Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Loving Well (Even If You Haven't Been) - by Dr. William P. Smith...

The love of God.  Something I have known intellectually my whole life - "Jesus loves me, this I know..." and yet in the past few years I have realized just how much I do not yet understand about the depth and breadth and heigth and width of the love of God.  We love as we have been loved.  We pass on to others how we ourselves are treated.  The premise of Dr. Smith's book is that if we truly and deeply understood God's love for us, this would enable us to love others well.  Really well.  "Beyond what most of us are used to or expect" kind of well.

Not very long ago, I had a short visit with a pastor at my sending church (the same pastor that Bill Smith refers to several times in this book).  This long-time friend of mine has a special ability to make those around him feel loved and valued.  Its not the kind of thing you run into every day.  I distinctly remember walking out of his office feeling "loved well" and I had this spontaneous desire to love others well that day, no matter who it was. 

Of course many of us have the opposite experience a whole lot more often.  We probably all have at least that one friend who feigns interest when you try to share about a struggle in your life: you start to open up a bit - and that look of disinterest and distraction passes over their face.  Or perhaps it is the family member that is so prickly that you can hardly have a discussion without inadvertently tripping over an emotional landmine.  When I have these kinds of encounters - I don't walk away with the desire to 'love well'...I just feel a sense of loss and frustration.

The experience of the love of God sometimes seems elusive to me, unless it happens through the Body of Christ that are His hands and feet on earth.  That's tangible.  That's relational and feels real.  Learning to experience the love of God through my relationship with Him directly - such as through the Word, prayer, the Spirit - this has been a growth process for me.  Growing...increasing...but still a long way to go.

"We love because He first loved us."  I John 4:19 
"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  John 13:35

Some nuggets from the book...

"The way I live out my relationships with people is one of the clearest indicators of how healthy my relationship with the Lord is.  If I live knowing that God moves toward me all day long and invites me to move toward Him, then I will engage people positively in their lives.  But if I wait for others to give themselves to me first, then I show that I really don't believe or regularly experience this God Who is reconciling people to Himself.  Either way, I live out the truth that you become whatever you worship." 

"You can love other people only out of your own experience of being loved.  Or, to say it in reverse, you cannot pass along what you yourself have not received." 

"It's only after having been loved that you respond with love.  You love [God] back, and you reach out to share with others a tiny portion of the love that you yourself have received... It's only as the reality of His love becomes my present experience that I will be more concerned about expressing my love to others than insisting they express theirs for me." 

As I journey through this book - I think the key growth area I am asking my Abba for is that my sole source of learning how to love people - and the strength to do it - would come from directly experiencing the mind-blowing, soul-flooding, grace-infused, overwhelming, and totally incomprehensible LOVE of God.   

Monday, June 4, 2012

Forgotten God- by Francis Chan

Wow...where to start?  This book really impacted and challenged me. 

Francis starts first by challenging our rather human habit of functioning dependent on our own strength and talents. 
  • "Without [the Holy Spirit], people operate in their own strength and only accomplish human-size results.  The world is not moved by love or actions that are of human creation.  And the church is not empowered to live differently from any other gathering of people without the Holy Spirit.  But when believers live in the power of the Spirit, the evidence in their lives is supernatural.  The church cannot help but be different, and the world cannot help but notice."
Francis Chan points out that Jesus said that it was "better" for Him to leave because He would send the Holy Spirit!  Have we ever really wrestled with that idea - that Jesus Himself said it was better for us to have the Spirit than Him in the flesh walking beside us?  Wow!  Jesus walked next to His disciples, but the Spirit dwells inside of us!

