Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Clearly Christmas

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. - John 1:14
Grace & Truth. These are the two elements that bring clarity to Christmas. Up until then it had been mostly truth. There were the Ten Commandments and we couldn't measure up. There was a command to have no other God other than the One True God and we made other gods, eventually insisting on a human King. Truth was we were messed up.

It's like getting a performance review and the only thing in it are the things you need to fix. Christmas changed all that. There's still truth. But now there's grace. Christmas clarity comes from both being married together in Jesus.

In practically every area of life we are judged by our performance. In school, at work, in sports. It's all about being first, being the best. There are no points for second place.Remember this photo finish in the pool at the Beijing Olympics?

One one hundredth of a second and Michael Phelps wins the 100 fly. Tough luck Milorad Cavic. Not fast enough. Not the best.

One gains worldwide notoriety. The other fades away into obscurity, unknown to most outside the world of swimming. One wins and while the other wins a silver it's just not gold. There's only one winner and he gets lavishly rewarded - completely deserved I believe. That's the way sports works. That's the way life works. Is that the way God works?

Rick Warren reminded me of this concept in his little book, The Purpose of Christmas.

The way we live is you get what you pay for – no such thing as a free lunch – if it's going to be then it's up to me – if you want something done right, do it yourself; and this one – God helps those who help themselves.

That's not in the Bible you know? It's a phrase from Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. It's a phrase that goes with this performance notion.

And so we humans usually think that when it comes to spiritual matters, God must relate to us on the same performance basis. You must earn God's approval, live a life that deserves God's love and work your way to heaven by trying harder and trying to live a “good life.”

That's very consistent with our performance based thinking. Even coming to Church won't do it. Giving money won't do it. Being nice won't do it. But it seems so consistent with everything else in our world.

Christmas is God's performance review, Warren writes. “You've got it all wrong,” God says. “Definitely doing good things matters, but I love you because you are you not because of what you do.”

Our world is filled with people trying to find their way. Frustrated people who don't know what they're looking for. Nothing fills up the void. Nothing lasts – just wait until tomorrow morning around Noon when the newness has worn off. By evening or at least the day after tomorrow, some old things will begin to reappear.

The answer to our lives is not in a place, a program or a pill. The answer is a person and His name is Jesus. This is the good news of Christmas – “today in the City of David a Savior has been born, He is Christ the Lord.”

Clearly it's Christmas. I pray you see through the fog, through the mess, past the packages and tree and food and friends and family to an out of the way manger. You have to look for it. It's off the beaten path, in an out of the way place unknown to most. It's there that you find what you're looking for. Bend a knee today and know the life that is the light of all humanity.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dirty Jobs for Healthy Relationships

Relationships are the stuff of life. To live is to be in relationship, with yourself and hopefully with others. Relationships are the number one concern people bring to me - relationship with God, marriage, children, parents and friends.

Healthy relationships take hard work, deliberate action and usually some help from outside the relationship in the form of friends, reading and the Holy Spirit. I've been thinking about the best tools to offer people looking to grow healthier relationships.

When I was a swim coach, I learned quickly that if I was able to help athletes perfect a couple of things, their times would improve. I concentrated a lot on starts, turns and finishes. I found if they got those right, many other things took care of themselves. Completely ineffective stroke techniques certainly needed attention, but even a mediocre stroke with a strong start, turn and finish would improve a time.

What are those things for relationships? I've come up with 5 that I think I pretty important. No doubt, others could add some, come up with 7 and I might even be able to argue against one or more of mine. In my experience these 5 come up more often than others. Deal with these and relationships tend to get better.

1. Forgiveness. This is THE key to healthy relationships. Walking in forgiveness each day, in every step of a relationship, prevents us from carrying baggage around - baggage that strains our own back and prevents us from fully participating with another in this journey of life. I have a simply definition for what it means to forgive (I'm sure I borrowed it from someone at some point): "Giving up the right to hurt you for hurting me."

Forgiveness is a one-way street. It's not about deserving or earning it. Forgiveness is a choice we make to let go, give up the right to beat another up. It's not a feeling; it's not about forgetting. Forgiveness takes the sting out of the hurt because we refuse to nurse and rehearse it. Giving forgiveness starts with speaking the truth and ends at the cross of Jesus, the greatest image of forgiveness we know.

