Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

A Voice in the Desert

Thoughts of a pilgrim on a journey toward Jesus...

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Freedom

Recently with the kidnappings of Christians in the Middle East and the martyrdom of many of them I’ve found myself wondering, “What if I was taken? What if I was in their place…how would I respond?” My reflections have led me to two conclusions: 1) Death is not the worst thing that could happen to me (a thought for another blog perhaps)! 2) There is a true freedom that is so liberating, even captivity can’t quench it (the subject for today’s blog).

When I talk about “true freedom”, I don’t mean the kind of freedom we might have because we live in a certain country or the kind of freedom that comes from one’s status in life or anything of that nature. I’ve been mulling over the concept of “inner” or “interior” freedom. I’m sure there are many more educated people than me who have a good definition of inner freedom is. In my mind, when I think of true freedom – inner freedom – I think of how so many people are afraid to let others know who they really are – their struggles and failures, their faults and their foibles – and as a result spend a lot of time and energy projecting the person they wish they were or the person they think people want them to be.

You may remember the song Me and Bobby McGee (written by Kris Kristofferson and taken by Janis Joplin to number one shortly after her death in 1971), “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” In the song, the singer has hit rock bottom and has lost everything and in some sense is free because she’s got nothing left to lose. No one and nothing can hurt her because there’s nothing she’s holding onto; she has nothing to protect. But many of us live life fearing we will lose things – our reputation, our image, our comfort, our children, our jobs, our marriage, our health, our lives. It’s hard to imagine any good that could come from losing these things –  our identity and our security are tied up in these masks and these things we cling to. We spend our time and effort trying to protect ourselves, the masks we wear, and the scaffolding we need to “prop” them up.

The “me” in the song may just have a point. We don’t necessarily have to hit rock bottom emotionally or physically to get to there, but it is possible for us to get to a place where we live from our true self, unafraid of losing the things around us that give us security and identity. I believe inner freedom comes when we experience the deep love of God in such a profound way we realize we are genuinely, deeply, unconditionally loved. Finding security in God’s amazingly deep and profound love frees us from masks and the things that we let define our lives. Henri Nouwen speaking of freedom and God’s love wrote:

“The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world–free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridiculed, or considered useless…. I am convinced that I will truly be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries.” (Nouwen, Reaching Out)

I would echo Nouwen’s thoughts and take them further. When we are convinced of God’s love not only are we free to speak and act even when our words and actions are not received well, we are also free to be silent even in the face of false accusation; free to turn the other cheek when insulted; free to go the extra mile even if someone is taking advantage of us; free to love regardless of how the other person responds; free to die knowing that what lies beyond is better than what we experience here and now.

In recent years I have found this to be true in my own experience. For many years I projected a “Rick” I wanted everyone to believe I was – godly man, good pastor, loving husband and father – and I sought to live that out. But the reality was I often fell very short. I was insecure and afraid of letting anyone know what was really going on inside me. I would go through patches where I wasn’t a very good husband or father or I didn’t feel my life was all that godly and I was afraid people would discover the sham of my hypocrisy. At that time, I would have affirmed the theology of God’s deep love for me. I would have told you that I was free because of that love but I was living in bondage to my fears and insecurities. I was living like I had to earn God’s love or live a certain way to maintain it.

I remember vividly one morning as I met with God. I had read in the Word and prayed and was taking time to read a book for my own growth. That morning I experienced God’s love in a way I never had before. It was a moment in which my heart was transformed in profound ways I had long desired. And for the first time I had an interior freedom that I had never had before. I was free to be myself and to love others without fear.

Such freedom requires maintenance. Like a garden needs weeding and watering, so does interior freedom. We need to feed on God’s Word; worship; pray; fellowship with like-minded friends. We need to drink deeply of God’s love and constant presence walking with us through life. We also need to weed our hearts; to protect them from drifting back into hiding behind masks and trying to earn or justify the love we already have or trying to find it in imitations. We can do this through regular times of self-examination and reflection where we pay attention to the things stirred within us and list our concerns and worries.

 

Giving Up?

