What Does Respect Look Like?

"At the Feet of Jesus" May 12, 2013 Luke I remember as a young child that whenever I would see someone who was visibly different, perhaps had some sort of disability or disfigurement, my mom or sometimes my dad would tell me that I should not stare or make some sort of comment that would focus on the person’s differences.  The very clear message I heard was that I was to be “polite” and to ignore the difference out of politeness.  We wanted to do what we could to make the other person, and those who were with them, comfortable.

I think I learned to pretend I did not see those differences.  I learned to see and respond to what was “normal” about the other person. In and attempt to be kind, I learned to ignore who people really were.

Fast forward to today and I think we as a culture still wrestle with how to address disabilities and “undesirable” differences.  We really have come a long way in recognizing the human value of those who are different.  We understand there are more differences that we can learn to embrace than we have previously understood.  We have come a long distance in our efforts to “mainstream” and to recognize that our differences do not diminish our value.

The Bible presents a picture of this struggle in Luke 7 where Simon, the Pharisee, invited Jesus to dinner.  The story is that Simon had invited Jesus to dinner and a woman from the village crashed the dinner and washed Jesus’ feet.  Simon sees enough to know that this woman had broken the cultural norms by coming uninvited, being present in the room in which the men were eating, touching a man who was not her husband, and showing attention to Jesus in a public setting that should rightly have only taken place between a husband and wife in private.  This was a very awkward scene.  So awkward that Simon had concluded that for Jesus to allow this behavior to continue meant that Jesus could not be a righteous man. Certainly he could not be a prophet.  Simon had simply seen too much and knew that Jesus was not a holy man.

Simon wanted the woman to be removed and ignored. She was violating cultural, religious, and moral norms. He saw something very wrong taking place.  He wanted Jesus to refuse this woman and her attentions.  Simon wanted to send the woman away and to ignore that she had ever been there. Jesus would have to go through the steps to purify himself and restore his righteous standing, but this unpleasant turn of events would be forgotten with the proper responses.

Jesus saw what Simon saw, and much more.  He looked at what was happening and saw the woman as someone who bore God’s image.  She had value that was not diminished by her sin, or her gender.  He also saw her clearly enough to recognize that she repented of her sin and saw her savior.  She recognized that Jesus was not only a holy man, but that he was the one who could save her from the sin that had defined her.  Simon, bound by his culture, could only see that she was not a man, that she was not an invited guest, and that she was a sinner who was both polluting and offending his guests and himself by being in the room.  She was not someone to respect and understand.  She was someone to avoid, ignore, judge, and remove.

Jesus respected both the woman and he respected Simon.  He received the woman’s worship.  He revealed Simon’s blindness.  Jesus loved both of these people in a profoundly righteous way, and challenged the culture that needed to change.  He actually called Simon to see the woman more clearly.  He explained to Simon how the woman was doing the right thing.  He even revealed himself as savior to Simon and his guests when he forgave the woman’s sins. As he so frequently did, Jesus saw and moved toward the people that we would ignore and avoid.  He respected them and offered redemption.  He also offered Simon truth and the opportunity to receive redemption.  We do not know what Simon did with the offer.

In our experience today we have to ask ourselves what we see.  Firstly, when I see folks and I am uncomfortable with what I see, am I seeing someone who bears the image of God and has value?  If I feel the freedom, or even need, to ignore them, I most likely am not aware of the truth that this person matters.  I feel free to overlook them.  Secondly, do I, like Simon, see only some small part of the other?  Do I see them as the thing I dislike?  Simon saw a sinful, pushy woman who invaded his home and created problems for him.  When I see the person on the side of the street asking for help, do I see an image bearer who needs care and engagement, or do I see someone from whom I turn my eyes and whom I ignore.  Jesus saw the Samaritan woman in John 4 and asked her for water.  He asked her to tell him her story and then revealed himself as savior.  By all cultural norms he should have avoided her and ignored her.  Talking to her was messy.  She even questioned why he spoke to her.  She knew he should have ignored her.  She expected to be treated as a non-person because of her differences.

The first step for us is to see.  The second step is to listen.  Who are these people, these image bearers, and why are they different?  Are their differences wrong?  Are these people simply problems with bodies.  Tim Keller, in his sermon on Proverbs entitled “Repairing Relationships” points out that we have the pattern of cartooning others by seeing them through the lens of one of their flaws.  They are not an image bearer, but a homeless vagabond.  They aren’t an image bearer, but an unemployed beggar.  They aren’t an image bearer, but a liar or a thief.  How did they get to this point in their story?  What do they want?  What do they need? What are their dreams?

As we grow in our understanding that everyone around us is an image bearer we can take time to see their personhood and to hear their story.  When we move toward them, we can also see how the gospel has the answers for what they need.

There is much more to explore on this topic.  Stay tuned.

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The Gospel in Mental Illness

A few months ago I was asked to give a short devotional before a women’s event on mental illness at Hinson Baptist church. The blog post below is the manuscript from that talk.

Tohu Va-Vohu. It sounds ominous doesn’t it? It’s the Hebrew words for the wilderness of creation just after God has created the heavens and the earth – when “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Imagine the kind of wilderness that must have been – the stuff of creation without any form. I chose this image to start with because often in counseling, often in the face of what gets called mental illness, this is an image that makes sense to me. It feels chaotic, a bunch of things all jumbled together. And I chose this image because it strikes me that it’s a wilderness that exists before sin. Even before things get all jumbled up with sin the Lord has demonstrated his power over the wilderness. He is the God who brings order to chaos. He is the God hovers over our wildernesses. So tonight as we consider the wilderness of mental illness together I want to stop and think about 3 ways the gospel shapes this for us. First, how the gospel meets us in the experience of mental illness. Second, how the gospel intersects the complexity of mental illness. And third, how the gospel is the hope in mental illness.

