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Monday, June 30, 2014

Called for Life (Colossians 4:2-6)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

            Fans of the movie Frozen remember how important “Coronation Day” is in that story.  In the story of our church life, “Ordination Day” is a big day.  If it is your ordination, you have to speak in front of the congregation.  The church gathers around you and lays hands on you as your name is carried to God in prayer.  If it is not your ordination, you may not remember as much about the day.  Like most Sundays, you come to church.  It is special, but may not stand out from other Sundays. 
            This morning three individuals are recognized as uniquely set apart.  Each has answered the call to a servant-ministry role that is specific in the life of HillSong Church. 
            As all of us participate in recognizing the ordination of Jess, Tabitha, and Jeremy, we remember the word of God from last week, Colossians 3.  We are God’s chosen, beloved and holy.  Not all are ordained, but all who are in Christ are God’s people.   To be his is to have his purpose as ours.  God chooses us and God defines us.  If there is something we all might remember from this ordination day – those being ordained and those laying on hands and saying prayers – it might be the words of wisdom Paul gives the church in the opening verses of Colossians 4.
            He begins, “devote yourselves to prayer.”  Make prayer a marker in your life, an activity, a ‘go-to’ coping response, and an automatic way of processing information and emotions.  This cannot be overemphasized.  The disciple lives a praying life.  It would require a sermon series lasting a couple of months to think through all the different ways that we pray.  I simply urge each of this morning to identify one way that we pray that is most comfortable and to practice that method without fail daily for the next 30 days.  It could be prayer with journaling, it could be praying the scriptures, intercession, or something else, but find your sweet spot in prayer and don’t miss a day for the next 30.  Find a style of praying that works for you and stick with it. 
            Also, pray in ways that are challenging.  You struggle with silent prayer.  You don’t like to get up early, so sun rise prayers are tough.  Praying in public is difficult.  Find that one way that is most difficult for you.  Practice that for 30 days. 
We meet God in our comfort zones and also way outside our comfort zones.  In both meetings with God, we are blessed and we grow.  Especially, newly ordained leaders, you will want to discover new avenues of prayer.  You will want to find out what it means to live a praying life.  Paul insisted here and in other letters that we devote ourselves to prayer.  He wanted every church under his influence to be a praying church (Phil. 4:6; 1 Thess. 5:17).
            Devote yourselves to prayer.
            “Pray for us … that God will open a door for the word” (Col. 4:3).  In asking that they pray for him, Paul acknowledged his own dependence.  He could not succeed without God’s constant help.  He also knew that if he did succeed, it would advance the Kingdom of God.  Prayer by the church then and now plays a role in the advance of the kingdom.
            Colossians 4:3 is a summons to the church to pray for that church’s pastors.  In our case, this is a call to prayer for our youth minister Emily, and for Heather and me.  We need your prayer for us to be successful in helping our body of Christ-followers make sense of the world according to the word of God.  We will be better pastors if you make prayer for us a part of your lives.  And the church will be closer to who God is creating our church to be with pastors and ministers who are covered in prayer.  In addition to volunteering, prayer is a way you participate in church life.
            Colossians 4:3 also ties the prayers of the church to the work of God in the world.  Paul’s intent is that God will open a door for the Word as Christ followers spread the gospel around the world.  In living a praying life, we are called by God to pray for Christian workers – evangelists, missionaries, and lay people who serve God on campus and in the marketplace. 
Choose one day a week your own prayer life and make that the day you pray for pastors, missionaries, and Christian workers in the world.  Make your prayer specific.  Pray for our partnership in Ethiopia.  Pray for members of our church going on trips.  Pray for persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Nigeria.  Pray for our members – your friends; ask God to make them missionaries in their jobs.  Make this prayer for the advancement of the word in our own community and worldwide something that matters greatly in your life.
Devote yourselves to prayer.
Pray that God will open a door for the word.
A final instruction – “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders; let your speech always be gracious.” 
As we become praying people – we come to know God more and more.  As we invest our heart’s energies in praying for the advancement of the Word, we become more connected to God’s work in the world.  Striving for wisdom and gracious speech, we embody God’s loving, inviting character.  Our faith comes to life as it is lived beyond the walls of the church building.  We see what kind of Christ followers we truly are in how conduct ourselves with non-Christians.  Are we aloof or warm and inviting?  Are we judgmental or gracious?  Everyone can be a Christian at church.  There one is rewarded for singing well, praying well, and speaking well.  The God who calls is a God who sends and we are sent to engage in relationships with people who have not given themselves to Christ.  We live out our lives within systems not in step with the Kingdom. 
Coronation day is a declaration of the state of affairs of the kingdom.  If the new ruler follows a tyrant, the subjects in the kingdom have hope that life will be better under a newer, gentler monarch.  If the new king replaces a beloved king, there’s anxiety.  Can he be as great as his father?  Can anyone?  What will become of our kingdom?
Similarly, the ordination is statement of the health of the life of the church.  I look at Jess, Tabitha, and Jeremy and I have hope.  God is at work in the lives of the people of our church and they are answering his call.  And I have seen people in our church live praying lives.  I have heard as HillSong people have prayed fervently for the advance of the Word of God in the world.  I have watched my brothers and sisters in this place conduct themselves wisely in the world, sharing grace, and acting as salt that preserves and seasons their environments with the Gospel.  I am impressed by how much this church calls me to pray and live.  I know the three being ordained today will step into that role of encouraging their fellow church family members just as they are being encouraged.