Ash Wednesday was this past week. It marks the beginning of the church season called “Lent” Lent is the forty days (not including Sundays and finishing on the day before Good Friday) before Easter. For those who observe it, Lent is a time to prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ – his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection. A common question you may hear is,  “What are you giving up for Lent?”  Even people who do not observe the season may take the opportunity to fast from something. But there is a danger in entering into a fast glibly or superficially. It shouldn’t be something we do just because it’s expected or because others are doing it. Our sacrifice, whatever it may be, should be something that creates space for us to draw closer to God and should impact other people.  If it doesn’t, our fasting or sacrifice will lack power and purpose. John Chrysostom wrote:

No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.

This echoes the words of Isaiah when he shared God’s perspective on fasting:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

The point in Isaiah (and for Chrysostom) is the heart with which we offer sacrifice to God is more important than the act. If we sacrifice or fast and do not allow it to overflow into our love and service for others, it misses the point. Our sacrifice and fasting needs to come from a surrendered heart – a heart set on loving God and others. When we surrender our sacrifice or fast to him; when we allow it to move us to acts of compassion or sharing of the blessings we’ve received, there is great fruit. Isaiah says, “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8). As we enter into Lent, if you are someone who is considering fasting, may I suggest considering these questions posed by Ruth Haley Barton on her blog earlier this week (commenting on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6):

  • How will I give?  (v. 2-3) Lent is a time for “giving things up” balanced by “giving to” those in need.
  • How will I pray?  (v. 5-13)  As we “give up” some of our usual distractions, there is more space for prayer.  Is there a particular prayer practice (like fixed hour prayer, silent prayer or intercessory prayer) that God is inviting me to?
  • Who do I need to forgive and from whom do I need to seek forgiveness? (vs. 14-15) Forgiveness creates a conduit for God’s grace to flow in our lives with others.
  • How will I fast?  (v. 16-18)  What distracts me from alert attention to my relationship with God? What do I need to abstain from in order to be more aware of my hunger for God?
  • What earthly treasures am I attached to and how can I let go?  (v. 19-21)  Is there any specific earthly treasure I am attached to—time, money, energy, success—that I am being called to steward differently or let go of entirely, at least for this season?

So what are you giving up for Lent…and who will benefit from your sacrifice? 

Posture, Pondering and Prayer

If you walk into a classroom and find the students sitting up straight or even leaning a bit forward on their desk, what would you assume? Most likely you would think they are being attentive and are interested in the lesson. Walk into the same class room and observe the same students hunched over or with their chins in their hands and you would think they look bored. One’s posture can tell a lot about what is going on inside. Researchers suggest open posture involves keeping the trunk of the body open and exposed and suggests friendliness, openness and willingness. Closed posture keeps the trunk of the body obscured or hidden often by hunching forward and keeping the arms and legs crossed. This type of posture can indicate of hostility, unfriendliness, and anxiety.

Physical posture often gives an idea of what is going on inside – what a person is thinking or feeling. In prayer this can be true as well. We might lift our hands in praise and fall to the ground prostate in anguish as we seek God, for example. In the Bible, we find a number of postures written about for when we come before God:

More important than our physical posture is the posture of our heart. When our hearts are attentive to see God around us and give him our undivided, undistracted attention, we can hear what he has to say to us in a given moment (see “Daddy! Pay Attention!” for more). We should have a heart posture of submission or surrender; of gratitude and appreciation; of obedience. One heart posture we might not normally think of as prayer has been on my mind recently, pondering prayer.

The English word “ponder” comes from the Latin word pondus (meaning pound) which becomes ponderer in its verb form which gives way to our English meaning “appraise or judge the worth of”. It is a reflective rather than analytical way of thinking. We have an idea we chew on; we look at from different perspectives. It is a slow process. We let the thought bounce around carefully in our minds.