First, how the gospel meets us in the experience of mental illness. What is the experience of mental illness? Well I think that image of a wilderness, of chaos, and confusion is one of the most common themes that runs throughout mental illness. We categorize things as a mental illness when they fall out of the norm – when someone begins to believe with everything in them that closing the door three times will keep them safe throughout the day, when the brain begins to hear voices that don’t exist, when sadness descends upon you for no apparent reason. There’s a chaos to it, it feels inexplicable. All the things that should normally order your world are no longer working the way they should. Your world begins to feel unordered and chaotic.

But there’s more than just that, the description of a wilderness fits in other ways as well. Because when your own world begins to be unordered, when you don’t fit into the norms of the society around you, there’s an isolation that comes with that. It appears as if life is going on as normal all around you but you, in your world, exist in a wilderness and it feels like no one else understands it. It can feel like wasteland where relationships are void.

I think the experience of mental illness is your own tohu va-vohu, a wilderness. So to understand where the gospel speaks to that experience let’s look at where Scripture leads us with this image. Wilderness is an important theme in Scripture. Think about Israel wandering in the wilderness or Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, both very significant moments in the biblical narrative. Let’s start with Israel. Some of the same language from Genesis 1 shows up in reference to Israel wandering in the wilderness. Deuteronomy 32:10-11 says “He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness…” – sound familiar? Now listen to how the Lord responds. “He encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him in the apple of his eye. Like and eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions…” Interestingly that image of fluttering over the wilderness is exactly what Genesis describes the Holy Spirit doing over the wilderness before creation because this is the very character of the Lord, it is who he is and thus how he acts. In the midst of your wilderness he flutters over you, he spreads out his eagle’s wing above you. I love that image. I grew up in Southern California and the wilderness is the desert, and it is hot and barren. To think about the Lord being the wings of an eagle above me in the wilderness evokes an image of sheltering me from the blistering sun, protecting me.

But even more than protecting his hovering over wilderness has an ordering property to it. He is the God who brings order to chaos. He brought order to creation and he brings our wilderness into his order. The Old Testament hints at it but the fullness of it comes in Christ. Christ doesn’t just flutter over the wilderness, he enters it. The wilderness for him was a place of isolation, a place of suffering (he was fasting!) and a place of temptation. Mental illness has all of these characteristics. Often your body is being pushed to its limits, it’s not functioning, it’s acting against you. And in that place of physical weakness we are tempted just like he was. Who will you trust? What will your Savior be? Will you walk with the Lord? The gospel in the midst of the experience of our wilderness is that Christ entered those temptations and acted righteously for us. We are able to walk righteously through our own wildernesses because he has gone before us.

He knows our wilderness, he’s shown himself Lord over it, he hovers over it in power, he protects us in it, he entered it for us, and he himself becomes our means for walking through it. This is the gospel in the experience of mental illness.

The gospel in the complexity of mental illness. Mental illness is complex, there are body issues happening, and outside influences that have played a role, and things that are happening before the Lord. There are voices in our culture that are telling us that these are purely physical. And there are voices within Christian circles telling us that they are purely heart issues, products of the choices we are making before the Lord. But creation and a biblical understanding of who we are tells us that we are embodied souls. Our bodies and our hearts are bound together and affect one another. Most of you experience this every month during a special week of the month when your body makes life particularly difficult emotionally and your heart is vibrantly active in the midst of that. You have a keen awareness that it’s both your heart and your body.

Now consider what happens to that embodied soul when sin enters the world. We’re all pretty familiar with the ways sin affects our hearts. We know we turn away from God at every turn without the saving work of Christ. And if you stop and think about it you’re pretty familiar with the way sin affects your body. You feel every day the effects of death waging against your physical self, the deterioration of aging, things falling apart, sickness ravaging. But we also know that sin affects the way we think. Romans 1 describes our darkened understanding, the inability to see clearly and think straight. Sin affects every corner of the world. Romans 8 describes how creation longs for redemption. Sin hits every single aspect of the world we live in.

I love the word “gnarly” and grieve that its reputation as a word is so tarnished. But despite the surfer connotations that come with it I think it’s a great word. Think about the image of gnarled wood. A straight grain in the wood that gets all knotted up. I personally don’t know anything about wood working or chopping wood but I’m told that cutting through gnarled wood is particularly difficult. Not only is it twisted but it’s stronger than regular, even more resistant to being “sorted”. This is what sin does to an embodied soul in creation. It takes the goodness of heart and body and outside forces and it gnarls it. Twisted together, resistant to being sorted, impenetrable.

This is the complexity of mental illness. Who can sort where all the fracture comes from? Is it sin? Is it a body in rebellion? Is it the product of a broken world? Yes. To all three, in complex and varying degrees. And sometimes we are able to pull threads out that belong to one camp or the other. Sometimes we can see clearly that this aspect is the heart and that aspect is the body. But often it’s a jumbled mess that is very difficult to sort out.

