We Raised our Kids in Church (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part IV)

chpc exteriorWhen our first baby was three months old, we moved around the corner from our church. That big stone building with its bell tower crowning the hilltop has been our rock, our main institution.

School involvement comes and goes. Jobs end. Kids age out of sports leagues and bands. All those relationships connected to those things fade, but church goes on, because no one outgrows their deep need for God.

I can’t begin to describe how our church has enriched the lives of our family.

As a person who grew up without the church, it was a constant surprise to me to discover people ready to pour out their time, talent and love on my kids. It began as soon as they were born. We had three babies in 20 months – mathematically impossible unless you have premature twins before your toddler turns two!  In the crazy days following the twins’ homecoming, people from the church whom we barely knew were cleaning the house, bringing us meals, even doing our laundry.

That was just the beginning. There was a nursery where we could leave them all safe in the arms of one-on-one caregivers while we sank exhausted into a pew and enjoyed the stillness of undisturbed worship.

As our babies grew, church became their comfortable second home. That was where they had big rooms to run around, cool toys to play with, crowds to charm.  They were introduced to good music.  I recall taking my one-year-old to his first concert.  We wondered if he was old enough to behave, and were delighted when he sat attentive through song after song.  Then, during the first break in the music, he pulled his thumb out of his mouth and shouted, “More songs!”

For children as young as three, there were age-appropriate worship experiences in their Sunday School classes. They used to love when their teacher rang a triangle, one on each side, three times while they all said, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” There was also a cooperative preschool which stressed the development of the whole child and required parents to help in the classroom. I learned volumes about patience and the value of structure from those gentle teachers.

During the grade school years, every season offered something to look forward to at church, from the joys of summer camps to the wonder of candle-lit Christmas services.  On Palm Sunday they danced down the aisles with palm branches, and in August there was a block party where the whole neighborhood showed up for free food, music and face painting.

The milestones of their growth were marked with careful ceremonies – baptism, the presentation of Bibles at the beginning of fourth grade, the transition from children’s ministry to youth group after grade six, with its whole new world of wild games and pool parties and mission trips.

In the demanding high school years, church was a refuge for our boys, where they knew they were loved apart from their performance. Small discipleship groups grounded them in truth and gave them structure for practicing their faith after leaving home.

No one but God knows how many dozens of people have loved our kids, how many beautiful images connected with God are wired into the structure of their brains, how much truth has taken root in their hearts.

I have not always felt like getting my kids up and ready for church, but every time, I’ve been glad I did. It took the whole village to get them where they are, and as adults, I know they will need it just as much.

Unblocking our View of God (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part X)

When it comes to being aware that God is right here with us, most of us are blocked. Like a guy with foggy glasses, like a girl who has the radio cranked too loud to hear her GPS, there are some simple things we need to do before we can perceive what is so close.

This is the last in a series of ten posts that discuss things we can do on our own to let God into our heads and hearts. Any contact with God is renewing. So, in summary, here’s what we can do to spiritually recharge:

Elijah on Mt Horeb, by Sister Genevieve
  • Find beautiful quiet places to be alone undisturbed.
  • Give yourself time alone in silence, undistracted by noise and the demands of people.
  • Learn to meditate on true statements, repeating them while you breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Examine yourself and confess to God the ways you have harmed yourself and others.
  • Practice gratitude for what is in your life right here and now.
  • Develop faith by praying for healing of physical, emotional and relationship problems.
  • Surrender to God anything that is not good for you, or is taking the place of God in your life.
  • Build a habit of reading the Bible often.
  • Learn to study the Bible for yourself.

There’s a balance between spending time alone with God and experiencing God in community. Each needs the other, each feeds the other. People who want to seek God benefit greatly from worship services, service projects, Bible classes, prayer groups, retreats with spiritual directors. These are the things we tend to think of first when considering practicing a faith.

But following Christ is much more than practicing a religion. It is a relationship with the one who made us, saved us and loves us every moment of our lives. God really wants time alone with us. And whether we want it or not, we really need time with God.

Whether it’s once a week hiking in a forest, or every morning sitting in an armchair for fifteen minutes, our spirits can be continually renewed, like a fountain that never stops flowing. All we have to do is give God time and permission to work in us.

How to Get a New Mind (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part IX)

Why is it that people can go through genuine conversion experiences and really believe in Jesus, yet still be jerks? It confounded me for years. I’ve seen selfish, cheap, bigoted, mean, even abusive Christians, make it much harder for those around them to have faith in God.