Pondering is not prayer in and of itself. But, writes David G. Benner, “Pondering becomes prayer when reflection arises in a mind that is open to God” (Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer, p. 88). He suggests several Psalms as examples of pondering prayer:

  • Psalm 14 – David reflects on issues that trouble him deeply, questions without answers, and as he gives them space for thought he offers them to God.
  • Psalm 15 – David wonders who can live in God’s tent or on his holy mountain and then prayerfully thinks through the one who can do this.
  • Psalm 19 – David ponders the splendor of God’s creation.
  • Psalm 49 – The psalmist considers life’s troubles and the uselessness of riches.
  • Psalm 90 – Moses considers the human condition.

Benner writes (about his own book but it applies to this blog too), “This present moment as you read this page can be a prayer if it involves trusting openness before God. If it does, your reading is an opportunity to meet God” (p. 90). You see, the posture of our heart – am I open to God in this moment or just doing my thing – can make this activity prayer…for you, as you read; for me, as I type and as I read his chapter. While reading I was open to what God had for me in the pages – was it a truth I should pursue? a challenge to overcome? a false idea to be aware of? And long after I read, I was still pondering the words…how could I apply them in my life? What might God be inviting me to that I could connect more deeply with Him?

Benner suggests different ways pondering can become prayer. For example, our study of the Bible can become an act of prayer. He calls this “discursive meditation” where we “think about the passage, viewing it from many angles. We might first attempt to understand who wrote it and why. We might also try to understand who the intended audience was and what the purpose was for the writing. Once again, this sort of study is not automatically prayer because we can study Scriptures without openness of spirit” (p. 91). It is when we take a posture of openness and reflectively consider the passage before us that it becomes pondering prayer. Often a thought in Scripture will stick with me throughout the day. When I ponder it, wondering what about it God wants me to notice or practice or whatever, it becomes not just pondering but pondering prayer.

Other activities can become acts of prayer if we maintain openness to God. Journaling when it goes beyond simply recording facts and information to thoughtful consideration; prayerful reflection on experience; problem solving – nearly any activity that includes thoughtful pondering can become prayer. The key is whether we are open to God, sharing with him our thoughts and feelings with God in trusting openness. This is often in words, but can be my entire reflective process if in it I am open to God. “Trusting openness to God makes any moment a time of prayer. It is also what makes any hour or day an hour or day of prayer” (p. 97).

It’s such a subtle and in some ways very easy posture to take. Am I willing to be open to God, to be mindful of his presence and care for every part of my life because “…there is no part of us or of our experience God is not interested in” (p. 97). Benner reminds us that any time we are paying attention to God and inviting him to guide us, we need to obey what he says. “Pondering involves thinking, but it also involves paying attention to where that thinking leads me…(it) demands attention not just to the content issues that appear in the mind but also to the process ones that register on the heart” (p. 99). Do I find myself troubled? Elated? Convicted? Concerned? Confused? Resistant? I need to pay attention to what is going on in my heart and discuss these with God as well. The heart data can help point to deeper issues that need resolution as we seek clarity in our pondering. When we are open to God, his Spirit can help us discern what is going on.

Benner closes his chapter by writing, “Pondering prayer is responding to the invitation to bring your mind, heart and imagination to your communion with God” (p. 104). He suggests several ways to get started in the process. I offer two from his five suggestions on pages 104-106.

1. Talk with God about the things that have been heavy on your heart during your prayer times. He suggests praying something like “Lord, you know I have been thinking a lot about my finances I offer you that thinking.” Or “Lord, I am concerned about my mother’s health and unsure whether to advise her to undergo further chemotherapy. I offer you my thinking and concerns.” We often think about things throughout the day. We don’t often remember to invite God to be a part of that thinking. 

2. When you are reflecting on some experience you had, invite God to be a part of the process. “Remember, bidden or not, God is already present. And anything that is on your heart and in your mind is an issue of importance to God.” Focus on the experience for a bit. Then, try to look at the entire situation through the lens of your faith. Are there any images or ideas that seem to point toward God? Are there any issues or values embedded in the situation? Do any biblical stories or verses come to mind? If there is something, how does it affirm or challenge the meaning and understanding you were forming of the experience? Are there deeper ethical issues at play? How might Jesus respond? Did he face a similar situation? How do things like sin, suffering, evil, grace, salvation or other theological ideas relate to this experience and influence your understanding of it? “These questions are one way of making space for theological reflection on experience. Doing so is pondering prayer.”

