Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

New way of praying

When I was younger and new in the faith, I despised written prayers. They were for the lukewarm, those not alive in the Spirit.

Well, “when I was a child, I talked as a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child” (1 Corinthians 13:11a). My arrogance embarrasses me now. I trust I’m becoming a man and putting those childish ways behind me (v. 11b).

As I’ve moved half-way through my 50’s, I’m finding that my early form of praying now seems hollow and shallow. I need words that reach into my soul with sustenance and substance. I need words that transform.

My words don’t seem to cut it anymore. I get tired hearing me repeat familiar pleas. I find a good deal of my words sound like I’m counseling God, as if he lacks wisdom.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant by meaningless and vain repetition.

My prayer life now consists laregely of silence. Once in a while I’ll come across a well-crafted written prayer that nails the yearning of my soul. Both are rather refreshing.

Once such written prayer deals with the current military conflicts occurring in the world. Crafted by Sister Joan Chittister, it petitions our Father in this way:

Great God, who has told us “Vengeance is Mine,”

save us from ourselves,

save us from the vengeance in our hearts

and the acid in our souls.

Save us from the desire to hurt as we have been hurt,

to punish as we have been punished,

to terrorize as we have been terrorized.

Give us the strength it takes

to listen rather than to judge,

to trust rather than to fear,

to try again and again to make peace even when peace eludes us.

We ask, O God, for the grace

to be our best selves.

We ask for the vision

to be builders of the human community

rather than its destroyers.

We ask for the humility as a people

to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.

We ask for the love it takes

to bequeath to the children of the world to come

more than the failures of our own making.

We ask for the heart it takes

to care for all the peoples of

Afghanistan and Iraq, of Palestine and Israel (we can add U.S. inner cities, minorities, the person next door)

as well as for ourselves.

Give us the depth of soul, O God,

to constrain our might,

to resist the temptation of power

to refuse to attack the attackable,

to understand

that vengeance begets violence

and to bring peace–not war–everywhere we go.

For you, O God, have been merciful to us.

For you, O God, have been patient with us.

For you, O God, have been gracious to us.

And so may we be merciful,

and patient,

and gracious,

and trusting

with these whom you also love.

This we ask through Jesus,

the one without vengeance in his heart.

This we ask forever and ever. Amen.

These are powerful words.



I need to hear myself pray these words.

As C.S. Lewis would say, prayer doesn’t change God. Prayer changes me.

Shifting our expectations

For the last year or so, economic realities have created the need for me to work full-time to subsidize my ministry. I grow frustrated at times with this arrangement, but I am thankful for the opportunities my “regular” job provides–the chance to be with people in the work force, an income to provide for my family and benefits such as health insurance.

I’ve determined to do some things differently if I ever get the opportunity to return to full-time ministry vocation. For starters, I’ll value peoples time more. I’ve discovered that working a full-time job and a couple of part-timers (a reality for many in our current economic conditions) doesn’t leave much margin to participate in a lot of church activities. A block of time once a week, traditionally Sunday morning, is about as much we can realistically expect.

That said, if we are only going to get that one block, we better make sure it counts. It calls for serious evaluation of what we do with that block of time. Is it allowing us to encounter God? Build real community?

That deserves it’s own conversation.

I also have greater appreciation for those who struggle to cultivate effective, consistent spiritual disciplines. I cut my teeth in an evangelical paradigm that stressed private Bible study and prayer (aka “personal devotions”).

The message was clear. To prove your mettle as a serious Christian, to be a disciple, one had to carve out time every day to read the Bible and pray. Every day. No sacrifice of time and sleep was too much.

However, when folks work 40-50 hours a week, commute a couple of  hours a day, hustle to attend their kids’ activities and try to have any semblance of a healthy marriage, there isn’t much time left to sacrifice.

There often isn’t much mental energy left for reading and prayer, either. I for one struggle with this.

This leaves me wrestling with those assumptions of my formative years. It’s easy to slip into believing that I’m not doing enough, not doing it good enough, and I’m a pretty poor excuse for a “real” Christian.

Thankfully, I shed that kind of thinking several years ago. But I know it torments many sincere followers of Jesus. They’ve told me so.

I blame, at least partially, pastors like the kind I was back in the day. Preaching that people should read their Bibles more and ought pray more leaves few, if any, other options. The result is unintended (or is it intentional?) shame that leaves our people feeling failure no matter how hard they try.

Those of us in full-time vocational ministry often lose perspective of how the bulk of our parishioners live. We get paid to think about church, to pray and to study the Bible. We expect our people to give the same kind of energy to the sacred as we do.

