Search This Blog

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tested to the Edge of Faith; Tethered to a Short Leash.

I wonder if you've experienced what I'm about to tell you?

Since we moved to Northampton, my faith has undergone frequent and substantial testing. Our task has been no easy road from the git, as I've written about before. When I undergo such testing a pattern of questions comes into view for me:

  • Will you really believe I am sufficient for your lack or what you still need?
  • Will you trust me anyway?
  • Will you follow me anyway? 

Or perhaps the most sobering, and frankly, frightening:

  • Will you follow me no matter what even if you go down in flames or lose everything?
Recently, as I've thought about  what I've trudged through, and still experience in spades, I pictured myself standing near the edge of a well-marked boundary line demarcating how far my faith actually extends. On the other side of the line is a ledge which drops off into an indistinguishable abyss. There's nothing on the other side of the ledge but drop-off into murk and emptiness. As I look at the scene, there's no sense of foreboding. The line merely accurately defines where my faith ends. I'm not able to hold fast to faith because my burden is too heavy, the difficulties are too great and persisting, or I've seen no progress or change for way too much time. So as I stand there, in the picture it appears I've reached my limit and need help to go any further.

I've come to realize since settling into the Pioneer Valley that the boundary line will move as if by some "unseen Hand" and consequently, the edge of my faith extends as if attached to the line. The reality seems I need times to stand and accept  the truth of the faith-boundary line when it appears to there's no way forward, or it feels like the bottom is soon to fall out. During those uncomfortable hesitations I remind God, sometimes vehemently, that we're in deep, and if he doesn't do something, into the abyss we'll surely tumble pell-mell. Those times cause me to really put it on the line with him, acknowledging my sheer, unending dependence on his grace and power to actually get any of this Kingdom stuff done from my side of the table.

I'll bet you've had similar faith wrestlings to the edge. Reality affirms faith untested is faith dormant or flaccid. Faith tested to the very edge is faith on the verge of deepening and extending, or tragically for some, cast off as a cruel joke,  the silly wishful thinking of children who'll soon grow up to "smell the coffee" of the wind of your own making.

It turns out as long as I'm trying to follow Jesus with any integrity or resolve, I'll be brought to the edge of faith repeatedly. You will too.

"For you know that the testing of your faith (not perhaps if your faith might be tested) produces steadfastness." James 1: 3

"So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1: 7

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes (not if it comes to an unfortunate few) upon you to test you, as though something strange (This is the normal Christian life, dude) were happening to you." 1 Peter 4:12

Faith has to be repeatedly proved and tempered in difficulty at the edge. Through faith tested, we have the chance to learn to withstand adversity with courage and flexibility -- two gifts of priceless worth. Acquiring those character essentials helps us not be easily hamstrung by sometimes unrelenting, even devastating hardship. The tempering of faith takes you and me beyond lip service, platitudes, and psychologically soothing good intentions. Resilience can be trained into us when our thin faith is stretched taut. If knocked to the ground, we find an unexpected capacity to spring back. When faith is drawn into the empty, arid places of life, it's graciously offered the chance to learn persevering, a steely, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other attitude of the surrendered will, or a stubborn waiting with rooted expectation God will bring water and oasis, as he sees fit.

There are treasures of character (a treasure in itself), to be uncovered in life's testing grounds of faith.
From 40 years of trying to walk out my faith in the real world of multiple edges, I also understand God chastens and disciplines all of us at critical points in our lives - even if we're not particularly aware we've reached a critical character juncture at the time. I also see the degree of his graceful severity changes depending on how much spiritual darkness or danger we might blunder or bull our way into. He is loving and good to those he loves, does not give us what our sins deserve, is slow and anger and quick to forgive, but he also disciplines his beloved to make each of us fit for eventually bearing the weight of glory.

So sometimes God tethers you and me to a short leash for a period so we can we learn to discern and acquire wisdom -- one of the true headwaters of life to the full. When so tethered, we simply can't wander off no matter how much we strain against the leash. We're stuck to where we have to pay attention.

For example, since mid-summer, and with increasing frequency, I've found myself having to clean up messes I made in relationships with other people, often because of what I've said or neglected to follow through on. In one acutely painful instance, I came unhinged publicly and wounded a dear friend of mine who did nothing to invite my 25-second apoplectic rant. I'd not listened to the subtle cues that something worrisome was building up in me in the preceding days, and because I did not address the dissonance inside, I and my friend paid a high price: me because I neglected what God wanted to face, and he because he just sadly happened to be in my vitriolic line of fire.

The above is an egregious instance of  me not doing some critical, internal character work when the Holy Spirit prompted  . . . and more than once I might add. It seems always a matter of character in my case and has to do, as I said earlier,  with what I say and/or neglect to do. Wounding my friend was the extreme reason why I'm tethered these days. I tend not to breathe fire on people at the drop of a hat. But, I think it also it points to a lack of charity in all my dealings with others. I don't carefully and wisely consider my words or nodding of my head in agreement when I've not weighed the implications of what I'm communicating by them, even when in a simple conversation. I send mixed messages and people get confused, frustrated or hurt by me. God wants more circumspection and prayer from me, not impulsive words even if well-meaning.

Follow-through on things which intimidate or summon anxiety in me is another character flaw God has tethered me to facing. I have a post-graduate degree in procrastination around stuff that spooks me. So these days this leash is uncomfortably short. He's not giving me much latitude. He wants change toward integrity from me. In other words, I have to acknowledge my failure soon after I fail. He wants my "yes" then follow-through;" and my "no" when I disagree or will not do it. He hates when I appear to go along with something I've no real intention of supporting or undertaking. It's a habit he's been checking me quite regularly.

