Kindling Groups Fan the Flames of Prayer: Stresses of Keeping or Losing a Job

Even our dream jobs have deadlines, performance expectations and customers or constituents to please. The emotional and psychological stress can be debilitating and lead to obesity, hypertension and other illnesses. And we depend upon jobs for income that help us fulfill our dreams and goals in life. Losing our job can be devastating.

Then, so often it is circumstances and opportunity that lead us into certain work – more so than our deep resonance or calling or desire. It is quite possible that I could’ve pursued a life of writing much earlier in my career. Writing from my inner reflections and expressing the work of the Spirit in my heart was always just below the surface. It was difficult to speak, but writing could’ve given me an outlet earlier like it has done more recently.

Circumstance and opportunity equal convenience for many of us. And we follow the path of least resistance rather than the path of truth and freedom. But the path to a specific destination is not always a straight line and we have valuable lessons to learn on the journey, too.

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The local church that we’ve been a part of for over 30 years, has recently started small themed-prayer-groups called “kindling groups” as a way to provide support and prayer for those inside and outside our community who have specific needs. The first series of groups met around the need of “Caring for Elderly Parents” and now a second series is starting this week around the theme of “Job Stress and Job Loss” which practically covers most everybody!

I’m going to be assisting this work-related group. We’ll be meeting on Thursdays for the next four weeks at 7:00 PM at Intown Community Church, 2059 Lavista Road, Atlanta, GA, 30326 if you’d like to join us. Our primary activity will be hearing from each other and praying for the needs expressed from our own lives as well as the lives of others.

So, what are some of the spiritual things we can do when we are in distress or difficulty?

1. Pray for others. Through this the Lord may give you clarity regarding your own situation.
2. Ask others to pray for you. Admit your need and ask for help. Suffering brings about community if we will allow it to. This also takes the burden off of yourself and shares it with those who care about you.
3. Focus on compassion. As you are suffering might God be using you to complete the suffering of Jesus for the Church, thus fulfilling Colossians 1:24 – Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.

“We want information, God wants a conversation.” – Samuel Williamson

51nbnmeipgl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Over the years, I’ve read many books on prayer and meditation. I’ve been very selective in my choices of books to actually spend time with and apply to my relationship with God and my devotional life. There are only a few books on the topic of prayer and talking with God that I would recommend to anybody. And most of the books with which I’ve resonated were written by monks, priests and ancient contemplatives. So, for me to actually review and recommend a book by a contemporary layperson is a rarity!

Recently, I was asked to review a new book by Samuel C. Williamson (Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere from Kregel Publications, 2016, Grand Rapids, MI) on listening to God and seeing our prayers as a dialogue instead of a monologue. I was skeptical because I don’t know Mr. Williamson and for the reasons I mentioned above, but the book was endorsed by Eugene Peterson someone for whom I have great respect. I decided to take a closer look and what I found was just the kind of book I would write on the subject of developing a deeper relationship with God and learning to listen to God’s voice every day.

Williamson’s book is anecdotal, but it comes from a man whose faith is based on a Biblical and theologically orthodox foundation. So, his experiences are filtered through the doctrines of the historical Christian faith. Therefore, I can heartily recommend the chapters of this book to anyone who wants to grow closer to their Creator and Lord. In fact, chapters 4, 5 and 6 are particularly of value to new or young Christians who want to understand the place of Scripture in their daily lives and how they might structure a devotional life.

But this is not a book about form and structure, but about learning that we are free to follow Jesus to where he wants to take us and that we can be free in what we ask him as we would our closest of friends. Williamson writes, “We are involved in a divine dialogue.” The authenticity of the author’s desire to share his experience of the relational nature of God’s personality and character rang true, as did his desire to help others open their hearts to the divine conversation. The book is very appealing at this level.

Williamson also speaks clearly regarding our motives and how misguided our desire for guidance can be. “If we want to hear God in the storm, let’s first learn to hear his voice in the calm,” he writes. And, again, in chapter 1, he peals back our self-centeredness, “We want information; God wants a conversation.”

I found the writer’s questions regarding our presuppositions to be extremely helpful in plowing the ground of our own hearts concerning prayer. “What if God wants to converse with us more than he wants to direct us?” Williamson asks us.

