Eye-Blinking Change

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It’s been thirty years since Stephen Covey wrote his paradigm-shifting self-help book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.’ Its popularity exposes the broad consciousness we humans have for personal development. We are built for change. The right kind of change takes us from irrational to thoughtful thinkers, from immature to wise decision-makers, from dependent relationships to independence and finally interdependence within a community. Covey’s concepts have sweeping relevance to living effective lives.

If the full extent and potential of our lives was the eighty-some year span allotted each of us on this earth, those seven habits would be enough. But if the main theme and thread running through the Bible is true, our earthly potential is only the beginning of who we may ultimately become. It’s an alchemy accomplished by the most controversial historical figure ever to have walked this earth. Through His perfectly-lived life, debt-paying death, and death-defying resurrection, Jesus offers something immense to you and me. He gives us the opportunity to be changed into being (somehow) like Him.

C.S. Lewis puts it like this: “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else…God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man…It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

How does this beyond-remarkable transformation occur? It happens like all other lesser changes in our lives—four simple elements that move us from pedestrian creatures to winged Pegasuses: It’s as easy and difficult as to rightly see, think, feel, and do.

Seeing: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2). It’s not our physical eyes we are using here—it’s a deeper vision we need to exercise. Making a priority of informing ourselves of the truth of God’s existence and of His relevance to our lives must be a moment-by-moment event. It means reading His Word with a view to seeing Christ through every genre expressed in the Bible so that we begin to see Him for who He is. And one day, “when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2).

Thinking: “(W)hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Jesus epitomizes the best of these values. Aligning the myriad of choices we make each day with Jesus’ commands and exhortations builds a mind that is becoming incrementally more Christlike.

Feeling: “I will give them an undivided heart,” promises God, “and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). Our emotions are designed to follow on the heels of our thinking, giving us impetus to act cohesively with our understanding of things. We see, then we think about what we’ve seen, and then we feel motivated to act. Hearts of stone are disabled emotions, incapable of moving us to the kind of actions God designed us to participate in. One of the ways God changes us is to put into our hearts a joy of praising Him. This leads us to actions we would neither have thought of nor dared to do before.

Doing: “He has showed you, O man (and woman), what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Justice, mercy, and a humble walk—these are high standards. We fail daily. So we go back to seeing, and from there to thinking, and so on. It’s how change happens, little by little.

But we all know things are never as easy to do as they appear on paper. We’ve all done more than our share of failed seeing, thinking feeling and doing. That’s why we’re given the key to this amazing process in the Apostle Paul’s first century letter to a group of early Christ-followers.

“Therefore, my dear friends…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12,13).

Who works out this amazing transformation? You do, yes. But God does too. It’s a coalition, a collaboration on a supernatural project, a union of wills. It’s like glue that must have equal parts of catalyst and resin to create a form-setting epoxy—not one or the other, but both. So let’s resolve to be part of this project with God. Let’s see if we don’t eventually—in time for eternity—become eye-blinkingly changed.

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Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Conclusion

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Always Perseveres.

Most things on planet earth eventually change. We might even say that change is one of the certainties of the physical world: With time, inanimate objects like craggy mountains erode and cliffs crumble, rivers become cavernous gorges, oceans warm and icebergs melt. For Canadians, even the penny and the paper dollar have gone the way of the dodo bird. Which brings us to the animate world: viruses mutate, species alter their life cycle patterns or become extinct, pop cultures morph, and social norms evolve. Try as we might, we cannot avoid change.

So when we hear the closing line of I Corinthians 13 in its description of love we are brought to an abrupt and surprising halt. “Love,” says the inspired author, “always perseveres.” Never changes? Never dims, dwindles or declines? Is unfailingly, incessantly, and unceasingly constant? Who of us could ever achieve this magnitude of love?

You can.

You and I can with the stipulation of one little caveat: To learn to love with infinite perseverance and constancy we must enlist ourselves in Christ’s School of Love. We won’t find this academy listed in any register of ivy-league schools. We cannot complete it in four years like an undergraduate degree—it extends into eternity. We cannot access it by through a Masters of Divinity programme (could we ever master divinity?). We won’t even be able to find it referenced in the Bible under this name. But if we look closely that’s where we’ll find hints of it.

