Triggers, Urge-surfing and the God Who Heals Us

I have triggers. When I hear an ice cream truck, something in me immediately goes back to 1205 Eisenhower Drive, my childhood home. When I smell popcorn, I’m in National Hills Theater and in my happy place. The picture of a margarita will send me a craving. I haven’t had a drink in 25 years, but the picture of a margarita still sends me back. What are your triggers?

Think of an emotional trigger like a little internal tether. It links us emotionally to something behind us. Sometimes that thing is good (like the smell of coffee in the morning) and sometimes it is not so good.

I often equate triggers with the struggle of the Israelites out in the desert, with Egypt on one side and the promised land on the other. They seemed to live in a constant internal tension, trying to press forward while Egypt called them backward. That seems to be the human condition. We tell ourselves little lies all the time that head us back toward Egypt. We romanticize slavery. That other life was simpler, less stressful. Or maybe it wasn’t so fun, but at least we didn’t have to work as hard. And those tiny internal justifications stir us to head back toward things that enslave us.

Once in the midst of Israelite complaints, God did a miracle. He turned bitter water sweet and then gave them this revelation: “I am the LORD who heals you.’” They named that place “Marah.” It became the place in their story where God spoke the kind of healing that turns bitter things sweet.

That makes Marah an important place on the spiritual map. It is the place we pass through that is hard, like the bitterness that settles in after the initial shock of divorce or the loneliness that follows rejection. Or the emptiness that follows loss. It is that place after a blow or temptation when we don’t quite know what to do next. When we aren’t aware of what is going on inside, we will struggle to press forward. We’ll long for Egypt, for old familiar territory. Virginia Satyr says that most people prefer the certainty of misery than the misery of uncertainty. We’d rather head back to Egypt than learn to live as healthy people, but Egypt is diseased while “I AM the God Who Heals You.”

Out in the desert, God explains to the Israelites what they are dealing with. “When you begin to do holy, you will tempted to go backward but there is no healing for you in Egypt. And there is no healing for you in the place you’re headed if all you do is drag your enslaved mentality with you to that new place. Freedom is in the God who heals you” (see Lev. 18). The trick, God seems to tell them, is to understand their triggers so they can get control of them. 

Learn your triggers. Folks who have dealt with addictions and messy lives find they are much more successful in recovery when they learn what their triggers are. Heather Hill, once an addict and now free from that life, gives some powerful advice about triggers:

Being triggered does not make me a bad Christian. It doesn’t mean I lack faith or that I am somehow less than. And the moment I start believing it does, I am that much closer to giving in to it. Triggers are simply remnants of my old self hanging on for dear life, because the old me doesn’t want to die. They are my thorn, reminding me of who I once was and reminding me how much I will always need God. My triggers are not in control. They don’t drive the bus. The most dangerous thing about a trigger is the urge that follows. And it’s tough, because it usually includes a physical reaction I cannot control.

The urge that follows my trigger only last about three minute. It used to last longer. I have found that the harder I fight the urge, the longer it lasts. When I rail against it in anger or disgust (because I believe the above point), I am thinking about it harder than I ought. When I am triggered to the point of an urge, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Pray it out. Wait it out. Don’t DO anything. Focus on God and pray until it is over. In rehab, we called it “urge surfing.” Because it comes in like a wave, peaks, and rolls out again.

There are practical ways to avoid my triggers. There are the obvious ways, like avoiding people, places and things. But when that isn’t possible (like when my family member is a trigger), the best way to overcome them is to understand them. Understanding why someone or something triggers me is the best way to move towards healing.Understanding removes the aspect of fear and confusion from the equation. And it gives me a point of focus for my prayers. I am triggered because I am a broken human being who needs healing.

Understanding my triggers helps me understand my brokenness. My best defense against triggers has always been gratitude. Remembering what God has done for me, how far he has carried me, all he has redeemed in my life, keeps me moving forward.

Healthy, life-giving relationships are key to recovery. We may always experience triggers, but we never have to face them alone. We are surrounded by a community of people who love us and want to see us healed. God is for us. His people are for us.