Does that kind of question scare you? Or does that question point out how valuable you are to God? In my own experience, it was several years ago when I came to God with open and empty hands that I found his presence most welcoming and comforting. Williamson offers us help, “It’s not that God doesn’t want to answer our questions. He does. But our obsession with them deafens us to his message. The restrictive nature of our questions limits our ability to recognize God’s voice;” he writes.

As you can see, there is a lot to recommend about this book. In closing my review I want to mention a couple of other things that I really appreciated in reading it and a suggestion that I would make if you choose to read it. I loved that many of Williamson’s illustrations and stories were from his business, family and church experiences. He didn’t compartmentalize his experience of God to one area of his life. Secondly, he offers a broad range of resources and other voices to reinforce and support his convictions and suggestions. And, finally, my suggestion is that you don’t have to read the whole book before you start implementing some of the truths taught here. In fact, I’d suggest that you put the book down from time to time (or close your Kindle if you read like I do) and put into practice something that has struck you as helpful or interesting. —- Jimmy Locklear

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

 

What do we learn when we suffer?

One of the most common questions that people of faith ask when they are going through illness, suffering or a hard time is: What is God trying to teach me?

We know that Jesus learned or experienced obedience through suffering. The writer of the letter to the scattered Hebrew people of faith told us that during the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions, as a good pastor would, with fervent cries and tears to the One who could save him from death and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son that he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Ref. Hebrews 5)

Obedience has a cost. Yet, the price we pay can have an even greater result. Henri Nouwen wrote that the pain and struggle that Jesus became part of and experienced himself, especially on the cross, made him listen more perfectly to the Father’s voice. Before coming to earth, we might say that Jesus knew obedience in a theoretical sense, but while here he experienced the concreteness of obedience.

There is a type of identification with suffering that makes us more humble. If we continue in health and material wealth, our ears become dull to the Spirit’s calling us to serve and follow the voice of God. Our faith is not tested and we don’t allow the Spirit’s work to break through our daily routine. Instead, we see ourselves as sufficient. We don’t listen for help and, more tragically, we don’t ask for help. In my times of suffering and pain, I came to understand that there were two steps to restoration and wholeness. I had to admit my weakness and ask for help. Using those two steps were how I learned obedience and continue to learn obedience. Pain forces me to submission and submission leads to freedom and wholeness, at least to a spiritual wholeness or what we read in Hebrews as perfection. Submission and obedience restore me to that proper relationship to God as a child to parent or creature to creator. Yes, good health and riches make my obedience harder to learn. Even for some of us, it might be impossible to learn.

Maturity comes when we grow in obedience and humility to a place where join the missionary Paul in being content in whatever circumstances we are in. Riches and poverty become equals in the heart of a mature follower of Jesus.

So, I welcome all experiences of good or ill because I know that in both I have the opportunity to grow in obedience and to prove my obedience.

The Moment When You Think Your Life May Be Over

I don’t know if everyone has one of these moments, but I suspect that there are many more folks than we are aware of who have a moment when seemingly everything important passes before their mental eyes and there is this fear of their life on earth being over. Well, I believe I have had at least two of these moments and perhaps three.

The most recent moment for me occurred on October 2, 2015. I was ushering at Turner Field for the St. Louis Cardinals versus Atlanta Braves major league baseball game. It was a chilly evening and I was at my assigned section Aisle 206, which is in the terrace level near home plate. It was not a huge crowd, but I’m usually pretty busy helping guests find their seats even when other parts of the stadium may have light crowds. It was the second inning and I had just been chatting with my sister who was at the game with my Mom. They preferred sitting in the outfield terrace, but my sister had come by my section to say hello.

This was my first season working for the Braves and it was just about over. Only one more home series. I’m semi-retired, I guess. I’ve received partial disability payments from my private insurance for over a year and have not been able to work fulltime since suffering a major heart attack in January of 2013. That experience became the basis of the first book I published – Sacred Heart Attack – and was life changing in many ways. I do some other project and consulting work while writing manuscripts for additional books. However, that heart attack in Montreal was not one of the times I felt like I was going to die. Even though I learned from the cardiologist that unblocked my left descending artery that I was in serious danger, I was conscious – in pain, but conscious – and thought that everything was going to be fine.

