It’s Not About You — And It Never Was!

There’s always a certain amount of eye-rolling that goes on in a household overrun by teens and young adults. My husband and I are amazingly un-cool. His humor is entirely “Dad-jokes.” My questions and observations are overwhelming evidence that I’m over-thinking everything.  But here’s one tiny bit of wisdom that has been passed down without protest, maybe because it is so abundantly clear: “People who are all wrapped up in themselves make pretty small packages.”

Sharon Hodde Miller found the pull of this variety of self-focus to be stronger than gravity, robbing her of her joy and killing her confidence, for no accomplishment was ever stellar enough to overcome the downward pull of comparison; no applause was loud enough to drown out the self-condemnation; no audience was large enough to banish the feeling of invisibility.  What we’re all fighting is a “mirror reflex” (25) in which everything is a reflection of ourselves, leading to the tendency to shape our self-image around people, possessions, and profession and to live in a state of self-focus that will “make everything about you, even when it’s not about you.”

The writer of Hebrews has thrown the window open wide for all of us who live in the stuffy room of self absorption, inviting us to stop running the race distracted, focused on our cute sneakers and flawless form, and to “fix our eyes on the only One who can heal our wounds and set us free.” (35)

Living life as if it is all about me sends me off course in seven very specific ways. Sharon refers to them as “mirrors,” and in our own brokenness, they reflect back an image that has nothing to do with the real world as seen through God’s eyes.

  1. When you make God about you, it’s as if He exists to make you feel better about yourself, to serve you, to make your life easier, and to bring about your kingdom and your will on this earth.  Freedom comes when our life focus becomes the glory of God.
  2. When you make family about you, everything comes back to image management. Your kids, your husband, their accomplishments (or lack of same) either puff you up or deflate your bubble. Here’s the truth: “The purpose of your family is not to make you look good. The purpose of your family is not to make you comfortable. . . The purpose of your family is to love your family and other families. The purpose of your marriage is to love God and the world better than you could have done it alone.” (67, 68)
  3. When you make your appearance about you, it becomes an idol, a demanding tyrant. Preoccupation with appearance drives a wedge between women. The alternative (and healthy) view is “compassion over comparison.” “[O]ur goal is not to be the cutest girl in the room . . .” And on the flip side of this, physical imperfections become opportunities to “relinquish our splendor” in humility and grace. (77, 78)
  4. When you make your possessions about you, your hope is in something that is very temporary and unreliable. Sharon unpacks Paul’s instructions to women about modesty in I Timothy with an emphasis on the cultural context of extravagance — apparently a problem in New Testament days as well! The modesty Paul argued for was a path to decrease their own glory and to exalt God by hoping in Him rather than in wealth.
  5. When you make your friendships about you, you will operate out of a position of perceived rejection and continual loneliness. “Our friendships are for us, but they are not about us. They exist primarily for the glory of God. They point us toward the perfect friendship we have with him, and as long as our friendships remain grounded in that truth, even the broken ones will be swept up into the arc of redemption.” (102) 
  6. When you make your calling about you, you will live in dissatisfaction with the present and may find yourself acting in disobedience to his calling in self-protection or self-promotion. Paul was a man who carried a heavy calling as if it were feathers on the scale because “he wasn’t living for his own glory, so nothing was on the line.” (112)
  7. When you make your church about you, suddenly your preferences have become essentials and your search for the “perfect” church will become a matter of consumerism. Sharon compares church attendance to marriage in that both are intended to grow us and to teach us perseverance — for better or for worse.

With the tendency for self-focus hard-wired into our fallen DNA, it would seem to be an impossible struggle to ever become Free of Me, and yet, there are four broad categories of healthful habits that can put us on the right path:

  • Loving God

  • Loving Others

  • Pouring Out from the Well of Your Gifts and Interests

  • Letting God Plant You and Trusting His Heart

Throughout Scripture’s narrative arc, God points to a redemptive plan in which all things will be redeemed — nothing will be wasted. Freedom comes when we see ourselves as part of God’s bigger story, crucially involved in the advancement of His vision for the world while swallowed up in the freedom and contentment of self-forgetfulness. Free of Me is an invitation to throw off the burden of self-focus and to find worth and belonging within the larger context of an obedient following that is all about Christ, His purposes, and His glory.

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This book was provided by BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Additional resources

Read more of Sharon’s journey at her website, where you will also find her blog and resources related to ministry and leadership.

Jamie Ivey interviewed Sharon on The Happy Hour podcast in which they chatted about the way Sharon met her husband, getting her PhD, supporting women in ministry and cheering others on in their unique giftings.

Sharon also shared her story and her book on Melanie Dale’s podcast, Lighten Up! Besides a sneak peek into the concepts behind Free of Me, Sharon talks about what it’s like to be pregnant and professional, falling asleep in class, and resisting the temptation to become cynical in  ministry roles.

