Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Go To The End Of Your Rope

Ever have one of those days where God just blows your mind? Yeah. Had one of those today.

On Tuesdays I meet with clients at a legal aid ministry. Today, I met with a man who owns some real estate that is financially underwater. And, he's getting dangerously close to being unable to pay the mortgage on this real estate. However, because he is not yet in default, the bank will not even engage in an conversation with him. The bank is, apparently, worried about putting out other fires and wants him to default before talking about how to manage the problem. Sure, makes sense. This man has been working for a long time to build his credit score, and it's at a record high. He knows, though, having lost his job in this latest economic recession that he cannot continue to pay for much longer. This man feels his world caving in. No disaster has yet struck, but the feeling that it will soon, was almost too much for him to bear.

We talked through some options; none of which were particularly satisfying to get or to give. Then, he said to me: "There is always one more place to look, one more person to ask, one more step to take. But, I think you might be my last stop. I'm out of options. I'm out of ideas and people." He was at the end of his rope.

As he said this, the following words came to mind about as clearly as if someone in the room yelled them out loud: "God is throwing him a party." Without hesitating, without thinking, I said to him: "God is throwing you a party right now because you are finally going to turn this over to him. You are finally going to trust him." As the words flowed out of my mouth, I felt the strangeness of them. They were not mine.

The man looked at me blankly for a second, his eyes watered, he smiled and nodded. Nothing to say. He got it.

So many things about this little experience are amazing to me. God's power is something to notice, something that can knock you over. You should have seen how my hands were shaking and how my heart was beating. Overpowered. Overpowered by God so he could reach this man to demonstrate his love.

And how about the fact that God rejoices when we trust him! He throws a party. When we trust him, his unfailing love surrounds us. (Psalm 32:10) Imagine that for a second. Really. Let it just sit with you. Maybe it's only me, but when I think trust, I think vulnerability. When you trust someone else completely, you are vulnerable to hurt. When you trust God, though, you are loved unfailingly, inexhaustibly, endlessly, completely. You are the opposite of vulnerable, you are in the refuge of the creator of all things. I challenge you to think of anything that can provide you more peace. What if God simply allowed the immediate problem to be solved -- the bank refinanced the mortgage at a better rate. Would everything be better? Or would you be worried about that other thing on the horizon? The problem on its way. I've been there. I've moved from one problem to the next, one worry to the next. It's too tiring.

My advice: Go to the end of your rope and let go. It is there you will find God. And he will surround you with unfailing love.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Did Something Happen?

Recently, I was talking to my mom and describing to her my upcoming trip to Zambia, Africa and all our team would be doing while we're there -- teaching African pastors about the role of the church in the community, both the Biblical basis for that role and practical ways of achieving it. As we talked, and I grew increasingly excited (as I do) about God's extreme blessings; she, on the other hand, grew silent. This has been happening a lot lately with many different people I've talked to. When I finally took a breath and listened she said: "Did something happen?" What she meant was, how exactly did you become this crazy, devoted-to-God person? She asked whether I just started reading some things, going to church, and talking to others -- a slow, intellectual process. Or, did something happen? Was there a conversion experience? A triggering event?

When she asked this, I realized I hadn't told her "my story." I hadn't told her the story God gave me to spread far and wide in the world to the skeptics and cynics. So, I smiled to myself and said to her: "Yes, something happened." And, actually, it happened in two parts. This is part 1:

I tried a case with three of my law-firm partners in October 2008 in Delaware. Two of them attended Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. These are lawyers and friends I admire very much for their legal skill. And, they are good men too. So, when they started talking about their pastor and this message and that message, my ears perked up and I wondered how two smart people went to church (I was a most extreme skeptic and cynic, mind you, thus, my mom's question, "did something happen?"). I didn't pay too much attention to what they said. We finished the trial and all went home. After a trial, there is always a period I would call a valley. One goes from an extreme high of activity and emotion to no activity and a sort of depression. Ask any trial lawyer, it's universal. Anyway, when I returned, I was in this post-trial valley, depression sort of state. I decided to check out Willow on the internet. I looked up the website, researched its pastor, listened to a couple of the messages that were posted on-line. Then, on Sunday, November 16th, I decided I would go to church. Me. I was going to church. Turns out this was a decision that changed my life and eternity forever.

Before November 2008, I usually spent my Sundays reading and watching football. This particular Sunday, though, I was going to church. When I arrived, people in red shirts welcomed me. This seemed pretty standard. This church undoubtedly had lots of people coming for the first time. The inside was airy, escalators were 30 or 40 feet inside the entrance and led to the second level. I figured I might as well get an up-close look if I’m serious about this. And apparently I was. So, I walked into the main level seating area. I found my way to the tenth row from the front, left of the stage. Music greeted me. Everyone was standing and clapping to the beat. Some people swayed. I stood with them and mumbled the words to the songs, which, thankfully, for the rookies, were displayed on large screens throughout the auditorium.

