You Don’t Have to Be Your History

During the last month, I read Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, a wonderful biography by Brad Gooch,. Flannery.jpeg

In the book, Gooch tells the story of O’Connor’s friendship with Betty Hester. For nine years, they corresponded by letter. In these letters they discussed matters of theology, philosophy, and the content of the various books they were reading.

At one point in their friendship, Hester revealed to O’Connor the details of what she called her “history of horror.” She had a very painful childhood. Her father abandoned the family when she was very young. When she was thirteen years old, she witnessed the suicide of her mother. Neighbors, believing that her mother was playing a joke, refused to call the police. Later, she joined the army, only to then be dishonorably discharged for her sexual behavior.

O’Connor’s response to Hester is classic:

“Where you are wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history.” (p. 282)

Wow.

Now I like that.

Far too many people underestimate the power of God’s redemption to change their stories. Consequently they believe their history has doomed them and forever tarnished them.

You can often see it in our eyes. They have experienced failure and consequently seem to think they will forever be among the ranks of those who are losers. I have heard these statements in 32 years of ministry with churches:

  • “Look at me! I am so messed up! Obese. Addicted. Self-medicated. I am an anxious mess.”
  • “You can’t tell me there is hope. I’ve messed up every relationship I’ve ever been in. If you don’t want your life messed up, stay away from me!”
  • “God is punishing me for the abortion I had while in high school. I know he is!”
  • “How will I ever be able to look my parents in the eye after what I’ve done?”
  • “I would die if my children or wife knew my secret. I’m so ashamed.”
  • “There is so much mess and dysfunction in my family. Will my marriage be this way? Will I mess up my children?”

Yet, O’Connor is right: “The meaning of the Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history.”

As Christ-followers, who are experiencing the Redemption of God, our identity does not come from our history. Nor does our identity come from our behavior, whether it has been good or shoddy. Nor does our identity determined by how many problems we have in our past. We don’t have to be our history.


Redemption means that my most shameful moment does not define me.


What defines me and what shapes my identity is Jesus. There is nothing in my past that he is unable to overcome. There is no failure that he is not willing to forgive.


Question:

Why are we often tempted to believe that our history defines us?

  



Why I Bought THIS Book For My Children

Moments ago, I placed an order on Amazon. I eagerly hit the “Place Your Order” button.One.Life.jpg

My purchase?

Two copies of Scot McKnight’s new book One.Life.

One copy is being sent to my daughter in Oklahoma City. The other copy is being sent to my daughter in Tennessee. I don’t do this often. But this is a book that I really hope they will read. This has to be one of the finest books that I have ever read on what it means to follow Jesus. The book is theological, inspirational, and very practical.

I read the book just before Christmas and found it very difficult to put down. It took me longer to read than I expected. Again and again, I paused to reflect after reading a chapter. The book made me think about my own life and my own discipleship. In chapter after chapter Scot McKnight speaks of what it means to be a Christ-follower by really following him.

One of the strengths of the book is the careful and deliberate articulation of what it means to be a Jesus-follower. What kind of life does Jesus really expect from his followers? Scot fleshes this out in 14 powerful chapters.

The following are quotes that were particular meaningful to me:

  • Jesus’ words brought waves of ordinary folks to their feet and awakened in them a reverie of hope. (p. 28)
  • Transforming Jesus’ powerful, full-orbed God’s-Dream-Society vision into a personal-religion vision sucks the life out of the word kingdom. (p. 32)
  • Jesus wants us to imagine a world in which our small actions are seen as significant actions. Offering someone a cup of cold water, opening the door of welcome, a short note of encouragement, a gentle word of help, a warm embrace, the washing of a sick person’s feet, the tending to a dying neighbor, a friendly tweet or adding someone as a friend on Facebook … these are the little mustard seeds that can have large consequences. (p. 39)
  • Being right for Jesus meant a kind of Bible reading and a kind of theology and a kind of behavior that led to loving God and loving others. If you read your Bible or prayed or went to synagogue but weren’t a more loving person, something was wrong. (p. 48)
  • Many think Jesus came to earth so you and I can have a special kind of spiritual experience and then go merrily along, as long as we pray and read our Bibles and develop intimacy with the unseen God but ignore the others-oriented life of justice and love and peace that Jesus embodied. When I hear Christians describe the Christian life as little more than soul development and personal intimacy with God, and I do hear this often, I have to wonder if Christians even read their Bibles. (p. 60)
  • The single-most glaring contradiction between Jesus’ life and our lives today–and I’m speaking to the Western-world Christians–pertains to money and possessions. (p. 111)

There are many other very meaningful quotes which I could have placed in this list.

