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Growing up can often be a disappointing process.  When you’re 10, you imagine that becoming a “teenager” will change everything.  But a few days after your 13th birthday, you realize that things are pretty much the same.  Then you start dreaming about turning 16, and getting your license, which is cool; but again, you quickly recognize that it doesn’t make as much difference as you thought.  Even 18 is that way.  Yeah, you’re legally an adult now, yet you still have to turn in your homework and get up for school the next day.  But finishing High School is different.  Though you may not sense it immediately, the rules change dramatically.  Up to this point, there was a system specifically designed to carry you along.  There was a whole panel of adults (e.g. parents, grandparents, pastors, youth group leaders, teachers, coaches, counselors…) assigned to provide guidance, boundaries, bedtimes, wake-ups, rides, resources, and incentives to stay on the right track.  There were organized activities intended specifically for you, like sports teams, school plays, dances, and 4H club.  And there was an education system built to pretty much ensure your success.  As long as you cooperated (i.e. showed up with a decent attitude) with these processes, you were almost guaranteed to make it through.  But now, that all changes.  Adulthood is very much a give and take proposition.  Generally, you get out of it what you put into it.  Even staying in school changes.  Colleges and Universities are businesses.  You pay to take their classes.  If you don’t show up, the teacher isn’t going to come looking for you.  If you don’t turn in your work, they will not scold you, or even ask about it.  If you fail the class, they will happily allow you to pay them to take the course over again next semester.  The workplace, and relationships, and almost every other facet of life works similarly.  If you want to have a great marriage, a successful career, or even to live in an exceptional community, you need to invest yourself (i.e. time, energy, passion…) in it.  Simply showing up, empty handed, will no longer get it done.  Ultimately, life was never meant to be a spectator sport – if you hope to get somewhere, you’d better dive in.     

 

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A child who is never required to bend their will to the parent they can see is unlikely to submit their will to a God they cannot see.

20/20 Vision

This dates back to before I had a blog (2008-2009)

 

As someone who has been near-sighted since birth, I’ve never struggled with the concept of being able to see things that are in close proximity, while struggling to see things at a distance. But I must admit to being somewhat confused the first time I heard of someone being “far-sighted”.  In my young mind I reasoned that if your eyes were strong enough to see things at a distance, they couldn’t be too weak to see what was right in front of them.  It wasn’t until I first tried to focus a camera that I began to understand.  As I zoomed the lens in on a distant mountain range, I noticed that everything in the foreground had become blurry and I realized that it isn’t the strength of the eye that is the issue; it is the ability for it to focus.

 

I was again reminded of this concept by the lyrics to the song, “God of this City” (Chris Tomlin). Within the refrain it says, “For greater things have yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city”; which caused me to ponder all of the things that we’ve yet to see happen in our city.  I realized that at one time reaching the city for Christ had been the top priority, but that over time the desire to impact the nation and even the world for Christ had diminished the focus on that goal.  While it is certainly not wrong to want to impact the nation and ultimately the world for Christ, I felt like the Lord began to speak about becoming spiritually “far-sighted” and about the balance of things that He’s calling us to.

 

As in the natural sense, both near-sightedness & far-sightedness are spiritual impairments as well. Spiritual near-sightedness will keep us focused on ourselves, our circumstances; our perceived lack… and will likely keep us from ever extending ourselves beyond our own self-interests.  In this condition the church can simply become a place for God’s people to hide from the evil of the world until Jesus returns to rescue us.  While this is a serious problem, it should be a fairly easy condition to diagnose; whereas spiritual far-sightedness may not be quite so apparent.  This latter condition is likely to occur in active ministries, where there is visionary, goal-oriented leadership and where there is a general understanding of the fact that God has commissioned His children to have an impact in the world.  Often the only indicator that there is a problem is that the church is having a minimal effect on the spiritual condition of the community around it.

 

I’ve heard it said that if you want to measure the spiritual health of a church you shouldn’t look at the congregation itself, but at the community that surrounds it; and I believe that to be a valid point. Throughout the New Testament there is a sense that we are first called to reach out to those people that God places us amongst, before reaching for the uttermost.

 

As Paul talks about the qualifications for leadership (1 Tim 3), he says that one must be an effectual leader within the context of their own family before they are fit to oversee matters within the church; Jesus speaks of our need to show ourselves faithful over a few things, before we will be entrusted with greater authority; and in perhaps the most pointed example, we see Jesus initially turn down a Canaanite woman’s request for help, because His first obligation is to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 15: 21-28). He goes so far as to say that it would be wrong for Him to give bread that belongs to the children to the dogs.  Though this woman’s faith eventually caused Jesus to comply with her request, this story seems to substantiate the principle that our first calling is to those that He puts within arms reach of us.  While for an individual that would most likely be his family & neighbors; for a church, it would likely be the community in which it is planted.

