Possibilities with the Spirit

But the counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. – John 14:27

Real and fresh conversation
Me to child: Hey, go get your CD player, put in new batteries, bring it upstairs with your earphones and set them on the counter.
Child: CD player?
Me: The one in your bedroom?
Child: What? Why? It’s doesn’t need batteries. It has a plug. We can just plug it in.
Me: Maybe you aren’t going to be where there’s a plug.
Child: What? Where am I going?
Me: Hey. Go do what I asked you to do. (pause) Now.
Child: oooookay…
(time passes)
Child: I got the player but I can’t open it to get the batteries out.
Me: Try to do it again… as if your very life depended on it.
(time  passes)
Child: Okay. It’s all set. Now what am I going to listen to?
Me: Who said you were going to listen to something?
Child: You did.
Me: No, I didn’t. I asked you to go and get some things but I didn’t say you were going to listen to anything.
Child: Well, what am I going to do?
Me: Finish the job.
Child: How?
Me: Remembering what I asked you to do.
Child: But I can’t.
Me: Because…
Child: I don’t know…
Me: Well, do you know if you finished what I asked you to do?
Child: Uh, no. I don’t know…what did you say?
Me: Put the CD player and your earphones on the counter and back away. That is all.

Sometimes, I’ll tell my kids about something we’re going to do and even though it’s all planned, they’ll begin to re-plan the event or check on me to make sure that I’ve thought of everything. Or like in the real and fresh conversation above, they won’t even begin to listen because, I guess, I speak another language or maybe they just don’t want to buy into what I’m asking until they know and trust every detail. That could be it.

Other times, I get hurt because I’m trying to help one of them with something and they just don’t want to listen. I might remember the same sort of thing happening to me. I might wish that I had thought of or known what I did afterwards but the child sort of “oh’s” me aside.

Then there’s the feeling of frustration I often experience when there is a pattern of disobedience and willfulness that is disruptive and, possibly, destructive to others or our home. When I find myself repeating the same bit of direction over and over, that’s when I tend to lose my interest in peace and neutrality to the point that I’ll lose my cool. Everyone finds it easy to back away then.

These are real feelings and I’m becoming very glad for them. Not for the sake of indulgence though, or license. Having a number of children hanging around all the time, I can go through these different emotions and scenarios over and over in rapid succession in a short amount of time and what it’s doing is creating my own personal and private tipping point of reflection. When I get the chance to step back and think it all over again, I find myself coming up against the same blunt awareness. I am very much like them.

Last week I was reading in John 14 and read verse 27. I admit that often I have skipped the first part of the verse to get to the last part of the verse because I tend to hunger and long for peace. This time, though, I noticed the counselor-who-the-father-provided part. The following is from my journal.

While I am so thankful for the counsel of the Holy Spirit, I know I do not always listen. I don’t hear him at times, until it is too late. Sometimes, I’m aware but feel unsure how to make the change or do it differently, especially in the middle of something intense. 

The counsel is still there, though, and when I recognize it, so often it’s a balm, a salve and I feel relieved to sense it. I feel joined and strengthened in the Spirit’s direction and I know that it is good, the very best thing that’s ever touched my mind. Like a breeze that feels whole and welcome, I know that I am not alone and the fullest care is all about me. That is Presence and when I am aware, when I allow myself to acknowledge the Spirit is there and counseling me with effect, I want to laugh with joy, cry with gratefulness and never have it go away. 


And that’s the rub. I treat the Spirit as an ‘it’, a thing instead of the Holy, Pure Conscience that this One of the Trinity is. I pretend it comes at me, all disconnected, willfully against my needs or like a miser, doling out only the littlest of offerings, yet, the Spirit, like the Son and the Father are Always. Always Present. Ready. Available. Real. Full. Faithful. I am the one who leaves, who shuts out the succor, who wanders in circles, lonely. I have a weak sense of the utter wholeness of the Presence of God, and it’s my downfall.

You know the oft-used phrase about that apple and how far it falls from the tree? It applies here. Possibly, I am missing out on the peace part that comes at the end because I am too busy trying to check on God, or get him to give me all the details so I’m sure I should trust what he’s asking me to do? Possibly, for sure. What would happen if I listened completely the first time and didn’t think too hard and just followed through? What if?

Making Arrangements

“You must arrange to live with deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday experience of life with God.” – Dallas Willard

I’ve read this quote from Dallas Willard many times. Often I’ve read it, given a mental “Amen” and then immediately flushed it to make room for my next urgent task. Despite such nonchalance, God continues to keep this quote in front of me. So, I’ve been pondering and praying.