Then we get angry at them when they don’t.

Very few think about church during the week. They are just trying to survive another work week and squeeze time in for the kids. They might pray and read a Bible verse here and there, but it’s far from the ideal quiet time we think they should have.

In reality, they are probably a lot like I am–doing the best I can.

I hope I remember that.

Sacred reality

I’ve been noticing in my reading of the Gospels that Jesus appears quite comfortable with reality–even when it gets messy and awkward. He doesn’t avoid, divert or deflect. He doesn’t put a spiritual spin on it. He’s never anxious or embarrassed.

Instead, Jesus allows life to unfold as it will. He steps in the midst of it and welcomes what is. It’s there that he does the extraordinary, and people are radically changed.

Real is sacred.

Case in point is the passage in Mark 9:14-29.

A desperate, distraught father brings his severely afflicted son to Jesus. It’s the man’s last hope.

He’s already asked the disciples to cure his son, but they struck out. A ruckus of theological debate breaks out as a result, and the tension is now running high.

I would have been looking for the nearest exit. I hate conflict. I could see no good coming of the scene being made.

At my best, I would have given Jesus an anxious look, letting him know he better step in and take care of this mess. The sooner the better, too.

Jesus doesn’t rush into action. He seems in no hurry to heal the son, nor relieve the father’s angst.

He simply asks a question. Then waits.

The father spills his story. He tells Jesus and the gathered crowd his painful secret.

Shame makes one keep their story of a demonized son silent. It’s best to keep such family secrets behind closed doors. We work hard to hide our shame, making sure no one knows.

But reality refuses to cooperate. Eventually life events converge and our secret leaks out. The cat’s out of the bag, and the father has little choice but to tell his story.

Just when it can’t get anymore uncomfortable, the son acts out right there on the spot. Right in front of God and everyone.

The son writhes and convulses. Dirt combines with spittle, smearing mud all over the young man. Shrieks add to the drama.

Jesus is unfazed. He doesn’t put an end to the scene. He doesn’t rush in to rescue the father or son. Jesus allows truth to spill out everywhere, for all to see.

No denying reality now.

The father can’t take it any longer. He begs Jesus to intervene. Just when we expect Jesus to save the day, one more bit of truth surfaces.

The father comes to terms with his conflicting thoughts and emotions. He confesses his doubt.

“I believe. Help me in my unbelief!!”

I imagine there were times when the man’s son was free from the demonic affliction. For days, perhaps weeks and months, all was calm. The father could conveniently ignore his son’s condition. Faith came easy. He had his theology and doctrine lined up straight.

But when your son is flailing and contorting and thrashing on the ground, saliva bubbling out of his mouth, streaks of mud on his face and clothes, screaming shrieks of anguish and obscenities—well faith tends to unravel.

Jesus lets it come apart at the seems. The father has an important confession to make. Miraculous intervention before the father has a chance to come to terms with his truth–before he wrestles with the reality of the paradox of faith–would be premature.

In due time, Jesus intervenes. The boy and his father are restored to wholeness.

A good deal of contemporary theology teaches us to minimize, avoid, deny and skirt reality. We invest much time and energy attempting to pray away reality.

We see it as an enemy.

We assume Jesus is uncomfortable with our reality as well. Shame convinces us we are unacceptable in our reality, so we opt for damage control and reality management.

We become heavily invested in our denial, self-protection and shame. We go great links to avoid acknowledging our truth.

It takes reality, real-life experience, to blow the covers off. Even then, we’re a hard sell.

But when reality comes, when we finally embrace what is real, we discover an amazing truth. Jesus is standing with us in the middle of it all.

Redemption comes.

The healing begins.




What a regular-unchurched-guy discovered

Last Sunday I had the privilege of speaking in a church in north central Kansas. I got up early and drove three hours to make the engagement.

I drove through seemingly countless towns as I meandered along windy roads of the beautiful Flint Hills. No matter how small, each community offered a broad menu of churches.

I decided to conduct an informal experiment. I assumed the role of a “regular guy” and began observing the rural church scene with unchurched eyes. I pretended to be a regular-unchurched-guy. Of particular interest were the church signs and the messages they contained.

I was curious what impression uninitiated folk (like I was pretending to be) picked up by reading the messages churches of all flavors hang on their signs for all the world to see. What conclusions about Christianity might people make from this one impression?

Granted, I might not be the best candidate to conduct such an experiment. After all, I’m a long ways from being unchurched. I’ve spent almost all of my 50-plus years involved in church. Many would call me a “professional” church person, not a regular guy.

