Sunday, February 24, 2013

Real Community

So, part of our "job" in our apartment complex is to help facilitate community. We host events, introduce people to each other, and support a "neighborhood" vibe in our highrise. The premise behind our job description is that people need community, and often want community, but don't have regular access to it. The longer I've been out of school, the more I've realized this is a reality in our culture. Without a "ready-made" network of classmates who live in close proximity to each other and whose schedules force them to interact, how is someone supposed to make friends? Walk into a bar all alone and say, "Hi!" to the first stranger they meet? 

What I've noticed since we moved in, though, is that community is hard. We want it, but we aren't used to it. When the majority of life is spent alone in an office or in front of a computer screen, real human contact feels awkward. Uncomfortable. And even when we make it past the initial "small-talk" stage with a neighbor or new friend, the inevitable challenges of a growing relationship lurk in the future. Being known more deeply means running the risk of skeletons being exposed-- and worse, being asked to change. 

This may sound dramatic, but I think the reality is that community is dramatic. It's risky, it's unpredictable, and it involves a vulnerability that our culture has taught us to avoid like the plague. And so, though we inwardly long to be known deeply, the fear of its accompanying challenges keep us comfortably behind our office desks, computer screens, and apartment doors. Oh sure, we may go to a party or two, and maybe even get together with friends on the weekend. But we'll keep it light, keep it safe, keep it on the surface.

Lately, I've been hearing a lot at school and church about how community is, in many ways, the essence of the Christian life. Because of sin, we were estranged from relationship-- community!-- with God (Col. 1:21). In Christ, He restored the breach so that relationship with Him can be renewed. Being a Christian means responding to God's saving acts in faith, and becoming His child (John 1:12), His friend (John 15:15), and His bride! (2 Cor. 11:2) In other words, what makes someone a Christian is not being able to recite facts about Jesus, but being brought into relationship with Him. As a Christian, I'm saved from sin, so that I can be saved to community: community with Him and therefore, community with others.

What's I'm learning is, this is the very thing that we most deeply long for and yet most desperately avoid. Our sin is what keeps us in hiding. God's grace is what covers our sin. The gospel-- God's saving acts on our behalf-- is what frees us to experience real community because in the gospel, God says, "I know the deepest parts of you, the parts you try to keep hidden from others. I see all your dark secrets and embarrassing insecurities. And I choose you anyway. I love you and invite you into relationship with Me." 

What the gospel teaches me is that there's a real reason my neighbors and I avoid being deeply known in community: sin. But what the gospel teaches me is that in Christ, we are not left alone to hide from real intimacy through our own self-protective methods. Rather, we can approach Him boldly and receive the transformation we so desperately need without fear of rejection or isolation, knowing that He accepts and embraces us before we have it all together. That kind of radical community is what gives us the courage ultimately to enter community with others. 

What are your hopes when it comes to being known by God and others?  What are your fears? How does the gospel change your story specifically? 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reflected Light

I am blessed to drive home toward the unique Dallas skyline each evening. I never thought I'd want to live in a "big city," but now that I do, I really appreciate being a part of it. Tonight, I was struck by the sun hitting the skyscrapers as it set, and seeing color everywhere. The reflected rays of orange, red, and purple cast brilliance back into the sky and into my eyes. As I enjoyed both the natural beauty of the sun and the reflected beauty of the city, I was reminded of what it means to be made in God's image. 

Just as the man-made buildings reflected the sun's rays, so we reflect God's glory. He is the Creator, the Source of all that is good, true, and beautiful. We are made in His image, which means (in part) that we "create" good, true, and beautiful things. The instincts that are within each of us to love a good story, enjoy a gorgeous symphony, feel deeply the meaning of a great work of art-- or to investigate a cure for cancer, build an efficient city, or seek the welfare of its inhabitants-- these are signposts to God, who fashioned us after His own likeness.

This encourages me because it means that I am invited to enjoy all of humanity's "glory"-- the art, creativity, scientific discovery, and culture-making are to be celebrated! These things that come out of us reflect God's character because we are made in His image. It encourages me to allow myself to feel the depths of my emotion without shame or embarrassment when I'm stirred by the good, true, and beautiful things around me. But it also reminds me that we are ultimately not the source of our glory, rather, that we steward a reflection. Just as the buildings of my city do not emanate their own light, but reflect the stunning rays of the sun, so we in our humanity are not the source of the good, true, and beautiful that we feel so deeply inside us-- rather, those aspects of who we are point us to the One who made us, the One who is Good, True, and Beautiful.