So far so good. This was different than anything I’d experienced in church before, but I was still feeling like an outsider, like I was experimenting with something new. Some announcements were made. I don’t remember them now. And then a young dark-haired man with an Australian accent and jeans came on stage with a small, almost invisible microphone attached to his head. I noticed it, of course, they weren’t going to slip anything by me. I needed to know how everything worked to make sure I wasn’t getting fooled into anything. Whether I liked this place was going to be my choice. The name of the message was “When God Whispers: Whispers of Conviction.” Sitting here today, I have no idea what the pastor, Darren Whitehead, said that day. I recall a reference to the Bible, but not the specific reference. I remember that, generally, he talked about how God speaks to us.

About three or four minutes into the message, my eyes started to water. But not just water like when you turn a corner in the Chicago wind and get blasted with cold air. I had that feeling in the back of my throat, that swelling when you’re about to start crying. And then tears ran down my cheeks. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t actually feeling anything in my heart. I wasn’t feeling sad, or happy, or overwhelmed, or angry, or really anything. I still had my head about me. Well, sort of. Something was happening deep inside me and I could not identify it. There were no words for it. I wasn’t sobbing. My chest was not heaving. Simple, quiet tears ran down and landed on my jeans and my hands. I was smiling.

After Darren finished his message that day at Willow Creek, I sat down and watched as the auditorium emptied. Tears ran down my face. I thought over and over to myself: “What just happened?” My hands shook. My heart raced. I was full.

Then, I had an overwhelming need. I needed to tell someone what had happened. This was not normal. I had to tell someone. Bill Hybels stood near the stage as the congregation filtered out. He was the only person in the room I “knew” because, of course, you know people you see on the internet. (No?) Well, I caught Bill before he walked out, introduced myself, and told him it was my first time at the church. He asked what I thought and all I could muster was: “I don’t know. I’m still processing it. All I can say is that I cried through the entire service and I never want to leave.”

He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Sounds like today was your day.” What he said took no explanation. I knew exactly what he meant and in my heart knew that he was right. I did eventually leave the auditorium, but didn't want to. I thought they might kick me out if I stayed as long as I wanted -- forever. Somehow I knew I was in the presence of God and I knew it was where I belonged. Turns out, this was only the beginning.

I have since learned that the Scripture Darren taught that day in November 2008 was John 16:12-15. God knew I'd be in church that day:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”


Friday, August 13, 2010

The Unforgiven

You know that red "STOP" button most treadmills have that you can push if you start going too fast, or lose your footing? Typically, the thing does not stop immediately, but rather slows quickly. In the last week or so I've been running along on my treadmill of life, feeling in the flow of God's will, feeling his overwhelming blessing on my life. You know, at that point where you feel like you could keep running forever . . . So many of my prayers have been ones of thankfulness and praise. (I admit that in times of struggle, thankfulness and praise come to mind embarrassingly less often.)

But then in the midst of this, someone hit the red STOP button on my treadmill and it wasn't a gradual slowdown. It was sudden, immediate. Almost threw me off the treadmill.

Someone in my life, who I have known for a long time, said something to me that hurt so deeply, I questioned who I am, where I've been, where I'm going. I don't quite understand why this person said the things that were said. The words seemed to come from a place of pain, somewhere that hurts. And, this is why the words said hurt me so much. You see, I hurt this person long ago. Thinking about the pain I caused makes my heart ache. But I said I was sorry and meant it with my whole being, I asked for forgiveness, and believed that I had been forgiven. Now I am wondering whether I was ever forgiven.

This made me think about how often I've heard myself and others counsel a potential forgiver to forgive so that the person who caused the pain or hurt stops taking up real estate in your heart, wasting mental time you don't have, and exerting power over you by allowing anger or shame or hurt to hang around in your head. In other words, it is good for your mental and emotional health for you to forgive. I have counseled many people I know in this way: forgive so you can heal; forgive so you can move forward and not allow the person who has hurt you to take up the little space you have; it will be beneficial to you, the forgiver, to forgive.

Today, for the first time, I think, I thought about the unforgiven -- the one our potential forgiver is considering whether to forgive. How is that person impacted by unforgiveness? And let us assume that this person is sorry, regrets the pain she caused. I know what it is to be that person. And, wow, is it a powerful and painful thing to know. Let me put it this way: for the first time in my life, I'm wondering which is worse: to be hurt? or to hurt someone and be unforgiven? I have been in both places; we all have, I suspect.

