbing shoulders with people who live in poverty, people with disabilities, people from other walks of life? An African teaching says we are who we are because of other people. This is never more true than when we take time to learn from those least like us. Who is teaching you what God thinks, not just about people like you but about the rest of the world?
  • Fall in love. How does one called to advance the Kingdom of God bear God’s missional heart without bearing an undo burden or losing touch with the love of God? It is far too easy to bear the weight of others’ suffering and the brunt of their immaturity to the point that it hardens the heart of the giver and dulls all spiritual senses. How does one avoid that fate? Surely this is why God continually called the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (see Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, for example). He’d seen them grow hard toward others, so he called for a softening toward the things that break his heart. Fall in love again, God might say to the jaded spiritual leader. Give your whole heart to someone or some people or back to God. In fact, this business of “falling in love” may be at the heart of self-exegesis for the sake of others. When is the last time you gave your whole heart to someone … to your people … to God?

The work we do as followers of Jesus — the work of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced — is glorious but hard work. How do we do it without letting it wear us out? Without letting it harden our hearts?

Steve Seamands has asked: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?”

This question resonates deeply with me. Am I working off my own steam, or am I making room for encountering the Spirit, for letting Him lead? When I begin with my natural inclinations and immature motives, I develop a “thin” ministry that will not withstand real-world pressures. If I’m to avoid burn-out or a crusty heart, I must learn to self-exegete — to make room for liminal experiences, for other viewpoints, for wholehearted love. I must intentionally exegete my own soul and pursue my own sanctification. Only then will I have the stamina and wisdom to engage the world as it is, even as I work to advance the Kingdom of God.

What plan have you put in place to intentionally work out your on-going sanctification, for the sake of others? 

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The difference between faith and foolishness

If all eternity hangs in the balance, why faith? Let’s be real here. Faith doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to get a human race on board. Why doesn’t God show up in more tangible ways? 

Answering that question properly hinges on gaining a better definition than we usually give to the principle of faith.

In Hebrews 11:1, the writer tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Another version calls faith “substantive.” The Message version of the scripture gives this definition: “(faith) is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.

Anyone who comes to God must believe he exists. There is no other option open to us. Of course, there is more to salvation than acknowledging his existence but belief is where it begins. We cannot reason his existence nor can we  feel it. Knowing God requires faith.

Faith, then, is spiritual intelligence. As a way of understanding, it is as relevant as mental or emotional intelligence. Faith is a way of expressing something we recognize as true but cannot describe in reasonable or natural ways. In answer to the question, “why faith?” the response is that faith is a higher form of knowing. It isn’t the “honorable mention” when nothing else works; it is the gold standard.

Faith is a higher form of knowing.

Jesus says as much in John 3 when he explains the kind of spiritual knowing that comes with a relationship to a spiritual being. He teaches that people born physically are born in water, from the womb. People born spiritually are born into the Spirit. Spirit-existence is not equivalent to physical existence. We get in trouble when we try to equate the two.

Jesus goes on to compare this Spirit-knowing to the wind. It is something we know to be real, even if we don’t see or control it. In the same way, we don’t have to see or control the Spirit to know it to be real. Claiming it as truth, Jesus goes on, births us into a different kind of reality. Faith, then, is about being brought into a spiritual life. Decisions begin from that place; wisdom begins there. We begin to know everything else only as it relates to what we know by faith. Faith, used well, orients us outward from a God-center, rather than inward (or upward) from the world. This is why it is a higher form of knowing.

If only we would use our faith as it is designed! Not as a default when nothing else works (“I’m miserable, but I guess I will hang on by faith.”), but as an orienting point that makes everything else make sense. The problem with too much contemporary Christianity is our perversion of good faith. We tend toward empty faith — using it almost like a shoulder shrug for things beyond our control. Or we manipulate the word as permission for all manner of treacherous and self-serving decisions. It doesn’t work, of course. God is not partial to manipulation. But that doesn’t prevent us from trying and from manipulating others in the process.

But that? That isn’t faith; that’s foolishness. Foolishness says, “I know I don’t need this thing I’m after, but I want it. And because I want what I want when I want it, I’m going to call this leap I’m about to make a leap of faith, even though Jesus probably isn’t within ten square miles of it. I’m going to call this faith, because it makes people think I heard from Jesus when I do that, so if Jesus doesn’t come running to save me from myself, maybe people will.”