Colossians ends with Paul telling someone named Archippus to complete the task he has received in the Lord (4:17).  He had something specific in mind for Archippus.  His advice transcends and speaks to us.  We complete the task God has given us by living prayerful lives as followers of Jesus.  This is true for ordained deacons and elders and it is true for all who read the word, hear the call of God, and decide to give themselves to Him.  All of us are called to life and called for life.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Step into Life (Colossians 3:12-17)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The risen Jesus was with several of his disciples on the shore.  In a private conversation, he told Peter that he would one day face a martyr’s death.  Peter was extremely happy Jesus was alive, but the prospect of martyrdom did not excite him.  He immediately looked at the beloved disciple and asked if he too would die for the name of Jesus. 
What about him, Lord
Jesus responded, “What is that to you?”  In other words, don’t try to live out my story for him.  Worry about my story for you.  You, follow me (John 21:21-22).  My friends, no one here gets to live the beloved disciple’s story.  Or Peter’s.  Or mine.  You only get to live your story.  It will be different than anyone else’s because Jesus loves you uniquely.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Everyone who enters life does so by way of the cross where Jesus takes the punishment for our sins on himself.  We come to life by way of the cross and by way of the resurrection.  Easter is his victory over death.  No story without the crucifixion is a Christian story.  No story without the resurrection is a Christian story.  Many overemphasize the cross.  Easter is just at footnote, a nonessential.  Other movements have skip all the unpleasantness of that Friday.  They gloss over the violence in the death of Jesus.  They want a resurrection without a death to precede it. 
Leaning too much in either direction is a theological mistake.  It is also a psychological mistake. Our story, a story of following Jesus and worshiping him, is through and through a story of the cross; and it is absolutely a story of eternal life achieved for us by Jesus in the resurrection.  It is both.  We need the cross because of our pain; God can empathize with us.  He went through pain too.  We need the resurrection because once our pain has been acknowledged, we need victory over it.  And we have that because our Lord Jesus defeated the ultimate enemy – death.
We are saved by grace through faith – our faith in Jesus and his faithfulness in obeying God.  We are saved by what he did and by his invitation to us.  We aren’t saved because we were smart enough to say “Yes” to Jesus.  We are saved because he loved us enough to die.  He invites us. 
The table reminds us of how all this works.  All who know they need grace are invited to eat the body of Jesus and drink the blood of Jesus and receive forgiveness and life in his name.  By taking the bread and cup, you and I say yes Jesus, you are the Lord; we are yours.
What is this life, life in Christ?
It is life in which God picks you and me.  “As God’s chosen ones,” says Colossians 3:12.  I remember the playground.  Kids choosing sides for the kickball game, and everyone is picked.  I am standing, waiting.  Begrudgingly, one of the captains says, OK, we’ll take Tennant.  Unwanted!
I remember the school dance.  Guys have dates.  The girls I asked were all unavailable, yet somehow they ended up at the dance.  Why did they tell me they couldn’t go?  They went.  I did not!  Unwanted.
One of my prized possessions is a UNC golf shirt.  When I wear it, people are surprised. Everyone knows I cheer for Michigan, not UNC.  Every time I wear that shirt, people wonder if I have converted.  No, I say, I am still a Wolverine fan. 
The shirt has the number 97 on the breast pocket.  After people get over seeing me in Carolina blue, they notice the number and ask, “Who wore #97?”  I honestly don’t know if any famous UNC athlete ever wore that number.  But in 2006, when HillSong Church was trying to find a new pastor, there were, I think, 119 resumes received.  Mine was #97 of that 119.  I suspect that of the 118 who did not get the call to come here, many were as qualified as me and would have done as good a job as me.  God guided the process so that I was called to be the pastor here.  And I am grateful.  Every time I wear that UNC #97 shirt, I am reminded that I was chosen. 
I don’t know if you have such reminders, but I assure that you have been chosen just as I have.  To have life in Christ is to be wanted – wanted by God, no less!  The evidence is this letter we’ve been reading – Colossians. 
Paul intended this letter to go beyond the church in the city of Colosse.  In fact, there was a church the neighboring city – Laodicea.  Paul told the Colossians to share the letter with Laodiceans; and the Laodiceans were to share the letter he sent them with the Colossians (Col. 4:16).  (Don’t look up the Laodicean letter.  It is not in your NT.  Sadly it is lost to history.) 
As Paul wrote for specific communities but he knew others would see his letters too.  When he wrote that believers are “God’s chosen ones,” he meant all Christ followers, not just the Colossians.  “God’s chosen ones” – that’s you and me.
I am not aging well: I have bad knees; I’ll never be a marathoner.  I get shorted tempered with my kids.  I won’t bore you with a catalogue of my character defects.  I will tell you there are days when all I see is what’s wrong with me.  A lot of people see their own faults and never see the good in themselves.  Colossians 3:12 reminds me, when I want to hate myself, that God chose me.  God looks at me and filled with love says, I want Rob with me. God looks at you and says, I want her with me
How does that well-known verse go?  “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son.”  You and I are chosen of God.
To drive this home, Paul reminds us, his readers, that in Christ we are holy and beloved.  Australian pastor William Loader writes
When we begin to take seriously that we are 'chosen, holy, and loved' by God, then we begin to value ourselves and not need to embark on the array of strategies which keep people busy trying to make themselves special. This kind of change does not happen overnight, but is part of our development in maturity as people. There is a very positive process at work which will gradually produce good fruit, the more free we become from our anxieties and worries about ourselves, the more energy and space we have for others. It is not, however, fully automatic. It needs working on, because the grooves run deep. We need to be challenged: you are loved; now, believe it, apply it, let it sink in.[i]

