Healthy Communication and the Kingdom of Heaven

Healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community.  Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls.

As a leader, then, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding.  If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here’s where I’d start:

Say more.  By some strange quirk of fate I,  as a southerner, do not drink sweet tea. I only make it when family comes to my house, and then I make it poorly because my idea of “sweet” and their idea of “sweet” are worlds apart. “Good tea” by southern standards means adding more sugar than any human could conceivably consume.

What works for sweet tea works for communication. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it.  Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Affirm more. This is the pattern Paul teaches in his letters: start every conversation with affirmation. Doing this well will right-size your expectations, so you’re not constantly noticing the gap between what people are doing and what you think they ought to be doing.  We can all learn to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say. In fact, we must learn to do that before we can say anything at all that will be heard.

Blast less. Blast people enough and they will stop trusting what you say. Send enough email bombs and you’ll produce someone who cringes when they see your name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and you’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

If you’re prone to sending angry emails or venting on social media, find a way to stop yourself. Get a system that checks your intentions. Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned:  I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ Facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes Facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across. If I have serious words to share, I will always do that in person. And always covered in prayer.

Ask more questions.  This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

Finally, assume the best. In the absence of information, most folks assume the worst. That’s human nature. The nature of Christ, however, is to assume the best in others. In the absence of information, assume that those in your circles are doing the best they can, that they are not out to offend you, that they are working out their salvation daily just as you are. Give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll discover that the grace you give flows both ways.

By saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions, we develop a Kingdom perspective. I am convinced that healthy churches and organizations are built on a foundation of healthy communication. In a season when so much communication is destructive and negative, I challenge you to make it a priority to build an intentionally healthy system of communication that models grace, sensitivity and understanding.

 

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How to Read the Bible

The year I quit drinking, I got involved a Bible study. Not long into the experience, I was doing the daily assignment at my kitchen table and had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One moment, I was reading a book and the next moment, the words seemed 3-D. The message was alive and I was being changed by it. That night, Jesus became the answer to my biggest questions, and the Bible became my Book.

St. Jerome has said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I can attest to that. It was the scripture that led me into the presence of Jesus, and it was scripture that inspired me to take up faith enough to believe. Over these years of exploring it, studying it, preaching and teaching from it and being shaped by it, I have discovered a few key truths that have helped define and sharpen my relationship with God’s Word.

Remember that the Bible was created under the inspiration of the most creative being in the universe. Everything God creates has life in it, and everything he creates is truth (“In him, there is no darkness at all.”).  This means the Bible has a remarkable power to be present as truth in any situation.And because it is Living Word, it is the one book in the universe that has the ability to have a conversation with us.  It can speak a fresh word into my life wherever I am and it can be relevant, over and over again. That’s the power of Living Word and that power deserves my respect.

Consider every line of the Bible in light of the whole. Our worst mistake is treating lines and verses of scripture the way we treat fortune cookies. We like to grab onto catchy phrases and lines and apply them to our immediate circumstances without any thought for context (then post that catchy line on Facebook with a kitten in the background).

As Ben Witherington says, “A text without a context is a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” Understanding the overarching themes of the Bible and the settings in which portions were written is essential for right interpretation and application.  Taking the time to know this doesn’t lessen the power of the Bible for us; it deepens it.

The Bible is all true, but it isn’t whatever I want truth to be today so I can feel better about things.  An encounter the Living Word requires a more mature reading.

We can never say, honestly, that we’ve read the Bible. It would be like saying that because I have been to the beach, I’ve swum in the ocean. Or because I’ve googled a few things, I’ve done the Internet.  Maybe I’ve done a tiny bit of it, but I haven’t mastered the ocean or come to the end of the Internet. And in fact, can’t.

More and more, I’m convinced none of us has ever really read the Bible. We’ve read layers of it; we’ve absorbed bits of it. But the Bible as a whole is far deeper than one lifetime can absorb — far richer, far wiser, far more powerful than you or I could possibly imagine.

And yet, most of us have actually, literally never read the Bible. We say we believe it, but many of us treat it like the terms and conditions we agree to before we can access a website.  We click “yes” and we trust we’ve not signed on for anything preposterous, but we don’t know because we didn’t actually read anything.  For access to a website, that might be a risk worth taking but for a worldview and salvation, wouldn’t reading be worth the effort?