 

In praying about this far-sighted condition, I don’t sense that it develops because a church is apathetic toward their community, but because in many ways it is more difficult to reach the people who are closest to us than it is to touch someone who is half a world away. Anyone who has endeavored to reach out to a lost relative, an unbelieving spouse or a rebellious child would likely testify to the same.  Even Jesus Himself experienced this in His hometown; causing Him to conclude that “A prophet is never honored in their own town” (Luke 4:24).  I would guess that in many cases this condition develops after long seasons of outreach to the community fail to bear much fruit, which perpetuates the concept that it is ultimately more productive to find some other field in which to plant seeds.  While it is not difficult to understand how we might arrive at that conclusion, such thinking can result in a church becoming like a minister whose platform ministry is enthusiastically embraced, but who goes home to a completely dysfunctional family.  While I don’t believe that we have to conquer the community for Christ before we can reach out beyond it, I would suggest that our efforts to impact the community must remain at the forefront of the local church’s’ mission.  Though the local church is often viewed as vehicle for ministry, it is first and foremost a community of Believers.

 

As the church seeks ways to impact the culture, there is a temptation to view culture in broad and distant terms (e.g. Entertainment = Hollywood, Government = Washington DC…), but the Lord impressed upon me that the place He’s called us to (e.g. family, neighborhood, community, workplace, school, city, region…) is the culture that He’s calling us to impact first.  He reminded me that while Jesus most certainly came to impact culture, He wasn’t born in Rome (i.e. the epicenter of Roman culture) or even Jerusalem (i.e. the epicenter of Jewish culture); He didn’t spend time trying to engage Caesar (or Herod) on altering their public policy and that His disciples impact on the world did not come through positions of power within the cultural infrastructure.

 

Ultimately Christ’s influence is most effectively conveyed on a personal level and to those with who we are in relationship with. As I queried the Lord for an example of what 20/20 spiritual vision might look like, He reminded me that Jesus said that He didn’t do anything that He didn’t see the Father do first and that we have been counseled to fix our eyes (i.e. focus) upon Jesus, who is the Author and Finisher of our faith.

I definitely need to preface the presentation of the following list with the understanding that I’m not saying that these traits are ungodly or undesirable; but as the church in America has in many instances veered dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality, I think it is important to understand that these characteristics are only worthwhile to the degree that they are brought into submission to Christ Jesus, and the power of His Holy Spirit.

 

