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On the pain of misalignment

The greatest moments of physical pain I’ve ever experienced have come from dislocation and misalignment.

Last year, as I was youthfully* bounding up the stairs at my church, I tripped over the lip of the next step. The ring finger on my left hand caught my fall. I got up, looked at it, and thought, something doesn’t look right. It was pointing in an unnaturally bizarre direction. I had dislocated it. After a trip to the ER, and a fair amount of pain later, it has been reset in its joint.

Earlier that same year I tore a muscle in my shoulder painting the ceiling of my house. I didn’t realize it at the time but a few days later I was lying on my back in a conference room at work in utter agony. The muscle had become inflamed and had knocked my back way out of alignment. I had a pinched nerve in my neck. The right side of my left hand was completely numb. A coworker drove me to an urgent care center. I was prescribed pain killers and muscle relaxers. For a few months, I went to the chiropractor three times a week.

Have you ever experienced the physical pain that comes from your body being misaligned? From a joint being dislocated?

Have you ever experienced the spiritual pain that comes from spiritual misalignment and dislocation?

Spiritual Misalignment

Sin is at the root of all spiritual misalignment. God created us to live in union with him, our wills, desires, motives, and actions, all aligned with his, acting in creative freedom, in a way that coincided with his own creative freedom. When sin entered the world, the alignment was broken. Our wills were severed from his. We became dislocated. That dislocation causes spiritual pain which we can (often successfully!) find ways to numb or to dull, but which continues to gnaw at the back of our minds.

Coming to faith in Jesus causes significant healing. Our sins are forgiven and we receive power from God to live new lives. In repentance, our wills align to God’s. We say “yes” to his way, are set free from the power of sin, and begin to walk in creative freedom.

But even Christians continue to experience the pain of dislocation and misalignment.

The misalignment between desires and actions. Paul complained about this: “What I want to do I don’t want to do and what I don’t want to do, I do!” His spirit within him, guided by the Holy Spirit, desired to follow God. But his sinful nature still held sway, and sometimes won. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he asked. Christians in every generation can relate.

The misalignment between motives and actions. In some ways, this is the reverse of Paul’s experience, and it’s one I’ve experienced. As a pastor, almost everything I do, or at least everything I’m judged for, is public. It is seen by others who either approve or disapprove There have been times when that approval/disapproval has become more than just the natural outcome, but the motivation for my work. In those instances, I can still preach a good sermon, but my motivations are misaligned with the very sermon I’m preaching. I have found that often my actions are a lot easier to manage than my motivations.

Other misalignments. The list is long: The misalignment between the “ideal” Christian community and the actual physical church. The misalignment between the hope we know we should experience and the sadness we feel. The misalignment between our faith in God and the doubts we nevertheless experience (what James calls being double-minded.) The misalignment that comes from following God in private, but fearing to do so in public, or from boldly following him in public but turning away from him in the “privacy” of our own minds or rooms. These misalignments are always painful. They need healing.

Healing

Is healing from misalignment possible? Yes, by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus. “By his stripes we are healed.” God is faithful to continue the work in us.

In many ways, spiritual formation is the process of recognizing and then healing misalignments. We don’t always feel the pain of spiritual misalignment, not because it’s not there but because our hearts are too callous to feel it. We don’t feel it, but it’s sapping the life from us. When the Spirit convicts us of sin we feel the pain, but in feeling it, we are opened to the work of the great Physician.

Sometimes misalignments come from painful circumstances. Sometimes these circumstances cause misalignments, though I suspect that usually they just reveal them. This is one of the reasons why suffering often produces spiritual growth. When we heal, we heal stronger.

But some wounds don’t heal all the way. That’s the lesson from my two injuries from last year. My ring finger still has an unnatural bulge. My pointer finger, the occasional tingle. Maybe this is true for spiritual wounds and misalignments as well. I’m pretty sure it is. This side of heaven, the healing will ever be slow and jerky. But we look forward to the day, not only to the final redemption of our bodies, but the final redemption of our souls, once again free to walk in create, aligned, freedom with God.

‘* I’m gratuitously including that word here because the rest of this post is going to make me sound old.

Is God knowable?

IT & CO.

We are part of It. Not guests.

Is It us, or what contains us?

How can It be anything but an idea,

Something teetering on the spine

Of the number i? It is elegant

But coy. It avoids the blunt ends

Of our fingers as we point. We

Have gone looking for It everywhere:

In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming

Like a wound from the ocean floor.