My youngest son Jed had worked for the Braves for the 2014 season and I was his primary transportation to and from the approximately 70 out of 81 games that he worked as a guest relations representative. For the 2015 season he was set to be on the promotions team and I had been thinking about being an usher and had talked to some of the ushers about their jobs. Eventually, that’s what I did. It was a challenging assignment at the beginning, both physically and mentally. Long hours of standing posed the biggest challenge. But I enjoyed baseball and had been a Braves fan and follower for many, many years; and I enjoyed relating to new people from all around the country. So, I was in the right spot. I had developed a few friends from my fellow gameday staff, too.

Just as I was finishing my conversation with my sister I started having a familiar pain combination of pressure and burning in the center of my chest. I breathed a couple of deep cleansing breaths, but nothing changed. I wondered if it was gas and excused my self to go to the Men’s Restroom. That didn’t help and the pain had risen to a 7 on that 10-point scale. I left the restroom and walked by one of my fellow ushers and told him that I was going to First Aid at aisle 211 to get my blood pressure checked. I told him I wasn’t feeling well and that he should tell our supervisor.

I walked in to the First Aid office and had about 14 eyes focused on me. I’m sure it was unusual to see a uniformed Braves employee walk into their office. I told a couple of the EMTs that I was having chest pain, that I’d had a heart attack before and that I’d like for them to take my blood pressure. They were happy to oblige and began asking me a few questions about the location and severity of my pain. My blood pressure was 170 over 105, which was extremely high for me since I took meds that generally kept my pressure down to 115 over 75. The EMT asked me to lay down on their examining table so that they could hook up the leads for an EKG. Before loading me into the ambulance, they wanted to see if the test could detect anything. They kept having trouble with one area. They couldn’t get a good signal, which can be a sign that there is a problem.

About this time, I told them that I had a small 200-doses can of Nitroglycerin Sublingual Spray that I always carried in my pocket. They said that I should go ahead and use it. I gladly complied with two short bursts in my mouth. I looked at my watch with the thought that in five minutes I would do it again if the pain continued.

This is when it happened.

There was not immediate relief, so, I started thinking this could be the end of things on earth. The EMTs began loading me on to a gurney and asked if I wanted to go to Grady’s ER or Emory Midtown Hospital. I said that Emory was my choice because that’s where my cardiologist practiced medicine and all of my records would be there. The two hospitals were equally close to Turner Field.

When I suffered 100% blockage of my LDA some 33 months ago, I didn’t really know how seriously my heart was being damaged by the cutoff of blood/oxygen flow. But now I knew the full ramifications of the pain I was experiencing. This was not heartburn, indigestion or acid reflux. And it wasn’t my gall bladder or pancreas. I no longer had a gall bladder and my pancreas pain would’ve been a little lower.

No, this was a coronary artery or two in major distress! And, suddenly, I didn’t want to die. Why was that surprising to me? You might ask, Doesn’t everyone feel that way?

Actually, no, everyone doesn’t feel opposed to dying all of the time. Over the past three years, I had grown accustomed to the idea that I might be passing on to heaven sooner rather than later. I even had a dream on February 28, 2014, while in the hospital suffering from pancreatitis, about going to heaven and what the first few hours might be like. And, of course, it was very pleasant!

As I’ve grown closer to God over the past few years, the experience of his presence was a powerful antidote to the difficulties and challenges of life. I wanted more of that experience and I think that is a good sentiment. And I realize the choice on when we pass on to glory is God’s decision and not ours. I had begun to get the idea that, for me, it might be sooner than one might expect.

My first thoughts were that I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t “put my affairs in order” as well as I would like. Jenny and Jed, Jameson and Justin would all be fine in figuring out where our will and life insurance information was and things like that. But I hadn’t prepared them for my being vacant from our family. In fact, I don’t know what all of that means. So, by writing this essay, I’m inviting that process for my family and for yours. Here’s one of my deep desires: we learn to befriend our death and celebrate the life that we have been given. Most of us would agree that life is a gift and most of you reading this essay have been given a life of privilege, wealth and all manner of life-enhancing blessings. Physical death is a result of the fallen nature of creation and all of us will experience death unless Jesus returns and completes the trifecta of his work with heaven on earth that followed his incarnation and death/resurrection/ascension.

