Navel-Gazing Done Right

Navel-Gazing Done Right

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I remember when my first child discovered her belly button. Having recently learned to sit up on her own, she looked down, and found this funny-looking hole in her tummy. Thus began her journey of self-discovery.

Our evangelical tradition correctly warns us that focusing on self can lead to all sorts of problems. An egocentric worldview inevitably leads to pride, self-aggrandizement, lack of empathy, and other neuroses. Unfortunately, we have taken this subjugation of self to unhealthy extremes.

Some calvinistic traditions have turned self-hatred into a core spiritual discipline.

I grew up in a healthy home with a well-adjusted family. But it was considered downright tacky to think about oneself or talk about oneself, unless it was to identify the motivation behind wrongdoing or failure.

So, the words of Chuck Swindoll felt like a cool breeze on a stifling day when he wrote,

No one needs to hear these words more that parents in the process of rearing little children. The impact they have on a child under the age of ten is profound. These vital, fundamental words are important at any age but critical to little ones. Here they are: Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are.[1]

True humility begins with an accurate and realistic view of self—strengths and weaknesses, darkness and light—and then making the conscious choice to regard others more important. Without an honest assessment of self, true humility will prove elusive, as pride continually seeks to fill that vacancy.

During the season I have called my crossroads moment, I have been forced to do some honest self-assessment—something I should have been led to do as an adolescent. Parker J. Palmer’s work, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Josey-Bass, 2000), has been an invaluable help.

In this dense little volume, he encourages readers to rediscover our “birthright gifts,” those innate abilities and interests that have always been with us. They offer clues to who God made us, what makes us uniquely special. This, in turn, points to what we should be doing as a vocation.

When I spent a few weeks reminiscing with myself and others who know me well, I discovered a number of birthright gifts. One day, I felt ready to list them out on a whiteboard to see what picture these puzzle pieces might form. What emerged resonated as true and filled me with a sense of calm.

 

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I now know that I will find most satisfaction and achieve greatest success in any vocation, any job, that incorporates these innate abilities and acquired skills. And the relationship is proportional. The more natural ability I can apply, the more everyone benefits: the agency I advance, the people I serve, the people who love me, and myself.

I encourage you to do some reminiscing. What stories from your past reveal natural abilities and interests? Are you trying to “do what you ought” or are being who you are?

 

[1] Charles R. Swindoll, Parenting: From Surviving to Thriving (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008), 63.

Active Listening

Active Listening

front-row-center

Listening to God calls for a cessation of normal activity, but it is not a time to remain idle. Our posture must be submissive, while leaning forward.

In my first semester at Dallas Theological Seminary, my list of classes included “Bible Study Methods,” then taught by “Prof” Howard Hendricks. His had been one of several names that graced the shelves of my father’s library, so I was excited to learn firsthand from this master of teaching.

I routinely arrived for the morning class thirty minutes early to be first at the classroom doors. As the previous class dismissed, I would slip in, make my way to the front along the side wall, and wait for a front-row-center desk to open up. And Lord help anyone who happened to get in the way. I was more aggressive than an Evangelical in a church parking lot!

We’re more likely to hear from God when we place ourselves in an optimal position. Front-row-center, no distractions, pen and paper in hand, well-rested, and leaning forward.

Having ceased normal activity for a time, here is what I have been doing to make this unscheduled Sabbath “solemn,” to give my rest purpose.

First, I repented of my sins and made certain my primary relationships were clean and clear of unresolved conflict (Matthew 5:23–24; 1 Peter 3:7).

Second, I began a daily Scripture-reading program. When I most need to hear the Lord, I gravitate to the Gospels. There’s just something soothing and clarifying about hearing the words of Jesus and observing His actions.

Third, I called upon several faithful friends to pray for me as I sought direction from the Lord.

Fourth, I began reading books that relate to the issues at hand: identity, calling, and vocation.

Fifth, because my particular circumstance involves a reevaluation of my identity and calling, I reviewed some old personality assessments and took some new ones.

Finally, because creativity makes my brain work better, I began indulging some random creative whims:

I resurrected this blog (as a more personally satisfying alternative to journaling) and relaunched the Redemptive Divorce Web site.

I created the “Jesus-Actual” Social Media and Web Site.

I conducted a Christian Leadership Alliance Workshop.

I led a Christian Leadership Alliance Webinar (now accessible to CLA Members only).

