Category Archives: Topics–Special Interest

What I Wish I Had Told My Sons

Pleased as punch, snapping photos and cheering them on, their mother and I relished each moment with our sons. We couldn’t have been prouder. Both sons were graduating from business schools within weeks of each other. Both had earned exceptional grades and accolades from professors and peers. We heaped praise on them. We told them repeatedly how thrilled we were with their accomplishments. I even posted a tribute to each one on Facebook. The more “likes” the posts received, the happier and prouder I felt.

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D.,

Yet, in retrospect, something was missing. Not in my sons, but in me…and from me.

In addition to celebrating their well-deserved accomplishments, I wish I had also said:

I hope you know how deeply you are loved, regardless of the level of your success, or lack thereof. You never have to question your worth. There is absolutely nothing you could do to make God love you any more than he already does–and I feel the same way. My admiration and respect for you is certainly going to grow over time, but you can’t earn my love. It’s been firmly established in my heart from the day you were born. Being so deeply loved and treasured, you have all you need to genuinely love and accept yourself. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

IMG_3904
“You are loved just because you are our son, not for anything you have done.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t keep growing and looking for ways to contribute to society. I am trying say, What matters most is not what you accomplish or how much others praise or admire you. What counts more is the love you have known and the love you can give. You must take your self worth from God’s view of you and from what Christ does in you and through you that brings God glory and serves his good purposes.

In saying all this, I certainly wouldn’t want to take the wind out of their sails or somehow make them ashamed that they feel proud of their accomplishments. No, I simply want to keep their success in the right frame. I wish I had said:

Be thrilled about all you have been able to do, accomplish, and experience, but not from a “Look how great I am” or “See, I really am superior to others” or “Man, I have it made” perspective. Rather, humbly get on your knees with gratitude. Pray that God would not let your achievements distract you from him and his will for your life. Celebrate all that God has given you as opportunities to learn, grow, and serve Christ in unique and fruitful ways.

In other words, success without a personal relationship with God and character is shallow at best, and dangerous at worst. Don’t measure the quality of your life simply in terms of career, status, or wealth acquired. Instead, be a lover of God and keep putting Jesus Christ at the center of your life and relationships. Always desire to become a better person as well. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how you can best serve with what God has given you. Continually seek to be wise, humble, and overflowing with the fruit of the Holy Spirit—loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5:22-23). That’s the life worth pursuing with your whole heart!

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.com; www.fhlglobal.org

Now, having grown up in our home, both of my sons would have already heard most if not all the things I wish I had said at their graduations. Truth be told, it probably wasn’t they who needed to be reminded of these truths, it was I.

I was the one who was tempted to glory in their achievements in a puffed up sort of way. I was the one who wanted to throw my shoulders back and feel just a little bit superior to other parents. I was the one who relished feeling powerful by vicariously identifying with their newly acquired status. I was the one who needed help to keep the right perspective.

I wish I had told them, I’m struggling this weekend. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to live by what I believe and know to be good, right, and true. The Christian life is a humbling journey. I embrace certain ideals and values only to stumble as I face my limitations, resist what I know is right, and outright rebel when I’d rather serve myself. It’s only by God’s grace that I am able to get my head straight again, put my heart back in the right place, and correct my course when I find myself drifting or distracted.

I hope that my experience will help you to see that you, too, are utterly dependent on God’s love, mercy, and grace. You must surrender your will to God’s and keep looking to Christ to do in you what you simply cannot do on your own. This is not something you do once. It is a spiritual program for your daily life. In other words, the real power of the Christian life does not come from you, it comes from your relationship with God, and the extent to which you are willing to throw yourself into knowing Christ and being led by the Holy Spirit in every way imaginable. This is the life you were created to have. This is the life most worth celebrating.

That’s what I wish I had said to my sons.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

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Why Genocide Will Happen Again

On June 10, 1944, just a few days after the Allied invasion at Normandy, 200 German S.S. troops surrounded a little French village, Oradour-sur-Glane. By nightfall, all but 3 escapees and a half a dozen others had been massacred. 642 men, women, and children dead.