But I gave it my best. I even took a different route home to expand my test field.

Many churches got an “A” for cleverness. There were seemingly unlimited variations in how they packaged their message. Other churches needed new paint and update their signs more than once in 50 years.

Overall, here’s one regular-unchurched-guy’s impression of the main message of the church.

Churches apparently want the rest of the world know they are right.

While the slogans were often catchy and thought-provoking, the content typically amounted to dressed up moralism.

Not that this is all-bad. Not by any means. Lord knows our culture needs a moral compass.

But after several hours of this diet, I couldn’t help thinking that these churches and the Christians who make them apparently think they have things figured out. There was at least a tinge of arrogance that seeped through. They apparently have a leg up on regular-unchurched-guys like me.

After a couple of days of pondering the findings of my experiment, another thought surfaced.

What if we in the church world took a different approach?

What if we made our church signs say,  “You are loved,” rather than, “We are right”?

This regular-unchurched-guy would find that much more compelling.









New Year thoughts

One of the areas I resolved to focus on this year is writing. In reviewing my blog, I realized I haven’t posted since September.


One contributing factor to my lapse is motivation. Or lack thereof.

Truth be told, winter is not my favorite time of the year. For several years now I’ve suspected I suffer a moderate case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Right now it’s 10 degrees outside, the wind is blowing about 22 mph, windchill of -10, and snow is drifting all around. I’m not liking this much.

So I can’t say this is a “happy” time for me.

That said, we just wrapped up a great Christmas season with our kids. All but one were able to come home and visit. It was rich.

I am very thankful.

The paradox has me thinking. I can be thankful, even though I’m not particularly happy. One doesn’t cancel the other.

Perhaps this is as it should be.

American culture fixates on happiness.

Jesus and the Christian paradigm focuses on thankfulness.

C.S. Lewis stated that we don’t get second things by putting second things first. We only get second things by putting first things first.

I’m pretty sure that as I give my energy to being thankful, happiness will follow along as a natural by-product.

Wanting (Part 2)

I woke up thinking about what I wrote about in “Wanting (Part 1).”

I am struck by how much of  my wanting is focused on me. Pretty much of all of what I want has to do with my own comfort, betterment, and convenience. Sure, I want the best for my wife and children, but outside of that, I’m pretty self-centered, it appears.

I wonder what it would be like to have the burdens and desires of Jesus’ heart beating in mine?

How would my answers to the question of “What do I want?” change? Would the first thing out of my mouth be:

  • I want peace and comfort for the people of Syria and Egypt (or any other of the myriad places in the world where civil chaos dominates).
  • I want the end of all wars.
  • I want the end of human trafficking.
  • I want all children to be fed and have clean water.
  • I want affordable health care for all.

You get the gist.

Recently I’ve been using the prayers of St. Francis as a guide in my praying. I’m struck with how often he prays that all our desires and passions be consumed by the desires and concerns and love of God’s heart.

I have a ways to go.

Wanting (Part 1)

I’ve written previously about the dynamic of giving voice to our wants (see “What do you want?” on November 29, 2012).

Reading through Mark recently, I noticed that in the second half of chapter 10, there are two occasions where Jesus asks people the powerful question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (vv. 36, 51).

When the author repeats a statement and places them back-to-back in the narrative, we should take notice.

Mark is up to something significant.

The occasions giving rise to the question are different. In the first story, Jesus responds to a favor that James and John ask of him.

In the second, Jesus directs the question to Bartimaeus, who happens to be blind. He’s been creating a commotion in hopes of attracting Jesus’ attention. His efforts pay big dividends. (I’ll discuss this event in a future blog entry.)

Apparently Jesus is interested in what we want and insists we give them a voice.

“What do you want Jesus to do for you?” is a great question to ask ourselves from time to time. It’s also a great question to ask those we lead and serve.

How we answer says a lot about us. What we don’t say may reveal even more.

In the first story, Jesus elicits the disciples’ true desires. It brings to the surface what they may otherwise would never admit.

To their credit, the disciples answer honestly. They don’t censure. They don’t cloak their response with spiritual jargon to make their desires more palatable.

“We want top billing. We want in front of the line. We want power, status and position. Furthermore, we want to beat the others to the draw and be the first to ask.”

I’m pretty sure I would have dressed up my answer. I have enough church experience to know how to make selfish, prideful demands sound more spiritually acceptable. I know how to bury my desires. I know how to lie.

Being involved in church and ministry has contributed to my propensity to cover my true desires and motives.