Still, it resists the matter of false vs. real.

Unconvinced by our zeal, it is un-

Appeasable. It is like some novels:

Vast and unreadable.

– Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars

“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” – Ephesians 1:17

4137M0L1m+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars is an exploration of the otherworldly. She wonders whether we are alone in this universe. Ghosts and spirits make themselves known. The dead enter a new plane of existence. She contemplates the divine. But any true knowledge of what sort of Being this might be is ultimately beyond answer. As in the above poem, It is “vast and unreadable.” Smith captures the agnosticism of our age. Yes, perhaps there is some divine energy, or idea, or person. But such a being is beyond our knowing.

Is God knowable?

Is it necessary to believe that God is “vast and unreadable”? After all, for God to be truly God he must be eternal and infinite. What can limited beings like ourselves know of The Infinite?

If we are left to ourselves, then yes, God is simply beyond our grasp. We can understand something of his divinity and power through creation. We can understand his moral beauty through our consciences; our grasp of the reality of good and evil. But this knowledge will necessarily be limited and obscure.

What we need is a God who communicates with us. Paul prays “I keep asking that the God… give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” In other words, knowledge of God comes through divine gift. Paul identifies that divine gift as the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” That Spirit is none other than God Himself in the person of the Spirit.

We receive knowledge of God through the Spirit. But how does the Spirit speak to us? Is it private, secret, and personal knowledge? While I think personal knowledge plays a part, the bigger part of the Spirit’s communication with people is public. The Spirit, through human agents, gives us the Scripture. (There’s a reason, Smith, why we search for the transcendent in Bibles.) The Spirit points us to Christ, the ultimate revelation of God.

God can be known, and not just known about. He is not an It, not an idea, neither “what we are or what contains us,” but who formed us, not “teetering on the spine of the number i” but ultimately real and self-existent. He is knowable because He has made himself known, and made himself knowable.

13 Trust Building Behaviors – Applied to Church Life

In my secular job I am part of a “Trust Team.” Our job is to identify behaviors which increase and decrease trust within the department – and then take steps to reduce the former and encourage the latter. Part of the exercise of this group has been to read through The Speed of Trust by Stephen R. Covey. Covey identifies 13 Behaviors which, when consistently done, increase trust in an organization or any social unit. In this post, I will attempt to see how these behaviors apply to church life, particularly to church leadership. The best I can do is sketch them out. I would be interested in your own experiences and insights in the comments below, or on Facebook.

#1 Talk Straight: “Tell the truth and leave the right impression” and balance it all with tact. Like many of the behaviors on the list, there’s a direct correlation to Scripture here: Speak the truth in love. This one easily applies to every personal interaction. Don’t be a jerk, but usually there’s no reason to beat around the bush. We build trust when we consistently talk straight. We undermine it when we code our words and force people to read between the lines.

#2 Demonstrate Respect: In other words, apply the Golden Rule. Christians have an additional theological basis for this. All people are created in the image of God. And, all believers have been equipped to build up the church. We respect others because of who they are, who they are in Christ, and because they have been gifted by God.

#3 Create Transparency: In regards to our finances– our books are open. In regards to our child protection policy – never a secret. If you want to know something that is going on at church, we’ll be as open as we can be.

#4 Right Wrongs: This means acknowledging failures, apologizing for them, and then making it right. There’s a powerful story told in our church. In the past – well before I arrived – the church was marred by conflict, particularly directed at a string of pastors with very short tenures. Then there was a season of healing wherein the remaining church members sought to make things right with those pastors with whom they had had conflict. This humility laid a foundation for greater love and unity.

#5 Show Loyalty: Covey gives two examples of showing loyalty: 1) Give credit to others whenever you can. 2) Speak about others as if they were present. This reminds me of the biblical model of conflict resolution in the church. In the case of conflict, go directly to the person with whom you have conflict. To smear them behind their back undermines trust not only with that person, but also with the person you’re smearing them to.

#6 Deliver Results: The first five behaviors focused on character – the foundation of trust – but Covey also argues the capabilities are necessary for there to be trust. The best way to prove that you have the capabilities to be trusted is to deliver results, to do what you say you are going to do, to accomplish your goal. It’s possible to be too results driven, but sometimes we forget that results still matter. We have a task to do and we should aim to be effective at that task.

#7 Get Better: I would submit that there’s a certain level of “godly discontent” that comes with leadership, even church leadership. Those who serve in the church should strive to hone their skills and their character. And the church as a whole can consistently ask the question – how can we better love God and our neighbors? It’s OK to acknowledge a gap between where you are and where you want to be.