So, let’s say that I wanted to celebrate a little more. Hang out a little more. Have “heaven on earth” fun a little more. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Jenny being able to rest after years of teaching and grad school and teaching. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Jed fully blossom into the man that God intends for him to be. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Justin on the biggest stage so that everyone could appreciate the wonderfulness of his presence in front of an audience or a camera. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Aberdeen reach her second birthday and then start working toward kindergarten. And I didn’t want to leave before seeing Bethany publish a book for the parents of medically complicated children and for Abby to be known as the General’s daughter.

Here’s the deal, though. I am ready to leave whenever God calls me to be in his physical presence. I’m ready because I haven’t let my dreams and desires die in me. I’m sharing them now and I’ll continue to celebrate life in the midst of heartache because there is a redeemer. The story we are in has an ending that is magical and wonderful and peaceful. Our world isn’t hurling through space with no destination.

The good news for me was that God showed mercy to me on October 2nd. The nitroglycerin proved to be the proper antidote for artery distress, which was probably a coronary artery spasm. Subsequent echocardiograms and heart catheterization showed that my arteries were in good shape with nothing close to a blockage. So that spasm served me well. It opened my eyes to the continued blessing of life and re-kindled my mission to encourage you to befriend your death and celebrate your life that is in the hands of a loving and merciful Creator and a Savior who has bought you for good.

“I didn’t believe in prayer.”

For several years, I didn’t believe in prayer; or rather, I didn’t believe prayer made any difference. I had prayed for dear friends dying of cancer and they seemed to die faster. I had prayed that I would sin less and be a kinder and more “other-centered” person and my egocentricity seemed to continue unabated. I had recited the Lord’s Prayer in the same way that I said the Pledge of Allegiance. I gave thanks at meals because everyone expected that, but I rarely felt a connection to God or a sense of gratefulness to God.

What was the point? There seemed to be lots of beautiful words being spoken, but no transformation was occurring.

In 2007, my world began falling a part. Devastating illnesses all around me, lost jobs and financial ruin seemed to be closing in around me. I did still believe that God loved me. So, I turned to God. I came to him with nothing, but empty hands. No words. Only tears.

Amazingly, God began doing things in my life and the lives of those around me. Healing, financial generosity, friends bring us meals and my heart was being transformed. Spiritual transformation does not result from fixing our problems. It results from turning to God in the midst of them and meeting God just where we are. Turning to God is the core of prayer.

Slowly, I began to pray about everything. Not with special language, but like a conversation. I began to make a connection between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus I was meeting in prayer. Today, some 8 years later, talking to Jesus is the sweetest part of my day and the deepest love of my heart.

I never expected this to happen. If you don’t believe prayer makes any difference, I understand. If you don’t believe that God can transform your life or the lives of those around you, I understand. My testimony is simple. Bring God your tears and unbelief and see what he does.

“That’s just my cross to bear,” she said sadly.

Do you have to carry a cross, if you’re not following Jesus? And what is my cross anyway?

“That’s just my cross to bear,” said the suffering traveler. You’ve probably heard this from a variety of people in difficult situations. You may have been told that some challenge or illness or poverty is “just your cross to bear.” What is this metaphorical cross? And why does everyone have one? It seems to be central in the teaching of Jesus, as he called it a prerequisite for being his disciple, but what exactly is it?

Whether you are reading the biographical accounts of Jesus written by Matthew, Mark or Luke, eventually you will come across this direct demand from the Nazarene Jesus. It goes something like this, Jesus told his disciples, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” In the Matthew 16 account, Jesus goes on to talk about the trade off of gaining the world while losing your soul and what is a soul really worth. So, we are left with the question of losing the world, but gaining our souls. That seems a fair prospect, but Jesus goes on to sweeten the pot by saying that he and his angels will come in the glory of the Father and “repay each person according to what he has done.” This is remarkable in its specificity – each person – as well as in the offer, which appears to be very generous.

Recently, I wrote this in my journal:

I am going through a sobering time of seeing, again, how slim our resources are and how anxious and fearful I can become. I remember that in 2007 our situation seemed even worse. Certainly, I felt more helpless and hopeless then. I can see now that health and financial challenges are my cross to bear.