While that may sound discouraging I actually find it hopeful. Because no matter where the fracture is found, no matter what percentage belongs to heart or body or creation, all of it is the product of sin fracturing the world. No matter what gnarls, what strangeness and complexity that I encounter in the midst of mental illness I know it falls into the category of: “What sin does to the world.” And given the extreme measures the Lord had to take to fix it, that he, the God of creation had to become human, had to enter the fracture, had to be put to death by his own creation, had to suffer the wrath incurred by thousands of generations, and rise from the dead in victory over it. If this is what it took to set things back on the right tracks then I know I should expect that the problems and fractures I see are extreme as well. When the complexity of mental illness feels extreme I know this is what I can expect in a gnarled sinful world because I know the extreme answer that has already been given.

That leaves us to the gospel as the hope in the midst of mental illness. Sometimes in the midst of the complexity of mental illness we despair because we can’t sort it out. But if you think about the three different factors at work in it I’m struck by the fact that Christ is the answer to each one. Christ has won my heart and actively works to transform it to love and worship him. He has paid for my sin and bestows his grace upon me. He will give me what I need to walk righteously with him no matter what. Christ has entered my fractured world. He has taken on a body himself and resurrected with a glorious body. I Corinthians 15 describes him as the first fruits of creation. He will glorify my body too, this is where we are pointed physically. And he will redeem his creation, the mountains and the hills will praise his name. Structures and systems that oppress and destroy will be shattered. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear (Psalm 46). Wolf will lie with the lamb (Isaiah 11). He will be King and the nations will praise him (Revelation 15).

If mental illness falls into the category of what sin does to the world then I know certainly that Christ has answered it. He has entered our experience, he has taken complexity into himself, and has answered with power making sin and suffering tools for our redemption in his resurrection. Whatever it is we face may he be the hope to which we cling first and foremost.

 

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A Response to #MeToo

The Golden Globe Awards were Monday evening and the big focus of the night was the response to the sexual harassment issues currently going on in our culture.  In a very real sense our culture is wrestling with the broad topic of sexuality.

Sexuality is a very broad category.  It includes identity (we have a very active conversation going on right now about orientation and gender identity) as well as relationship.

I want to focus on a very narrow aspect of this in my blog.  I want to look at sexuality and physical intimacy through the lenses of power vs. peer, and object vs. person.

Within the context of relating to others sexually we have to understand whether we are focusing on truly relating, or using others sexually.  The Bible clearly teaches that God intends for sexuality to be a mutual relationship.  In the New Testament we have clear teaching about the importance of not only giving ourselves to each other, but also the importance of not abusing power over another.  This includes the area of physical intimacy.  1 Peter 3 talks about husbands treating wives with honor and recognizing that they are “weaker”.  Colossians 3:19 commands husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them.

On top of these particular commands addressing the relationship between the husband and the wife, we have many general commands to be gentle, kind, mutually submitting, and commands not to dominate or use power over others. Matthew 20:25 tells us that among believers we are to lead by service and never by domination.

When we apply these teachings to the topic of how to relate to others, it is clear that we are not to use power to gain what we want.  We are never free to dominate, control, or demand the fulfillment of sexual desires.  Any attempt to exert any kind of intimidation within the arena of sexual activity is always sin.  It is always evil.  Even in the context of marriage.  While this was not the law of the land in all 50 states in the US until 1993, a proper reading of Scripture reveals the use of power to get what we want sexually is selfish, sinful, and evil.

As we look at the issue of person vs. object this becomes even more clear.  In much of our history in laws concerning marriage wives have been objectified and considered “property”.  The Bible does not present this view and in fact it does not even allow for it.  Men and women are both bear the image of God.  The Bible clearly presents that men and women are created in God’s image.  Genesis 1:27 states that God made man in his image, male and female. Both are equally saved by Jesus.  Both are equally loved by Jesus.  To treat any person as an object is to deny their identity as bearing God’s image.  As members of the church men and women are equally the bride of Christ whom He deeply loves as taught in Ephesians 5. We can use objects.  We cannot use people.  When we use intimidation or power to get what we want sexually, we relegate our partner to an object.  This is sin.

I have spoken at some length about what God condemns in Scripture, but I want to end with a brief statement of what God has created sexuality to be.  Humanity is created to reflect God.  We are made in His image.  The triune God has a conversation in Genesis 1 where God decides to create “man” in His image with the complexity of community.  That community is a community of male and female.  God says, to Himself, in Genesis 2 that the male, Adam, is not complete alone.  God creates a suitable partner for Adam when He creates Eve.  The language in Genesis 4 describing Adam and Eve’s physical intimacy is the beautifully interactive word, to know.  Adam knew Eve and she became pregnant with Cain.  In its description of love and marriage, with extensive focus on the physical relationship, Song of Songs talks about the physical relationship between Solomon and his wife.  This model of marital love clearly presents that the physical relationship, as God created it, is to be mutual and mutually pleasing.  The relationship described between the two is intimate emotionally, spiritually, and physically. There is no place in this relationship for the selfish use of power and domination.

I believe if we commit to live in line with the Biblical teaching, we have tremendous opportunity to influence our culture with the beauty of the way God calls us to live with one another.  We have an opportunity in this time to shape the discussion about what it looks like to love one another.  In fact, Jesus taught his disciples the night He was arrested (John 13:34-35) that if we love one another as He loves us, the whole world will take notice that we belong to Him.

May we live like Christ and lead the world to Him.

 

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Sorrow at Christmas

I wrote this blog last Christmas and wanted to post it then but every time I sat down to do it I think the emotions were too raw to post for anyone to see. So here you go, a year later.