That’s not faith. That is spiritual malpractice.

Faith is something else entirely, something with the flavor of wisdom, maturity and persistence. I’m thinking of a friend of my mother’s, who wanted a swimming pool in her back yard. She kept after her husband about it. He didn’t want an in-ground pool so try as she might to convince him otherwise, he didn’t budge. Eventually, she got tired of begging, bought a shovel, and started digging. One shovelful at a time, she dug most of a hole for an in-ground swimming pool. When she got in above her head, he got on board. I suspect faith looks more like this than like that of someone who claims to know the preferences of God for self-serving purposes.

Faith says, “If you want a swimming pool, you may have to invest in a shovel.” In other words, faithfulness embraces preparation and persistence, honors investment and counts the cost. Faith trusts the promises of God, but never manipulates them toward selfish ends.

It seems to me that the great moves of God tend to happen in the hands of those who practice a healthy faith, when people who love God invest themselves in partnership with his purposes and are oriented toward life from the Kingdom down. It happens not so much by lofty platitudes and grand-standing but by people who are willing to hold prayer in one hand and a shovel in the other.

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One story of how a missional church got its start

Most posts on this site are dedicated to practical theology, and this one is no different — though it is certainly more personal. For the last thirteen years I’ve been involved with an experiment in “missional church.” Together with some of the most beautifully faithful people on the planet (I won’t hide my bias), we have been figuring out what church might look like when its people are focused on building community partnerships and missional ventures that result in more intentional spiritual connections. We don’t major on the “weekend experience;” our focus is the spiritual formation of souls.

In this season, we’re planning an expansion of our building to include a community center in an area of our town that is lacking in social services. Our intent is not to become another non-profit but to advocate for the kind of healing that happens within a Christian community.

This is our story of getting started, and our vision for what comes next. If you are connected to Mosaic even through this blog, say a prayer for us. May the witness of God’s people welcome and advance His Kingdom on earth.

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The gift of justifying grace (or, why I still hum Tony Orlando tunes)

Back in the 1970s, there was a hit song by Tony Orlando (yeah, I know … “who?” or maybe, “Wow, you’re older than I thought.”) about a guy who spent years in jail paying for a crime. Over those years of his incarceration, he lost touch with his family. By the time of his release, he had no idea if his people still loved him or ever thought about him. Would they accept him if he went home? Or would they reject him and send him away?

He decided to write home before he was released to find out where he stood. “My time is up,” he wrote. “I’m coming home. I don’t know if you want me back or not, but I’ll be coming into town on the bus. When I ride into town, I’ll look up the hill toward our house. That big, old oak tree will be standing there as it has for generations. If I see a yellow ribbon tied around it, I’ll know you want me back and that it is okay for me to get off the bus. If there is no ribbon, I’ll understand. I’ll stay on the bus and just keep going.”

He sent the letter off, then prepared for his release. That day finally came. They sent him through the gate to freedom and put him on a bus. He was as nervous as he could be as he rode toward his home town and the family he’d be away from for so long. As he rolled into town and looked up the hill toward his house, there wasn’t one yellow ribbon. There was a field of yellow — yellow sheets hanging from the windows, yellow ribbons from every branch of that oak tree, yellow everywhere — all of it announcing the same thing: “Welcome home. All is forgiven.”

That’s the word of justifying grace. “Welcome home. All is forgiven.”

John Wesley knew the gift of this welcoming grace. He’d been an arrogant and naive young man when he decided to travel to America as a missionary to “save the natives.” He made it less than a year. Failing in his mission and floundering in his faith, he cried out to God. For the first time in his life, he sensed God calling back. Wesley wrote of that time, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had claimed salvation before that encounter, but it was in that moment that he came to understand what he’d been given. He discovered the rich and freeing gift of unmerited favor.

Justifying grace is that marvelous invention of God that enables us to be right with him, no matter what we’ve done. It is not God ignoring our sin; it is God forgiving our sin and helping us to live as new creatures. God’s justifying grace proclaims, “No matter what you have done and no matter who you have been, because you are walking through this door you are welcome in the Kingdom.”