As I wrote this, the Spirit nudged me with the questions of how do you know what your cross is and what was Jesus talking about when he called you to take up your cross? I took a step back and began to reflect more deeply.

Jesus was teaching his followers a very important principle related to both the deep religion of following him and a lesson in balance between the spiritual and material world. He did this often in responding to temptations of things like food versus spiritual food. “Man does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said. Of course, this is a bit confusing and disturbing because we do need food to live and, yet, Jesus tells us that that is not enough. This is where a sense of humility and naivetè comes into the picture. Jesus asks us to step out of the norm and accepted and apply his spiritual instruction to our physical and material lives.

Shortly after this teaching, Jesus broke through the physical with the spiritual reality of his identity as the Bright and Morning Star as he was transfigured and “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” This experience illustrated that the line between the physical and spiritual is a narrow space.

Let’s go back to Jesus’ description of what it takes to be his disciple. In Matthew 16:24ff, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

What is your cross? What was Jesus’ cross? What do we know for sure? Jesus’ cross was, in fact, a real wooden cross that he carried to the Hill of Death. He later hung on that cross and uttered that his mission and calling was finished. So, for Jesus, his cross, both actual and metaphorical, represented his mission, calling, purpose and vocation. It was the reason he came to earth. It is the single greatest symbol of redemption and hope that we have in the world. And it is a symbol of pain, suffering and execution.

For Jesus, perhaps, it was both a burden and a passion. Maybe it was more a passion than a burden, then more a burden than a passion. He was the only one who could carry his cross and I suspect that you are the only one who can carry your cross. And while it does require self-denial and work, there is a joy and sense of calling present that we have been missing – that I have been missing.

Jesus talks about “losing your life for Him.” The primary way I’ve seen that applied is through our giving up our ambitions and goals and taking on his ambitions and goals: the cross. We have to ask Jesus and our community of faith to help us understand what that means. As Jesus pointed out earlier, our reward is specific and our cross is specific. Only I can carry my cross. I have a part to play that is mine and mine alone. This is what Jesus knows is best for his mission and the best for us. We have limited our interpretation or application of this calling by focusing on an aspect of suffering or difficulty when, I believe the Spirit wanted me to see, Jesus was talking about something larger and all encompassing.

Jesus’ deepest calling was to creation, restoration and glory. And doing those with the Father and the Holy Spirit. While on earth, he paid particular attention to following the words he heard from his father. In the same way, we are to pay particular attention to the words of Jesus. We are called to follow Jesus. And we are called to carry a cross that might include sacrifice and difficulty, but also purpose and fulfillment. But you don’t have to carry a cross if you don’t want to follow Jesus.

Postscript

And what about my cross? I’ve learned that it is much more than my health struggles and my financial scarcities. It is my desire for you to know the depth and breadth of God’s love for you and the nearness of God to you. It is my passion to write and my passion to see families in love with each other. It is my submission and willingness to be naïve when it comes to following the teachings of Jesus. It’s all my stuff, too. It’s me.

The Intensity of Love

In April, I shared about the Intentionality of Love and today I’ve been reflecting on the Intensity of Love. This sprung from some reflections on Jesus’ reply about what is most important. What is the “One Thing” to use the vernacular of Curly in the movie “City Slickers.”

The Intensity of Love

“… as yourself.”

One of the more challenging and perhaps misunderstood, but often quoted sayings of Jesus was the reminder that we love God, love our neighbors and love ourselves. (Matthew 22:37-39) The common interpretations are around the sequence, which purports to be the key to a humble life, if not a loving one. The common application goes something like this: If we put God first, others second and ourselves last, then we will be a loving person. Lately, my interpretation or application is more about intensity and purpose than sequence.

If we love God will all of heart, soul and mind (or our will, worship, emotion and intellect), then we develop the capacity of understanding that God loves us so much that he is accomplishing his will by loving us and he can, in turn, use us to accomplish his will. That is, that we can love our neighbors and realize our place in God’s heart.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux describes as the highest degree of love the love of our selves for God’s sake.

