Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Of Encouragement

Just so you know up front - I think I have a weakness on this one, but maybe eventually... :)

Growing up (and by that I mean the first quarter century of my life) I thought of the following phrases as about the limit of encouragement:
"Good game"
"Nice job"
"You look really nice"
"You're gonna do great"
and *maybe* "You could improve here"

But it's been a recent realization for me that while that stuff can be encouragement, it falls so far short of what encouragement really is, and what it really does. Those items, while they might give just enough of a confidence boost to help someone out, more often are far nearer to well meaning flattery than they are true encouragement. Don't get me wrong - words of encouragement (even such as those) can mean a lot, and are definitely encouragement in and of themselves, but I think that there is a much, much bigger picture and reality to encouragement than we find just in those.

Maybe I define it differently than most, but I look at encouragement as giving someone the ability (through words, actions, or lifestyle) to accomplish something they couldn't have without you. This definition does a couple cool things for me:

1) It keeps me from viewing what I do and say through such a myopic lens, especially in terms of encouragement being a positive cliche here and there

Meaning? I have to be aware that true encouragement (given my definition) comes through an intense process of recognizing and meeting needs in terms of the Christian walks of those around me.

When someone is feeling guilt and shame, they need a reminder of who they are, who their Lord is, and what that means. That this unbelievable grace and mercy we've been given has covered them. You have to ask questions and truly attempt to perceive to discover those feelings in someone usually - but that is the depth of true encouragement - without knowledge and wisdom, how can we know where and how to push?

When a brother is floundering in sin - I have to recognize it and address it in a way that can help. This doesn't mean nagging (why don't you do X), or stating the obvious (you just gotta follow Christ better, man). It doesn't mean we talk about it because it benefits me for him to be better (i.e. he has some anger issues that are affecting me negatively, so we need to talk them through because I've been wronged).
It means that I have to see the sin, and approach him about it in a loving and humble way that spurs him to be more and centers him on Christ. Because the reality is this - even if his sin has negative effects on me, it doesn't rob me of joy. But it is killing him, his relationship with Christ, and his relationship with others. Knowing that, it's way easier to care and love instead of feel offended and attack. Knowing that leads to an encouraging reproach... instead of just nagging (which does nothing but promote insecurity and anger, even if it gets 'results').

When someone does something right that I appreciate, I should absolutely let them know. Dating is the easiest place for me to illustrate this (probably marriage would be better, but someone else would have to chime in there). I've spent 25 years of my life viewing boy/girl relations as a competition - because frankly, that's what it's been. Girl wants control, I want freedom (see: Genesis). Girl wants me to do better for her so she points out my weaknesses, I point out my strengths or her weaknesses to balance. Girl has a plan that I know based on her actions won't work, I do it perfectly to prove that I'm right and show her my way was better and she can shove it. Why is all this cycling down the toilet this way? Because both of us are far more worried about ourselves than each other or Christ. How is this related to encouragement? I have no idea (kidding). The reality of encouragement is this - there is only one better way for us to pursue in the universe - God's. So encouragement is the active art of pushing someone towards God (something better), and you know what I've discovered lately? If someone surrenders that need for an illusion of control and tells me "Hey, I really appreciate the way you do this for me" - I instantaneously do better. Because I WANT to. When you know what you do is appreciated, it is natural to try to do it even better. In the prior circumstances listed here - I was told what I was doing wrong so that I would solve it because someone else felt (and probably was) wronged. But it never mattered how good I might be outside of that, which meant what? That I'd insecurely justify my wrongness with theirs and at best would perform out of either obligation or a smug "we'll see about that" attitude. In that second approach... I did better because I wanted to. Because that encouragement and trust made me love that person all the more. Encouragement from the mouth of a woman has a very powerful effect on the heart of a man, ladies - learn that and stick to your standards and you will both find, and help create, that man you've been searching for. If you don't understand that - I suspect you're going to find a lot more conflict, insecurity, and anger in life than you suspect. Emotionally bludgeoning for results does not change the realities behind the shortcomings, it just builds a wall in your relationship - even if you get what you think you want. Neither of you will ever be fulfilled or fruitful because in the end, it's all about you and your need to be treated perfectly.

