Friendship is a choice (or, how the church teaches me to love)

What would you give your life for?

Your kids? Your spouse? Your family?

Would you give your life for people you don’t know? People forced into prostitution in Bangalore, or unborn babies?

Would you give your life for the Church? Paul tells us Jesus gave his life for just this thing. Jesus gave his life for the Church.

More precisely, Jesus gave his life for people, who are the flesh and blood of the Church. I can’t even begin to comprehend the motives of God. Why does he care about people who are imperfect, selfish, unkind, unthinking, unloving? How was it that Moses and God could find such frustration in fickle people, yet be fully on their side at the end of each day? That reveals a depth of patience and a quality of love I can’t fathom.

God has a vested interest in us and the cross is proof. Further, he has partnered with us through the Holy Spirit. He offers a brand of intimacy and belonging that nothing else can approach. God has literally given his life to us.

But I’m a pastor. Subtly and not so subtly, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ. We are taught the psychology of being in community without getting tangled up in it. Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. And maybe this is especially true of itinerating pastors.

Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus is teaching me something radically different here. Jesus is teaching me that it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry. Not beyond but in the midst of community.

When Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” he is teaching something radical about community. Find your friends here, he says. And when Jesus says (John 15:16), “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you,” he is challenging us to do something radical. We rejected him, but he still chooses us.

Love is a choice.

Which means I am now free to love even in the face of rejection. We are free to give our hearts to others, to community, because Jesus has chosen to live out his character in us.

In conversations with a few single friends, I have discovered there is a hunger out there for genuine friendships that don’t suffer from the fear of sexual expectation. It seems that our culture has us all so afraid of each other that we default to a defensive posture, keeping ourselves at a distance, unwilling to develop healthy, vulnerable relationships.

This doesn’t have to be.

Jesus had friends … not just disciples, but friends. John 11:5 says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” This is the one personal friendship the Bible mentions for Jesus and it includes women.

I would be lost without precious friends — male and female — who add such value to my life. Being a pastor, most of my colleagues are men (and since Steve is a teacher, most of his colleagues are women). We don’t shy away from friendship with the people God has placed in our lives. We know who we are and are able to act as responsible adults when we are with others. Our lives are enriched by this choice. Here are a few things that make our friendships work:

Transparency — Any healthy friendship requires a lack of anything resembling secrecy, especially when it is with a friend of another gender. There should be no shadow of dishonesty, nor of politics. Too often, pastors erect political boundaries that keep us from real conversations and real influence. We’ve chosen correctness over kindness. Who says we can’t be genuinely in relationship with the people in our communities? We can decide to do this without abusing relationships, simply by being honest with people about who we are. And we can do so maturely without violating the standards of holiness.

Boundaries — I control my own boundaries. I get to choose the nature of my relationships. I am not a victim of other people’s feelings nor of my own, and my reactions are a choice. All of us who follow Jesus should aspire to that level of maturity. “Grow up in every way,” Paul counseled. Surely he meant it for our relationships, too. This means I can decide how and when I can be present to others and it means I can choose to love others without fear of their responses because I know who I am.

Hear me clearly: I am responsible for my own brain, and my friends are responsible for theirs. When we practice healthy boundaries and take responsibility for our side of the fence, we open ourselves up to the blessing of good community life.

Accountability — Friends hold each other accountable for their actions. They respect and accept each other, yet they are not afraid to confront each other when the need arises. Friends depend on one another for support in times of crisis, whether emotional or material. Friendship is a relationship of trust, confidence, and intimacy. It is not southern kindness, but something deeper — a willingness to speak truth in love.

Learning to live vulnerably and maturely in relationship with others — learning to be a real friend — is a gift on the way to real life and it is the work of the Church for which Jesus died.

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God is enough (or, why sovereignty matters).

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end. – Isaiah 9:6-7a

Every time we say the words “Jesus Christ,” we are proclaiming a King who has a Kingdom. The Bible refers to it alternately as the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. Christ’s Kingdom is the rule and reign of a holy God, an “anointed one.” He is not just King of my heart, or even King of the world. He is King of the universe. There is a cosmic reality far greater than us.

The Kingdom of Heaven has an army. The Hebrew term usually translated as “hosts” in the Bible (as in, “Lord of Hosts”) more accurately means “army.” Ours is a warrior King who fights for us in the supernatural realm.

The one who is in charge of our army, who is fighting for our territory, who has dominion over our Kingdom, is a God of love, justice, mercy and peace. He can be trusted even in the battle because God is on the side of people. God loves people.

The King who is for us is with us.

He is a sovereign King. What does it mean when we say God is sovereign? We’re saying, basically, that God is God. King of Kings! Lord of Lords! God Almighty. He is enough.