Some say the Germans mistook this village for another with a similar name, another Oradour whose Resistance fighters, the machi, had abducted a SS officer earlier in the week. At the official memorial site, interpreters believe the attack was likely ordered as part of Himmler’s ongoing campaign of terror. Whatever the precise reason for the massacre, the killings were brutal, cruel, and completely unjustified.

Jill and I silently drifted from ruin to ruin in the half razed village, preserved as a memorial. As I wandered by the school, the church, and what remained of the little shops in the center of the village, I imagined the scene just hours before the soldiers arrived. Cafés were selling coffee. Coiffeurs were cutting hair. Men and women were working in the fields or selling their products in town. The children were running up and down the street, some helping their parents, others just enjoying summer vacation.

By evening, nearly all these precious lives were reduced to smoldering, bullet ridden corpses.

Some 400 women and children were herded to the church. Into the packed sanctuary, soldiers threw grenades before shooting those who weren’t immediately killed. One man who went to the village shortly after the massacre found three boys, ages 10-12, huddled together near the altar, where they had desperately clung to life and to each other, before succumbing to death. Before turning away from the horror he could no longer stomach, he noticed an infant still in its baby carriage, shot dead.

In the sanctuary, my eyes fell upon the now-rusted-out, crushed carriage still standing there, testifying to the extent of the callous brutality. I felt sick.

The men were divided into groups and taken to various barns where there were few entrances or exits, thus minimizing their chance of escape. Machine guns were set up to mow them down. Dead or alive, everyone in the village was eventually doused with gasoline and set afire. Fewer than 10% of the bodies were identifiable after the German soldiers had finished executing their orders.

I thought it odd that I felt almost nothing for almost two hours, until I realized that I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading and seeing. I was in shock, and couldn’t take in the horror of it all.

It’s not as if I didn’t already know about the millions who had died in concentration camps and gas chambers, the pogroms conducted over the centuries, and the even more horrific genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere. Maybe it was the senseless, cold-blooded brutality against innocent villagers that so disturbed me. Maybe it was the realization that the killers looked just like me, and their victims just like the people in my own family. Or, maybe it was a growing sense of terror that what happened in this little village less than a century ago could happen again, anywhere, at any time, given the right conditions. And probably would again and again and again.

When I got to the cemetery, I found numerous memorials. The most disturbing were those displaying four, six, eight or more photographs of members of the same family. Organized in descending order by age, I saw the once smiling faces of eighty- year-old grandparents alongside their sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren. One little boy was only thirteen days old when he had been slaughtered along with with seven other family members.

The tears finally began falling when I read the inscriptions on the memorial stones. Many spoke of loved ones whose lives were senselessly cut short by the “barbarian Germans.” The one pictured above reads: “To the memory of our dear little girls and sisters, charmed with our affection…students of the school at Oradour-sur-Glane, massacred and burned in the church by the Nazi hordes….”

What were the soldiers thinking? What were they feeling? “Just following orders” doesn’t begin to explain the depth of the degenerative forces at work that produced this evil.

My tears soon gave away to rage, and I fantasized wreaking revenge on the perpetrators, and anyone else like them. And then it struck me.

We may shake our heads at such mind-boggling atrocities, and we may even weep for the victims, but when are we going to face the ugly truth that any of us is capable of treating others cruelly and even violently? When are going to come to grips with how we are already inflicting pain, and sometimes quite serious damage, on others who have hurt us or who are simply in our way? When are we going to fall on our knees, begging God not just for forgiveness, but earnestly pleading for the  ability to forgive others from our hearts and  to work for healing and reconciliation?

Genocide will happen again, but what are you and I going to do differently today?

A Prayer “Loving God, save us from ourselves. Please break our hearts over our own hatred, desires for revenge, violent words and actions. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Lead us not into temptation to strike out against others, but deliver us from the evil within us as well as the evil all around us. Lead us to your well of grace and love that we may drink from it.  Cleanse us by your living water…and compel us to offer that same gift to others.”

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Questions (6 of 6)

Crucifix in sacristy window, Chartres Cathedral

I’m living with lot of questions lately. Burning, existential, spiritual questions. They keep bugging me and just have to be answered.

I suspect that part of the problem is that I don’t always really want to know the answers. But at the same time, I do want to know. It’s pretty obvious that I’m never going to be satisfied—or at peace—until I see what I need to see, and then act on the truth God reveals.

