Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The practice of straddling

In our attempt to answer the question, where does God find us? it’s probably good to start with God himself, namely Jesus. In the Gospels, we find Jesus preparing for the movement of God by spending the majority of his ministry life with one of two seemingly opposed audiences: his community of faith and those who were not yet living the Kingdom way of life. Perhaps those were the only two audiences available to him, but the thing that amazes me about this is that Jesus was comfortable around both audiences. He had the uncanny ability to do what I like call “straddling”, that is, to position oneself with one foot in the world and one foot in a community of faith without favoring one over the other. This posture of straddling is more difficult than we think, but it can be done!

Perhaps the most important step in developing your ability to straddle is to discover the audience you primarily find yourself in, and then take intentional - and sometimes bold - steps to engage more frequently with the other audience. My friend Tom Clegg wrote a book a few years ago titled Missing in America in which he encourages readers to identify something they love to do (e.g. a hobby) and then go and do that "something", whatever it is, with the audience they spend the least amount of time with.

For example, while living in southern California within a community of faith I found that I spent the majority of my time with brothers and sisters who were committed to following Jesus. Now as someone who loves to play basketball, I (along with some of my friends) determined not to join a church basketball league where we would be surrounded by even more Christians. Rather, we joined the city league where we could more deeply learn about and invest in the lives of those who did not participate in a community of faith.

By playing basketball in the city league, my friends and I were able to develop relationships of trust with a few young men, which created opportunities for us to respond to the promptings of the Spirit to share the love and grace of God with others. Had we not practiced the posture of straddling, we would have missed opportunities to grow in obedience to God’s leading.

Having spent a significant amount of time with others who do not yet know or follow Jesus, I'm now much more comfortable investing my time, resources, and energy in their lives. In fact, it may even be time to re-assess my practice of straddling and determine if I need to invest more time and energy in the lives of fellow followers of Jesus. We're never equally balanced as straddlers; rather our weight/momentum will constantly shift from one foot to the other. The important thing is to know when it's time to shift our weight so as not to get stagnant and neglect the other audience.

The practice of straddling raises two practical questions. First, what audience do you most often interact with? And second, what intentional steps can you take today to more deeply invest in the other audience? If you'd like some help as you develop this practice of straddling, let me know. I'd love to come alongside you and encourage you in your journey.

May you learn to see and respond to God as you participate more engage more regularly with the other audience.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Where do we find God? part 2

If you read my previous post, you'll remember that a more accurate question to ask is "Where does God find us?" From my previous post we can see that there are no limits on when, where, or even how God will seek us out. He’ll even use donkeys if he wants to for goodness sake (Numbers 22)!

When we look at the life of Jesus, many say that his 30+ years of life were all part of God’s plan of salvation, and I believe that to be true on a large, cosmic scale. Yet when we pause to reflect on the regular rhythms of Jesus’ life, we find him more often in a mode of preparation than in a mode of planning. Jesus’ posture of preparation is perhaps what some today might refer to as the “missional life.” Whatever we want to call it, followers of Jesus are invited to take on his posture of preparation so as to live as Jesus would live in the 21st century world in which we find ourselves in. Within this posture of preparation I find at least 3 practices around which we can orient our lives around starting today, the first of which I’ll discuss in this post.

First, there’s the practice of solitude, or what some call the practice of disconnecting from the world and its demands. In times of solitude, we discover (or rediscover) that our true identity – that person who God sees – does not depend on what we do as much as we think it does. In times of solitude, we encounter very few if any external distractions which positions us to listen for the whispering voice of God. And if we hear clearly, you and I will hear God reminding us of the people you and I are created to be: a beloved child of God who is blessed to be a blessing. This is an identity we cannot escape no matter how hard we try because it’s an identity given to us by our Creator and not one we conjured up or worked for on our own.

The practice of solitude is ultimately not about doing all the talking by bringing our requests before God. Rather, solitude is about being shaped by the voice and presence of God; it’s about being reminded of who we are in the eyes of our Creator. Turning off our smart phones, sitting still, and emptying our heads and hearts of the roller coaster of distracting thoughts and emotions so as to position ourselves in a listening mode is difficult to do today, but it can be done! Jesus often disconnected from the demands being placed on him by those wanting to hear another teaching or see another miracle, and at times he left people hanging. He even disconnected from his own community of disciples at times to sit and be still before his Father. Jesus simply made the choice to regularly return time and time again to a posture of listening to and receiving from God.