This review is coming just in time to be part of #NotAboutMeNovember, an entire month in which we seek God and seek ways we need to make life more about Jesus and less about us. I’m sharing it here along with a crew of other bloggers who are inspired by the goal of making much of Jesus — and less of ourselves!

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The Freedom is in the Falling

Because I’m a planner, I carry a planner, but the truth is that my planner carries me.  All pristine and un-besmirched, the 2017 edition holds out the promise of glorious accomplishment and blessed organization in a life that often feels like spinning plates and chaos management.  Shannan Martin started her marriage and motherhood in much the same way.  Plan-the-work-and-work-the-plan as a way of life had secured for her and her husband their dream farm with a cute little family and a life that had all the trappings of security.  In a journey that began with the hunch that God might be leading them to move — literally — outside their comfort zone, the Martins said good-bye to predictability and hello to an address that had always seemed to them like “the wrong side of the tracks.”

Memoir meets manifesto in Falling Free, for Shannan not only shares her story, but also describes the safety she found in risk and the stunning realization that when we say, “God is all I need,” we may be asked to make good on those words.   The Martins’ income plummeted to make space for ministry in a life that became centered around a community that included a struggling public school and a circle of friends who had done jail time, who struggled with addictions, and who continually battled poverty.

It is no understatement to say that Falling Free challenged some of the assumptions and guiding principles of this homeschooling mum who can just barely see the smoke from her neighbor’s chimney. Reading about Shannan’s “rescue from the life she always wanted” allowed me to consider some fairly uncomfortable concepts:

  • God reserves the right to do the unexpected and to move His people in unlikely directions.  He is unpredictable and has not “settled down” since Old Testament times.
  • True family transcends DNA and mirrors the welcome that God extends in the gospel.
  • It’s hard to pine for heaven when you already believe you’re there.”  For North American Christians, our stuff is a serious obstacle to living an authentic Christian life.
  • Our most valuable offering to those in need is our “good standing.”  One of the greatest needs of the poor is a future: a way to secure employment, stability, and a permanent address.
  • Missional living makes for missional parenting and produces missional kids.  If God calls a believer to ministry in an area with failing schools, He is asking her to trust Him with her children’s education.

It was delightful to read about Shannan and her family bonding with their newly adopted community around plates of pasta and garlic bread (often well-done).  She testifies to the efficacy of the “unfancy dinner table” and to this stunning truth:

“If community is the heartbeat of the gospel, hospitality is the hand that opens the door and waves it in.”

Falling Free unpacks the biblical image of Jesus “moving into the neighborhood” by first inviting readers to picture someone on the lowest rung of their social ladder — a homeless, meth-addict, for instance.  Shannan first nails the pity and lack of respect that I would feel toward her — and then suggests that my trading lives with that addict would not even begin to approach the utter humiliation of the incarnation.  Embracing my own smallness is more than a matter of having less.  It is about being less, like Jesus, when He “took the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” — less, last, and ordinary.

In a culture that encourages all of us precious believing snowflakes to “shop” for our “perfect church” that “meets our needs,” Shannan reminds her readers that the Kingdom of God is full of surprises.  God may ask us to sink our roots deep into a community that wounds us and exacts a deep cost to our souls while satisfying nothing on our personal wish list.  This is Jesus’ invitation, made explicit in the Beatitudes, but inexplicable to my preferred business plan that’s built around “blessed are the sensible and those who serve dinner on time.”

Not everyone will be called to join the Martin family in the weightless free fall, but the principles that guided their choices and the insights they gained in the process are choreography for my own choices and priorities in this world where I am called to dance the love and the life of Christ.

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This book was provided by Thomas Nelson through the BookLookBloggers program in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

An Announcement for January

Most of us have a favorite C.S. Lewis book, whether it’s the incisive practical theology of Mere Christianity or the glorious story-telling found in The Chronicles of Narnia.  It turns out that C.S. Lewis’s favorite of all his books was Till We Have Faces.  One Lewis scholar calls it his “most subtle treatment of the relation between good and evil.”  It’s a novel, based on the mythical tale of Cupid and Psyche, and in it, Lewis explores themes such as the selfishness of human love, the limits of reason, the corrupting effects of self-will, and in Lewis’s own words, “the havoc a vocation or even a faith works on human life.”   I’m planning to lead a discussion group about the book starting in January, and am hoping that many of you will join me, so here’s a quick overview of the plan:

  1.  The pace will be leisurely at three chapters per week (about 30-ish pages), which will take us into the beginning of March.
  2. I will be posting weekly starting January 5 (Thursdays) with introductory material and a detailed reading schedule.  My hope is that the comments section here at Living Our Days will become a comfy living room where we can discuss our thoughts on the book.  If you blog, PLEASE plan to include a link to your post about the week’s reading so that we can all benefit from one another’s impressions with more detail than is possible in the comments.  If you don’t blog, no worries.  Just share your thoughts in connection with the weekly reading here, and be sure to visit and respond to others.