          I appreciated Loader’s insistence that we value ourselves because of Christ in us.  He has made us worthy of God – worthy to serve and worthy to be loved.  We don’t earn it.  He gives it.  In Jesus, God gives his love to the point of overflowing.  It depends not on our goodness but on his grace, not that we are so unbelievably loveable but that He loves us extravagantly.[ii]
          We won’t understand the instruction in Colossians 3 and we will not have any hope of living out what this chapter says unless we are in Christ and we accept that in him we are chosen, holy, and beloved.  As chosen, beloved ones, we “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” These words describe what is actually true about us when we live our lives in Christ.
This does not come about as we strive to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.  This is not a matter of spiritual effort. Effort is not all bad.  We can work hard and work creatively to make these characteristics defining marks in our lives.  We should.  But as sinners, we always fall short of the mark. 
Before giving any teaching that translates to attitudes which govern our day-to-day behaviors, Paul says in Colossians 3:1 our minds should be with Jesus who is at the right hand of the father.  His heavenly perspective should be ours.  Paul reminds us we are chosen by Jesus.  He wants us to know who we are and who we are being made to be in Christ.  We need to discover and rediscover and reread the story of us and Jesus.  I need to spend a lot of time in knowing my own personal journey with him.  It is not for me live Peter’s journey.  Jesus is writing Rob’s story and I need to invest in it and you in yours.  Only then does it make sense to point to that the values named in verses 12-17.  This inventory of virtue is a manifestation of Christ at work in us, speaking through us. 
Thus, a key to compassion, kindness, humility and the rest is to know Jesus.  How do we know him?  We read stories about him in the Bible.  We know others who know him and listen to their testimonies.  Consider someone you believe is true Christ follower.  Ask her or him penetrating, specific questions about the walk with Jesus.  When they answer, listen carefully and deeply.  When they won’t or can’t answer keep asking until they can and will.  Additionally do things that Jesus said to do – service work, forgiveness in relationships, missions, worship.
In all these ways, reading, listening, going, and doing, we become acquainted with Jesus.  This is only a start.  We are not disciples until we follow him and He dwells in us.  We must pray honestly.  Block all distraction, dig as deeply into your own psyche as you can, and pray with complete honesty holding nothing back.  Prayer in this way – raw, real, unrefined – cuts the soul open and leaves us bare before God.  And the relationship is real.  It requires that we name every pain we’ve felt, every disappointment and loss, and we speak our honest thoughts.  In that place of pain and exposure, we discover the depth of Jesus love for us.  We invite him into our most vulnerable places that he might love us there where we need it most and that he might go to work healing our wounds and shaping our souls. 
It is a lifelong process, but somewhere along the way, we realize, hey, I know Jesus.  Whatever else people say and whatever future mistakes I make, I know Jesus, and I know I am forgiven, chosen, beloved.
With that knowledge, we realize we are on the way toward me becoming compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.  We need to stay on that path.  One of the driving motivations in Colossians is the believers were being lured onto other paths than the one Jesus set for them.  We are too.  How do we stay on the Jesus path?  How do we keep our eyes fixed upon him?
Of the numerous thoughts we could think of, this morning I recommend giving intense focus to a particular virtue in hopes it will open us to all the virtues.  I alluded to this last week.  Colossians 3:12 says “Clothe yourselves with …” and I zoom the camera in on one word – gentleness.  It is actually not one of the words listed but in gentleness I am thinking of aspects of a few that are listed: meekness, humility, and kindness.  ‘Civility’ could possibly be a synonym, but only loosely.  I think gentleness goes deeper.
It comes from strength.  If I have a fish on the hook and I want to throw it back, I cannot just squeeze and jerk the hook out through the cheek.  I have to hold on strongly enough that the fish doesn’t leap from my hand but gently enough that I do not harm the fish.  Likewise in relationships, I need to be strong enough that I do not lose my sense of identity.  I need to be strong enough in my faith that without compromise, I tell the truth about God, declare that Jesus is Lord, and refuse to participate in sin.  Yet, I need to be gentle enough that another person will know I care about him.  I may not agree with all he says and does, but I love him nonetheless. 
Gentleness is only seen in relationships.  The mean person ignores this attribute that Paul clearly declares is necessary for all followers of Jesus.  Short tempered, foul mouthed, crabby, aggressive; Colossians says Christ followers clothe themselves with meekness and kindness – gentleness.  I see online chats in which supposed Christians aggressively assault sinners in a violent, mean-spirited tone.  They claim Christ but make no attempt to live out the gentle kindness that Paul insisted be part of the life of a Christ follower.  Gentleness is a mark of our relationships; it is most obvious in our words – both tone and content. 
Moreover, gentleness sets the course for the other virtues named here – compassion, humility, patience, love, and peace.  If I am gentle, you know you can approach me, and if you can approach, then there is potential for us together to work on compassion and show love.  What would your summer be if you decided, ‘this summer, I will become the gentle person Jesus is calling me to be?’
Get started this week by identifying one relationship that is particularly tension-filled.  It may be with a friend or a coworker, a fellow church member or an unbeliever, family member or neighbor.  But it has to be a relationship where gentleness has been lacking.  Ask God to make you a gentler person in that relationship.  Ask God to show you how.  Ask for special help when it gets particularly argumentative.  Ask God to intervene in your spirit in that very moment you are tempted to shoot a verbal dagger so that instead of being mean, you are clear but also kind, even in anger.  Identify one relationship which will be a point of emphasis in your prayers and in your daily effort to clothe yourself with gentleness as you follow Jesus as his disciple. 
In all of this, we discover our own stories – the story of me walking with Jesus and of you walking with him.  We set our lives by his standards.  We clothe ourselves with gentleness and thus we step into life in Christ. 
This morning, a first step on this pathway is the Lord’s Supper table – an ultimate act of gentle invitation.  That of course is a paradox because the bread we take represents the violent breaking of Jesus’ body.  The wine calls to mind his spilled blood.  His welcome to all of us to the warmth and intimacy of dinner with him comes at the expense of his life. 
Come and come with assurance.  Take the bread and cup and with it receive all the love Jesus has for you.  Let his love fill you, starting now.  Discover the next chapter in the story of Jesus and you, starting now.  You and I – we are chosen, beloved of God.  We have a place at this table simply by knowing how much we need him.  He owns our hearts.  He speaks through our lives.  So come.  Clothe yourselves with Christ.  Come to him.