That grace is the door to the good life. And the handle is on our side.

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The Danger of Distraction

In my Monday post, I talked about the distractions that seem to be keeping the United Methodist Church from fulfilling its mission. I want to talk more about distractions and their effect on souls and systems.

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought … yes! That’s it! By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits (like spiritual disciplines), by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that spiritual disciplines are for people who have too much time on their hands. Disciplines are not just for people who have all the time in the world to sip another cup of coffee while doing an entire Beth Moore study in one sitting. Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits (Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship, community life) that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy yes to things that feed into our formation.

God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son and there are some ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love, and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it. We know it is happening when we have some ability to say no to some things so we can say a holy yes to things that will take us someplace spiritually.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. And that’s where the real spiritual work is done. It is done in the secret place, when deep calls to deep. It isn’t easy. But the joy at the other end of it is a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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Blessed Assurance (or, What Wesleyans believe about “once saved always saved”)

“We who have believed enter that rest.” — Hebrews 4:3

You never know when you might need to defend your position on the theology around the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” It happened to me a week or so ago while I was purchasing a couple of things from a small-town boutique. The woman behind the counter shared that her mother was a preacher, that for years she preached in a holiness church until becoming a Baptist. She changed theological streams because she couldn’t make herself believe in the Wesleyan doctrine of free will to the extent that it allows us to actually lose touch with our salvation.

Since I live in the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. I’ve come to suspect there is a gross misunderstanding of how Wesleyans approach free will and salvation. Often, it is made to sound as if it is God’s choice to drop us whenever he feels like it. “Mess up on Facebook? You’re fired.” “Yell at your dog? You’re not saved any more.”

That take on the gift of free will misses the mark by a wide margin. Free will is not God’s prerogative to exercise; it is ours. We are the ones who place ourselves in jeopardy of moving beyond his presence, though even that isn’t as easy to do as we make it sound.

Think of it like a parent holding a child’s hand as they walk across a busy street. The parent’s whole desire in that moment is to get her child safely across that street. That parent isn’t making decisions while they walk about whether or not she really likes that child, or whether this parenting thing is worth it. No! All that parent is thinking is, “Let me keep my child safe.”

Now, suppose this parent has a particularly strong-willed and active kid who is easily distracted. Is she going to hold on more loosely or more tightly to that little one? More tightly, of course! But suppose that active and strong-willed child sees a quarter laying in the street just up the way, something shiny enough to get his attention and valuable enough to make him want it. The child begs his mother to let him go after that shiny thing, but she says no. She realizes the danger of loitering too long in traffic. She knows the destination is the other side — not shiny, distracting things. Her sole intent is to get them both safely across; she is not about to let him go.

The child, however, is relentless. The more he watches the shiny thing, the more sure he is that it is worth the escape so when he sees a split-second of opportunity, he wrenches his hand out of his mother’s and darts into traffic. Now he is out from under the cover of his parent’s care, not by her choice but his.

Did the mama let him go? Did she want him to do that? Did she cause him to do that? Absolutely not. The intention of the parent at every point was to get her child through the traffic safely. The intention of the child when they stepped off the curb together and headed into traffic was to go where his mother led him. But that desire only took him so far. Having held onto a predisposition toward shiny things for too long into the journey has kept him from being completely surrendered to his parent’s plan.

And that is how Wesleyans view salvation. God gives it, but we have to accept it. By the same token, God walks us through the journey of salvation, inviting us to work it out daily with fear and trembling, but at every point on the way we must make the choice to keep our hand in his. This is the responsibility we bear for the gift of free will.

So what about that “blessed assurance” we always sing about? Is it so blessed after all? Is there really any assurance? Absolutely! Assurance is not the promise that once you say yes to God, you’ve got it easy. That promise is given to no one, believer or not. Assurance is the promise that with your submission and surrender, God will get you safely through the traffic to the other side. Our decision to simply rest our hand in his — to submit to his will. That is all that’s required, and that is only a struggle if we choose it to be.

And that, brothers and sisters, ought to create a deep well of rest within your soul and mine. Because if I believe God is good, God is for me, and God will see me through to the other side, then the rest is details.