Here’s what the fact of God’s sovereignty means for you and me:

  • God has the power to do what he wants, where he wants, when he wants.
  • God has given himself one limit: he has chosen to let us come to him freely. Our Father has chosen to make our relationship with him a free choice. Free will is a mark of God’s sovereignty, not God’s limits.
  • God is not a bully. His decisions are compelled by love, not power (which means we are saved by love, not power). At the cross, we (humans) experienced the full extent of God’s love; Satan experienced the full extent of God’s power.
  • God does not control us; he empowers us. What he asks of us, he empowers us to do. That’s the point of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely why we seek the filling of the Holy Spirit.
  • God gives us the right to make decisions and our decisions matter. In fact, they have eternal consequences.

This is God’s sovereignty at work. God is compelled by love to exercise his power. Because he loves us, he uses his power to overcome every obstacle that threatens to keep his children from the Kingdom. He uses his power to fight for us. And in the end, we are assured that this love — the love of a merciful, just God — wins.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, our Father is enough. All by himself, he is enough.

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Don’t settle.

Mark Batterson tells the story of Honi the Circle-Maker.* Honi isn’t a Bible character, but from other writings that include his story (Jerome, for instance), it seems that Honi likely lived within fifty or so years of Jesus.

Honi was an Israelite known for his ability to pray for rain. He visited cities dealing with drought, drew a circle in the sand there, then stood inside that circle and prayed for rain.

Once, the Israelites called on Honi when they hadn’t seen rain in a year. Honi did his usual. He walked to the edge of town, drew a circle in the sand, stood inside it and said, “Lord, I know you have power to bring rain and I know your will is provision. And so, I swear before this great nation that I am not going to move from this circle until you have shown mercy on your children.”

That ends up being a dangerous prayer. Honi was almost killed for that uttering it. People in his day didn’t think a person should talk to God that way.

They might have killed him except that about the time Honi finished his prayer it started to sprinkle. If I’d been this prophet I might have picked up my circle at that point and walked right out of town. After all, I’d proven my approach. Why would I give more to people who would have killed me but for that sprinkle?

But Honi knew God, and because he knew God and God’s power, he wasn’t about to settle for a sprinkling of God’s provision. Tolerable was not the goal.

Hear that: Tolerable is not the goal. Transformation is.

Honi stayed inside his circle, leaned into the power of God and kept praying. “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that fills cisterns, pits and caverns.” With that second prayer, it began to rain like crazy. Torrential rain. Egg-sized raindrops. Damaging rain.

And again, Honi prayed. “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of your favor, blessing, and grace.” And with that prayer, the rain became the kind of sweet, soaking rain that settled in and filled cisterns and souls.

In Batterson’s book about this very prayer, he notes that there are some things God will not do unless we ask. Maxie Dunnam has often said the same. “What if there are some things God cannot do or will not do until or unless we pray?”

This actually better suits what we know of God. He is omnipotent, which means he has limitless power. A God of love would surely want to share it. A God of limitless power and love is not only capable of more than we can imagine; he also desires to share that power with us in good and life-producing ways.

What if our biggest limit is not God’s inability to answer but our inability to imagine more?

In the middle of our wrestling, maybe God is asking us to wrestle with the very question of his power. “Is there a limit to my power?” Why would he want us to shoot for anything less than his fullness? And what if our praying is how he compels us to lean in and hang on until his power is revealed?

Batterson says that how we answer that one question determines how we will live and how we will pray.

Is there a limit to my power? The coming of Christ and his defeat of sin and death answer that question boldly. There is no limit to God’s power. Which means that we are free to draw our circles around our biggest issues and stand confidently knowing that whatever the circumstance, our God is able.

Batterson says, “With God, its never an issue of, ‘Can he?’ It is only an issue of, ‘Will he?’ We may not always know if he will, but we know he can.”

 

*Mark Batterson’s book, The Circle-Maker, is an inspiring short read.

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The birthplace of meaning

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small …” – Micah 5:2

For such a small place, Bethlehem holds a mountain of meaning. The Hebrew word has two parts. The first part is the usual word for house, but it has connotations of family. It can also mean temple. “Bethel” in the Bible means “House of God.”

The second part of Bethlehem is the Hebrew word for bread, but this bread is not just the side item on your plate. It is what Jesus was talking about when he taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” This bread is the difference between life and death.

There is another connotation to that second part of the word Bethlehem. Sometimes, it can mean “to do battle or fight.” It is not the usual meaning attached to the name, but there is this strong connection.

When we put all that together, something like a little miracle emerges in what God has woven into the name of the place where Jesus was born. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in a place called “House of Bread.” The one who did battle with death itself and won, who was raised to victory after three days in a grave, was born in a place called “House of Battle.”

God chose a seemingly insignificant place, Bethlehem, and there he created the Bread of Life and the One who would defeat death. And on the night he gave himself up for us, Jesus lifted up the very symbols of a bakery and a battleground — bread and blood.

Christmas and Easter really do belong in the same breath.

And when we place our trust in Him — this God-man who is spiritual food for us and who promises to do battle in the spiritual realm for us – we are born spiritually into his family and become members of the House of God. Our birthplace then becomes Bethlehem just as surely as his was.

Bethlehem. It is a place of possibility, a place of new birth, a place where we are fed, where we are protected, where we are home.

 

 

(This post was first published in December, 2012, on fivestones.com)

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