Twin discoveries from our life of love group: 1. Every week the topic of “loving ourselves” has come up, and 2., I have some inner resistance to that phrase. Oh, wait: discovery three: If I loved myself in the way that God loves me (or if I, in other words, allowed God to lead me in how I think about myself, feed myself, forgive myself, etc. etc.), I and everyone around me would be better off. Ouch. “Let me ‘splain; no, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
Have you ever said to someone who was in some destructive habits, “Take care of yourself” and really hoped that they would? I think that’s what God is saying to all of us, at least that’s what I’m hearing at our LOL group. Think of Jesus crying out to Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings! But you were not willing!” And I am apparently part of the “unwilling.” Yes, I am at least somewhat inwardly opposed to believing that God desires above all to just let him (through some of our own choices) take care of us. I’m reminded of how the NT teaches husbands to love their wives as they do their own body, “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.” Really? No one ever hated his own body, Paul? Paul obviously didn’t live in the modern West or grow up in the churches I grew up in. But seriously, did you catch that? The logic is obvious: Paul assumes and affirms that we would “love” our own bodies; that we’d feed and care for them, and not disdainfully on the one hand or indulgently on the other, but as Christ does the Church. If your spirit just says, “Of course; duh, T!” then count yourself blessed. Cuz I’ve not been trained to think that Paul would affirm folks “loving” themselves, certainly not their bodies–we’re supposed to hate/tolerate our bodies in Christianity, right? Apparently not. But you know, I freely admit that I need progress in love in the way of Christ, and it turns out the first place God has highlighted has been accepting his love for me in greater measure, and seeing more clearly how he does “love.”
God busted me as I was contemplating a typical food choice the other day: “If I loved myself the way God loves me, I wouldn’t just eat whatever I want, I’d take care of myself through eating; because that’s what God wants to do–take better care of me.”
What’s really going on here is the depth and scope of my belief, or disbelief, in the grace of God toward me. Again, I’ve been programmed to hear “grace” as “forgiving my sins” but God’s grace is all the undeserved kindness that God wants to show me, all the ways he wants to take care of me, merit notwithstanding. It’s too easy for me when I hear that we are to pick up our cross and follow Christ to even unconsciously say, “Yes, yes, because I deserve some hardship for my failings; and God wants to give me some.” But that’s not the cross that Jesus picked up, nor the one he asks us to bear.
God wants to care for us, and the whole world. He’d like to pull us into that vocation, even as it concerns our own selves. Yes, God wants me to “love myself” but not the way the world loves, so that I just give myself whatever I want, but to “care for and feed myself,” to seek to do good to myself and even my body, because that’s God’s desire for me.
In my experience growing up in evangelical circles, generally speaking, repentance was understood as an individual choice that was done or not done in a moment. The power to make this choice came, if at all, directly from God (the Holy Spirit) to the individual. That’s simply what repentance was and how it happened. One sealed the deal by walking an aisle, or raising one’s hand (with all heads bowed and eyes closed) or telling someone about our decision. Then it was up to whatever measure of individual, God-given willpower one had to “walk it out,” just me and Jesus.
One of the things that I have come to deeply appreciate in 12-step/support group wisdom and practice is the recognition that repentance–real change of one’s life that sticks–is generally neither instantaneous nor ‘lone-ranger’ style; it’s slow and, more importantly, communal. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 12 steps are themselves 12 “steps” to effective repentance and that the meetings are there to “support” each person in this most challenging of all processes.
Here’s my question to my fellow church folk out there: How do you do repentance? Solo or communal? Do you have a Christian community, large or small, that actually encourages you to admit failures and take steps to repent/change without shaming you? In other words, do you have a community to run to for help as you are faced with your failures, or do you generally attempt to implement/pursue change alone?
We’ve had our second Life of Love meeting (affectionately nicknamed “LOL” group). As I expressed at LOL, I’m deeply grateful for the group. Kim facilitated and did a marvelous job, and everyone had great things to say. I can’t even blog long because cooperating with love today, for me, requires that I prioritize some work this morning. But even feeling this constraint is great success. Love’s call to me has grown stronger as I, at least weekly, or even daily, affirm it as my chief vocation. I feel it gently calling at all aspects of my life more often throughout the day. And knowing that the call of love is the call of God in Christ makes this voice more comforting and compelling at the same time. I could go on, but love calls me now in the form of returning e-mails, doing work for clients and getting my and my family’s bills paid as I promised.
I’ll leave with a question or two: What experience or practice makes you feel most loved by God and/or more inclined to love others? Is there any way for y0u to “pursue love” on your own or with others?