When we get to the point that we realize, accept and rest in the knowledge that God is accomplishing his own vision and purpose by loving us, it seems impossible to not experience a heightened degree of love for ourselves. Of course, our own patterns of selfishness and self-indulgence can keep us from living the love that we desire to express, but our intense love for God and his purposes empowers us to love our families, co-workers, and neighbors. Transformation takes place as we focus on loving and pleasing God. By listening to God we are drawn to his heart, which is a heart overflowing with love for all of his children. Do you see how that overflowing could even flood our hearts, souls and minds to the point that we love all of his children, too?

When Jesus said that the second commandment was like the first, it was not so much a simile as it was a literal connection. It’s not that the two are about love, but that they are both about God’s heart. They are like each other in intensity and connection to God’s purpose.

Put simply, start with focusing on God’s love for you. Put on the love as an oxygen mask and be engulfed in the overflowing rush of God’s purpose that you are inextricably a part of. Receive God’s love and let it flow through your heart to Him, your neighbor and yourself.

Much ado about Presence! How to be fully present to those you love

One of the most common desires that a growing number of Christians express when talking about family and close relationships is to be “fully present.” We have learned of this interpersonal dynamic through the speaking and writing of spiritual and faith leaders, especially those who combine a bit of psychology with their spirituality and theology. Nationally and internationally, we have heard of this disposition from people like David Benner, Henri Nouwen, John Eldredge, Richard Rohr, Jean Vanier and Thomas Merton. And regionally we have heard presence advocated by folks like Larry Bolden, Basil Pennington and others.

Like many ideals presented to us, we begin to aspire to and share these concepts with others and express them in our conversations. Unfortunately, for many of us, the actual meaning and practice of something like being fully present can become foggy. What exactly am I trying to become? What does this look like? We need a refresher course or cheat sheet for how we want to change and become more attentive in our relationships. So, let us begin!

First, I have to say that this will be a simplification of the process that leads to our ability to be fully present or to have presence. The church reformer John Calvin wrote in The Institutes of the Christian Religion: “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.” And even earlier, St. Augustine prayed, “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.” So, we are on a journey in knowing God and knowing ourselves and as we continue on that journey and are diligent in our attempts at being present, we will experience greater freedom in fully being ourselves and fully being open to others. This openness is one of the fundamentals of presence.

Benner wrote, “Presence is a gift, but it is also a practice;” in his book Soulful Spirituality (p. 154). This leads us to ask God for the motivation and understanding to grow in our presence. While, at the same time, consciously putting ourselves into situations where we can develop an inner stillness. We need a stillness of our souls or our hearts in order to be present. God has planted the seeds of stillness in our hearts by giving us grace, forgiveness, the promise of his presence from now to eternity and we have seen the demonstration of his love through the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus. How shall we cultivate those seeds?

IMG_0541Times of stillness and quiet are foundational for being able to be fully present. “One of the reasons most of us are limited in our ability to be present to others and ourselves is that we possess so little inner stillness. We are too full to be truly still – full of distractions, preoccupations, plans, worries, regrets, things that need to be rehearsed, and things that need to be reviewed.” (Benner, p. 146) I have found this to be true in my life, too. In fact, almost nothing has served to transform me more than times in stillness with the Holy Spirit. Nouwen called solitude the furnace of transformation. As we come to God with open and empty hands, we are signifying our dependence and desire to remove distractions. I believe this was the practice of Jesus during his years on earth and that he calls us to the same. In Luke 10 we read the story of Jesus visiting again with his good friends and calling Martha to presence, which was the one thing that she was lacking:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (NIV)

Have you ever felt like Martha? There is so much to be done and we feel like we have to do it! Yet, Jesus calls us to just one thing: to be present with him.

So, the first suggestion on cultivating the seeds of presence is to give yourself 20 minutes of stillness a day. I have a place in my home where I can sit down and become still and alone. Initially, a few years ago, this was the place where I would sit and cry and say to God that I didn’t know what was going to happen. I told the Lord that I felt like everything was falling a part and I didn’t know what to do. So, your stillness may start in chaos, but don’t give up. As thoughts come into your mind, respond by giving them to God. You may want to say, “Lord, this is yours. Father, take this away. Jesus, I release this to you.” And this may take some time. Eventually, you may develop a shorthand word as you feel God’s presence and you just say Jesus or Spirit.