Gradually I’ve realized; the invitation to grow in knowledge and goodness is as unforced by God as the first invitation to come to faith. If we don’t do anything different to change what’s in our minds, our behavior won’t change either.Image result for bible study

The way our minds get changed is by studying the Bible. Until we do this, we’re victims of the families and cultures we were raised in. The Bible is the playbook for being in God’s community, across all time and cultures. One verse in Romans, a letter in the New Testament, says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Mental transformation takes place when we’re exposed to new information, when we lay aside opinions to observe, analyze, question and act on it. A good process for Bible study allows all this to happen.

Here’s a suggested format, with much of the material based on appendices from “The Bible Study Handbook,” by Lindsay Olesberg:

  1. Pick a book of the Bible. Maybe start with the gospel of Mark, a short record of Jesus’ life.
  2. Find some background on when the book was written, to whom, and what was going on historically with those people. You don’t have to become a scholar, but a some context is needed, from a site like Dr. Craig Keener’s , or a book  like,  “What the Bible is All About,” by Henrietta Mears. Once you have some context, don’t keep flipping to other sources for interpretation. Just dig into the passage.
  3. Select a short section at a time. Mark 1:1-20 is plenty to start with. Read the passage.
  4. Read it again, looking for the facts – who, when, where, what happened, how.
  5. Look for connections in the writing, such as repetition, patterns, contrasts, cause and effect, images, metaphors. Pay attention to words like ‘therefore’ or ‘because.’
  6. Write down any questions you have, to research later or ask people you know.
  7. Sum up what you think the main themes of that passage are.
  8. Ask yourself how the passage applies to your life.
  9. What can you do to act on something you’ve learned?

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Lots of us tend to jump from reading to application. Don’t. Take plenty of time for steps 4 through 8.
  • Remember that we haven’t understood the Bible till we know what the author was communicating to his original audience. That’s why you need some context from history and culture, and to scan what passages come before and after.
  • Expect that you will encounter God as you study. Try to be humble and open to what God wants you to see.
  • Studying in groups can be really rich; there is the combined observation and interpretation of many different personalities. But realize that if the leader is talking a lot, it’s not study, it’s a lecture. Try to find a group where everyone is given responsibility to explore the text.

Some people find a little time to study every day, some take a chunk of time on the weekend, or even go on study retreats. You may not notice anything different at first, but a year or two of regular Bible study changes our lives in profound ways.

Soul Nutrition (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part VIII)

he first time I tried a regular discipline of Bible reading, I ended up flinging it across the room. It didn’t make sense to me. Probably because I was too tired – I’d gotten it into my head that you were supposed to read the Bible first thing, which meant I had to get up before 5 am. I don’t recommend that.

Image result for reading the bibleBut I do recommend reading the Bible most days. Some people love it right away. For many of us, it’s an acquired taste. The Bible claims itself to be inspired by God. Before I could believe that, I had to read a bevy of apologetic works like, “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” and “Mere Christianity,” in addition to a month long pilgrimage to a Christian community in the Swiss Alps to study how the Bible came together. I’m naturally doubtful and cynical.

Other people become convinced just by experiencing the Bible on its own. There is a different quality to it than other books. Stuff jumps out at you. Words seem to sink in deeper. Repeated readings reveal deeper levels of truth. I’m easily bored, but I’m not bored by the Bible (Wait, except when people read it in a singsongy voice.)

Reading the Bible might not always feel good, like a walk in the park or other things suggested in this series, but it’s like eating vegetables. Repeated over time, it does us immense good. No one notices a change if vegetables are skipped for a day, but years without them will make you chronically sick. The Bible is our soul nutrition.

What to Keep in Mind:

Before you read, ask God to open your mind and teach you what you need to learn. Humility comes before wisdom.

Ask yourself what the author was intending and find out who he was writing for. Background and context is needed for any text to make sense.

Keep in mind that the bible is 66 separate documents written by many people in different genres over about 1500 years. Observe how cool it is that it all hangs together as well as it does.

You don’t need to read it in order. That can be heavy going. I return often to the gospels, the four accounts of Jesus. I read the Psalms a lot too. I try to balance Old and New Testament books, often alternating. Old is the foundation, New is the house that’s built on it, which we get to live in.

Try not to jump too soon to interpretation. Really notice and comprehend first, asking who, what, when, where, where, why, how?

If something confuses or irritates you, tell God. It may come clear on the spot, or you may get a sense that it’s not time for you to worry about it yet.