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Ten Marks of Spiritual Leaders

Leadership is both a privilege and a choice. To participate at the highest levels in God’s mission of redemption is a high and humbling honor. It is also a choice freely made by those who sense a call from the Lord to step forward; it should never be forced. These ten principles have helped us at Mosaic set a standard for healthy spiritual leadership:

  • A personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ. This goes beyond a mental assent to a set of principles. This is about a personal connection with God that is transformational and liberating. Without this kind of faith, we would be setting people up for failure at best, spiritual attack at worst.
  • A fervent commitment to prayer. Intercede regularly for the ministry, people and leaders. Spiritual leaders are not afraid to lead in prayer, and would not consider starting a meeting or leading a ministry without saturating it in prayer. Spiritual leaders understand and engage in spiritual warfare.
  • An enthusiastic commitment to being here. Spiritual leadership requires a commitment to the vision throughout the life of the church, not just in your ministry area. This includes a commitment to small group membership, as well as attendance at any leadership gathering or important meeting of the church.
  • A joyful commitment to giving. The Christian life stresses the importance of investing in the community that feeds you. Solid Christian leadership also stresses the importance of good modeling. People want to know that if you’re standing before them as a leader, you are invested in the life of the church in the same way they are. They should not be expected to trust the leadership of someone who is not sacrificing in the same ways they are, nor should they be expected to allow you to make decisions on their behalf if you are not invested.
  • A humble commitment to serving. This means not only serving where you are appointed, but making time to serve where you are called by the gospel to join in — particularly service to the poor.
  • A radical commitment to the Great Commission.  This means a willingness not only to see the church winning people to Christ, but a personal desire to share your faith story and invite people into a saving relationship with Jesus.
  • A healthy commitment to practicing emotional intelligence. This means open, direct and honest communication; a willingness to ask clarifying questions and accept constructive coaching; an absolute commitment to grace; and a refusal to feed any spirit of offense. It means being willing to deal honestly with your own brokenness. It means being willing to approach people immediately when conflict arises, placing a high value on reconciliation and an absolute trust in the principles of Matthew 18:15-20.
  • A transparent commitment to loyalty. In both speech and action. Leadership is for those who are committed to both the vision and the team. If you’re not, then my question would not only be, “Why are you in leadership?” but also, “Why have you chosen this place for your spiritual care and feeding?” Because life is too short to serve someplace where you’re not all in.
  • An educated commitment to an orthodox, evangelical expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Understand our theology so you can support our message and care well for those exploring the faith.
  • An unwavering commitment to excellence. No one person comes into leadership fully equipped. A continual commitment to education and training is critical for the leadership of a growing community. If we are going to stay on the leading edge of God’s movement, we need leaders who understand what God is doing in the world today and who are enthusiastic about joining Him in that work.

This is our list. What is yours? What matters to you in a leader? Having a clear vision and standards for healthy leadership is a prime way we can battle against the usual accusations about what it means to be “church.” Shoot for excellence so the Holy Spirit has room to work.

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Grow Up, People.

” … speaking the truth in love,
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” – Ephesians 4:15

This line in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus should come with sound effects, like a siren or an alarm. Something to warn you it’s coming so you can duck. This line is a revolution in twenty-one words. A trumpet blast announcing the charge on my immaturity and yours.

Speak truth in love, Paul says, like anyone even knows what that means any more. We’ve become so used to spin, which is incredibly detrimental to real community. We’ve learned to couch everything for personal gain, so that the norm for public discourse is much more argument than advocacy. More about my own provision and protection than the common good.

So much public discourse in this season is flatly immature and appeals to the most childish side of us. It appeals to our fears and encourages emotional reaction. It goads us into personal attacks and stifles the prophetic voice. Meanwhile, real truth wrapped in real love requires real trust and real maturity. Does Paul not get that?

Do I?

Grow up in every way, he presses. Every way. Not just the convenient ways — the places where it is more fun to be of age than not — but in every way. In speech and silence, in public and private, in submission and responsibility. In love, power and self-discipline. Maybe especially self-discipline.