When confronted with the quote again this week, I wasn’t able to get past the word “arrange.” What does it mean to arrange my life? Even more, to arrange it so I’m content, joyful and appropriately confident?

There’s a part of me that wants to look Willard in the eye and say, “Go for it, buddy! Please do ‘arrange’ my life into a blissful, tea and crumpets existence. Good luck. Knock yourself out. Rescue me from children who self-sabotage. Bring peace to the gender wars raging in my home. Fix the broken, and find the lost toys. Shield me from manipulation. Keep me from passivity. Allow me more sleep while eliminating my mid-day sleepiness. Fill my cupboards with food and please stop the dog from barking. And while you’re at it, could you arrange for someone to get that sweaty sock smell out of our minivan? Please, Mr. Willard? If you could do these things, I’m sure I’d find the contentment, joy and confidence you command. Or would I have better odds with a lottery ticket?”

There, I feel better. And just for the record, I don’t believe in luck or play the lottery. I’m also not usually that cynical. But I can be – especially when I subscribe to the belief that life is about me. When I think I’m entitled to children who don’t fight, cars that never break-down, smart phones that are actually smart or a well-funded savings account. Such misguided beliefs open the door to disappointment and life slips into disarray. Joy becomes elusive and contentment is but a dream.

So what is Willard getting at when asks us to “arrange” for a good day with God? Well, it is true that only I control my attitude and disposition. I can be joyful or bitter. Covetous or content. When I swallow a worldview of entitlement, life’s frustrations will choke me. When personal peace and affluence are my goals, I’m left disturbed and needy. Perhaps Willard’s quote could be rephrased this way: what must I do to insure I find my joy, contentment and confidence in Jesus – no matter what?

Good question. The disgruntling things of life I ranted about earlier can’t be “arranged” away. That would be wonderful, but contrary to our calling as followers of Jesus. Besides, extinguishing all life’s troubles is not what Willard is instructing. What he is commanding is a properly arranged lifestyle of discipleship. An arrangement guided by the person and character of God. An arranging that puts God’s Kingdom first.

Arranging life that way starts with a conscious, moment-by-moment engagement of our story with God’s story. All of life is spiritual and we are servants to divine authority. Everything matters. Whether changing a diaper, filing a report, watching a child’s soccer game, meeting with a client or walking the dog there isn’t anything we think, say or do that doesn’t have spiritual significance. This means our activities influence the quality of our relationship with God, and others. What we do has a direct affect on the health of our soul.

Followers of Jesus are to shape and fill their souls with God’s Word, be guided and comforted by His Spirit, and participate in the community of His people. It is around these components of discipleship that we must make “arrangements.” We must arrange for times of meditation on Scripture. Our day should include listening to the Spirit through prayer. Our schedules must prioritize communing with other followers of Christ. Life arranged with God-first thinking will encourage a disposition characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Look at your life. How is it arranged? We are busy, and at times frustrated. But we must not allow such realities to cast a pall on our experience with the living God. We must fight for contented joy. We must place confidence in our God who is completely trustworthy.

Become infatuated with Jesus. Start, stop and adjust activities to get more of Him. Such intentionality is hard work. You will be opposed. But fight as you arrange to seek His Kingdom – first.

Audacious Prayer

The Sears Catalog. I don’t know if they still print them, but those catalogs are enshrined in my childhood hall of fame. I spent hours each November and December pouring over the toy section. Paper and pencil on my right, catalog on my left. I flipped the pages back and forth, first scanning then scrawling product codes and page numbers as I crafted my Christmas wish list. Cheered-on by colorful images that screamed “buy me!” my list expressed my deepest desires to my parents and the mysterious Santa.

Those catalog memories came back to me this week. That’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about my desires, and God’s desires. Over the past few months there’s been a steady tightening of tension between God and me. A tension over what I want versus God’s plan. The awful realities of life have hit me fresh and taunted my faith. Sickness. Disease. Disappointment. Frustration. All cursed guests that squeeze from me either a humble brokenness or prideful bitterness.

So I’ve been talking to God, and He to me, about this convergence of human and divine desire. What I’ve been hearing from Him has upset my prayer life. More truthfully, it has upturned everything and knocked me backward.

God made it clear I was to stop the lip service prayers. Put an end to the shallowness. Be done with compulsion and manipulation. Don’t pray from a position of guilt or qualify successful by result. Pray expectantly. Fervently. Hopefully. Express to Me the cries of your heart. Give wide berth to the trap of fatalism – the “come what may” attitude. Tell me what you really want; what you really feel.

I had no rebuttal.

