Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

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Conflict Transformation

Conflict is one of those things most people try to avoid. I imagine it’s largely because few of us have experienced conflict turn out well. Everyone has a baseline response to conflict: Yield, withdrawal, win, compromise…but few of us understand how to work through conflict to a point of resolution. Much of how we approach conflict is conditioned by how we observed it and experienced it growing up – with parents, teachers, coaches, classmates. We found the best way to cope…passive-aggressive behavior, conciliatory comments, argumentativeness, violence – some worked well, many not at all!

Conflict happens in all relationships. It is inevitable. How we handle that conflict is essential for moving forward in the relationship. In the past few months I’ve come across the idea of “conflict transformation”. Conflict transformation is not a commitment to transforming the conflict into something else – though that might be a good thing – it is a commitment “for us to seek transformation in and through the conflict” (Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together, p. 104). It is all about finding ways for me to be open to the presence of Jesus in the midst of conflict. It is an attempt to seek after deeper levels of heart change in my life rather than simply slipping into habits or natural responses that may not reflect Christ’s presence in my life.

This is a big challenge. How do I enter into a conflict situation with a desire to be changed for the better? How do I enter into it with the mindset of maintaining the unity of Christ – and even seeing the situation strengthen our unity in Christ – instead of simply managing the situation or resolving it and moving on. The reality for most of us is that conflict stirs very strong emotions in us and we often respond before we can even slow down enough for a rational thought.

To experience conflict transformation, we need to affirm the truth that Jesus is with us in the midst of the conflict. He promised to never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and in the context of a conflict the passage promised that were two or three are gathered, he was in their midst (Matthew 18:19). We can ask ourselves, “What does Christian love demand in this situation?” We can seek to remain open to God and the other person rather than withdrawing or attacking.

We also need to “affirm that conflict can be the catalyst for needed growth and transformation…if we are willing to engage it as such” (Barton, p. 146). We need to enter into the situation to seek resolution of the conflict, but we also want to create the space for God to use it to transform us. Practicing regular times of self-examination and learning to pay attention to what’s going on inside us can help us navigate conflict situations. As we examine ourselves, we may become aware of attitudes that have contributed to the situation that need confession; or we may realize how the conflict is affecting us and see areas God wants to refine. By slowing down and reflecting on the situation and our heart and attitudes in it, we seek to understand what it is God is doing in us and perhaps in the other person so we can grow.

Not every conflict lends itself easily to conflict transformation. But if we approach conflict with a right heart and attitude, it can be something that transforms us more into the image of Jesus. As with so much of life, things happen and it often feels like we have no control over it. But if we take the attitude that God purposes or permits everything for a purpose then we can know that each situation is a transformational growth opportunity. Instead of hiding from the challenges as potholes to be avoided, we can embrace the opportunity to learn and grow and model a different approach.

What would it mean in your life to pursue conflict transformation? What about this idea is attractive? Is there anything your heart resists? Take time to pray and ponder what God might be inviting you to experience…

Five Best Things About Being Sick

Like most people, I hate to get sick. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often to me – it hasn’t happened in more than a year.  Unfortunately it happened this week. What started out as allergies turned into a nasty cold. The net effect is I feel tired and like someone has hit me over the head with a two by four most of the time.

While I don’t like being sick, I have realized there are actually some positives to illness. So without further ado, my top five best things about getting sick…

5. It reminds me I am human. I usually do not feel as old as I am. In my mind I can still do all the things I did twenty thirty years ago. Getting sick reminds me that I am, after all, only human. I can’t do everything. I have to accept and acknowledge my limits and live accordingly. I need to eat well; rest enough; and get good exercise. I do the first and third without problem (most of the time). It’s the “rest enough” that can be a challenge. Being sick forces me to break from the normal routines. It is a good reminder who is in charge; who is truly immortal; and who can truly do everything.

4. It forces me to slow down. I normally do pretty well at keeping a good balance between work and rest. I take time to reflect on what is happening in and around me. I have fairly good rhythms in my life. Even so, illness forces me to slow down. I cannot keep up the pace I’m used to following. I have to find a different rhythm. And that’s a good thing. Not only does it provide the needed rest to recover, it also…

3. It helps me prioritize. When I can’t do everything, I need to figure out what’s most important. What are the things I can let go of (perhaps only temporarily) and what do I have to do today. In the process of prioritizing I often identify things that not only don’t have to be done today, they actually are not even mine to do, or they have become distractions to what I’m supposed to do. I should, as part of my normal life rhythm, take time to evaluate how I’m doing. The truth is sometimes I don’t. Illness helps me to make sure I am focusing on the things I should when I should.