The richness of this Living Word, the wisdom of it, the glory of it, deserves not just my respect but my attention. And that’s why — like every year for the last twenty-five — I keep signing up for group life. I study the Bible with a few other folks who are hungry because in the presence of the Word of God, I am humbled. And as in every other year for the last twenty-five, I will come face to face once more with how little I know of this life and the world, and how desperate I am for truth.

The Bible is a grace and I thank God for it.

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Just how angry are you?

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University conducted an online survey of about 1,500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things like, for instance, kicking a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free.

Would you be among them?

There is no denying it: we have a maddening political climate. We also have anger issues. Anger is not a secular issue; we who follow Jesus are not immune. Just check your Facebook page. In fact, more and more, anger is becoming part of our caricature. Angela, the token Christian on The Office is an angry, tight-lipped, buttoned-up woman. In most cartoons and commentaries, we’re known as the ones who sling condemnation.

So really … are we that angry?

(You’ve heard the old joke– right? — about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.” It is funny only because it is familiar.)

Face it. Christians have something of a reputation and it is only getting worse. I suspect we’re operating out of fear. We’ve pitted our values against a permissive culture and it has left us feeling powerless. In the comparison we’re accused of being angry, condemnation-tossing haters. And to some extent, we deserve the criticism. We who follow Jesus too easily pander to the reputation of being known for what we’re against more than what we’re for.

Wouldn’t it be exciting for Christians to be known more for the infectiousness of their faith than the accuracy of their tomato-tossing?

George Barna is a researcher who does ethnographic research on churches, and one study he did showed that only 4% of adults make their decisions based on the Bible. In his book, Think Like Jesus, he says, “the primary reason that people do not act like Jesus is because they do not think like Jesus … We’re often more concerned with survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.”

Hear that again: We are often more concerned about survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.

“Survival amidst chaos” hits close to home, doesn’t it? These last couple of years have been hard on our country. I hope we are on the healing edge of a long season of chaos, and chaos has not brought out the best in us. We are not thinking like Jesus. We have become so focused on what is in front of us that we’ve forgotten what is beyond the horizon. We’ve engaged emotionally with difficult issues but have failed to speak with integrity, offering emotional responses that are more defensive than intelligent. Our go-to response is more fear than faith.

But you say, “A person can’t sit idly by and let the world roll over them.” Or more personally, “You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts. I can’t lose this war, too.”

To that, Jesus would say, “It doesn’t matter. The ground of our forgiveness is not our circumstances. The ground of our grace is not emotion.” Jesus told a whole story to make this very point (Matthew 18:23-35) saying that grace is a mark of the Kingdom.

Here’s the thing: If it all depends on circumstance, we are right to be desperate. Circumstances can seem hopeless but circumstances do not control my capacity for joy. We who know the end of the story should be responding to life and news and “rumors of wars” with a faith that proclaims something greater than our immediate circumstances. In other words, I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; I can live there now, by faith.

What I am responsible for is the character of my responses to life, and what those responses reveal about the character of Christ in me.

Brothers and sisters, whatever the current circumstance, we know how the story ends. We know what is beyond the horizon.

Let’s live and speak as if Jesus is who he says he is.

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The Mission of a Methodist: Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World

“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This is the mission of United Methodists — to make disciples, as Dr. Robert Mulholland would say, “for the sake of others.” To make disciples is more than getting people saved, though that is obviously a critical beginning. The heart of Methodism is not social justice or creation care, though those things matter. It is much more than hosting attractive worship experiences. Our mission is to care for the spiritual formation of people at the deepest levels, so that their personal transformation results in the transformation of the world.

Spiritual formation is intentional transformation. It is God’s intent that we grow. Spiritual formation is growth that happens on purpose. Do Methodists today understand that our theological bent calls us to go someplace spiritually, to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ? Do we understand that we are making disciples of Jesus? Are we fostering spiritual hunger for Christ alone?