Listen: The biblical meaning of rest is not a cure for exhaustion but a pathway to assurance. When we are in sync with God, assured of his character and presence, willing to let him carry us safely across the chasm, we rest.

Blessed assurance, indeed.

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

Yet another acquaintance lost his life to depression over the holidays. Such loss leaves everyone devastated on multiple levels. When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw.

Some years ago, another friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

This is how I answered that question. Maybe it will help someone who is plagued with the same or similar questions:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways, much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did, and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s profound. A great insight and spot-on. I’m glad to hear that you’re dealing with the inevitable guilt in such healthy ways.

And the guilt is inevitable. It is such a sick, sad after-effect of suicide (every suicide, I’m guessing). I sure wish those who end their lives could know just what a burden they leave the living to carry. What a sadness, for all involved. God, your sister, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I don’t have a great answer to your question but I’ve been thinking about it for the last 24 hours and praying about what is truth, since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

The first thing I know about the enemy is this: He is not creative. That is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls, who tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. There is no genius about him. Just evil, hatred and lies.

The second thing I know about the enemy is that he is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again, predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; and he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, to wreak havoc.

I also notice that the enemy of our soul works within systems (things like racism, socialism, atheism, etc.; even some forms of religion), but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. I don’t think of him as purposefully systematic (although he may stumble into systems and exploit their weak spots) or as having great forethought and strategy. For that reason, I see him as acting more individually and randomly. In the absence of a system, he uses whatever presents itself as most convenient.

What we know is this: Because he is lazy, he was clearly capitalizing on your sister’s depression by speaking lies into her spirit that magnified her sense of hopelessness or despair. He wore her down and eventually wore her out. In her pain, the enemy managed to separate your sister from the support systems that might otherwise have buffered her against his worst. He may have used co-dependence (hers or others’) to keep her from claiming her identity in Christ. Maybe he was able to keep her mired in memories that kept her broken and unhealthy.

Or maybe he just made her think (or used the depression to make her think) there was no hope.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it?

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we can’t begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Pastors, people, and social media

We’ve been on social media a long time now. We’ve watched it go through that “terrible twos” stage when people thought it reasonable to post personal disagreements with family members (thank goodness we’ve gotten past that). We watched the exodus from Facebook of the generation who made it famous, when their parents all jumped in. We weathered the election and discovered that not every opinion is for public consumption (some convictions are meant to be held, not yelled).

As a pastor, I value social media. I have a much better understanding by perusing their posts of how my own people live from day to day. I wish I’d had the benefit of social media when I was starting a church; I believe it would have made a significant difference.

Done well, social media builds relationships but here’s the thing: when the expectations get out of whack — when people use social media to send all their spoken and unspoken messages without ever having a real conversation, or when they assume too much of the reader — building online relationships can be confusing for a pastor.

It sometimes feels like we’re expected to read minds while ignoring dysfunction. Good pastors aren’t good at either.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered through my own experience that might help if your pastor is your friend online and you’d like to make the most of that relationship.

1. Don’t expect us to know what you’ve posted about your recent surgery or family loss. That might have worked when we all had one hundred friends, but now that we’ve all amassed far more people on our pages than we actually know, Facebook doesn’t automatically match up your pastoral need with your pastor. Further, you don’t really want your pastor to spend all his time online, trolling for how things are going with you. If you want us to know, call.

2.  The more you want us to see your post, the less likely we are to see it. Likewise, the less you want us to see your post, the more likely we are to see it. It is Murphy’s Law. Yes, we see your unkind comments and we love you any way (we’d appreciate it if you’d return the favor). No, we didn’t see that you lost a leg in a car accident (what makes you think we’d ignore something like that?). If you want us to know, call. If you don’t want us to know, you probably shouldn’t be posting it anyway.

3. Don’t unfriend us when you go to another church. That’s just mean. Seriously. We didn’t leave you. We didn’t reject you. And in fact, we probably still love and miss you. When you unfriend us just so we won’t see how awesome a time you’re having at another church, well … that just adds insult to injury. If you were hoping we’d still be your friend if we change jobs, then please return the favor. Treat us as adults. Call and talk to us about your decision to move, then foster a friendly, mature relationship and spare us both the awkwardness and injury.

