Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mystery of Mercy

I have been taken recently with Andrew Peterson’s version of a Caedmon’s Call song, Mystery of Mercy. I would almost call it the Beloved’s take on Psalm 22. It invites us to participate in every character of the biblical story as the means by which every part of us is presented before God. Here we are called to be amazed at his radical acceptance of losers, wannabes, wash-outs, whores and jerks.

I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed

My God, my God why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast though accepted me
It's a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
But I am the nine that never came

My God, my God why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast though accepted me
It's a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing

You made the seed that made the tree
That made the cross that saved me
You gave me hope when there was none
You gave me your only Son

My God,My God,Lord you are my God.
My God,My God,Lord you are my God.
My God,My God,Lord you are my God.
My God,My God,Lord you God.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lush Forest of Trust (2)

Yesterday I posted a short meditation on Jeremiah 17:5-8, which contrasts the cursed man (who trusts in man) and the blessed man (who trusts in God). The next verses allude to the complexity of the situation:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”
(Jer 17:9-10 ESV)

This text tells me, among other things, that these two men reside in the same heart. How can one heart be home to both trust and unbelief? (see the similar reasoning in James 3:1-12). This duplicity is one of the reasons why the heart is so deceitful and desperately sick. It reminds me not to try and see myself and my struggles in a black and white way, like “who will I be today, the cursed man or the blessed man?” (though sometimes that is a helpful question to ask). How much better to realize that both reside in me, and it’s only by grace that I ever choose the blessed path.

This also speaks loudly to God’s radical acceptance of me in Christ – that I will never be free in this life from the cursed man (my old self – Eph 4), and that the beauty of God’s love lies in the fact that Jesus died for me when all I knew was the cursed path of hating God and trusting in myself.

I say all this because it’s so easy to be discouraged that more of the “blessed” is not part of my actual experience. The same grace that transforms me from cursed to blessed is the grace that loves me where I am, both blessed and cursed. I am, as Luther so aptly said, simultaneously sinner and justified saint. Grace is mine the more I realize that my brokenness doesn’t exclude me from God’s favor; it actually puts me in a better position than the Pharisee because I begin to recognize the depth of my need. I have both Pharisee and tax collector in my heart, and Jesus accepts me as a duplicitous mess. Unless I realize this and accept it myself, I will never have the power to really change, to really grow into the blessed path.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Lush Forest of Trust

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
(Jeremiah 17:5-8 ESV)

A friend sent me this text today, and I’ve continued to meditate on it. It makes me think of the consequences of living in the true and false selves. The diagnosis of the text is so clear - I am used to scratching a living in the "uninhabited salt land" where all there is is lonely thirst. After a while, I assume it is the “normal Christian life” and seek to numb myself. I do not experience gratitude or the ability to see the good that comes my way. All I know is the tyranny of unquenchable thirst. These are all my false ways of living (false selves): I am what I do, I am what others perceive of me, and I am what I have (categories from Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality).

In contrast, the trusting man reminds me of John 15, abiding in Jesus our vine. But how to move toward trust? How do we move from the salt land to the lush forest of trust in God? It must take a lifetime of small decisions, otherwise it would be much easier! The salt land is miserable but predictable, the forest mysterious, chaotic (sounds like slavery in Egypt vs. the promised land).

It all seems to hinge on whether or not I trust that God is good, that the unpredictability of God is infinitely preferable to the predictability of what I can manage for myself.

Lord have mercy on my corrupt heart and twisted mind, so that I can sink my roots into your love and faithfulness in ruthless trust.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Borrowing Faith

I’ve been feeling despair more strongly the past few days. I wonder, as I feel a deeply painful lack of hope, what does Jesus think of me? I have no sense of purpose in life, no “calling,” and feel like a complete failure as a Dad, husband, as a disciple. My only hope is that Jesus is carrying me when I can’t walk. Every other Christian I know seems to have some sense of their purpose, that they’re heading in a certain direction, even if it brings pain. They can draw on their purpose for strength during trying times. I wonder what must be wrong with me if I don’t feel that at all.

These words from Bebo Norman’s (I like his stuff, but can’t stand his name) song “Borrow Mine” are helpful, and it turns out, my only hope today. I hope this is Jesus’ perspective.

