What did you get for Christmas?

Christmas morning has come and gone.  Did you have a good Christmas?  Did you get everything you wanted?  When I think about those questions, I remember the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” one the most highly rated and best-loved Christmas movies. In my family, our long tradition was to watch it on Thanksgiving after our meal.

 In case you haven’t seen it or don’t remember it, let me set the stage for you.  The story is set in Indiana around 1940.  Ralphie Parker, a nine-year-old boy, is maniacally focused on one thing:  getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.  But every time he has the chance to lobby for it, he is told that he shouldn’t have one because “you’ll shoot your eye out.”  He hears this from everyone: His mother, his teacher at school, even from Santa Claus, tells him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”  In the clip below, it is Christmas morning.  All the gifts have been opened, and there was no Red Ryder BB gun for Ralph. 

I love seeing how Ralph’s father, “the old man”, delighted in giving his son what he wanted. Our Father, too, is delighted to give of good gifts that we have been asking him for. All through Advent, like Ralphie Parker, we were waiting expectantly for Christmas.  We have been asking and waiting.   One of the things we longed for though the Advent season was Love.  Did we get what we wanted? Indeed, we have, each one of us, received the gift of God’s Love. 

It is entirely possible that we overlooked that one present.  In our times with family and friends, amid the piles of torn wrapping paper, did we fail to see the Gift of Love we were given? 

God’s gift of love may be hard for us to recognize; we may not know that we have received it. Ralphie’s BB gun, that was easy. But we may not recognize the love we got at Christmas.  What does the Gift of Love look like?

  • The Gift of Love looks like God incarnate. A newborn baby, lying in a manager. God made man, born in a stable among the animal feed and waste, lying in a manger, an animal’s feed trough. God’s gift of Love is the gift of himself, in the most unexpected and improbable way. [Luke 2:7]
  • The Gift of Love looks like eternal life [1 John 4:9] and a full life– the life we were meant to have. We don’t wait until heaven to experience eternal life. The life-giving Gift of Love is here for us, now. [John 10:10(b)]
  • The Gift of Love looks like the cross.  This may not be our favorite thing to think about this time of year, but the cross is the reason Jesus came: to suffer and die for us, sealing our redemption. [ Hebrews 9:12, 1 John 3:16]
  • The Gift of Love looks like the love of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. A father who waits and watches for our return and runs to us to welcome us home. Our father doesn’t wait for us to measure up. As soon as we turn toward him he runs to us and embraces, loves and restores us. [Luke 15:20]
  • What does the Gift of Love looks like being accepted and cared for not because of what you have done, what you are doing, or what you will do, but because of who you are:  a son or a daughter of the Father. [1 John 3:1 ]

What are you doing with your gift?

This may seem an odd question, “what are you doing with your gift?” We are loved and we are saved.  We are given a full life – a real life.  We are made sons and daughters.  Isn’t that all there is? Isn’t it enough? Yes and no.  It is an awesome gift, but that is not all there is to it. It is worth asking ourselves:  What are we doing with our gift?

Some of the gifts we receive have an intrinsic value.  You can open it up, say thank you, and display it on a shelf.  Simply having them is enough. A work of art is an example here; anything decorative really.  But there are other gifts whose true value comes from using them.

If someone gave me a new Porsche for Christmas, that would be awesome!  But wouldn’t it be odd if I never drove it; if it never left my garage? You might wonder how much I appreciated that gift! I certainly would not be getting the full value of having a Porsche.  You could say I was missing the point of having a Porsche.

When I was 17 years old I was really into bluegrass music, especially songs that featured the banjo. Earl Scruggs was the man as far as I was concerned! As Christmas approached that year, I let my parents know I REALLY wanted a banjo. And on that Christmas morning, I got my banjo!

I loved that banjo.  It was a great gift.  I still have that banjo, When I thought about “what was the best Christmas gift I ever got?”, I remembered my banjo. Yet as much as I wanted a banjo, after nearly forty five years I still can’t play a note.