4. Likewise, please don’t post how much better we are than the pastor you just left. We probably like that pastor (heck, we probably just had breakfast with him). Sheep-trading isn’t something we enjoy; don’t make it harder than it has to be. If you want us to know we’re awesome, pick up the phone and call. We’d love to have that conversation with you.

5. Do your church a favor. Please don’t post how much you love your church right after you’ve posted something no pastor would be proud to own. It is like having road rage with a fish on your car. No one is helped by that. Pastors are passionate about seeing people grow spiritually as followers of Jesus. Your posts are one way we know how we’re doing. When you cuss, rant, or talk publicly about your mother-in-law, it is understandably discouraging. When you link those behaviors to your whole church … well, that’s just frustrating.

6. If it is important, CALL. There is still no substitute for a personal phone call. Don’t tell us about a death in your family by facebook message or text. If you want us to know, call. If you don’t want us to know, please don’t be offended when we don’t show up when you need us. We’d be there, but we don’t read minds.

7. Live your faith well, then live it online. That is the best encouragement any person can give to their pastor — the recognition that all those sermons, all those small group meetings, all those counseling sessions, all those prayers are making a difference. Seeing you live a vibrant, healthy, personal relationship with Jesus both publicly and privately is a huge blessing to those who lead you spiritually. I can promise you that for a pastor, there is no greater gift.

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Two Pockets (or, a lesson in how we see ourselves)

Simcha Bunim was a Jewish rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1700s. He is best known for what might be called the parable of the two pockets.

The parable begins with two slips of paper. On one slip is written, “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other slip is written, “For my sake the world was created.” These two slips of paper are meant to be carried around in two pockets.

Rabbi Bunim said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

The rabbi’s point was that we are at once both things. We are both sinners and saints, dust and treasure, limited but with tremendous potential, fallen but loved. And we ought to approach our goals and lives with that mind set. Christians would say we are fallen people for whom Christ died.

Dust, yes … but dust so loved by God that he gave his Son.

What if you entered into Rabbi Bunim’s exercise? Write these two statements on slips of paper, then spend time with each of them. Begin with the one with which you are less comfortable. Which of these two statements resonates with you?

Are you more of the mindset that the world was created with you at the center? Many of us live there a bit too comfortably, whether we admit it or not. We are the center of our universe. We won’t say so but we feel entitled. We believe that on most things, we are right and everyone else is missing it. We will make sure our own interests are served and we will let pride keep us from learning the hard lessons. We are the ones who need a little more time with our dust-and-ashes reality — to cut through the pride, to change our perspective, to get us back to the level of learner. Dust and ashes also bring us face to face with our mortality and remind us that even if we hit the ball out of the park today, we’re still going to die. Our time here is a gift, and our assurance of a life beyond this one rests not on our merits but on Christ’s.

In Psalm 90, Moses tells us we’re nothing more than dust. We are like grass that dries out and blows away. It isn’t his intention to squash our self-image, but he does want to make sure we understand that our value isn’t self-generated. It comes from God. And because our value comes from God, we have a certain responsibility to steward our days well.

Are you a bit too oriented toward the notion that you are at the center, and that all else orbits around your needs?

Or do you tend toward self-flagellation, never seeking yourself as good enough? Not all of us need more dust and ashes. Some of us have lost sight of the fact that we bear the image of God. We live in too much self-condemnation, self-hatred … self. We live self-protectively because we have not yet owned our value and strength. We short-change ourselves by low-balling our value.

We who live too much in dust and ashes need to remember that we are not here simply to exist but to make a difference. For our sake the world was created. God thinks highly of us! In light of that, our challenge is to stop making excuses for why we can’t do more and decide that even if we can’t do everything, we can do something.

Let me say that again: Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something. 

This is the mindset of abundance, which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. His victory over sin and death are my assurance that I don’t do any of this on my own effort, skills or abilities. I do all of life in partnership with God, the creator of the universe, and if God is in it then anything is possible.

Which is your mindset? Dust and ashes … or abundance? Dust and ashes … or image of God? Limit, or possibility?

This is the shift I want for you this year. I want you to move from “why me” thinking to “what now” thinking. Maybe you can’t do everything you’d like but you can do something. What will it be?

God has been planting seeds into your life. What can he harvest, in partnership with you?

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