Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lessons I've Been Learning from 2009

I have a tradition at The Gathering of dedicating my first sermon of the year to sharing some of the lessons God had been teaching me during the previous year.

I’m always a little uncomfortable presenting that sermon because:
a.) Our people get the opportunity to see proof of what they may frequently suspect (that their preacher can be pretty messed-up in side).
b.) Announcing lessons “learned” implies that I've gotten the point. In reality the shelf life for these kinds of lessons seems to be measured in hours, not years, which means that I typically have an awful lot of re-learning going on.

Well, so be it.

Having said that, here’s a summary of what I’m sharing this year.

1. We need to be who God created us to be.
God makes it really clear in the Bible that he has custom-designed each of us for specific purposes which He’s prepared for us to do (I Cor. 12). I’ve known that for a long time, yet it seems like I frequently discover how little I grasp what this really means.

As a pastor, I love seeing how this works. Not long ago I was in a meeting with two of our key leaders. Person A was expressing appreciation for a role Person B had stepped into. “I think it’s so awesome to see how you are able to…” (you get the point). Person B seemed a little flattered, adding how she was amazed every time she saw Person A doing what she did well. They each considered the other to be remarkably gifted and were each surprised to hear the other celebrate their unique contributions.

That conversation just felt very right to me. I love seeing people discovering how they uniquely fit together as we uncover clues as to what God has had in mind for us since the beginning.

In my own situation God has been nudging (OK…shoving) me in a direction that helps me discover just how big of a deal this really is. A lot of my particular learning has had to do with the significance of being an introvert. I’ve been a Meyers-Briggs INTJ since way back, and I’ve always suspected that if you click on the word “introvert” you’d see my picture pop up. People are often surprised about that since I talk for a living, but I’ve known that for a long time. Introversion isn’t the same thing as shy: introvert refers to someone whose battery recharges when they’re alone while an extrovert’s battery recharges while being with other people.

However, God’s lead me to read a number of voices during this past year who are helping me discover just how significant this really is in my life. One of these voices is Adam McHugh, who recently published the book Introverts in the Church which has been attracting a lot of attention on the internet.

Here’s the significance for me: I love people, I love what our church stands for, and I love to explore possibilities with people so together we can figure out how to make them happen. Most of my work time is connected to meetings. But as much as I enjoy that, I also find it incredibly tiring. More often than people suspect I’ll finish an all-day run of meetings and find myself weary to the point of tears. As the adrenaline subsides I’ll discover that I’ve given away more than I had to give. I usually push through that, because you do what you have to do, but that kind of fatigue doesn’t help anybody, and it could really screw up my own life if I’m not careful.

At the same time, I’m learning that the best stuff I have to offer in life comes from the things that happen in my solitude. What I bring in preaching, teaching or writing comes from the very things that I need to be healthy. You lock a red-blooded extrovert up in solitary confinement and you’ll have a mess on your hands. You lock me up and chances are I’ll write something that you’ll find really helpful. It’s all part of the same temperament.

So the lesson for me is that I need to be smart about how I spend my time and my energy. It wouldn’t help anyone for me to crash and burn. I need to trust that Christ can take my five loaves and two fish use them to produce whatever kind of meal is needed.

That’s what I’m learning about how I’m wired. What has God been showing you about how He’s wired you? He’s made you to be very unique, different from anyone else who might read this blog. What has He been showing you about the kind situations in which you can really make His dreams come true?

2. I Need to Watch for God’s Presence.
Theoretically, God is everywhere. He’s omni-present, we say. That’s what David was saying in Psalm 139: “where can I flee from your presence?” In a broader sense it’s impossible to escape the presence of God. Just ask Jonah.

On the other hand there is a unique sense of flourishing that comes from being deeply connected in relationship with him. Jesus described it as being like a vine with branches (John 15). We were created to live life with an ongoing connection to God: seeing life through His eyes, going through our days with His passions beating in our hearts. That’s what I’ve been exploring at a deeper level lately.