The curriculum works something like some contemporary education structures which utilize an upward spiral approach to learning: topics are covered in increasing gradations, revisited and reexamined over and over again in more depth, building a broader, higher, more thorough learning than the once-over approach could ever accomplish. It will take a determined student a lifetime and more to master its lessons.

Lesson 1: We are all plagued by our natural bent to fickleness and inconstancy. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, “ bemoans the prophet Isaiah, “each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). The discerning student of love sooner or later comes to recognize that a primeval selfishness within us obstructs our best intentions to love long and well.

Lesson 2: God loves with infinite perseverance. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us,” breathes the Apostle John in wonder (I John 3:1). Jesus confirms the sentiment saying of those who accept His love, “…no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

Lesson 3: When God’s Spirit indwells a person, persevering love begins to develop. “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope,” invokes the Apostle Paul, “encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word…May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (II Thessalonians 2:16,17; 3:5).

Lesson 4: The path to persevering love is generally through suffering. “…(W)e know that suffering,” explains Paul, “produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5). John adds, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (I John 3:16-28).

Lesson 5: The end result of persevering love is Life. “Blessed is the man who perseveres…” instructs the Apostle James, “because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Are we students of love? Do we put ourselves under Jesus as His fledgling novices and apprentices? If so, Jesus is delighted to teach us everything He is as an infinitely persevering love-giver. Without doubt, we will fail repeatedly (read ‘daily’, even ‘hourly’) to love as Jesus envisions us loving, and we must return repeatedly to lesson one. But then we will also revisit the heartwarming lesson two, God’s great love for us. This gives us courage to step back into lessons three and four with our eyes set on the glories of lesson five. That is how the process works. It’s about grace and mercy, humility and determination. It’s about the love of God.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 10

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‘Heth’

People and their perspectives change. Our favourite story characters are those whose names begin as synonyms of fear, or sorrow, or selfishness, but are transformed to become heartwarmingly brave, or joyful, or generous. Much Afraid, the main character in the somewhat obscure allegorical novel ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’ embodies this type of character. She must travel with her unchosen companions Sorrow and Suffering, rejecting the insinuations of her daunting enemy Craven Fear, as she follows the call of the Shepherd. Eventually she receives her new name, Grace and Glory as do her companions, now renamed Joy and Peace. These are no euphemisms. Each transformation of character represents a complete shift in perspective. Each person becomes as unlike his or her earlier self as an awakening is from a dream.

In Heth, the eighth stanza of Psalm 119, something similar, perhaps even grander is happening. Centred in the middle of the stanza, the phrase “Though the wicked bind me with ropes…” gives us a picture of our natural lives. Conflict, tension, fear, perhaps even hatred and revenge are our natural reactions when we have any sense of bondage in life. This is why as children we each learned to use the word “No!” so powerfully. But the psalmist sees something astounding happening in his life when he invites God into it: everything becomes grace and glory.

“You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words. / I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. / I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. / I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. / Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. / At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. / I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. / The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:57-64).

Questions help us get to the heart of any exploration of God’s Word—help us focus on discovering what is going on. Three questions arise after reading this section of the psalm, questions about the psalmist, about God, and about us: What is happening here to the psalmist, in what way is God central to what is happening, and why is it relevant to us?

Firstly, we see the psalmist is speaking directly to God. It’s a prayer of sorts, a prayer in which the psalmist is reiterating a covenant in which he and God are involved. He reminds God of His promise (“to be gracious to me”), and he pairs it with his own promise back to God (“to obey your words…(to) consider my ways and (to) tur(n) my steps….(to) not forget your law”). We notice that the psalmist is not being mercenary here; he’s not saying, ‘Look here, God, I’ll obey your rules but in return you have to give me something.’ No, it’s very different than that. The psalmist is observing that God is the initiator of a relationship described by love: “The earth is filled with your love, O LORD;” the psalmist is doing nothing more nor less than responding to that love. It’s not the psalmist saying, ‘I’ve worked for you all these years, now I want my pay, my inheritance.’ Rather, he is affirming—as loving relationships do—‘It’s you that I love; not what you can do for me, just you.’ We hear that in the very first verse (“You are my portion, O LORD”).

