Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Imperfections

When we talk about growth, even growing Godward, we have to figure out what a reasonable expectation is. The Bible puts a pretty high standard on it - God says to be perfect because He is perfect. And if we truly live as citizens of heaven, then we believe in perfect things. 

Trust me. This gets me into a lot of trouble. Because I believe in perfect things. I believe things ought to be knowable and doable and that they ought to follow a predicted order. Not just any old order, but a certain wisdom that there is to the world because God put it there. And one of the things that slows me down and trips me up in this world more than anything else is the eye that I have for the 'ought to be.' I want so badly to live like the ought to be...actually is. 

And yet, we know that there is no such thing as perfection on this side of Eden. If perfection is our goal, we don't stand a chance. We're never going to get there, not as long as we live in a broken flesh. 

So this creates some tension. Doesn't it? On the one hand, perfection is the aim; we cannot let our sights be set on anything less than God's wisdom and glory. On the other hand, it's unattainable for us here; it's just not possible. That leaves us with really two options - we can keep beating ourselves up and feeling like failures every day because we are not perfect, because we always have our eyes on ways that we can be better at something, do better at something, live better somehow. Or we can modify our definition of what it means to grow, even to grow Godward. 

This is something - maybe you know this by now - that I wrestle with a lot. It's something I've been wrestling with for a long time. I just can't seem to let go of perfect. And the most challenging part of all of this is...I don't think I have to. 

I think what we need is to develop eyes for the kind of perfect that is in line with God's love and God's will and God's wisdom - the things that we are told are perfect - but we have to develop a heart for goodness, or in the case of a life being lived, I think we can call it 'fruitfulness.'

Think about any plant that produces anything - flowers, fruits, nuts, whatever. There aren't any two that are the same. No two apples are just alike. No two flowers are perfectly identical. No two trees, even if you planted them from the seeds of the same fruit, will grow up to be exactly alike. Because nature doesn't work this way. Trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, they don't think about being 'perfect;' they think about being fruitful. They do whatever they can, and whatever they have to, to bear fruit into this world. 

That's how we get all these really neat-looking root systems. On my walks with my dog in the morning, I see tree roots that have grown around full in a circle and gone back toward the place where they began because they hit pavement and ran out of room to grow in their first direction. I've seen flowers bloom out of cracks in the curb because that's the place that was open for them to spread. It's easy to look at something like this and think that these living things have only their survival on their mind, that they'd do whatever they had to just to survive, but that's not it. The tree is not satisfied just to be a tree; it wants to bear fruit. The flower is not happy just to be a stem; it wants to blossom. All of creation is wired for this kind of fruitfulness. So are we. 

And that's what growth - good, holy, God-pleasing growth - is about. It's not about achieving perfection; God knows we'll never get there. It's about pushing through toward fruitfulness, toward finding new ways to mature into bringing beauty and nourishment into this world. It's about showing more of the colors and nutrients that God has put in you to display. It's about constantly finding a way to push through and blossom. 

Most of us wait until we have our stem just right before we dare to bloom, but Godward growth is about blooming anyway. It's about taking that risk and putting it out there and letting it be shaped , even by this broken world. 

Which is part of the beauty of it all, too. From a distance, the fruitful plant looks spectacular, but when you get down right next to it, you see all the ways this broken world is eating at it. You see all the little bugs crawling around, all the sun-scorched spots, all the dried-up leaves. You see every way this world is getting to it, and yet, it doesn't let those things stop its fruitfulness. Not when it has become mature. 

This is growth. This is what God desires from us. That we would have eyes for what is perfect, yes, so that we see His wisdom and will and love in everything. But that we would also set our hearts on fruitfulness because we're growing in a broken world where perfect isn't plausible, but goodness absolutely is. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Growth and Change

When we talk about what it means to be constantly growing Godward, it's easy to misread that and to think that it means that we are constantly changing. How are we ever supposed to be a dependable people if we're constantly changing? How are we supposed to be in relationship with others, let alone with God and self, if who we are today is subject to change tomorrow? 

This line of thinking requires that we pause for a moment and define what growth is and what it isn't. Growth doesn't necessarily mean change; sometimes, it means simply development. A newborn baby grows into an adult, but that doesn't change the fundamental nature of the human being who is doing the growing. In the same way, a seedling sprouts and grows but doesn't change what it becomes. So we can't let the idea of growth make us believe that there's something unstable about it. Rather, growth is one of the most predictable, stable processes there is. 

