Sunday, November 30, 2008

Seek Person of Christ not mere Principles

We are officially on the downward slope of the fall semester. Thanksgiving is now merely a pleasant memory and exam week is almost upon us. That means this is the last Monday Memo of the semester. And we are about to finish our discussion of “Godly Values which drive Good Decisions”…today is the final installment:
Finances: The funds and material possessions of life are just “things.” I will not allow their pull to be a chief decision maker in my life. Moreover, God is the ultimate owner, I am merely His caretaker.
I list this value last because I want financial matters to have the least amount of sway in my decision making. Now, that is easy to say if you have a job and your bills paid. But if the economy has hit you as hard as it has the rest of the country, the issue of finances might end up being the TRUMP card in all your decisions. But should it?
Angie and I learned early on that wise management of money is a learned behavior as well as a matter of trust. First, the learned behavior: you only spend what you have. In a consumer-driven society where constantly we are bombarded by the latest and the improved…the joy of life can easily become inextricably entangled with our possessions. If we become what we own; how do we say, “No.” A way out is the matter of trust; none of the stuff is actually yours; everything is owned by the Lord! We are merely care-takers of His garden.
Now, I could give you story after story which cemented this value in our marriage. It all began for us as God was trying to teach us a life of stewardship as a young Christian couple. But I must admit that it is easy to be obedient when you have two good paying jobs and are building a nest-egg. Our most profound faith-building time came profoundly as graduate students who were terribly under-funded yet we were never more satisfied in following the Lord.
Now, I have finished describing Angie’s and my “Godly values.” Have you caught the key ingredient which stands behind each of the values? Each principle is wondrously colored and divinely nuanced by our story. In the faith-building trenches of life, we have personally “fleshing out” each of these principles. Principles can be life-less bones until the Lord Himself breathes upon them and they live (Ezekiel 37). Moreover, these principles are not easily transferred from my life to yours. You can take them as guidelines (bones, if you will). But then allow the Lord to add tendons, muscle, and most of all His breath (Spirit) through His life intersecting with yours; creating your life-story.
So, maybe you have already begun and just have not written then summary principles down. For principles do not determine a “Godly Life.” Sorry if I ever gave you that impression in the past 8 Monday Memos. No, the “Godly Values” Angie and I have articulated arose as the Breath/Spirit of God moved across our often chaotic lives and created a “Divine Story.”
This Advent Season; let me encourage you to allow your story to be (re)written by the same hands which placed the stars in their celestial positions so all the heavenly host could proclaim;
“Glory to God in the highest heaven;
And on Earth, Peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2).
What a great way to start your Godly Values; for your story to intersect with His!

May we not seek principles alone; but rather may we seek the person of Christ.
May we find our stories to wondrously intersect with His grander story.
May we find the Advent season to be the incarnation of God’s Story; beginning with an infant invasion.
May we see Jesus’ story as the place where God’s new exodus begins;
May He start with us.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Call-Centered Decisions

It’s almost Thanksgiving. The semester is rapidly winding down. For some of us, that has been a time of hard work and wise decisions, with a well deserved rest at the end. For others of us, poor decision-making skills regarding our personal lives or our academic situation have placed us in a hole which we are having a terrible time climbing out of. Thus, serendipitously, as we have been talking Monday after Monday about “Godly Values which drive Good Decisions”…today is about Decisions:
Decisions: I will not live a life of regret; I will risk a more comfortable life for the hope of living a more full life. The easy road is a poor teacher. I will not fear failure; I will apply creative responses to those failures.

What is the driving force behind your decisions? This is a strategic question. Here are just a few options in the mix.
  1. You may be re-active rather than pro-active. Simply put, you do not make decisions until the last possible minute. A parallel preference is that you bury your head in the sand, hoping that circumstances will somehow align themselves to bail you out. Why might that be? Ponder for a few minutes. This type of decision making might be called a “plodder.”
  2. Maybe the majority of times when someone asks you to consider doing a task; you simply say, “Yes.” Then you spend an excessive amount of time trying to figure out how to fit this task in with all your other tasks you are trying to fit into an already too busy schedule. Again, if that is your style, reflect on whether this brings stability to your life or added chaos. This decision-making style could be labeled a “pleaser.”

