Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Be the Change You Most Desire

            The person you have working for you simply does not meet your expectations. Your children are not following the path you know is best for them. Your church leaders seem to be taking the congregation down a path that makes you uneasy. Your best friend supports a political candidate that you do not trust. Your spouse does not connect with you the way you once enjoyed. Your job has you feeling you will never get the satisfaction you desire. The debt collectors are demanding more than you have to give. You look in the mirror and simply do not like what you see. Your mind is clouded with half-started projects, the clutter of everyday life to the point where you simply do not know what to do. In simple terms, you know that something needs to change.
            In one way or another, every one of us can identify with at least one of these statements. It is part of our human nature to see things around us that we believe are not right and urgently desire to fix them. Our responses may vary, depending on the situation, but they all reflect our growing sense of frustration.
            Some may micromanage others and dictate to them their every move, thought, or action in order to correct their errors and fundamentally bring about the desired change. Perhaps, amid the frustration and anxiety of the moment, we get angry. In that case perhaps we verbally, or in extreme cases, physically chastise the person we want to change in hopes of making them realize their wrong and motivate them for future change.  In the opposite extreme, we simply give up on the individual and begrudgingly do it ourselves with the belief that it is really the only way to get things done right.
            In another case, if the problem is within our own lives, it is easy to blame. Blame others for or problems, blame the job for our discouragement, blame the boss for being a jerk, blame the world for being unfair, or simply sulk in anger because it seems as if all the cosmic forces are working against me and my happiness. The result is bitterness and depression.
            All of these approaches may have their place to a point. In all honestly, we have probably all used these approaches at some time or another. We use these methods because they have been used on us and a large part of our society has taught us that this is the way to effect the change we want in life. It is a change brought on by force, anger, manipulation, blame, and control.  Sometimes it works; frequently, it does not. In the worst case scenario, it may actually bring about the very opposite result. Rather than positive change, it fosters negative rebellion and mires us in the mud of despair.
            A powerful model for change is Jesus Christ. Clearly, when he spent three years preaching and teaching, change and transformation was a significant part of his message. Without any disrespect to the rich Jewish traditions from which he came, Jesus called his followers to change to a new way of being. Rather than blindly adopting and applying arbitrary rules of a religion, Jesus encouraged positive change that transcended religious purity and fidelity. Jesus was about relationship.
            His method of affecting change, however, was never one of coercion or force. When Jesus corrected another or pointed out the wrongs and evils of the world in which he lived, he did so with compassion and grace. Most importantly, Jesus never required anybody to change, only gave the example, empowered them with the tools, offered the means to use his strength for the process, and valued the individual enough to let them rise or fall on their own terms. Finally, Jesus never blamed his problems on others, but took full accountability for himself.
            Too often we forget this subtle reality of Jesus’ dynamic leadership. In churches we run the dangerous risk of forcing our doctrine on others because we know we are right and want them to change according to what we dictate to them. In the midst of this power-trip that we call the church, the Gospel is sacrificed in the name of doctrine.

            The model of Christ in making needed and Godly change in the world is one of loving service, humble prayer, and faithful obedience—not control, domination, or blame. As Christians, let us all seek to serve out of love and bring about much-needed change through Jesus rather than our doctrinal control. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Giving It Up for Lent

