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Take Off the Mask

A man holding a white mask away from his faceJohn Ortberg makes the point that many of us are afraid to reveal who we really are, especially in church. The very place that should be a refuge for us, a safe place to reveal ourselves, is too often the place where we put on masks. But even the most carefully constructed mask will eventually slip. Ortberg tells of being in a store one day with one of his children who was pestering him for a toy. Finally, in exasperation, he responded, “No, I’m not going to get you that toy. I’m not going to get it for you today. I’m not going to get it for you tomorrow. I’m not going to get it next month or next year. I am never going to get it for you! Do you understand? When you’re seventy and I’m a hundred years old, I’m still not going to get it for you!”

Just then the clerk looked at him and said, “You look awfully familiar. Do you teach at Willow Creek Community Church?”

Ortberg recounts what happened next: “I said, ‘Yes, my name is Bill Hybels.’ I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to. I wanted to hide. It was awful.”1

The problem with hiding is that we miss out on the benefits that come from true community. Why? Because God doesn’t build on falsehoods. Neither will he build up a congregation where everyone is intent on projecting a false self. As Ortberg observes, “It’s possible for people to attend the same church . . . year after year, without anyone ever knowing them. . . . Nobody knows their marriage is crumbling, their heart is breaking. Nobody knows they are involved in a secret pattern of sin that is destroying their soul. This is not God’s plan. It’s a mockery of community.”2 Church is meant to be a place where people are healed. It’s a hospital, not a set for filming a major motion picture.

You needn’t reveal your deepest secrets to everyone you meet in church. But you should have at least a few people who know you well and one or two you can talk to about your trials, temptations, and failings.   More

1. John Ortberg, Laurie Pederson, and Judson Poling, Groups: The Life-Giving Power of Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 50.

2. Ibid., 52–53.

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The Peace of “Hearing” God

Stained glass image of Martha listening to JesusThe Hebrew word shema is translated “listen” or “hear,” as in “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). As is often the case, this Hebrew word packs more punch than its English equivalent. Instead of merely referring to perceiving sound through our ears, it also means perceiving sound through our hearts. But what does that mean? Simply that the word shema contains within it the idea that we have to understand and respond appropriately to the words our ears perceive.

Long story short, what this passage from Deuteronomy and many others in the Bible are saying when they use the word hear is “listen and obey.”1 This is the winning combination that will bring more peace to our lives, even if what God asks is difficult. By living out this deeper meaning of shema, we will remain in God’s will, which is always the safest place to be.

Interestingly, this connection between hearing and obeying is also borne out in Latin. Wayne Muller tells of learning about this from his friend Henri Nouwen. “Henri,” he says, “insisted that the noise of our lives made us deaf, unable to hear when we are called, or from which direction. Henri said our lives have become absurd—because in the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means deaf. In our spiritual life we need to listen to the God who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear in our hurried deafness.”

Muller goes on to say, “Henri was fond of reminding me that the word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means ‘to listen.’ Henri believed that a spiritual life was a pilgrimage from absurdity to obedience—from deafness to listening.”2    More

1. An excellent discussion of the meaning and significance of shema can be found in Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 31–41.

2.  Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 84.

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Sandpaper Peace

sandpaperHave you ever rubbed sandpaper back and forth against a rough piece of wood? It takes a lot of work to produce something solid and silky beneath your fingers, with no rough edges or splinters. That’s a picture of how God sometimes works, placing us in community with different kinds of believers, some of whom rub us the wrong way.

In fact, the people who get on our nerves or who see things differently than we do can render a priceless service. Though they can make life difficult at times, they can also be instruments God uses to work peace into our lives. How? By showing us how to speak the truth in love, exercise forbearance, benefit from criticism, handle conflict, show patience, demonstrate Christ’s love, and stay accountable. They can help us grow up spiritually and emotionally. And we can do the same for them.

I remember early in my career working with a colleague I’ll call Ed. Both of us were editors who wanted to publish books that would build up the church and God’s people. But we had very different ideas of how to do that. He wanted to publish books I was convinced no one wanted to read. And I wanted to publish books that failed to interest him. The tension between us made working together difficult, and I was tempted to conclude that Ed was both stubborn and clueless. Likely he thought the same of me.

Eventually Ed left the company. But it wasn’t long before we found ourselves working together again. Both of us had helped launch a ministry to disadvantaged women. This time, the Ed I saw in action was quite effective, using his skills to grow the ministry. A gifted writer, Ed composed letters to donors and kept the organization afloat financially. As we worked together in this new setting, the tension that had characterized our earlier relationship vanished and we began to forge a genuine friendship.

Over the years, Ed and I had worked on each other’s personalities like sandpaper, smoothing out the rough edges. To echo the words of Parker Palmer: “Community will teach us that our grip on truth is fragile and incomplete, that we need many ears to hear the fullness of God’s word for our lives.”1   More

1Parker Palmer, quoted in Catherine Whitmire, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2001), 143.