As happy as I was to receive the gift of a banjo, the truth was I loved the idea of playing the banjo, but I didn’t love the idea of doing all the hard work required to actually learn how to do it. I bought some instruction books, and I’d give it a half-hearted try every now and then, but I didn’t really practice, I didn’t pursue lessons.  My banjo sits unplayed and mostly forgotten. 

My old banjo is s great example a gift that I have not made use of. I still have it – it is still it, but I am not getting the best out of that gift. Thinking again about the Gift of Love we have received, are we making use of it?  Is it making beautiful music or is it sitting on display or perhaps relegated to the back of a closet or collecting dust under the bed? 

When we make use of God’s Gift of Love, we can become sons and daughters who love others with the same outrageous unbridled love the Father has for us. 

The Gift of Love is ours, whether we put it to good use or not. I still have my banjo.  The fact that I don’t put it to use doesn’t mean I no longer have it.  The gift of Love we have received is ours.  We don’t have to earn our status as sons and daughters.  We cannot earn our salvation.

It is our, but the Gift of Love is something we are meant to use. It is not meant only for ourselves. The Gift of Love is given so that we can be transformed by it; so that we can become lovers.  It is a gift we are meant to pass on to others.  When we make use of God’s Gift of Love, we can become sons and daughters who love others with the same outrageous, unbridled love the Father has for us. 

In Paul’s letter to the early church in Ephesus, he wrote:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2 (MSG)

God’s love is our gift.  It is gift that should transform us and make us into people who love with Christ’s love.  In the Bible we are given a succinct summary of what we are like when we have been transformed. We are patient and kind; We are not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. We do not demand our own way and are not irritable. We keep no record of being wronged. We never give up, never lose faith, and are always hopeful. (See 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.) I wish that described me, but it rarely does. I am still in the process of being transformed.

If we have not made full use of our gift, if we have not been transformed by it, what are we to do?  The story of my banjo is instructive here.  There is nothing wrong with my banjo.  I just never applied myself to the sometimes-hard work of learning to use it. If we do not find ourselves loving with Christ’s extravagant love, there is nothing wrong with the Gift of Love.  We need to apply ourselves to the sometimes-hard work of learning to use it.  Here is where the metaphor breaks down.  I can take lessons and practice the banjo.  If I apply myself diligently, I could become at least a passable banjo player.  Learning to love like Jesus is a different matter.

We can practice being loving.  We can try to make ourselves act with the love described in 1 Corinthians 13.  We may be able to pull it off, but only for a while.  Sooner or later, usually at a really bad time, the act will fail, and we will find we are not nearly so loving as we’d like to believe we are. As hard as we try, we cannot make ourselves into the conduits of love we are meant to be.

But there is hope; the Lord never asks for the impossible. If we are to become loving toward others as he is to us, there must be a way for that transformation to happen.

When we practice spiritual disciplines, with the intent of allowing God to transform us into conduits of his extravagant, unbridled love he will do just that: he will transform us. 

God will do the heavy lifting for us, if we let him.  There is a spiritual equivalent to taking music lessons and practicing our instrument. It is employing spiritual disciplines.  When we practice spiritual disciplines, with the intent of allowing God to transform us into conduits of his extravagant, unbridled love he will do just that: he will transform us.  When we read or memorize scripture, when we pray, when we practice solitude, when we confess, when we enter into worship, when we fast, if we do those things with the intent of allowing God to transform our inner selves, he will.  The practices don’t make us better, as they would with an instrument, but they allow God to make us better.

Richard Foster explained it this way in the preface to “Celebration of Discipline”:

We do indeed engage in practices— disciplines, if you will— but remember these practices earn us nothing in the economy of God. Nothing. Their only purpose is to place us before God. That is all. … God then steps into our actions and, over time and experience, produces in us the formation of heart and mind and soul for which we long.

Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline, Special Anniversary Edition (p. xvii). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

We have been talking as if the Gift of Love was given just last Christmas. The reality is it was given some two thousand years ago and is still ours today.  One of the powerful things about observing the liturgical or church year is it can help us remember the past.  Advent is a time of longing and waiting, waiting for the gift of the long-promised Christ.  Each Christmas we celebrate anew the Gift of Love God has given us.  Whether that was two thousand years ago or a few day ago, it is our gift. We should recognize it, celebrate it and diligently pursue the use of our Gift of Love.

Each of us can put that gift to better use that we have. Invite Holy Spirit to guide and correct you.  If we press in and cooperate, God can transform us so that we can pass along his Gift of Love to the world, a world that needs it now as much as it ever did.

This post is derived from a recent message I preached at Wonderful Mercy Church. You can listen to the entire message on-line.

Swinging the Pendulum Back Toward Theology

Neglecting our theology and relying on our experiences of God can leave navigating rough seas without a map.

In my journeys in spiritual formation I put a high value on experiencing God.  In the west we tend to know about God, but may not know him.  We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus, but in my experience, many do not enjoy a rich, two-way relationship such as we enjoy with our close friends, family, and spouse.   Our prayer life may be rich, but it is often talking to Jesus and only rarely does it involve listening to what he says to us and rarer still is the practice of the presence of God — just being with him.

An important way we grow spiritually is to grow in our experience of knowing God.  We can do that through meditation, contemplative prayer, imaginative prayer, the process of spiritual direction, and so on.  OUr experiences of God are often intense, sweet, and life-changing.  As we press into those very personal experiences, we may swing the pendulum too far away from “knowing about God” as we focus on “knowing God.”  That can be a mistake.  Neglecting sound doctrine and theology (our knowledge of God) can lead us into trouble.

Recently I reread an excerpt from C. S. Lewis’ masterful “Mere Christianity” that brought home to me the folly of neglecting our knowledge of God. Lewis describes a man who told him,

I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’†

Lewis gives us the analogy of a man sitting by the sea shore and deciding he knows the sea, having experienced it.  Yet, if we are to undertake a voyage across the sea there is much more we need to know.  We need to draw on the expertise of those who have gone before us, who have drawn the charts and maps that will help us as we sail. Theology and doctrine are, says Lewis, like the maps and charts.  They can help us understand the God at levels both broader and deeper than we can achieve by our own, singular, experiences.  The maps and charts are certainly less “real” than our experiences, but they show us things beyond our experience.

Lewis’ point is spot on.  If we decide that we don’t need to bother about theology or doctrine, that we can know all that we need to know of God through our experiences of him, we will likely find ourselves in trouble when storms blow and the seas become rough or when we find ourselves running aground on unfamiliar shores.  Having learned about God from those who have gone ahead before us will serve us well in those places. The map may be less real than our experiences, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.

Talk to your pastor or mature Christians whose judgement you trust.  Ask them what they would recommend you add to your reading list to make sure your knowledge of God is well rounded.   Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” is a great place to start!

†Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 64). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Featured image, “Mirrored Foucault Pendulum” ,by Hitchster.  Used under CC 2.0 license.

Spinning Plates

If you are old enough, you might remember variety shows like the Ed Sullivan show.  These shows featured singers, comics, dancers, and one my favorites: plate spinners.  The plate spinner starts plates spinning, one after another, atop flexible rods.  To keep each plate spinning he had to manipulate the rod before the plate slowed down to the point that it came crashing down.  As the number of spinning plates increased, the performer had to rush from place to place, giving each rod a little jiggle to keep the plate going.  He was barely able to keep each plate going.  Here is a video clip of a plate spinner in action.

It can be entertaining and a little exciting to watch, but many of us live our lives as plate spinners.  We have many “plates” we are trying to keep going.  For example, we might list  spouse, job, children, friends, and so on. Each of these can become a plate we need to attend to—to keep spinning. When we think we’ve got these under control…..we might be tempted to add a few more, for example: hobbies, volunteering and fitness.