Spiritual formation is a matter of the heart. The place where the shaping or forming happens is the heart. In the Bible, we hear these almost bizarre (for our contemporary ears) statements about God wanting to circumcise our hearts. The point is that God wants to change the shape of us. He wants to conform us into the image of Jesus — to make us more loving, more gentle, more joyful, more peaceful, more gracious, more faithful, more trusting … more disciplined. At its core, Methodism is about using spiritual discipline to be shaped into the character of Christ. Do we preach as if that’s so? Are we people of one Book, a book designed to shape us into Kingdom-minded people?

Spiritual formation happens for the sake of others. Methodism is designed to be both evangelistic and global. We do not apologize for our belief in the radical notion that our brand of faith has power to change the world. Further, God’s intent is not just to form each of us spiritually, but to make us partners in the work of transforming the world. Nothing less, nothing else. Do our people have a global vision, or are we stuck on our own cultural values, unable to see how God is moving in other parts of the world? Do we truly believe ourselves to be globally connected to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit?

Spiritual formation is fueled by spiritual discipline. As I’ve said already, Methodists major on the disciplines. It is our contribution to the Body of Christ — this idea that through very practical habits, we can form an intimate relationship with Christ even as he forms us into his likeness. The means of grace are not the basis of our salvation (don’t mistake them for works righteousness), but they are a gift of God that allows us to participate in the process of our ongoing spiritual growth. In our chaotic and distracted world, spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer may seem arcane; we want to discount them because we are already too busy doing things for Jesus. But are we busy enough doing things that place us in the presence of Jesus? Are we learning to hear his voice? Are we practicing that art daily, so that hearing from God becomes more and more part of our cultural distinctive?

As it turns out, disciplines are not for people who have too much time on their hands, but for people exactly like us. Busy, distracted people. Do Methodists understand that it is in our DNA to be deeply, intimately, passionately connected to Christ, and that our spiritual practices are designed to help us hear the voice of God?

I suspect that the political discussions within the UMC have distracted the corporate body and kept us from being on mission. I suspect they have distracted us personally (note: hand-wringing is not a spiritual discipline). For the proliferation of politics within our tribe, we have lost sight of what is most central to our existence: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I want to call Methodists to return to the fundamentals. I want to see Methodists passionate again about centering on Jesus and on the disciplines that keep us grounded, particularly steeping ourselves in prayer and the scriptures. I want to see a move of the Holy Spirit in our day that transcends cultural conversations and revives our corporate/global spirit. I envision a move of personal prayer, fasting, scripture study and corporate accountability that restores our hunger for our mission. Yes, I want to see us loving our neighbors well, but I want to see those acts of love and kindness rooted in our passion for what breaks God’s heart, not as an escape from it.

I pray for a great move of the Holy Spirit to sweep among us as we get serious again about working out our salvation with fear and trembling. I pray that by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the mission of Methodists would be advanced toward its completion on the power of its people’s faith, so that one day we can all stand together in his unhindered presence with nothing left to do but worship.

If we are going to fulfill our mission as Methodists — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — our greatest work is that of taking our spiritual formation seriously, not just for the sake of our own souls but for the sake of others … that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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Introversion in the Kingdom of God

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. – Psalm 139:13-14

A couple of caution signs:

  • Introversion and extroversion are too easily over-simplified. Lumping people exclusively into one or the other camp is to miss all the nuances that make us … us. Chances are, all of us have a little of both worlds in our being.
  • The terms “introversion” and “extroversion” are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They are not — strictly speaking — biblical concepts. Which is not to say that I am not more extroverted or that my husband is not more introverted. Those things are true. It is simply to say that since these distinctions are not in the Bible, we will need to look more deeply for the enduring truths.

When we look, here’s what we find. We discover that we humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14) and that we are endowed with certain spiritual gifts to serve God and strengthen the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). From these biblically-based foundations, we can explore more deeply the ways our personalities have been designed, in order to best employ their advantages and best compensate for their disadvantages; and in order to help us appreciate why — for the Church to best spread the Good News — extroverted Christians need introverted Christians. And vice versa.

In a previous post I discussed extroversion in the Kingdom of God. For this post on introversion, I have the help of my husband, Steve, who is without doubt my favorite introvert in the world. Most of the words in this post are his.