Decorating the Christmas tree has always been one of my favorite things in the year. I love watching the tree burst with Christmas lights and fill with sparkly things. I love pulling out old ornaments and remembering the stories that come with them. And that didn’t change this year, I still loved it, but woven in with every memory was a deep and echoing sorrow. So many of my ornaments carry memories of my childhood and moments with my family. This year with each joy came the pang of sorrow. My family broke this year. Every lovely and sweet moment remembered brought with it mourning what has been broken, grieving the fracture of the world I grew up in.

I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. For so many people Christmas is a time that stirs up painful memories and reminds them that things are broken. It brings forward emotions that have fallen into the background and sets them in front of you to feel it all over again.

Scattered throughout the tree are my childhood memories but in the midst of them are ornaments that carry with them the story of Christmas. Angels and stars. Wise men and shepherds. And a manger with the Savior of the world come to us. There on my tree was my own Christmas story in ornament form. Christ come to dwell in my own broken world, to live among the pain, to know it and feel it. To grieve with us and be grieved by us. To mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. To take into himself, into his own body, the fracture of this world. To place my own story, and yours, into his.

As the sorrow of my family and the joy of God’s great love settles in me so does the sure hope that one day these fractures will be healed and broken things made new.  As I sit now in the dark in front of my twinkling Christmas tree my soul knows the beauty of Christ with me and the hope of Christ victorious.

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God’s Unexpected Provision : 2 Kings 6:8-23

Originally published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 31:2 under the title: “More than a Proof Text: God’s Unexpected Provision When Enemies Close In: 2 Kings 6:8-23”  

“God is with you. He is in control. You can trust him.” This is the direction Christians tend to go when they try to help others with anxiety. But many people, maybe even most, find these truths—stated this way—more discouraging than hopeful. Consider my friend, Tessa. She is a faithful Christian who struggles daily with anxious thoughts that permeate the details of her life. And while she knows that God is in control and seeks to trust him, she feels numb and is exhausted by the constant struggle to find her bearings. Rather than instilling hope, these truths stoke a fear that she is failing as a Christian. The promises that she knows should bring comfort sound stale and overused. She wonders if something is wrong with her.

In the midst of her anxiety, Tessa needs to experience and grow to trust the Father’s provision for her in Christ. Discouragement and shame have become barriers that separate her from the experience of Christ with and for her. I have found 2 Kings 6:8–23 helpful for Tessa and others like her. This story of Elisha and his anxious servant breaks through these barriers. The story shifts her preconceptions, connects to her story, and points her to Christ. It makes general truths pointed and specific.

Three characteristics make this passage particularly good for helping anxious people who are stuck. First, the story is unfamiliar to many people. It was new to Tessa, which allowed us to slow it down and discover it together. Second, the details of the story are striking and unique. God provides for his people—but not how you would expect him to. Because Tessa expected me to point her to the same old thing, startling twists in the story helped shake some of her assumptions. Third, while the particulars are surprising, God’s overarching action is predictable and normal. This is part of where Tessa was stuck. The very thing Tessa needed to anchor her—God’s steady and unchanging provision in her own unsteady and changing world—had begun to feel like a dismissal of her story. Rather than seeing his intimate provision in the personal details of her struggle, it felt like those details were getting absorbed into a blanket statement. She was ashamed for feeling that Jesus was a “one-size-fits-all” answer that didn’t touch her questions. It’s true that he is God’s Yes and Amen to all of his promises in every situation (2 Cor 1:20). And that is a lovely statement of faith. But it is only half of the answer. The Father gave Jesus as the answer to all the brokenness in the world and Jesus meets her personally, in her unique place and time, in the particulars of her struggle.

Rather than telling Tessa these things, I wanted to let her experience the story come to life and her idea of God’s provision to bloom as we entered the details together. To do this I chose to lead into the story by emphasizing the predictable summary. In this case it was as simple as saying, “Let’s read a story about God’s provision for his people.”

The story starts off with a frustrated Syrian king. He has been chasing the Israelite army but “more than once or twice” they are able to escape (v.10). The Syrian soldiers attribute their escape to Elisha. They tell their king, “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words you speak in your bedroom” (v.12). When the Syrian king learns of Elisha’s whereabouts, he moves his army there.

Once the stage is set, we read the passage together, one chunk at a time. To help Tessa see the personal nature of God’s provision I slowed the story down to consider the personal details of the characters involved. I began with Elisha’s servant.

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” (v.15)

We put ourselves in the servant’s shoes and imagined the scenario. We considered together why the author told us that it is early in the morning. Waking up groggy, walking outside in the cold, seeing your breath in the early morning air, wrapping your cloak tighter around you—and then looking up to see an army with horses and chariots surrounding the city. What would it feel like to wake up and find that an army is hunting you down first thing in the morning? Something about the time of day makes it that much worse. You were just asleep, unsuspecting, warm in your bed. And now—in an instant— impending doom.

I wanted Tessa to enter the experience of the servant and relate to how he must have felt. To help her bring it into her own life, I asked her what her version of the servant’s words might be. She knows well the experience of waking up to an onslaught of anxious thoughts about the day. What does she say when she begins to panic?

As we think about the servant together, we make specific connections to her experience. Are there times when she has felt trapped by her anxiety and by the circumstances that are causing it? Does she know that feeling of impending doom? What is it like to experience that feeling? Can she resonate with a time when it seemed like there was nothing that could be done?

After spending time on the servant’s experience, we moved on to Elisha and his response.

