Division Within

There is a line in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that grabs me. Paul is teaching this young church about the nature of Jesus and what this Messiah has accomplished on the spiritual plane. He tells them that Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility. He is talking in the moment about the wall that stood between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is the one who by his sacrifice brings the Gentiles inside the wall. This lesson is about two kinds of people who have been made one by Christ.

Let me emphasize what Paul is teaching and what he isn’t. Paul isn’t teaching that the Israelites were to abandon their principles or that the Gentiles were to remain unchanged. This is not about everybody just getting along. Paul’s teaching here is deeper. This is about a spiritual reality. He is telling his audience — and us — that the ground beneath the cross is level.

What grabs me is that phrase — “the dividing wall of hostility.” This isn’t just about groups but about me. Many of us live with this dividing wall of hostility that runs right down the middle of us. That wall keeps us from being one, whole person. There are parts of us that want everything to line up in perfect little bullet points. We don’t want God to get too close. We just want him to give us a list of things to do so we can check the boxes and claim ourselves “good enough.”

“I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?”

“I believe in God. Isn’t that enough?”

“I go to church. I pay my taxes. Isn’t that enough?”

That’s one side of the wall. The other side of the wall knows the truth. That person we want to be? We’re not that person. On our own, we can never be good enough, right enough … enough. The war rages inside of us as these two sides duke it out and that fight bubbles over, showing up as impatience in our work, distrust in our relationships, unreasonableness in our expectations, anger even at God.

This is the human condition. We are all fighting against our fallen human nature, all battling manifestations of selfish desire. To the extent that we nurture this division within, we breed dysfunction and depress authenticity. Even if we don’t admit it to anyone else, we know about this division. Parker Palmer says,

“I pay a steep price when I live a divided life – feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own?”

So what to do about that wall? David Whyte is a full-time poet now but for years, he worked other jobs while he wrote in the margins of his life. It exhausted him. He had a friend, a monk named Brother David Steindl-Rast, who came to visit. Whyte told Brother David about his life and his unfulfilled dreams and his exhaustion over trying to hold it together, and he asked his friend what the cure is for exhaustion. Brother David replied, “The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.”

Sit in this truth a moment: The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.

We know this is true, because this is both Old and New Testament-tested. The great Jewish truth is this: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus brought this into the New Covenant as a command. “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

John Wesley drew on that truth in his questions to those planning to preach the Methodist way. He asked, “Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?” Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and his work? Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

To the extent that you nurse a “dividing wall of hostility,” the effort to be all in will exhaust you. But (hear the good news) the stuff in your life that is exhausting you — the frenzied activity, the scattered schedule, the divided life — can actually be the source of your healing. It happens as you hold your exhaustion before God, confess the dividedness in every area where it exists and make mature choices about what has to go so the wall can come down. Because here’s the thing: that wall that you have put up to keep you safe is the same wall that is keeping you from experiencing the power of God.

Wholehearted living releases us into miraculous faith. What needs to give so you can live a wholehearted life?

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God can redeem anything. Any wound, rejection, loss … anything.

Last week, the story of Harvey Weinstein’s gross perversion was published, resulting in a groundswell of testimony on social media in the form of two simple words: Me too. If I know anything about the spiritual realm, I’m guessing those two words are taking back territory the enemy thought he had long since conquered. After all, John 3 tells us that things that remain in the dark belong to the enemy of our souls, while things brought into the light belong to Jesus. Most women I know have felt unheard and their stories unvalidated for so long that they’ve learned to leave them tucked away in some dark recess — unvoiced, unvalidated, unexposed. Those stories remain unknown mostly because many women have learned by experience not to cast pearls, so there in the dark, their stories fester and breed shame.

But God … 

Now we have this story about a guy who over decades has used his power to manipulate and molest women. Out of this exposure of a professional predator, a platform has emerged allowing women to stand up and be counted without feeling as if they are on trial. There is a sisterhood in all those “me too’s.” They are two-word witnesses raising old wounds to the surface, allowing women to be heard and their stories validated.

I’m among those women. Molested as a child and raped in college, I have had a first-hand experience of how exposing my story to the healing light of Jesus has produced profound healing in my life. I discovered an undiagnosed anger and found healing from what seemed like an illogical need to please men. My husband received healing, too, when he confessed to Christ his own unforgiveness around those who had hurt me.

He didn’t yell at God or try to justify anything. He just said it like it was. “God, I can’t forgive them.” And in that moment of honesty. God answered so clearly. He said simply, “I was with her the whole time.” The simple truth of that statement was enough to allow Steve to let go of the anger and pain. God knew.

Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” My husband, Steve, tells me – and scripture confirms it – that when I experienced a little piece of hell, God never left me alone.

I know firsthand the healing power of Jesus, and can now confidently assure anyone with a “me too” story that there is great joy in the healing power of Jesus Christ. If there is unresolved pain, anger, hurt, shame … Jesus can heal that. He knows you, knows your story, and stands ready to offer healing.

Some of the best news of all is this: There is no shame in Christ! Isn’t that a beautiful freedom? In the light of that truth, our stories become our gift and a pathway to healing, knowing that God has never once turned his face from us.