Why did God make introverts? At least one reason God made introverts is to model spiritual intimacy. In the Kingdom of God, introversion is not primarily about “being alone” but “being with” God. God loves us and He wants us to get closer to him. Healthy solitude is getting away from distractions (that can mean others) in order to get closer to God, and introverts are naturally wired to be more comfortable seeking solitude where they can experience spiritual intimacy. Solitude fuels their walk with Christ and their service to the Church. Kingdom solitude is not inward-focused or an end in itself; it is a God-focused state that empowers introverts ultimately to be more lovingly outward-focused at the appropriate times.

Was Jesus an introvert? Absolutely! The fact is that Jesus was probably the perfect balance of introvert and extrovert (and in another post, I defend his extroversion), but he never allowed his own desires to get in the way of serving others. To feed intimacy with the Father, Jesus got up early and separated himself from the company of others in order to be closer to the Father. He bent down and drew on the ground when a crowd pressed him for a judgment on a woman caught in sin — unwilling to act or respond without taking time to think. As with most introverts, Jesus was able to focus on the goal and didn’t let distractions get him off track. He listened well; he was a deep thinker.

In his book, Evangelism for the Rest of Us, Mike Bechtle says introverts are sensitive, listening evangelizers — quiet, deep thinkers who can reach other quiet, deep thinkers. The world could use more “listening evangelizers.”

How do introverts sometimes trip up? It may be tempting for those who like “alone time” to forget that according to Psalm 139 we are never truly alone. Healthy, Kingdom-oriented introversion is not an escape hatch. It is designed for the purpose of developing intimacy with the Lord, then using that deep well to draw from in serving others. As my husband Steve says, “If I allow my introversion to cross over into self-absorption, I am surely passing by a world of people who need me to open the door for them.”

Unhealthy introversion may be the product of insecurity or fear. It becomes an “out” for those who simply don’t want to grow in their love for others. But the responsibility to share the good news of Jesus Christ belongs to all of us, not just those who like a party or an audience. It would be easy to use introversion as an excuse to check out on the uncomfortable parts of the Christian life, like evangelism or community. But the healthy choice is to develop the gifts God has given so we can stay checked in, in ways we not only tolerate but enjoy.

What do introverts wish extroverts to knew about them? Well, first … that we need each other. The world is complicated, and sometimes the extroverted “act/ think/ act” way of approaching life is the right thing. There are definitely times, though, when a “think/ act/ think” approach is the wiser choice. Extroverts need introverts to keep a balance between thinking and acting, but introverts also need extroverts for that same balance.

Even if an introvert doesn’t get energy from a roomful of people, they can still have a heart for loving others and can particularly enjoy being with a few people who appreciate their approach to life. They want to contribute to the Kingdom, but need the patience of the extroverts around them when they don’t jump on the big party wagon every time.

The closing lines are from my Steve, and are wisdom for all of us.

Extroverts, just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say.

And introverts, as Susan Cain says, it is okay to speak softly. But you must speak.

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Extroversion in the Kingdom of God

Have you noticed? Introverts are finally having their day. Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, has made introversion cool. Quiet gives the gift of definition to introverts, and helps extroverts to appreciate the internal thinkers among them. Facebook memes have jumped on the bandwagon, making fun of introverts and extroverts alike, using clever artwork to describe what it is like to live as one kind in a world full of the other kind.

Introversion and extroversion are both good gifts of a loving creator God. He uses both in his Kingdom and the world needs all of us. In this post, I’ll share the gifts and challenges of extroversion and in a future post I’ll share the gifts and challenges of introversion.

Why did God make extroverts? I believe God made us because the gospel of Jesus Christ deserves words. It deserves to be proclaimed, joyously celebrated, and extroverts are wired for this. God uses extroverts to proclaim the good news, to celebrate the good news joyfully with others and to develop strong communities. Paul is my favorite biblical extrovert (read Acts 20; it is a priceless extroversion story). Paul was fearless, courageous, driven, faithful. His conversion intersected with his extroversion to make him the most famous evangelist of all time. He was passionate about Jesus and driven to talk about him. Paul didn’t just love the gospel; he loved people and he was hungry to share the truth with them. Paul understood that the gospel deserves words and he spared none in his proclamation of the good news.