Perhaps the chapter on wisdom is one of the best. Scot discusses seven elements of Jesus’ wisdom. This discussion alone may be worth the price of this book.

The book is available here.

Question: What Are The Issues at Work?

I am thinking through some of the issues related to being a Christ-follower at work. What are some of the issues that you have faced as you have tried to follow Christ in the midst of your career? What are some of the issues that your friends have faced?

work hard work.jpg

I first began thinking about this issue (how to be a Christ-follower at work) when my friend Steve began to follow Christ and his teachings. After a tragedy in their family, my friend began to take seriously the call of Christ to follow him. Steve took his baptism seriously and repentance seriously and began living out the teachings of Jesus.

One night Steve called me and asked if we could meet for coffee. We met at a local resturant late that evening. My friend explained to me that the following morning, he would speak with his boss and that conversation would mean the end of his job. I asked him why he was so sure that a job loss would be the end result of this conversation. He said, “I am going to tell him that I have become a Christian and I can no longer close my eyes to some things that are going on in this company.” (My friend was in business with a man whom he had known since he was a child.)

Sure enough, the next day Steve called me and told me about the conversation. It went as he expected. Steve no longer had a job.

This story has reminded me that many, many people face great challenges as they follow Christ and attempt to go about their work and career.

My question to you is:

What are some issues at work that you have faced which challenged you as a Christ-follower? What are some of the challenges? What are some of the temptations?

(I really appreciate your comments and input to these questions. Thanks!)

The Looking

(The following is my second attempt at poetry. Thanks to L.L. Barkat for her encouragement regarding this attempt. See her very good blog here and her new book, God in the Yard, here.)


The Lookingmirror.png

In the mirror one day,
I saw a self.
Body.
Mind.
Emotion.

I took a closer look and peered into my soul.
The things I saw?
Brokenness.
Fear.
Envy.
Lust.
Insecurity.

One more time I looked into the mirror.
This time I saw a redeemed self
This time I saw a beautiful self.
This time I saw, in the background, Jesus.

By his grace he redeemed me.
Now he is making me into
the self I want to be,
the self that I really am.


21st Century Ministry and 2 Corinthians (Part 4)

Many Christians feel tired and worn out. 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 contains an important reminder that the incredible change one experiences as a Christian is not an act of the will but an act of Jesus through the Spirit of God.   Great_Books.jpg

This means that being an effective Christ-follower in the 21st century is not a matter of you being smart enough, witty enough, or even insightful enough. Rather, the essence of what it means to live in Christ is produced by Jesus through the Spirit of God. Furthermore, this means that the essence of ministry is found in what Christ is doing through the Spirit of God. Our ministry is not based on ourselves and our ingenuity.

Jesus, through the Spirit of God, is writing a masterpiece.

Think for a moment about tattoos. What are they? Ink underneath the skin. The tattoo artist works for a while and then leaves the customer with the picture or the image. He may make a mark on the skin but it never goes beyond anything that is skin deep. When Jesus lives in you, he works on you through God’s Spirit. His work isn’t limited to the skin. No, what he is writing is not on stone or flesh but on your heart.

He is creating a masterpiece. Think for a moment about some of the masterpieces in the western world.   

·      To Kill a Mockingbird

·      The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

·      Hamlet

·      Gone with the Wind

·      The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

·      The Lord of the Rings

·      Winnie-the-Pooh

·      The Black Stallion

·      Charlotte’s Web

·      War and Peace

So let us think about this reality:

·      Jesus is writing a masterpiece: you. In fact, this is something that will be read by all who have the opportunity.   You won’t find this at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon. You will find this masterpiece by looking in the mirror. Don’t get distracted by your ears, skin, height or weight. I am not talking about self-esteem, either the lack of it or the importance of it. Rather, I am talking about you and me not minimizing what God is doing in our lives. You are God’s masterpiece because it is God who is writing on your heart. Once God through his Spirit begins to write on your heart, you will never be the same.

What can others read? The question is not just what are we telling. What are we showing? Our mission requires speaking and incarnation (Jesus living in me and in us).

·      Let us be cautious about telling truth while we neglect doing truth.

·      Our ministry is an incarnational ministry that displays God’s masterpieces. This means that we believe that Christ really does live in us individually and as a church.