[ii] Wright (1986).  Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, IVP Academic Press, Nottingham, p.145-6.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The View From Above (Colossians 3:1-4, 18-22)

Sunday, June 15, 2014
Father’s Day

          Someone remarked to me recently that while she and her husband were praying together as they regularly do, my name came up.  The husband mentioned a concern for me, something specific I was dealing with at the time.  I had not told anyone.  He had no way of knowing my struggle.  Yet this man was praying for me in a way that I really needed.  The Holy Spirit struck his heart to pray for me.
          One aspect of this that brings me great joy has nothing to do with me.  I was thrilled to hear this woman say, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that she and her husband regularly pray together.  I don’t know about other pastors, but I love to hear people talk about their prayer lives.  
          The majority of time, we live out our faith in very normal, everyday places – the home, the workplace, the grocery store, the burger joint.  Colossians 3:1 and the verses that follow are lofty, much like the preceding chapters.  We have already looked chapter 1, a definitive statement of the divinity of Christ.  Now chapter 3 feels like we are still in the clouds.  “If you have been raised with Christ … set your minds on things that are above” (v.1, 2).  It sounds otherworldly.  This is far from where we live day-to-day.  But what does it mean for us beyond 11-12 Sunday morning?
          Paul gives us some ideas as he addresses relationships within the household beginning in Colossians 3:18.  We go from the heavenly to the mundane, from the grand themes of “things that are above” to the simpler home life relationships.  Does it seem like this has come from nowhere?  It shouldn’t.  Consider this quote from the Tyndale series commentary.
If a sense of anti-climax is felt on moving from the sublime picture of the worshipping church in 3:15-17 to the almost mundane instruction of 3:18-4:1, that is perhaps a sign that we have not fully integrated practice and belief.  It is clear that … the early church took seriously the necessity of living Christianly in the place where, for better or for worse, one is truly oneself. 

These terse sentences focus on just that: how to be truly oneself in the Lord as a member of the new humanity – and how to set other members of one’s family free to be truly themselves.[i]