           What shall we give up for lent?  This week there are many Christians that will observe Ash Wednesday and the customary season of Lent that follows. Done correctly and in good faith, this practice can truly be one of the most rewarding experiences in a Christian’s journey. Done incorrectly or without adequate prayer, the Lenten fast will disappoint. Certainty, God loves us so much that we can hold fast to the hope; God wants us to triumph in Lent!
            Lent and Ash Wednesday originated in the Second Century as an intentional time of purification, preparation, and prayer anticipating the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. Over time, it grew from being a few days in duration, to the customary 40 day observance that is common today. The designation of 40 days comes from the Biblical symbolism of 40 as a time of purification and preparation.  Moses and Elijah each fasted 40 days prior to meeting God on the mountain. Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert prior to starting his public ministry. In the days of Noah, the purifying rains fell for 40 days, thus bringing on the flood. In order to prepare the people of God for entry into the Promised Land, God had the Hebrews wander in the desert for 40 years. Additionally, after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he remained on earth in his resurrected body for 40 days in preparation for his ascension into heaven.
            The actual season of Lent begins 46 days before Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday, Christians may gather in various churches to receive the symbolic reminder of our own mortality with the sign of a cross on the forehead from consecrated ashes. Commonly, the ashes are created from burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The ashes serve as a solemn reminder that our life on this earth is limited, yet crowned in resurrection. Our goal, therefore, is to live life as faithfully as possible, living out of our genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.
            The actual 40 days of Lent are calculated by taking the 6 weeks following Ash Wednesday and excluding Sundays. Traditionally, the Sunday worship is considered a feast day and a day of unquestioned celebration of God’s love so they were excluded from the Lenten count many centuries ago.
            The Lenten fast itself is more governed by personal prayer or confession than any explicit set of rules or scriptures. The basic guideline is to give up something that an individual can identify as a hindrance or stumbling block to faith. Some fast from TV, Internet, or Social Media. Some from news. Others may choose a food item such as meat or candy. Others may choose to fast from intimacy with their spouse, participation in a particular activity, or from certain behaviors.
            The object of the fast, however, is not as important as the reason for the fast. Physical, Spiritual, and Emotional purity before God, drawing closer to God, or rededicating ourselves to God are ideal reasons to declare a fast.  For example, if one fasts simply to lose weight or to quit smoking, they may be fine ideas for health reasons, but the primary focus in on the individual rather than on God. Yet, if someone wishes to have more energy, physical ability, time and money to devote to God and the cost of smoking or the drain of poor physical fitness is an issue, such a fast has great potential. 
            Additionally, when a person gives up something for Lent, it is important that the time, money, energy, or devotion previously invested in what has been given up be reinvested in prayer, study of the Scriptures, and worship. Most importantly, it must not be an arbitrary decision or one chosen because we want to fit in with others. In planning your Lenten fast, pray earnestly, seek Godly council of a trusted mentor in the faith, and make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Remember, God will rejoice in your triumph—a triumph that God will make possible through your faith! 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Valentine's Day Love

Love is in the air!

(And a ton of candy, flowers, dinner plans, movie dates, and all manner of romantic expectations. In fact, according to a study quoted by Nasdaq, the economic value of Valentine’s Day this year is expected to peak around 417.3 Billion! That’s a lot of money spent on love.)

For all the romantic expectations placed on this Saturday’s annual celebration of love, not to mention the unbelievable amount of money that will be invested in the occasion, it is no insignificant date on our cultural calendar. The question is, do we really get it?

I love Valentine’s Day, but I also think we need to be honest with ourselves as a culture and admit that we have probably lost the genuine meaning of the event amid our rampant consumerism, our obsession with sex and sexuality, as well as our elevation of erotic or romantic love above the more relevant aspects of God’s genuine love. Here are 5 reality checks that are intended to not only enhance your own Valentine’s Day celebration, but cultivate a more meaningful love life overall!

1. Falling in love may happen before you know it, but being in love is a deliberate choice. 

Falling in love is, perhaps, one of the most amazing human experiences imaginable. It is awesome. It is mind-blowing. In spite of the brilliantly creative work of poets, songwriters, and artists, there truly is no language or expression powerful enough to describe the sheer blessing of falling in love. Problem is, falling in love is more of a chemical, biological, and emotional response to a very visceral and hormonal experience. It is not true love.

I know, that doesn’t sound very romantic. Bear with me, please.

God hard wired our brains and limbic system to respond with all the powerful romantic feelings associated with falling in love. It is a beautiful aspect of our essential humanity. Celebrated in scripture (I love the Song of Solomon) as part of the joy of loving and being loved, it is easy to associate such powerful feelings with genuine love.

On a personal note, I vividly remember the first time I saw the woman who is now my wife. The physiological excitement and arousal that flooded my brain was unmistakable. I fell and I fell hard! The second time I saw her, it was even more intense. I see various women all the time. Some of them are very pretty. Yet, nobody had the intense physiological effect on me that Kimberly did—and still does! It is because Kimberly had that effect on me that I then chose to get to know who this amazingly beautiful and intoxicatingly attractive woman was. Now, many years later, I still choose to love her every single day.