We live in a time when multitasking has become the norm. The term first appeared in an IBM document in 1965. It was originally the function of a computer, but more recently has become the expectation for humans. We may talk on the phone while typing an email or drive an automobile while listening to the radio. We become so accustomed to doing more than one thing at a time that our brains accept it as normal. To be fully present with someone, we have to unlearn multitasking. With this in mind, the second suggestion for cultivating seeds of presence is to practice doing just one thing at a time. Try doing this a little each day. One of my biggest challenges is reading while eating or watching TV while eating. Yesterday, I tried eating and just savoring the food. The food tasted better. In his teaching on being fully present, Larry Bolden of Wellspring Group talks about the value of “savoring the moment.” In order to get to that place, we have to take in the whole experience. We have to focus on the words a person is saying or taste the flavor of each fruit or vegetable or spice to savor them. Decide that you are going to get less done instead of more tomorrow and mono-task! You may need to put fewer things on your “To Do List” or put only one thing on your list.

Especially, if we are sitting down to talk with someone, it is important to make sure that we can hear just his/her voice. In time, you may be able to do that in a noisy area, but you may need a quieter place. Consider your surroundings and how the outer noise may affect your inner stillness is the third suggestion. And don’t be timid to ask someone to repeat what they said if your own thoughts got in the way of your hearing them. You know how some folks seem to bring peace with them when they enter a room or approach to greet you? That is what you are aiming to develop. We all can feel that and being conscious of your surroundings can foster a more peaceful and personal presence.

An overarching motivation for our desire to be fully present is that it is a sign of respect and humility. We know that if we are fully present we will have more to give to the people around us. So, our inner and outer posture needs to mimic our respect for the other person who was created in the image of God. We want to respect the sacredness of the encounter. We will turn toward the person and look at them.

Perhaps another tool that we can use in cultivating presence is to imagine that we are sitting across the table from Jesus. How would we respond in that moment? We would want to receive all of the wisdom, knowledge, love and guidance that we could from Jesus. We wouldn’t want to miss a single syllable or gesture in his words and movements. We would want to have the laser focus of all of our senses on Jesus. If we believe in the reality of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in believers and that we are members of the Body of the Messiah, then we are in fact encountering Jesus when we sit across the table from one of God’s children.

Begin the journey of being fully present to those you love. We need all of you.

Your presence is a gift only you can give.

 

Fast Repentance: Taylor Swift, Peyton Manning and Jesus

For some time now, I’ve been wondering why believers and accepters of the free grace provided by Jesus the Messiah spend so much time worrying about their sin and feeling like they don’t deserve to be children of God. Instead, they try to be gods of justice over their own lives and come up with lots of reasons why they shouldn’t be forgiven and why God’s offer of love and forgiveness couldn’t be true.

I remember watching my late Grandfather say to the evangelist at the small, country church where his family worshipped, “I’ve done too many bad things for God to love me. Sorry, I can’t come forward.” Of course, to me, Pa was every bit as good as anyone in that church, but something was holding him back. I believe now that it was the voice of evil trying to rob him of God’s true forgiveness paid for by the death of Jesus on his behalf. And the fear he had of giving up control of his life to someone other than his own ego. Eventually, my Pa overcame that fear and received God’s grace and forgiveness. But many believers continue on in “unbelief” after their conversion.

“Your sins are forgiven, go and….” These were some of the most common words that Jesus spoke during his ministry on earth and I believe that still holds true today. That’s why I believe in Fast Repentance. We are sinning, broken creatures and the Trinity knew that pattern when the plan was devised for us to grow and become more whole over the course of our lives.

Many times we cower in the corner afraid that God is going to see us do something wrong and be completely shocked and amazed. Really? Jesus was and is still in the Forgive and Go business. Esteemed Christian psychologists Walter and Ingrid Trobisch said that we spend so much time thinking about our sin that it becomes inevitable that we are going to commit the same sins again. Our brains work like that. “It is like driving at night. When you look straight into headlights of the oncoming car for fear of crashing into it, it is very likely that you may do just that;” they wrote.1

Famously, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the village well to go and tell folks what had happened. It is in the going that we find healing. It is in the telling others about Jesus knowing everything and yet loving and forgiving us that builds our hearts back to wholeness. Again, the Trobischs wrote, “The more you get away from your own self, the more you think about others and occupy yourself with other interests, the less you will turn around yourself, and the temptation will be reduced.”2

Slow repentance becomes a form of self-indulgence and control that keeps us from surrendering our hearts and desires to God. So many of our addictions are based upon an illusion of control. “Our addictions are not to alcohol, drugs or pornography but to control,” writes David G. Benner in his book Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human.3 We try to control our domains and our lives instead of surrendering our brokenness and “un-wholeness” to God. Our sin becomes a security blanket covering our weakness and we hold onto it rather than giving up control of our lives to our Creator.

