Apr 11, 2017

Hunger vs. Ambition

Inspired by Andy Robinson's sermon, “Called to Fruitfulness” (Kings Church Horsham, 9 April, 2017).

Our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ is not faithfulness—the method is faithfulness—but to be fruitful. In Jesus’ parable about the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), it is fruitfulness that garners affirmation from the Master. For even the servant who buried his talent was faithful in protecting the investment. It is just that he did not steward its growth.

A life of faithfulness without fruitfulness is, in other words, a passive existence. Jesus calls his disciples, therefore, to a life of hunger. Hunger is “a craving or urgent need for [something]” (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). It is about being hungry for more of God, pressing further into the center of His presence. Pressing more into him, we become more fruitful.

What does it mean to be fruitful in following Jesus? To begin with, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Faithfulness in the presence of God begets fruitfulness—connecting not only with Him, but with other people through His Spirit—which in turn begets more faithfulness.

Hunger is not to be confused with ambition, however. Ambition is defined as “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power; desire to achieve a particular end; a desire for activity or exertion” (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary), which often is about circumnavigating the presence of God in an aim for acclaimed productivity. For example, when leadership only measures its church’s growth or the effectiveness of its ministry techniques quantitatively, which is also an exercise that tempts ego, there is a great risk of neglecting God as the compass—not to mention overlooking the more mysterious, subjective, and qualitative wonders of human relationship (i.e. spiritual fruit).

The journey of Jesus Christ’s disciples and Church, therefore, must principally be to press ever further into the heart of God. Hunger looks to engage in relationship, in presence, in encounter—faithfulness. But pursing the presence of God is only the first part of the story. It must lead to fruitfulness to find wholeness. Relationship with God must lead to relationship with others, ripe with all the blessings that Paul addresses in Galatians 5:22-23. For when that happens, life brightens like a sunrise with renewed purpose and beauty.

Soli deo gloria. Amen.

Mar 8, 2017

When to Marry Someone

Of course, the literal date of a marriage ceremony is usually determined by a myriad of factors subjective to the lives of the affianced couple (e.g. preferred season of the year, work responsibilities, availability of family, venue, etc.).

What I am interested in asking, however, precedes that discussion. I want to know what brought a couple to the point of proposing and saying “Yes,” to the confidence of committing to that most binding of relationships called marriage. Simply put, the question asks, “Why now?” which is meant to welcome a holistic discussion—one that presumes the presence of a very conscious choice in the matter.

The fact that not everyone can specifically answer the question is both curious and sometimes disheartening.

Granted, there can and probably should be a subconscious instinct sparking the choice. It could be called inspiration, an indescribable sense of goodness or rightness in the relationship. It could be interpreted as an affirmation of the heart, a feeling or even spiritual influence. For the Christ-follower, that inspiration could be deemed a sense of revelation or divine blessing (guidance). It could be called faith: being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

While this less conscious layer of choice is certainly valuable, it seems more trustworthy when grounded on firmer, deeper-rooted affirmations about the relationship—from the couple’s community and absolutely from how their love is growing in friendship and intimacy. These foundations help answer the question, Why marry someone?

However, the When still remains, and should not be ignored. Aside from the more peripheral variables included in stage of life—and without addressing here the subjects of dating or cohabitation—the title question should be approached conscious of personal wounds—whether relational, emotional, or spiritual—and their healing.

Healing
The journey of healing can be difficult and winding, and is certainly unique to each person’s story. While I will not address the nature of that journey here, it seems healthiest for one’s wounds to at least have begun to heal before marrying someone. It is not that simple, of course, but that is the ideal.

A wound left to fester, ignored or buried, is dangerous to the relationship. It is dangerous because it can infect the marriage with fear, too often driving one toward self-made and self-serving bastions founded on ego (i.e. pride). Unchecked by humility, active awareness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity toward win-win outcomes, fear and ego will rot love to the core of the relationship—every pillar of friendship and intimacy. Too often intimacy is the first to suffer the torturously slow or bitter relational collapse. From there, the likelihood of marital ruin tragically increases.

Whatever shape the fear takes, rooted in whatever wound—whether a feeling of abandonment, loneliness, or insecure identity, for example—it must be identified for healing to begin. Fortunately, the stirring hope and power of a relationship is how it can expose one’s wounds and fears to the light.

For example, what about the other person or about your relationship triggers a sense of anxiety in you? What triggers frustration? These kinds of triggers can help point to the need for healing.

More specifically, in communication, are there times when you or the other is deafened to truly listening? Have you found yourself filling in a conversation, assuming the outcome before it even happens or despite what the other person is actually saying? What fear or stronghold of pride does this attitude echo?