I recently started to use the following exercise in my practice of solitude. When I enter a quiet place, I’ll take a pen and paper with me and once I settle into a comfortable position I’ll extend my arms in front of me with my the palms of my hands facing down. It’s in this position that I’ll slow my breathing and I’ll speak before God all the thoughts, emotions, and things to do that are filling my head and heart. If there’s something critically important that comes to mind I will write it down and forget about it. This exercise can take anywhere between 5 and 45 minutes for me, depending on the day and the situations I’m involved in. But once I clear my head and heart of all that’s going on, I turn by palms upward and ask God to speak. It’s in this time that I simply listen with my entire being for the whispers of God. I won’t share any specifics about the things God has spoken to me during those times of solitude, but I will say that my times of solitude have profoundly shaped my self-perception as well as my perception of others and of God. There have even been times when God hasn’t said anything and I’ve simply enjoyed being in his presence. Whatever the outcome, the practice of solitude is always worth my time.

By practicing solitude over a period of weeks, months, and even years I’m certain that you will be a different person as a result. I know that the more frequently I practice solitude the more I am attuned to the activity of God all around me, whether it is in the heart of my neighbor or in the changing of my own thoughts and attitudes. I sense that I see life more clearly and hear people’s words on a different level than when I live at a hurried and distracted pace.

Preparing for the movement of God by practicing solitude will not guarantee that you will be the first to notice where God is at work when he begins to move, but it certainly will prepare you to join in when you do notice.

So what would it take for you to take on the practice of solitude in your life? What might God want to whisper to you during those times of solitude? I pray that in your times of solitude God will remind you of who you were created to be and that you will live differently as a result.

Practices 2 and 3 are forthcoming.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where do we find God?

The question of where we find God is one that’s been asked (and answered) by cultures since the beginning of time. The Incas looked to creation, namely the sun, to find God. The Greeks sought God in their minds, which resulted in the separation of physical space into sacred and secular. Therefore the need for temples (sacred spaces) arose and these temples were viewed as a place to find God. Similarly, American culture looks to a modern day temple (i.e. a synagogue, mosque, cathedral, or church building) as a place to find God. We even have street signs and GPS systems that tell us when we’re approaching a religious center, perhaps as a means to put our road rage on hold for just a moment as we drive by. It’s an interesting posture that we take toward our modern day temples and one that I would argue is not what God intends for us today.

The Scriptures demonstrate that for first century Jews, going to a synagogue was a deeply ingrained practice of their society. And yet throughout the Scriptures we find a strong challenge to the very notion that we need to go somewhere to find God. For those who seek God today, our draw to a church building or cathedral is similar to going to a zoo to see wild animals confined to cages. We know that when we go to the monkey cage, we’ll find monkeys. So too, we think that when we step into a church building it is there that we’ll find God. The problem is that sometimes we'll do that and God doesn't show up. This is an interesting approach to finding God, but the Scriptures demonstrate over and over again that our question of “where do we find God?” is not the question we need to be asking. The better question that the Bible asks of its readers is “where does God find us?

Numerous examples demonstrate where God finds people. With Paul, God found him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9); with Peter, James, and John, they were found on a fishing boat (Luke 5); and with Samuel, God found him in a temple (1 Samuel 3). Even in the story of creation, it’s God who walks through Eden seeking out Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:9). In fact, it can be said that many in the Gospels were found by God on the street as Jesus taught them and touched them. The obvious lesson that these stories teach us is that God is not limited to one place of residence or another. With that, it's apparently not up to us to tell God when to show up and how to meet us, rather it’s God who determines when, where, and how he will encounter us.

Beyond that, there is a deeper challenge in this question of “where does God find us?”

In many of our pursuits to find God we end up making plans and then asking God to “show up.” Having participated in that approach to ministry for several years, I have to say that I felt a lot like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz as I attempted to orchestrate the movement of God in the lives of others so as to bring about transformation. While such an approach was exciting at times and I did see God move in the hearts and lives of others, it also was overly dependent on my ability to plan and even my ability to manipulate others, so much so that it produced much doubt and frustration in my life. And sometimes God didn’t show up in the way or at the time I expected him to, which only added to my doubt and frustration.

In recent months, I’ve come to the conclusion in my faith journey that it’s not my job to tell God when to show up and in what way to show up. Rather, my job as an obedient follower of Jesus is to be as alert as possible throughout my day so that when God calls and invites me to join him in his work in the world I am prepared to go. The simple way I communicate this to others is with this saying: we cannot PLAN for the movement of God, we can only PREPARE for it. Preparation, I have found, is actually much harder than planning, and yet it’s exactly what God asks us to do. So what does preparation look like on a regular basis?

Check out the next post for my response to that question.