·      What makes a church is not a building but a mission.

·      Our mission is expressed in both words (2:17) and transformed lives (3:1-3).  

·      Knowing that God is preparing a masterpiece gives us confidence.  

Question

Why do some Christ-followers seem to often feel overwhelmed, worn out, and exhausted than energized and refreshed?


“But What about Me?” The Curse of Self-Consciousness

It was an interesting moment.catandmirror-281x300.jpg

I was a freshman in high school. A photographer was present to take school pictures. That morning, he was taking pictures of our high school basketball team. I was in the gym and for a few minutes watched as the photographer first took a team picture and then took individual photos. Off to the side was an older kid waiting his turn, along with several others on the team. He took a jump shot and then turned to one of his friends and asked:

“How did I look?”

It struck me that not only did he want to have his picture taken but that he also wanted to have a certain look. He was self-conscious.

Yet, self-consciousness can actually work against you. Jesus said that to follow him meant that one must “deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He reminds us that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (9:24).

In fact, it is possible to think so much about myself that I actually lose or forfeit the self in the process. Again, Jesus says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self” (9:25)?

When I am overly self-conscious, I am very, very focused on what is happening to me. Being overly self-conscious is a skewed way of looking at one’s self.

Am I preoccupied with what another thinks about me? (I am not really focused on that person but on myself.)

Am I preoccupied with the image that I am projecting to others? (I am more concerned with what that person thinks of me than on loving that person.)

Am I preoccupied with keeping score in my life, comparing myself to another? (I am thinking about whether or not that person has a bigger home, better car, than me, etc.)

When I first started working in my role as a minister, I felt behind. I felt as if other ministers knew more, had better skills, and were probably doing better work than me. Now I had no reason think this way. Yet, I did. I was overly self-conscious. Consequently, receiving a compliment or a word of affirmation meant far too much to me. It was almost as if receiving these words validated my existence. If no one expressed a word of affirmation or encouragement after I preached, I would sometimes wonder what was wrong with me.

Whether or not I received invitations to speak at special events or at other churches meant far too much to me. If I received an invitation to speak somewhere, it seemed to validate my existence. However, if I did not, I would again wonder what was wrong with me. Or, I would simply assume that I was lacking or did not measure up in some way.

Now I realize that I was finding my identity and sense of well being in some source other than Jesus.

Today, I want to remember:

I have been called to love others rather than constantly be preoccupied with myself.

My greatest sense of well being and completeness comes from Jesus.

Human affirmation is nice but it comes and goes. The most consistent and meaningful affirmation that I will ever experience comes from God himself.


Question:

What helps you to be more God-conscious and less preoccupied with yourself?

Guest Writer: Connie Lard

coffee46.jpgThe following was written by today’s guest writer, Connie Lard of Florence, Alabama.  Connie has served for many years as a health-care professional.  She also is an avid reader and a good thinker.  On a number of occasions, I have read her reflections, poetry, etc. and have come away moved and encouraged.

***

“Lord, teach us to pray…”  Wistful words from an unnamed disciple.  Jesus had many requests from people while He was here.  Especially after the miracles started.  Often the request was for healing, sometimes for an answer to a religious question, or simply for food to feed a hungry crowd.  He always listened intently and answered in a way that was appropriate to meet the needs of the person asking.  But this request really caught His attention.  And, I imagine it made Him pause and smile broadly before He answered, “This is how you should pray…”

We today are no different.  We ask many things of Him.  He listens carefully and answers each of us in just the way we need.  Then, often only after life has driven us to our knees, we make the most important request, the one He’s been waiting to hear.  “Lord, teach me to pray.”  He pauses….. and smiles…..and He answers.

ON PRAYER
I think, with awestruck wonder,
Of how it all began –
God wanted me to know Him,
So, He became a Man!

It’s quite beyond all reason
That such a thing could be…
I could not go to Him,
Thus, He came down for me.

He wanted me to know His heart,
To see inside His mind,
To discover truths, which on my own
I’d never, ever find.

Because He came to me like this
With many things to share,
Now I can also go to Him –
He gave me wings of prayer!

Sometimes I take these wings,
And I am feeling strong.
My prayer has words all tumbling out
In rhythm like a song.

At other times I cannot phrase
Just what I need to say.
I can only ask Him in,
Within my heart to stay.

I cannot understand it all,
It is too much for me.
I only know I dwell in Him,
And that He dwells in me!

Question: What Do We Actually Practice?

