Habit #6: Joyful people recognize they are part of something bigger than themselves.

I-forgot-how-bigPeople are funny.

Not you, of course, but people you know. Sociologists tell us that people tend to classify other people in one of three ways: scenery, machinery or people.

“Scenery” is people who are significantly different than us. We acknowledge their existence and recognize that they live real lives, but we don’t see them as three-dimensional. They are are more like photographs — images with whom we have no relationship.

Then there are people who function for us more like machinery. They get things accomplished for us, like lawn care or house-cleaning or bug-extermination. They might even be volunteers in our church, but we don’t see them as people so much as a means to an end. We interact with “machinery” as a matter of necessity, not choice.

Then there are the people with whom we have actual relationships — people we value, whose stories we know, about whom we are genuinely concerned. They are us. And we like us.

Whether we admit it or not, most of us slot most folks into the categories of scenery or machinery. We put very few people in the category of us, which makes those people who see people in the margins as actual people that much more compelling. This is how Jesus saw people. He saw people with demons and people who scammed other people out of their money and people who have been sick for years and a drain on others, as people. Even the crazy ones, he saw as people.

People in need of mercy, yes; but people, nonetheless.

On my my most recent trip to India, we visited a mercy ministry in Bangalore. It was not a particularly well-run place; the people there were a mix of old, disabled, infirm and insane. Because I was fumbling around for a way to be useful, I began looking for what Mother Teresa encouraged us to look for in others: Jesus in his most distressing disguise. As I began to look, I began to see.

I sat down next to a woman who was skin and bones. Half naked and not fully conscious, she had been laid out on a concrete slab with her back side — full of bed sores, covered in flies — exposed to the sun. I don’t know how she was still alive and suspect she didn’t last long after I left.

The direct sun seemed an unmerciful place for someone so fragile, but no one moved this woman and she was certainly not able to move herself. I asked about a place in the shade and was told she needed to stay where she was. I asked about food and was told she couldn’t eat.

What to do, then, when there is nothing to be done?

Helpless in the face of such poverty, I wondered: as a follower of Jesus, what is my responsibility to this woman who seems to have been forgotten by the world? Do I demand justice? Throw her over my shoulder and haul her out of there? Helplessly move on?

Since none of those seemed viable options, I decided to simply notice her. I looked at her. Really looked. This was real poverty, real suffering. I sat down by her side and waved flies from her face (they’d filled her nostrils). I would have suspected that the Word of God would dissolve in the face of this reality but to the contrary, it was the only thing that seemed to make sense. In fact, a word from Isaiah came to mind as I sat there swatting flies and I spoke it aloud over her life: “The Lord called you from the womb. From the body of your mother he named your name … You are honored in the eyes of the Lord. God will be your strength.”

Far from being irrelevant, it seemed the one thing I might want if I were in her place. I think I’d want to know I wasn’t invisible, that I mattered, that in my final moments, the truth blanketed me. For any of that to happen in this moment between this woman and me, my take on the Kingdom had to expand exponentially. To be bigger. To be great. Very quickly, it had to become much bigger than my middle-class existence had come to accept.

In order for me to believe that word was true for a woman whose nostrils were filled with flies, I had to accept that the Kingdom of God includes mysteries I can’t comprehend, and I had to allow it to call me to a holy response that is bigger than my comforts allow.

You are not forgotten. The Lord knows your name. Your life even now has value. The world has failed to treasure your life, but God has not forgotten you.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

And it is much bigger than any one of us can comprehend or carry. We are called to something much bigger than ourselves.

God, forgive me. I forgot how big.

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Habit #2: Joyful People pursue intimacy with God.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. – John 15:4

The first time the Greek word for abide shows up in the book of John is when he’s talking about Jesus getting baptized by John. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit comes down and remains on him.  That word in Greek is the same as the word used in John 15:4: “Abide in me.”

A baptism, then, ought to be something that lives with us, that invokes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what makes it a sacrament and not just a sign.

John uses the same word again when Jesus is talking about the eucharist in the most graphic of terms. Jesus says, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood makes his home in me and I make my home in him” (John 6:56).  In this expression, there is a mutual abiding.

Here in the two sacraments of the church — baptism and eucharist — we are reminded just how deeply this connection with God is woven into the fabric of Christ. There cannot be intimacy with God without the work of Jesus. And just as true, where Jesus is, abiding happens.

Abiding happens when Jesus Christ makes his home in me and I make my home in him.

In chapter 15, John is careful to connect this kind of abiding with the call to bear fruit. How do you know you are abiding in Christ? John says you know it when you find yourself bearing fruit. How do you know your baptism is alive in you? You’re bearing fruit. How do you know your worship life is alive? You’re bearing fruit.

People who abide bear fruit, but not just any fruit. People who abide bear much fruit. They bear fruit that lasts. They bear fruit that abides. Jesus affirms these three things.

People who abide bear much fruit. I tell people all the time that I’m looking for the kind of results in my ministry and life that don’t match the effort. When the results outstrip the effort, I know the supernatural has been involved. I want this, because, frankly, it gets old, measuring progress in centimeters when I want to measure in miles. I frustrate myself when I focus my efforts in places where I don’t bear much fruit rather than in the places where I do. I’d like to get better at catching the “holy hints,” noticing the places in my life where the outcome is unequally bigger than the effort. When I press in where I see fruit, I am gratified and God is glorified. Those are the places where the Holy Spirit is present.

People who abide bear fruit that lasts. I have been saved a lot and saved from a lot. Some days, though, I still wake up and feel like I’ve never been a Christian and wonder if I will ever be a Christian (I’m in good company; John Wesley journaled those same feelings).

The places where I manage to feel most secure are the places where the gospel of Jesus actually sticks, where I press in and people get transformed and stay transformed, when I do work that bears fruit far beyond my intention. Bearing fruit that lasts is about more than just posting Bible verses on a Facebook page, or learning Christian-ese. It is about seeing lives beautifully, finally transformed. At the end of time, we’ll discover this is all that lasts.

People who abide bear fruit that abides. Moses teaches me a lot about how to abide as a leader so that the people I’m leading are positively influenced. When he and the Israelites were out in the desert, he would sometimes take his tent out beyond the camp to meet with God (mental note: getting outside the camp to be alone with God is a good habit to cultivate).

Out there away from the people, in moments of deep intimacy, he and God would talk face to face, like friends. In those conversations, Moses would talk honestly, and sometimes even rail against God, venting his frustrations over all he couldn’t understand. God would listen and from what the Bible says, God would meet Moses there at his point of deep need. Far from being offended, the Lord would provide.

So why doesn’t that happen more often for me?  How often have I railed against God but come away empty-handed, frustrated, with more questions than answers? Why doesn’t God hear me the way he heard Moses?

I have a hunch about that. I suspect it has to do with my proximity to the Spirit. When I’m yelling at God from the far side of intimacy — when I haven’t done the work of building a close and intimate connection (my home in him and his home in me) — I get nothing but frustration.

But listen: when I’m yelling at God on the abiding side of intimacy, I notice that it is a much more fruitful conversation.

I’m not talking about “making God do stuff.” I’m talking about the kind of connection that puts me in sync with God and his ways so that when I ask for things, I’m asking from a place of abiding. A place of faith.  A place of knowing, of intimacy, of wisdom. When I ask from that place, it bears fruit.

When I am abiding, I bear fruit. And fruitfulness breeds joy.

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