Our lives can become a frantic rushing from plate to plate.  We give each enough attention to prevent a disastrous crash, then we rush off to the next plate that is in danger of falling.  We make our lives more and more frantic, hoping that with this one last plate spinning in its place, it will finally be enough — we’ll be happy and satisfied.

Do you ever feel like a plate spinner?  Maybe you hear yourself saying or thinking things like:

  • I really need to spend some time this weekend getting this project at work caught up!
  • My wife and I haven’t been out together in a long time.  If we don’t get away soon I don’t know what will happen.
  • I am starting to feel like I don’t know my daughter  I need to spend some more time with them.
  • I am really getting out of shape! I have got to carve out some time to get the gym.

IF those sound familiar, you might be a plate spinner! We think if we can just manage to keep all the plates spinning — make sure none of them come crashing down — then we will be happy and contented.  Yet, even when we do manage it, usually for only a very short while, we end up feeling exhausted and unfulfilled.  We realize that our “win” is temporary at best.  Soon some of the plates will start to slow down and wobble, demanding our attention again.

The plates become our masters.  We become imprisoned by the need to keep the plates spinning.  They command our attention.  We can feel like we have no choice but to keep them all going. But let’s suppose we have managed to reach some kind of equilibrium, we’ve got all of our plates spinning along nicely, we have it “under control”.   We are tired at the end of the day, and sometimes some of those plates are getting pretty wobbly, but we’re managing.

And then…we realize that God wants something of us as well.  Oh great!  One more plate to keep spinning! We make our lives a little bit more frantic by trying to work our “God obligation” in along with everything else.  Daily devotions, Bible reading, volunteering at church: More plates to try to keep spinning. Needless to say, we generally end up a more stressed and frazzled and tired!

Is that what Jesus had in mind?  Does he come to us so that we can feel more hectic, more scattered, more worn out?  No.  Of course not.  Jesus says just the opposite.  He said following him will give us rest for our souls.  In the Gospel of Matthew, 11:28-30, he says:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew 11:28-30, Message Translation

Something isn’t adding up here.  Adding a few more spinning plates, albeit “God” plates, does not feel like a real rest.  It doesn’t feel like I’m living freely and lightly.  I am still running around trying to keep all the plates going.  It feels like anything but an unforced rhythm of grace.

We approach the “God plate”   the wrong way.  We often look at it as another plate or set of plates we have to keep spinning along with everything else.  We need to come to grips with the idea that the God Plate is really the one worth attending to above all else.  It is not another plate – it is THE plate.

In Chapter 6 of Matthew, verses 33 and 34, Jesus says:

Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
Matthew 6:33-34, The Message.

Jesus is not saying that all the other things, all the other plates, aren’t important.  What he is saying is that we should soak ourselves in that God is doing, right here and right now.  We ought not to be particularly concerned with all those other plates.  We should trust that the Lord will take care of them.  We should trust that our Good Father will give us the good he intends.

Don’t take me wrong.  I am not suggesting that you not neglect your spouse and children or you not bother showing up for work tomorrow.  Jesus is saying we should not worry about those things.  We should not wear ourselves out frantically trying to make sure everything is going just the way we think it should.

Only one plate that matters.  That is where we get stuck.  Do we really trust God to take care of us and our needs or do we rush away from him so that we keep all the other plates spinning?

Whether we think much about it or admit it to ourselves, we usually act as if any good is going to come out of some situation, we have to get out there and keep those plates spinning.  We rarely look at a situation and say, “hmmm. I wonder what God might be up to here.  I wonder what he wants me to do.”

I am quick to throw off the gentle and easy yoke of discipleship and jump back into the hard and difficult yoke of works. When God tells me he has something good in store for me, I am quick to doubt, unless I can understand how that good will come to pass and, most importantly, what I NEED TO DO to make it happen.