Here’s one thing I’ve been discovering: joy is one of the by-products of this Presence. I think of it as the God’s cologne which lets you know he’s somewhere in the immediate vicinity. Joy is different than happiness: happiness is a temporary delight from temporary circumstances. Joy is a lasting sense of well-being that will outlast temporary circumstances.

I’m learning to take that sense of His joy more seriously. Joy is important because it’s good. Grin for grin it’s a better value than happiness and a lot less fragile.

But tracking joy more closely also tends to unearth some weird stuff that can distort my worldview. For instance, I tend to get spooked by my own unhappiness. If my internal weather report is cloudy I’ll begin to assume that things are going badly in life. That’s actually a pretty atheist/humanist kind of approach. It assumes a bunch of things that don’t sync with the gospel very well: that events in life need to meet my approval, that I’m the one who’s best-qualified to judge what’s good or bad in life, and that my happiness index should consistently rise over time. It puts me at the center.

On the other hand, if I re-accept God’s hand in my world then it becomes easier for me to rest in a general sense that God’s on the job and that Rom. 8:28 somehow still applies. For instance, suppose God should grant me joy tomorrow without providing me with a corresponding degree of happiness? Would I be OK with that?

When I slide in my humanist bad habits I tend to over-value happiness and I begin to freak over each potential unhappy thing that might come my way. In short, I worry. Sometimes a lot. But when I shift my focus to tracking His joy more than I track my happiness I find that things change. Then I can be OK without having to be happy. That tends to make life a lot easier in a world that sometimes refuses to bend to my will.

Here’s what lies behind the whole discovery of joy: God really loves me, loves us. It’s not simply that God approves us or accepts us or even if committed to us whether He happens to like it or not. The mystery of the Gospel inevitably leads us to the startling discovery that God is awfully fond of you, and of me. When we come to terms with that everything else in the Christian faith becomes a lot easier. But until we dare accept his heavenly hug everything else in the Bible seems like a burden.

I’m not fully there yet…God’s still working on me with that. But he’s still working on me. He used the book The Shack to move me along in this area. I'm slowly getting used to the idea of being really special in God’s eyes.

3. Pride is a heavy weight to carry.
A long time ago I seem to have concluded that I needed to take myself very seriously, since it appeared that no one else was likely to do that for me. And so I developed a habit of being very concerned about how I would do in life, and what people would think of me, how I would come across.

This can be a clumsy trait for a preacher. It’s hard to help people see that God is great when I’m also hoping they’ll notice that the preacher is pretty good. That’s an understandable, maybe even inevitable, concern but it requires a lot of extra energy to worry about.

I’m learning that Jesus has called us to a life that’s a lot easier. As Matthew tells us He calls us to seek first His kingdom, promising that He’ll take care of all our other concerns as well.

I find it’s pretty easy for me to get confused on this point. (As you may have noticed, it’s actually pretty easy for me to get confused on a wide variety of important issues.) Fortunately God has a really effective way of helping me re-center on this point: He leads me into situations where I might not end up looking very good. Perhaps it’s because His particular leading for me may be misunderstood by others, at other times it may simply be due to ways in which I might screw something up. In any case, any dip in the ratings can quickly bring into question whose reputation I’m most concerned. It’s hard to serve both God and reputation.  (Although I’m still hoping you’ll really like this blog post!)

If I were to look for a summary theme through these three lessons I think it would have to do with how big of a God I expect to find in the coming year. God has this way of shrinking or expanding to match our expectations for Him. To the extent that I try to hold my future in my own hands I’ll probably have a rough time of things: I’ll try to be someone I’m not, I’ll fret over my level of happiness and I’ll worry about my reputation. On the other hand, if I’m following a God who has created me to fit exactly into His good plans, who is committed to sustaining me in His joy and will grant me whatever level of success is needed for me to be accomplish my mission…well, then I’ll be set for the coming year.

How about you--I'd love to hear comments about what God's been teaching YOU.

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