January 1, 2011

The Journey Begins

What did you want to be when you were growing up?  I can remember wanting to be four things.  When I was in third and fourth grade, before I realized that when God gave me a set of skills basketball was not on the list, I wanted to be play for the KU basketball team.  When that realization finally dawned a couple of years later I settled on playing drums in the KU basketball pep band.  Not too long after that it occurred to me that I would have to do something after college other than live with my parents and so I began to think in the direction of practicing law.  This was only natural as it was what my dad does.  After a class field trip to this place that let everyone take on the career of their choice for a day (I was the town lawyer), I decided that the law practice just wasn’t for me.  Finally, when I was in high school I settled on teaching as my calling and never looked back.  This was who I wanted to be: a teacher.  Not merely a teacher, though. I wanted to be a chemistry teacher who was a percussion tech for the band on the side.  I focused all my attention on developing my teaching skills so that I would be well prepared for when the day finally came that I was in my own classroom.  As I have continued to grow, and as God has shifted my center of teaching from high school chemistry to Christian theology and Biblical interpretation and Christian living and marriage and family practice and all the other things that come along with the position of pastor something has occurred to me.  Being a teacher is what I’ve long wanted to do, but it wasn’t ever who I wanted to be.

Though many genuinely struggle with the answer to the question of what they want to do (most probably because they’ve been taught to confuse doing with being and are trying to answer the question of doing with the question of being), it is a far simpler matter than the question of who they want to be.  At one level, if you are in this room (which all of you are) then you ostensibly want to be a “good Christian,” whatever that means.  We try and will ourselves into becoming this person who is defined culturally in a number of different ways, many of them totally unrelated to the picture commended to us in Scripture.  On another level, however, we have to reckon with the desires of our flesh.  These would have us become someone very different from the culturally defined “good Christian.”  This is the person who is impatient, selfish, mean-spirited, angry, bitter, and generally not nice to be around unless he is doing exactly what he wants to do, when, where, how, and why he wants it done.  This is the person who’d much prefer to be on the golf course than in the church; who’d rather keep all her money to herself than give it away to anyone else; who’d really prefer to not have to worry about being faithful to one person for a lifetime; who’s all for the churchy stuff as long as it doesn’t interrupt the rest of his life.  This is the person we will become without any help.  There is still one more level which must be taken into account.  When God created people, as recorded in Genesis 1, He said to Himself: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  You see, we were created in the image of God and though the Fall would mar that image badly, it would not be taken away.  This image of God still persists in people today.  When people (in particular non-Christian people) accomplish incredible feats of bravery or kindness or generosity or creativity this is the image of God coming out.  It is this image that defines us as human and separates us off from the rest of creation.  More importantly, this image results in a part of us that goes deeper than our sinful natures can reach longing to be like our Creator in the ways for which He has designed us.  This person is the me we want to be.  I want to spend the rest of this month talking with you about who this person is and how we can become it.

As a matter of full disclosure, while this idea of becoming fully the man or woman who God designed us to be from the beginning is one I’ve been talking about for most of the time I’ve been with you, in this series I am drawing deeply from a fairly new book by pastor and author John Ortberg called The Me I Want to Be.  In this little book Ortberg offers readers some advice on how to open themselves in order to allow the Spirit to shape them into the people God designed them to be when He first conceived them.  In light of the vision Christ has set before us to become a church that perfectly models the values of belonging, learning, and serving, which depends heavily on each part of this body becoming fully who God designed you to be, I want to journey with you through some of the wisdom of God that Ortberg shares here.  Our journey will begin this morning by establishing the fact that not only does this “me” we want to be actually exist, but it is someone we can actually become.  We can only do this when we know our starting point and are tapped into the right source of power.  The next couple of weeks I’ll offer you some of the real meat on how to become this person.  We must do things like renew our minds, redeem our time, and deepen our relationships.  Without this we will never grow beyond the place we currently reside.  Finally on the last Sunday I’ll be with you this month (and the day before I become a father times two, Lord willing) we’ll talk about where to go from the point we have reached by then.  For now, though, I want to focus on who this “me” is and how we can start taking steps in his—or her—direction.