As an example, I believe God wants me to write a book; that it is important for me to do so.  But I find myself asking the Lord things like:

  • Really, important? How so?
  • How will it be important? How important will it be?
  • Is it important that I write it or that people read it?
  • Will it be important for one person?  Ten people?  Thousands of people?
  • How will it impact me personally?

God does not seem inclined to answer my questions. In fact, he reminds me that my desire to know all the answers is not faith.  Wanting to see the whole path I am to going walk and the specifics of the destination is not faith.  It is me wanting to choose.  It is me wanting to evaluate what God is planning on doing so I can decide if it is a good plan, if the path is one I want to walk, and if the destination is one I would choose.  If it all looks good to me, I want to make sure I know how to “Make it Happen”. I want to decide if I want to start spinning one more plate or not!

I want to apply my reason and judgement over and above faith. I want to apply my reason to decide if I should start spinning one more plate. It may seem that faith and reason must oppose each other, but that is not the case.  We are created to reason and to have faith.  Indeed, faith requires reason.

In the book Interior Freedom, author Jacques Philippe talks about the relationship between faith and reason:

Faith cannot do without reason; and nothing is more beautiful than the possibility given man of cooperating in the work of God by freedom, understanding, and all our other faculties. Those moments of our lives when our minds grasp what God is doing, what he is calling us to, how he is teaching us to grow, enable us to cooperate fully with the work of grace.

That is as God wants it. He did not create us as puppets but as free, responsible people, called to embrace his love with our intelligence and adhere to it with our freedom. It is therefore good and right that we want to understand the meaning of everything in our lives.
Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Kindle Ed. Loc. 527

So, maybe it is OK for me to want to understand everything?  But Philippe is not saying we need to understand everything and every detail.  We need to recognize and be able to cooperate with what God is doing.  So I may be on shaky ground with my application of reason:  wanting all the details, so I can decide if I like the plan or not.

Philippe continues…

The motives behind our desire to understand may not always be upright. The thirst to know the truth in order to welcome it and conform our lives to it is completely in order. But there also is a desire to understand that is a desire for power: taking over, grasping, mastering the situation.

The desire may also spring from another source that is far from pure: insecurity. In this case, understanding means reassuring ourselves, seeking security in the sense that we can control the situation if we understand it. Such security is too human, fragile, deceptive—it can be wrecked from one day to the next.

In other words, it is good, even necessary, that I can use my reason to hear and understand what it is that God is calling me into, writing a book in my case, and I can choose to cooperate freely in his plan, using my reason.  Using our reason is not the problem.  Why we use our reason can be the problem.  Do I want to choose what I think is best for me, or will I trust that God’s good is best for me.  Do I want to understand so that I take control of the process, to make sure it goes the way I want it to, or do I want to understand so that I can fully cooperate with God’s purposes?

In my case, the desires to know all the “whys” and “hows” and “wherefores” of God’s plan is exactly what Philippe warns against.  I am seeking to understand so that I can I can control how the plan unfolds. I want to be the one calling the shots and making the decisions. I make God’s plan one more plate I have to spin and I want to decide if I should even bother to start it spinning.

Being in charge is very distracting.  Trying to keep all those plates spinning necessarily pulls our attention away from God, away from what he is doing right here, right now.  We become disconnected from whatever it is God is up to at that moment; and he is always up to something!

The only time we have any control over is the present.  When we are concerning ourselves too much with the future, wondering which plates I need to attend to next, we remove ourselves from whatever is happening right now.  Yesterday could have been a disaster and tomorrow may look pretty dicey, but the only time we can connect with God is now.  We need to break out of our prisons of spinning plates.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the desire to be the one that keeps all the plates going, the desire to be the one making all the decisions about the course to follow is really something that limits our freedom. The more we try to take on for ourselves, the less free we become. Taking the reins limits us to what we can imagine and work out for ourselves.  We reduce God’s initiative, the good he plans for us, to our size.  That is a pretty small size for God.