There is something about being hurt that at least allows you some control -- you can decide to move forward. You can turn your hurt over to God and over time let go of it. Not that this is easy . . . but the ability to heal is not tied to the will of anyone else.

But when you hurt someone and they don't forgive you, you never can quite move on it seems. They can exercise such power over you. Every time they see you or interact with you, they can hold over you the fact that you hurt them. You cannot make them forgive you. That is within their sole ability. You are at their mercy. It seems like they can hit the STOP button any time and, without notice, throw you off track.

Here is where the first lesson hit me:

The potential forgiver has power. This is something I knew already, but about which I was reminded. And, there are many places in the Bible that discuss forgiveness, obviously. God's forgiveness of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is fundamental. But what I began to think about is that forgiveness does not stand alone. Behind it, holding it up, allowing for it, is two other things, both in the eternal sense and in our everyday interactions with each other. These two things are MERCY and LOVE. God forgives because he is merciful and loving. When we forgive, we are demonstrating mercy and love.

Micah 6:8 says: "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." God requires us to love mercy. If we love mercy, we would forgive. Ever wonder what Jesus meant exactly when he said "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"? At the very least, it means forgive them. Forgive your enemies. As Jesus took his last breaths, he said "Father, forgive them . . ."

As a person who is unforgiven, I ask that you have mercy. That you love mercy. That you forgive. And, I beg that you would love your enemy. That you would forgive me.

But, if you will not forgive me, and this is the second lesson, know this: you will not have power over me. This is a harder lesson to really get, primarily because it is torture for the sorry-full unforgiven to remain unforgiven. It is to be denied mercy and love. It makes me go over and over all the pain I caused. I alphabetize it, enumerate it, breathe it. I wonder how I could have done differently, why I said certain things, why I did certain things. The amount of judgment I can bring down on myself is significant and it is heavy. It makes my eyes sag, my shoulders tense, my breath shorten. Thankfully, this is not a place God intends for us to be.

Romans 8:1 says "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." I have never totally understood this verse until now.

God does not require me to second guess. He does not require me to judge myself or to go back over and over and over the things that I have done. Indeed, not even He second guesses or condemns once I have repented and asked for forgiveness. The condemnation of myself or that of my potential forgiver is a lie. There is no condemnation for me, for I am in Christ Jesus. Period.

The red STOP button has been disconnected and I'm back at full speed on the treadmill.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Keep Your Eye On The Ball

I played tennis with my daughter this weekend and said more than once: "Keep your eye on the ball." Ever notice how hard it is to keep your eye on the ball? And, you don't even know you didn't until you miss and almost dislocate your shoulder.

Yesterday I opened my cable bill and it was significantly higher than usual. So, I called the cable company to find out why. Turns out that the plan I originally signed up for had expired and I was no longer receiving a particular discount that I had been receiving. I asked what my options were and whether there were any new discounts or deals. The woman I was speaking to told me there weren't any new deals (sure . . .) and the best option to lower my bill would be to downgrade from the "Digital Premium" service I was currently getting to the "Digital Basic" package. When she said this, I felt something in me that said, "You can't do that! You need Digital Premium!" Disregarding this thought, I asked her what the difference was between the two. Came down to a few additional channels with the premium than with the basic. I told her I needed to think about it and see whether I could find a satellite company from whom I could get a better deal. Here, she was supposed to say, "Oh, no, don't do that, I'm sure I can get this number down a bit more." But, she didn't. She simply said: "Okay. Do you need anything else?" I was stunned and hung up, thinking, huh, I thought that was supposed to work.

I then got up to walk around, thinking about whether I really would call another company and how much time that would take. And then I said out loud (thankfully no one was near me at that moment): "Why do I need digital cable again?"

So, of course, this got me thinking about what I say I believe and who I say I follow. And then I compared this with what my actions and deep reactionary thoughts reveal. Is my eye on the ball?

On December 20, 2008, I wrote out my commitment to follow Jesus Christ and put Him at the center of my life. And so often things like Digital Premium cable squeeze Him out. I lose focus, I lose sight, I take my eye off the ball. I start to believe the commercials I see that tell me that my life will be better if I have digital cable (or certain jeans, or coffee, or books, or whatever). The thing about it though, is that I don't even know it's happening until I have a conversation with the person at the cable company and start to feel slight heartache at the thought of downgrading from premium to basic digital cable. Just like you don't realize you've taken your eye off the ball until you miss it.

None of this is to beat myself up, that would not be productive. It is just a way of reminding myself, as I did with my daughter as we played tennis, to keep my eye on the ball. Paul said: "[S]et your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." (Col. 3:1-2) Or, as it says in the Message version: "So if you're serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ -- that's where the action is. See things from his perspective." I suspect, though don't know, that Christ does not care about digital cable. So, neither will I.