          Have we fully integrated practice and belief?  Do the words from the Bible that we read and the prayers that we pray have any effect on how we live in the most private places of our lives?  The woman told me that she and her husband pray together; it is a normal part of their married life.  What could be more personal and intimate than and husband and wife in prayer together? 
          Whether or not we truly live as disciples of Jesus is tied to how we live at home.  It is seen in how we live in relationships.  Not everyone is married.  Not everyone is a parent.  Our community is comprised of people who are many different life situations: new parents; widows; single adults; teenagers; empty nesters. 
          Everyone in our community has normal places of life – where we lay down at night; where we eat most of our meals.  We all have relationships.  Even the person who lives alone is a person who lives in relationships. 
In Colossians 3:18-4:1, Paul addresses home life.  I suggest is home we begin the practice of setting “our minds on things that are above.”  We have been raised with Christ.  Paul invites us to see the world from the perspective of Jesus and Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father.  Through prayer can we see our family life with Jesus’ eyes? 
If we cannot, then we really can’t see anything from Jesus’ perspective.  Faith that does not apply to family life is no kind of faith.  Jesus expects to be Lord of our homes.  So, Paul talks a bit about what that looks like. 
Beginning in verse 18 is a series of instructions specifically tied to verbs.  The first is addressed to wives.  “Be subject to your husbands.”  This and verses like it in other New Testament epistles[ii] have led to a system of categorizing the family.  Some believers call themselves “complimentarian” meaning they see distinct roles for husbands within the family, and other roles for wives.  The complimentarian system is hierarchical with the husband as the head; he is in charge and with a nod toward verses like Colossians 3:18, the wife is to acknowledge that and celebrate her husband’s leading role. 
The rival system is egalitarianism.  In this one, Bible readers take passages like Colossians 3 and similar passages in 1st Timothy 2 and 1st Peter 3, and they see the hierarchical nature of these verses as tied the cultural world of the 1st century.  The egalitarians are uncomfortable relegating the wife to a subservient role.  However, egalitarians must also deal with this and similar verses.
In the way I live my life, I would most definitely be an egalitarian.  That said I want to encourage everyone to understand what this verse in Colossians means.  First, note the command to obey, given to children in verse 20 and slaves in verse 22.  This verb is a different than what is used in verse 18.  Wives are not told to “obey” as if they are under the mastery of their husbands.
In fact, it is the complete opposite.  What is presented in v. 18 is entirely for the wife to choose.  “Be subject … as is fitting in the Lord.”  Remember, we have set our minds on things above, seeing a Jesus sees where he sits at the right hand of the Father.  What does he see?  He sees a world of husbands who need to be strong and nothing will bolster a man’s strength like the belief that his wife chooses to respect him.  He does not have to fight or prove himself worthy.  She is giving that respect.  She is building him up.  And most importantly, she does so willingly.
Ephesians 5:21 helps deepen our sense of what the New Testament is saying.  That verse instructs everyone in the church – men to women and women to me - to submit to each other.  Submission is mutual for the sake of building the entire body.  One does not need to be married to adopt a posture of humility.  Again, back to Jesus, he humbled himself when knelt and washed his disciples’ feet.  He gave a model for all of us – humility. 
The subjugation of women is something women give, not something men take.  I like the way the idea is worded in 1st Peter 3:1 in the NRSV: “accept the authority of your husband.”  All of us can accept the authority of those around us and treat people with deferential respect.  To do so is to honor the view of Jesus. 
Wives, choose to be subject to your husbands.  Husbands, love your wives.  The root word for love is ‘agape,’ the Greek verb that specifically meant self-sacrificing love, a love that expects nothing in return and is given extravagantly solely for the good of the other.  One crucial application of this instruction is that we who are husbands not demand our wives submit to us.  The Bible’s teaching for the wife is for her to “be subject.”  It never says, husbands subjugate your wives.  We are told to love our wives.
How does Jesus see this with his view from above?  He cared for the people of God to the point that he left the grandeur of heaven to live in a human body in a time in history when daily life was a grind with few luxuries or pleasures, disease was rampant and life spans were short.  Not only did he become a human being, he became a peasant, a working class person among a people who were held down by cruel overlords, the Romans.  Jesus’ model of love is one of sacrifice.
Looking from the right hand the father, Jesus saw a hard world, one especially hard for women.  At that time, women needed to have their worth reaffirmed and their individual identities built up because society was not doing that.  Our society also dishonors women, but in a different way.
In our culture, women are valued if they are cover models.  As enlightened as we imagine ourselves to be, we have created an image and we worship it.  No real life woman matches what is seen on the front of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.  Even the women who are in those photos have numerous things done to accent certain parts of their bodies for the sake of the photo.  Once the make-up is off and the woman is walking the street like you or I would, she does not look like the women in the photo. 
Men never ask about her heart.  They lust after her body.  The magazine cover has created something no wife could ever compete with.  And the woman in the photo, is a piece of meat that excites men as long as she stays quiet and wears as few clothes as possible.  Jesus sees her as a daughter of God.  He sees the brokenness in her, in men who lust after her, and in all the men and women broken by our sex-crazed world, and Jesus weeps.
Husbands, love your wives.  Jesus sacrificed; husbands give yourselves up for your wives.  Men who are followers of Jesus, whether you are married or not, refuse to participate in our culture of sex-obsession.  Love all women respectfully, sacrificially, and as Jesus does.
Sex is a creation of God, a beautiful thing.  However, it is only beautiful in the context of marriage, a context in which the husband and wife love each other.  In doing so, they love the whole personAs we age, as hair grays or falls out and weight is gained, the love husbands give only grows. 
Paul specifically says never treat your wife harshly.  We will delve more into this aspect of discipleship next week when we focus on the Christian virtues described in Colossians 3:12.  For now, husbands, simply let gentleness be your guide.  This is true for everyone.  Look at how you express yourself.  Can our expression toward others be described as gentle?  Are we treating others gently or harshly?  As Jesus views things, what would he prefer?  Religious legalists around him hammered sinners, damning them to sin.  He loved them.
Wives are to choose to be subject to their husbands.  Husbands are to sacrificially love their wives.  All of us are to treat one another from the position of humility, loving each other gently, and building one another up.  This is how our discipleship, our allegiance to Jesus, is expressed in daily life
One more word draws our attention, especially today as it is Father’s Day.  Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.”  It is a challenge in Bible to live out a negative command.  “Do not kill.”  Well, I have never murdered, so I guess I’ve obeyed that one.   But have I?
I believe each time we see a negative, a “do not,” we should search for a corresponding positive so that we are not simply avoiding a sin, but rather seeking proactive ways to live life as Jesus would live it.  “Do not kill.”  Am I doing anything to build up someone’s life?  The one who is truly following Jesus is not only avoiding the prohibitions but is intentional about doing good in His name.  This is the Spirit of Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount.
In the case of Colossians 3, we who are dads need to look deeper than simply “Do not provoke your children.”  If provoking leads the child to bitterness, then we need to do the opposite.  We need to encourage our children and help them grow healthy, strong, and excited for life.  It is an act of discipleship.  When we help our children discover and develop their passions, when we take interest in them, when our free time is devoted to making sure they know they are loved, it is a sign we are seeing from above as Jesus does.  That view leads us to work for our children’s good. 
I know many men who are not Fathers who do this.  They volunteer in ministries with children.  They give of themselves for the sole purpose of seeing kids grow and thrive.  And they do it because they think Jesus wants them to and they want to follow Him.  It may not be articulated as a practical way of living out Colossians 3:2, but that is what is happening.  Our discipleship is lived in our homes, in our relationships.
Recently my daughter Merone, 4 years old, asked my wife Candy this question.  “Mommy, is Jesus real?  Can he walk?  Does he eat?”  Candy said, “Yes.”  Before she could elaborate, Merone had moved on to a question about ice cream.  At her stage of development, if someone is real, you can see him.  He eats and walks. 
As disciples, we create safe environments in which those around us can ask questions wherever they are in their development.  By our love and patience as safe persons we contribute to the growth of those around us, children, spouses, friends, roommates.  We do so humbly and lovingly.  As we do, more and more, we understand the perspective of the one who is at the right hand of the Father.  We see what he sees as he sees it.  And the people in our lives grow as they come to know him.  Our witness in the way we live plays a big part in us becoming who we are supposed to be in Christ and in those around us becoming who they are supposed to be in Christ.