Richard Sibbes said, “It is atheism to pray and not to wait in hope.” Ashamedly, I’m sometimes guilty of slipping into dutiful but empty prayers. Joyless, task-list praying. Prayers offered because I have to, not because I get to. Such praying reflects unbelief in God’s character and capability. A disrespect of His holiness. A subtle form of atheism. God knows it, and He called me out.

A bit rattled by my holy reprimand, I went through some introspection: how do I express my desires with expectancy? How do I rally my hopes beyond reason? What if my desires are unreasonable, unrealistic or unlikely: should I still express them? If God has already determined the outcome, is it still worth the effort to express the yearnings of my soul? To lay my heart bare and vulnerable? To ask for the miracle?

Then I heard, “Absolutely!”

Victor Frankl suggests, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment instead.” When I think about the desire expressed in my childhood Christmas lists, and now the lists crafted by my children, there is little cleverness. Wish lists are pure bewilderment. Great expectations and audacious requests. Requests made even when fulfillment is unlikely. Hope and desire live through such requests. And in the requesting are expressions of the heart that give opportunity for relationship to grow and ripen.

I believe that’s what God wants from my prayers: big, bold, audacious requests. Prayer laden with my greatest hopes and craziest dreams shot straight from the pain of life’s brokenness. A conversation where my desires mingle with His. There’s still tension, but it’s a healthy tension blanketed by joy between the Creator and his child as they delight in their open and honest relating.

So with the Spirit’s help I’m working toward a bolder humility to express my desires. To “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb 4:16). A confidence heavily coated with hope-filled bewilderment to petition for mercies that might be unreasonable, ridiculous or miraculous. Audacious at times. But I know God can handle it.

Infatuation

Valentine’s Day. Seven days. Men, order flowers – now!

In that spirit, a question: What was your dating experience was like? One word describes mine: lame. The ladies man, I was not. I’d like to say I kept them guessing. Trouble is they weren’t wondering in the first place. Thankfully, God brought rescue to my bachelorhood in the form of absolute wonderfulness (cue the sighs, or gags).

Fond memories surround my courting of Katrina. A true romantic, I took her to Terminator 2 on our second date. I then pulled-out all the stops. We spent night after night at my parent’s house watching mindless TV shows. Oh, yeah! Together. Sitting close. It was terrific…at least for me. For her, a little pizzazz in our shared experiences would have been nice. You now see why my dating life was lame.

Our relationship transitioned to the long distance type. Katrina lived in a mediocre apartment in Grand Rapids. I roomed with four other guys in a dumpy, spider-infested, un-insulated, turn-of-the-century excuse for a house at Michigan Tech. I was love-struck. I lost days – maybe weeks – of productive work. Daydreaming was my primary activity. Engineering studies ran a distant second. When I wasn’t solving differential equations I wrote letters to Katrina. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading her letters. And re-reading. And talking on the phone. Laughing, crying, and pining for each other. Absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder. No matter the circumstance, my thoughts boomeranged back to Katrina. In the words of Pink Floyd, I was “comfortably numb” in my affection for her. I was, and am, infatuated.

Ah, memories. Looking back reminds me of this quote: “I couldn’t get Him (Jesus) out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.” (Life of Pi, 57) Sounds a bit like dating. Thoughts always churning, speculating, dreaming and hoping. Near obsession at times. What we think informs our attitudes, actions, beliefs and desires. As Katrina and I pondered and prayed about our relationship, we were moved into conversations – conversations that steadily brought us to the realization that we would form a household together.

John Owen said, “How can we say we love Christ and spiritual things if we do not spend much time thinking about them? That which you set your heart on is that which you will think about most.” (Spiritual Mindedness, 238) It’s easy to think a lot about my wife. My kids. My finances. My project list. My worries. My career. The next vacation. What people think about me.

But I am a Christ-follower: a Christian. My thoughts should reflect that. That’s challenging. How often is Jesus part of my self talk? Is He part of my scheming and planning; my hopes and dreams? Do I trust Him fully with my triumphs and failures? Or do I think of Him only when I need something? Is He my lucky rabbit’s foot or the Lord of my life?

I want Jesus to get stuck in my head. To rule my thoughts. To bother me. To distract me from myself. To draw me into His story. I want to learn things about my Savior that create an ever increasing desire for Him and His Kingdom. An infatuation, of sorts. How about you?

Love, Truth and the No Man’s Land Between

I bought the world’s tiniest but most ah-mazing dot-to-dot book for our kids. They are handing that thing around like a pan of gold. Since I am a giver, I don’t want anyone feeling left out. Here’s a dot-to-dot of quotes about compassion and truth and what has nothing to do with either. Get out your favorite pen and have-at-it.