2. It makes me thankful. When I am sick, I appreciate health so much more. It can be easy to wallow in my illness or complain about it or become bitter and frustrated. I try not to let that happen. Instead, I find it usually helps me feel more grateful that I am usually a healthy person. I am thankful for physical blessings and also for spiritual ones. I am thankful that Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 are true: 16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. Now granted, Paul is not talking about the common cold here, but when I’m sick even as it reminds me I am human, it also makes me thankful that there is a spiritual, inward reality that is coming alive and being renewed “day by day”.

1. It reminds me what an amazing woman and doctor my wife is. More than twenty-five years ago I married a medical student who is today a physician. Over the years my children and I have learned that there is a lot more we can do when we’re sick than we thought. While others would let colds or flus slow them down, Angie would give us a Tylenol or an Advil and (unless we were contagious) encourage us to keep going. She was sympathetic and she offered care and concern, but she also knew how much she was able to put up with – chronic pain among other things. She modeled for us that illness might slow us down a bit and needed to be attended to, but except in certain circumstances, it didn’t have to debilitate us. And the reality was, as a doctor, she could tell us exactly what we needed to do to get better and it pretty much always worked and worked quickly.

So, no, I don’t like being sick…but I have learned that it isn’t (usually) the end of the world. In fact, if I approach it with a good attitude, it can even be a gift.

Character Traits

My good friend Alan has a saying to which he often refers: “Who you are and who you’re becoming is more important than what you do.” I believe he’s right. In a world where the ends often justify the means, I wonder how many people would agree with that statement. Perhaps the real question is not how many would agree with it, but how many live it out? It’s easy to say you believe character is important, even most important, but it can be hard to live that when the pressure is on and you need results.

Jesus taught that we become people of deep character through intimacy with him (consider John 15:1-17). As we are transformed more and more into his image, we reflect more and more of his character in our words and actions. As he said in Matthew 7:17-18, good trees bear good fruit and bad trees don’t no matter how it looks.

I have written elsewhere on this blog on the kinds of practices I believe help us create space for the Holy Spirit to transform us into good trees; that allow us to remain deeply connect to Jesus so we are made into his likeness. But how do we know if a person is a “good tree”? How do we know if they are the kind of person who believes character is more important than results?

What are some of the signs that a person is a person of character? I offer just a few and they are influenced by Gary Hunter and Tim Addington…

1. When talking about success he/she recognizes and appreciates the influence and role of others; when talking about failure he/she take responsibility without placing blame.

2 She/he can notice/observe/assess a situation without making judgment, being comfortable with ambiguity and holding things in tension.

3. He/she has appropriate humility – neither thinking too much of self nor being falsely self deprecating.

4. She/he is a person of conviction, willing to listen to others but not quickly bending because of public opinion.

5. He/she has a strong sense of identity in relation to their Heavenly Father; having strong self-awareness of his/her own emotions, wiring, strengths, weaknesses, giftings.

6. She/he forgive and ask forgiveness when called for.

Who are you becoming? Are you the person you want to be? How are you connecting with Jesus so you can become more like him? If someone was to evaluate your life according to these six traits, how would you measure up?

Indifference

Indifference is usually defined as a lack of concern or disinterest. It is viewed negatively. To be indifferent is to be callous or unfeeling toward others. This kind of indifference is, rightly, seen in a negative, pejorative light.

Over the last few weeks, I have been pondering the concept of freedom – true freedom. I’ve wondered what would it be like to be truly free to make choices and live without fear of consequences – things like what others might think or death or loss of something I value. In my reading and meditating one word has come up over and over again: indifference. In this case, indifference has a positive, spiritual sense. Let me explain.

Back during the Middle Ages, Ignatius of Loyola affirmed that human beings were created to love God with all their heart and soul through loving others. To be able to do this properly, he wrote, “it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent toward all created things…wanting and choosing only that which leads to the end for which we were created” (Spiritual Exercises 23 translated by George E. Ganss). He suggests that we will ultimately live best and will be happiest when we love one thing or more precisely some One. To do this we need “interior freedom” to be able to pursue that some One without distraction or competition. Hence we need indifference – indifference to everything that is not God; indifference to anything that is not God’s will; indifference to anything that prevents us from loving well.