2) It reminds me that encouragement doesn't happen just through my singular moments (a phrase), it happens through my lifestyle

My actions (not just words, thoughts, and strategies) encourage people. You see me loving, you want to love and it shows you a way to do it. You are a recipient of my love, it gives you a way to improve (think giving someone very poor and unemployed a job so that they can feed their kids... or other items like that) so that you can spin that lifestyle right around and encourage others through it. Not to mention both these establish trust in the relationship with any people involved (because you know that the individual who is loving will try to put you before themselves). When you receive a gift, do you treat it better than something you buy? Heck, I know I do. So it would serve to reason that any gift (money, time, words) has the ability to encourage some one onwards and upwards.

Will encouragement always lead to someone finding a strength, peace, or joy that they lacked before? Probably not, but that has nothing to do with whether or not we should do it. Is encouragement still way bigger than a good old fashioned butt pat and a "You'll get 'em next time" - yeah... yeah it is. It is a foundation of trust in our relationships. The evidence that we love another more than ourselves. And hopefully, one day, it will be so ingrained in us that people will use it as proof of what defines us - Love.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Of the Mythology of Progress

It's quite simply what makes us, well, us. It's this inherent human ability to fall and fail, over and over... and over. That and this strange fascination we have with believing we've recovered. Nothing trumps a good come back story, or a true (or for that matter, created) underdog. But is our facade legitimate or is there a deeper reality at play? We love to diagnose our recovery through the absence or lessening of our symptoms, but is that really indicative of progress? Or is it the evidence of a results-driven methodology in a society of people tired to death of failing? Could it be that the historical progress of mankind is a myth? Could it be that my own progress is more fairy tale than fact as well?

Surely in the past few millennia, man has progressed, right? We've pasteurized milk, invented the car, put a man on the moon, and only heaven knows how much further the microchip can take us. We've experienced the renaissance, the reformation, and the industrial revolution. But have we really advanced? We have all these resources, all this wealth, all this technology, all this need-meeting ability... and there are still starving countries, orphaned kids, and persecuted brothers all across the world. All this knowledge, wisdom, and revelation, and we are still completely willing to burn friendships and strangers to selfishly pursue whatever we want at that moment. We dehumanize enemies - both the big-picture war ones, and the ones we encounter every day - the lady at work we think is rude, the person we're trying to date that we just don't get, the friend who didn't meet our expectations. It's the story of man kind, like it always has been - get what you want, if someone is in your way or doesn't treat you perfectly - dehumanize them so you don't mind the fact that you don't care about them and move on. The progress of man...? It's just not reality.

What about my own though? I've developed. I no longer do what I did when I was a child. Or when I was 16, 18, 20, or for that matter - 24. I've progressed - when I was a child, I acted like a child. But have I progressed nearly as much as I, or others might think? That's the real question. Because in real terms, when I look at my progress, I usually look at in terms of "Well, I used to date like this - and now I date like this" and "I used to lie about this, and now I don't" and "I used to have a real pride issue here and now I don't"

But here's the fun part - none of that is truly indicative of progress at all. Just because I've modified behaviors over the years does not mean I've truly grown - it just means I've learned to alter my behavior to get the results I want. I didn't like how dating relationships looked when I did A, B, and C - so I started doing X, Y, and Z. Plug in career moves, friendships, apartment hunting, or working out in that equation and it works just the same. Meaning? All I've really progressed in (if that is my measurement) is my ability to figure out and obtain what I want - which isn't an awful thing, just not what I really want to measure.

Now do I think I've progressed? I do, but it is not nearly as much a measurable item as we'd like to think. It's a realization of where my heart is. And the ability to see in my life the places where things I want (relationship, career, whatever) take second seat more and more to the thing I truly desire (that Christ be my center and my focus). Funny how you grow up and you finally realize that what you want isn't necessarily your desire or your goal or even worth working towards. And that's the true progress - the times I can look at my life and see that the things I "want" aren't the things I need, and that because I can recognize what is truly best for me and those around me, I can put my own selfishness aside and pursue what really counts - loving God and loving others. If we measure progress any other way, we're just giving ourselves a false sense of accomplishment, and maybe (just a little) justifying the weaknesses we want to gloss over.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...or is it?