Friends, these two examples are polar opposites…and I’m sure you dwell in a “decision-making pattern” somewhere in the middle. I’m sure you are not an ostrich with your head buried in the sand, just waiting upon someone else to make a decision or for the Rapture to take you out of an un-manageable life-scenario. Nor are you a pure “yes-people-pleaser” who is searching for human centered approval.
But how would you articulate your method? Mine is fairly simple; I try not to be “need-based” but instead to be “call-centered.” Let me try to define it this way; I try to listen to the voice of the Spirit rather than only listen to the person in front of me. There are countless opportunities which loom on the horizon, which ones are for me and which ones should I leave undone for another to pick up behind me? Angie and I have begun to ask a series of questions…all based upon NOT DOING something:

  1. If we say no; is it merely to make our lives are more comfortable?
  2. If we say no; will we regret it later?
  3. If we say no; is it out of fear?
  4. If we say no; have I silenced the voice of God in my ear?

Help us to see Your Kingdom as it stands before us.
Help us to see people and their needs;
Help us to hear Your voice with clarity;
Help us to recognize where their needs and Your call coalesce
Help us to release freely what is not for us but to lay it down for someone else.
Help us to fashion creative strategies for fulfilling Your Kingdom in our midst.

Now, “Go with God.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Disciplines which Don't Hurt

Let’s talk today about the next of the “Godly Values which drive Good Decisions.” If you recall, in my list the next one is “disciplines.” No, that does not mean that I believe in spanking my children nor putting my students in hallway time-outs. Rather, it means I place a high value the Spiritual Disciplines. And the best way I can articulate this is in a threefold manner:
  • I will be a man of “one book” but constantly search for truth as revealed throughout God’s creation and by His children.
  • I will appropriate the means of grace earmarked by the Church for my spiritual well-being.
  • I will seek divine guidance in everything and walk in the Spirit submissively.

Now, these are somewhat self-evident. The reading of Scripture for me is paramount in maintaining my connection with God’s Wisdom and Will. But there is truth to be found in addition to personal Bible reading. Thus, I place myself regularly in prayer and accountability groups with other believers who speak truth into my life which may have otherwise remained hidden. My growth is dependent upon the prayers and nurturing of others.

The leads directly into the second use of the word “discipline.” The Church from ancient times right down to the present day have indicated that there are specific “means of grace” through which God speaks to His children most clearly and profoundly. Therefore, Angie and I are deeply involved in our local church; the preaching of the word and the participation in the sacraments are integral to our ministry and marriage. Moreover, personal and corporate prayer elevate my sensitivity to God’s Will and ability to discern His often quiet voice from all the world’s competing noise.

Finally, I want to submit all my acts and decisions to the Holy Spirit Himself. Now, that does not mean that I ask Jesus should I put ranch or honey-mustard dressing on my salad at lunch. But it does mean that as I walk throughout the day, I have one ear tuned to each person who comes in my path and the other ear is listening for the voice of the Spirit. Even when I have a cup of coffee with a friend or student; I hope and pray for the ability to encourage or comfort. Thus, I try desperately to never think of myself as ever being alone. This is both a wonderful practice to prevent idle temptations from overtaking me. (I am always amazed that people tell me they were “surprised by sin.” Where did they think they were going as they were walking as if God was not right alongside of them?) Plus this is such a healthy reminder that what we do is all under His leading and Lordship.

Speak from Your Word.
Reveal Yourself in a message from the pulpit or from the common elements of the Communion Table.
Make known Your will as we discover the mystery of the gift of prayer.
Disclose the wonder of Your glory in the comforting words of a friend.
And where two or three are gathered in Your Name, unveil Yourself.

Now, “Go with God.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ministry: It Does the Body Good

If it’s Monday, this must be time to think about “Godly Values which drive Good Decisions.” If you recall, in the past several weeks we have talked about the way I attempt to articulate and then implement my values for: Transformation, Integrity, Home, and Relationships. Today will be a straightforward one: “What is my value regarding Ministry.”

Ministry: I will pursue personal holiness for the purpose of building up the Body corporately and enhancing our spiritual lives together.