Elisha said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (v.16–17)

God peels back the curtain to give the servant a tangible and powerful experience of his presence with them and his purposes for them. In the midst of the servant’s fear, God allows him to see a glimpse of what he is up to.

For Tessa, I was laying the groundwork for the end of our conversation when we’ll talk about the ways the Lord makes himself known to her now. To do this, we spent some time talking about how kind it was for the Lord to open the servant’s eyes. We considered the significance of this detail, that the servant is a minor player in the narrative, and what effect that must have had on his fear. I gave her space to voice some of her frustration that God does not open her eyes to the angel armies around her, knowing that we will get to it later.

God reveals his presence and power to the servant before his enemy. The text tells us the Syrians bring horses and chariots. In response, God brings horses and chariots of fire. Whatever Israel’s enemy can bring, God is greater. Not only is this a picture of God besting this enemy, but it points to his future victories. Christ is the warrior King who comes in power and might to save his people. As the rest of the story plays out, we will see the nature of his victory and how it foreshadows Christ’s work for us. For Tessa, at this point in the conversation, I wanted her to focus on God’s power over his enemies and how he shows that.

We moved forward in the conversation. When God surrounds your enemy with chariots of fire what do you think is going to happen next? Most of us would guess that the enemy is about to be destroyed. But that is not where the story goes—and I want Tessa to be surprised by this. In my life, not only would I guess that is where the story will go, but I also genuinely want the story to go there. I want God to show up and wipe out the things that make me anxious. This is true for Tessa as well. She has well-formed ideas about what God’s provision should be and what it would look like if he genuinely were present. But God’s provision is not required to take the shape we want it to. Even when he doesn’t conform to our expectations, his provision is true and spectacular (as the rest of the story will show).

The Syrian army begins their attack. They are on the hunt for Elisha. Elisha asks the Lord to blind them. As they stand there confused and blind, Elisha offers to guide them—and they don’t know it’s him! He leads them not just into the hands of the Israelite army, but straight into Samaria, Israel’s capital (v.18–19). When they arrive, Elisha prays for their eyes to be opened and “behold, they were in the midst of Samaria,” surely surprised, bewildered, and in the crux of Israel’s power (v.20). God had chosen not to conquer them with his heavenly army. Instead, now it looks like he will use the army of Israel to defeat the Syrian army. But that’s not what happens either.

The story has a surprise ending. Before we read it together, I stop and ask Tessa what she thinks will happen next. Like most people, she thinks that a battle will occur. The king of Israel has the same idea. He wants to kill the Syrians. He wants this so much that he asks Elisha twice, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” (v.21). But Elisha has other plans. Instead of directing them to be killed, he instructs the Israelites to throw them a feast. Yes, a feast!

So the king prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. (v.23)

Tessa and I imagined together what it would be like to be one of the Israelite army commanders and get the instruction to feast with your enemies instead of conquering them. It sounds awkward. Yesterday you were trying to kill one another and today you are sharing a meal. It sounds disappointing. The commander had an opportunity to have another win under his belt, but he does not get that. It is confusing. Why would God command a feast in place of punishment?

As Tessa and I wondered about these things together, the gospel story started to naturally emerge—the mighty God enters our world with the power to save. This God gives grace to people who deserve punishment. This God prepares a feast for us in the presence of our enemies. This God overturns the enemy’s mission and brings grace and redemption through it.

These are some of the avenues leading toward Christ, but this last one is where I went with Tessa. God brings grace and redemption through the very things we struggle with. We had spent the majority of our time together talking about the particulars of the story in connection with the particulars of her story. But as we ended the conversation I wanted to zoom out and talk about anxiety as the stage for God overturning his enemy. In Christ, God takes our sin and our suffering, and the enemy’s plan, and uses it as the stage for our redemption. In his resurrection he claims his victory. And with his Spirit he enables us to participate in that victory.

Tessa’s anxiety can become the stage for her to see the Lord’s power. She has been praying for the Lord to take away her fears; it is the equivalent of praying for the angel armies to defeat the enemy. But rather than taking it away he has a plot twist in store for her that displays his power over it. When Tessa struggles with anxious thoughts and cries to the Lord for help, she’s experiencing God’s victory over the enemy’s plan. When she chooses not to nurture her anxious thoughts in solitude but to turn to a friend who can speak truth to her, she’s living out the plot twist. She is living out God’s victorious reign as he uses anxiety to draw her closer to him and to draw her deeper into community.

As Tessa and I continued to work together we practiced looking for ways the Lord was demonstrating his power in the midst of her anxiety. We started by looking back. Tessa had journals from years ago. When she went back and read them she could see God’s presence with her and evidence of his work in her. She remembered a vibrant prayer life. As we talked about the journals we remembered Elisha’s story and recounted how God had been working even when she couldn’t see it. As she practiced turning outward for help he began to heal the shame that comes from struggling in silence. We watched as he gave her courage to enter situations that made her nervous. And reveled together as she became a blessing to others who also battle with anxiety.

Tessa continues to struggle with anxiety—but the struggle has changed. It is her daily calling to turn to her warrior King to combat anxious thoughts. And in the midst of that battle she gets to experience the plot twist of the gospel on a daily basis. Her King has won and even when the path is perplexing she is growing in faith to trust his provision for her.

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How Do We Protect Relationships

Change is a part of church experience.  People are always coming and going.  We welcome new people to our congregation and we work to build relationships with them.  We say goodbye to those who have been part of our lives.  We have new leaders rise up and old leaders sometimes move away.  Ministries are also changing.  