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Hating Too Little?

If you were tA target with an arrow pointing into ito be completely honest, telling me exactly who or what you hate, I would know something very important about you. The information you disclosed would tell me where you are on your spiritual journey. Or, to use another metaphor, it would act like a spiritual gauge, measuring the condition of your soul.

If you are like me, you may have a hard time admitting to hatred of any kind. But what if I were to tell you that God allows hatred—that he expects it of us? Would you brand me a heretic? Or a lunatic? The Bible, you might say, tells us that God is love, so how can we tolerate even a shred of hatred in our lives?

Perhaps the point is not so much that we never hate but that we have the right target for our hatred, imitating God by hating the things he hates. Paul tells the Romans to “hate what is wrong” (12:9). We know that God hates every form of sin, not just because sin transgresses his laws, but because sin violates shalom, breaking the peace. Sin prevents us from living life as it’s supposed to be lived.

Like God, we are to hate the sin and not the sinner. But we get confused, finding it difficult to separate the two. Fortunately Christ has done what we can’t—separating sin from the sinner by virtue of his sacrifice on the cross.

Still, instead of loving the things God loves and hating the things God hates, our disordered and divided hearts often make the mistake of tolerating what he will not tolerate—greed, selfishness, pride, and lust—and then hating what he loves—purity, goodness, humility, and kindness. Our quest as Christians is to let God remake our hearts so we love whatever makes for shalom and hate whatever destroys it.   More

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Sugar, Sugar

colorful gumdropsI love sugar—always have, always will. When I was a child, I used to climb up on the kitchen counter when no one was looking. I’d dip a spoon into the sugar bowl and then aim the heaping spoonful of white stuff straight at my mouth. Once I swallowed so much sugar that I managed to give myself a coughing fit, complete with tiny granules bursting through my nose.

The problem with sugar is that it never leaves you feeling satisfied. One bite of a candy bar just makes you start thinking about the next bite, and then the bite after that. Our desires can be like that too—impossible to satisfy.

Wayne Muller believes that most of us try to find happiness through satisfying our desires. But the two are not necessarily linked. “We can feel the difference between happiness—which is often simple and easy, an inner shift toward appreciation and gratefulness for what is before us,” he says, “and desire, which is often frantic and relentless, cutting the heart with its sharp and painful demands. If we do not disengage, if we stay on the wheel of desire, if we do not stop and pray and sing and walk, the pattern of our addictive craving is free to escalate without limit.”1

What kind of sugar are you craving right now? More shopping? An expensive vacation? A relationship to fill the void? Whatever it is, take some time to reclaim your freedom by stopping to take a walk. As you do so, use the time to pray and sing, breaking away from anything that might threaten your peace. More

1. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 127.

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Difficult People

hands folded in prayerWant a surefire way to improve your relationships with others, even with those who have a way of rubbing you the wrong way or offending you every time they open their mouths? I’m not going to offer you a seven-step guide, nor am I going to tell you there’s a pill you can take that will help you get along with the most abrasive people in your life. My advice is much simpler. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but let me remind you.

The best way to deal with the difficult people in your life is to pray for them—regularly. But be careful how you pray. Avoid the temptation of telling God what jerks they are, praying for them to change so you can experience relief. Instead, pray that God will richly bless them. As you do so, ask God to help you see them the way he does.

Every act of intercession is an act of generosity. God honors that generosity, sometimes in powerful ways. When you pray for a person, you bring them with you into the throne room of God. That’s where prayers are answered and grace is given. There, in God’s presence, you can receive his heart for the people you are praying for. He can show you the best way to pray for them.

Here’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about what happens when we pray: “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”1 Though Bonhoeffer is talking about praying for other Christians, this same transformation can happen as we pray for those who don’t yet know Christ.

Who do you find it hard to like, difficult to tolerate, impossible to forgive? Try a little experiment. Decide you will pray for that person every day for the next twenty-one days. You may be surprised what your heart discovers.  More

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 86.

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The Rabbi and His Admirer

A graphic of 2 people, one with a speech bubble over his head, and one with an exclamation mark over his head.Joseph Telushkin tells a delightful story about a well-known rabbi who wrote several books about the importance of guarding one’s tongue and not speaking negatively about others (lashon ha-ra). It seems that one day the rabbi, known as the Chaffetz Chayyim, was traveling to a lecture he was supposed to give that evening, when he encountered a man sitting opposite him on the train. When the rabbi inquired where his fellow passenger was headed, the man replied, “I’m going into town to hear the Chaffetz Chayyim speak tonight. After all, he’s the greatest sage and saint in the Jewish world today.”

Embarrassed by the man’s lavish praise, the rabbi responded, “Sometimes people say such things, but it’s not true. He’s not such a great sage, and he’s certainly no saint.”

The man shot back, “How dare you disparage such a great man!” Then he slapped the rabbi in the face.

Later that night, when the man arrived at the lecture, he was chagrined to learn of his mistake. After the rabbi’s speech, he rushed over to beg forgiveness.