That doesn't mean that you can't use growth for change. If you find that you're on a path that you don't particularly like or that is not leading to where you thought you were going, you can absolutely grow in a new direction. But to simply say that you're growing does not imply that you're changing. 

Now, here's what's cool about it: embracing a constant state of growth means that you get to choose all over again the things that you want to be. You get to keep choosing to be those things you want to be. You get to decide today and tomorrow and the day after that if that's someone you still want to be - if you want to keep it the way it is, take another step down that road, or turn around and try something else. 

Here's a somewhat silly example from my recent life. 

When I purchased my first vehicle, I was a young Christian. I was the kind of Christian who had her Christianity plastered all over everything. I had every Christian T-shirt and jewelry and bumper sticker and all the right books. I got a Jesus fish (ichthus) emblem for the front of my car, and I got a "Praise the Lord" license plate frame for the back of it. That was nearly 20 years ago. 

This past weekend while trying to change my license plate with a defective bolt posing a bit of a problem, I broke my "Praise the Lord" license plate frame. Now, 20 years is good for what is essentially very thin plastic. But the thing is, I really like the way these words are cut out and just the overall design of the thing, and they don't make them like this any more. Trust me; I've looked. And the truth is, I can't find a "Christian" license plate frame that I like any more. I like the one I had. 

Over the past twenty years, however, my faith has also grown. I don't plaster it all over everything like I used to because I understand that my faith is evidenced in the way that I live, not in the way that I decorate. And I have other interests now, too, which would make for good license plate frames. For example, I love my dog. Paw prints are great decor. I also found a beautiful butterfly frame that I like. Also, good decor. 

So the question becomes - who am I? Am I the kind of person who puts my love for my dog on my car? My fondness for butterflies and beautiful things? Or am I still that person who puts my love for Jesus on my car? 

When I first chose that frame, I chose it because I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. (Let's just be honest about how our faith starts out.) But when I considered what I want to do with this now-empty space, the decision was about how I will feel driving that car. What do I want to be reminded of when I get into it? What do I want to feel sitting behind the wheel? What do I want my car to say to me, rather than about me? 

So here I am, twenty years from where I was. If I decide to put another "Christian" license plate frame on my car, does that mean I haven't changed? If I decide to go with paw prints, does it mean that I have? If I choose something other than "God" as my decor, does that mean that my faith is less real and vital to me today than it was back then? If I choose "God," does that mean my faith is exactly the same as it was when I first came into it? 

See, this is what we're talking about. The choice that I make in this situation already signals my growth in the way that I am choosing to make it. My life is, by its very design, different twenty years after I first made this decision. The way I approach this is different than it was back then. The considerations on my heart are different. That doesn't mean that I am different, that I have changed; it means that I have grown. I am now in a place where my top consideration is what I need to hear, not what I want to say. 

Which means that if I choose to replace my license plate frame with another "Christian" one, it will be because I have considered it, and I am choosing it again. Not because I chose it 20 years ago, but because I choose it again today. For different reasons, perhaps, and with a different process, but it will be a choice that I make in this season and no other. And if I choose it again, or even if I choose against it, it will be an evidence of growth. Godward growth, as in this case, it is an evidence of the way that my faith has developed over twenty years of living it. 

Disclaimer: Right now, the old license plate frame is currently upside-down on my car, the way that it would still fit. So don't judge me by that, either. The car looks so bare without one, and I haven't settled on a replacement yet.) 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Growing Godward

Life is a journey. You've probably heard that, and if you've lived even a few days of it, you know that to be true. Our lives are about building upon yesterday toward tomorrow, always taking one step closer toward where we want to be without losing sight of where we are today. It's a challenge, but the meaning of life is found in the living of it, and our stories are being written anew every second. 

The world would like to convince us that our progress is linear. That is, we start at point A and end up at point Z, having gone through B, C, D, E....etc. all in order. The world tells us that if we want to build a life, there is a natural way to do it, certain steps we must take. Just take something so simple as the work that we desire to do. The world says that once you set your eyes on your dream job, you just have to finish high school, get the proper post-graduate education, enter in at a certain type of company in a certain type of position, take three steps in such-and-such a direction, accept a promotion into a certain department, and before you know it, you've worked your way up the ladder to where you want to be - one step at a time. 