Switch it up. Sometimes you’ll want to read big chunks quickly for an overview. Other times, take little sections and drill in, mulling over it and perhaps memorizing.

Sometimes study it, sometimes read devotionally. The difference is whether you stand back from the text an analyze, or read it like a letter written to you by someone who loves you. We need both.

Don’t let doubt, cynicism, suffering or apathy keep you from the Bible. Give it a shot, daily. If you have to fling it across the room, aim for something soft.

Surrender is Underrated (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge Part VII)

Years ago I had a dream. I was carrying someone up a mountain, struggling under the weight to keep my footing on a narrow rocky path – a rock wall to my right, a cliff edge to my left. I fell, in terror as sheer as the cliff. Then, a big invisible hand caught both me and my burden before we hit the ground. We fell into a soft, enveloping safety and I woke, relief flooding my heart.

I  had the same dream three times on the same night, each carrying a different person. God was trying to get through to my wildly codependent subconscious that He was responsible for me and the people I was trying to rescue, that we were safe with him. Best of all, those people weighing me down were caught in God’s other hand. I had nothing to do with their rescue, having dropped them when I fell – just to avoid any confusion about who is and isn’t capable of rescue.

Image result for surrender to God

Not all of us are rescue rangers but we all have stuff or people or issues we cling to, even idolize. And we won’t be at peace until we let God have them.

That’s where prayers of surrender come in. In this way of praying, we slowly learn to open our hearts to God, like a fist that has clenched too long being gradually pried open. First it hurts, but then we are free.

Surrendering control is against our nature, so it will not happen all at once. Like sandpaper on hardwood, we hand ourselves over to God to be worked on. It goes something like this:

  1. We get alone and calm and aware of God, to be best of our ability. (See the earlier blogs in this series, 1, 2 and 3.)
  2. We dwell on the thing we are clinging to, telling God why we want/need it so much, and all our fears about losing it.
  3. We acknowledge that God, our creator, knows more than we do, and has loves us more than we know. So we say, “Your will be done.”
  4. We put the matter in God’s hands. Try actually lifting the person, habit, situation, whatever, up to Him in your imagination, and actually lift up your arms.
  5. We let go. We say, “I give up. If you don’t want me to have this, take it away.”

Sometimes we’ll get what we want; the job, the relationship, the house – whatever, along with clarity that we need God more. Other times, God takes it away for good. We don’t always get to know why, either.

Surrendering our big issues is key, but surrender also needs to happen in our everyday lives. I knew a missionary in Austria who took every Sunday afternoon to review each family relationship, his work issues, and his life in the community. He asked God to show him what was best in all of these, surrendering his own agenda to listen.

Some people are systematic, and a daily or weekly prayer of surrender really helps them. Others feel trapped by that, and it’s better to just deal with things as they come up. Either way, we have to surrender if we want peace, and the joy of seeing God doing good things in our lives.

Chunks of the Bible that can help us with surrender include: praying the Lord’s prayer, imagining Jesus’ ultimate surrender at Gethsemane, meditating on the poem in Philippians 2, or memorizing Galatians 2:20.            

 

Healing 101 (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part VI)

I was taught that all those stories about healing in the Bible were just for that time, that miracles don’t  happen anymore. Then I went to a healing service and witnessed the bent back of someone I knew well, straighten visibly after one prayer. When your beliefs don’t match reality, it’s time to overhaul your theology.

File:The Great Physician at Work by F. Hofmann c. 1890.jpg

That was years ago. Since then I’ve been part of prayer groups that have witnessed the healing of headaches, backaches, depression, bulging discs, out of control eating, cystic fibrosis, a brain tumor…. lots of healing. I’m confident now that God wants to heal us and often will do it as soon as we ask. There are whole books on why healing doesn’t always happen, and how to pray for healing. In a short blog I can only focus on a first step.

Faith plays a key role. It’s like the current that connects us to God, and through which God’s power flows. Jesus said, “…Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” So we want to train ourselves into faith, just was we’d train for anything else – a marathon, new software. People talk about faith enviously, as if it were something that you just have or don’t have, like long legs. It’s not. You train for it, you exercise it, you fight for it when it’s attacked.

Faith grows when we see God directly answer a prayer, especially when the outcome is hard to explain otherwise. So we should start praying for healing. Why not start with ourselves? Then when we feel better, it will also boost our faith. Double benefit.