Take my hand and walk with me a while
Cause it seems your smile has left you
And don't give in, when you fall apart
And your broken heart has failed you
I'll set a light up
On a hilltop
To show you my love
For this world to see

You can borrow mine
When your hope is gone
Borrow mine
When you can't go on
'Cause the world will not defeat you
When we're side by side
When your faith is hard to find
You can borrow mine

Take my love when all that you can see
Is the raging sea all around us
And don't give up 'cause I'm not letting go
And the God we know will not fail us
We'll lay it all down
As we call out
Sweet Savior
help our unbelief

You can borrow mine
When your hope is gone
Borrow mine
When you can't go on
'Cause the world will not defeat you
When we're side by side
When your faith is hard to find
You can borrow mine

When you are weak
Unable to speak
You are not alone
The God who has saved us
Will never forsake us
he's coming to take us
Take us to our home

You can borrow mine
When your hope is gone
Borrow mine
When you can't go on
'Cause the world will not defeat you
When we're side by side
When your faith is hard to find
When your faith is hard to find
You can borrow mine

Take my hand
Take my love
Don't give in
Don't give up

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Confessions of a Group Leader

[a recent article I submitted for Soul and Spirit, the newsletter for the Society for Christian Psychology]

A recent experience I had in leading an experimental Spiritual Formation group provides a window into some soul dynamics that I thought may be helpful to other leaders. The group consists of two primary elements: emotional health, involving therapeutic elements such as safety and self-awareness, and spiritual formation through union with God in Christ. The unified purpose is to bring all of ourselves before God and live interactively with him in our day to day lives, as Jesus did.

Although there was some inconsistent attendance, things were going well until we had a meeting about 2 months into it where I felt the need to challenge our commitment a bit. I sensed resistance that night, and felt this resistance grow over the coming months. I wondered if people were unwilling or unable to receive the vision I was trying to convey. So, I pushed back harder, trying to correct what I perceived as ignorance. I tried harder to describe the life that God has set before us, in the hopes that willingness would follow. I found that I was only making things worse. I entered into a deep depression and began having stress related health problems.
I realize now many of the mistakes I made - part of the danger in starting something new without much help from previous examples. One of my mistakes was trying to lead too cognitively and not enough relationally, wrongly thinking at times that correct ideas alone would be enough for everyone to experience God’s transforming presence. We all learn differently, and we are all at different places in our journey, but my teaching did not reflect that understanding. The result was that many felt left out and confused.

The nature of my vision for the group, however, involved as much experience as rational content. Instead of pushing harder to “make people understand” I should have invested more in relationships, especially with men who could lead with me, and I should have invited more feedback so that I could get a feel for where people were. In my desire to communicate the ideals of formational spirituality, I tended to run rough-shod over the reality of each person’s unique journey. When things didn’t go as planned, I reacted to what I perceived to be resistance and rebellion in the group, not realizing that some specific events had triggered my old self fear of abandonment. Resistance was interpreted as rejection. I felt my “vision” threatened, and failed to see it for what it was: my pathology of seeing myself as an orphan with no one to care for me. It amazes me how I missed what was going on inside me; it seems I am capable of nearly endless self-deception.

In the midst of all this, I developed a rigid me/them mentality and leading became unbearable. Though most of the members were benefiting from the group, each week left me drained and increasingly discouraged. I finally gave up, deciding that things could not continue like this and I sought a way to leave the group for good, especially as my health problems seemed to be escalating. I shared my feelings with a few core leaders of the group, who were rightly concerned that I might be making a rash decision. The more I tried to help them understand, the worse I felt. I felt increasingly trapped and hopeless. My issues were so strongly triggered that it clouded my view of the group; I couldn’t see beyond what I felt to be rejection and betrayal. Even when those closest to me in the group suggested that this was what was going on, I rejected it. I just couldn’t hear their counsel. It took someone outside the group to speak so that I could hear it.

By God’s mercy, a mentor and counselor helped me to see what was happening. After I shared what I was feeling, he suggested setting the situation in a therapeutic framework. He pointed out to me that I was seeing things in a black and white mentality due to my pain being triggered.