#8 Confront Reality: Sometimes realities are hard to confront, but we need to do it. As a preacher, this means acknowledging head on hard passages of Scripture. Other times it may mean acknowledging difficult budgets or systemic sin. Christianity has all the tools necessary to handle the most difficult of realities. Jesus conquered sin and death!

#9 Clarify Expectations: I see a failure to clarify expectations consistently lead to failures in my engineering job, but this one applies to church work, too. It’s especially important when working with volunteers. Let them know what is expected of them, don’t leave them guessing. The same clarity is needed when constructing a shared vision, or giving applications in a sermon.

#10 Practice Accountability: Accountability is an important part of discipleship. Some people even have “accountability partners” or “accountability groups.” In regards to building trust, Covey stresses we need to hold ourselves and others accountable to poor results. We need to take responsibility for our actions, and hold people accountable for theirs.

#11 Listen First: Stephen Covey (the author’s father) is famous for saying – “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In relationships, being understood is essential for trust, it’s also essential for giving good counsel (in church life, giving spiritual counsel). Failure to listen – either by not asking questions, or asking only to reply – will undermine trust.

#12 Keep Commitments: Covey refers to this as the “Big Kahuna” of all the trust behaviors. I agree. Failure to keep commitment undermines trust and consistently keeping them builds trust. We need to be careful about what commitments we make, and then stick to them. As an aside, this applies to more than just leaders. If you want your leadership to trust you as a member, keep your commitments in the small things and watch how you get opportunities for the bigger things. If you consistently fail to keep commitments, don’t be surprised when more opportunities don’t come your way.

#13 Extend Trust: Extending trust to others – when it is wise to do – is a good way to build trust. Trust those who are in charge of the ministries you’re not in charge of are doing their best. To some degree, this is founded on the same principles as “demonstrate respect.”

A low trust church will be ineffective for the gospel, it will be too marred by internal conflict, or too busy managing the costs of the low trust environment. A high trust church will be freed up to work on the tasks at hand. Lord, help us pursue relationships based on trust, and foster that trust for your glory!

On the connection between Predestined and Included

A member of our church called me this past week and asked me to put in writing one of the main points from last Sunday’s sermon on Ephesians 1:11-14. [That sermon is available here.] Specifically, she asked me to (1) provide a definition of ‘predestined’ (2) Provide a definition of ‘included.’ And (3) describe how the two are connected. My answer is below. If you’re interested in my personal journey on this topic, you can read this post.

Predestined:  In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (1:11) I’m not sure I can provide a definition of predestined but I can offer a description of it. First, we have been predestined/chosen to receive the blessings of salvation; to be made holy and blameless (1:4) and to be adopted to sonship (1:5). Second, we have been predestined/chosen according to God’s eternal will, “before the creation of the world” (1:4). Third, this means that God always initiates salvation. His actions are always prior both in purpose and time. To the extent that we respond in faith – and I believe that our response is a real and free response – it is because God demonstrated the initiative. There is nothing about which I could boast.

Included: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” (1:13) “Included in Christ” carries with it two interlocking ideas. First, it means that we have been spiritually united with Christ through personal conversion. Second, it means that we have been included within the people of God. Notice Paul’s argument in 2:11-22. Prior to Christ, the Gentiles were “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel” but now they have been “brought near by the blood of Christ.” To be brought near is to become part of one body, become citizens with God’s people, and become members of one household. We are included in Christ when we hear, and by implication believe, the gospel.

What is the connection between predestined and included? There’s an interesting parallelism going on in these verses. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined… And you also were included in Christ.” The two are not identical concepts (as I’ve hopefully shown above) but they are interrelated. How, then, are they connected?

First, we need to note that the concepts of election, predestination, and being chosen, do not come out of nowhere for Paul, but are built on Israel’s history. Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of a nation. Israel is God’s chosen people. To be “chosen” in the Old Testament would mean being part of Israel. The purpose of God choosing Israel was to bring glory to Himself and so that Israel could be a light and a blessing to the world. We see the same concept here in Ephesians. Paul’s emphasis is not just on the individual nature of salvation, but on the reality that God is forming a people of faith by including both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.

