Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Burnout or Burning Love?

When I was a child, I remember making a piñata out of a balloon and papier mâché. We inflated the balloon and applied the coating of papier mâché. Once the coating was dry, we popped the balloon and the papier mâché retained the shape of the balloon that had been inside. Without the extra strength of the balloon inside, we had to handle the piñata carefully, as it was rather fragile (which is a good thing if you are going to swing at it with a bat).

I see many folks whose Christianity could be illustrated with a piñata. They have experienced the Ruach, the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, at some time in their lives. It filled them and their lives expanded. As they took on the works that manifested their faith, these outward signs of discipleship became the manifestation of their Christian walk. These important acts of discipleship—missions, Bible study and attendance—at some point displaced the inner Spirit as the primary expression of faith.

A faith practiced only in outward works is quite fragile, and I’ve seen many who crack under the pressure of this one-sided, outward discipleship. You will know them by expressions such as these: “I’ve done my time,” “I need a break from church work,” “Let the folks with children handle it,” “I’m burned out.” I’ve heard these comments and, I confess, at one time in my life, I said such myself. When works for Christ are done from a sense of obligation rather than passionate desire, burnout is the eventual result.

Works are certainly important, and the world is in great need of visible expressions of the love of Christ. But the primary cry of the heart is for an indwelling Spirit, not a project to complete. The “Protestant work ethic” falls short in creating disciples who are aflame with love for God and for each other.

Everything changes when one’s life is fueled by the Spirit. Burnout is replaced with burning love. The heart of stone is replaced with a living heart (Ezekiel 36:26), a heart that beats for God, and thus, for all of God’s creation. It is such a passion that called me into the work of spiritual direction.

Works, if they are to be a true expression of discipleship, must flow from a faith enflamed by the Holy Spirit. A life lived from the Divine Center leads us to works that are uniquely ours to do, that God created us and gifted us to do. From such, there is no burnout, just the heat and flame of an all-consuming love. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Coming Home

Last week I attended SOULfeast, a conference organized by Upper Room Ministries. Each year people of various denominations travel to Lake Junaluska, in the North Carolina mountains, for several days of soul exercise. We learn, we are stretched, we rest, we pray, we eat, we celebrate, we worship, we sing, we play. Children and adults, individuals, families, church groups—all sorts of folks pilgrimage to the mountains to be both spiritually renewed and challenged to grow.

When I arrived and checked into the conference, I had a deep inner peace that I had arrived home. I don’t live in the area. As far as I know, I am not related to any of the other participants at SOULfeast. But the sense of being home was overwhelming. The mountains are already where I feel closest to God, so just being there is a good head start for spiritual renewal, but that was not the whole of what I experienced. It was being with a family of faith, a group of people from all over the world whose deep yearning for greater intimacy with God compelled them to this holy place, this weeklong community of the body of Christ.

I had always thought of home as a place inhabited by folks with whom I shared a common life experience. Even in that sense, I was still home at SOULfeast. I saw folks I see there every year, some of whom travel great distances to be there. I marveled at children who had grown and changed because I see them each year.

The week did my soul good. The experience of being united with others who long for more than a casual faith sustains me when I get discouraged. I know that I will be back next year, if possible, because the connection to this family of mine is strong and life-imparting. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Performance and Pride

“Does the LORD really want sacrifices and offerings? No! He doesn’t want your sacrifices. He wants you to obey him. Rebelling against God or disobeying him because you are proud is just as bad as worshiping idols or asking them for advice.”
1 Samuel 15:22b-23a

These words from Samuel convict Saul. Saul disobeyed, but he thought he was doing a good thing by reserving the best animals for God. When do we add to what God has directed, thinking that our addition is good? Such thinking is arrogant on our part, for we demonstrate that we believe we know better than God what is needed.

I wonder how much of our activity is done to make us feel better about who we are. When we act in a way that draws the approval of others, or do something because we think we are “supposed” to do it, are we risking rebellion against God? Are we being driven by pride? 

The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer has a line that challenges our notions that what God always wants is our activity: let me be employed by Thee or laid aside for Thee. We embrace being “useful” for God, but are we willing to be laid aside for God? To listen, rest, and wait? To be silent, to be voiceless in church affairs, to be on the sidelines when that is the obedient thing to do?

When we allow ourselves to be “laid aside” we confront just how much our self-worth is driven by our addiction to productivity. Without an activity to do, a contribution to make, a role to fulfill, we lose the attention and approval of others, and we may believe we are not worth much. But only when all that activity and productivity is stripped away can we even begin to discover who we really are in Christ. It is then that we learn that what is important is our attention to God, not our activity for God.

Sadly, many people never learn this lesson, or they only learn it when something catastrophic happens—job loss, major illness or debilitating injury, or a difficult change in relationship. When we either cannot be productive or when our productivity is no longer valued, we come face to face with our false notions of self-worth. It is in learning to love ourselves simply for who we are that we can learn to love others the way God loves us—unconditionally, not based on performance. And when we love ourselves and others that way, we are no longer driven by pride and performance but instead share and receive the grace of God.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Despicable People

 “Can you see the one the Lord has chosen?” Samuel asked all the people. “He has no equal among the people.” But some despicable people said, “How can this man save us?” They despised Saul and didn’t bring him gifts, but Saul didn’t say anything.                                                                                                                  1 Samuel 10:24, 27

The ones who failed to trust God in the selection of Saul as king are called despicable. Their doubt, their inability to see God at work, their lack of faith that God could work in and through Saul earned them a rather harsh assessment.

Yet in our culture, and sadly, even in the church, we would hold such people up as shrewd, careful and reasonable. We admire those who won’t be “duped” by “fanciful” notions of faith, such as trusting God to provide and direct, who won’t be “gullible” enough to be amazed at the way God can work in and through people. We don’t believe God can change people, that God’s nature is more powerful than human nature, or that people can really be reborn in Christ.

A friend of ours recently returned from a mission trip to Uganda, where one of his tasks was to distribute reading glasses. A girl who needed glasses to be able to continue her education came to get a pair. The team had collected glasses in certain strengths, the strongest of which did not help the girl. That morning, our friend had found an odd pair of glasses in a strength they had not collected for their trip. He laid it aside, but when this girl came, she tried the glasses and could see. Our friend had no explanation other than God, because the glasses had not been in their collection the day before, and they had carefully cataloged what they took prior to leaving the States.

Why can God only act in miraculous ways in Africa, or in a hospital or among the poor, and not in a church budget committee meeting? Why do we not believe that God can provide the resources we need in our first world, upper middle class churches to do God’s work? Why do we, the members of these churches, cling so tightly to what God has given us, as if it is all we can expect to receive from God? Why do we worship the idols of scarcity and fear and rationalism instead of the God of abundance and peace and joy? Scripture has a word for us: despicable.

All powerful God, who created all, have mercy on us for being despicable people who doubt your ability to act, who fail to worship you, who think we know better than to trust in your provision. Rend our hearts and minds, smash the idols we elevate as greater than you, strip away anything that we trust other than you. As we stand empty and shaken before you, fill us with your joy, your peace and utter trust in you, that we may be forever changed from despicable to disciples. Amen.