Secondly, we see Jesus mirrored—or better yet hologrammed—into the psalm as the Great Psalmist Himself. Who more than Jesus considers the Father His portion, who commits Himself to obeying the Father’s will with such complete success? Who alone can truly say, “I have sought (the Father’s) face with all my heart”? And who is the greatest “friend to all who fear (God)”? Which leads us to our third consideration.

How is this all relevant to us? The psalmist has tried his best, but really, he couldn’t obey God as fully as he wanted to. The old sin nature was too ingrained in him to be as perfect a promise-keeper as he would have hoped. But Jesus is the perfect promise-keeper; He is the truly wholehearted One; He is the friend of sinners; His perfect sacrifice made the way to deal with our sin nature in a way that frees us to truly turn our hearts and steps toward following God’s heart and will and covenant with us. As Timothy Keller says, in Jesus we go from “fighting a war we cannot win to fighting a war we cannot lose.”

Only through Jesus can we find the transformation of our lives that renames us from Much Afraid (or Much Unreliable, or Much Hurt, or whatever other identity with which we have struggled) to Grace and Glory. God’s grace and glory works itself into and out through our lives in a way the psalmist could only imagine. Thank God we are on this side of Christ’s great redeeming work.

(Illustration Credit: Painting by Daniel Gerhartz)

CROSSROADS, Part 6

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ENDING TO BEGINNING

While it may sound strange, if we want a new beginning, we must first have an ending. “Because transition is a process by which people unplug from an old world and plug into a new world,” says author William Bridges in Managing Transitions, “we can say that transition starts with an ending and finishes with a beginning.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? If a wall of our house has become permeated with mildew, we must tear out the gyprock and replace it with new wall sheet before a fresh coat of paint will have any real lasting significance.

Our lives are no different. Being content with the status quo makes us want to hold onto our old lifestyle, even if it is harmful to us. But if we become aware that there is a gap between our present reality and a future we desire more, we will become willing to leave the past behind. We finally want to make an end of the old life.

“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” asks the apostle Paul. He’s trying to help us see the gap, to have a sense of urgency in leaving an old way of life that is killing us by degrees.

He’s presenting an early version of Bridges’ change management theory. He uses a different term for that first stage Bridges calls endings. Paul uses the word death, which paints a much bolder picture than the term ending, but it’s apt. The transition Paul describes is not insignificant.

“We died to sin;” he explains. He’s talking about the choice we each make to either stay as we are, living under our own set of rules that tell us we’re good enough as we are as long as we do such-and-such, or to accept the ending of that self-satisfied way of living. Paul specifically uses the terms died and death as literary devices to communicate a complete severing from an old way of life.

Paul’s advice to “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11) may be the single most concise guideline for the change that is happening in the mind of a person while God is working in the spirit of that same person. It is the deliberate choice to turn away from a lifestyle established apart from God. Regardless of the ‘freedom’ that lifestyle touts, Paul’s synopsis is that it is nothing less than “slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness.”

‘Slavery, indeed!’ we gasp. How can a self-determined lifestyle be slavery?

We are all slaves to something, he says. We all submit ourselves to one ideology or another whether we put a label on it or not. The point is not that we are, in effect, slaves, but rather determining to what we are bound. Are we slaves to something that will eventually destroy us, or to God who promises infinite benefit to us?

Bridges’ Transition Theory adds one piece of clarifying information. Between the ending and the new beginning there is a neutral zone, a place where we gradually, by increments, fully release the old way, explore what the new way will entail, and learn how to embody the new way of thinking and acting. This, I believe, is the zone of Christian living. It’s where we are in the process of learning to live out our God-centred beliefs. It’s where we make mistakes and need to remind ourselves we made an end of the old way, and focus again on the new way. Critics are quick to shout ‘hypocrite!’ but rather than hiding our weakness, we can simply agree. We fail – we address our inconsistencies – we get up off the ground and turn our eyes again to Jesus – and we move on. That is part of this crossroads that following Jesus entails. It’s humbling, yes. But it is the only way to real, lasting, transformational change.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Derek Harper)