[i] Wright (1986).  Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon; Intervarsity press, Nottingham, p.150.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 3

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Creative Potential in Positive Experiences

          I am reading a wonderful book about connecting to God and to God’s healing by way of knowing yourself; and, you know yourself by listening to your own story.  The book is To Be Told by Dan Allender.  Much of what he says is strikingly similar to what I was taught as a doctorate of ministry student at Palmer Theological Seminary studying family systems and marriage therapy.  For an individual to be truly healthy, he or she has to read his or her own story honestly and discerningly.  We have to come afresh to the story of our own lives and read and re-read that story.  On this Allender is most certainly on track.  My own experience at Palmer and even earlier as an MDiv student at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond affirms all I am learning from Allender.
          My one bone of contention is Allender’s neglect of the positive experiences in one’s life and here I am specifically thinking of chapter 5, “Facing the Tragedy that Shapes You.”  In this chapter, he says, “All passion is founded on pain, grown through risk, and marked by the decisions we make in the face of tragedy” (p. 65). 
          I affirm that “passion is founded on pain ... and marked by the decisions we make in the face of tragedy.”  I do not agree that all passion comes from personal experiences with pain.   Some passions – things we care about deeply (or passionately) – come from good experiences.
          Also he says, “There is not a person on earth who has escaped life’s pivotal, inciting incidents – incidents that are full of sadness, injustice, failure, and cruelty; incidents that require action to change or redeem them.  If we are listening to another person’s story, we must presume that shalom has been shattered and the he or she is on a journey to restore balance” (p. 66).
Yes, I say with Allender that shalom is shattered.  No, I do not think we presume that.  Presumption is not a good thing in listening.  The conclusion is decided before I’ve told my story.  Before I say anything, Allender already has decided shalom has been shattered in my life.  He won’t hear my story because he’s listening with an agenda.  He is so determined to find my pain that he may see pain that is not there.  We do not need to presume the shalom in another person’s life is shattered.  Simply listen to their story and that will be evident.
          And finally, “Tragedy shapes our deepest passions, and our passions shape who we are and what we will become. Each person living in a fallen world will encounter abandonment, betrayal, and shame.  You can’t avoid it and neither can I.  It’s necessary in the context in which we come to grips with how we will live.  It is in the midst of affliction that we become our truest or most false self” (p. 67).
          I agree that tragedy indeed does “shape our deepest passions.”  I do not agree that it is only in the midst of affliction that we become our truest self.”  We do become our truest self in affliction, but positive experiences also reveal and create who we are. 
          By way of example, I share my own love of the outdoors.  It goes back to when I was 13, the summer of 1983, and my family went backpacking for the first time.  There are two times in my life that I recall my breath being taken away because of the awe and wonder that poured into me.  The second time that happened was on my wedding day when my bride walked down to aisle to me and I was utterly taken with her beauty.  The first time was when we hiked on that summer day through fog to the top of one of the mountains outside of Roanoke, Virginia.  As we came to the clearing on the top, and I looked out over the valley, the first time I had ever had a literal mountain top experience, my breath left me – taken by beauty.  My love of the outdoors was born.
          It came not by pain (unless you count the pain of hiking up hill, but I was a 13-year-old bundle of energy).  It came through love.  The love of my mother and father to take me out into the woods; the love of green and trees and the sounds of nature instead of the sounds of the city; the love of what God did when he created and “saw that it was good.”  My passion (or deep love for the forest) came from a positive experience, not a tragedy.
          Later, in my first years of being a senior pastor, I discovered loneliness that comes with responsibility.  I was in my late 20’s trying to figure the whole pastor thing out.  I was single and seemingly not getting any closer to changing that.  So, there was sadness in me.  Sometimes it felt tragic.  What did I do in those days to escape?
          I retreated.  I got in my car and drove west, away from Arlington, VA where I pastored, and out to Shenandoah National Park.  I found my true self in a place of memory – the woods, the mountains.  I did not have to be afraid there.  I would go hiking for hours, alone, and the forest filled me with life.  Even the time I stumbled upon an adolescent black bear turned out to be more laughable than scary.  He was in the thicket a mere 10 yards to might right. 
He looked, I looked, and I ran.  After several seconds, I realized the bear had not run me down and tackled me.  So, I stopped and turned around.  Then I chuckled.   He had run the other way faster than my retreat.  That exhilaration, that closeness to nature was life-making within me. 
Perhaps Counselor Allender would say I made a choice – to get in the car and drive to the forest.  In the midst of my tragedy (unwanted single adulthood), I responded to my sadness by going to a place of joy and safety – the woods.  But, I rejoin, this not from abandonment, betrayal, or shame.  I had not yet gotten married and that coupled with the pressures of being a senior pastor coupled with the reality of my glaring inexperience made me feel quite stressed.  I handled the stress by doing something I love. 
I know Allender’s game – he could frame this conversation to bring out of me the shattered shalom, the shame I felt in my failure to wed, the elements of my earlier childhood that led me to react as I did to things.  He wouldn’t be entirely wrong.  I had a professor in my DMin program pry into my psyche by burrowing into my past.  I kept feeling like she was determined to find something in me that had to be healed.  I couldn’t find it and I wasn’t going to fake it for her.  And I won’t fake it for Allender either.  But, I get where he’s coming from and that professor did help me.  She helped me re-examine some things.
To be honest, what I learned in my sessions with her caused me to take a closer look at how I went about relationships.  I made a conscious effort to change what I did and it started with noting my own reactions in dating.  The next person I went out with, and this is 12½ years ago, has been my wife for the last 11.  So, I please, believe me when I say my professor/confessor and Dan Allender and others like them are psychologists who know their stuff.

What I would say to her and to Dan is that the positive experiences in some lives are just as profound as the tragedies and they should be heeded as well.  Yes, the world is fallen.  However, when God created he saw that it was good. The fall corrupted the good, but underneath the corruption, the good is still good; good by God’s standards.  In my life, the inspirational, joy-filled, positive, good experiences carry more weight than the tragedies.  I urge the good psychologists like Allender not to ignore the positives just because the negatives make juicier stories.  That does not make you good listener.  Seeking out only pain makes you listener with an agenda.  All parts of a person’s story are parts that need to be told.  The good parts too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Dragonslayer’s Son

The first portion of this story, written in italics, is from my memory.  The second half, written in normal script is a reflection on how my perception has shaped my life since then.