In other words, Paul counsels, act like adults. Which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. We’re encouraged to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal. We are encouraged to a state of arrested development, spending far more time accommodating the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

It is time to grow up, Paul says. Heal. Move on. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, he talks about how common it is to find immaturity in leadership, so that we’ve learned to accept that:

  • You can be a dynamic gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.
  • You can function as a church council member or pastor and be unreachable, insecure, and defensive.
  • You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.
  • You can fast and pray a half-day each week, for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as a discernment.
  • You can lead hundreds of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.
  • You can be outwardly cooperative at church but unconsciously try to undercut or defeat your supervisor by coming habitually late, constantly forgetting meetings, withdrawing and becoming apathetic, or ignoring the real issue behind why you are hurt and angry.

Scazzero says we’ve come to expect these things in the community of Jesus. We’ve normalized the unhealthy. In fact, in his rants about spiritual leadership in the first century, Jesus himself called these very behaviors roadblocks to God’s Kingdom (see Matthew 23:13).

That’s quite a charge. A roadblock that stops my growth is bad enough, but roadblocks are not discerning. What I’ve done to block my own growth may end up blocking the spiritual maturing of others. My refusal to grow up in every way into Him, who is my Head, can actually stunt or stop the growth of the people around me. Which is no small matter. How selfish would I have to be in order to allow that?

Don’t glide too quickly past this truth: When I refuse growth in myself, I deny growth in others. This may well be a key not only to unlocking your own way forward, but also to finding more wholesome, productive place within the community of faith.

Who knew that growing up could be such a revolutionary act?

What evidence do the people closest to you have that there is actually an adult living in your adult-sized body? What evidence do your Facebook friends have that you’re a mature follower of Jesus? What would you have to relinquish in order to grow up in every way into Him, who is your Head?

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The horror of giving up control (or, how I learned the gift of surrender)

We are funny people. We hate to be controlled and we do not like people who try.

If you are a controlling person, it is maddening to be told you’re a controlling person.  You want them to take it back and you will work at it until they do. If you want to make your spouse crazy, tell them they are controlling. They’ll spend the next thirty minutes making you take it back.

This is what makes the terrible twos so terrible. The main job of a two-year-old is to figure out who he is by testing the waters. He may not have the vocabulary for what he is doing. You won’t hear a two-year old saying, “Please pardon me while I test the boundaries of our relationship, but I am self-actualizing and need to figure out just how much of this family I’m in control of.” He won’t say it that way but he knows what he is after. He’s after power. Just how much control can I get of these two people who are raising me? Where are the lines, and can I redraw them so they include everything I want?

That’s how we learn even in adulthood what we can control and what we can’t. We learn by pressing the limits and like a two year old, our goal is to control everything we can. We want to control our finances, our futures, our families, our pets, our children, our jobs, our schedules … everything.

We want control. That is the fallen human condition and the motivation for all spiritual rebellion. We hate it when we see control-freakishness in anyone else because their need for control might mean we have to give up territory.

But here’s the ultimate irony. To the extent that I try to get or keep control, I will work against my God-given design and end up owned by my own rebellion. This is because I am not designed for control but surrender.

Let that sink in: You are not designed for control, but surrender.

We find proof of this over and over in the story of God.

  • God told the Israelites, “If you want freedom, you have to leave what you know and head for the desert.”
  • Jesus told his followers that if you want to gain your life, you have to lose it. “What does it profit you,” he said, “if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36)
  • The Bible’s prescription for the sickness of control is always surrender — often defined in the scripture as a call to wholeheartedness — and the Bible’s promise is that if we will lean into surrender we will find freedom.

So here’s the question: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control? Because when we choose surrender over control, we are choosing peace over anxiety.

What do our anxieties and fears drive us to control? In my next post, I’ll talk more about why we choose control over surrender, and how we can recover a surrendered — and healthy — life.

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How to live like Jesus is alive

I am a servant of a holy God who has actually sapped the power out of death and sin. Easter helps me remember this supreme truth, and it calls me to give myself wholly to it. If I’m going to recommit to that truth today, how can I live like Jesus is alive?

1. Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Let’s be honest: some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable kind of religion. Folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! Toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never going to come back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die.

