Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My legalistic neck

I have a pain in the neck - literally. For 18 years I've suffered on and off with severe neck pain, and chronic stiffness especially in the morning. Recently it worsened to include my upper back.

It's much better now, thanks to a regimen of stretches, some physical therapy, my sweet husband bringing hot packs each morning, and careful posture. But a recent series of tests and doctor's appointments revealed that the source of this pain and stiffness is not something that can be repaired. My cervical spine is completely straight, rather than curved as it should be.

The specialist I saw yesterday explained that the reason my upper back is affected is that when a baby develops in the womb, the cervical spine develops first and everything else comes off of that. If that area develops incorrectly, it causes problems in the rest of the development - problems that sometimes don't show up until we are fully developed. Bottom line: I have to continue to be proactive to care for my back and neck, and be aware that flare-ups will probably still happen. There goes my dream of being an Olympic gymnast ;).

After I left, I thought about what this could teach me. Other than being disappointed that the condition wasn't something that could be quickly adjusted (oh, how addicted we are to the idea of instant gratification), I began to seek the spiritual truth God might have in allowing me to have this congenital problem.

It wasn't long before I realized that my neck was a picture of legalism.

Legalism - that rigidity that causes one group to think their extrabiblical rules and forms are God's mandate for all people of all times. Legalism - that pride that puts trust in those rules and forms rather than in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Legalism - that killer of faith.

Like my overly-straight, not-as-flexible-as-it-should be neck, legalism has an effect on those around it. Who among us in the church hasn't felt the sting of legalistic judgment -- or been on the side doing the judging. Who hasn't seen the fallout when a group turns inward because no one else gets it, in their own mind ... turns inward, and dies. Yet their rigidity doesn't only affect them - we are the body of Christ, and we experience adverse affects when legalism bring too much rigidity into one part of the body.

I saw a similar picture of legalism in the ice storm we had in January. Surprisingly, the small, young trees didn't experience a lot of damage - most of those are intact or only slightly damaged. The older, larger trees, however, experienced a lot of breakage, losing the treetops and even entire trees. Horticulturists explained that the younger trees had more flexibility; the older ones were more settled and rigid.

So what's the answer to legalism? Contrary to the opinion of some in the early church (and today), its opposite is not license (the absence of any limits). The opposite of legalism is grace. Grace allows for flexibility within biblical parameters; it quickly forgives and grants mercy when wronged; it refuses impersonal judgment and offers a personal touch with a heart of love.

Rom. 5:1 refers to Jesus giving us the "introduction to this grace in which we stand." Grace isn't merely the road to salvation - that's important, but it's only the introduction. Instead, grace is the environment in which the believer stands. It's the ground under our feet.

So grace should be the air we breathe - with each other, with those around us. Biblical grace doesn't ignore changes that need to happen - in fact, Paul teaches in Titus 2: 11-14 that grace teaches us to "renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age". But it's all by grace, enabled by the Holy Spirit. And we should extend that same grace to others.

John Piper's new book on marriage includes this incredible concept: Extend to your spouse the same measure of grace you've received from God. WOW! I don't know about you, but I could never extend more grace than I've received. I'm working on that concept - not only with my husband, but with others. Biblical guidelines are critical to walking in an environment of grace, but I'm learning one thing - if I'm going to err, I want it to be on the side of grace and mercy, not legalism and rigidity.

So - back to my neck. With all this perspective, I've decided that my neck tightness or pain will be a physical reminder to pray for the ability to walk in grace. To never be rigid and legalistic. To always remember that legalism will affect other parts of the body adversely. And to never, ever forget that God has set me in an environment of grace for a purpose. He will empower me. My part is to show off His grace to others.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Unable - and enabled

The trumpeters and musicians played together, praising and giving thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals, and other instruments, they loudly praised the Lord, singing: “Certainly he is good; certainly his loyal love endures!” Then a cloud filled the Lord’s temple. The priests could not carry out their duties because of the cloud; the Lord’s splendor filled God’s temple. (2 Chr. 5:13-14)

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven. and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the Lord’s splendor filled the temple. The priests were unable to enter the Lord’s temple because the Lord’s splendor filled the Lord’s temple. (2 Chr. 7:1-2)

I've never been in a service where the leadership was unable to perform their duties because God's presence was so powerful, so I'm having a hard time imagining what this might have been like for Israel.