Change in our churches also means that our relationships are constantly changing. As our relationships change, we may experience conflict.  We have to adjust to changes and that takes work. How we respond to conflict is an important thing.  There are several “typical” responses to conflict.  

Overlooking

Overlooking can be a very helpful response to some conflict.  Sometimes conflict is a matter of personal preference and there isn’t a right or wrong at stake.  Proverbs 19:11 even says  we can gain glory by overlooking an offense.

Ken Sande, in his book Peacemaker points out helpful questions that can guide our thoughts on whether or not to overlook an offense.  He asks: is it dishonoring to God? is it damaging your relationship? Is it hurting others? Is it hurting the offender? If we answer yes to these questions then the offense is too great to overlook. If we overlook these offenses we are leaving the other in a behavior pattern that is damaging and will cause ongoing harm.  

Dietrich Bonhoefer, in his book Life Together writes “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”

Withdrawal: I will forget you to escape pain

Another common response to conflict is withdrawal.  In this response we pull away from the conflict and the other parties in the conflict.  At the heart of withdrawal is the decision to avoid pain, even at the cost of losing the relationship.  In some cases we withdraw quietly and the others may not know we are distant.  Central to this choice is the decision that if staying in relationship with you means I have to hurt, I am willing to lose you as well as the pain.  This attitude denies the Biblical truth that all people are precious and deserve both respect and engagement.  Even in abusive relationships we do not withdraw without clarifying that the abusive party is valuable.  The truth is that the abusive person needs to hear a call to repent and then boundaries must be established that prevent them from continuing their abusive behavior at will.  They are too valuable allow to continue in their sinful patterns.  

Winning: I will get my way at any cost

Some of us respond to conflict as if it is a war to win.  I am bound and determined to get my way.  I am not going to listen to you and find out what you want.  I will not see you as a valuable person whose desires also matter to me.  You are simply an obstacle to my goals and my pleasure.  I am not going to treat you as an image bearer and work with you to bring healing.  I am going to treat you as an object that is making my life difficult and I will move you out of my way.

Giving In: I will lose me to keep peace with you

Some of us when we are in conflict simply do everything we can to make the other parties to the conflict happy. Their goals and desires are important but ours are not.  Our goals, if we are prone to giving in, are to have peace and an absence of the pain of conflict.  This approach is similar in many ways to withdrawal, but instead of clearly losing the relationship, we lose ourselves.  We either honestly accept the other’s view and desires, or we pretend to accept their views and desires.  In any case, we have lost ourselves and as a result we cannot give ourselves honestly to another.  

Working Through the Issues: I care about you enough to engage

The healthiest response to conflict caused by changes is to work through the conflict and resolve it.  We take the time to listen to each other and we take the risk to share our thoughts and feelings.  In this conversation we demonstrate our faith in the safety we have in Christ and with each other.  Fear does not control us.  We will go through difficult times in order to have a solid and honest relationship with each other.  Some passages that shape this response are: Genesis 9:6, James 3:9, John 13:34-35, and Hebrews 12:6.

Every person we meet is an image bearer and has tremendous value.  We cannot treat anyone as an object to be used or avoided.  We must treat both others, and ourselves, with respect.  On the night of his arrest Jesus commands us to love people as He loves us.  We are to love sacrificially and completely.  We can overlook offenses and differences, or we can resolve them.  When we follow Christ we are not free to disrespect others by withdrawal, winning, or even giving in.  If the problem is too important to overlook, we are called to the serious work of resolving.  

There is much more to say about how to pursue resolution, but that is for a later blog.  

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Helping Our Churches Become Communities of Change

Helping Our Churches Become Communities of Change

A few years ago Steve Midgley gave a talk at the CCEF National Conference giving a handful of practical steps we can take as leaders to develop a community that reflects gospel change. I’ll give a few highlights below, things that stood out to me personally, but if you’d like to listen to the talk in its entirety you can click here to purchase it from CCEF.

Begin with your own humility:  “Here is where you begin in the business of side by side ministry. You begin with yourself, with humility. We begin with our neediness, we are only ever sinners before a holy God in need of his forgiveness. Begin with humility. Before we open our mouths to presume to speak with others. Before we counsel or preach, begin with humility. Before we seek to be the agent of change in the life of another, begin with humility.  Be deeply persuaded of your need for grace because change begins with us, with a heart that knows its need for Christ.”

Incorporating the Body: Ephesians 4 – “In our churches we’re tempted to slice out the crucial element of personal one-anothering ministry.” Our goal is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry, enabling them to fulfill the role they’ve been gifted to play.

  • How ready are you to take risks in your church community? We will never discover the hidden talent in our communities if we always go to the same people.
  • How does it go when things go wrong? How do you handle mistakes? It’s tempting to try and camouflage them but it’s much more fruitful if we highlight our failings. “If we are embarrassed by our errors we’re communicating that this is a place for perfect people, where we won’t count on anything but excellence.” Highlighting our mistakes communicates grace. “We seek to be a church that is a hospital for sinners rather than a museum for saints”
  • How does your church respond to new ideas? What happens when someone wants to try something completely new?
  • When choosing people to pray up front who do you pick? Do you pick only the eloquent or do you pick people who struggle a bit with their words?
  • Who do you pick to give testimonies? Allow people in the middle of their process to speak about that process, about the wrestling. Don’t fall into the temptation to only present stories that are on the far side of change.
  • How much do you talk about your constant need for change and growth? A church that isn’t changing is one of two things: 1) It has reached a state of sinless perfection. Or 2) It is a church that has forgotten that God intends it to keep growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Speaking the Truth in Love. We do this as we walk together. This isn’t an excuse to get something off my chest or elevating myself above you to drop truth upon you. This is speaking to one another as one sinner to another. “Failing to speak the truth in love means we will not grow. We will stay immature.”