2. Learn to feast. Psalm 23 is a song of death and resurrection. It paints this picture of walking through a valley of shadows, on the verge of death, with a focus on the feast at the far side. On the next rise, just past the valley, there is a table set by God himself.  “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

This psalm is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality, rather than a spirit of scarcity.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago while I was sitting in the chapel of the church I was serving at the time. We offered Wednesday night communion and I was the pastor for that service. I’d sit in the chapel and as folks came I served them. In between people, I usually read the scriptures.

My husband Steve usually came to that service on Wednesdays, and I remember one week in particular when he showed up. It had been a hard week for him. He was teaching, and it seemed like he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough season.

As he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. And I thought to myself, “Here it is! Being lived out right in front of me … God is inviting Steve to a feast!”

In the face of so many enemies, Steve was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side. And on yours … and mine.

If the message of Christmas is that God is with us, then the message of Easter is that God is for us.

This is what it means to get a feast mentality. It is to set your face toward that table, believing in the goodness of the One who set it for you, while you’re still in the valley. It is to believe the story is true even when life is hard.

3. Get a resurrection mindset. That is, a mindset that is fearless in the face of change. It is a mindset that believes that God has a big, honkin’ plan for your life, something much bigger than you’re thinking, and something you won’t discover as long as you’re tweaking the small stuff.

Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof.

Learn to live as if this is so.

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This is a game-changer.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a challenge worth taking seriously.

Start with these three ideas from Wayne Cordeiro (New Hope Church, Hawaii):

1. 80% of what you do every day could be done by anyone.
2. 15% of what you do every day could be done by someone else with a little coaching.
3. 5% of what you do is stuff only you can do. How you spend that 5% matters.

Then consider these four stats from a LifeWay study:

4. 1 in 5 Americans – 20% – has read through the Bible once.
5. 39% – a little more than a third – of church-going Christians read the Bible regularly.
6. The number one indicator of spiritual growth is a habit of daily Bible reading.
7. People who attend a small group are twice as likely to read their Bible daily.

Put those three ideas together with those four stats and consider your next move:

8. Bible reading is not in the 80% or even in the 15%. No one else can read the Bible for you and create spiritual growth in your life.
9. A choice to read your Bible daily will do more than just about anything else to create the conditions for spiritual growth in your life.
10. If enough Christians made that choice, and enough Americans made that choice, think about the impact that could have on the Church and our country. If you are concerned about the direction of our country, the spiritual atmosphere of your home or your personal spiritual health, then start with your own habit of Bible reading.

That’s the 5% you control, that no one else can. And this habit is a game-changer. If you want to get started with a Bible reading plan, download YouVersion (it may show up as a Life.Church app with a “Holy Bible” icon). Search for the Life Journal reading plan or the First Steps reading plan. I recommend either one. If you get stuck, send a comment and I’ll help.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a habit that could change the spiritual atmosphere.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

(Today, I’m giving this space to Leah Hartman, who I met at New Room. Read on …)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
— Matthew 7:3-6

These words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount popped into my head the other day. I was driving down the road when a speck of something (likely sawdust, in fact, given the husband’s cabinet business) got stuck in my eye.

As I was trying to get it out, I got to thinking about holiness. Because that’s what I think Jesus is getting at here. That’s what paying attention to the plank in our own eye and then removing it means. Jesus pits hypocrisy and holiness against each other. The two are diabolically opposed. Unfortunately, we sometimes confuse “holiness” with “holier-than-thouness” which is to say hypocrisy. Jesus says they are antonyms.

Not hypocrisy, Jesus says. Holiness.

Like the parent of tattling children, Jesus reminds us to “worry about your own self.” I get this because it’s currently my life. I can’t tell you how many times a day I say this to Claire, who is five, as she bosses Wesley, who is two, to NOT do the very thing she herself IS doing. Jesus knows as well as I that we cannot be fully committed to our own holiness if even part of our energy is in making sure someone else is holy.