Or take something like romantic love or family life. If you want to have your own family, then you start by figuring out what you want in a mate and pursue persons who fit your criteria. Then, you date for awhile. Then, you get engaged. Then, you get married. And when you're settled down into life as just the two of you, you start trying to add children as you desire. There's a natural flow to the way things develop, and it's all linear and predictable. 

This kind of thinking can lead us to believe that we are entitled to whatever comes next in our plan. If we have built a way to get to what we want and if we follow the steps faithfully, then every time we are ready to take the next step forward, the world ought to be waiting to greet us with open arms. Oughtn't it? This is how the world says it is done, so shouldn't the world be on board with doing it this way? 

Because of our understanding of this, it becomes very difficult when things don't go our way. When we don't get to take that next step when we think we're ready for it. When point C doesn't get us to point D when and where we wanted it to be. When we realize that sometimes, point C takes us back to point B for a season. 

I used to think I was entitled to step into the next thing. I used to think that because I'd been doing things the right way and following the right plans and because I had come so far down the road that I have traveled, it was only natural that it was time for me to take the next step. And I have expected the world to oblige. But of course, it doesn't. 

And after many wrong turns and detours and backtracks and traffic cones, I find that...I'm actually glad that it doesn't. I'm glad that the world doesn't let me just travel the path that I've set out for myself, or even the path that I believe God has set before me. Because the real journey I'm taking is so much richer, so much more fulfilling, and has so much more potential than my limited vision ever could have seen coming. 

It's frustrating sometimes to not be where I want to be or where I think I ought to be by now (and who ever gave me that idea?), but the truth is that I'm at a point in my life where I'm satisfied by the journey. With one caveat: 

As long as I'm growing. 

Rather than being super-interested in destinations or outcomes or landmarks or whatever, I have just one thing on my heart - growing Godward. I want to be learning something every day. I want to be doing something better every day. I want to be more humble, more focused, more content, more kind, more whatever. Just, Lord, keep me growing. Keep me becoming the person You have created me to be. 

The truth is that in all the seasons of my life that haven't worked out the way I thought they should, with every single thing I felt entitled to that never came about, I have found myself embraced in deep seasons of growth that have made me into more of the person I want to be, a person created in the image of God. 

The irony, of course, is that if you let it, then every single season of growth can make you just feel more entitled to the thing you've been waiting on, but you can't do that. You can't let growth be the means to the end; growth is the end game. Growth is what we're going after. At least, it's what I'm going after. 

And so, if God doesn't see fit to clear the path for me and to make it an easy step into the next thing, then so be it. I still pray for those things, but not as much. Now, I just pray that He keeps growing me toward them. That He keeps making me ready for when those doors do open. That He prepares my heart to be deeply satisfied in Him so that I don't find my satisfaction anywhere else. 

That He just keeps me growing Godward, no matter which road I'm on or where the next detour takes me. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Civil Proceedings

As we wrap up our look at the goodness of God as expressed in the minor prophets (and this has been only a glimpse - the minor prophets are full of this stuff), we'll look at one more passage. This one is in Micah 6.

God is frustrated with His wayward people (are you noticing a theme yet?), and He determines to bring His judgment upon them. Here we are again, presented with the greatness of God - the all-powerful, all-mighty, sovereign nature of God that can just bring judgment on His people because of His righteous anger. As we said earlier this week, that's every bit His right in His greatness. 

And it's kind of what we're all afraid of, isn't it? We're afraid that God's just going to decide to rain down judgment on us. We're terrified that we will upset Him somehow, and He'll just come in judgment without giving us a chance to even understand what we did. So many of us live our lives afraid of making a single mistake because we have this idea of a difficult God with such high standards and a short fuse. A lot of us fear that one day, we will blink and find ourselves in Hell without any idea what we did to end up there. Some of us, if we don't have this thought now, have had this thought before. 

But Micah offers us a word that ought to bring us comfort, if we read it for what it's worth and not in the eyes of our own fear or preconceived notions. Micah says, "The Lord has filed a lawsuit against his people. He is arguing his case against Israel."