Falling in love is amazing! As wonderful and exhilarating as those physiological sensations are, however, they remain the byproduct of specific neurotransmitters in the body and brain responding to particular chemical baths of hormones produced by particular glands in the body. So much for romance, right?

This is where the choice comes in. Attraction is still largely a mystery of behavioral science. Yet, what happens is that that initial feeling of ‘falling in love’ triggers within our conscious mind a definitive reality. This person has my attention! For true love, both individuals must choose to truly—and unconditionally—love the other. That means loving with the heart, not just the biochemical bath of hormonal excitement. Guess what? The biological “love” that we experience in our limbic brain will ebb and flow. Choosing to love over and above those amazing physiological highs and lows will not only make the difference between feeling good and truly being in love, it will prolong and enhance the ability to genuinely feel in love with that person indefinitely!

Falling in love may just happen, but being in love is a daily choice that makes the “falling” part happen over and over again for a lifetime with the same person. The point is, we have to make the choice!

2. Love may involve sex but sex is not love at all. 

Let’s be honest. At some level there is probably an exception among many this weekend that physical intimacy will be part of the celebrations to be enjoyed. That’s fine. God did give us the gift of joyous sexuality so that we can enjoy the blessings it has for our lives. The problem is, if we listen to most of modern cultural communications, media messages, and pay attention to only the hormonal highs that come our way, we could get the false message that if you have one, you must have the other. It is a lie! Sex and love go together quite well, but they are not interchangeable.

The fact of the matter is, sex can be enjoyable with, or without, love. There are a lot of people who have sex and never care one bit about the partner, only their own pleasure. Likewise, there are a lot of people who “fall in love” as described in the first point, and quickly fall into bed before they choose to really love. All too frequently, people just assume that great sex must mean true love. This is why the casual association of sexual expression and love is so dangerous. We live in a culture that is increasingly sexualized and the pleasure of intimate contact does fool many couples into believing they are in love when, in reality, there is only sex. Regardless of one’s own personal religious, moral, or ethical beliefs regarding sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the fact is there are a lot of people enjoying such intimacy and, increasingly, the physical intimacy is happening long before genuine love—let alone marriage—can grow and mature. Yet, if we wish to achieve the greatest blessing such intimacy affords, simply ‘getting it on’ will never be enough. We have to truly work to be in love and that is the choice we can make, even after we have somehow managed to fall in love.

3. Love changes a life as it merges with the life of another, but if one feels controlled or the need to control, what you have is not love at all. 

In my 20 years of Christian ministry, I've dealt with a lot of controlling people. What makes controlling people dangerous is when they think they are acting out of love. I’ve seen many marriages destroyed, lives crushed, churches devastated, families enraged, businesses fail, romances sour, and unrelenting hatred erupt; all because someone could not separate their concept of love from their desire to control.

The fact is, being in a relationship—any kind of relationship—with another person requires that neither individual have control. Even if one desires to control another in the relationship, ultimately, there cannot be any ultimate control without destroying the humanity of the one controlled. Think about that for a moment. If there is controlling behavior in a relationship, it means one of two things:

A. The one being controlled loses their humanity
B. The one who believes they are in control is living a delusion

If one’s humanity is lost, genuine love cannot be extended and, in many cases, one may reach out to whatever means believed to be available to restore the feelings of lost humanity. Drugs, sex, obsessive behaviors, infidelity, depression, out-of-control spending, or outright criminality may be just some of the ways it comes out. When control is only a delusion, the controlling person will have to exert unbelievable amounts of energy, rage, power, fear, emotional terrorism, and manipulative behavior to both maintain the delusion and, reinforce that delusion in the life of the one controlled. In either case, this is not love. It is dominance, abuse, and terroristic behavior. There is no love.

Sometimes the controlling behavior can be “justified” as caring for an individual, protecting, or even trying to keep them from having to struggle with the challenges of everyday life. Yet, even when cleverly costumed in the appearance of compassionate behavior, control and love will not coexist in the same relationship.

4. Love joins two lives into one, but never at the expense of genuine individuality, independence, and health autonomy. 

Part of the illusion of falling in love and the delusion of fairy tale marriage is the idea that when the two become one flesh and are joined in marriage, the two cease to be individuals and wholly become one entity. While there is a degree of truth to this notion, nothing can be further from the truth. A marriage is a blending of two individuals into a new whole that gains strength because of the individual traits, personalities, and lives that are joined in the marriage.