There’s a long story here, but I’m going to skip to the end (maybe give a pre-quel later). 🙂 The other day, I was emailing a friend, Pat Loughery, and said this in response to a question he asked me:
The actual shape of my life day to day matters so much more than I used to think. Realizing this has brought me to more of a “one day at a time” approach, and makes me more appreciative of friends who support me in really pursuing a life of love.
When I typed the last three words, an idea–and a strong motivation–to start a support group built around the purpose of pursuing a life of love, in the way of Christ, hit me hard. I spoke to a few close friends about it, and a couple of other folks that I think the Spirit highlighted for me. We had our first meeting this last Tuesday, and I was really, really encouraged, and I think many were.
For those who aren’t familiar with support groups, the below outline may not give a clear enough idea of what we do (and why and how), but I figured I’d post it anyway. I’m a little jazzed, too, that after having just our first meeting and giving out this outline, someone else volunteered to facilitate the next meeting. Here’s to Love.
LIFE OF LOVE GROUP – Proposed Meeting Format
A Support Group for People Who’s Highest Goal Is To Make Real Progress in Living a Life of Love in the Way of Jesus
- Hangout, snacks, etc.
- At the appointed time, the facilitator calls everyone to the meeting; someone reads: “The purpose of this group is to support each other as we seek to live lives of greater love in the way of Jesus. The desire for such progress in love is the only requirement for membership.”
- Someone reads a scripture chosen by the facilitator in keeping with our purpose. (e.g., I Cor. 13, various I John passages, various Psalms, John 3:16, etc.).
- If there are any newcomers, the facilitator gives basic outline for the meeting and the closing time.
- The facilitator (i) introduces a time of silence to give everyone the opportunity to stop, think and/or pray, and (ii) closes the time with a simple “Amen” or the serenity prayer or another appropriate prayer to the group’s purpose, whether scripted or spontaneous.
- If there are relatively new people, the facilitator may go over the basic rules of the discussion time, which are born out of our common purpose: +++ Respect for other members: This is a space for people to “work out their own rescue” from lovelessness in the presence of God and others. Each person is chiefly responsible for his or her own progress in love or the lack of it, therefore, each person is welcome to share or not in turn as they deem best. Feelings and/or personal experience are preferable to theory. No hard rules on length, but we want in general to be considerate so that others also have time to be heard. Listening is our primary way to love each other in the discussion time. So that each of us can avail ourselves of this time without being shamed, we do not give feedback or advice to other members unless they specifically ask for it (even then, it may be best not to give it during discussion, but rather to share your own experience and pray!). Affirmations or gratitude for what someone else has shared is always welcome. +++ Confidentiality: Everything said in the meeting is confidential, and will not be disclosed to others.
- The facilitator introduces the topic of discussion as well as the freedom (and encouragement!) to deviate from the topic. Each person is encouraged to talk about whatever they feel will help them make progress in love. If there are any (relatively) newcomers, the facilitator should ask each person to introduce themselves by first names at their turn to share. More than one “round” of discussion is totally fine, as are additional, related topics or questions by the facilitator until time is up.
- At the agreed time, the facilitator announces the end of discussion time, invites all to make note of any particular items that they want to “take away” for their own progress, allows each person a quick opportunity to share their take away or not.
- [optional] Time of singing to God. The facilitator encourages people to approach this time within the context of our goal of learning to love God and receive love from him. Try not to simply sing out of habit. Each person is free to sing, , listen, stand, sit, kneel, etc. as each deems helpful toward our goal.
- Close by leading all in the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23 or other group prayer appropriate to the purpose. The facilitator encourages anyone who wants to pray further or receive prayer to do so. Same for discussion, snacks, helping to clean up, or leaving the meeting.
I’m entering into a “looking back/looking forward” series of posts regarding the Vineyard, inspired in part by the guys I mentioned in the last post (check there for links).