Let me let you in on a little theological secret.  Okay, it’s not actually all that much of a secret.  In fact, for anybody’s who knows very much about God at all it’s pretty obvious.  The world as it currently exists is not how God wants it to stay.  Not only this, but when the time comes God is going to fix that problem.  He is going to fix it decisively and completely.  We get a glimpse of what the coming of this perfect world will be like in the second to last chapter of Revelation (in which we will pick back up our journey Wednesday night and, yes, we will eventually get to chapter 21).  From Revelation 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new hearth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with [people].  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”  Everything God has done since the Fall has been geared towards reaching this moment in history.  This is creation as God planned it from the beginning.  In this new creation sin and its consort will be permanently banned.  As John writes a few verses later: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”  In other words, not only will creation be the best possible version of itself, but so will we.  And when Solomon wrote that God has put eternity into the hearts of people in Ecclesiastes 3:11 this eternal future is at least part of what he had in mind.  By virtue of being bearers of the image of God there is a deep place in our souls where we want the things God wants.  This place is so marred by sin that we can’t reach it and live out of it without God’s help, but it’s there nonetheless.  The result of this deep desire is that there is a version of ourselves that we most want to be and which corresponds perfectly with who God created us to be.  This is the me we want to be.

This “me” is not the person we currently are.  It is the person the Holy Spirit is shaping us to be.  There is, however, a problem here: we are not passive people.  We want to be involved in this shaping process.  As a result, our normal response when we hear calls like I am making to step up and be the person God created us to be is to get to work.  We examine our lives and find some traits which don’t seem to match up to God’s standards very well and go about doing what seem to us to be practical things to remove them from our life patterns.  In other words, we get out a microscope and focus on ourselves.  But, as Ortberg writes, “becoming this person will never happen if [our] primary focus is on [us], just as no one becomes happy if their main goal is to be happy.”[1] You see, we are not the measure of all things.  I know that’s not a very popular conception, but it is reality.  We when ignore reality and live like we are, we set ourselves up for some rough scrapes with reality’s walls.  We’ll never find life and joy when we do this.

Instead, the life and joy for which we long will be found when we allow God to grow us into the person He created us to be.  There is an unfortunate misconception running rampant in today’s American church culture.  This is the idea that in order to become the kind of holy person God wants us to be, we have to give up all the things that really bring us happiness in this life.  We have to change from a person we kind of like into one of those annoying Jesus people who always seems to have God on the brain.  This set of thought processes is directly from the devil.  It is aimed at planting in our minds the lie that sin is fun and holiness is boring.  The truth is that God wants us only to become more fully ourselves.  All the selves we play at day-in and day-out are not who we were made to be.  As God works in our lives He will change us, but He will never let us become anything other than us.

The challenge here is that we tend to follow a corollary to Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by some outside force.  In other words, “we do not just drift into becoming the best version of ourselves.  It can be missed by a genius, and it can be found by a [simpleton].  If [we] want to become the person [we] want to be, [we] will have to come to grips with the counterfeits who elbow into take his place—the rivals who can keep [us] from becoming the me [we are] meant to be.” (23) Even if you haven’t put names to these counterfeits, you all know who they are.  There’s “the me I don’t want to be,” “the me I pretend to be,” “the me I think I should be,” “the me other people want me to be,” “the me I’m afraid God wants [me to be],” and “the me that fails to be.”  All of these keep us from who we were really meant to be and they are hard to ignore.  So then, how do we break free from all this dead weight and start taking real strides towards becoming the me we want to be?  Well, we need to do two things.  We must first decide that we really do want to be this person.  This allows for any growth to happen at all.  Second and just as important, we must understand where we are so that we can be pointed in the right direction.  To put all that a bit more memorably: If I want to grow, I’ve got to know.  If we want to grow into the person God created us to be, we’ve got to know who we really want to be and where we currently are.  Without this, we either won’t move at all, or will move off in the wrong direction and take up another counterfeit self.  If we want to grow, we’ve got to know.

Now, as I said just a minute ago, the corollary to Newton’s First Law of Motion applies to our journey with God which is sometimes referred to in a church setting as our “spiritual life.”  (And I use that phrase somewhat hesitantly as many people carry the false conception that our spiritual lives are somehow different from the rest of our lives.  This is another lie the devil uses to keep us from growing.)  Well, we’re not going to naturally act on this or any call for us to be growing to be more like Christ—again, often called spiritual growth, as if that were different from any other personal growth.  At the same time, however, there are no outside forces keeping us from doing this.  It’s not like we are held in place by our circumstances and just can’t manage growing into the me we want to be right now.  You know how these excuses often go: “My boss is just putting too much on me to worry about spiritual growth right now.”  “The kids and their activities are too much right now for me to deal with church stuff.  I’ll get to that when things settle down.”  “Well, the wife and I are having some problems right now and those really need to get resolved before I can focus my attention on anything else.”  “I just have some personal things I’m dealing with and when I deal with them I’ll give God my full focus.”  Here’s the deal with this: we will strive for the thing we want most in this life every time.  We will always have time and energy for the things we desire most.  All of these and other similar excuses are hollow to the core.  If we really liked to we would make time.  Now, some might try and claim that they are merely driven by a sense of duty to do something and they’d really rather not be doing it in place of spiritual growth.  This is foolish.  All this reveals is that we long for the worldly recognition and honor that comes from being seen as one dedicated to duty over pleasure.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to let duty and responsibility guide our actions, but let us not use these as an excuse.  Our circumstances don’t have to change in order to for us to become the me we want to be.  We just have to want it more than anything else in this life.