Was Jesus an extrovert? Absolutely! The fact is that Jesus was probably the perfect balance of introvert and extrovert (and in another post, I’ll defend his introversion), but he never allowed his own desires to get in the way of serving others. Jesus understood the power of community, the power of teams, the power of collaboration. He gathered twelve men around him and kept them there all the time … on purpose. He told them that where two or three are gathered, he’d be with them. Even after he’d sent his disciples away to rest, he was drawn by his own compassion back into a crowd of people who were “like sheep without a shepherd.” He embodied self-giving love, and taught by example that one can’t be a follower of Jesus and not have extraordinary love for people. After all, people are not the problem; people are the prize.

How do extroverts sometimes trip up? We struggle with taking every thought captive. Rather than measuring our words, we tend to fill the world with them. Our challenge is learning how to wear out the people around us at a rate they can stand. We tend to think “more is more” when for an introvert, more is death.

Being quiet is hard for us. If “more is more” is death for an introvert, then “being still and knowing” is death for an extrovert. Never mind what the scriptures counsel; learning to be still is a real challenge for people who tend to think externally. And yet, learning to be still is critical for spiritual growth. There is no short-cut here.

Perhaps our greatest challenge, though — and our greatest danger — is that sometimes our talking glorifies us more than it glorifies God. When we use our words to draw attention to ourselves (to defend ourselves, to prove ourselves important), our words become an infirmity. Inherently, we know this (there isn’t an extrovert in the world who hasn’t prayed for God to keep them quiet), but without significant healing we will continue to fall into this trap. On our good days, we expose our wounds; taken to the extreme, our words can actually divert attention from the One who deserves attention.

I suspect most extroverts have no idea just how spiritually dangerous it is to steal glory from God. Defeating that tendency is a battle worth fighting.

What do extroverts wish introverts to knew about them? We’d like our introverted friends to know that being “out there” doesn’t necessarily mean we are healthy (see the above paragraph). Being “out there” doesn’t mean we are all healed and whole and unaffected by your judgments. We’re out there, but we feel it and sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

We enjoy good conversations. We like to talk, but we also really like to listen. We like real conversations, so you don’t have to wonder if we care. We do. In fact, most of us appreciate the viewpoint of the introvert in the room. We know that while we’ve been thinking verbally you’ve been thinking internally and will likely have something valuable to add when you speak.

Extroversion comes in a lot of forms, just like introversion does. The beauty of the Body of Christ is that it is so creatively constructed with so many different kinds of people. Maybe we need to celebrate who we are instead of trying so hard to be things we aren’t, so that the uniquenesses and pains of one another become our instructors in servanthood. This is the good work of sanctification. It is learning to see the marvelous uniquenesses of our created design in one another as an invitation into the servant heart of Jesus.

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The War is won in the General’s tent.

Some time ago, I was in the place of prayer and heard this word: “The war is won in the tent.”

As I heard this word I saw an army tent, far back from the lines, buzzing with the activity of strategic thinkers studying maps, positioning troops, sending out orders. The General was there, taking in the big picture, gauging the trajectory of the enemy’s movement, weighing strengths and weaknesses of the warring sides.

The tent was where the war was being won … or lost.

Before that word and that vision, I’d never given that guy or that tent a thought, but the principle I heard is authentic. In warfare, the saying goes, “The war is won in the General’s tent.” The point is that wars are won on strategy, not brute force. Planning makes all the difference in the outcome of a battle. The General may never see the front lines but his strategic mind determines the win.

In a very busy time, this came as a prophetic word. It was a warning not to neglect the place of strategic prayer. It was a call not to work harder but to pray smarter, to spend more time in the tent.

In spiritual terms, what is the “tent”?

The place of prayer: Someone somewhere has discovered that when electrons are observed they behave differently. Just the fact of their being watched changes how they act. This tells me that even down to the smallest particle, the world is designed to act according to the light-and-dark principle of John 3, where Jesus teaches that things in the dark remain under the influence of the enemy of our souls while things brought into the light come under the influence of Christ. In other words …

Behavior changes when brought under the gaze of God.

This isn’t a guilt thing. This is a law of the universe, proven at the scientific level. We are changed simply by being in the presence of God, aware of ourselves under his gaze. This makes “tent-praying” all the more strategic. When we submit to sitting in the presence of God, it changes our perspective. We think differently about our circumstances and consequently, go away from that place acting differently toward them.