Are you awed by humanity and all our "good?" Good! But don't let it stop there. Let it be a signpost to you of the God whose good we reflect. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My Ashes This Wednesday

I did not grow up in a tradition that observed Lent. When I moved to NJ (where "liturgical" churches are more common), I was a little bit surprised by how many people I'd see walking around with black crosses on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday-- which I also knew nothing about! Now that I'm worshiping in an Anglican church, I'm slowly learning about the meaning behind some of the practices the Christian Church has observed throughout the centuries. 

My pastor spoke briefly today about Ash Wednesday in particular. He said, "We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality. None of us can escape death; that's why we say, "from dust you are and to dust you shall return." But we put the ashes in the sign of the Cross to remind us that Christ triumphed over death-- He rose again! Through trusting in Him and surrendering to Him, we have hope." 

He reminded us that the natural thing is to want to deny our "ashes"-- our mortality, our brokenness, our guilt before Him and others. We want to hide, to cover ourselves, to avoid His holy gaze. But the good news is that because of His great love for us, we can face our ashes without fear. It's not the good things we do to make it up to Him that allow us to enter His presence, but the good thing God did. He made a way in Christ for us to receive mercy when we ask, by becoming one of us-- taking on our mortal flesh!-- in order to redeem it, to restore it.

How exactly did God restore our "mortal flesh," our humanity? Not by escaping death, but by facing it willingly. The Bible says, "the death he died he died to sin, once and for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God." In other words, to follow Jesus is to follow Him to His death-- a death to sin!-- and to enjoy with Him the new life He now lives.

As I approach Lent, I think of the specific manifestation of my own "ashes"-- the broken patterns of fear, anxiety, and control operating in my life. I thank God that I don't have to be afraid to come into His holy presence, broken as I am. And as I anticipate Easter, I remember the incredible hope that I can follow Christ through the death of those patterns, and into the new life He has waiting for me on the other side of my fear. 

What do your "ashes" look like? What are your impressions of Lent in general? Does it seem like a dead ritual to you? Would you like it to be more than that?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Breaking Down Babel

In December, God healed me of back pain by convicting me of sin. I asked for prayer for healing from physical pain, and God answered by showing how my  patterns of control and anxiety were causing me physical pain. My "white knuckled" approach to life had actually caused the muscles in my back to tense up as well. Looking back, it makes perfect medical sense; the whole point of sin, however, is that we're blinded to it and its effect in our lives. 

Over Christmas and the month of January, which was less complex and hectic, I felt "successful" in living a new way-- more relaxed, more OK with not being in control. But as of Monday, the spring semester has officially started, and my old patterns have proved themselves to be alive and well in my heart. In many ways, this semester will be a season of transition-- it will take time to unlearn the "white knuckled" way of life. 

This past week, a friend who recently gave up his job to plant a church came for dinner and described his current season in a similar way. He said his tendency is to construct a world in which dependence on God is not necessary. "I can manage, I've got it under control, I've mapped everything out and I can take care of it." He said that lately, he's been realizing that God will crush every brick in that self-constructed Babel. We were created to be dependent creatures-- we are dependent-- and God is good to shatter the illusion that we aren't. He is good to show that the false gods we actually do depend on (whether we realize it or not) are just that; false!-- and that a truly safe life is a life of trusting in Him alone. 

Tonight, I found myself knee deep in this pattern of trying to "manage" apart from God. Day two of the spring semester, I was already throwing up my hands in defeat. "I know this way is not good or right, and yet I'm still walking in it." I asked God to show me what I couldn't see-- how I had gotten here again, what lie I had believed and followed down this path of anxiety. As I prayed, I realized that what I desperately wanted tonight-- and was trying to protect at all costs-- was an opportunity to "relax." I was stressed, had a lot of work ahead, and was not in the mood to do it all. I decided "relaxation", which I had defined tonight as a clean house (accomplished magically without housework) and a movie. 

As I prayed, I realized I was depending on that as my hope instead of the Lord. I realized I had chosen to manage my own life-- to construct a world in which dependence on God wasn't necessary-- by depending on relaxation to get me through a difficult week instead of depending on God, my loving Father, to get me through a difficult week. Is relaxation bad? Does God not want me to enjoy movies and bubble baths? No. But are they false gods, unable to really sustain me through difficulty? Yes. My God is loving to point that out to me. He is good to expose the lie and bring healing. 

Tonight, I'm practicing dependence on the Lord-- instead of on relaxation-- to get me through a difficult night. I'm finding that it's actually quite relaxing.