A seminary professor said forgiveness is God's 50/20 vision - from Genesis 50:20 and Joseph's amazing journey to be able to forgive because he saw with God's eyes:
"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
2. Choices (also known as Priorities). Oftentimes my discussions come around the choices people make about the priority of a relationship. In marriage, for instance, each no longer belongs to him or herself. Each belongs to the other. That means for the mutual benefit of the relationship, and all the benefits that come with that relationship, each will be required to give up some wants and desires in exchange for having needs met - some of which are unknown. When we are in relationship with another, the choices we make must be understood in terms of how they affect the other. Often it's stupid choices that lead to trouble, like an affair. Sometimes it's our response to the things that happen to us - cancer for instance - and the choices we make in the face of unwanted circumstances. Helping people make wise choices solves a lot of heartache and misery.

3. Sex. Get sex wrong and relationships go wrong. It's not the most important thing but when not used in the right way it can damage a relationship. Sex before marriage complicates the necessary growth in the relationship that leads to a strong marriage. Emotion takes over and sex becomes the default action rather than dealing with difficulties. Sex outside of marriage is just downright stupid. It destroys a unique bond intended to be between one man and one woman. An affair doesn't have to lead to divorce - refer to my first point.

Marriage without sex leads to distance that harms the power of intimacy. (No, sex isn't always intimate and intimacy doesn't have to lead to sex.) There are most definitely physical circumstances that can lead to a no sex marriage but what I'm referring to are the sexless marriages because of the lack of intimacy in the relationship.

Sex is usually a symptom not a cause; it's the barometer not the thermostat of a relationship. Keep the fire in the fireplace. Get this right and the relationship will really sizzle, whether it be before marriage or in marriage.

4. Money and Debt. This is the number one conflict issue in a marriage but whether single or married, money and debt is an issue that can enhance or destroy relationships. Choosing debt means having faith in a paycheck tomorrow, something truly suspect in our present economy. Spending money before it is made leads to less choices in the future. I've warned my children to be careful with how much school debt they incur. Go a year longer, work more, use a community college are all smart choices so they don't mortgage away their future.

On the other hand, learning to be generous, understanding to whom it all belongs in the first place, these change the heart and make us better companions on this journey of life.
Proverbs 11:25 "A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed."
Prosperity in relationships is worth far more than any amount of money one could have.

Relationships that are in trouble often seek happiness in accumulating stuff. But that is hallow and lifeless. For the evidence, just look at how quickly the "new" factor wears off on Christmas Day.

Learning to live within and below your means is one of the best practices that leads to a healthy relationships.

5. Conflict. When I asked my friend, Dr. Baker: "What are the dirty jobs that people must do to have a healthy relationship," he immediately responded, "They must do conflict well. It is the number one predictor of a healthy relationship." Is said at the beginning, that "forgiveness if THE key to healthy relationships." This key of conflict confirms my thinking. Healthy conflict doesn't hold grudges or use past mistakes as a battering ram. Differences of opinion don't have to lead to the end of the relationship.

Jesus said that the world would know we are His disciples if we have love for one another (John 13:35). When Christians disagree and split, is it any wonder why the world looks on in dismay? We disagree and divorce each other. Christians are notorious for not handling conflict well.

Healthy conflict isn't about winning or losing. It starts with seeking to understand, uses "what" questions as opposed to "why" ones to seek information and insight. In a healthy relationship, when one loses, both lose. Healthy means the relationship wins. Finding ways to speak truth (as in forgivenss and Genesis 50:20) without accusatory attitudes and words leads to stronger bonds.

So there you have it, my toolbox of dirty jobs that we find difficult to practice. When I shared this the other day to our worship design team at Cornerstone, someone said: "Who wouldn't want to have sex!" We have to get these 5 things right in order to grow our hearts and the soul of our relationships. Starting on January 6, 2013 we're going to deal with each of these in order. Healthy relationships lead to healthy families which leads to healthy churches - which leads to healthy communities and a healthier nation and world. It all starts right at home, by looking in the mirror and being willing to take on this relationship destroyers.

What would you add to the list?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Agree to Disagree?

We'll just have to agree to disagree.

What's the saying: "I'll never please everyone, I'll only please some people some of the time." That's a reality in living with human beings - whether it's in marriage, in a small group, in a division at work, in a company or in the spiritual community of a church. I think it's even a reality when I'm having a converastion with me! I'm not always pleased with myself.