A good practice is to read this passage and put ourselves in James and John’s place. When Jesus asks us what we want him to do for us, answer with the first thing that pops in our mind–what comes spontaneously, immediately before we have a chance to filter.

If we can’t pull that off, then identify what we choked down. What didn’t we say but wanted to?

In my more honest moments I’d say things like:

  • I want lots of money.
  • I want a big church where everyone cheers when I speak.
  • I want somebody with clout to notice me and give me my big break.
  • I want the sins of my past to disappear without any consequences.
  • I want my life to be easy.

Jesus allows James and John to shoot straight. He invites us to follow suit.

Our wants tell a story. Acknowledging them gives Jesus access to our hearts. Like James and John, voicing our wants opens the door to repentance and transformation.

When I allow Jesus access to my desires, when I sit with him with my wants on the table, I come to realize that what I really want is:

  • I want to know I’m significant
  • I want this season of life to count and have impact.
  • I want to feel secure.
  • I want grace to free me of my shame.

I also begin to repent. What I initially wanted are substitutes for what I really need.

They are my demands to have life my way, on my terms.

They are substitutes for Jesus.

The victimization card

A common game we play in life is the victimization game.

Something undesirable happens to us. Someone hurts us. Something is withheld from us. We make a horribly sinful choice.

Such experiences are painful. But their real power comes from the meaning or beliefs we assign to them.

We tend to give painful events great power over us. We believe they’ve robbed us of our future. We believe they take away our power. We assume we now have no options.

We’re victimized by the event.

Not just at the time the event happened, but perpetually.

The rest of our life.

Victimization goes something like this: “Because ______ happened, I cannot _________.”

Fill in the blanks.

  • Because this person hurt me in that manner, I can never be happy again.
  • Because my parents withheld the love and affirmation I wanted from me, I cannot have good relationships in my life.
  • Because I was not given that promotion, I’m stuck in this job and can never move forward.

Consciously or unconsciously, we choose to become stuck. We wait for the offending party, or some other power-that-be, to undo the hurt done to us. We believe that since they are the one who took away our opportunity, only they can give it back.

We find ourselves stuck. Helpless. And often bitter.

In the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13ff), we see this dynamic. But with an interesting twist: the disciples play the victimization card on Jesus.

The day has grown long. The large crowd is hungry and tired. It’s late.

The disciples grow anxious, feeling the responsibility to feed the mass of people who’ve been clamoring for Jesus’ attention.

How do you feed that many people on very limited supplies? All the disciples seem to have on hand are five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. That might be enough to feed their own small group (Jesus and the 12), but it won’t come close to meeting the needs of this crowd.

So the disciples do what we do when we are anxious. They shift the responsibility to someone else, in this case Jesus.

“Do something about this Jesus. Send them away so we won’t have to deal with this. We don’t want to be responsible. You take charge.”

Jesus refuses to take on their anxiety. Their perceived problem doesn’t become his.

“It’s not necessary to send them away, You go ahead and feed them,” Jesus counters.

The disciples, probably feeling backed into a corner, play their victimization card.

“We can’t feed them, we don’t have enough food here. Not even close.”

Who knows what they didn’t say that told the real story?

  • “If we start feeding them, there won’t be any for us. And we’re really hungry!”
  • “You should have told us about this earlier. You should have planned better.”
  • “This is a bit irresponsible of you Jesus to wait until now to address this problem. What did you expect to happen?”

The disciples feel helpless. They assume there’s nothing they can do to meet this challenge. And it’s obvious they are waiting for Jesus to do something to rescue them, to take care of it.

Assuming this posture, they are victimized by their own story.

Theirs is not an accurate assumption. They do have something they can use. They have some bread and fish. And they have a choice in what they are going to do with these resources.

They can hoard them for their own use. They can give up and quit.

Or they can give what they have to Jesus and partner with him. They can take this seemingly small step of faith and see what happens.

This is the nature of victimization, and our way through it.

I’m most prone to playing the victimization game with God. I perceive he hasn’t provided me enough of whatever I believe I need to have (usually clear direction for my future), and I hear myself mimicking the disciples in this story.

“I can’t go forward. I don’t have enough resources. I can’t do anything until you do something more for me.”

I blame my sense of being stuck on God. I hold him responsible for why my life isn’t working the way I want it to. I grow inactive and waste potential opportunities under the guise of “waiting on God” to act.

I want (read “demand”) guarantees.

I acknowledge there is a time and place to wait on God. Rushing ahead under my own steam is dangerous.

But most of the time, I believe Jesus is telling me to put what I already have to use.