Smiling, the rabbi merely replied, “You have no reason to request forgiveness. It was my honor you were defending. On the contrary, I learned from you an important lesson. For decades, I’ve been teaching people not to speak lashon ha-ra about others. Now I’ve learned that it’s also wrong to speak lashon ha-ra about oneself.”1

The story of the rabbi and his ardent admirer conveys the truth that, just as we don’t have God’s permission to speak ill of others, neither do we have his permission to speak ill of ourselves. Make a promise today to stop robbing yourself of God’s peace by saying disparaging things.  More

1. Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), 441.

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Control Freak

A graphic showing an umbrella trying to protect the whole earthChances are you know someone who is a control freak—a person determined to micromanage every detail of life at home, at work, and at church. Though mothers aren’t the only ones who can fall into the control trap, I think we are more prone to it because of the degree of control we need to exercise when our children are young. Some of us get stuck there, treating grown children as though they are two-year-olds who need to be protected, lest they dart into the path of an oncoming car. Little coincidence, perhaps, that “mother” can be transformed into quite another word simply by adding an s at the beginning.

Of course, some amount of control is necessary to every life. But outsize attempts at control are pathological, rooted more in anxiety than in any kind of lust for power. Being a control freak leads only to frustration and difficulty, because even when our attempts at control are successful, we have probably alienated someone in the process. What’s more, if we have a controlling style of relating to life, we may reach a point of no return, where the habit gets calcified and is nearly impossible to break.

One of my close friends has a mother who typifies this pattern. Suffering from dementia, she is still trying to control everything, though now she does it through a fog of confusion, without the ability to make sound decisions. This makes the family’s efforts to care for her much more difficult.

How do you know if you’re the controlling type? Just watch the way people respond to you, particularly members of your close family. They’ll let you know. If you find that the label control freak does apply, don’t brush it off as though it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. Think, instead, of what you might be missing because your style of responding to life makes it hard for God to care for you. Ask him for the grace to recognize when you are trying to exercise more control than you should. Stop now, before it is too late. More

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Seasons

A hand with another hand at the end of each fingerWhen my children were young, I rarely had a moment’s peace. I adopted both of my girls when they were babies, and though I loved being their mother, I soon found that being single with children was a recipe for crazy making. Even something simple like mowing the lawn had to be carefully planned to coincide with nap time.

I remember one disastrous morning. I had forgotten to roll the trash can out to the end of the driveway so the garbage truck could empty it. Hurrying outside, I assured my five- and three-year-old children that I would be back in a moment. And I was. But in the space of that moment, a mini-calamity ensued. My youngest (a future basketball player) had a bad habit of throwing her dolly in the air and then catching it. While I was dragging the can to the curb, she threw the cloth doll up in the air, landing it in a pan of hot water simmering on the stove. Attempting to rescue the doll, her older sister, Katie, flipped it neatly out of the pan. As it sailed to freedom, my younger daughter caught it with ease. Only this time, that dolly was hot! Luci was howling with pain as I walked in the door.

Okay, I should not have left a pan of water simmering on the stove, even if it was on a back burner. But, really, who would have guessed that danger lurks everywhere, even in a cuddly, pink doll? If you have children, you have your own stories to tell. Like me, you have probably wondered if you will ever find a moment’s peace.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life unfolds as seasons. The season you are in now will eventually pass, and another will take its place. In the midst of life’s challenges, try to find a few moments to turn your heart to God in prayer. You might listen to an audio recording of Scripture while you’re driving, memorize a Bible verse while cooking, or read a psalm before bed. The God of peace will be there to help you, no matter how busy you are. More

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Deflating Your Fears

A hand gently holding a small snakeIf you’ve ever read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you will be familiar with the fantasy creature called a “boggart.” The problem with boggarts is that they have the ability to turn into a person’s worst fears. So for Ron Weasley, it’s spiders, while for Harry Potter, it’s the notoriously creepy dementors. In more than one movie, we see Ron and Harry practicing their self-defense skills against boggarts, so if and when their worst fears do materialize, they are able to survive.

What boggarts are you facing? I used to be squeamish about snakes, but I can honestly say I’ve overcome the feeling. How? Simply by facing it. The fancy term for this technique is “conditioning.” The idea is to subject yourself to small doses of what you fear until you can gradually tolerate larger doses. Eventually, the fear will be reduced or eliminated.

I dealt with my dislike of snakes by giving in to my daughter’s entreaty for a pet snake. After a year of having Rico in our home, I attended a reptile expo at the urging of my daughter. This time, the repulsion I had previously felt was gone, despite the fact that there were more than fifty snakes in the room. I even found myself admiring the beautiful patterns on some of them. Believe me, I am still not a snake lover, but at least I am no longer creeped out by simply seeing one.

Maybe it’s time to ratchet up your confidence by overcoming a specific fear in your life. Ask God to help you face it rather than run from it. Doing so will weaken it and empower you. More

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