I think what I loved especially about this book is Francis' point that we have access to the Spirit  - and this means that living outside the realm of the 'normal life' or even what is acceptable in our Christian culture is actually what the Spirit is calling us to do! 
  • "It really is an astounding truth that the Spirit of Him Who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you.  He lives in me.  I do not know what the Spirit will do or where He'll lead me each time I invite Him to guide me.  But I am tired of living in a way that looks exactly like people who do not have the Holy Spirit of God living in them."
  • "The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn't normally want to choose to do.  The Spirit will lead you to the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be.  The Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be.  This often incredibly painful process strips you of selfishness, pride, and fear."  Just like Eustace in The Chronicles of Narnia:  "Sometimes the sin we take on becomes such a part of us that it requires this same kind of ripping and tearing to free us.  The Holy Spirit does not seek to hurt us, but He does seek to make us Christlike, and this can be painful."
My heart sang in agreement with some of the following statements...
  • "And like our Savior, Who poured out His life and blood so we have reason to rejoice, we were made to lay down our lives and give until it hurts.  We are most alive when we are looking and actively giving of ourselves because we were made to do these things.  It is when we live like this that the Spirit of God moves and acts in and through us in ways that on our own we are not capable of."
  • Francis states, "...I have felt closest to God when nearness to Him was a necessity."   -- "Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the 'Helper' or 'Comforter.'  Let me ask you a simple question:  Why would we need to experience the Comforter if our lives are already comfortable?  It is those who put their lives at risk and suffer for the Gospel (Phil 1:29) who will most often experience His being 'with you always, even to the end of the age' (Matthew 29:20)." 
We don't need the Spirit if we are just trying to live a normal life...but if we want to obey everything Jesus taught - and teach others the same - then we need Him desperately!  I want to be one of these people.
  • "Thinking, questioning, and talking can take the place of letting the Spirit affect our immediate actions in radical ways.  God wants to see His children stake everything on His power and presence in their lives." 
  • The widow who gave two coins - "Jesus commends this woman, whom the world overlooked and perhaps even derided.  Jesus praises her for her revolutionary faith, for holding nothing back.  She literally gave everything she had, even though she was a 'poor widow' with no other means of income or support.  And Jesus holds her up as an example."  -- "The Spirit may lead me into total sacrifice financially, or He may lead me toward humiliation in the opinions of people around me." 
  • "I don't want my life to be explainable without the Holy Spirit. I want people to look at my life and know that I couldn't be doing this by my own power. I want to live in such a way that I am desperate for Him to come through. That if He doesn't come through, I am screwed..."
  • "I don't believe God wants me (or any of His children) to live in a way that makes sense from the world's perspective, a way I know I can 'manage.' I believe He is calling me- and all of us - to depend on Him for living in a way that cannot be mimicked or forged. He wants us to walk in step with His Spirit rather than depend solely on the raw talent and knowledge He's given us."
I have known people who walk with the Spirit...who leave me wondering how they manage to walk through life with such peace and grace toward others.  I look at my own life and wonder where some of that power is...and desire that God would cause a deep change in my life. 
  • "Haven't you met those rare people who you can tell are daily keeping in step with the Spirit?  Somehow they exude graciousness and peacefulness to a degree that is not humanly possible. Don't you want that in your own life?  I mean, who really wants to be a stressed-out, angry, selfish person? It's not much fun, for you or anyone who happens to come in contact with you."  ... "Look at the fruit of your own life and let it be a gauge for you of your own connectedness with the Spirit." 
I am a fearful person sometimes.  I look at my history, my life story - and it is marked with insecurities and uncertainties that long ago internalized in a why that make them simply part of my life journey, the challenges I face daily.  Some people seem so brave and strong - unhindered by fear and what other people might think.  But I have been encouraged lately - because it seems that God delights to work through those who are 'unlikely' and 'weak' - the ones that others perhaps look down on for their insecurities.  But as Francis states below - perhaps my life's palet is here so that God can do a transforming work in a way that only He can do!
  • "Have you ever prayed that God would so fill you with the Holy Spirit that people would know the change could be empowered only by the Spirit?"
  • "... He wants to completely transform us.  He wants to take a timid heart and set it ablaze with strength and courage, so much so that people know something supernatural has taken place..."-
  • "...God delights in showing up when His people are in desperate need of Him, because that means no one else can steal His glory." 
  • "If you have not known and experienced God in ways you cannot deny, I would suggest that you are not living in a needy and dependent way. God delights to show up when His children call on His Name and when they are trusting fully in Him to come through..."
To summarize - how can I step out in faith in new ways?  How can I take bold new steps to show that He is at work in me...stepping out of my comfort zone...relying on Him desperately to come through?!?!  Francis sates,  "God wants the praise for what we do in our lives.  But if we never pray audacious, courageous prayers, how can He answer them?  If we never follow Him to positions where we need Him, how can He show up and make His presence known?"

God, I seek to follow You to places where I need You desperately... Spirit, come and transform me!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

IDENTITY THEFT: Reclaiming Who God Created You To Be - by Mike Breaux

In this book, Pastor Mike Breaux simply and humorously presents the four areas that often rob us of our true indentity in Christ:  Relationships, the power of the Mirror, pursuit of Success, and our Past.

Well, there is a lot that I could say here to try to summarize what Mike brings to the table...but I'd like to focus in on how he steers us back to God's love.  Wherever bitterness or hurt or struggles or betrayal have wounded our hearts in the relationships we have been in - Mike reminds us, "It's only when you allow God to love you and to experience His unfailing love - His unconditional grace and mercy - that you'll be able to extend that same kind of grace and mercy to another person, especially the person who has hurt you."  We cannot give out what we have not received.

Mike quotes Brennan Manning: "When we freely assent to the mystery of our belovedness and accept our core identity as Abba's child, we slowly gain autonomy from our controlling relationships. We become inner-directed rather than outer-determined. The fleeing flashes of pleasure or pain caused by the affirmation or deprivation of others will never entirely disappear, but their power to induce self-betrayal will be diminished." (Abba's Child)  So true...