It is around 1978, maybe ’79.  My family lives in a small Suburb North of Detroit between 14 Mile Road and 15 Mile Roads.  My dad is in the yard gardening.  My younger brother and younger sister and I are in the yard playing.  It is early summer.
A guy in a black muscle car turns from the side street onto our street and guns his engine.  His radio is blaring ACDC or Kiss or some metal band like that.  As he zooms past our house, my Dad aggressively shouts “Slow down!”
And time slows … and slows  … and  …  almost stops.  The moment I frozen and I feel frozen, powerless to move a muscle.
          The guy flips Dad the bird. 
          “Do it again and I’ll break it off,” my Dad shouts.
          The ACDC guy in his muscle car slams on the breaks and jumps out and up and up.  I see his thick mop of dark hard, black t-shirt, sloped shoulders, barrel chest and large gut.  If this guy didn’t present as such a slacker, he could be a linebacker.  He’s got to be 6’2”, 250.  To my 9-year-old eyes, he looks like a bruiser, a real giant.
          And my Dad looks like a shrimp.  He’s 5’10”, 170lbs soaking wet.
          I look at the bruiser and at my Dad, and I am scared.  I think, ‘my Dad is going to get killed, right here, right now.’  I am shivering, trembling with fear.  A moment ago, I was carefree, playing with my brother in the driveway.  Now I am so scared.
          My Dad doesn’t miss a step.  He grabs a shovel and marches right up to ACDC guy.   Dad sticks his finger in the bruisers face.  I don’t hear the conversation.  I just hear a sound that is far more powerful and intimidating than this tough guy, this Gene Simmons wannabee.  It is the sound of my Dad’s raised voice.  That sound typically ends whatever naughty behavior I am into.  Now that sound is unleashed on this clown who races through residential neighborhoods.  Dad is animated, mad, and he has a shovel.  The bruiser’s slouching shoulders slouch a bit more as he tucks his tail between his legs, lowers his head, and drives away slowly.

I do not know the exact year of these events.  I do not have any way of verifying the factual accuracy.  What I am sharing, in narrative form, is my perception of what happen and the pictures painted by my memory are cloudy.  I am not affected by what actually happened.  It was about as insignificant as an event could be.  There were words exchanged and it was over.  I shaped by my perception of it all and how that perception was a part of a larger narrative I was writing, a narrative that produced the lens through which I viewed the world. 
How did that event affect me?  First, of the thousands or millions of experiences big or small that I have forgotten, this one I remember.  Why?  Why did this make such an impression?  I know exactly why.  I was scared out of my mind.  And my Dad wasn’t scared at all.
          I have not researched the conventions of grammar, but I don’t think the word ‘dad’ is to be capitalized.  It is a role, not a proper name.  But in my story, it must be capitalized.  If my story were written down on a page, the writing would be across a page with my father’s face filling the page.  He was over everything. 
          By this, I do not mean that he was tough or abusive or anything like that; in fact, it was the opposite.  Sure, my dad spanked, and until I was an adolescent, I was afraid when he did.  But far more often, Dad was a source of fun and love and safety.  For every spank there was 1000 tickled and not the tickle of the torture variety but of the fun variety.  My Dad laughed with his kids – a lot.  And we laughed with him.  I could go to sleep at night without fear because the dragonslayer was watching my house.
          Recently as I reflected on the incident with ACDC guy, what it meant to me became clearer.  Because Dad was fearless (in my eyes), as long as I was under his protection, I could be fearless.  My home was a place of safety not only for me, but sometimes for kids from homes less stable than mine.  I had friends who would come to our house because our house was the stable, safe place.  However, looking back now, I realize that all that time I was internalizing something, although I certainly was not aware of it then. 
It looked to me like the Dragonslayer was saying to the Dragon, “Get the hell out of my neighborhood and don’t come back.”  And the dragon sheepishly looked to the ground, kicked the dirt, and mumbled, “Yes sir.”  That’s how it looked to my 4th grade eyes when Dad confronted ACDC guy.  That is how I understood what I was watching.
Deep within me, I fell into a dilemma.  I knew as a boy, I would grow into a man.  I had my model.  Until I entered adolescence, God lived in my home in the person of Bob Tennant.  Only as I entered manhood, did he begin shrinking.  There was a slow almost imperceptible change.  Dad became what he always was, just a man.  I began seeking God apart from my parents (both of whom represented God for me in my young years). 
However, as I think back to that day when I watched him intimidate the dragon, I realized I needed to someday become a man myself.  There would come a day when Dad was not around and I would have to be the one to face the dragon and slay the dragon.  I was scared, but being scared is not allowed because my Dad was never, ever scared, or so I thought, I can’t do that.  He was not scared, at all!  I am too scared.  I can’t do it.  Admitting my fear made me ashamed. 
Any time in my life I have felt fear that has transferred to self-loathing.  Indiana Jones is never scared.  Jason Bourne is never scared.  Captain America is never scared.  Dad is never scared.

And there was born in me, an evil loop. 
Devil: “A man does great things.  Rob, to be a man, you must do great things.”
Rob: “But, I can’t.  I am scared.”
Devil: “Your Dad is never, ever scared.”
Rob: “I know, but I am.  I do get scared.”
Devil: “Then, you’ll never be a man.”