It is easy to read this with an eye for God's greatness and think, well, we're doomed. The Lord is dragging us into the courtroom where He'll lay out all our sins in front of us and give us the death penalty. If we're not careful, this verse can reinforce the misconceptions that we have about God's judgment. 

Now, read it with an eye for His goodness. 

Because the thing about a lawsuit is that you have to bring evidence. When you present your case, you have to lay it all out on the table. You have to show not just what's happened, but why it's a problem. You have to build a case to prove your point. There is no courtroom in any just place in all the world (and justice is important because our God is just) where "because I said so" constitutes any reasonable proof. No matter who you are. 

If there's anyone in all the universe who ought to be able to say "because I said so," it's God, but the fact that He brings His case into a courtroom, that He compares it to a lawsuit and to a case He wants to present, means that He doesn't want to rely on His authority. He wants you to see the evidence for yourself. 

He wants to lay it all out on the table and not just show that it's broken, but show why it's a problem. He wants to help you get a vision for the things that He sees and why they bug Him so much. And it's not about proving you sinful and despicable and horrible; it's about being honest about where things are missing, where there's room to grow. One of the cool things about the goodness of our God is that He doesn't keep things from us; we don't have to guess what He's thinking. He's willing to bring the evidence and show us. He's willing to put it on the table in front of us. All we have to do is show up and be willing to face it. 

One of the other cool things about the goodness of our God is that He's not looking for a condemnation. If He were, it would be a criminal court and not a lawsuit. Lawsuits are civil. They are about showing a burden of error, of injustice, of neglect, or whatever. You aren't condemned in a civil court; you are only found liable. You are shown exactly how your broken things got you here, and you are given the structure around you to make it better. 

Which means that God's case against you is an encouragement for you to keep growing. 

Now, that's good

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

People with a Price

We're talking this week about God's goodness as written in the so-called minor prophets, and today, we turn our attention to Hosea. 

Hosea is an interesting story because he is the prophet who God called to marry a prostitute as a witness to the Lord's relationship with His wayward people. When we read the Old Testament, this makes perfect sense. We watch Israel wander again and again, always seeming to turn away from God, never able to just do what He tells them is best for them and what He wants them to do. Those silly Israelites. Don't they get it? We can see why God called them prostitutes. 

It's a bit harder when we start to think about ourselves. (This isn't even the point of today's post - so keep reading.) On one hand, we're generally ready to admit that we're not perfect and we're probably not doing everything that God wants us to do, but on the other hand, most of us would consider ourselves pretty faithful Christians. We go to church on Sunday. We read our Bible. We tithe. We worship. We serve. We do the things we're supposed to be doing, and we do them with some measure of regularity. If you ask us if we're faithful Christians, the answer is...yeah. We're a pretty faithful people. 

This is, by the way, the same frame of self-reference that leads a majority of us to think we are more 'good' than the average human being. Mathematically, half of us are not, but that doesn't stop us from thinking that we are. 

So anyway, Hosea marries a prostitute because God's people are pretty easy when it comes to the world, and something interesting happens in Hosea 3. If you're reading too fast, you'll miss it, so slow down. God tells Hosea to go and sleep with his wife and have children. And Hosea does. 

But he has to pay her wages to do it

Hosea has to pay the prostitute's price to his wife in order to sleep with her and have children. Even though he's her husband. Even though he's shown his faithfulness. Even though they made a commitment to one another. Even though they are in a covenantal relationship. Hosea pays his wife for the privilege of sleeping with her. 

And here we are, a people who are constantly demanding a sign from God. Constantly asking Him to prove Himself. Constantly begging Him to reveal Himself. Always holding back a little bit of our faithfulness until He proves - again - that He's worthy of it. 

That's where the goodness of God comes in...because He does it. He keeps doing it. He keeps paying the price for our relationship. He keeps showing us how good He is. He keeps showing us how committed He is. We're in a covenantal relationship with Him, and He's proven Himself, but He keeps paying our price for the chance to love us. 

He sent His Son to the Cross for us. Not because we're faithful, but because He is. 

And He's coming back again. Not because we're faithful, but because He is. 

That's His goodness. He shows us that through a prophet that marries a prostitute.