Overall, healing must begin personally—between oneself and God—before it can expand relationally with the greatest strength. Otherwise, the relationship is at risk of having one person rely too much on the other or the relationship itself for meaning, which is too large a burden for any one person to bear. Any one person, that is, except Jesus Christ. Only God can provide that kind of transformation—that kind of love.

Deal Breaker
By the gracious power of God, healing is always possible. But it is not always so with that particular person.

A trigger can take the form of a “red flag” in the relationship, a characteristic cautioning of a surmountable or insurmountable barrier on the way toward intimacy. One’s significant other could directly or indirectly influence it; or it may be entirely separate, rooted in another relationship or experience, such as with a family member. I am not referring to the obvious problems, such as a propensity to verbal or physical abuse, which should likely be immediate deal breakers, but rather to more nuanced concerns that may materialize, such as hints of insecurity, irresponsibility, or indecisiveness. Still, each of the latter “red flags” can become a “deal breaker”, a reason to end the relationship. But not always.

The essence of love is selfless sacrifice. Therefore, if one or both in the relationship are unwilling to engage his or her wounds, if one or both are unwilling to seek healing and grow, the relational foundation will not be not strong enough to support a marriage. Therefore, until that trajectory of change begins to occur, it is probably best not to marry—at least not yet.

While I understand the intent behind the saying that each of us should just be accepted for who we are, the idea is too often used to justify immaturity—for selfishness, doing things the way one wants to do them. With “red flags”, I am not talking about personality, but integrity of character.

Now, it can be dangerous to enter a relationship with the agenda to change someone, for only God can truly transform a person. The strongest love is inspired by the goal of growing together, and personal growth connotes change in the depths of each person’s being. It is both a gradual and subtle maturation, and another full subject.

How long one should wait for another to change—to heal, reframe, and/or be free from a burden—is a difficult question, and one with its own series of subjective responses. Regardless, a lack of growth will surely stagnate a relationship. Furthermore, waiting indefinitely for change while enduring an unhealthy relationship may suggest another wound that needs healing (e.g. fear of being alone).

In Conclusion
Again, it is difficult to address the subject in broad terms. My point is that an unwillingness to grow individually as well as relationally most often indicates a relationship unprepared for marriage. More so, it suggests a relationship that may not be approaching marriage seriously or with awareness. Such unwillingness and unconsciousness may even be cause for a break in the relationship, whether temporary or permanent, to reexamine motives and priorities.

There are many facets to consider in each scenario. But the truth is that the state of one’s heart and mind, one’s state of maturation and being mended, is a fundamental indicator that the timing is healthy and good for a relationship to enter marriage.

For without an awareness of our need for growth, and actions that demonstrate that understanding, how can a marriage hope to succeed? Without that kind of intentionality, the couple chooses a more trying road. Marriage is challenging enough when the couple has found or begun to find healing, when it is intentional about personal growth and sacrifice. So why plummet into marriage with extra burdens, handicaps, and risks?

This discussion is about the timing of marriage. It is about making a thoughtful holistic decision to say “I do.” Whatever relational stage each of us is in, whether married or unmarried, may we all find the healing we need. May we all grow in the awareness and capacity to love. And may we together identify the important questions to ask.


Feb 26, 2017

A Confession

Maybe I have been trying too hard to speak your language.

But I want you to understand something; that as your faith (or heart) is guided by your beliefs—or worldview, or whatever you wish you to name it—so is mine. My heart and mind walk hand-in-hand because only when they are together do I know wisdom: how to not only grasp and seek to understand truth, but to live consciously, proactively, and courageously by it.

My foundational and ultimate truth is that YHWH, God, the Creator of the Universe, desires an intimate relationship with me, with all Mankind. Since I was a child, I have chosen to embrace that love—to follow it. That path is mysterious, beautiful, often difficult and uncertain due to internal and external influences. But I do not walk it alone.

The Spirit of God walks with me, teaches me through God’s Word—the words of shepherds, kings, poets, prophets, and fishermen who communed with Him; with, above all, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ (savior) who was God incarnate in the land of Palestine centuries ago; with Jesus’ disciples who sought to share and understand his teaching; with the many who have followed Jesus since then. The Holy Spirit is real, powerful, inspiring, and peace-giving. God.

Such love fills the infinite well of goodness in my heart. I feel deeply, but I also think deeply. Heart and mind together, as a whole man, I thus “put myself out there” each day, seizing each opportunity as best as I can. That does not mean that I do so well, or that by being myself I am accepted by everyone I meet. Sometimes in giving myself so freely, so openly—without most reservations—I can overwhelm them. They do not know what to do with me, or what to make of me. Can I be trusted?

I am not entirely free from doubt or mistrust myself. My life is textured with many scars.