Ideas from his own church to make people feel more equipped to speak the truth in love: 

  • To speak the towards change in others people needed to experience change themselves. They began running “How People Change” courses.
  • Becoming comfortable talking about the way God is at work in us so we can see the way he is at work in another person. They changed the way they did prayer meetings. They carved out time for people to share what God was doing in their lives.
  • Emphasize community. They changed the way they did coffee on a Sunday. By putting the invitation for coffee in bold underneath the songs and bible readings in the bulletin they began to communicate that chatting after the service was an informal time of worship that followed the formal worship we just completed. Because every Sunday there are people to rejoice with and people to mourn with and it will be to God’s glory as we do both.
  • Acknowledge the difficulty. They named their weaknesses as a culture and continue to push into them together.
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When Should a Pastor Refer?

When Should a Pastor Refer?

In pastoral ministry the line between the work you do with your people and when to bring in extra help can be a difficult one to discern. For some seasoned wisdom on the topic I turn to Mike Emlet, a counselor and faculty member at CCEF. In the space below I’ve summarized some of the key points from a talk he gave at the 2015 CCEF National Conference titled “When Should Pastors Refer: When should the help you provide as a pastor extend beyond yourself and the resources of your congregation?”. Click here to purchase the complete talk from the CCEF website.

When Should a Pastor Refer?

Assuming you’re meeting regularly with people, assuming you believe that the biblical story is always relevant to the issues at hand, assuming you are already helping your counselee take full advantage of the resources in the church, here are some things to consider as you ask yourself whether or not to refer:

Things about yourself to take into consideration:

  1. Gifting – Romans 12:3-8. Not all pastors in ministry are equally gifted as ministers in counsel. As a pastor you have the call to be walking alongside of the people you shepherd but your own gifting as a counselor will be a factor in determining which cases you ought to take on yourself.
  2. Training and Experience – Even with a baseline gifting you need training and experience to stir up that gift. Much of our learning happens reactively –  as we’re faced with situations that we encounter, we dig in and learn how to handle them. If you don’t have much experience it doesn’t necessarily mean you must refer. Ask yourself these questions: Am I willing and able to study and learn? If you lack experience you don’t want to learn and grow in isolation. Find someone who can help you with hands on questions. Is the person you’re counseling comfortable with that arrangement? Are they on board with you as you learn and grow? Are they comfortable with you seeking outside help? A note from us at Impact: We’d love to be an outside resource to you. Please contact us if you have questions about what that might look like. 
  3. Time – Do I have time for a regular and recurring meeting with this person? Although the answer to that question never feels like a resounding “yes”, there are several things to help mitigate the time factor. 1) Meet every couple of weeks. Space out the appointments. 2) Counsel the person with a friend or small group leader to have a built in way for someone else to carry the load of walking with them. It also opens the possibility of transitioning care for the long haul. “If you find that you never have time to meet with a person more than once it’s something you should reassess.”

Things in a counselee that would cause you refer to outside help:

  1. Medical problems. Do you see physical symptoms?
  2. Marked personality changes
  3. Heavy substance abuse
  4. Eating disorders, or other struggles that require a multi-disciplinary team approach
  5. Psychiatric symptoms. Do you have concerns about their connection to reality?
  6. Seriously considering suicide
  7. No change. Are they putting in the time and effort and change isn’t happening?
  8. A problem requiring intensive and extensive counseling.

The question of referral is about how to best love the people the Lord has called you to walk with.

Proverbs 11:14 “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in abundance of counselors there is safety”

 

 

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Change, Does It Really Happen?

As a pastor and a counselor I work with a number of people who feel the need for change, but often wonder if it is possible to change.  I have heard the following statement from more people than I have counted: “I have worked to change, prayed for change, and I have not changed.  I guess this is just who I am.”

We do long for change.  It is painful that change seems so difficult.  Sometimes we lose hope.

However, Scripture is clear that change is a part of our lives.  “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  (Ez 36:27).  “…so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”  (Romans 6:19).  “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15).  God is at work to bring us to maturity and “perfection.”  We will not be perfect until He finally glorifies us, but we do see that He is always growing us.  We are called to partner with him in this.

It is important to keep in focus that the goal of this growth is not our personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.  The goal of our growth is God’s glory and pleasure.  John 14:15 simply tells us that as Jesus was going from the Last Supper with his disciples to the garden of Gethsemane where he was wrestling in prayer prior to his arrest, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  1 Peter 1:7 tells us that the outcome of enduring trials in this life is that our tested faith “may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

There is a much greater goal for our growth than personal pleasure.  We are living for God.  I believe if we minimize our perspective on growth and change, limiting it to our own pleasure, we will likely conclude that the costs of change are greater than the benefits of change.  In short, we will give up long before we experience change.

As I consider Jesus, and his love and sacrifice for me, and the promise of blessings that he is giving me in this life and in the next, I do grow in my love for him and I am moved by that love to respond with love.  Simply put, he is worth any efforts I make to change.  My commitment to, and energy for, change are multiplied.  The result is that I see God change me and I grow into the Christlikeness to which I am called.