Okay, so say that we have brought our hearts and minds into one accord and are genuinely ready to pursue this spiritual growth like we should.  What next?  Well, for most folks, what comes next is a concerted effort to will ourselves into becoming some culturally-defined better person.  We try and be more patient.  We try and be nicer to the people around us.  We try and take our spouses out to dinner or give them the attention they need instead of spending so much time involved in other things.  We try and get up extra early so we can have a long quiet time as everyone knows that God is a morning person and so we need to cater to His needs.  Essentially, we pick up this silly idea that we need to make up to difference between who we are now and who we want to be through our own effort.  If we are the only thing truly holding ourselves back from it, then we are the only thing that can truly get us going.  So we try hard.  Then we try harder.

The problem here is that no amount of effort on our part will ever help us reach this goal.  As Ortberg describes in the book, some people will muster up the gumption to take on this whole growth process and when they do the first thing into which they will throw themselves is the spiritual disciplines.  They read about spiritual disciplines like Scripture memorization, silence, celebration, giving, fasting, serving, slowing down, Scripture study and meditation, and a variety of others.  It sure sounds like these are what help people become more like this me they apparently want to be and so they take up incorporating them into their life for a while.  All of them.  At the same time.  And you know what happens next?  Magically they become the person God designed them to be…or not.  Actually, they hate it.  Whereas they were rushing around doing everything but “churchy” stuff and not having any time for spiritual growth, now they are tired, hungry, poorer, distracted, and rushing around so busy doing only churchy stuff that they still don’t have any time for spiritual growth.  But they keep telling themselves it must be spiritual because they’re miserable.  Everyone knows, after all, that really spiritual people are always miserable for God.  Eventually (you know, a week), “want to” wins out over “should,” they burn out, give up, and decide this whole being spiritual thing just isn’t for them.  Surely that doesn’t apply to anyone in here.  There must be a better way.  Well, if you want to grow, you’ve got to know.

In John 7, the apostle describes this incredible scene in which Jesus goes to Jerusalem to attend the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles or Tents, depending on your translation).  This was a big annual celebration for the Jews in which they relived the days of the Exodus when they lived in tents in the wilderness.  All week the people had been celebrating the provision of God by sacrificially pouring out water before Him.  On the last the day emotion and excitement was at a fever pitch as people shook palm branches nearly to pieces in anticipation of the priest’s final offering to God.  It was at this moment when Jesus’ strong voice rang out over the crowd: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  You see, in order for us to live the lives God calls us to live; in order for us to be the me we want to be, we have to get into the flow of the Spirit.  In order to do this, though, we have to understand how God designed us to do it.  If we want to grow, we’ve got to know.

Every now and then a church will latch onto a method of spiritual growth that makes a huge impact on the members of its body.  This happened in a little church in Michigan about fifteen years ago when a youth minister wanted to give her students something to wear to remind them of the kind of life God wants them to live.  Do you know what those little bracelets said?  WWJD.  Who in here has ever owned something with that acronym on it?  It might be easier to ask who hasn’t.  For how many of you was owning that item the spark that launched a revolution in your spiritual life and shaped you by leaps and bounds into the kind of person God wants you to be as very likely happened with the students in this little Michigan church?  Perhaps some of you, but I’ll wager not nearly all of you.  Fast food spiritual growth items like this often assume that what worked for one congregation will work for every congregation and every individual Christian.  This, however, is simply not true.  But the problem with this isn’t simply one of marketing and greedy publishers trying to make a lot of money.  Ortberg nails this as well: “the problem many people face when it comes to spiritual growth is that they listen to someone they think of as the expert—maybe the pastor of their church—talk about what he does, and think that is what they are supposed to do.” (49) For Christmas last week Noah got a sundry of different kinds of vehicles (all of which he loves).  One of them is this little train that was no doubt produced by the thousands.  Another is this bulldozer which though it came from a pattern is one-of-a-kind.  The Bible doesn’t proclaim that we are God’s Thomas the Train engine (James, actually), it says we are His bulldozer—we’re all from the same stuff, but we are totally and completely unique.  And if we are going to get into the flow of the Spirit such that we can become the me we want to be, this is something we need to not only understand, but embrace.  If we want to grow, we’ve got to know.