The place of intimacy: I’m thinking about the tent Moses used to take outside the camp, when he was traveling with the Israelites through the desert. He’d go out there and get deeply personal with God, sharing intimately about how he felt and what he needed. In one conversation, Moses asked God (Exodus 33:12-14) to teach him His ways. Moses wanted to know how to lead these people like God would lead these people. He wanted to hear God say, “Okay, Moses. Here’s how you do it. Step one … ” But that’s not how God responded.

Moses asked for direction and God responded with presence.

Wow.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” God promised. This is the promise of intimacy. When we let God lead, whether it is into a desert or into battle, we will experience a kind of restfulness that only the Holy Spirit can produce. In that tent, a kind of confidence breeds that changes how we return to the front lines. We may not comprehend the whole plan, but we can rest in the One who executes it.

The place of spiritual warfare: I remember years ago, praying for my husband when he was going through yet another season of depression. His worst days of depression were absolutely a kind of spiritual war for us. We’d tried everything and nothing was working, so finally — out of desperation, I assure you, and not out of some heightened sense of spiritual maturity — I decided I would pray for him for twenty minutes every day. Every day, Jesus and I would spend time on the subject of Steve. For a while, I used the time to tell God everything I thought about our situation. After a week or so, I ran out of words. After that, God and I would sit there together and — in the Spirit — stare at Steve. I now know this was “tent time.” This was Jesus and me staring at a map, waiting on a strategy to emerge. Eventually, one did. Through the Holy Spirit, I saw a way forward that brought hope into our situation. It wasn’t a cure, but it was a strategy. I’m so grateful for that time in the tent and for the relief it gave in that season.

The war is won in the General’s tent.

Do you need to rethink your strategy? Maybe you’ve been on the front lines, battling an enemy for so long you’ve lost all perspective. You’re lobbing one grenade after another with no plan or purpose … just frustration. What if the better next step is not to lob another grenade but to find your way back to the General’s tent, where you can regain a sense of the big picture and get God’s perspective?

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Holiness and the Billy Graham Rule

The issue is rarely the issue. Usually the issue is a symptom of the real issue beneath it. Which brings us to this week’s conversations about Mike Pence and the Billy Graham Rule. The discussion gives us a great reason to discuss the issue beneath the issue.

For the uninitiated, the Billy Graham Rule was coined after Graham made the public commitment to never meet alone (in a car, restaurant, hotel or office) with a woman other than his wife. His was a high-road choice to avoid the rumors swirling around other national leaders of his generation. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy both battled their own demons where sex and women were concerned.

I commend Billy Graham for making a strong statement about his personal boundaries. For him, that was the right choice. He was a target and his public declaration put the world on notice. Since his “rule” became famous, scores of Christian leaders have taken the same tack as Graham. Many have accepted it as a clear and easy way to avoid temptation or even the appearance of it. For some, it is the right choice, given their personal challenges (either internal or external). But is it the right choice in every instance, just because it was the right choice for one high-profile man?

A Washington Post editorial by Laura Turner spells out the nuances for both men and women of invoking this rule:

The impulse that led to the Billy Graham Rule — which was actually a solidification of principles guarding against several kinds of temptation — is a good and honorable one: to remain faithful to one’s spouse and to avoid the kind of behavior (or rumors of behavior) that have destroyed the careers of church leaders. Evangelical pastors having affairs is so common as to almost be cliche, and damages the integrity of the church.

But good intentions do not always produce helpful consequences. In this case, the Billy Graham Rule risks reducing women to sexual temptations, objects, things to be avoided. It perpetuates an old boys’ club mentality, excluding women from important work and career conversations simply by virtue of their sex.

The question is one of how both men and women leaders can live irreproachable lives while raising up those in their spiritual care. What is the right balance to strike? And what is the real issue beneath the Billy Graham Rule?

In a word, holiness. How we live out our lives before Christ so they bear fruit for the Kingdom is the real issue. When we pursue our own holiness, address our own brokenness, and face our own fears, then and only then can we effectively live out our own call to raise up others.