Indifference, then, is defined as “being so passionately and single-mindedly committed, so completely in love, that we are willing to sacrifice anything, including our lives, for the ultimate goal” (Brackley, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, p. 12). In this context, the ultimate goal is loving God alone. Indifference then allows us to pursue that ultimate goal. It creates the freedom we need to actually move in that direction. Such indifference allows our hearts to reach a place where we can truly say with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). It allows our heart to be in quiet resolve in the midst of confusion and fright so we can resond in a similar way as Mary in Luke 1 when the angel told her she would have a child by the Holy Spirit, With a heart for God she said, “Behold, I am the servant[f] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Whatever the Lord wants, no matter the personal cost, I accept.

When we reach a place of indifference, we are truly free to be used by God for his glory. Indifference is not an easy attitude to attain. The truth is we cannot, by our own effort alone, get to a place of true indifference. We need God’s help. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. But like many transformational attitudes, we can create space in our lives for him to do his work.

1. Pray. Ask God to give us a holy detachment; a true indifference to anything that is not his will; does not lead us to love him and others more.

2. Wait. It sometimes takes time for God to move in us to remove our attachments and bring us to indifference.

3. Seek. We can ask ourselves during this time what might be something that needs to die or something in me that stands in the way of my being open to God’s purpose or desire? Take time to quietly sit before the Lord and ask him to show you what might be keeping you from truly desiring his will above all else.

4. Love. Continue to love and worship God well studying his Word and doing all you know for certain you are to do. Keep pursuing him and loving others even as you pray, wait and seek indifference and true inner freedom.

 

Faith Mongering

Fear mongering” is the activity of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue. It is rampant in the media. Whether it is ebola, ISIS or Y2K…real threats or imagined…the media thrives on creating a sense of hysteria that we are under imminent threat.

I am sick and tired of fear mongering. I serve a God who is greater than all of it. I know whom I believe and I am confident He has everything well in hand no matter what CNN, FoxNews, ABC, CBS, NBC etc. may say. So, instead of fear
mongering, I would like to be someone who engages in “faith mongering” – the activity of deliberately arousing public faith or confidence in God over every issue.

I do not want to minimize genuine danger, but as a follower of Jesus Christ I also do not want to live my life afraid. After all, John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 John 4:18). And Paul wrote as well that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…” He continues:

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18, 31-32, 37-39)

I counted at least forty times that “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid” was spoken to people in the Bible. Most often the reason not to fear is because God is with us! Consider a few of the verses that encourage us not to fear:

Psalm 23:4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 27:1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 118:6 The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?

Romans 8:15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!

2 Timothy 1:7for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Hebrews 13:5-6Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

I said in my last blog that death is not the worst thing that could happen to me. Jesus agrees. He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell Matthew 10:28). Paul wrote while in prison, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He had come to a place where he knew continued life on earth would mean fruitful ministry and service to God, but if he died it would actually be better because he would get to be with Christ and would be able to worship and enjoy him without the hindrances of this life.

Did you know that of the twenty countries with the highest percentage of Christian growth rate, seven of them are in the Arabian Peninsula (see the list here)? Eleven of the twenty are considered Muslim countries. There is reason for hope! Maybe democracy and “freedom” aren’t essential for people to come to faith! In fact, not one country from North America, Europe or Latin American made the top twenty! The study showed that the highest Christian growth rates are found among all major non-Christian religious groups: Hindus, Non-Religious, Buddhists and Muslims. There is reason for hope! There is reason for faith! Fear not! Jesus is with us always…until the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20)!

So let’s stop with the fear mongering! No matter where we are; no matter who is in political office; no matter what is going on externally…He who is in us is great than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4)! My desire is that the church of Jesus Christ – especially in the United States – will become known for what we oppose rather than for the love we are supposed to live out. I am concerned that the faith and confidence we claim in words and songs is not the faith we live out in hope, confidence, and action.

How can we “faith monger”?

1. Stop watching the news (so much) or at least take much of it with a grain of salt! Be careful who you listen to for your news…utilize a variety of sources.

2.Balance the news with prayer and God’s Word – especially when you find yourself struggling with fear! Memorize verses, like the ones above, that help you remember Jesus is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18)!

3. Read biographies of people of faith. God works in extraordinary ways through ordinary people. He uses difficult and challenging circumstances to do amazing things.

4. Step out of your comfort zone to go on a short term ministry trip or to participate in a ministry to a people you don’t normally interact with or that you fear.

5. At the risk of taking a verse out of context, walk out the charge of Isaiah 35:3-4 – Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.

We serve a risen savior! We serve the God who is the creator of all things. We serve the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Let’s live like it!

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? 

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