This is both liberating and terrifying.

It’s liberating in that I don’t have to be a victim. There is something I can do. I do have a choice. I have some leverage, no matter how small it may seem.

It’s terrifying because Jesus calls me to take responsibility. To partner with him calls me to face my fears, step into the unpredictable and move forward with faith. It calls me to own my desires and choose accordingly. I no longer have the luxury of being helpless.

It’s only when I quit playing the victimization card that I get to discover what potential miracle awaits on the other side.

Who knows how many we can feed with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish?

The “both/and” of ministry

I had the privilege this week to present to a group of leaders of a campus ministry. The room was full of up-and-coming talented leaders in their 20’s and 30’s. There were a few of us in our 40’s and 50’s.

The room was full of amazing stories of people who’ve been radically changed by Jesus and who are passionate about using their talents to reach others. I was humbled.

My assignment was to speak about how we manage our “self” in ministry. I covered a variety of issues, ranging from what makes a “self” and how our sense of self impacts others. I explored the importance of learning to recognize and work with the “stuff” of our lives that often surfaces and complicates how our “self” interacts with other “selves” when doing this thing called “ministry.”

I invited these leaders to consider the areas of their lives that might hamstring their ministries. I wasn’t speaking about obvious sin.

My experience teaches me that what most often snags us are those events in life that give us negative, false messages that become our definitions of self. Family of origin patterns, trauma, disappointments and failures carry with them messages that determine what we believe to be true about us. We then live and minister out of those assumptions.

Baxter Kruger calls these beliefs the “I am nots.” They include:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’m not worthy.
  • I’m not adequate.
  • I’m not loved.
  • I’m not loveable.
  • I’m not safe or secure.

These beliefs penetrate and season all aspects of life. Our task is to acknowledge their presence and recognize how they influence the way we relate to others. Failing to do so creates problematic and self-defeating patterns in our ministry.

Unhealed wounds tend to wound others.

While inviting Jesus to work in these areas brings change and hope, I pointed out that some of these beliefs can stick around and challenge us throughout our lifetime. Some of the 20-somethings found this a bit disturbing.

Doesn’t Jesus deliver us from all these self-limiting issues?

Won’t their continued presence keep us from being able to minister effectively?

Paul’s experience indicates that the answer to both questions is “no.”

Like so many areas of life, it’s not an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and.”

Here’s what Paul says about doing ministry with our weaknesses:

“Even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God . . . to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)


Wasting grace

God’s grace–what are we to do with it?

Grace may be more difficult to handle than it seems at first look.

Paul makes an interesting statement in 1 Corinthians 15:10:

“But God’s grace has made me what I am, and his grace to me was not wasted. I worked harder than all the other apostles. (But it was not I really, it was God’s grace that was with me.”

Paul mentions this in the middle of his discussion of the resurrection. He chronicles the occasions that the resurrected Jesus appeared to people. Paul lists Peter, the twelve as a group, then 500 believers, James, and then all the apostles again.

Lastly, Jesus appears to Paul. It’s as if he was born out of time, he says. He doesn’t consider himself worthy to be counted among the other apostles. This is due to Paul’s persecution of the church.

Paul sees his behavior prior to his encounter with the risen Jesus as a disqualification. Paul has no business being counted among the faithful, much less be considered an apostle.

Thankfully, God disagrees. God is undeterred in forgiving Paul. God readily includes him in the family of the faith. He generously invests calling and gifts, opening up a compelling future for Paul’s life.


What to do with it?

Paul doesn’t take it lightly.

He knows the gravity of his past. He’d been responsible for much suffering. People went to jail, experienced deprivation, and were no doubt tortured, on account of his misplaced zeal. Families were disrupted. Children were traumatized by the loss of parents. No doubt some of Paul’s victims died unjust deaths.

He could allow the shame of persecuting the church to continue to disqualify him.

Instead, he exercises the courage and faith to believe he’s been fully forgiven. With forgiveness comes the freedom to move forward.

Paul seizes the privilege. He throws himself wholeheartedly to the task.

Paul recognizes God’s grace has made him who he is, and he;s determined to not to let it be in vain. He jumps all in, faithfully applying himself to the task set before him. He partners with God in fulfilling his assignment.

This is no easy task Paul pulls off. The tendency is to keep looking back, to justify why our past should disqualify us.

We can be very loyal to our shame.

It’s audacious to embrace grace and dare believe we have permission to have a future.

To do anything less is to discount the grace of God.

It’s wasteful.

It allows shame to win out.

And grace to be in vain.

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