It has taken me awhile to articulate how I understand and approach my call to ministry. First, it’s not principally about what I do but rather about who I am (doing vs. being). I know that is almost a cliché these days…but if you think about it, “How can anyone survive in ministry if that is not your perspective?” Ministry is brutal; constant demands and an unrelenting schedule which will crush you if you are working on your own strength. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zech 4:6). Even the pastor who has the best natural gifts for ministry will turn to another form of employment if “ministry” comes from any source other than a pursuit of God’s un-measurable grace.

Second, if you notice, I have framed my ministry within the context of the Body. Ministry is not to be understood as “me” but as “we.” I so love the Apostle Paul’s examples of Body-life in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4

It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Simply, I cannot attain all that Christ has for me without you. Everything works this way in the Body. I need all God has for me; and often I find it in reciprocal ministry within the Body. In all ways, we are meant to strengthen one another. Even something as individualistic as “repentance” is in actuality a corporate act. Eugene Peterson has recently written, “In the biblical story, repentance cannot be narrowed down to something private, such as being sorry for your sins and ready to make amends. The call is to return to God and the ways of God with His people” (emphasis added). N.T. Wright has chimed in on this theme, “What must be abandoned in our understanding of repentance is the lonely post-Enlightenment individual bent on a quest for private salvation.” I do not pursue Christ for you; as if you are a customer. Rather, I abandon my rights and privileges with you. Together, we mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Help us to pursue You…in our pursuit of our call
Help us to see how we will gain spiritual vitality in and thru the Body.
May we never stand alone;
May we always stand united;
May others see this unity of faith
And may the on-lookers desire what we have; You.

Now, “Go with God.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who is My Neighbor?

It’s Monday; again. We all are in the cycle of “another week” with an exhausting number of assignments, meetings, and commitments. Each day we arise and function as “academic robots” where all that stands before us are the tasks that need to be completed before the end of the year. Any shift in the schedule or interruption in your day-timer mentality creates mayhem. Simple observation; watch out for it’s at times like this that we demote people and elevate tasks in their ranking in our value system. My question: Is your value system situational? Meaning, “I value people most of the time, except as finals appear on the horizon of my calendar.” So, how do we express our value of people? As for Angie and me; it’s fourth on our list of the Smith Family values:

Relationships: I will love the Lord our God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love my neighbor as myself. My “neighborhood” begins with my wife and children. It then extends to my current place of ministry, Indiana Wesleyan University and to my local church, College Wesleyan Church. It then expands as I seek to live in love and harmony with the rest of the world.

As you can read, my value statement takes shape from Jesus’ general statement about mutually loving God and our neighbors (Luke 10:27). This arises from a bible scholar’s (a scribe) question to Jesus about how might he inherit eternal life. Their general consensus is to follow the law as stated by God in Deuteronomy 6. But practically speaking, for the scribe and for us, we must find a way to particularize this so it functions in everyday life. So the scribe asks Jesus the key question, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, the scribe is asking, “What are the limitations of my love?” Or more to the point, the scribe wants to know, “Who can I ignore or even who can I despise?” Who is not my neighbor? Jesus then masterfully tells the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (what an ironic title for the first century). You know the way Jesus changes the scribe’s question from “Who is my neighbor?” to “Am I being neighborly?” Thus, the question ceases to be about the likable-ness of others but its becomes a matter of my desire to offer Christ-like-ness to everyone.

Now, how will this relate to my decisions on whom I will invest in? Does this mean I am called to minister to everyone? Am I to personally sacrifice time and talents to everyone who crosses my path? For you this may mean, “Am I to immediately put down my books and school projects when someone asks for my help?” Heaven forbid. Even Jesus was incapable of meeting every person’s need. I’m sure He disappointed people when He went home to Nazareth (Mark 6) and could not do many miracles. He must have seriously shamed His mother in the temple when He said, “I must be about my Father’s business (Luke 2).” Her needs were being submerged beneath that of His Heavenly Father.

The demands others place on you should never be the determining factor in your decision-making. For me, I try to place my relationships within the ever enlarging circles of my “neighborhood.” My inner most circle contains God. Failure to maintain my relationship with Him will have catastrophic consequences. My next circle has Angie in it. I am the only one who can be her husband. So if I fail in that relationship, no one else can substitute; no one else in the Body of Christ can redeem that failure. Next circle has my children; they need me as Dad above any other role I can play in the world. I must care and nurture these relationships with a bounty of energy and time. But then it expands to my place of ministry (you at IWU) and then to my local church (College Wesleyan), finally to the rest of the world.