Sometimes I even feel like a shadow. In giving myself entirely to God, I wonder what is left that is truly me. But then I remember how God has equipped and is equipping me for life. I am a writer, musician, photographer—an artist. I am an athlete, outdoor adventurer, coach, and teacher. These are just a few of my points of connection with the world, presumably the most fruitful gardens of my work. I pour my life and love into them. They help shape meaning and purpose. I want to know as many people as I can, share as much of life as we can together—to affirm that love and community are real.

But even if it is not me that someone wants, I am confident in the love and intimacy I share with God. He is both within my heart and without: present everywhere. I am never alone, nor need to be afraid. I know that I am loved unconditionally by the Creator of the Universe, manifested in glimpses and caresses by His creation: people, nature, everything. I long for everyone to know such tender, inspiring love, such beauty. It is the foundational rock of my faith. My soul stands upon that kind of vigor. I pray that what I build upon it is a light to others.

One of the main lessons from Jesus is to love one another as he loved us. While we need not necessarily do so exactly as he did—i.e. suffer and die, for there can only be one ultimate savior—the principle truth is that of serving each other. Jesus symbolized this by washing his disciples’ feet, which was a humble service in his culture.

As I follow Jesus; to “put myself out there”, therefore, means to begin loving in the framework of service. This is apparently countercultural. Putting the needs of others before myself, seeking first to understand before being understood, is enigmatic to some and suspicious to others. Do I have an ulterior motive, they might ask? Too often, I likely do. Nevertheless, God’s grace gives me the capacity to forgive myself. Thus I have an infinite well of love to draw from as I seek to share that gift with others. For the nature of a gift is that it must be shared.

Many do not take it. They do not understand what I am offering. They still distrust it. Who serves others unconditionally, after all? Well, Jesus did, and he is my inspiration and guide. But most people rejected and reject Jesus, so should I be surprised if I meet the same withdrawal? The challenges are usually subtle, at times confused by my own selfishness (longing and expectations) and pride (ego). But that does not mean that I should give up.

My heart may ache, nay grieve; I may become weary with doubts, but I find resolve in the hope that I can ultimately overcome because Jesus overcame everything, including death. Death no longer has any mastery over my life. My body will die, but my spirit will live until reunited with a resurrected body. Life will be plagued with sorrow for a while, but that is not the end of the story. In Jesus, there is true triumph, peace, and love. It has already begun to permeate the world. It will be fulfilled completely, unendingly, when Jesus returns to reclaim this world from the Enemy who takes advantage of our human frailty. In the meantime, my identity is fundamentally in Jesus Christ, in faith in his promises. In God. I nurture hope and courage—confidence—in that trust, in that present relationship.

God is here with me now. Sometimes he speaks in words; more often He whispers in more mysterious languages: sight, sounds, touch, taste, the spirit. Most of these messages come through people, His people—any person, whether they realize it or not. He has certainly done so through you. I praise Him for that. I praise Him for you.

I pray for you, for all that you dream to give to people, to be, and to do. That it is good. Know that you are loved; ultimately not because of what you do, but because of who you are. I love you, and I am sure that many feel the same. Nothing will ever change that. Nothing.

I do not expect you to understand all of this. I do not expect you to respond. I just want to “be my true self” once more, offering limited words when action and presence are not available. I want you to begin to grasp that I do not live in fear or desperate need; that I am at peace, aware of both my strengths and weaknesses—seeing beauty and potential in both. As I see in you. As I see in everyone.

Therefore, may God bless you and keep you. May His face shine upon you and give you peace. Now and forevermore.

Amen.

Jan 30, 2017

The Problem of Good


For the disciple of Jesus Christ[1], what is the most strategic way to talk about God with one who does not believe? For example, should I aim to first convince him of God’s existence, or should I instead begin by sharing the Gospel, convincing the unbeliever of his need for God?

Limitations
In determining the framework of such a challenging and somewhat elusive subject as God[2], I suspect that the most productive discussions are built on some awareness of each other’s story. This is a root of identity. For example, the initial emphasis of the conversation should not necessarily be on what my, your, or her view of God is, but perhaps how you, she, and I have come to uphold such a view. In other words, what has influenced one’s current conclusions?

The influence of parents, friends, schooling, ethnicity, culture, religion, other religious practitioners; all of these and more contribute to one’s understanding of the world—or rejection of it. This could begin to be defined as worldview, though it is really more expansive than that. It is about accepting truth as neither fully objective nor subjective; that one’s faith or belief is inseparable from his perception of reality. In short, it a conversation built on an awareness of personal limitations.

This awareness should humble my perspective; open it to new ideas, all the while helping quell my ego. In an environment where each person nurtures such openness, there can be productive conversation. Where ego rules, however, there can be none.  

Humility opens me to not only knowing myself better, but to also knowing others—to live in relationship with the potential of community. In a way, potential is like faith. Relationship deepens awareness, furthering understanding. Moreover, understanding can motivate and be motivated by love, which flows from a well of compassion, grace, and a myriad of other mysteries.