More details to follow!

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I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

The Paradox of Flourishing

One of the great joys of middle age has been the privilege of watching my oldest son and his wife parent a son who is made in the exact image and likeness of his energetic, curious, strong-willed dad.  Like all new parents, they are executing this balance of firmness and warmth, freedom and structure, love and discipline in the midst of multiple distractions and with sleep-deprived brains.  Good parenting requires the embrace of two things that seem like opposites, but in Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch shares a useful and inspiring manner of viewing paradox that reveals the myth of our linear model for viewing the world which focuses on the word “or”: humble or bold; firm or warm; exaltation or humiliation.

In the paradox of flourishing we are invited to embrace this tension, for flourishing requires both strength and weakness, authority and vulnerability.  Simple and ingenious, Andy Crouch has devised a 2×2 chart that demonstrates “the genius of the ‘and'” which results in a melding of authority and vulnerability, and which captures John 10:10-style abundant living, “the very heart of what it is to be human and to live for God and others.”  Capacity for meaningful action (authority) balanced with exposure to meaningful risk (vulnerability) is the essence of the flourishing life.  Failures of authority, vulnerability, or both result in:

  • suffering (high vulnerability, low authority)
  • exploitation (high authority, low vulnerability)
  • withdrawal (low authority, low vulnerability).

Everyone experiences each quadrant of this 2×2 grid at some point and to some degree:  end of life suffering, complete helplessness (withdrawal) in infancy (or when the X-Box One is on in the living room).  Andy helps his readers to see, however, that even though both authority and vulnerability are necessary for a full life and for effective leadership, “we do not pursue these two good things with the same wholeheartedness – or even the same halfheartedness.”  The unwillingness of one person (tyrannical dictator) or one group (a police force that uses extreme methods) to bear any vulnerability at all sheds and multiplies that vulnerability onto another person or group.  Ironically, those who pursue authority without vulnerability are pursuing an idol which will rob them of meaningful relationships — and will not deliver on any of its lofty promises.

Jesus demonstrated the greatest paradox of flourishing in His own life on this planet by revealing that the abundant life is “only found on the other side of suffering — specifically, our willingness to actively embrace suffering.”  Particularly in the case of leaders, we must be willing to take responsibility for the flourishing of others, thereby becoming exposed ourselves to the forces of idolatry and injustice.

“Only those who have faced loss, who have drunk from the cup of undiluted vulnerability — and who have been rescued by a power infinitely beyond their own at the depths of their greatest need — can offer hope stronger than the idol’s word of fear.”

This understanding brings flesh and blood to the Apostle Paul’s upside-down statement about authority and vulnerability:  “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” I Corinthians 12:5-10.

With elements of memoir and story, Strong and Weak is deeply informative for leaders, or for anyone who wants to make a difference in the world, and this in itself would be “enough”; however, Andy Crouch shares intensely practical advice that brings principles for flourishing into everyday life, as well as some of the best and most memorable advice for public speaking that I’ve read anywhere:  do your homework, love your audience, be yourself.

The challenge for the Christian leader is, “How can I take my team into a life of flourishing?”  Pastors and executives, husbands and wives, teachers and writers are invited to embrace meaningful risk through accountability, admission of failures, delegation of power to others, and the cultivation of the disciplines of solitude, silence, and fasting.  Like the actor who “leaves everything on the stage” but comes away full from his performance, the essence of the flourishing life is to pour ourselves out like an Old Testament drink offering, to go empty to Christ, and then to be rescued from the depths of our own inadequacy, for in this way, our story becomes a tale about our Rescuer,  the only One who can truly set us free from suffering, apathy, and exploitation.

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This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Relationship: The Active Ingredient

Life-changing . . .

When I was fifteen, I attended a ten-day training event in preparation for a summer of children’s ministry.  For the life of me, I’ll never remember what possessed me to think that I could hold the attention of a group of kids – or that I would dare to open my mouth and say hi to the other teens in attendance!  Even so, tears, nausea, and ten days later, there I was – still fearful, but holding onto the promise of God’s enablement and ready to travel from church to church, teaching outdoor Bible clubs for six weeks.

Some program, huh?

From shy, cringing, and silent soul to ninja summer missionary warrior in ten days?

Not quite.  The active ingredient in this recipe was relationship.  Godly women, committed to pouring their lives into the spiritual development of a herd of teens, took the time to pray with me, to look for the promise and possibility behind my eye-concealing bangs and nerdy clothes, all with the intent of polishing a very rough and nearly invisible gift for teaching.

And that was just the beginning . . .