From  R.C. Sproul Jr. via Dec 2010 Tabletalk: “Compassion, rightly understood, means entering into the passion, or suffering, of others. It means setting aside our own concerns, our own fears, our own needs, and not just supplying but feeling the needs of those around us. This, ironically, happens not when we have all that we need. It happens instead when we come to understand that we have nothing and that we need nothing. Compassion flows not out of the well-satisfied but from those who have not. There is, in turn, only on way to do this—die to self. When my aspirations, my hopes and dreams, my wants are crucified, I enter into liberty. I am free to take up the concerns of others. A dead man has no need to protect his comfort. He has no need to protect his wealth. He has no need at all to protect his reputation. Perhaps Janis Joplin had it right: freedom may just be another word for “nothing left to lose.””

From Louie Konopka’s (my pastor) messages on Ephesians: “If you are like Christ, you move toward people.”

From Epicetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher: “This is our predicament. Over and over again, we lose sight of what is important and what isn’t.”

From C.S. Lewis: “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

From Flannery O’Connor: “The fact is that if the [person’s] attention is on producing…a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess…He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses.  They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.” *

From Federico Garcia Lorea, a Spanish poet, dramatist and theatre director: “Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.”

From Louie on Revelation 2:1-7: “We cannot grow beyond love. We must grow into it. Truth is the platform to get us there. When you do this you recognize each person as an image, give them their rightful place in life, do what is right to/for them.”

*I’m only going to editorialize this one thing. The Flannery O’Connor quote is about writers, but I’ve included it because I think a great danger and misuse of compassion is found from sentimentality. Sentimentality is dangerous like judgmentalism or pornography. When you are motivated by sentimentality, the image of God is distorted in men and therefore, truth is marred and then the balance is lost and you begin to abuse relationships.

Affection Revolution

I’m a recovering perfectionist. My recovery began several years ago with a “slap.” A slap of truth that woke me from dreams of a perfectly controlled life. A slap that caused me, for the first time, to ponder my affections.

I have affection for many things. Among them my wife, kids, old books, strong coffee, quiet mornings and bacon. My affections govern my thoughts, words and actions. My love for strong coffee results in frequent visits to Starbucks. I can’t resist a used bookstore. I hug and kiss Katrina and the kids. I like my bacon a bit soft. Affections are the energy – the voltage – that pushes us along the path of life (I’m also a recovering electrical engineer).

The transition to a new year offers a distinct opportunity for starts, stops and changes. This year I’m pondering, again, what I love. To who or what do I give my affection? My review is upwelling more regret than celebration. I’m finding that I still love things I shouldn’t, don’t love what I should, and am making my story the only story. I’ve found hints of perfectionism I thought were dead. Such discoveries bring disappointment, frustration and flashes of anger.

But amidst my unwelcomed discoveries glows a warm and steady hope. Hope fueled by the Great Affection. An affection for me that offers a chance to start, stop and change – not just at the transition to a new year, but every day. “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23 NIV) What great truth that is for this recovering perfectionist! Despite my failings, God’s compassions – His affections – never fail. Oh God, why do you extend to me your patient love? Why are you faithful when I prostitute my heart? When I love me more than You? When I give you leftovers instead of the first and best? When I refuse to be quiet, rest, listen and submit? Father, I don’t understand your Great Affection for me, but thank you.

In response to God’s love, I’m declaring 2011 a year of revolution: an “Affection Revolution.” This revolt is against my misplaced affections. Affections that want to love Chris more than Christ. Affections for the temporal with hope of gaining significance and security. I want to live more fully the greatest commands: to love God and love people. I want to grow in grateful giving. Jesus said we give our heart to what we love (Matthew 6:21). In perfectionism, I love myself – first. Such misplaced affection brings a lonely self-worship. I’m revolting against such selfishness. I pray that 2011 brings a more intimate walk with God that starves my affections for lesser things while fostering a greater affection – a first-place affection for Jesus Christ and His Church.

In addition to the verse from Lamentations above, the following quote from J.C. Ryle turns-up the voltage on my Affection Revolution. Perhaps you’d like to join my revolution and grow our love for Jesus Christ in 2011 – together?
 
“The man whose soul is “growing” takes more interest in spiritual things every year. He does not neglect his duty in the world. He discharges faithfully, diligently, and conscientiously every relation of life, whether at home or abroad. But the things he loves best are spiritual things. The ways, and fashions, and amusements, and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart. He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell. He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections, and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes. Spiritual companions, spiritual occupations, spiritual conversation, appear of ever-increasing value to him. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increasing spirituality of taste.” (J.C. Ryle – Holiness, p. 107)