Second, this previous point is emphasized by a very important shift in pronouns. Verses 3-10 uses the pronoun “us” and describes the reality for all believers. Verses 11-12 “In him we were also chosen… we were the first to put our hope in Christ” uses the pronoun “we.” Verses 13-14 shifts the pronouns to “you.” “You also were included…” There’s some dispute here but I take the “we” to be Paul and his companions who were believers prior to the creation of the Ephesian church, and the “you” to be those in the Ephesian church (and likely surrounding churches) primarily made up of Gentiles.

Why does this distinction matter? It highlights one of the purposes of God’s election. Like Israel we see a two-fold purpose. First, it brings glory to God (see verse 12). Second, it is God’s way of creating a people who will be a light to those who are yet excluded from Christ, aliens and foreigners, without God and without hope. To be chosen, then, is to be called to proclaim the gospel so that others may believe and be included in Christ.

This doesn’t resolve a number of mysteries, but those I leave to God, like how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom. I think this means that we are chosen to by virtue of our being members by faith of God’s chosen people and it means that we are members of God’s people by virtue of our being chosen before the creation of the world. Only an eternal God can make that all work. But he’s a good God, so that’s enough.

What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

I saw an article headline recently that said something along the lines of “Atheists are smarter because they overcome religious instincts.” I confess I didn’t read the article, but it did get me thinking, What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

First, it’s worth noting that we do, indeed, have moral and religious instincts. Sociologist/Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, talks in The Righteous Mind of people having moral “taste buds” which we use to intuitively make moral judgments. He describes his own journey of discovering this principle and  his surprise at how universal those moral senses are. Some cultures consciously ignore or downplay certain senses, but according to Haidt we’re all basically pre-wired to make moral judgments, to distinguish between right and wrong.

Along the same lines, we all have a religious sense, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense that there is a God (or are gods). Even the article mentioned above (which I presume to be anti-religion) concedes that people are pre-wired with a “religious instinct.”

The question, then, is how do we interpret that instinct and what should we do with it?

Haidt interprets both morality and religion as products of evolution processes. Unlike other atheists he sees them as good things which help us work together and therefore accomplish more overall good in the world. But for Haidt they don’t correspond to any reality outside of themselves. We have a “moral sense” but there is not “objective morality.” Morality is merely a product of brains and our civilization. We have an intuition that things are right and wrong, but there are no corresponding abstract “rights” and “wrongs” which could ultimately act as judges.

Haidt doesn’t indicate that we should therefore jettison/overcome either the religious or moral instincts (even though he has, so to speak, seen through them.) But other’s do.

But there’s another way to interpret these religious instincts and moral senses, that they correspond to an objective morality. Haidt’s metaphor of “senses” is apt. Our senses do provide us with an “evolutionary advantage” in the sense that they help us to survive in a hostile world. But they also correspond to the world outside of ourselves. In fact, the two are interrelated. The fact that I can taste spoiled food helps me survive, because it corresponds to the reality of spoiled food. Likewise, moral instincts that have both helped us accomplish great things and correspond to a moral reality outside ourselves, to real categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The same with religion. Perhaps we should understand the universality of religion as evidence that there is a corresponding religious and spiritual reality, that we have a sense of God because there is a God.

This is in fact what the Bible says. The Bible says that all of us have a sense that God exists and that there is a moral law (to which we fall short.) We have religious and moral senses. The Bible also says that those senses and instincts have been dulled and twisted by sin. We all can see that there is a God and that there is a moral law, but we do not see those things clearly.

So what do we do with those instincts? Should we “overcome” them? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of being “too clever by half.” The Bible also has a name for that, it’s called “suppressing the truth.” Or, should we seek greater clarity? Let’s not try to see “through” religion and morality. Let’s try to see their reality more clearly.

Salvation: Personal, Communal, Cosmic

I’m writing this post for two reasons. First, and most importantly, because I think it’s important for Christians to have a full picture of Christ’s work in salvation. (And for those who are not Christians and are reading this, I want to ensure that you have a full picture of what the Bible talks about when it talks about salvation.) Second, to address a couple of imbalances we can sometimes form in our theology.

One way we can be imbalanced is by assuming that salvation is purely personal and individual, it’s about saving souls from hell, and that’s it. If this were the extent of salvation, it would still be a marvelous gift, but there’s simply more to it than that. The second imbalance has come as a reaction to the first. That imbalance is to emphasize that God’s work in salvation is communal or cosmic and then to deemphasize the personal, by saying things like “the Bible never says God wants a personal relationship with you.” This argument, by the way, has to ignore a lot of the Bible, or reinterpret words like “personal” and “relationship” to work.