In the normal course of life, things get triggered in our brains that may provoke strong emotional responses. We then have the choice to repress those emotions and hide, to strike back against those we perceive to be attacking us, or bring our issues to God for His healing redemption. Once again, I had underestimated how powerful, overwhelming and distorting my pathology can be. Had I realized what was going on earlier in the process, much of my anguish could have been averted. I needed to learn to recognize, objectify and release my pathology to the Lord. In reality, this reaction was not about the group at all, it was about me and my fear of abandonment, a fear of having to figure out things on my own.

Further, my counselor helped me to see that there are two types of leading - internal and external. Internal leadership has to do with inviting people in, translating the truth and experience of God to where they actually are so that it can be clear to them that God is for them, that his yoke is easy, and his life is our best way. It is a call to model “Come, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). The danger with internal leadership alone is that teaching may never challenge us to grow beyond who and what we are. External leadership, on the other hand, has to do with the call, “Come, follow me!” (Mark 10:21; 1 Cor. 11:1) and is necessary because we will always tend to revert to old self patterns of thinking and doing. We need to be called to something bigger and better than what we currently know. The danger with an overemphasis on external leadership is becoming heavy on content and condemnation when people struggle to “get it.” Both of these types of leadership should work together. I tended to lead the group externally, though at the beginning that was not my desire. I am returning to my core desire behind the group - to make this “with-God” life accessible and understandable to tired, weary Christians so that they can engage with God more deeply right where they are. My intent was never to create more weariness or more burdens, and for this I am most sorry. I am still convinced that spiritual formation is a rational, orderly process that can be understood and entered into, and that our thinking is central to that project – but recognize that I need to grow in sensitivity and wisdom as to how to best practice this in leading our group externally and internally.

Further, a false self has emerged in my leading this group. At least two elements came together in its formation. First, a legitimate desire to share a formational spirituality became for me a twisted need to make people see. Second, I felt a need to prove myself. I confess that I wanted this group to validate my worth.

We are free to acknowledge how messed up we are because we are secure in Christ. We can allow ourselves to feel fully our fear, anger and other negative emotions so that we can surrender them to the Lord who longs to heal us. Though my eyes have been opened to my pathology, I know it will likely take the rest of my life to work through it.

I met with the group recently and shared this confession. They responded in deep kindness and familial affection, eager to work with me in community. I feel a new hope growing that I can lead out of freedom of who I am in Christ and not in the insatiable demand to gain the affirmation of others. I realize that not only do I need to affirm my identity in Christ and put on the new self, but also put off the old self and let go of its machinations (Eph 4).

Some Thoughts on Keeping Your Greek

keep your greek

I agreed to review a copy of Constantine Campbell’s Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People in exchange for a review copy. I just wanted to share several thoughts on the book rather than a detailed chapter by chapter review.

First, because of where I am in my walk with God, I can’t help but read this book through a spiritual formation lens, asking what bearing the spiritual discipline of reading Greek has on our souls as we live before God. While in Seminary studying the languages, it seems that most of the reasons given for us to study Greek have to do with teaching and preaching, which of course is true and valuable. But what greater motivation can there be than to work out how it not only benefits our minds, but our imaginations and hearts as well? I would like to see Greek texts take into account the principles and processes of Christian spiritual formation; I would also like to see spiritual formation texts include spiritual disciplines that have to do with specifically the biblical languages.

Reading this book made me want to see a further book written entitled, Greek for Ragamuffins, which would describe how the discipline of reading and interacting with Greek would benefit those who are experiencing a particularly dark and confusing time in their lives. Would that be possible?

Second, what I appreciate most about the book is the amount of grace on the pages. Studying Greek and Hebrew in Seminary is such a rigorous, even legal affair; no wonder so many come out of it never wanting to keep it! There is so much to memorize in short periods of time, with limited benefit along the way. Language teachers that are harsh toward their students add to this negative experience. Judging from this book, Constantine Campbell would not be one of these teachers! He clearly has understanding and compassion for people who have a lot going on in their lives.

I remember having many great eye-opening experiences with the languages, and look forward to more. I can rely on Campbell’s book to remind me that starting small and simple has greater long term effects than trying to go back to our seminary pace. It makes me want to take up my Greek NT again. Thanks Dr. Campbell!