Saturday, March 11, 2006

CHANGE ! ! !

What do Amway, exercise, ski boats and small groups have in common? Certainly it is obvious! No? OK, here it is: one word…


Each of these “things,” when taken seriously requires a fundamental, significant and ongoing change in one’s lifestyle. Buy a ski boat and you’re gonna use it… you’ll obviously use it more than you did! In other words, change. I remember the first time a friend approached me about Amway. I thought, “I can make and save money; but am I so willing to radically adjust my living patterns in order to make this thing work?”

The same goes for exercise and small groups! I have quipped many times, “What do you see most often in March yard sales?” Exercise equipment. The New Year’s resolution to “work out” that was brought about by the treadmill Christmas present fizzled in the first quarter of the year.

We joke about change. How many ____________’s (insert your religious denomination) does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: … CHANGE!?!

Without change there is no life.

How do we change? Just do it. Nah! That won’t work. Never mind to many church leaders! For most of my life I have heard preacher after preacher seek to inspire parishioners toward change by simply reminding them that the Bible says to grow, so GROW! Sorry, not gonna happen!

What is change for a Christian? It is becoming conformed to the image of Christ – becoming more like Him and less like the selfish sinner we naturally are (Ro 8:29). It is decreasing so He can increase in me (Jn 3:30). It is dying to self (Gal 2:20).

I’ve said this before: No one in their right mind is going to accept the admonition to change with a mere act of the will. Two problems: the will is weak and we lack the necessary trust and heart.

Again, what is change? Change for a Christian is a fundamental alteration in the way we act. Whereas we did not pray, now we do. We did not read our Bible, go to church, serve God and talk to those who do not know Him about Him… now we do.

Where do we begin? We begin in a safe relational environment conducive to those new kinds of behaviors, much in the same way a doctor learns to doctor. I am told that a physician’s first suture patient is an orange! Hardly life-and-death, huh?

OK, the place is right, what else? The heart! I must be motivated to become a mature Christian… or a doctor, a plumber, a statesman, a mommy, or whatever! Unless and until you and I are sold on the idea of change, it won’t happen. And, I become sold on the idea (my heart changes!) simply by keeping company with Jesus! We see this between the lines of Matthew 11:28-30:

"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me--watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."

Christ invites each of us to live with Him (John 15:1-11); and don’t you think that when we live with Him for even a little while, we’ll start to behave like Him?

From Adele Ahlberg Calhoun in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (IVP, 2005, p.17) we read

From its beginning the church linked the desire for more of God to intentional practices, relationships and experiences that gave people space in their lives to “keep company” with Jesus. These intentional practices, relationships and experiences we know as spiritual disciplines. The basic rhythm of disciplines (or rule) for the first believers is found in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [a practice] and to the fellowship [relationships], to the breaking of bread [an experience] and to prayer [another practice].”

In the beginning, we don’t want to keep company with Jesus. Not only that, we don’t have what it takes to keep company with Him in the first place! We start by starting. Disciplines usually move from “have to” to “want to” in much the same way that playing the piano does.

Something inside us – a small voice – tells us that this Christian thing is real and we trust that voice and do things in order to hear better. We choose to conduct some rudimentary Christian practices and we align ourselves with fellow travelers and journey toward maturity together.

This is where community comes in – small groups. Ideally, small groups are a safe place to practice new forms of behavior. It is a place to shuck and be healed of the past and its ungodly and self-centered patterns. Small groups is not a formula, a recipe for maturity. Small groups does not oblige God to show up and transform everyone in the room.

But, if we show up, if we create space for our King to manifest Himself, He will … and our hearts will all be changed as a result.

This is a plea for those of us who have heard the tinkle of that small voice to take steps toward Jesus, to sacrifice in order to build community. It is a plea for many to keep company with Jesus, to practice the disciplines with dog-jawed tenacity in order to become more like Him so we might participate in the building His kingdom!

Change is what we’re after – may we keep company with Jesus and change into His image. May there be not one small group in the church’s spring yard sale and covered dish dinner!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

On Raking Leaves

Therefore, my dear friends, … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Ph 2:12f).

The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps (Pr 16:9).

Can it be – could God be speaking out of both sides of His mouth? No. This is what J.I. Packer calls an antinomy, “an appearance of contradiction.” God, for all time, has said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways” (Is 55:8). And we know that He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11, my italics).

God is mysterious – He cannot be explained. And, that is OK! Mystery gives oomph to our faith. God is unpredictable, neither is He capricious. And, that is where we land. We plan, He directs. How, then, should I plan my way? What, if anything depends on me?

I saw this principle illustrated in a vivid way: God is sovereign, and my decisions matter and make a difference.

I raked leaves today for over six hours! I know it’s March; you come tell my trees that the fall is back a few months! I obsess over leaf-raking. I set out to rake every last one of them. I don’t like to rake leaves. I like to be outdoors, but leaf-raking to someone like me is bad. I also have a pattern. I rake in neat rows, turn exactly 90ยบ, make identical piles, and generally rake downhill… when possible.

What do you think is the worse thing that could happen to me? (Pause) Wind! Wind is from the pit of hell to the leaf-raker. Leaves go back to where they came from, and there is no alternative but to rake them again! I hate raking a leaf more than once!

I could have planned the life cycle of the tree better, I think. Once I enjoy the Technicolor beauty of the fall foliage, the leaves could just disintegrate!

Oh well, this is what I learned. At 9:30 this morning, leaf-raking was down around 5000 on my want-to-do list, but it was Numero Uno on my Git-‘R-Done Today list. For the first half-hour or so, I … pouted and grumbled – sinning in full view of God, my family and all the neighbors. Lesson #1: Leaves do not rake themselves. God for-ordained from eternity past for you and I to do things, things that matter. Yet, learning the doctrine of human instrumentality is not the lesson that touched me most this morning.

Lesson #2: Wind is not a friend of the obsessive. So, I had a decision to make: Would I force my “pattern raking” to happen in the face of changing circumstances or not? Here’s what I did. I became very sensitive to the direction of the wind. I befriended him. Or … her. When the wind came from the north I raked … south! When it turned, I turned and raked the other way. I had to run to the other end of my area a couple of times, but I didn’t knuckle under and do it my way, regardless!

Here was a perfect example of God’s sovereignty along side my responsibility. The wind is God – blowing whither it wishes. I respond responsibly with cooperation. I seek not to harness nor alter the path of the wind – it is out of my control. Yet, by choosing responsibly, I actually do avail myself to the power of the wind to accomplish my task!

Cool, huh? Admittedly, there were times when the wind swirled and caused havoc on my neat piles and rows. But, today, I learned deeper the beauty and mystery of God.

How might we learn from this in our days as followers of Christ? I see at least two ways. One, we can relax and take ourselves less seriously. God is in control and “will accomplish what concerns [you and] me” (Ps 138:8). Two, we can learn to cooperate with God and His Spirit (“wind” in the original languages!), and again, relax in our diligence.

We have to listen to God’s Spirit to grow wise. Listening is a matter of removing distractions and diversions and creating space for
God to speak clearly. And He does, and He will!