Join me over at the LifeLetter Cafe today where I’m sharing “the rest of my story” and how this experience has stayed with me in the form of a conviction that effective ministry models are built on relationship.  Like spiritual disciplines that create a space in which we meet God, a program is also a space-holder, a fruitful opportunity to know and to be known, to become aware of individual needs, gifting and potential.   Trusting to the efficiency of a program alone, we follow an industrial model of discipleship — low-maintenance, but also low-impact.  When we bypass relationship in ministry, we suffocate a living, breathing organism, for this is what Jesus intended His church to be.

Capture

While you’re at the Cafe, I encourage you to check out other authors and to learn more about the ministry which is designed to encourage, equip, empower, and engage.

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Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will enjoy reading the work of some fine writers and thinkers.

 

 

Oil and Dew: Two Reasons to Give the Church Another Chance

When my husband and I were still a “young couple,” we used to laugh over an imagined scenario at our church:

“What ever happened to that young couple with all the boys?”

“Haven’t you heard?  They divorced – someone said that they just grew apart, that they didn’t know each other anymore.”

“No!  They were here at church all the time!  How could something like that have happened?”

Truly, it’s not funny, but we laughed because we knew that even though our church family loved us,  if we had said, “Yes,” to all the ministry opportunities that were pressed upon us,  it wouldn’t be long before this was our fate.  Fortunately, we were able to remember their love for us as we made decisions to become the guardians of our own margins and boundaries.

For many people, the church has a reputation to overcome.  It’s hard to trust The Body when you’ve been burned by its members.  For various reasons,   believers are staying home on Sunday mornings, and the experts say that only 20% of Americans attend church regularly.  Certainly, anyone who has done time in the pew can find a reason to gripe:  lack of appreciation; not liking the pastor/the music/the sermons/the color of the carpet; unsatisfying or turbulent relationships.   All of this should be no surprise to us, for even the healthiest, most vibrant fellowships are populated with . . .  well, sinners.  There’s really no one else to come to church!

[Please note:  I’m not talking about cases of spiritual abuse in which people who have no business being in ministry use their position to take advantage of others in order to meet their own needs.  I’m referring to interpersonal conflict, disagreements of style and method, and the misunderstandings that often lead to grudges.]

Even if you feel as if you have been burned by the body of Christ, the church is still God’s means of providing fellowship and spiritual food for His flock.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a single man whose life was cut short by a Nazi noose while he was still in his thirties, managed to capture the essence of fellowship in the body of Christ with these words:

“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself . . .”

To me, this “speaking God’s Word” to one another is the way we stay on the path, the way we persevere in the life of faith.  In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer referenced Psalm 133, an anthem that celebrates unity and community, and, in the psalm, two metaphors emerge:

 1.  Oil:  a sign of God’s presence and a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

“Life together” for Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant that the believer is anointed by the Spirit to speak truth into the life of another because “Christ in his own heart” provides stability, making him a “bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.”

When I am allowing God to work in me, the oil of the Spirit lubricates my rusty, crusty, and complaining relational joints.  He keeps me from throwing sparks, and He smooths the places where my ideas rub roughly against another’s.

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity!  It is like the precious oil upon the head, Running down on the beard, The beard of Aaron, Running down on the edge of his garments,” (Psalm 133:1,2)

To be honest, my stain pre-treating, laundry-doing, 21st century heart quails at the mention of all that oil running onto Aaron’s robes, but for the sojourner, traveling to Jerusalem and singing Psalm 133 on the barren and dusty Judean roads, the song would have carried a message of refreshment and relief.  Likewise, the work of the Spirit in those who believingly follow Jesus in my church community provides renewal and refreshment for me.  Sharing the way God’s Word is changing them, testifying to the evidence of His active presence in their circumstances, they are precious oil, for even during times when God seems silent in my own world, I am encouraged by His “very present help” in their lives.

 2.  Dew:  a symbol of refreshment and blessing

Mount Hermon, with an altitude of over 9,000 feet, would have seen some dewy mornings, much to the envy of those living in barren, dry Jerusalem.

It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion; For there the Lord commanded the blessing— Life forevermore.  (Psalm 133:3)

In the same way, I am refreshed and renewed by the enthusiasm and spiritual hunger of the women in my Sunday school class.  From my “forever young” octogenarian to the twenty-somethings with their passion for outreach, each week their love for learning God’s Word and their compassionate impulses fuel my flagging spirit.

“How can I send help to that family who lost everything in the flooding?”

“Can we put together a special encouragement package for our pastor’s wife?  I’ll bring the basket!”

Oh, honey, yes!  Bring the basket!

Bring on the dew!

Let the oil of the Spirit run, and let this delightful community of faith flourish under His renewal, His strengthening, and  His encouragement!


Image credit:  Many thanks to Jen Ferguson.

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.