Here are some commonly taught guidelines for how to pray for healing (My reading has included Agnes Sanford, Richard Foster, John Wimber, and Francis McNutt) :

  • Start by praying for something that is simple. Pray for sore throats before you tackle progressed cancer; a habit of worry before schizophrenia. Ask yourself if you believe the problem can be healed.
  • Ask God for guidance about how to pray for the problem, and pay attention to the thoughts that come. You may be about to pray for a stomach ache, then realize that the stomach ache worsens when you’re around someone who makes you mad. Obviously you need to pray for healing in that relationship, and probably help in forgiving.
  • Focus on the love and dependability of God. Jesus came to show us that, so a mental picture of Jesus doing one of the things recorded in the gospels, is a good thing to hold in mind. That’s who we’re connecting with – someone who loved us enough to come to us and die for us.
  • When we’ve centered ourselves on the goodness of God, and asked for guidance, then hold in your imagination what you believe you should be praying for. If your arm is in a cast, imagine the bone fused straight and strong, and you swinging your arm with no pain. Then ask God for it, boldly, hopefully.
  • Don’t weaken your faith with some “If it be your will…” qualifier. You’ve asked for guidance to pray for the right thing, so just ask.
  • Don’t be discouraged if nothing happens right away. Keep asking. Persistence is rewarded. (Read the story of the widow in Luke 18.)
  • Thank God for healing after it happens, and tell people about it. Often experiencing or witnessing healing helps people to draw closer to God, so don’t keep it to yourself.

The Ladder to Joy (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part V)

I see only one way out of the problem of suffering. Only one way not to be crushed by the reality of pain, evil and death. One ladder out of the deep hole.

I observe that people who don’t find it do one of three things; kill themselves, break with reality, or hang on in quiet desperation, as the song says – escaping into distractions which tend to become addictions.

The ladder out is the practice of gratitude. I’m not talking about humming a happy little tune; I’m talking about a deep discipline that slowly but profoundly lifts us into joy.

I have the right to speak to this; I am one of the most cynical people I know. I remember sitting on a merry-go-round at the age of three, wondering what everyone was smiling about. “What’s the point?” I thought. “We’re just going around and around.”IMG_20160109_151947918

If you are as cynical as me, the practice of gratitude sounds glib. Nothing is worse than some jackass telling you to count your blessings. I’m not just talking about seeing the glass half full. I’m talking about discovering a reality beyond suffering.

We bring presuppositions to the way we live. One is, “God is not good (or non-existent) and doesn’t care about me.” Another is, “God is good, and God loves me.” I think the first presupposition, which is now prevailing in our culture, sucks for two reasons. It gives us no way out of despair. Nor does it account for the wonders of beauty, love, redemption, joy and those transcendent experiences that shout how much we matter. The second option, on the other hand, doesn’t account for the ridiculous amount of suffering we go through.

Unless. Unless we hang on to the “God is good and God loves me” option, with the understanding that this God has unlimited vision, we have limited vision, and we can trust God to make sense of suffering in the end, plus help us as we go through it.

This is the belief system of Christians, but many of us don’t really believe it. So we need a ladder to take us from our experience in the hole of despair, up to the light of freedom that our theology promises. The way I climb the ladder is to look for what is good, here and now, in this moment. Then acknowledge it to God.

People who aren’t Christian can take the same ladder. It works for everyone. If you don’t believe in God, pretend for a while. See what happens.

Search for good like a researcher racing for the disease cure, like a detective on the crime of the century. Because the joy that comes from gratitude is our cure, it is our life’s seminal work.

So, I am sitting in an armchair alone in my house on a spring morning, looking out a window, journal in my lap. I could list off a number of tragedies unfolding in the lives of all those around me. (There are times for that too, but not now.) Now I write:

Thank you,

For the restoring power of a quiet house.

For the hypnotic peace of slowly moving clouds.

For green growth everywhere- a soft, vibrant life where there was nothing. 

I reflect on the day before.

Thank you,

For the kindness of medical staff, fitting in one more appointment for a loved one in pain.

For the brilliant writing of the script I got to rehearse.

For the joy of seeing someone with dementia, having a joking, lucid conversation with my son. 

As I write, I begin to sense a huge, benevolent power moving in all things, through clouds, through plants, through brain circuitry. I realize I am being carried in that power, always blessed, even in the middle of tragedy.

The rungs of the ladder, for me, are writing and speaking gratitude. I was taught this by Ann Voskamp in her incandescent book, “One Thousand Gifts.” The writing and the speaking rewires thinking away from despair. We begin to see goodness and love as the deeper realities – how they triumph.