They had worked toward this day for years. Scripture tells us it took Solomon 20 years to build the temple and his house. With the careful preparations David made, we can be sure that the priests knew for a long time just what would be expected of them on that special day when God's temple would be dedicated.

When the day finally arrived, it didn't exactly look like they planned.

First, the glory of God was so strong they were "unable" to perform their duties.

Then, Solomon prayed and God's splendor - His "Shekinah" glory - so filled the temple they couldn't even enter.

I read that and I wondered - how many times have I been so engrossed in my duties or the planned agenda that I completely miss His presence? The important thing is God's presence ... not my duties or the planned agenda. I want to welcome His presence, not be so absorbed in 'doing' that I miss His presence.

The great thing about knowing we have the indwelling Holy Spirit is realizing that He is ultimately about enabling us to do His will, to walk in the gifts He's given us. But along the way, I might need to be made unable to do what I'd originally planned - because He has something better.

I recall the story of a concert pianist with high personal ambition who lost his sense of touch. He couldn't play, and was devastated until he turned his hands over to God. One day he sat down at a piano again and could suddenly touch. He remembered that promise, and now plays anointed worship music for conferences - the selfish ambition replaced with a desire for God's glory, the unabling becoming an enabling at last.

Significantly I think, there was no room in the temple for the priests because the temple was so filled with God. When my heart's cry becomes like John the Baptist's - "I must decrease, and He must increase" - then I will begin to know what His glory really looks like. When our churches focus less on our plans and more on His, then we just might find ourselves unable to continue ... but ultimately enabled for greater ministry.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Things Revealed

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29)

I love to ask questions. In many ways, I never escaped the "why" stage. I was always the kid who didn't just want to know why the sky was blue; I wanted to understand refraction {sympathetic sigh for my parents here}.

I'm not quite sure why God made me this way, but I have carried it over into my relationship with Him. It's not that I don't have faith - I do - but God has wired me such that I need to know that my faith makes sense! As my pastor's wife puts it, I have to know that what I believe is intellectually honest. I don't want to have a "faith" sector of my thinking and a "facts" sector. I want to know how the two intersect and what makes sense to explain that.

The great thing is, we have a God who is about revealing, not withholding. From creation to Scripture to Jesus, God has revealed Himself. Did He tell us everything? No. And for people like me that can be a hard pill to swallow. That's why this passage in Deuteronomy means so much to me. There are "secret things" that belong to Him. But there are many, many "things revealed" that He has given to us, to lead us into a loving and obedient relationship with Him.

Ultimately, what God has chosen to reveal is sufficient. We can spend a lifetime pursuing the depths of these "things revealed" and still barely scratch the surface. Jonathan Edwards theorized that the reason that heaven will be for eternity instead of a predetermined length of time is that it will take eternity for us to plumb the depths of an infinite God and all the things we couldn't know while here below.

I love that God has given me a mind to ask questions. I love that our faith is based on solid facts: a literal resurrection, a risen Christ seen by many, the written witness of those who walked this soil with Him. Paul and John especially go to great lengths to let us see that our faith is grounded firmly in reality. And yet I also love that He doesn't answer every question. He knows what I can handle.

I love that He has placed around me some faith-filled people who simply trust His loving hand and His pure heart. They remind me that all my searching and digging is pointless if it doesn't lead me to deeper relationship with Him and others. For as Paul wrote, knowledge without love is nothing.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

True Hospitality

The knock on the door came unexpectedly at 2:00 PM today.

Not that it should have been unexpected, mind you. Though not on the wall calendar, the meeting was on my email calendar and written on the to-do list I'd never gotten around to looking at in a busy morning. But the events of this thing called "life" had caused me to completely forget that today was a day I'd been looking forward to for a few weeks.

A couple of divine appointments established a connection between me and another believer who I really have wanted to get to know. We planned to meet today and she was prompt, knocking on the door at 1:55. When my husband came and asked if I was expecting company, I immediately remembered and was aghast.