All too often, an individual believes they are loved if their lover becomes completely one with every one of the partner’s likes and dislikes. Yet, what is really happening is a subtle (and destructive) slide into controlling behavior. (Look again at number 3 to see what that looks like.)

You and your marital spouse are one flesh—just not the same flesh! You both bring strengths to the partnership that the other person does not have. You both have interests that the other person does not share. You both have life experiences that the other does not know. It is the combining of all that diversity into one, new complete, and diverse whole that makes a marriage thrive.

Yes, take an interest in what your spouse enjoys. Yes, there is nothing wrong with wanting your spouse to like the same things you like. Quite often, it will happen and you both will be the happier for it. To be sure, plan time to do those things you enjoy together and be intentional about always sharing in those special things together. Yet, never feel you are somehow obligated to become just like your spouse. Likewise, there is no need to expect the same from the beautiful person you fell in love with, and are choosing to love!

5. Love is wholly altruistic, focused on the needs of the other, and totally unconditional so it not expect anything in return but when one’s care of the beloved sacrifices self-care, and gives to the point of exhaustion it’s not love at all. 

Love always gives of itself and asks nothing in return. Right? Well, yes, but …

True love is unconditional so when I give my love, it is not true if I desire love in return. Right? Well, yes, but …

The unique and powerful love that bonds people together in the sacredness of Holy Matrimony must be mutually altruistic and unconditional or it will become unbalanced and unhealthy. To put it simply, you cannot love if you have nothing left to give in love.

The choice to love your soulmate is, as I've already noted, a very deliberate choice that has the potential for some very beneficial and pleasurable returns. Your ability to truly love your spouse absolutely depends on your willingness to be wholly unconditional in giving that love.  Your capacity to love is also largely dependent on how well you are able to care for yourself and receive the natural benefits of that love.

Imagine a large barrel of cool, clean, refreshing water. It is there for you to enjoy, quench your thirst, and refresh your soul. Understandably, you may become quite appreciative of that water and its availably for you.  But wait. Unless you do something to replenish this source of water that you enjoy so much, you can only come back so many times before it has run dry and there is nothing left to give.

This is a large reason why, as lovers, soulmates, and marriage partners, we absolutely have to do two things as a part of loving the other as fully and completely as possible. First, we have to take care of ourselves. This means honoring our individuality and cherishing our unique interests just as was noted in number 4. Second, we must love our partner in return which is, essentially, the choice discussed in number 1.

By taking care of yourself, you ensure that your barrel of love remains full for your true love to receive the unconditional blessing it has to offer. And by choosing to love your partner, it helps ensure their reserve of love is replenished for you. What’s best is that when the love is mutually altruistic and mutually unconditional, the two of you will never run low on love to give.

So live, love and be filled with God’s blessing for your marriage! 

On this Valentine’s Day, go beyond simply gifting your beloved with a few nice gifts, a night out, or a special night of intimacy. Pledge yourself to choosing to love the one with whom you have fallen in love, enjoy the sex but nurture the bond that makes it even better, let your partner be free to be who God has so wonderfully and beautifully created your partner to be, cherish the individuality you both who each of you truly are, and let all love be wholly mutual

After all, true love is not a day that comes up every February 14th on a saint’s birthday. True love is life lived in love with the one soulmate God has blessed you to love!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

4 Practical Ways to "Don't Worry About It!"

“Don’t worry about it.”

Easier said than done, right?

Fact of the matter is, worry is a big part of the human condition. The fact that our ability to worry is somewhat hardwired into our consciousness does not mean that we have to become slaves to this instinctive behavior. Empowered by the gifts God has so lavishly given us, here are four simple and basic ways we can transcend the temptation to worry and actually start living life!

1.         Focus on what you know.

Much of the worry in our lives comes from what we do not know. We do not know the outcome of a given situation so we worry how it will end. We do not know what someone is going to say so we worry about how harsh or awful it will be. We do not know how to solve a problem so we worry about how miserably we may fail when we try. We do not know where someone is or what they are doing so we worry about the implications of their absence in the moment. You get the idea. Worry, in this instance, often erupts when our mind tries to imagine all the possible outcomes and explanations for what we simply do not know. Now, if we want to get into the messy world of statistical probability, perhaps there is a slim chance that the worst scenario imagined is true, in all likelihood, our imagination is far worse than reality. The question then becomes, why focus energy on reacting to an imagined reality when you truly have no definitive basis for knowing it is actually true.