This is the strength of his grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so he can be there when we finally turn to him. Prevenient grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days and even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others that we feel even years or decades later. God is there through all of it. God has been there the whole time, watching, grieving the pain of it but in his strength, waiting. The Word assures us that he is always more ready to listen than we are to speak, always more ready to offer the healing power of the Holy Spirit than we are to reach out for it. There is a reason we call him Emmanuel: God With Us. It is because he is … always.

Hear this: God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once left you alone or rejected you. Not even once. Not even you.

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The most profound theological truth you’ll hear this Christmas …

I’m thinking about the two sides of me. There is the person I am and the person I want to be. Those two people are always at war with each other inside my brain. On my good days, I somehow manage to act like the person I want to be, but have a little stress seep into my life or a conflict with someone, and the person I actually am shows up. I turn into something I don’t like. When the me that I actually am shows up and shows out … well, few things are more frustrating or disappointing.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. The fact is, we all live divided lives. We all know that deep pain and disappointment of finding out all over again that we are really two people fighting inside the same body for control. Knowing what we know about ourselves, we ought to be all the more awe-struck by the glorious theology beneath the Christmas story.

What we celebrate at Christmas is the fact that God came to us in human form. Theologically, this goes much deeper than a picture of a baby in a manger. The technical term — hypostatic union — wipes away the warmth of that image but invites us to consider the incredible gift of this cosmic reality.

The hypostatic union. Brothers and sisters, this is good theology. This is the term for the perfect melding of divinity with humanity. He who was fully God became fully human — two distinct natures in one Person. Jesus Christ held together both the power of his divinity and the experience of his humanity … perfectly. He entered in, in order to fully identify with us and became the first of a new humanity, something completely different that made everything new for everyone else.

His birth did not erase the fact that he was the Word who spoke all creation into existence in Genesis chapter 1. His death did not negate the fact that he was the Warrior who battled with death and won in Revelation chapter 19.

Fully God, fully man. If you slight him on the God side, you’re a liberal who tends to focus on his teachings and example without embracing his cosmic power. If you slight him on the human side, you’re in danger of unitarianism — unable to accept the unique nature of the Son or his humanity in the temptations, his frustration with fallenness, his suffering on the cross. Jesus resisted sin, because he felt it. He loved his enemies as enemies because he sensed their opposition. He forgave people because he experienced the grief of their sins against God. He experienced life as a human, but perfectly.

And because he has made perfect peace with these two parts of himself, he is able — Spirit-Man — to offer us both pattern and permission to find peace with our two halves. Jesus has accomplished in his body through the perfect union of divinity and humanity what we all long for most: peace.

In other words, Jesus is the answer to that fight that goes on inside us. The one answer with power to speak peace into the divided mess that is us is the perfect union of Father with Son — of deity with humanity. Because he has broken through that barrier for us and now lives in perfect unity within himself, Jesus — fully God, fully man — has carved out our pathway to peace.

So what do we do with this bit of theology? We use it. We trust it and then we live it. We start acting as if Christ’s work is sufficient to heal our divided selves. Even if we don’t feel it we can “act as if.” We can begin to practice the peace that Jesus has shown us in himself. We can act as if our biggest internal battles are won. Act as if our recovery is complete, even if we’re still on the journey. Act as if our relationships are healed, even if they are still in process. Act as if our physical health is improving, as if our depression is healing, as if our finances are stabilizing. Act as if we care, as if we need community, as if we have a heart for others … even if we are still under construction.

This is the gift of good theology. It teaches us who we are, and then it shows us how to act.

And that makes Jesus — Word Become Flesh — all the more worthy of our worship.

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Six Ways to Communicate Like an Adult

I believe healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community. Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls. And good communication proves we are the adults in the room, and not just children with adult bodies.

As a leader, 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 are six things I’d do to get started:

1. Say more. 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.

Are your meetings under-attended? Do people in your church have a habit of saying, “I didn’t hear about that”? Even after you’ve said it more than once? It is possible they are dumb, but more likely they are just good people who haven’t heard.

Try this assumption: Assume people have a lot going on in their lives, a lot more than just the stuff you want them to pay attention to. And with that assumption in mind, give your folks the benefit of more information than you might think they need. I guarantee it will build good will. People will be grateful for your sensitivity to their over-crowded lives.

2. Affirm more. I learned this from Paul. You’ll notice that in most of Paul’s letters, even those where he’s obviously frustrated, he begins with encouragement. From that biblical pattern, I glean that I need to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say before I can say anything at all.

Start every conversation with affirmation. It helps right-size expectations, so the gap between what people are doing and what we think they ought to be doing is less noticeable.

3. Blast less. When I assume the worst and blast someone with a lot of negative words, I erode trust. Send enough email bombs and I’ll produce someone who cringes when they see my name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and I’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

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.

(Note to self and anyone else who needs a reminder: I will also not allow myself to react out of my woundedness in meetings. When I feel defensive, I will let God take care of my reputation and allow only the adult in me to respond.)