These activities, combined with lots of conversation with loved ones and lots of alone time with God, will hopefully put me in front-row-center desk, where I can hear the Master’s instruction.

I don’t hear from God in secret instructions or circumstantial signs. Instead, the Holy Spirit reorders the chaos in my head to create clarity.

His leading usually points to a next step that’s undeniable. It may not be easy or comfortable, and it may run contrary to conventional wisdom, but it becomes unmistakable as a moral imperative.

It’s a next action that resonates as “right” deep down in that serene place of knowing that gives me peace when I move toward it and fills me with disquiet when I back away.

How do you position yourself to hear from God? What works best for you?

Are You Hearing from God?

Are You Hearing from God?

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“Hearing from God” is a curious phrase.

In the Old Testament, a rare few people received communication from the Almighty via audible sound (1 Samuel 3:8–10) or a supernatural vision (Daniel 8:1) or a divinely directed dream (Genesis 20:1–3). Sometimes, the message from God would come via an angel (Judges 6:11–12).

Theologians call this “special revelation,” meaning that the divine message came by supernatural (beyond natural) means and was exceedingly rare.

The New Testament era has changed all of that. Now, things are different.

Precisely fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, something extraordinary happened:

When the day of Pentecost arrived, [the followers of Jesus] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

(Acts 2:1–4)

The gathered believers began to speak in the native languages of visitors from all around the world. The visitors said, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God! (Acts 2:11).

This fulfilled the promise given by Jesus: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).

The indwelling Holy Spirit is now the inheritance of all who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Ephesians 1:13–14).

Consequently, New Testament believers have something that would have amazed Old Testament believers. We have the indwelling Spirit of God to guide us daily. Hourly. Moment by moment!

“Hearing from God” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. The New Testament way is a new and improved brand of divine communication. We no longer need audible voices or bizarre visions. We have something far better!

When the Messiah inaugurated the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34), it came with an extraordinary promise:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.”

(Jeremiah 31:33–34)

Rather that write down commandments, send angelic messengers, induce strange dreams, or speak audibly, God has given believers His own Spirit to change their hearts, to help them think as He thinks, desire what He desires, and then act as He wants them to act.

Instead of giving us step-by-step instructions, God is changing our hearts to beat in perfect rhythm with His.

“Hearing from God,” then, isn’t about waiting for messages or seeking supernatural signs. That’s Old Testament. The New Testament way is to observe how God is transforming us and then make decisions in harmony with His new creation.

That’s what it means to be “led by the Holy Spirit.”

This isn’t a “do what feels right” theology. In addition to His indwelling Spirit, He has also given us His written Word and His church.

This isn’t to say that God can’t use audible communication or visions, or that He never will again.

This is simply to acknowledge that if God’s promise of a transformed heart is real, then “hearing from God” might include a discerning inward look.

What has God been doing in your life lately?

As you look back over your spiritual journey, what trends do you see?

What might this say about what He wants you to do with your life?

Resting in I AM

Resting in I AM

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I received a divine tap on the shoulder.

That’s what the late preacher, Peter Marshall, called it. It’s a God-initiated interruption to life-as-usual that demands attention.

It could be a inexplicable sense of restlessness or unexplained feelings of dissatisfaction. It might come on the heels of a professional failure or a moral tumble. It’s not uncommon for a divine tap to follow a great success.

oil-warning-lightRegardless, to ignore the tap is like failing to heed the low-oil warning on your dashboard. You run the risk of a severe and costly breakdown. So, you’d better pull over.

In the Old Testament, God gave His people a weekly tap on the shoulder. “Sabbath” derives from the Hebrew command, “Cease.” This commandment gave God’s people permission to lay aside their normal routines, not only to give them rest, but to remind them that He–and He alone–is their provision and protection.

God’s call to rest isn’t a command to remain idle. He may call us to cease activity for a time, but idleness isn’t what He has in mind.

“Sabbath” involves more than the cessation of normal activity. It’s often described in Scripture as “solemn rest” (Exodus 16:23). It carries the idea of rest with purpose, in the same way we might block out time in our schedule to spend time with a spouse, a lover, a child, or a friend.

The Lord gave His people a Sabbath one day each week, and then one year out of seven to not cultivate their fields–to forfeit valuable income–to rest in His provision and protection.

While we are no longer bound by these Old Testament, land covenant laws, the principles that animated them remain alive today. We are granted an opportunity to enjoy a day of “solemn rest” each week. And, from time to time, God’s issues a personal command to “cease” and to give Him focused attention.