Everyone has someone who is a difficult person in life. Everyone is a difficult person to someone else. This phrase, "We'll just have to agree to disagree" doesn't find a lot of agreement in my life. Not that I don't agree it's sometimes the end point, I mean in practical terms like: "I feel good about leaving things here." I don't.

Communication is difficult between two people, in organizations, around small groups and in front of the mirror. People define words differently. Our hearing is skewed by past experiences as well as knowledge and pride. Sometimes we listen to someone else's words through a filter of distrust: "They're up to something. They're trying to be sneaky."

I don't like it when I'm not in agreement with my wife. I don't like it when I'm not in agreement with my staff. I don't like it when I'm not in agreement with people in the congregation. It irritates me. But it's why it irritates me that really irritates me. At least I think so!!

I believe I'm irritated by ending at this place because of ego. Plain and simple. How can someone disagree with my position! What arrogance - on my part. But that's it in a nutshell. At some level, we all think everyone should think like we do. My bent toward competition makes me think that at a higher level than normal.....and it's ego. I'm sure it's a combination of "I like to be liked" as well as "I like to be right." Either taken to an extreme isn't helpful.

I read Egonomics this summer. It contained some powerful lessons that led to some some difficult changes in my life - changes that I'm still living into. On page 29 I captured this quote:
If we lead with questions rather than answers, curiosity can strip us of an agenda and stop us from holding so tightly to our own ideas and beliefs that we aren't able to consider others. (Read more on my summer sabbatical blog - Ego, Ego - Friend or Foe?,  Being Effective or Being Right?)
Curious people create opportunities for open communication. Combined with humility, curiosity brings ego into check by insisting that together the team can create something better than one individual can do on their own.

I'm just not agreeable to leaving it at "let's agree to disagree." But I also know it's impossible to agree without everyone all the time.

From one who is still growing and learning.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Perhaps the Lord will show up

I've been spending some time in 1 Samuel chapter 14, with the story of Jonathan and his armor bearer. The scene was simple: The Philistines controlled the land and one way they kept that control was banning all blacksmiths in Israel. To sharpen a tool or have a sword made, Israel had to depend on the Philistines. It seems the sword orders were always "in process."

The Israelite army had two swords - King Saul's and his son Jonathan's. As the story goes, while the Army was sitting under a pomegranate tree, Jonathan decides it's time to act, time to move in faith. He takes his armor bearer and sets out to attack the Philistines.

14:6 Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.

I love the heart of Jonathan. Acting in faith doesn't mean all the details are worked out ahead of time. PERHAPS the Lord will show up on our behalf.

Perhaps God will move. Perhaps he won't. Perhaps we will experience a great victory, and perhaps we will die. Jonathan had courage because he knew God was in charge. He didn't have the details worked out—or even an assurance it would go as he hoped—but he did know that moving was right.

What would you have done? What do you do when there seems to be no way? Jonathan made a way. Here are some lessons:

1. Acting in faith means moving toward the unknown. The only known is God. We know God's character and promises. We don't know the details of how it will all work out.

2. Jonathan focused on what he had instead of what Israel didn't have. He had God; he had a sword; he had faith. That's all he needed. He had his armor-bearer too and that young man must have thought Jonathan was crazy! But he followed. Jonathan was a leader. He took what he had and used it to lead another as well as lead forward for God.

Afterall, Jonathan thought, we have half the weapons in all of Israel - let's go!

3. He followed an unconventional plan

14:8-10 “Come, then; we will cross over toward the men and let them see us. 9 If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. 10 But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.”

The high ground is the good ground in a battle. Crawling on hands and knees was a distinct disadvantage. But he knew the Lord.

4. He took the difficult road to success. He crawled up, was probably tired and then had to engage the enemy. Just because the Lord shows up doesn't mean everything is easy. There is work to be done and He expects us to do it.

5. Don't forget the armor-bearer. The scripture says that he came behind Jonathan and killed the enemy with him.

14 "In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre."

What did his armor-bearer use to kill Philistines? I can't wait to meet this guy and ask that question? Jonathan was only a leader because someone was following him. And that follower was enthusiastic and made things happen, despite his lack of weaponry.

Do you find yourself in a difficult situation, unsure about what to do, how to proceed? Perhaps follow Jonathan's lead. Trust in the promises of God. 

What else do you see in the story?