It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

As I was reflecting about all of this, I thought about the following process from hypocrisy to holiness:

  1. Humility— You can’t have holiness without humility. Humility is not self-deprecation; it’s honesty. It is to come into agreement with who God says we are. To think that we are anything less than a child of God or anything more than a sinner in need of grace is pride, which uproots holiness faster than anything else. Humility admits THAT we have at least a speck in our eye, and probably a plank.
  2. Awareness— It’s not enough to know THAT we are sinful. We must also come to know WHAT is our particular brand of sin. Each of us has disordered thinking, affections, and living. Awareness is paying attention to our patterns of behavior and manifestations of sin and asking the Spirit of God to reveal their root.
  3. Holiness— Armed with humility and awareness, we can get serious about holiness. Holiness is the process of partnering with the Spirit of God to obsessively remove the planks from our eyes.

As I was driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour, that speck in my eye felt more like a plank. And Jesus is right— it became very hard to see! There was a lot of blinking and watering and blurring. I was easily a danger, not only to myself, but to my three children who were counting on me to see clearly. (Not to mention anyone else one the road!) Perhaps this is Jesus’ whole point: other people are dependent upon OUR holiness. And ironically, removing our own planks just might be the very thing that motivates someone else to remove their speck.

Because there is nothing more compelling than a life transformed by the Gospel, a life of holiness.

Leah Hartman’s discipleship mantra is word, deed, repeat. And she practices it at home, with her husband and three children, and in community. She blogs at Leah-hartman.com.

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Why We Tithe (or, How to Make a Marriage Great)

Steve and I can’t take much credit for twenty-nine years of a great marriage. Mostly, it has been mercy and mistakes. But there are a few things we’ve done to make our marriage work that we often share with young couples — things we’ve done intentionally that have made a significant difference.

For instance, about twenty years ago, we began to pray together nightly, and we believe that has carried our family and especially our daughter. About fifteen years ago, we instituted an intentional Sabbath in our home. From 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, our home is a work-free zone — at least as much as church life allows (and without shame for the things we enjoy).

That third thing? Tithing.

When we married we were not practicing Christians, so tithing was not part of our life for those first few years together. We started going to church in our late twenties when we got involved in a Bible study. That’s when we started doing what most people do, dropping a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were tippers, not tithers. We were also  renters with credit card debt and two car payments, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then a man we both respected a lot (Sam Pursley) stood up in church one day and talked about the line from Jesus, where he says, “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” He talked about how his dad would sell grain that way, and how the farmers would tell his dad, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.”

Then Sam talked about his Sunday School teacher, who told him as a young man, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.” He asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving 10% of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.”

Sam then asked the question we all ask. “Is that 10% of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.” From that day on, Sam tithed and discovered that as he gave, it was given to him — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give 10%.” Now, I hate when my husband gets spiritual on me about money. I told him it wasn’t possible. We were renters. We had credit card debt. We owed on two cars. We were barely scraping by when we gave about 2%. It wasn’t possible to give more. I argued reasonably with Steve, but he didn’t back down. Finally, I gave up. I figured, when we ended up with more month than money, he’d get it. I mean, how many ramen noodles do you have eat before you get it?

So we went from 2% to 10% in one week. And I know it isn’t supposed to happen this way and I know how dangerous it is to tell our story just the way it happened, but this is how it happened for us. We gave, and it was given to us — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

In the twenty-plus years since we started taking God at His word, everything we’ve needed we’ve had. Without debt. We’ve even continued to step forward from the tithe in our giving. We don’t earn a lot, but we’ve discovered great joy in giving generously from what we have. We’ve learned that the Lord provides. And as I said, I know it’s dangerous to tell these kinds of stories, but I think it is important.

I want you to hear how our marriage has thrived, and I would be doing a disservice if I said anything less than what that lady said to our friend, Sam, that day: As a follower of Jesus, you will never be all you are supposed to be (and your marriage will never be all it is supposed to be) until you begin to tithe.

Why?

Because the tithe is how we get past the lie that life is short and into the truth that life is designed to be eternal.

And the tithe has changed the spiritual atmosphere of our home. It makes us approach life and finances and big adventures as givers and that changes everything.

No wonder God asks us to give. He asks, because he knows how we are made and he knows what works.

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You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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