          To be clear, my Dad never did this.  Dad never, ever said to me, “You’re not man enough.  You’re not tough enough.  You’ll never amount to anything.”  Dad did the opposite.  Dad was the ultimate encourager.  Dad always said to me, “You can do it, Rob.”  I now am a leader in an institution (a pastor of church) that requires me to weekly do what many people fear greatly, speak in public (the weekly sermon).  I am convinced that I am able to do this with confidence because all my life I have heard from both parents, “You can do it.”  Both of my parents built me up and have supported me all the way.  The imagined conversation above between Satan and me, and deep in my soul more real than imaginary, did not come from my Dad.  He never made me feel ashamed of being afraid.  He never said, “What are you, a baby?”  I promise that I am not just denying his posture.  My Dad was not perfect at all.  He made mistakes.  Shaming his kids was not one of them.  My brother and sister would have to share their own perception, but I do not ever remember my Dad shaming me or criticizing me for being afraid.  I remember my parents heaping encouragement on me.  This shame based in fear came from my own perception of things. 
          A turning point happened years later.  We had moved to Virginia and I was playing high school football.  I was in great shape.  My younger brother and my Dad and I would wrestle in our living room. I was physically strong enough to pin both my brother and my dad at the same time.  My independence was bursting forth.  Yet, psychologically, my Dad was still the man in that house, I still the boy. 
Yes, I was a bigger and stronger boy, but I still grappled with the same dilemma. 
                   Devil:  “Oh, you’re bigger and stronger now.  But still afraid.”
Rob:  “Yes.  The other wide receivers are faster and taller, and they’ve played more years of football than me.”
Devil: “Your Dad was never bothered by being smaller.  He was army infantry.  He was a war vet.  He was a hero.  You’ll never be one.”
Rob:  “Hey!  I am on the football team.  Most guys my age aren’t even on the team.”
Devil:  “Yeah, but you’re not a starter and you never will be.  You’ll never be the man your Dad is.”
Rob: “Wait a minute!  My Dad didn’t play football.  He was never really into sports much.  I am an athlete.”
Devil: “Tell yourself that when you get flattened in practice tomorrow.  You’ll always be a junior varsity benchwarmer and everyone knows it.”
Rob: “Yeah.  I guess that’s right.”

          The conversation was different.  I had things I could say back to devil.  I could put football team member on my “man resume.”  Later on I went through army infantry training and I put that on the “man resume” I was keeping this resume in my head.  I never needed to write it down because I went over it almost daily. 
          I remember myself as a junior, about 5’ 9”, 170 lbs.  I was playing free safety.  The fullback had the ball and a full head of steam.  He was 6’ 3”, 240 lbs. and he was coming.  He got right in front of him and stuck my shoulder in his sternum, my facemask on the ball.  A second and 4 yards down field later, he was down.  I had tackled him!  I felt like I had been run over by a truck, but I tackled him.  “Good job, Tennant!” I heard the coach say.  Every moment like that was me slaying that dragon, trying to fill my role as the dragonslayer’s son.
          I am lousy long distance runner.  My body hates that constant pounding on the pavement.  I have never felt that “runner’s high.”  However, in army basic training, I did complete the 5-mile run at the end of boot camp.  A marathoner would call that a short day, but for me, I was once again reaching for the goal, trying to live up to being the dragonslayer’s son.
          Now, I am a 44-year-old man, the father of kids aged 12, 7, and 5.  I see how my children look at me, like a dragonslayer.  I don’t see any point in trying to convince them that they don’t have to live up to a role.  They will be controlled by their perceptions just as I was.  I cannot control how they perceive things any more than my dad could control my perceptions.  I need to do for them what Dad did for me.  I need to be available through everything, all the good and the bad.  I need to celebrate as our relationship changes through the years.  My dad definitely did that. 
I told him I’d be writing this.  He recalled my high school years.  He recalled coming to the realization that he could not control me physically anymore.  From about 16 on, I was the strongest one in the house.  Yet, something beautiful began to happen as the relationship changed.  As I became an adult, my parents transitioned into the role of good friends.  They are still parents to me, but now, they are people I simply enjoy being with.  I know I’ll be encouraged and supported.  I know they will help me however I need.  I know they will love my kids.  They are human-sized.  And, as I am a pastor, they sometimes ask me questions about God. 
I still struggle with feeling shame when I am scared.  How can a real man shake with fear?  Clint Eastwood never would!  I still hear those voices.  About two years ago, there were a series of break-ins in our neighborhood.  For many nights, I lay awake wondering how I would response if an intruder broke in.  Would I stay composed?  Would I be quick enough to save my kids and wife?  Would fear make me completely ineffective?  I still hear the questions in my head and sometimes cannot sleep because of them.
Another question is even more important.  Would I love the invader with the love of Christ?  The tough guy action hero would never ponder this, but I know someone who might: my dad.  As much as I built him up to be some kind of superman when I was a kid, I am so pleased to know as a man that he asks this question.  He is just like me, a follower of Jesus trying to live his life as Jesus would live it.  In that sense, I still want to be like him.  Copying him on these lines, trying life a with-God life, is a good thing. 
The lingering fears about a failure of manhood aside, I am in a healthier place now, a place that includes me being gentler with myself.  I will never run a marathon or climb Mount Everest and that is OK.  I will probably never jump out of an airplane or go scuba diving, and that is OK.  The measure of my manhood from Heaven’s perspective is this: am I doing my best?  Am I loving as Jesus loves? 

The dragon to be slayed in my life is the dragon of self-loathing, self-loathing that starts with fear.  That dragon is not yet dead, but definitely is mortally wounded.  I need to stay turned toward God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I need to give myself grace.  And, I need to give loads and loads of grace to the most important people in my life.  There is no room for self-loathing in the giving of grace.  And, in the midst of self-loathing, I don’t think it is possible to give grace.  Only Jesus at work in me can kill the dragon.  He, not my dad or any man is the true dragonslayer.  I need him at work in me and I need to practice being his child by giving grace in droves, starting with those closest to me including myself.