I want to argue that salvation is something that is personal, communal, and cosmic and that the three are no in opposition to one another. I addressed this to some degree in my most recent sermon on Ephesians. This post will leave out a lot of Scripture references, but Ephesians is the book at the forefront of my mind for most of it.

Salvation is Personal

Paul writes: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden – and because we each ratify that sin on our own – we all bear personal guilt before God. This makes us his enemies. We need to be forgiven and reconciled in order to stand in the final judgment. Jesus’s work is to reconcile us God by dying on the cross for our sins. We receive that gift when we put our faith in Jesus. When this happens, we are personally and individually saved. We have peace with God. In my tribe of evangelicalism, this is how we most commonly express the gospel. We should keep doing that.

Salvation is Communal

When Adam and Eve sinned not only were we alienated from God, we were alienated from one another. When Jesus breaks down the wall of hostility between us and God, he also breaks down the wall of hostility between us and one another. He does this in the church. So, when we are “in Christ” we are also in “his body”, we are part of his family, we form one single temple of the Holy Spirit. Being saved means becoming part of a community. The task of the community is to be salt and light to the world, to invite those who are outside in to experience the fullness of the love of God.

Salvation is Cosmic

The Fall had universal implications. All of creation groans under the curse. History is marked by horrendous evil. Systems, powers and authorities (“religious” and secular) often stand in direct opposition to God. Beings in the spiritual realm continue to rebel against God and do harm to his creation. God is remedying this as well. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus he dealt a fatal blow to the powers of evil. While still wielding great ability to do harm, their end is assured, and will be complete when God makes all things new. When that happens all of creation will stand in its proper relation to Christ.

Each of these dimensions to salvation follows the same storyline. There was an originally created goodness. That goodness was marred by sin and rebellion. God overcame that evil through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Now He is making all things new, first gradually, but someday all in a flash. In Christ, we are a “new creation,” we form a new community, and we await a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Should Christians be ambitious?

There two possible meanings of “ambitious.” (1) “having a desire to achieve a particular goal” and (2) “having a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous.” For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that Christians should be ambitious in this first sense. It is wise to set goals and then desire to achieve them, presuming the goal is worthy. My interest is in that second sense, and here particularly, in the realm of one’s career. Should Christians be ambitious in their careers? Should a Christian want to be “the boss?”

I feel two tensions here. The first tension pertains to internal motivations. Does the desire to move up the ladder come from pride? Does it come from a desire to be seen as great in the eyes of others? Do we desire external success (a promotion, a raise, greater fame) because it will validate us or give us a sense of worth? Do we want the extra power for its own sake? This sort of “naked ambition” comes from a heart that is not satisfied in God. This would be a cause to reconsider your deepest values, deepest loves.

But on the other side of this pride is a false humility wherein we bury the talents God has given us. Are we shirking added responsibilities and thereby withholding our gifts from God and from our neighbors? Are we so “content” in our present condition that we’re unwilling to step up and step out into the more dangerous and risky world that God is calling us to?

On the one side there is see the danger of pride. On the other side is the danger of neglect or laziness. In the Gospel at Work, authors Traeger and Gilbert describe these as the dangers of idolatry and idleness.

The second, and related, tension, pertains to the expected outcome; the goal. Whose kingdom are you building? Are you building your own personal kingdom or are you building the kingdom of God? That is, are you primarily serving yourself or others?

How can ambition be used to serve others? There are several ways: Perhaps you want to increase your salary so that your family no longer lives so close to the bone? Or perhaps you want to make more money so that you can be more generous with others? Or, perhaps you know that by taking or seeking that promotion you can help the business you work for better serve its customers. For most jobs, to be skilled in that job and to be in a position to utilize those skills, gives you opportunities to do appreciable, even if modest, good to your neighbor.

But perhaps your ambition has nothing to do with serving others. What would that look like? Seeking a promotion or a new position even though you know you aren’t skilled or qualified to really carry out the job well. Seeking wealth purely for its own sake or (going back to the beginning) simply out of pride, for the feeling that you “made it.”

We come back again to the same dangers we saw before. On the one side is the desire to build your own kingdom, for your own sake. On the other side is a disregard for – or perhaps fear of – using your gifts for the sake of your neighbor.

Where does this leave us? Should Christians be ambitions? My answer is that it depends on your motivation. Are you trying to serve only yourself or are you trying to serve God and others? Are you trying to glorify yourself or are you doing everything to the glory of God?