Lead us not into temptation. Jesus knew what he was teaching us when he taught us to pray against temptation. He knew temptations would come. That’s not an “if” but a “when.” He knew any effective follower of Christ would come face to face with the darkness. It is not ours to avoid temptation, but to learn how to not to cross the line when we’re faced with it. Paul said as much. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

What is the “way out”? Is it to limit access to other people, or is it to increase access to the Holy Spirit? Jesus’ and Paul are both teaching the same message: Don’t expect to handle temptation on your own; find victory by taking it to God. Use the temptations that inevitably come our way (don’t go generating them!) as an opportunity to evaluate spiritual health and an invitation to become more healthy. This will be a process, not an event, but the goal is internal transformation.

Fear bleeds. When our choices concerning spiritual leadership are born out of our own fears and insecurities, we not only self-limit our potential, we end up bleeding on those around us. We expect others to adjust to accommodate our fears.

Listen: I am responsible for my own brain, and those with whom I relate are responsible for theirs. When either of us are in a place spiritually or emotionally where we are unable to take every thought captive (remember: it is not the thought that comes into your head that is the problem; it is what you do with it that matters), then we have our own work to do. The right answer is not to place an “invisible burqa” on someone else. The right answer is to get the personal and spiritual healing I need so I can be the adult in the room and fulfill my calling, which is to raise up those around me called into spiritual leadership.

Go and make disciples. In their study of the challenges faced by women in leadership (published in the Harvard Business Review), Robin Ely and Deborah Rhode note that women often have difficulty accessing the same information as their male colleagues. Men in general have greater access to inner circles of support. But if women who lead don’t have access to other successful leaders who are ahead of them on the journey, how will they become better leaders?

We do not in this day and time have the leisure to consign one-half of the human race to “the women’s room” when it comes to leadership development. Shepherds are responsible for shaping the lives of the sheep in their care. All the sheep. Please don’t relegate gifted, driven, faithful women to the B-team because of fears, temptations or a lack of motivation toward holiness. Men of God, be holy as your Father in Heaven is holy. And out of your own holiness and call to lead, mentor those in your care. Raise up the men and women around you who will effectively make disciples, so that together we can welcome and advance the Kingdom of God.

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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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The courage to shift care

I had the pleasure some time back of being with about 1300 college students for two sessions on healing. Their morning chapel service was a requirement so I didn’t expect folks to respond in any great number. I was thinking we’d prime the pump in the morning, but that those who showed up for the evening service would be the ones who really entered into the opportunity for healing.

I was wrong.shifting-care2

Something like a hundred people responded in the morning session. Another fifty or sixty were seen in pairs all around the room, praying for each other. The incredible thing about it for me was that all those college students came forward, fell to their knees and then began ministering to each other.

They weren’t looking for an adult or a professional to do their praying for them. They didn’t ask me, the chaplain or any other adult to do what they could do for themselves. They just needed space and an invitation to care for each other.

It was beautiful. And biblical.

Carey Nieuwhof talks about having courage to shift care. It is the principle of Exodus 18, where Jethro confronts Moses about trying to do everything himself. He says (my loose interpretation), “You’re going to kill yourself by leading this way. You need to appoint others to care for the people, so that your strength is reserved for leadership-level decisions.”

When the church professionalizes spiritual care to the point that we make “regular” people feel powerless to care for one another, we have absolutely failed to be the church. Calling it “pastoral care” reveals the core of the problem. Pastoral care is what pastors do; “people care” is what communities do.

Nieuwhof says, “Even Jesus adopted the model of group care, moving his large group of hundreds of  disciples into groups of seventy, twelve, three, and then one. Group-based care isn’t just practical, it’s biblical.”

And it is most definitely Methodist. This was the foundation of Wesley’s structure. Wesley’s model of discipleship was rooted in a system of groups; in fact he didn’t let you come to worship if you weren’t in a group.*

Groups are what it means to be Methodist because sanctification is what it means to be Methodist.

The gift of it for the faith community is that it spreads out the responsibility of spiritual friendship. This is our vision at Mosaic. It is for relationships to be 360-degree relationships. Not just person to pastor or person to group leader, but person to person to person to person, building a web of friendships that build a strong community.

In our tribe, that’s how it is done. Any other formula only leads to burn-out and a poor imitation of what church is meant to be.

* See this article, especially the quote by Kevin Watson. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/hows-your-spiritual-life-the-class-meeting-for-today

See also Watson’s exceptional book: The Class Meeting.

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