23rd_Psalm.jpgThis week I’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount as well as much material about the Sermon on the Mount.  I have also been reading Dallas Willard on discipleship.  I heard him speak twice today at Truett Seminary (Baylor University).  So—I am giving a lot of thought to the words of Jesus this week.  If a disciple is a person who learns from Jesus and lives by the teachings of Jesus, then his words carry much weight. 

I have two questions that I want to ask.  Your thoughts will be valuable as I reflect on the words of Jesus and our acceptance or our neglect (usually not a spoken neglect but a passive neglect).

1.  In your experience with various congregations, what teaching of Jesus is either ignored, dismissed, or often just disobeyed?

2.  In your own life, can you point to a particular teaching of Jesus which you regularly ignore, dismiss, or disobey?

(This will help as I think through the teachings of Jesus–not just in understanding them, but in reflecting on our actual practice.)

My Purpose in the Morning

coffee40.jpgYears ago, I read J. I. Packer’s Knowing God.  For some reason when I think of that book, I think of cold weather.  After all, it was winter, and we were living in North Alabama.  For weeks, I waded through Packer’s work, chapter by chapter.  It was a book that helped me see that my perception of God was much, much too small.

 

It is early morning.  I sit at our kitchen table drinking coffee (Drew’s Brews from Nashville).  A few minutes ago, my mind raced as I began to think about all that needs to be done today, this week, etc.  Then I decided to simply meditate on the rich reflections of Athanasius (297-373).  These words, excerpts from On the Incarnation, remind me of the importance of God becoming human in the form of Jesus, his son. In particular, I find this section meaningful this morning:

When God the Almighty was making mankind through his own Word, He perceived that they, owing to the limitation of their nature, could not of themselves have any knowledge of their Creator, for He Himself had no body and was not a creature Himself — He was uncreated.  He took pity on mankind, therefore, and did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself, lest their very existence should prove purposeless

 

For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?  How could humans be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father, through whom they had received their being?  They would be no better than the beasts, had they no knowledge beyond earthly things.  And why should God have made them at all, if He had not intended them to know Him?

 

But, in fact, our good and gracious God has given us a share in His own Image, that is, in our Lord Jesus Christ.  In addition, God has made us after the same Image and Likeness.  Why?  Simply in order that through this gift of Godlikeness in themselves they may be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for men the only really happy and blessed life

 

(Devotional Classics, Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds., pp. 339-340)

What Is at Stake?

calendar.jpgAn ordinary day may be more than "ordinary."  In fact, much may be at stake.

 

I was thinking about this yesterday in light of the day, which seemed pretty ordinary.  It was an ordinary Wednesday in many ways.  Much time was spent in preparation for the message this Sunday and for a class that I teach on Wednesday evenings.  Somewhere in the middle of the day were telephone calls (one from my younger daughter, Jamie), lunch with an area minister, a few e-mails sent, a chapter from a book read, and a couple of errands that I had to run.  Late afternoon, I worked out at the gym and then went to a meeting of our leadership group at church.

 

In many ways, this felt very ordinary.  Yet, in using the word "ordinary" to describe such a day, I don’t want to leave the impression that it was just another "ho-hum" day.  After all, there is much at stake in an ordinary day.

 

Think for a moment about what is at stake today:

 

  • Integrity.  Will I do my work with a sense of integrity?  Will I do the right thing or will I do what seems to be in my interest?
  • Mission.  Do I remember today to pay attention to what God is doing around me?  Will I make myself available to God to use for his purposes with the people with whom I come in contact?   Will I remember that people desperately need a relationship with Jesus?
  • Character.  What will I be like today when no one else is looking?  How will I speak about people when they are not present?
  • Family.  Will I be the husband and father I have been called to be?  Will I seek to deepen my relationship with them today?  Or, will I put other matters ahead of them?
  • Being an authentic Christ-follower.  Will I seek to follow Christ — regardless?  Will I have a heart for obedience to Jesus today?
  • Love.  Will I begin my day with the desire to love God and, consequently, love others?  Or, will I be so preoccupied with the events of the day that my life has no sense of these two great priorities?

Yes, I know that more could be said about the day.  I could talk about the need to depend upon God during the day and to trust that God’s Spirit is at work in me throughout the day.  I could talk about the importance of God’s grace both for forgiveness as well as for the power to be what I’ve been called to be today.

 

Just for today, however, I want to focus on what is at stake.  I have listed a few key words that are reminders of what is at stake on an ordinary day.  What would you add to this list?