As one who desires very deeply to walk every moment in an awareness of God’s presence and to learn what it means to “pray without ceasing”, Benner’s chapter on “Prayer as Pondering” brings with it an invitation to invite Jesus more deeply into who I am; the experiences of my life; and my deepest places of thought and reflection. What does it say to you?

Stages of Spiritual Maturity

The story is told of a group of tourists who were getting off their tour bus to walk through an beautiful, old village. As they began walking down the street they saw an old man sitting near a fence. One of the tourists asked in a patronizing way, “Were there any great men or women born in this village?” The man answered, “Nope, only babies.”

Everyone enters the world in pretty much the same way, but what happens after that can vary dramatically. So much depends on our parents and the communities we are born into. But the truth is, great men and women are forged over time as they experience life’s joys and challenges and continue to make choices and establish habits and priorities that help them grow and mature and eventual become “great”. One trait I’ve read over and over from highly successful people is that they live life with purpose and intentionality and never settle for mediocrity.

The same is true for us as followers of Jesus. If you look at those most worthy of emulation in Scripture – people like Jesus or Paul – one thing that stands out from their lives is that they lived on purpose and were always moving forward (Consider Mark 1:35-39; Luke 9:51ff; Hebrews 12:2b; Philippians 3 (especially verse12). Even as an apostle who had accomplished so much for Jesus Paul says he had not yet reached the goal, he pressed on for more of what Jesus had to offer.

Here is my take on the stages of spiritual maturity in most believers’ lives and why it is important to keep moving forward in our relationship with Jesus at each one.

1. Infant stage – Newborn babies are cared for and loved. There isn’t much they can do on their own. After birth their bodies grow and they begin to learn muscle coordination so they can crawl, walk, feed themselves, etc. Initially they do not have words to voice their needs. Crying is their way of communication eventually moving on to grunts and motions.

Spiritually this is where we are new believers in Jesus. We are infants craving “spiritual milk”, learning about God and how to relate to him. During this time we learn to “feed ourselves” by beginning to read the Bible; we learn to communicate with God through prayer and worship; we learn how to relate to other believers through service and ministry. This is a period where we are especially dependent on others to mentor and disciple us.

As we begin to discover the riches of God’s Word and become part of God’s family, there is normally a desire to serve. We learn that the Spirit inside us is not intended to be just for us, but to flow through us to be a blessing to others…

2. Child Stage – In life, when we move from the infant stage to the child stage, we begin to act independently and care for ourselves. We learn to better communicate and ask for what we want; to voice pleasure and displeasure. We learn we sometimes have to do things even when we don’t feel like it and to separate imagination from reality.

As we follow Jesus, we need to move beyond dependence on others for our spiritual sustenance and begin to walk with confidence. We pursue Christ in our Bible reading and in more fervent prayer. We begin to explore our spiritual gifts and opportunities to serve. We discover that our faith is intended to be given away in words and actions. We also discover that things don’t automatically go well just because we love Jesus. We have to endure challenges and tough times. Our faith is put to the test and we have the opportunity to press in and walk with Jesus and his people.

3. Adolescent Stage - As children grown, they begin to take on more responsibility for themselves and others. They learn to act independently and to form more and more their own values and opinions. There is a growing desire for independence and autonomy and when that is restricted there can be rebellion. Adolescents often learn to manipulate the system to get their own way. At this stage the consequences of one’s actions become more serious and yet there are often adults to help cushion the blow when things go badly. It is also important that adolescents learn the value of delayed gratification. This is a stage where many get stuck in their emotional maturation – in so many ways an adult and yet still a child. Good parenting and guidance are incredibly important.

In our growth in Jesus, we also face a time very much the same. We are mature in many ways and give evidence of growth and yet have a long way to go.  The temptation is to pull away from mentors and to feel like we have things under control. We’ve experienced some wonderful things with Jesus, maybe even weathered some storms…and we’re content. We end up settling into a pattern that keeps us steady and doesn’t rock the boat. We’ve got enough Jesus to bless what we’re doing, but not so much we have to really change. We know the lingo and we can talk the talk even when we aren’t walking the walk.