I've been having the strangest of paradigm shifts lately. I assume that it's for the better, and I assume that trying to explain it is going to make me look cold, stoic, or removed - let me assure you, I'm none of the above, and I think this realization is really rooted in... well, joy - you'll see. It's loosely based on(but admittedly not derived through) a couple scriptures:
Romans 8:28
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Isaiah 55:8
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.

So maybe that gives you a hint of what's coming, maybe it doesn't. But I was driving my car home from work about 2 weeks ago and had the oddest of realizations - I've come to a spot in my life where I am way less likely than ever before to look at a situation or something that happened as being good or bad. Now, I know that the above scripture says "all things work together for good" - but that's not quite what I'm saying here, just the root of the thought. And while I'm aware that even the most evil, cruel things man can dream up outside of God's plan can, and will, be used for good - that's not quite where I'm going today :)

So often we look at things that arise in life and we instantly qualify them as good or bad:
Just got a raise - good!
Just got let go - Bad!
Just broke up with someone - bad!
Just got a new job - Good!
Car broke down - Bad!
Obama is president - Bad! (Or Good! depending on which side of a pretty ugly fence you like to vote for)

And I think you and I can both think of a myriad of other examples, but lets just hold off on that, ok? Ok.
But the reality is, we have no idea whether those things are "good or bad." They just are. The only way we can believe to *know* whether those things are good or bad is if the final goal of all we care about is ourselves. I've written before about how we live in a results driven culture (Here.) but I'm just starting to see that often we qualify our own results - and it's because we have a selfish, short term outlook and a tendency to rush to judgment based on the view that we are the axle our world revolves around. Simply? We aren't. We don't know enough to know whether something that happens to us is truly good, or truly bad. I don't really believe I want those to exist in any kind of real way in my life any more. I don't want to see good days, or bad days - only days of grace. Because that's the reality - I can recognize evil, I can hurt for the oppressed, I can work, pray, give, and struggle to fight evil. But when it comes to good and bad? I have no frame of reference. I have no absolute. And if it is up to me decide whether what happens was good, or bad... well, I'm afraid I've completely missed the point.

So here's to hoping God moves in me in far greater ways than he already has. Here's hoping that I will recognize that everything that happens to me, good, bad, or evil, will be used by God. Here's hoping that even when I think something is bad, I recognize it may well not be - just God moving in grace in my life. Here's hoping that I no longer see things as good or bad, only as God's grace. Because in the end - that's what it all is anyway, regardless of what I think.

Shorter than usual. I imagine anyone who reads it is thankful ;)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What's Love Got to Do With It?


It's not just a word. Or a noun. Or as DC Talk would have me believe, a verb. Or as pop-culture wants me think, and overwhelming emotion.
It's an over-riding command for every action and relationship in the Christian life. Does my life reflect that all the time? Man, I wish, but yeah right. As mentioned above, in the Bible, love is never an option, or a feeling - it's a command. This in and of itself raises an issue that I don't see in our society. If love is a command, that means I have the ability to choose whether I really love or not. As much as we all like the concept of "falling in love" - it just doesn't hold water and it can't be the prime mover in our relationships. Truly loving someone is an absolute, all-out, war against yourself. No two ways around it in scripture. Why? Because loving someone carries a lot more than just liking them, or having "this emotional connection", or saying "God Bless" when they sneeze. So, what's love got to do with it? I think I'll hit that first, and in a strangely backwards fashion, get into what love really is second.

Love is the foundation out of which my relationships should be formed.