 

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He Lifts the Head of the Shamed

KSilvasmall-5Originally published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 30:1 under the title “More Than a Proof Text:’You feel ashamed – but Christ is the lifter of your head’ (Psalm 3:3)” by Kristin Silva. 

 

What does shame look like? Shame’s posture is downcast—eyes down, head down, hiding from the gaze of others. Often in counseling as people begin to tell the story of their shame, the struggle shifts from something they have experienced at another time and place to something they feel right now, with you in the room. I remember this moment with a friend. As the shameful pieces of her story entered our conversation, I watched her head sink lower and lower. My presence with her, my eyes upon her, my knowledge of the intimate details of her experience all seemed to make the weight of shame even heavier.

How might Scripture speak into this moment? We had talked about shame in the past but this time was different. In this moment, her body began to reflect the shame she had previously only spoken of. She was not merely describing feeling dirty or shameful; she was literally downcast before me, embodying the posture of one who is unworthy. So, we began by putting words to what she was feeling and how her body was reflecting it. Then I read Psalm 3:3 to her.

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, the lifter of my head. (Psalm 3:3)

I hoped we would find some help there. Could we find ways that her experience is parallel to David’s? Could this become her prayer too?

David wrote this psalm as the consequences of his most shameful sins were unfolding. Because he had taken another man’s wife and had her husband killed, the prophet Nathan foretold of death and rebellion in David’s household.[1] Now, as David writes Psalm 3, his son Absalom is contributing to the fulfillment of that prophecy by trying to kill his father and usurp the throne.[2] As he fled from Absalom, the weight of those sins hung in the background. He speaks his fear and shame to the Lord, opening the way for others to be blessed as we learn how to do the same.

            To consider the psalm with my friend I asked her:

What do you think the memory of those sins felt like for David?

Where does the memory of your own sin take you?

Another way David suffers in this psalm is that his own people make false judgments about him. His people wonder if there is any hope for him. To them, he is so far gone that “there is no salvation for him in God” (3:2). Though actual accusations are not always present, shame often begins to stir when we perceive that others are judging us. Because David’s relationship with the Lord was especially intimate, my friend and I imagined what it must have felt like for it to be called into question. I asked her:

What kinds of thoughts do you think might be going through his head?

What are the places in your own life that it feels like people judge you?

As you sit here with me, what are you afraid I might be saying about you in my                       mind?

And because our inner voices say the same things that outer voices might say, I asked her:

What are you saying to yourself?

The inner and outer voices often speak as a chorus in accusation against us.

Shame might begin with the fear of judgement from others but it quickly grows and expands into a full-blown attack. Shame hurls insults: you are not good enough; you are not worthy; people are going to find out how filthy you really are. It feels like enemies coming at you, like an attacking army rising against you, pushing you down. “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me!” (Psalm 3:1). To bring these verses into my friend’s life, we talked about shame as her foe.

What does it feel like when shame rises against you?

What would the first two verses say if you wrote them in your own words?

After this, I read verse 3 out loud and very slowly. “You, O Lord, are a shield about me.” I paused and we talked about the nature of God’s protection.

What does a shield do in the midst of an attack?

In what ways does the Lord do this for you in a moment when shame attacks                          you?[3]

From there I moved to the second half of the verse, “You, O LORD are the lifter of my head.” I paused again and encouraged her to lift her head. We talked about everything she was feeling—the vulnerability, the fear of standing before the Lord and being seen by him.

As she lifted her head I pulled in the third part of the verse. David says that the Lord is our glory. It means that he shines his face upon us.[4] And like Moses on Mt. Sinai, when the radiance of his glory shines upon us, we shine too.[5] This last truth was very meaningful to her. With tears running down her cheeks, she reflected on lifting her head to see the shining face of the Lord.[6] My friend bears physical marks of her shame, scars from self-inflicted wounds that remind her of shameful moments. They stand in accusation against her. In this moment, as she experienced the radiance of the glory of the Lord, she proclaimed, “His face is shining so brightly upon me that my scars are washed out.” He truly removes her shame.

This was a dramatic moment for my friend. God does not always work in this way, but he did in this case and the experience has continued to bless and help her. This is not surprising. David says something similar. He says that he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord sustained him.[7] In the following months, in places where fear and shame had once lured her to run and hide, my friend experienced the Lord’s sustaining power that allowed her to faithfully believe that he removed her shame. We come back to this psalm often and praise the Lord for the big and small ways he sustains her.

 

 

[1] 2 Samuel 12:10–11

[2] 2 Samuel 13–18, specifically 16:22

[3] Christ as our shield is a rich image worth expanding in another conversation. Like a shield he absorbs shame (Isaiah 53:3); he casts our shame away (Hebrews 12:2); he makes shame powerless against us (Colossians 2:15).

[4] The psalm sets the stage for this jump. Though I do not often give my exegetical reasoning for pulling in another passage during a counseling session, I am happy to explain it if asked. In a moment like this it is more important to move seamlessly from the Lord lifting the head of the shamed to knowing his shining face upon them. In this particular passage the use of the word glory opens up the idea of radiance or shining (Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 21:11). If the Lord is our glory it is because he is shining upon us (Numbers 6:25).

[5] Exodus 34:29–35

[6] The hymn Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus fits well here and can be a helpful way for a counselee to recall this conversation throughout the week.

[7] Psalm 3:5–6 “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.”

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