We are all way too obsessed with ourselves! :)  We are "buying a lie that equates looking a certain way with being happy, contented, and showered with unfailing love.  Here's how the lie plays itself out in our heads...If I'm attractive enough to other people, I will be accepted and admired.  I will be respected, significant, and loved.  I will be worthwhile.  I will be enough.  And once that happens, all my problems will be resolved; my life will fall into place.  Members of the opposite sex will find me irresistible. Employers will want to hire me.  Friends will want to be with me.  Friends will want to be me!"  But in reality:  "We're buying a lie that equates looking a certain way with being happy, contented, and showered with unfailing love."  Yup - sooo not gonna happen in reality. 

As I reflected on this idea - I began to think of people in my life who have deeply impacted me, or somehow caused me to grow, look to God more, or consider my life's path.  You know what?  I have to think really hard to remember what they might have been wearing...or how they looked...or if they were over or underweight.  But what I did remember was how they made me feel, and how I was motivated to know more of Christ beause of spending time with them.  It made me want to strive to leave this kind of impact...and worry a whole LOT less about my appearance.

I am not above being too self-focused.  Sometimes my perfectionism works itself out in a form of "naval-gazing" - trying to fix whatever is wrong with myself so that I will be accepted.  Mike makes a strong point in referring to Isaiah 58 - "Isaiah is saying you can find healing for yourself by not focusing so much on yourself! When you love those whom God loves, it puts life into proper perspective. You start to live as a person made in God's image, and all the cultural lies about what your image 'ought' to be are revealed for the shallowness they represent."  As God has graciously worked on my heart in this area - I see how freedom comes from looking more at God, and much much much muuuuuuch less at myself!

Success is not wrong in and of itself, but it can become an end in itself, a pursuit.  Why?  Mike states, "As I look around...I see way too many people whose success-related drives are way out of balance and completely out of control.  And I think that's more than a simple desire for success.  I think it's a hunger for acceptance.  I think it's a longing for the elusive 'atta boy' or 'that's my girl.'  I think it's yet another way some people try to satisfy their hunger for unfailing love."   Oh so true, Mike.  I've been there, and I continue to do watch-care over that part of my heart that wants success so that I can claim that I really belong, I'm finally "in."

I love how he states this:  "Because when your identity is all wrapped up in worship of the image, you start to morph into an envious, hyper-competitive, self-absorbed, stressed-out, insecure, approval-seeking person.  Then when everything comes crashing down - and it will - you will have no idea who you even are."   I can relate.  Ugh.  This is not a happy place to be. 

Mike reminds us of this truth - "I'm already accepted.  I'm already somebody.  I don't have to strive or perform.  I don't need to keep a crazy schedule so people will like me.  God already likes me - with an unfailing like.  So I don't have to be rewarded, regarded, or recognized.  I don't have to be the best; I just have to be my best - to the glory of God."  Mike reminds us that God's love is an overpowering, completely absorbing kind of love.  Not some kind of sweet, syrupy love - but a pursuing, overtaking, overwhelming kind.  And this Love is what secures us. 

What keeps us locked in our past is often related to past mistakes or even past sin.  "Secret sin cannot coexist with inner peace."  and  "Unresolved guilt is a malignant kind of thing, capable of spreading and poisoning every part of us.  Just look at what else King David had to say on this subject:  'When I refused to confess my sin, I was weak and miserable, and I groaned all day long.  Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.  My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.' (Psalm 32:3-4)" 

Confessing sin in the safety of community brings freedom and forgiveness.  "God wired us to be in community, and when there is an openness to human frailty among friends, there is a spirit of acceptance and grace that can transform our lives."  God seems to be educating me in what community can do in and for us, especially in the area of helping us see our sin and patterns.  But community can also be healing:  mirroring God's acceptance of us (because of Jesus) in the way that our friends extend grace to us.  As one friend recently put it - "Ironically, self-awareness is not something that you can generate yourself."  Awesome.  Well said.  We need others to help us see ourselves...and we need grace extended to us so that we can keep growing.

Mike's comparison in this chapter is that we all need a kind of "etch-a-sketch" approach to our life...knowing that we mess up that screen trying our best to draw some kind of picture: but then we hand it right over to God Who wipes it clean...again.  Mike lists his sins sometimes in his journal - but then after his time of confession with the Lord - writes "FORGIVEN" in giant red letters across that list.  Not a bad idea.  The visual is powerful.

Our identity changes when we follow Christ.  The past does not define us.  Christ defines us...and this is the identity we must stand on. 

To Summarize:  "Instead of chasing the American Dream and running so fast to prove to everyone that you're somebody, you will relax in the truth that you are already somebody in God's eyes.  You won't need the applause of others, because you've already got the applause of the One Who matters most.  You will surrender control of your life and your career and watch as God stuffs your portfolio with such assets as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control." 

I enjoyed this book (but it doesn't rank as a top favorite for me).  Its a simple, humorous read - refreshingly real and Scriptural and encouraging.  Recommended if you want a good read on keeping your identity based firmly in truth!