A lot of times, I miss this one completely. I'm not called to get to know, and then love - just the opposite. Often I look at myself and see that if someone can't take me where I want to go, I just tolerate and be nice to them. Wide and varied examples of that:
They don't have the job in the career I want to pursue
They curse too much
They aren't all that good-looking
They are wearing a gem encrusted shirt from Affliction or those big bug-eye looking sun glasses
They aren't a Christian
I've heard negative things about them
They've hurt me in the past
So as you can see, I have a lot of potential reasons not to love someone, we all do. But I have to get over that in my life, and I have to love regardless of circumstance. It's clear in scripture I'm called to love the poor, the widows, other Christians, and (God forbid) my enemies. In other words - whether it be friendship, dating, or marriage, everything is going to sprout first out of me loving someone else. We don't become legitimate friends, and then I love them. I love them, and that draws us into friendship. I miss this so often it hurts. If I am called to love my enemies, I am dang sure called to love people before I know them - regardless of poor wardrobe choices. When my love is based on something about the other person that I want to bring into my own life (their looks, job, dating potential, friend circle, whatever) - that's not love at its core - it's opportunistic networking - which is fine, but not who I am called to be in scripture, and I desperately want to avoid confusing that with true love.

So, what is love? (baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more - what an awful song)

John 15:13
Greater love has no man than this - that he lay down his life for his friends.
Put simply? It's the ultimate sacrifice. Our perfect picture of love is Christ dying for those He loved. I look at this verse a lot of times and I think "yeah, I'd die for my friends" - but that's at least (personally) a bit of a lie, and even then, I suspect I'm missing the point. As to the lie - I say I'd die for my friends, but how many times do I lash out in anger when I'm wronged? Or feel disappointment when my (often unfair) expectations aren't met? Or choose my own *preferences* over theirs, then treat them like they're in the wrong for it?
None of those things is love. Not even remotely close, in fact. And if I can't lay down my expectations, my anger, or my preferences for my friends - would I really lay down my life?

1 John 3:18 (keep this one in mind while you read what's below)
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

Secondly, I fear that I miss the point of that first text. I get the cart before the wagon as talked about in the opening statements above and say "Yeah, I'd die for the people I love" - but that's the interesting part... just like I said above, I'm not called to be friends first, and then love (die). If I take that verse to its true depth, the question is would I be willing to die for those I don't know? Would I be willing to die for those that have intentionally wronged me again and again? Would I lay down my anger, preferences, and expectations for those people? That's the reality of love. Will I put another before myself. And even if they've wronged me, will I continue to truly love?

That last line leads me to my last view of love. Can we allow others (and ourselves) freedom when they've wronged us? Or do we need the sense of control that not forgiving brings us? The Bible is clear - love forgives. It holds no record of wrongs. Love conquers all. Here comes a mess of scripture, really read it, don't skip over it... it says a lot more than I do with a lot fewer words:

Proverbs 17:9
Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.

1 John 4:18
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

1 Peter 4:8
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

The Bible tells us that the outside world will know us by our love. It also tells us that a keystone of love is forgiveness. This makes all the sense in the world - it is a completely unnatural response, but I'm selfish so often. I hold others wrongs over them. I don't forgive because not loving them makes me feel superior, and it makes me feel like I get to judge them and hold them accountable for their actions. Sadly (sarcasm), that's not my job, it never has been, it never will be. Love is most evidenced in our forgiveness. Because forgiveness is not just being nice to someone we don't know - it is taking someone who we owe nothing, while they owe us much, and allowing them the freedom to do it all over again. Love is correction. Love is forgiveness. Love is charity. And maybe most importantly... God is Love.

Love comes down to one thing, and has one purpose.
It is the imitation of what Christ gave us.
It pulls others towards Christ, just as he pulled us.
Love isn't marriage. It isn't friendship. It certainly isn't dating. It's not "found" or "fallen into." It is our constant attempt to intentionally reach out to others through grace, mercy, and service. It's not easy, but it is the trademark of Christianity. And to offer anything less to the fallen people in this broken world is heart breaking.
Love God, Love others, the rest will take care of itself.

1 Corinthians 13:1-8 (weigh it carefully when you look at your relationships - platonic and otherwise... does it match up?)
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.