At this point we need good mentors more than ever. We need friends and companions on the journey who will spur us on toward deeper relationship with Jesus. We need people whose very lives inspire us to want more. Unfortunately we often have friends who are spiritually at the same place we are or even a bit behind us which serves to feed our ego but not encourage us to press on for more.

4. Adult Stage – When adolescents become adults, they enter a world where they must become responsible for themselves and their choices. They are independent but can choose to be interdependent – whether in a work environment, among friends, or in a marital relationship. They begin to think more selflessly as they become responsible for others – a spouse or children, for example. A mature adult understands the world is not a fair place; one person can’t do it all; saying no to one thing is a yes to another; and I am not the center of the universe! In the adult stage, people often have their own children and get the privilege of guiding them through life.

In our spiritual walk, if we press on through the adolescent stage we come to a place where we discover the joy of serving, the beauty of interdependence, the significance of living within our limitations. We enjoy the Lord and our deepening relationship with him, but we also know there’s much more to come. We have a sense of purpose and a desire to serve but also to empower and encourage others to use their gifts too. It isn’t about us, and there is joy seeing others experience a deepening relationship with Jesus.

5. Elder Stage – The truth is that people don’t reach this stage often enough. Perhaps it’s because we rarely think we’ve done well at the adult stage; perhaps it’s because no one did it for us; perhaps we’re just worn out from life…but too few of us actually choose to become mentors and sages for those who are younger and at earlier stages in the journey. There comes a time when we have the opportunity to mentor others in their stages of maturing. As parents we might do this haphazardly with our own children, but this is an opportunity to guide others who are in the adult stage. We have the privilege to walk alongside them and share with them the things we learned along the way. The reality is we learn by trial and error, but it is an incredible blessing to have a mentor who can help prepare us before things happen and debrief with us afterward as we try to make sense of it all.

Where would you place yourself on these stages? You might ask a close friend what he/she thinks if you aren’t sure. If you don’t have anyone close enough to be able to say or if you are afraid of what a friend might say, that might tell you a lot!

Where would you like to be? If you aren’t where you’d like to be, what kinds of things could you do to move forward?

Let’s not be complacent with our spiritual maturity. Let’s be like Paul who wrote, “…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13b-14).

Who’s Keeping Score?

As a parent, I love each of my three children. If you asked me which of them I loved the most, I wouldn’t be able to pick. In my heart I believe I love each of them the same. But, as most parents will tell you, that doesn’t mean I treat them each in exactly the same way. I have to know my children and I have to love them in a way that will communicate love to them as individuals. Bethany responds to words of affirmation and encouragement. I often tell her how proud of her I am. Joshua responds to hugs and physical contact. I still speak words of encouragement to him – and I think they do show love – but I had to learn to make physical contact (even though this is not my natural way of showing love) because it is something that affirmed him. Jonathan responds to quality time. He likes being with people and when he has spent time with you he opens up and will share his heart. It isn’t so significant what the activity is, it’s the time spent together.

But our children didn’t always think we loved each of them the same. On more than one occasion “You love her more!” or “That’s not fair!” were heard in the hallowed halls of our home. Sometimes our kids were convinced we played favorites. “I didn’t get to do that until I was thirteen!” “You told me I couldn’t go there but she gets to!” “Why can’t I stay up? They do!”

I suppose it’s human nature to keep score in relationships. In our minds we tally the points for different things people have done. We have this idea that relationships are fifty-fifty propositions. I do my part and you do yours and everything is fair and we’re all happy. The problem is, what I think is a loving thing to do may not seem loving to you. I’ve given myself a point, but you’ve taken one away or just not noticed. And it works the other way too. Things you’ve done don’t count by my standards and vice versa.