The focus then is simply to concentrate your energy only on what you actually know. Jesus focused on this very point in the 6th chapter of Matthew. Beginning at verse 25 he simply says not to worry about your life, or body, or clothing. Using the animals of nature as an example he draws attention to the fact that they concern themselves only with what is present and now. “Even Solomon in all his splendor was not clothed as one of them,” he says reminding us that God’s love for humanity is sufficient for us to also bask in the blessings of God’s love.

2.         Focus on what is genuinely within your control.

Most worry is over things that are beyond our control. It is a simple, yet profound reality that many people never take into consideration. Again, in the 6th chapter of Matthew, Jesus asks a very direct question. “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Of course, the answer is no. (And, quite notably, medical science has demonstrated that worry can take time away from your life—both in the lost time and quality of life during the exercise of worry and the lost years at the end of life due to stress-related illness, disease, and premature death.)

The fact of the matter is, if you can’t control the situation, there is no good in expending precious energy worrying about it. Therefore, it is imperative that we place our limited energies on the tasks where we can make a difference, where we genuinely can exercise control, and where we are able to authentically remain productive. An important note of caution here: you cannot authentically control others even if you think you can. Remember, only yourself, your thoughts, actions, and reactions, are under your control. Begin there.

3.         Immerse yourself in God, gratitude, prayer, and positive reflection.

Worry is, quite frankly, all-consuming. In Philippians 4:6, Paul simply says not to worry about anything. Some translations say to be anxious for nothing. Appropriately, the idea of being full of worry or filled with anxiety point to the same reality—we are no longer in control of ourselves but fully consumed by a powerful and debilitating force. Yet Paul reminds us that this never need be the case!

Rather than give into the powers of worry, Paul says to begin by rejoicing in God. In the face of a situation or circumstance that triggers the all-consuming anxiety of worry and fret in our lives, we have a choice. We can give in to the dominating power of worry and lose ourselves in the debilitating destruction it brings, or we can focus our efforts in prayerful reflection. Paul’s instructions in Philippians 4:4-9 are powerful, and also very basic. He says to rejoice, give thanks, mediate in prayer, and focus on the positive. Honestly, when worry tries to take over my spirit, I find it wonderfully refreshing and strengthening to get out my Bible and read that passage from Philippians—and put it into immediate practice.

4.         Remain aware.

Many years ago a man came to me who was very angry over a situation at the church. It was clear from his tone and angry outburst that he was worried over the situation. It had consumed him and the worry was in total control of his emotions at the moment. In fact, he was so worried about the situation that he interpreted my lack of emotional anxiety to mean that I either didn’t care or didn’t understand the gravity of the problem. It took some calming and careful conversation to demonstrate to him that I was truly fully aware of the situation and was taking it very seriously. I simply was not anxious or worried about it.

Difficult decisions and challenging circumstances require acute awareness and focused, intentional thought. It is no surprise that worry strips us of these vital faculties. Yet, for many the lack of noticeable emotional distress is interpreted as ignorance to the severity of the situation. Through a disciplined application of the first three points, focusing on what you do know, what you can control, and calling on the power of God through prayerful reflection and meditation, one’s ability to truly remain focused and aware without the distraction of worry is truly possible.

Worry is a part of life. Situations will arise when you will feel it coming on. Often, we are drowning in worry before we truly realize it has taken hold of our spirit. Yet we never need to stay in the deadly waters of dread or live in the confounds of calamity—even though worry will tempt us to do just that.

Instead of worry, consider the wisdom of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul and choose life over worry.

Addendum to my original blog post:

As requested by a reader, here are the two primary Bible verses referenced in this blog post. Yet, don’t take my word for it. Please, mark these in your Bible and refer to them every time you feel that tinge of worry coming on!

Be Blessed!


Jesus on Worry: Matthew 6:25-34 (NRSV)
25  "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
28  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,
29  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
30  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
31  Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'
32  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34  "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

Paul on Worry: Philippians 4:4-9 (NRSV)
4  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
5  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
6  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8  Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
9  Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.