Following God’s will is difficult as we face inner turmoil

I had a lovely childhood, except when I had to sit at the designated children’s table.

You know what I’m talking about: the adults sat in the dining room with fine wine and great food while the kids were relegated to the kitchen on old, vinyl chairs and one small square of lasagna. I always protested; I wanted to sit with the adults.

For as long as I could remember, I was always rushing to grow up. This is common among young people. The students whom I teach at Victory Christian School have expressed in various settings their desire to grow up and take on responsibilities reserved for adults.

Little do they know that when they turn 40, this desire will likely reverse.

In many ways we are all trying to grow up or, in other words, discover our identity and our place in this world. We make decisions, form values, and even choose our politics based on allegiances and labels to which we gravitate. We search for some sense of self-identification that provides a sense of stability.

What we fail to realize is that we wrestle with certain tensions in our never-ending desire to define who we are as individuals. These tensions play tug-of-war in our very soul.

One tension pertains to a question of conformity. We are torn between being conformed by God’s Spirit and conforming ourselves to the trends of this world.

This is really a matter of surrender: Are we willing to surrender ourselves to God, allowing the person and lordship of Christ to form us into new creations based on his love and mercy, or are we simply reaching for pinnacles of power and prestige that offer us memberships into the popular social cliques of our time?

Another tension is between defining our personhood by who we are rather than by what we do. The world constantly judges us by what we do, what we have accomplished, and what we can afford. Our first question when meeting another person is predictable: “So what do you do for a living?” And judgment ensues. Our first impressions are based on matters very shallow indeed.

God judges us on who we are, and the true measure of a person is in his or her depth of character. It was the wise elder, Polonius, who offered this wisdom in Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet”: “Above all else, to thine own self be true.”

Is Christ forming us in a way that we become who Christ wants us to be, even if it means sacrificing something that we think we need for immediate pleasure?

It seems that everywhere we look in our society, people are staking out their territory and drawing lines regarding where they stand on issues and how they think. God is concerned much less about our stakes in the ground than He is about our passion and desire to be formed by His very Son’s lordship.

Just putting this in black and white does not make these tensions in us wane. The Christian journey is a constant struggle to overcome ego and self-gratification at the cost of our very souls. In writing of his short stay at a Trappist monastery, late spiritual author and priest, Henri Nouwen, expressed this struggle well:

“It is this type of … total surrender, of unconditional ‘yes’ (to God), of unwavering obedience to God’s will, that frightens me and makes me such a wishy-washy soul, wanting to keep a foot in both worlds. But that is how one stumbles.”

But did Christ not say that following Him was a difficult task? As we all find our way in the world, I would contend that it certainly is.

Give it a Rest: Sabbaticals as a Spiritual Discipline

Last week, I was greeted by some raised eyebrows when I announced at church that I was taking a mini-Sabbatical during the month of November.  The idea of a Sabbatical is a bit foreign in Baptist life, so I understand my congregation’s concern; however, taking a Sabbatical is an important part of a minister’s spiritual growth.  It can be a healthy part of a churchgoer’s spiritual growth as well.

The word sabbatical comes from the word, Sabbath, and points back to day seven of creation when God rested.  Sabbath was important enough to make the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day (Ex 20:8).

In ministry as in the academy, taking a Sabbatical means literally to “depart” to pursue short-term goals that bring invigoration.  Many participate in various projects, such as doing research abroad, taking time to write a book or reevaluating a vision for ministry.

The underlying assumption for Sabbatical, whether it applies to a minister, professor, or church member, is that people need to step back for a season and cultivate a new perspective on their calling.

After attending the same church over a long period of time, people tend to draw boundaries around their mission and vision.  At first, an identity that boundaries and ministries provide can be fulfilling, but after a while those boundaries can actually limit the broader vision of what God has for a church’s future.

Our ingrained identities at church can also skew our understanding of God.  For instance, if a pastor is passionate about a certain issue and becomes tied to that issue at the church, then the pastor is tempted to see God as one who also stands for that sole issue.  The pastor’s entire identity in the community comes from that issue rather than the broader gospel ministry for which all ministers stand.  A sabbatical can help the minister expand her horizons.