Our church (though not a Vineyard) welcomes people to receive prayer for anything at the end of the Sunday service. I’m one of the leaders of the prayer team. In fact, I just led our last training, which was very ‘Vineyard-esque.’ So I listen to the Holy Spirit when I pray for folks, and just about any other time I can remember to do so. I “do the stuff” as much as I can and the stuff is good and the stuff is very rewarding. Think woman at the well–who wouldn’t be jazzed about that? But you know what? I don’t just do what Jesus did in that story. The Vineyard legacy in my life isn’t just to “do the stuff.” It’s first and foremost a willingness to “receive”: receive the kingdom like a little child, receive the Spirit, receive help from God through others and through any other means he sees fit to give help. The priesthood of all believers and the great mercy of God means that I not only get to play the part of Jesus in that story in John 4, but also (thank God!) the role of the woman: religious but broken, and in increasing need and fatigue, plagued with some kind of pain or weight or task or shame or all of the above, and being the one largely to blame for my condition. Then God meets me, usually through a fellow clay pot who knows my pain and is full of his Spirit. Together, God and this humble pot don’t just give me big important truths (regarding the true nature of worship, for instance), but also the little known truth about me. As God’s awareness of me becomes obvious, all of a sudden my hope and faith are renewed, and instead of wearily lugging heavy jars of water over and over, springs of living water start welling up in me, and I am totally lightened, refreshed and refreshing others with quickness and ease in my steps. That’s just from receiving from God, often via a clay pot like myself. Isn’t it interesting that even though Jesus tells this woman one of the most theologically significant truths about worship–announcing to her a momentous shift in how/where worship will happen in the covenant that is now being made–it’s the little known truth he gives about her that transforms her into an energetic, believing missionary: “Come see this man who told me everything I ever did.” It’s not the big truth about right worship and temples, hot as that topic was at the time, that sent her running with joy, it was the smaller truth about her.
I have needed (and continue to need) God to talk to me that way–personalized, customised, through other people, circumstances and Spirit to spirit. Is there a greater need in the thirsty, agnostic West? It heals me so deeply. Energizes me so dramatically. Convinces me of all kinds of ‘big truths’ so convincingly. The Vineyard is going to need to hang on to and deepen that legacy and practice in the post-modern era. My main caveats would be these: 1. experiences like these aren’t mutually exclusive with more traditional means of growth and spiritual disciplines; they are complimentary for disciples; and 2. Get intentional about pursuing “the stuff” outside of the meetings. Make it missional, make it a way of life, not a way of church services or even just outreaches. The latter will rot from the inside-out, the former, the way of life, will be like a garden in spring time, teeming with more life than can be contained.
Scot McKnight has started a discussion over an extremely important topic: doubts (for people of “faith”). He is highlighting what may be the best book I’ve seen for Christians in the middle of serious doubts, and he’s asking for stories and experiences. Drop in at Scot’s blog an join the discussion. Below is my comment as well as comments from Scot and David Opderbeck that really surprised and encouraged me; we need to talk about this more in our churches:
My most serious doubts were about my own salvation and along the Calvinist-Arminian fault lines. There was never a doubt about whether God was real, just whether I was “in” or “out” with him. Growing up in evangelical/fundamentalist churches and schools, that was THE question, and it remained the question for me for years even after I finally gave in to Jesus in a serious way. I knew I was “saved by faith alone” so what happened if I doubted my salvation? It was like having doubt in a faith-healing except the healing was my justification. It was a downward spiral of doubt and depression. Those passages in Hebrews about never entering God’s rest because of unbelief and others couldn’t have been more intense.
No amount of theologizing helped or could have helped. As a lawyer in training, I saw holes in every would-be propositional solution. Here’s what helped, in no particular order: I found solace in the Psalms, where people were “officially” praying what I was feeling and fearing. And I made the decision that even if I was damned/not elect and such a decision “does not depend on [my] desire or effort”, I still had to follow Jesus as best I could, mainly for my wife’s sake (my thought was for helping her and treating her as she should be treated). So basically, I eventually just accepted that I couldn’t do anything about it and gave the issue of my justification over to Jesus (the judge) while I read the Psalms and went to church (thankfully not an argumentative one). I accepted that I may be damned unless he said otherwise, which I may not know about in this life if at all. Over time, my thinking changed and the locus of my “faith” and hope slowly shifted from the salvation formula (which seemed to hinge on my faith) to Jesus as a person and on his love (a theme from the Psalms). Things got better. Much, much better.
. . . not unlike my own experience in my college years and early seminary years. Shifting from “am I in?” and “do I have that saving faith or is my faith a self-deceptive fraud?” to “Look to Christ” led me out of that morass and spiral, during which time I learned deeply in theology, into a second naivete.
I can totally, totally relate to your story. Isn’t it interesting that the end result of the kind of struggle you describe often is a kind of resignation: “it is all in Christ’s hands and there is nothing more I can do about it.” We realize then that this ultimately is “faith,” and all the formulas and formulations often are ways in which we try to control things ourselves.
Elizabeth O’Connor, via Inward-Outward, on the fear of being hurt; truly one of Evil’s better tactics to divide and conquer:
Somehow we keep our lives so well hidden from one another that we do not guess that we are not alone. Distrust is among our subtle illnesses. We were given hearts for “reciprocal trust,” but fear has built high walls. We are afraid of being hurt, and when we talk, we make ourselves vulnerable. What we say can be used against us or betray our loyalty to another, and so we add isolation to our own burden and the burden of others.