4. Check yourself. If you’re prone to sending angry emails, make a rule about that. Decide that any negative email must wait 24 hours before it is sent (the angrier you are, the more time you should take). Or find someone who will agree to read anything you send before you send it — someone who won’t mind being honest. Or write out what you’d like to say, then mail it to yourself and see how it feels when you’re reading it as if written to you.

Then, delete your email, pick up the phone and make time for a face to face conversation (I can’t overemphasize the value of person-to-person communication), which leads to the next idea …

5. 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.

6. Assume the best. Maybe I don’t know all there is to know about the intentions even of those closest to me. Perhaps I would do better to assume the best in them, to assume their intentions are good and their hearts are for me, not against me, even if their approach to a situation is not what I’d have chosen. I can accomplish this attitude if I keep a “Kingdom of Heaven” perspective – big, hopeful and focused on God. If I’m willing to begin back where this piece begins — by saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions — I set myself up to assume the good intentions of those around me, believing they care as much as I do about what really matters.

The bottom line is that what Paul teaches is never more relevant than when we are talking about communication: take every thought captive, and grow up in every way into Him who is our Head. If I can get that right, then those around me will be more likely to get it right, and the ripples will extend to their circles of influence. And on it goes.

The Kingdom of Heaven works like that.

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Curing pride (or, what makes us real)

Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real. — Thomas Merton

Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. — Ephesians 2:8-10 (The Message)

Humility is the antidote to pride. It is the primary character trait of Jesus’ own personality.

Humility manifests as self acceptance, which is the opposite of self centeredness. At its highest and best, self acceptance is a kind of personal forgetfulness that is more focused on others than self. It is not the same as humiliation and doesn’t look like self-deprecation, both of which are still focused negatively on self.

A person practicing humility has no need for self-protection because the preservation of self is not the dire need. When I am at peace with who I am — when I accept myself as I am — I no longer fear losing my identity (I won’t, in fact, because my identity is safe in Christ), nor am I obsessed with constructing my own identity. I accept that it is what it is and I am not ashamed of it nor protective of it.

Self-acceptance creates a posture that points toward God. Because I am not my focus, I have the time, luxury and room to focus on God. What a glorious release! What a sweet posture!

Do you remember what we said early on in the post about pride? We said that we tend to feel threatened when our sense of self is weak. No wonder Jesus calls us to find our identity in him! Knowing who and whose we are and being confident in that fact becomes a critical piece linking us to humility.

Jesus’ antidote for pride or self hatred comes as a three-part formula:

Deny your SELF. The key word here is not denial so much as self. This is about focus. One of our team members says that in her studies, she has learned that “to deny myself means to deny my own lordship.  My focus moves from me to Jesus. It doesn’t mean to deny my feelings, happiness, or sense of worth.  And to be honest, if I don’t find happiness, worth, and joy in following Jesus, then I’m doing it wrong.”

To deny self is to deny its survival the power to control my responses to life. But don’t I want my “self” to survive? Of course, but I’m not the one who can make that happen. Ultimately, that is God’s job. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work.” My worst responses will be at the point of my believing that I am the one responsible for my own salvation and identity.

Take up your cross. This means taking responsibility for this life as it is. This invitation to take up my cross and die to self is actually a lavish and attractive invitation. It is an invitation to learn how to “adult,” which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. Our culture encourages us 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 spend far more time accommodating (protecting, hiding) the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

This is an invitation not to meaningless suffering but to take on the challenge of growing into everything we are created to be. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

Taking up a cross is a call to the good life.

“Follow me.” Not focusing on self is only half the equation. In his sentence (“follow me”), both words matter but the first is dependent on the second. I can’t follow Jesus if I’m not focused on Jesus. However, when I focus on Jesus, he gives me my sense of identity. It is rooted in him and he is goodness and light and truth and life. When his identity becomes mine, I will naturally accept myself. This isn’t self-glorification; this is Christ-glorification. Christ in me is my hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)! Hallelujah!

Where do I begin if I want to move forward in my sense of self identity and acceptance?

Allow these questions to jump-start a conversation with the Holy Spirit about where the gaps are in your spiritual maturity and where you might begin if you are ready to move forward:

  1. Listen for how often you talk about yourself and the language you use. Do you tend to be defensive or self-promoting?
  2. Listen for how you defend yourself, and how often. What are your triggers?
  3. Listen to the internal conversations you have. Around whom are they centered?
  4. Observe how you listen to others. How much of the time is spent waiting for them to stop talking so you can begin? How focused are you on the other person, and how focused are you on yourself?
  5. Listen for that interior voice of judgment. How much of your thought life is spent exercising the habit of externalization of blame?
  6. Listen to your prayer life. How much time is spent complaining? How truthful are you with God? How much time is spent listening?
  7. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God?
  8. How much of your prayer life is spent listening for God’s voice? How much time is spent journaling what you hear? Are you honestly interested in learning and growing in grace?
  9. When is the last time you allowed others to honestly share with you what they see in you, for the sake of your own spiritual, emotional and vocational improvement? How do you approach evaluation — as a threat, or as a tool for renewal?
  10. How much time to you spend gazing on the face of Christ?

Remember: there is no shame in Christ. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

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