  1. Knowledgeable: Though warnings about the danger of being led astray by our emotions seem to be more prevalent in the church today, the scripture puts a far greater emphasis on how our thoughts and ideas can pull us off track.  The Bible cautions us that knowledge can puff a man up, warns us not to lean on our own understanding and reminds us that even in the best case scenario our perspective will only be a partial piece of a much bigger picture.  In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were the most knowledgeable authorities on matters of scripture and yet they were unable to discern the very One those scriptures pointed to, even as He stood before them.  Though I’m not an advocate of empty-headed theology, we cannot put our hope in what we know and/or understand. In fact, Jesus said that anyone who will not receive His kingdom like a little child will not enter it.
  2. Practical: While I tend to be a fan of what most people refer to as “common sense”, my enthusiasm is tempered by the understanding that God’s ways are much higher than ours and thus what He wants may not always make sense to me.  The Bible goes so far as to say that there is a way which naturally seems right to a man, but that it will ultimately lead to death.  In the well known Bible story of Mary and Martha, we see Martha take the more practical approach with her guest, only to have Jesus tell her that Mary had made the wiser choice.  We too can fall into that same trap, as we endeavor to serve God when we really need to be cultivating our relationship with Him.
  3. Confident: Undoubtedly God wants us to be confident about some things, but I’ve noticed that those things are always centered on Him. He wants us to know that we can come “boldly” before His throne of grace; that He will never leave us, nor forsake us; and that He works all things to the good of those who love Him and are called to His purposes.  The problem with confidence is when it drifts from who He is and what’s He’s accomplished for us to who we think we are and what we want to accomplish.  While God has indeed given us good gifts, our confidence cannot be in the quality of those gifts, but in His willingness to work through them.  A common term for misplaced confidence is pride, which inevitably invites God’s resistance.
  4. Charismatic: One of the most misleading images in all of Christendom is the representation of Satan as a little horned creature with a pitchfork.  The Bible says that our enemy comes disguised as an angel of light; that false prophets, performing signs & wonders, will deceive many; and that when the Anti-Christ comes, he will initially be perceived as a man of peace.  The idea that evil will present itself in a way that is repugnant to us is foolishness and yet there seems to be an increasing willingness in our culture to place our confidence in those whose appearance is attractive and whose words seem compelling.  Recent history is littered with examples of persona and personality eclipsing issues of character; but character is at the heart of God’s plan for us.  The Bible says that it is the destiny of every Believer to be transformed into the image of Christ and that the fruit of God’s Spirit dwelling within us is Christ’s character being revealed through us.  For a follower of Jesus Christ, an attractive appearance, an engaging personality and a persuasive argument, are hardly qualifications for leadership; ultimately it is the character of Christ that is the essential trait.
  5. Goal Oriented: As with all of the other traits on this list, setting goals certainly has its place within our lives; but the danger in becoming “goal oriented” is that our goals can take on an unhealthy prominence within our priority system.  Goal oriented people often seem willing to sacrifice people and relationships for the sake of attaining their desired outcomes; and their focus on goals often seems to impair their ability to maintain a healthy perspective in other areas.  The Bible tells us that we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the Author and Finisher of our faith.  It also says that the fulfillment of God’s law is found in loving Him and loving other people.  Goals that are unrelated to these priorities threaten to be little more than distractions.
  6. Empowered: To be sure, it is God’s intent to grant His children access to the power of heaven, which He accomplishes through the in-dwelling of His Holy Spirit, but I believe that it is important to realize that there is nothing virtuous about the pursuit of power. The world loves power, Satan loves power, our flesh craves and responds to power.  While we may rationalize that the pursuit of Gods power is somehow different, I would submit that isn’t necessarily true.  The Bible warns that the heart can be deceptive and I believe that it is essential that we continually check our motivation.  While we serve a God of power and while His power is inherent in the gifts that He’s given us, I don’t believe it was ever meant to be the object of our pursuit.  Our pursuit needs to be after the person of Jesus Christ and of a loving, meaningful, personal relationship with Him.  The fact that this power comes infused within His very being indicates that it was never His intent for us to implement that power apart from Him.  Those who attempt to apply spiritual authority (i.e. power) in areas or ways that God has not ordained are at risk of unwittingly deriving their empowerment from “other” spiritual sources.
  7. Visionary: In our culture, the word “vision” can mean many things; it can mean how well we see (i.e. our visual acuity); or it can refer to a dreamlike state, where images permeate our conscious mind; or it can refer to our long term goals and the strategies for achieving them. Just as the term vision has multiple contexts, so has the term “visionary”.  Whereas there was once a very spiritual connotation to the term, it now seems that anyone who has an active imagination or the ability to “visualize” their ideas can be viewed as a “visionary”.  The problem with such visionaries is that they can tap into any number of sources for their vision.  Visions that are not birthed from the Spirit of God, but are instead derived from observations, imaginations, aspirations… would probably be more accurately called wishes, dreams or fantasies.  Proverbs 28 (NIV) addresses the idea of fantasies when it says, “one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty”.  In view of this scripture, it would seem vital that we discern the origin of a “vision” before we choose to embrace it.  I believe that apart from divine inspiration, a “visionary” will inevitably just build a monument to themselves
  8. Proactive: It is commonly held that God helps those who help themselves, but that’s not something that God chose to say about Himself (in scripture).  In fact, the Bible says that they that wait on the Lord are the one’s who renew their strength and rise up as on the wings of eagles.  It could be argued that the Israelites were being proactive when their attack on the Philistines caused them to lose the Ark of the Covenant; just as it could be said of Peter’s efforts to protect Jesus from the Temple Guard in the Garden of Gethsemane.  While being proactive is generally viewed as an essential element of what we consider to be good leadership, for a “follower” of Christ, responsiveness (i.e. to God’s direction) is the greater virtue.
  9. Experienced: It has been said that with age comes wisdom and hopefully if we endeavor to learn along the way, this should be true. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed certain patterns in life, which makes it easier to anticipate what might be around the next bend.  But the walk of faith differs from our natural journey in that God isn’t necessarily bound to work in the same way twice.  Throughout the Old Testament we see Him orchestrate victory for His people through many different means.  In one case He brings Joshua victory through Moses upheld arms; in another the walls of Jericho fall to the shouts of His wandering tribes (Joshua 6); in yet another case the angel of death wipes out 185,000 enemy soldiers in their sleep because of Hezekiah’s prayer (2 Kings 18 & 19); while in still another instance their enemies turn on each other as Jehoshaphat leads the people onto the battlefield while praising the Lord (2 Chronicles 20).  The danger for those who have experienced victory in their faith journey is that they might come to presume that they have found the formula for success with God.  Today’s Christian Bookstores are filled with books (& other media) that have been built on the premise that, My Experience + God Moved = This is How to have Success with God.  Since faith is an essential element for God’s pleasure, it seems unlikely that He would honor any sort of rote approach.  Experience in our walk with God is only valuable to the extent that it convinces us that He is our only source, our only hope and our only goal.
  10. Open Minded: Jesus said that we must love God with all of our heart, soul & mind (Mat. 22:37); and that He wasn’t willing to do anything that He didn’t see the Father do first (John 5:19). This is not a picture of a mind that is open (i.e. receptive) to just anything, but of one that is reserved for a single purpose.  The scripture also says that we must test everything by the Spirit (1 John 4:1); taking every thought captive, making it obedient to Christ; and demolishing every argument & pretense that exalts itself against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5).  This is not a picture of an open door, but of a guarded gate.  The open mind looks for “new truth”, while the Christ-centered mind seeks a greater revelation of the truth that has always been.