Make no mistake, it is hard work, this trusting God to give us the good he intends for us—especially when we are in a hard place.  It requires us to realize that most of the plates we have spinning are not really vital and pale in importance when compared to God’s desires for us.  If they should fall they can be taken up again if need be.  There is that one plate that matters.  If we don’t attend to God, to our interior lives, if we don’t attend to our souls none of the rest of it really matters. We will continue our exhausting and frantic lives as plate spinners.




The Trouble with Vows

Have you ever made a vow?  Most of us have.  If you are married you made vows to God and to your spouse.  If you have ever given legal testimony you made a vow to tell the truth.  If you served in the military you made a vow to protect and defend the constitution.  In a few days I will be commissioned into the ministry of Spiritual Direction in my church and will vows to God about how I will function in that ministry. These are a few simple examples, you may have others in mind.

These vows are not bad things, when entered into soberly and intentionally.  Quite the contrary, they can be very good things. A vow to keep yourself “only unto” your spouse may make it easier for you to remain faithful in the face of temptation.  Our legal system would quickly fall apart if we couldn’t count on honest testimony.  My vows as a Spiritual Director can help keep me grounded and pointed in the right direction.

But there are other vows we make, often without sober consideration and sometimes without realizing what we are vowing.

I will never be like my father!
I won’t treat my kids the way my mom treated me!
I’ll never hurt anyone the way I’ve been hurt.
I won’t let myself be hurt again!

These are vows that we make to ourselves. We make them when we are angry, hurting, and vulnerable.  Often we make them when we are young, when we lack perspective and don’t realize the power these  vows can claim. We repeat them over and over to ourselves.  They become part of our internal wiring, exerting control over us long after we have forgotten we even made them.

Still, you may be thinking, “what’s so bad?”  Indeed, if you are trying not to carry forward hurtful behaviors that is, on the surface, a good thing.  But here are a couple of reasons why they may be hurting you spiritually today.

First, the enemy can use them against us.  The vows we make to ourselves are very hard to keep.  We will almost certainly fail in them, at least to some degree.  When we do, Satan, the enemy of our souls, is quick to jump in and remind us that we are failures and are doing the things we vowed we wouldn’t; we are failing ourselves and failing others.  If we are not well connected to the heart of the Father, Satan will likely be able to convince us that our failure to keep our vow is an affront to God, above and beyond any sin we may commit, even though the vow was one we made only to ourselves.  Those rashly made, often broken vows become needless sources of accusation and condemnation.

Second, they cause us to limit ourselves. One of the threads that is common to many of the vows we make to ourselves is that vow what we are not going to do or become or allow to happen to us.  When those vows we’ve made, that have been entrenched in our psyches, they tell us only what not to do, not what to do.  We pay so much attention to what we don’t want to do and limit what we will do.  We fence ourselves in.

In our spiritual growth terms, those vows limit our spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom, means that we desire nothing above knowing and following the Lord’s will.  The vows we make, ingrained as they are, become our primary focus, over knowing and following the Lord.

An example from my own history of vows may help here.  My father had many good qualities but he also had some not so go qualities.  Like many people with challenging parents,  I vowed that I would never be like him.  Part of that meant that I vowed to not be manipulative.  My wife and children could easily attest that my failure to live up that vow was epic.  However, as I matured in my faith and became more aware of my own sinful adoption of my dad’s ways, those vows kicked in anew.  My vow to not be arrogant or manipulative to shape as a desire to melt into the background. I so wanted to not be arrogant I actively rejected much of what I was being called to do and become.  I was hesitant and reluctant to engage in the preaching and teaching I was called to.  Being in the background is not inherently bad, but it was not what I was being called to in this season.  My vows were limiting my spiritual freedom.

What is the solution?  It is to learn to pay attention to your interior life, to learn what it is that motivates you.  Where you find vows that are not appropriate to your growth and freedom, take them to Jesus.  Acknowledge them, disavow them, and ask Jesus to guide you into the freedom he desires you have.

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