In relationships, when we keep score everyone loses. Rarely does keeping score in relationships end well. More often we feel hurt, unloved, under appreciated, neglected, resentful, alone. We think we are loving well and more than doing our part but the other person isn’t trying as hard or doing as much and we can’t understand why he/she sees it the other way around.

A better approach is to give one hundred per cent in relationships and assume the best about the other person’s effort. Even if he/she is slacking, we’re still called to love well. Paul wrote that we should consider others more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). This doesn’t mean we become a doormat to let people do whatever they want to us, but it does mean that we seek to love unconditionally and selflessly. We stop worrying about what the other person is or isn’t doing to love us and we focus on how we can love him/her better. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus (quoting Leviticus 19:9 and 19:18) told us to love others as we would want them to love us. I can’t speak for others, but I would prefer someone not be judging my acts of love to determine their value or worth. I would prefer they love me well and accept my love in return.

I’m glad God doesn’t keep score in our relationship. If He did, I would be in big trouble! God’s love is one hundred percent and it is unconditional. The love I offer God is a fraction of what He has shown me. There is no way I could even approach a fifty-fifty split with Him. But in his grace and mercy He still loves me well. Love doesn’t always mean He does what I want or when I want or how I want. He wants the best for me and so sometimes his love is discipline or no or wait. But I know his character is perfect and his heart is for me and I never doubt, even in the most challenging circumstances, that He loves me. Jesus in teaching about God’s character and about prayer wrote that if earthly fathers know how to give their children good gifts how much more does our heavenly Father know how to give not just good gifts, but the very best gifts (Luke 11:11-13, see also my previous post discussing this passage)

When we stop keeping score or worrying about keeping score and focus on loving with all our hearts, we are set free to truly love well. It is an opportunity for us to imitate God and his love for others. It is not always easy. Human beings can be fickle and don’t always respond the way we want or expect. But when we love others well, we not only honor God by obeying his call to love, we scratch a deep itch everyone has – to be loved for who they are, warts and all. As Bill Mallonee says, “to be loved well is the best of all” (from the song “This Time Isn’t One of Them”).

How to Love People You Don’t Like

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a group of 5th-8th graders. In mulling over what to share I was drawn to one of the hardest truths Jesus taught: Love your neighbor. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a hard truth. I mean, it’s easy to love my neighbor, isn’t it? My neighbors are people just like me, right? They’re my family and the people I like and spend time with. Right? I believe Jesus goes and sets the bar higher than that. When asked by “an expert in the law” who was his neighbor, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan and basically blows his listeners’ minds. You can read the passage here.

There are so many cultural and religious dynamics going in the passage, but I will save most of them for another day! What I want to pay attention to is that this teacher of the law wants to justify himself. He wants to break down his duty before God into a neat box. How does he inherit eternal life? Love God and love his neighbor. In his mind loving his neighbor is loving the people like him. It’s loving the people near him. It’s loving his family and his close friends.

Jesus tells a story that shatters that illusion. The priest and the Levite walk by this man who lies in a heap bloodied and beaten. Most people of that day would have felt they were justified. They don’t know who it is. They might make themselves unclean and unable to worship in the temple or to conduct their duties before God. And if the person is already dead? It would have made sense in a way that seems foreign to modern day, western readers, that these people walked on by.

But it shouldn’t and that’s why Jesus tells the story. The Samaritan is clearly not this man’s neighbor in their minds. He was considered a half breed – part Jewish and part Gentile. His religion was heretical holding to only the Torah and not the other books of the Old Testament. Their place of worship was not Jerusalem at the temple. The Samaritans were hated by Jews. If you needed to walk to Galilee, you almost always went around Samaria to avoid its people.

And yet, it is the Samaritan who stops; who binds the wounds; who takes the man to an inn; who shows mercy and serves this stranger. When Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the injured man, the teacher of the law can’t even say “the Samaritan”. He answers, “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus tells him to go and do the same.

Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer is unexpected. Essentially he says our neighbor is anyone who has need and that everyone, even the people we don’t know or we don’t like or we consider half-breed heretics, fall into that category. Love your neighbor and, by the way, everyone is your neighbor.