What should fast repentance look like? Actually, like the quarterback who forgets his bad throw on the previous play to focus on the next play in order to succeed for the team. Jacksonville Jaguars v Denver BroncosPeyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of American football, often talks about forgetting what happened in the past play or sequence of plays, or even the previous game, and moving on to the next play or the next game. “You have to shake it off and move forward,” he said.

And the lyrics to the top popular song by Taylor Swift gives us encouragement to “Shake it Off”. Some might ask if I’m being trite in my treatment of this topic by using a song to describe fast repentance. I would remind you that we are talking about disobedience to the Creator. It’s sin. There is nothing sacred or holy about our sin. And the point is to not dwell on our sin, but to say, “I’m sorry, dear Lord.” And ttaylor-swift-shake-it-off-video-2-2014-billboard-650o move on to helping someone else or taking the focus off of me and putting it onto God and others. The song says, “I shake it off!” I am not bound by sin. I’m free.

 

In John 8:1-11 we read,

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Wait a second, Jesus. This woman was caught in adultery. She’s going to need to be on probation for a few months, so that we can see if she is really sorry about what she has done. Don’t you know anything about church discipline? is what most any church leader would say in contemporary times.

How long did it take before the followers of The Way began to add to the message of Jesus? Those First Century Christians had seen Jesus interact with folks. They had heard him say, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” The echo of those words must’ve resonated for some time. The Apostle Paul talked about forgetting the past and leaving what was behind. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote repeatedly about the need for humility, submission and surrender, and the illusion of position and prestige.

It is clear that Jesus was not bound by a “one size fits all” philosophy when it comes to healing or growth. With some individuals, healing was instant. With others, Jesus would send them with specific instructions to put mud on their eyes or to wash themselves in the river. He even said that healing was synonymous with saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” So, it is possible that you would not find fast repentance to be God’s way for you. My goal is to observe the ways of Jesus ahead of following the patterns of others. As Paul reminds us, “It was for freedom that Jesus set us free. So, don’t let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1.

Shake it off and go. 

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1, 2      Walter & Ingrid Trobisch. My Beautiful Feeling: Correspondence with Ilona. Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press; 1976: 119 pages.

3          David G. Benner, PhD. Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Brazos Press; 2011: 191 pages.

Sin’s Lingering Effect

 

There is an unsettledness that comes after we sin. If our hearts are most at home or we are most human when we are seeking God and responding to God’s calling, then it would follow that when we turn our back on Him we would feel uncomfortable and disjointed.

Once we have encountered and connected to God via the Gospel and the sealing by the Holy Spirit, we begin a journey of becoming whole, complete and at peace. Life begins to make sense in a way that it never had previously. So, when we wander and look for life in the created world rather than from the Source and Creator, our new roots are disturbed and we are shaken. Is my world going to crumble? We may ask ourselves why we are not feeling secure. We consider if we should return to the patterns of survival we had chosen in the past. Evil and our old patterns of survival and shame would call to us to avoid contact and conversation with Perfection – the One we had betrayed.

Yet, the Holy Spirit reminds us that chaos will ensue if we wander. Our restored home is with the Creator and Savior and we are an unmoored boat without a slip without God.

Photo by P. Vankevich.
Photo by P. Vankevich.

And the Spirit also calls to us saying that forgiveness is our “re-birth right” given to us through the crucifixion of Jesus. Repentance can be fast if we are willing to open our hearts to God and confess our weakness. We live in a fast-paced society and if we are un-hinged, we lose connection with our purpose and focus. The lack of focus and direction gives rise to a treacherous momentum toward confusion and hopelessness. So, restoring our relationship and re-focusing our hearts is critical to our survival.

I refer you to my post on Fast Repentance (coming soon) for help in restoring your relationship with Jesus.