While being tethered to a short-leash restricts for sure, and sometimes uncomfortable, I'm convinced in God's hands it works to free people to integrity and authenticity - an irony of grace. Good things come from it. Godly character does form as we learn to surrender, and live within the limits he's ordained for spiritual formation and training in character.

I'm not sure how long I'll be tethered in the manner I described, that's the Father's privilege, but I do know I need to grow in character regarding these weaknesses. He's being plain with me about how he wants my behavior to change. I need his grace, but my will is engaged.

That's a good start.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Character and Spiritual Formation: Fitness for the Work.

Recently, someone asked me what do Christian people mean when they say someone is not ready to assume a certain role or take on a particular responsibility in the church. I thought it a great question. So we had a conversation and I surfaced what seemed to me to be a few essentials for determining who was and might not be quite ready to carry the weight of a substantial responsibility.

By the way, I'm not in any way, shape or form assuming: 1.) I've arrived and can pontificate from a position of superior maturity, and supremely seasoned readiness, or 2.) I'm quite the expert on such matters. I haven't and I'm not. I'm still on my way with all sorts of stubborn rough spots, self-absorption and immaturity to work through. Don't like that much, but it's reality. I desperately need the cross and the Spirit to turn me into someone useful for the Kingdom, even at 62. Borrowing a word Brennan Manning used well in one of my favorite books of his: I'm a ragamuffin . . . 24/7/365.

With that necessary disclaimer, I must also say I've been "on the team" so to speak since age 23. I've been in some manner of ministry leadership, both formally and informally since my late 20's. I've had all sorts of occasion to wrestle through being fit to carry the responsibility I was given (failed at that more than I'd like to admit - still do), and I had the great blessing and privilege of being around some very mature believers, male and female. I saw what it looked like many times from leaders and "followers." There are certain characteristics which manifest in a man or a woman who takes seriously the work of the Kingdom, no matter how great or small the responsibility, whether shouldered upfront or behind-the-scenes. Through such characteristics I think we glimpse Christ in them.

So I want to note a few character and spiritual qualities which seem especially pertinent.

All of them displayed a simple humility in spite of their "formal" spiritual or organizational stature. They got their hands dirty. They were not comfortable being elevated in the eyes of others. To the contrary, they preferred to be seen as anyone else: a person imperfectly trying to follow Christ, being loving and of service, no matter how menial. From them, I recognized gradually how important attitude was, especially "I'm not too important to be asked to do anything, or to be confronted with my sin and selfishness." Their humility reflected grace under fire in and out of the limelight. Humility demonstrated how fit they were for reflecting the values of the Kingdom of Christ.

Related closely to the above attribute was the fact they all, men and women, took responsibility for their own spiritual growth and character development. Once they had a grasp of how to do so, it was no longer the pastor's or the elders' or the leader's job to "grow them up and sustain them" in their spiritual maturing and character developing. Such leaders, teachers and mentors certainly contributed vitally, but at some point into it, these folks knew the buck stopped with them. So they carried forward developing the necessary spiritual disciplines, i.e., they read and learned to study the Scriptures, they read Christian books, they prayed, they worshipped alone and with others, they built relationships with believers or allowed others to build a relationship with them, they worshipped, and they developed the desire and ability to serve people, including, sometimes especially, non-believers. It took time, but they were in up to their eyeballs, full of passion  for learning to live with and follow Christ.

Thirdly, they had a desire to serve and when they accepted responsibility they followed through. They were the kind of folks who you know would accomplish the task if they shouldered it. It has to do with character and integrity. If so-and-so says she or he will do it, you can "take that to the bank." They just come through and you don't have to think or wonder about it. These folks also have a habit of asking how they can help or what they can do. Sometimes they just step up and get the job done without being asked because they see it needs doing. In fact, they look for opportunities to do so. I'm sure that if you've been around church for very long you've heard the maxim, "10% do 90% of the work." They gravitate by values to being in the 10% - they see it as the "normal Christian life."

Fourthly, they had a penchant for hard work. These men and women rolled up their sleeves and dove in. I've known men who routinely labored long hours at jobs and family life, then stayed up late or worked all weekend to pitch in with the church, (often behind the scenes), whether it was a project, event or a routine task needing doing. No matter, they saw all of their responsibilities as one service to God and others. They embraced obligation and duty as their usual contribution. I've also known women who dedicated themselves sacrificially to the church community and beyond, exhibiting a love of God and their brothers and sisters admired by all who knew them. Interestingly, when told of such admiration, some would get a puzzled look and others would turn red. They saw nothing extraordinary about their service.

 Lastly, much if not most of what these folks did, stemmed from love. They loved God and knew he loved them. In gratitude, they learned how to love him and other people. Their obedience grew from being loved by God. They came to grasp what he'd freely done for "the likes of" them, and responded by working at being loving people. Their spiritual formation (becoming like Christ), and character formation (embracing and living the values of Christ) made them fit for the work of the Kingdom. They served out of love, not some gushy, syrupy caricature of love, but a roll-up-your-sleeves, show-up-every-day love not about feelings, but conviction. Such love takes courage, persistence, resilience and even a sense of humor. They loved with words, and with actions backing them up.

The folks that came to mind as I wrote this are people I look up to and am inspired by. They mentored me, befriended me, served with me, challenged, encouraged, loved and taught me. They are my contemporary examples. I aim for their maturity still. They're real people with chipping feet of clay who still need the cross and the work of the Spirit, but they've chosen repeatedly to go deep into being formed by Christ knowing that without him their best righteousness is filthy rags. I've watched them.  I watch them. I will still watch them.

* * * * *

May you reflect all this week on those men and women who've been spiritual and character exemplars (spiritual fathers and mothers, perhaps), to you and may you head deep into where Christ bids you go for his glory and your fitness in the Kingdom work beckoning you.