It’s a divine tap on the shoulder, calling us to stop, turn around, and discover what He wants to reveal. (For some of us thick-headed people, the “tap” comes like a brickbat to the head.)

For me, lately, the Lord has invited me to reexamine my identity and calling. I have described it as my “crossroads moment.”

If you have received a divine tap on the shoulder, cease! Stop what you’re doing. Give the Lord your complete attention by asking, simply, “Lord, I’m listening. What do you want me to know?”

If you know what I’m talking about, let me know. I’d like to hear about your divine tap on the shoulder.

No Admittance: Coming to Terms with Limits and Failure

No Admittance: Coming to Terms with Limits and Failure

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I don’t like admitting failure. No one does.

Failure is especially difficult for those of us who embraced the American myth: “With enough determination and enough desire, you can do anything and become anyone!”

I am a citizen of a nation founded upon this myth, and reared by a generation who lived and preached the myth of no limitations. I was bathed in “can-do,” clothed in “can-do,” and fed to the gills with “can-do.” Failure, according to this myth, is the result of my own unwillingness to claim my birthright or my lack of faith in God, who gave it to me.

Having come to my crossroads moment, I’m beginning to accept the possibility that my successes and failures may have little to do with my character, and everything to do with my identity.

As author, Parker J. Palmer, writes,

Each of us arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials. We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potentials. . . . Our problem as Americans . . . is that we resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives. Our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people on the moon . . . We refuse to take no for an answer.[1]

I hate limits. I despise failure. They offend my American sensibilities and they challenge my male identity. Consequently, I have made them my lifelong sworn enemies.

Now, as I stand at a crossroads, I’m beginning to see that limits and failure may have been my allies all along.

It’s not that I didn’t have the smarts to succeed or that I lacked the work ethic. Instead, my failures show me where I did not attempt the right things while my successes reveal where my strengths are best applied.

Limits help me channel my potentials in harmony with my God-given identity as I walk the path He has set before me (Psalm 139:13–16). Failures are the signs that identify limits and keep me from going down dangerous paths that may harm others or myself again.

Coming to terms with my failures will not be easy, but I’m already beginning to experience the peace that comes with admitting limitations.

Enjoying success should be simpler now.

 

 

[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2000), 41–42.

 

“Now I Become Myself”

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!

“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.

Hello, Silence. I hear you.

Hello, Silence. I hear you.

 

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Here, at my crossroads moment, I hear the voice of silence bid me to linger.

“Voice of silence.” That’s how Elijah described his crossroads moment in the Negev wilderness of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 19:12).

Yeah, I know. Your version probably says something like, “the sound of a low whisper” (ESV), “a gentle whisper” (NIV), “a still small voice” (NKJV), or somthing like that.

The literal Hebrew expression reads, “a voice of small silence” or “a voice of thin stillness.” It’s meant to be paradoxical, a seemingly self-contradictory, absurd description. In other words, Elijah perceived God’s presence supernaturally.

Elijah’s crossroads moment occurred after a significant personal failure.

For many years he had steadfastly opposed the despotic, idol-worshiping rule of Ahab and Jezebel, boldly speaking truth to power. His long campaign then climaxed with a triumphant showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20–46).

After this dramatic victory,  the prophet’s confidence should have reached an all-time high. His years of ministry had been validated by God’s omnipotence and he stood on the threshold of victory. Yet when Jezebel threatened to kill him, his courage wilted and he ran.

As his personal failure sank in, he prayed, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).

After God gave His servant food to replenish his body and sleep to restore his mind, He called Elijah to enter a season of solitude. Forty days of quiet reflection in a very special place (1 Kings 19:5–8).

When the time was right, in the midst of his crossroads moment, Elijah perceived God’s silent voice and received the affirmation and direction he needed so desperately.

My natural response to moments like this is not to remain where I am. Ordinarily, I would take action, get busy doing something positive, seek constructive change.

But this time is different. There’s nowhere to go. Nothing different I should be doing. My triumphs and failures have led me to an empty cave, where life has left me famished, and I hunger to hear from God.

While I am still, I am not idle. I have work accomplish–worthy work. I have people who need me to be present when I am with them. Waiting to hear from God isn’t a time for passivity.

There are things we can do to prepare for perceiving God’s silent voice. And I am doing them.