The house was a mess. I hadn't even so much as vacuumed up the mass of seed kernels and dog hair left by our pets, much less put up things around the kitchen or folded the clothes on the bed. Furthermore, I was not in a mood for company at the time! While I wanted to see her, I'm an introvert by nature, and playing hostess in this setting stretched me waaaaaaay out of my comfort zone!

But God is good and faithful. Somehow I managed to welcome her and she was gracious from the beginning. She managed to make me feel comfortable in my own home, my own mess. She brought a cheesecake, we sat at the table, and conversation began to flow. Within minutes I realized I wouldn't have missed this for the world - mess or no mess.

Over the next 4 hours we laughed and talked. When I got hungry I got up and ate; she eagerly invited herself to have one of the bananas on the table. When she got tired, she took a catnap and I threw in a load of laundry and cleared off the counter. What is a struggle even with my closest friends and extended family became the most natural thing in the world with my new friend. In the process, I heard one of the most amazing stories of grace I've ever known. When we prayed, I felt the presence of the Lord in a very real and powerful way. I knew that I so easily could have missed all of that for being "worried and bothered about so many things".

When my new friend left, she thanked me for opening my home. She said she was glad that it was the way it was, because it felt like life. Some days are good, some are bad; we're up and we're down; and we are in it together. Hospitality is more about being willing to share life than it is about any decorations, meals, or preparation time. It's about openness and servanthood and relationship and love. Mostly, it's about making someone feel comfortable enough to be who they are, to tear down walls.

Today, I played hostess. But my friend brought the hospitality.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Is Time On Your Side?

"That which is not done daily will never dominate a life." (anonymous)

Think with me for a minute about a couple of questions I've been asking myself lately:
  • What do you want to dominate your life?
  • What legacy do you want to have?
Now consider: Is your current approach to time management facilitating or hindering your answers?

North America is a very time-oriented society. Other cultural models tend to be more event-oriented (the time starts when the event starts) or person-oriented (it starts when everyone shows up).

Now, I am a list-maker and planner, so I'm the first to admit that there is something to be said for our cultural tendency to structure our days. But when time management becomes a master instead of a servant, something is wrong. That's when I think we can learn from other cultures. We can see time not as a commodity, but as a tool for facilitating our purpose in life. Thus, time management isn't about a system and a structure, but about priorities and purpose.

Some specific things I'm doing to try to bring time in line with what I hope will dominate my life:
  • Schedule less. Follow the 25% rule: Make your list and cut 25% of the things off it. Questions to ask: "Is it worth it? Does it matter?" There will always be things that have to be scheduled. But I have found that I can work much more openness into my schedule this way. It's a very pragmatic approach. Interruptions will happen. Why not plan for them from the beginning?Figure out what's important enough to block off time for, and focus on that.
  • Stretch your schedule. For those items you do schedule, or the time you plan to travel from one appointment or place to another, follow the 25% rule as well: Add 25% to whatever time you think something will take. This builds in time for interruptions, relationships, divine appointments - or just a few minutes to sit and pray or read. I committed to this about a month ago and guess what - I've been on time to everything for a change, AND been very relaxed on the way rather than anxious and blowing in at the last minute. I find myself entering a place in a totally different frame of mind, just because I'm 5 minutes early instead of 2 minutes late.
  • Prioritize for focus. When you make your list ask what 3 things would be most significant in your day. You'll do other things besides those 3, but try to ensure that at the very least, you get those 3 things done. Which ONE is most consistent with your purpose? Do something toward that first - even before checking email ;).Additionally, give yourself permission to prioritize. We can't do everything equally well! Figure out what needs to be done top-notch and what can be less than perfect. Spent your time on what you deem most important and give yourself permission to "get by" in minor areas. What needs the bulk of your attention will vary from person to person and even day to day. Just give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Overall, reduce the number of tasks you do each day, but make each one count for more.
  • Quit multi-tasking. I know. I haven't figured out how to do life without multi-tasking. At the very least, learn to focus on the task you have prioritized in that moment. Have one "top of mind" task to return to when you get interrupted. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Keep biting away at that top of mind task despite the interruptions, and when you prioritize an interruption, just be there for it - fully, in that moment.
  • Say No. Examine new commitments carefully before saying yes. Pray over everything. When you don't have a choice (you have a flat on the way to work) say no to worry - keep the main thing the main thing. Look for God's divine purpose in the moment and say no to being anxious about it.
  • Simplify. Realize your to-do list will never be "done" - and let it go. Focus on the progress and the journey. Sometimes, it helps to see the forest rather than the trees. It's a process, and we are all on the road together. Stay grounded on your purpose, prioritize, motivation. Use the strengths of others who might find your challenging tasks, easy and fun! (I hate to make posters, for example, but my student workers enjoy it! So, I delegate, get rid of stress, and they have a blast!). Just tell yourself things like: "I'm being productive in a different way"; "I'm expanding my repertoire of uses of time"; "I'm becoming more flexible"; "I'm learning how to manage relationships instead of time"; "I'm learning how not to offend people". From http://www.missionarycare.com/brochures/ss_eventoriented.htm
Bullet point titles from http://www.dumblittleman.com/2009/01/7-simple-time-management-rules-for.html