We love our neighbor when we don’t treat them as they deserve. We love them by showing them mercy. This is the first way we can love people we don’t like: We serve them.

I think there is a second way we can begin to love people we don’t like. We get to know them. This idea comes more from my experience of serving people in church and in outreach over the years. We often don’t like people because we don’t know them. We see the way they dress or we think based on their religion or nationality or the place they come from what they are like. We make judgments and assumptions and imagine we know what they are like.

When we take time to listen to other’s stories; when we honor them by listening and asking questions; we often discover that 1) they aren’t so different from us and 2) they are actually very likable. Now I realize this is not always the case. There are people who the more we get to know them the less we like them. We are called to love them anyway (They are still our neighbors after all and even if we hate them, we still have to love them…see Matthew 5:43-48 if you don’t believe me). But more often than not in my own experience, when I hear people’s stories I find respect and understanding for them that I lacked when I was stuck in my prejudgments and assumptions.

Surely getting to know them is harder. It takes time and it can be uncomfortable. But Jesus rarely took things at face value. He was always asking good questions which helped to reveal people’s hearts and motives. As we get to know the people Jesus calls us to love, we may actually find we like them.

One other way we love people we don’t like is we tell them the truth (in love). Speaking the truth in love is a non-negotiable for followers of Jesus (see Ephesians 4:15). The most loving thing we can do for anyone is point them toward the truth. We point them toward their heavenly Father who loves them more than we ever could!

I think speaking the truth in love points people toward Jesus, but I think we need to go beyond that. Most of us like for people to think we have it all together and have things figured out. The reality is that we have struggles and challenges. We have needs and frustrations and issues. Being willing to share our needs and our hurts and struggles can invite others to be a neighbor to us. It can move our relationship from being me offering from my abundance and expertise to a true give-and-take as we journey together. It can actually create better opportunities for us to tell our stories and to let others see how our faith is lived out.

Loving people you don’t like is not easy. But I believe these three ways make it practical and livable. I invite you to take time this week to ask God who might be a person you know you need to love but have been struggling with because you don’t like them much. Ask him to show you specific things you could do to begin loving that person better. How could you serve him/her? How could you get to know him/her better? How could you share the truth in love?

The Law of Inertia

One of the phenomena I have noticed in life is the way most of us avoid the things we know we most need. Some call it the “tyranny of the urgent” or something like that. We let the urgent needs that pop up crowd out the time we should spend on truly important things. We spend all our time putting out fires and we never take time to do the things that really feed our souls. In the end we feel frazzled and distracted and wonder why we aren’t growing or making progress in life.

This phenomenon is something I struggle with often. It’s part of why I haven’t blogged in more than a year. I know that when I slow down and reflect and write I connect most deeply with my own heart and with the heart of God, yet I find any number of good (and sometimes not so good) things to do instead. I rationalize I don’t have enough time or I complain that I get interrupted or that I don’t know what to write about. But it’s all excuses at the end of the day. And when I stop to think about it, I know how fulfilled I am and how much I grow when I take the time to do it. I suppose it’s the law of inertia in practice – an object at rest (me) tends to stay at rest (to my shame/demise).

For a little while now I have been taking time to write. I have been sitting down and allowing myself to reflect and ponder and process. But I haven’t cut and pasted and published. Maybe it’s fear that what I’ll write isn’t worth reading; maybe it’s the embarrassment of having not blogged for so long; I’m not sure. But my wife has fulfilled her dream of blogging (see Dr. Angie’s blog here) and a good friend I hadn’t seen in a while mentioned she missed my blogging (thanks Sravani!) and they have inspired me to get back at it.

It is easy to take a very passive approach to life and spirituality. It is easier to be reactive than proactive. But we have a responsibility to do our part – to be active participants – in our spiritual journey. Without question it is the Holy Spirit who produces true and lasting change but as Paul wrote “...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12b-13).

What’s something important you know you should do but have avoided or put off? What opportunities have you missed by not making it a priority? I encourage you to carve out time today or put it on your calendar for this week! The blessings and benefits may not be immediate, but the investment will never be wasted!

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