The problem with continually trying to numb yourself to pain is that you eventually lose the capacity to feel anything, other than the steadily growing anxiety that your next step might hurt.

Common Ground

I grew up in a military family, normally living on Air Force bases with other military families. After high school, I joined the Navy, and for another decade lived/worked amongst people with differing backgrounds, diverse ethnicity, and varying belief systems.  The military made little allowance for our differences; once you donned the uniform you were expected to work together toward the greater mission.  I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this dramatically affected my understanding of community and family.  Even decades later, I still have many friends (and family) who don’t necessarily believe the things that I believe.  They grew up differently than I did, their life experience has led them to draw different conclusions than I have, and ultimately they view the world through a different lens than I do.  To me, this is not only how it’s always been, but also how it ought to be.  This doesn’t mean that we have nothing in common.  They love their families, value their communities, and hope to live in peace, just as I do.  I find my life is enriched, and my understanding is expanded, by remaining engaged with people who don’t necessarily think, act and live like I do.  Thus, I continue to seek the common ground that we all share.

 

When social media platforms like Facebook emerged, I found them to be a great way to stay connected, especially with friends and family who are literally spread all over the world. At its best, it has allowed us to remain connected in ways we couldn’t have otherwise.  No doubt, I want to celebrate their joys with them, and pray for them when they’re in a struggle, and to honor them when they’re gone.  But these days there seems to be a lot of pressure to use social media (and every other available platform) as a bully pulpit, where we exalt our preferences, ridicule those who have a differing point of view, and dare people to “Unfriend” us if they don’t like what we have to say.  People who refuse to participate in this battle of angry rhetoric are increasingly being criticized for not taking a side, accused of remaining “neutral” on the important issues of the day, and even being compared to those who stood by in Nazi Germany, doing nothing to stop the Holocaust.  As it goes with all the other points of view floating around cyberspace, they’re entitled to their opinion, and they’re also entitled to express it, but I don’t find their arguments compelling.

 

I believe that finding and cultivating the common ground that we share makes for stronger and more united communities. Building and strengthening these bonds of community is an essential first step in addressing the larger social issues we face.  Standing on opposite sides of the street, throwing rocks at each other isn’t going to achieve anything other than our eventual destruction.  I’m not sure what people think their vitriol achieves, but if posting an angry meme on social media is the extent of one’s activism, they’ve not done much.  Getting a bunch of folks, who already agreed with you, to “Like” your post doesn’t really effect change. If there is genuine oppression, it’s going to cost a lot more than some heated words to stand up to it.  If we are successful in alienating everyone who doesn’t look, think, and act like we do, we’ll have simply set the stage for civil war.  If we want to better understand the issues, we need to engage in meaningful dialogue with people of diverse viewpoints.  If we want to battle racism, we need to engage in meaningful relationships with people of other races.  If we want to battle poverty, we need to engage in the process of creating opportunities or providing aid to the underprivileged…  If we were that committed to change, we’d probably be too busy to spend so much time on Facebook.

It’s a dangerous thing to mistake imagination for intuition.