Think back to yourself at a younger age. What would you tell yourself to fill in these blanks:
  • Life is too short to __________________________.
  • Life is too short not to _______________________.

In the long run, this is boiling down in my life to doing less of what matters least and more of what matters most. I still get a lot done and am still very task-oriented by nature. But I'm doing it in a much more relaxed mode these days, with a view to the why more than the what. And I think that honors God - our relational God, who wants us to prioritize abiding above doing.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Aiming for the Moon

"Aim for the moon and if you don't make it, you might just land among the stars." This little bit of advice from my grandmother stuck with me all my life. As a result, I've always tended to be a bit unrealistic in my goals. Early on this was reflected in selfish ambition. I wanted to win a Pulitzer by the time I was 30. Now 40, my main writing outlets are this blog and papers for school.

The last 10-15 years my ambitions have changed. I've realized that I shifted my "aim high" mindset toward creating unrealistic lists and never quite getting around to things that I really needed to focus on. Somehow, I've become lax and settled for less in areas of key importance, while aiming high on my daily to-do list. "Aiming for the moon", for me, has become a task-oriented goal, and I consistently disappoint myself.

So I've had somewhat of an epiphany. What if I aim for the moon in my purposes and overarching life goals, but try to be a bit more realistic in my daily tasks? What if I build in time for interruptions and see who God brings my way? What if I refuse to accept mediocrity in the things that really matter, and give myself permission to do less of what doesn't matter so much. I wrote in my journal the other day:
I have allowed the tyranny of the urgent, the pressures of life, fatigue, selfishness, to lead me to accept mediocrity as normal. Glory is at stake in how I work and how I eat. Rewards are profound in richer relationships. God's kingdom never advances by the status quo. And I will know Him most intimately if I aim high in seeking Him hard.
I still aim for the moon - to glorify God and enjoy Him, to seek Him, to do all things for the sake of His name. That might mean doing less, not more, and saying no to things I could end up doing poorly. Currently I'm experimenting with a 25% rule: Add 25% to whatever time I think something will take, and remove 25% of the things from my daily list. I'm curious what God will throw into the mix - what divine appointments might I have because I approach life at a little slower pace, and shift my task-oriented tendencies to joining Him in His work.

I suspect I'll always remain task-oriented and that I will always seek to get things done. He made me this way, and those are strengths and gifts. But as I learn to exercise them under the influence of the Spirit, I must realize that if I'm settling for less where I should be striving for more, and pushing for perfection where I don't have to do so, then I'm in the flesh. At that point I should turn around and go in the direction of the Spirit, quit striving and know He is God. He WILL be exalted in the earth - and I want that to happen through me.

New Posts on The Big Picture

I've been catching up on WCF posts over at The Big Picture. Check it out at http://worldchristianfoundations.blogspot.com.

Also - I am thrilled to report I have a paper topic for my Graduate Research Paper (like a thesis sort of ). No title yet, but the topic is the role of new immigrant evangelical churches in establishing community among Central American immigrants to the US. I'm pretty excited about it and will keep you posted!