For church members, a Sabbatical can serve the same function.  Visiting other churches or experiencing different forms of worship can help people discover God anew.  The intention is not to get people to join other churches, but return to church after Sabbatical and testify as to how God has moved in one’s life in a new way.

Many pastors get nervous about encouraging members to go on a Sabbatical because it may mean the loss of a Sunday School teacher, tithe, or a volunteer for a time.  My perspective is that if a member consistently gives of his tithes, talents and gifts after years of faithful service to the church, then a Sabbatical that intentionally seeks to refresh the member will only make his or her giving that much more meaningful upon their return.

When people leave their home church for a season it inspires them to appreciate their church more; as the adage goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  When people return with a new, fresh spirit, this vibrancy can be contagious and help church members utilize gifts that they would otherwise overlook.

Sabbaticals are a necessary part of biblical living.  Attending church without a short-term break can make church routine to the point that the tasks of the church turn stale.  Jesus instructed us that we are to belong to a community of believers and that we should not be overwhelmed by engaging that community the same way year in and year out.  Jesus said that people will know we are Christians by our love, not by what we do at church, let alone by how quickly we burn out.

Trends in Theology, Pt. 2

This is the second article among several exploring trends in theology.  Theology is a search for and conversation with God to realize how God is working in each one of us, in our communities, in our world, and in history.  We do theology because God calls us to respond to His love in creative ways; such reflection is the stuff of theology.

Last week I mentioned that the work of theology is becoming a global discipline, meaning that Western civilization no longer has a monopoly on theology and that various regions spanning from South America to Japan are contributing to the conversation on how humans and God interact.  The trend I’m writing about this week has to do with the relational aspect of theology.

As the world continues to connect in urban, suburban, rural, and cyber-communities, people are hungering for deeper relationships and sustainable partnerships.  But there is an irony here because people are seeking these relationships outside of churches.  People are attending church less but are joining intimate fellowship groups in far greater numbers.  The aim of relational theology is therefore to put Church back in center stage to help build sustainable relationships.

A theology that focuses on relationships mirrors the Trinity—God-in-Three Persons—for it is the Trinity that gives us a vision of the diverse-but-interdependent mode of what it means to be truly human.  What this means is that we are to see that all humans are interdependent upon one another, and that we find God and experience God by listening to one another’s life stories.  It is within this storytelling that God emerges as a major character in the patchwork quilt of our lives.

This trend in theology also obliges us to seek Christ in community, for the sake of community.   In this way theology does not merely help us think about God or talk about God, it forces us to discover God’s Presence no matter how mysterious or uncomfortable that Presence may be.  It forces us to respond in active social justice and repentance.

Emerging out of this theology is the idea that we are firmly rooted in all of God’s creation whereby Christians see themselves as a part of creation.  We are interconnected with creation and have mutual obligations to creation.

This does not lead to pantheism or panentheism (worshipping the Earth or creation); rather, this is a re-claiming of the ancient biblical understanding that humans are holistic beings who partner with the Earth in order to bring about the effects of God’s redemptive plan in every square inch of our world.

Additionally, relational theology assumes that humans naturally seek out authentic relationships and make us aware that there are some ways of seeking relationships that are inauthentic.  These deceiving paths do not lead to the type of authenticity that includes God in the mix.  One false way of building relationships is partnering with the idol of mass consumerism.

It is my opinion that we live in a sort of technocracy in which major corporations study how we live and then feed us products that we think we need.  As long as these products insure us that we “belong”, we buy into the myth that our material things provide identity.  Such an identity does not foster the God-conversations that theology demands, nor does it enact wise stewardship of creation and of the Earth’s resources.  Instead our own desires in a must-have world blind us to the needs of others.  We are so busy seeking the things of this world, we miss out on exploring how God’s Kingdom is manifesting itself in our midst.

A friend of mine often quotes Desmond Tutu: “I am who I am because of who we are.”  Relational theology requires us to stand before a Trinitarian God that calls us into sustainable communities with our neighbors. It keeps us from falling into a consumerism mold.  It intentionally builds relationships that emphasize our interdependence on the Creator and all creation.