So, in the end, I will always be “neighborly” to you but I may not be the one to serve you directly. If I fail my Lord as His disciple, my wife as a husband, and my children as their father; in the end I also fail you. So the best thing I can do with my relationship values is to trust the Body of Christ, that if I am not the one to meet your need; I wonder who God will call to be alongside you?

Help us to know You as our highest relational value.
Assist us to know ourselves and how we are called to relate with one another.
Provide us with energy to serve Your Body by doing Your bidding.
But Lord, teach us to say “no” which will allow another to say “yes.”

Now, “Go with God.”

Win at Home First

Last week I may have been a bit pre-occupied. My son was married Saturday at College Wesleyan Church. At some point during last week, I may have walked right by you as you may have said, “Hello” or maybe you tried to get my attention in some way and I missed it. I am certain that I was pre-occupied. But I was not just distracted…I was intentionally distracted. Though my body may have been on the IWU campus; all week long I was mentally (and prayerfully) at College Wesleyan Church as the needs of Joshua my son and Laura, my new daughter, was keenly on my mind. NOT YOU.

I make no apologies for that; for I made last week’s decision 24 years ago, when my son was born; for my number 3 value is “win at home first” (see below for all 8 values). The last several Monday Memos have been devoted to making “Good decisions” based upon “Godly values.” This may seem like a straight-forward one; I value my son’s wedding over student questions. But how about when the issues are not so black-and-white, when there are competing issues which seem equally valid and God honoring. How do you make these decisions?
Here is my example. Angie and I were married. I was in the beginning stages of writing my dissertation. She was working a 9-5 job financially supporting the family. I was “Mr. Mom”, caring for two pre-teens by day, writing my dissertation by night. One evening we had the wonderful opportunity to entertain a world renowned New Testament scholar for dinner at our home; his name is Martin Hengel. He had taught at the University of Tubingen (Germany) for many years and at the time was at the top of the academic world for New Testament research. As we were passing pleasantries before dinner, he inquired about the topic of my dissertation. I told him I was researching on the “presentation of the Gospel of Mark in a first century oral culture.” His interest was immediate and he asked question after question on my approach. During dinner, he boldly asked (in front of Angie), “Why do you not come to Germany and spend six months researching the subject under my tutelage? [FYI, in my mind, that would be like a youth pastor being asked by Pastor Rick Warren to come to Saddleback Church to learn about ministry.]

As you can imagine, this was all I could think about for the next several weeks. I was mentally trying to figure out how our children could be cared for in my absence. I was also thinking how impressed people would be seeing Martin Hengel as a mentor and as an academic reference. One night [lovingly I might add], Angie asked how and when my priorities changed? She asked, “Since when does your resume take precedence over our children? She simply wanted to know when my values had changed. As you can imagine, I tried to “persuasively” convince her that this is a once in a life-time opportunity. Moreover, I argued, just find one of my academic peers who would disagree with this “self-made study abroad” program. Her words were simple, “I agree. It’s a wonderful opportunity. But is it more important than the value you place on caring for your children while we are in school together? While I work, you promised to put them first.” (I hate it when she uses spirit guided logic!)

After wrestling with God for several hours, I knew that she was right. My value, my Home priority was that I will win at home first. This allowed me to see that this wonderful offer was merely an opportunity to be self-promoting (so people might say, “Nice resume, Dave”) and not an occasion to show my children they are the most important people in my life.
Remember the passage of scripture in the Sermon on the Mount, “For where your treasure is there your heart will be.” This is Matthew’s way of substantiating his argument that worldly accolades and material possessions will surely disappear but what remains are the kingdom values upon which shape your life decisions. As for me and my house, “I will succeed at home first.” Friends, can you word your values in a way that will assist you in making some of the most difficult decisions…and maybe make them 24 years in advance?

Joshua and Laura; Congratulations and I pray that you will fashion your lives together around Kingdom values.

Now, “Go with God.”