Well, with this in mind, let me offer you some tools to help you understand just exactly how God designed you to get into the flow of the Spirit.  And lest you think that I am now going to offer you some spiritual growth package that has worked in other places and will hopefully (but not actually) do the same things here, you can rest assured that I’m not.  None of these will necessarily cause any growth to happen in you.  These are only tools designed to grant the knowledge necessary to know what kinds of life patterns will put you in a place ripe with potential of engaging with the Spirit in a positive way.  If you want to grow, you’ve got to know, but that knowledge won’t accomplish the growth automatically.  You’ve got to work with the Spirit.

With all of that said, here are some things to think about.  First, what brings you to life?  These are the activities you need to build into your schedule in order to put you in the frame of mind to engage with the Spirit (unless of course they are not good things, in which case, find new sources of life).  Next, what is your temperament?  Are you more outgoing or shy?  Are you a dreamer or do you want to deal with cold, hard facts?  Do you like thinking things through regardless of the people involved or is your greater concern how people’s feelings are going to be impacted by some decision?  Do you want to make a plan and stick with it or just go with the flow?  How do you know when you have had an impact on someone else?  When they’ve done what you told them to do?  When you can convince them of something?  When you can serve them?  When you have done something right for them?  Third, how do you learn?  Are you a visual learner—you have to see something done in order to get it?  Or can you simply hear something said and have it down?  Do you learn better when you can have your hands on whatever it is, putting it to practice?  Or perhaps you learn by orally repeating facts and instructions.  Some folks need a group of people learning the same thing with them in order to get it.  Others learn when they can apply the rules of logic and reason to the problem at hand.  Still others need more artistic methods—painting, story-telling, sculpting, music, or imagination.  Fourth, how do you connect with God?  God created each of us to connect with Him in different ways.  Not everyone is going to come out of a service like ours having had a powerful experience of worship simply because there are some methods of worship that we don’t have practical ways to incorporate into this service.  One author identified nine different pathways of connecting with God.  Some people connect to God when they are out in nature.  Anybody know that’s you?  Some can worship easily when practicing the spiritual disciplines.  Others need worship services with historically grounded liturgical practices.  These folks, like a good friend of mine from seminary, would connect well in a Catholic or Episcopal or Lutheran or even Methodist service.  There are some people who connect with God when they are involved in some great cause.  If they are feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or working for immigrants’ rights or something else along these lines then they are worshiping God.  Some worship through acts of simple service.  God has made some people very sensual.  They need worship experiences that stimulate their senses—proper lighting, peaceful sounds, pleasing smells, and pretty sights.  There are some who connect to God when they are with a group of people and there are some who connect to God when they are alone studying and praying.  Finally, there are some who worship when they are studying and learning (I happen to fit mostly in this last category).  Find ways to experiment with these and figure out which pathways God designed you for.  Two more questions: what is your signature sin?  Different people have different things that trip them up.  A spiritual growth program designed to keep you away from a particular kind of sin may be worthless if you really struggle with a different one.  And lastly, what is your season of life.  Spiritual growth for a young person whose family is about to expand is going to look a lot different than for the person whose kids’ schedules have her running in a million different directions is going to look at lot different than for the retired person who can wake up whenever and doesn’t have any responsibilities that are too demanding.  If you really want to grow, you have to take all of these different things into account.  Again, knowing them isn’t going to magically cause growth to happen, but if you want to grow, you’ve got to know.

On that note, I want to close our time this morning with a final encouragement and warning.   As I said before, none of this is about trying harder or somehow willing ourselves into spiritual growth.  In fact, let me be very specific: I don’t want you to leave here and try harder than you currently are to become the me you want to be.  Such efforts will only take your focus off of the growth you are rightly pursuing and wrongly put it on the single greatest impediment to that growth: you.  Instead, this is all about surrendering.  The Bible is very clear on the fact that there is no pathway to God which does not involve surrender.  This is all about getting rid of the “Jesus is my co-pilot” attitude.  As long as that is the case you will keep flying the plane into the side of a mountain because you’re a terrible pilot.  But surrendering is not an easy thing; especially for a bunch of people who are pretty self-sufficient and who rightly believe they can accomplish quite a bit when they put their collective mind to it.  As a result, this week I want you to do four things for me.  I want you to get rid of the idea that surrender and passivity are the same things.  The kind of surrender necessary here is an active giving of yourself to God.  You’ll never be who He created you to be otherwise.  I want you to throw off any notions that this growth will be a comfortable process because it won’t.  “If it was comfortable, it wouldn’t be surrender.” (67) I want you to reflect on that fact that surrendering is not simply letting go your will and need for control, it is also giving up on the delusion that you are responsible for the outcomes.  And I want you to spend some time going through the questions we just talked about—with the help of the handout now going around—and start to sketch out some answers.  Because, if you want to grow, you’ve got to know.

[1]John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 13.  All subsequent quotes will come from the same book and will be indicated with a (page number).