In other words, if I dare to know love, I dare to know truth. To pursue understanding and allow it to mature into conscious action (i.e. wisdom) requires courage, but relationship ultimately bolsters courage. Courage influences action. Round and round the stories go, action transforming potential into purpose.

The point is that purpose and relationship are intertwined, which is what helps define values. At the soul of every human being is a common value. Humanity fundamentally shares the same need, or looks toward the same horizon. The language that defines such a need or horizon is what seems to differ the most—whether called love, success, happiness, peace, etc.—which too often conflicts peoples’ understanding of a gift like potential.

Nevertheless, by beginning to recognize each other’s story and limitations as well as how they relate to each other’s potential, purpose, and values—hopefully building community in that awareness—we may begin at last to approach life’s challenging questions with a readiness for healthy discourse, the process of which not only further informs value, but reveals new layers of purpose, potential, and limitations.

Mediums
Most will readily admit that other people influence individual identity. Academically, there are numerous additional ways of trying to further understand such influence, reaching beyond an awareness of one’s identity to broader spheres of the human story through the study of history, sociology, and psychology; or through an exploration of Nature—the space and natural environments we live in—employing reason (e.g. science, philosophy); or by unleashing inclination (e.g. art, athletics).

Many of these mediums are not exclusive to one another, including religion, and all can be thought of as means to furthering wisdom. Still, such realms of study and/or practice leave gaps of understanding. So what shall I do with the lingering uncertainty—the mysterious and unknown?

For the most part, each of us approaches relationships and the aforementioned mediums based on having already concluded one fundamental question: Does God exist?

Problems
Most people struggle with the existence of God because of the evil in the world. In fact, this so-called “problem of evil” also makes many Christian theologians uneasy. There are surges of heated internal debate about how to reconcile the nature of evil with God’s proclaimed goodness and omnipotence. Either way, while some people try to deny the existence of evil, which is practically and logically refutable on most accounts, most people do at least recognize its manifestation in the world—that things are not always right, or feel unbalanced and brutish at times.


Still, I wonder if a conversation about God’s existence needs to be preceded with another question: Do evil and good exist?

If such a question is answered affirmatively then another nuanced one takes form: Is Man inherently good or evil? If Man is inherently evil, but good exists, where does good come from? Or if Man is inherently good, wheredoes evil comes from?

Either way, the tension between good and evil needs to be addressed.

For example, the premise of the so-called “problem of evil” is essentially, Why does evil befall good people? Or why do good people suffer? The problem becomes almost inseparable from a question of God’s existence, particularly His nature. God either exists, but is not good due to the evil He inflicts or allows. Or if He is good, He is passive or weak against another supernatural force that can be called or that stirs evil, therefore leaving God undeserving of worship.

To reconcile God’s goodness with the presence of evil inevitably steers the conversation to discussing the specific attributes of God, especially His will. There is a belief in some Christian communities that God controls all things that happen in this world—the so-called “will of God”—which suggests His active choice to inflict pain on someone or not, for example. I discern this to be a source of most peoples’ problem with God. It is the premise of the problem of evil. This premise, however, can be shown as misleading and overly problematic. There is another way of thinking.

Regardless, the point is that God’s nature, namely his influence in the world, is one of the greatest barriers to not only belief in His existence, but faith in His purpose and the worship of Him as a result.[3]

But what if the original follow-up question focuses not on the problem of evil, but instead on what I will call “the problem of good”[4]? For example, If God exists (or does not exist), then why is there any good in the world? This stresses the framework of the conversation in a different way than the problem of evil.

Framework
Without delving into the layers of answers to the question of God’s existence, or even the problem of good, I am here rather trying to focus solely on a way to frame a conversation about God with an unbeliever.

As I wrote in the beginning, it should not be done hastily or simply. It first requires an awareness of human stories and how they shape the purpose and values of human actions, individual or communal.

Concerning the original question of where to start the conversation—Should I first discuss God’s existence or the Gospel?—I suggest that it depends not only on the guidance of the aforementioned limitations, but on the direction taken in response to the aforementioned problems, which include the question of good.

From there, there are worlds of possibilities to explore: light shining down on an ever-expanding horizon of wonder and mystery.




[1] A.k.a. Christ-follower, a.k.a. Christian, a.k.a. Believer.
[2] Assuming that the subject has been welcomed to the conversation as opposed to being forced upon it belligerently.
[3] The Bible offers glimpses into that purpose, though the interpretation of the text unfortunately remains a divisive rather than diversifying factor between many churches (i.e. Christian communities).
[4] While I phrased “the problem of good” on my own, it unsurprisingly turns out that the concept is not new to intellectual discourse. A simple search online yields a number of articles, most of which apparently focus on questions of morality, one fascinating one of which can be found here. I am heartened, however, to realize that my concluding framework is not lessened by its late entry into the conversation.