• What does it mean for me to be faithful to God?

• What does it mean for me to pick up my cross daily?

• What does God truly want me to give of myself and my resources in light of the gross inequities and great suffering for so many throughout the world?

I’m not looking for trite answers here. I already know what the Bible says about each of these questions. I’m trying to pierce the fog of self-deception and cultural blindness to see the truth about how I’m living out my faith (or not), what’s truly in my heart, and what Christ sees in me and in the world. I’m trying to be more open to hear how God wants to answer these questions for me.

I don’t have an axe to grind, and I’m not reacting. I want the Gospel I preach to others to revolutionize my own life in all of the ways that Jesus intended. And I want to better serve Christ and his kingdom, and not keep tripping so much over my own stubborn, self-centered, self-serving tendencies.

I feel calm when facing these questions, on one hand; and yet increasingly desperate, on the other. Not desperate so much out of anxiety or fear, but out of a growing sense of the enormous need in the world and my minuscule capacity to do much about it. I’d like to do more, and I’d like to be more.

And so, in my growing desperation, I’m becoming more and more aware that I have to make some choices—maybe some radical choices—if the future is going to be any different than the past. I’m talking about making changes in how I respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in absolutely every context of my life, and in how I give of myself and my resources to others on a regular basis.

For example, I’m increasingly dissatisfied with my trying to have the best of both worlds. I have spent most of my life both attempting to enjoy a meaningful relationship with God and to minister effectively to others, while simultaneously living to please myself as much as possible. And it’s not working. Or at least, I’m not at all satisfied.

Some days, I feel overwhelmed by all these questions. At other times, when I am more grounded, I can let go of what is way outside of my control or understanding. When I feel well connected to God, I can rest in his grace and focus on what is within my power to do.

However, at the same, the Spirit is still calling for changes. I’m beginning to see that the question is not, “How much can I do for Christ and his kingdom, given that I will continue to serve myself as well as possible?” The question has increasingly become, “What could I do—or, better, what would God do through me—if only I would let go of my self-serving choices and behavior?”

The more I keep asking these questions, and am not be afraid of what the Holy Spirit might show me, the more I see that God is actually starting to answer them. He’s using the process of asking the same things over and over to change me in ways I resist, but like. Greater clarity and conviction are emerging little by little—not always with words or concepts, but I can feel the shifts, and I can see that I’m changing for the better.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with this process. I’m not in control, and I’m a little (a lot?) worried sometimes about where all this might go. At the same time, it feels right.

What questions are you living with right now? I’d really like to know how the Holy Spirit is bugging you…and changing you through the process.

A Prayer “Loving God, thank you for the questions that lead me to better places. Please draw me more fully into Jesus’ life and death. Please help me to not lose heart as I have to face the utter darkness, despair, and desperation of the cross. Give me courage and strength to die to myself, and lead me by your power to resurrection in every area of my life possible. May your good will be done.”

I’m writing from Chartres, France. When these words are posted, I will be teaching the The Spirit-Led Leader course at the Ukraine Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kiev. Please pray for Jill’s complete healing from her pulmonary embolism (see post “To Live or To Die”), and for my teaching and coaching of seminarians and pastors this spring (www.fhlglobal.org/ministries). Thank you. May this Easter week be a time both of dying to self and of experiencing resurrection for you.

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To Live or To Die?

She saw herself floating out the window. On her back, feet forward, she was leaving this world. She had to make a decision, and fast. Was she going to choose to live or to die?

Jill and I had just returned from nearly three weeks in Africa. The view from our Paris hotel room was stunning. Three days to recuperate alongside the Seine River across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral sounded perfect. However, awakened by sharp chest pains around 12:30 a.m., our dream suddenly disfigured into a terrifying nightmare. With her life in the balance, she heard herself say, “NO! I have a husband. I have two sons!”

We didn’t know it at the time, but Jill was experiencing a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism, stemming from a deep vein thrombosis in one of her legs. A blood clot, formed during the long overnight flight from Nairobi, Kenya, broke loose, and traveled up her veins. After passing through her heart, it entered her lungs in one or more pieces, choking off oxygen to vital regions.

From a medical point of view, five days in the hospital and a steady dose of blood thinners saved her life. However, her decision to come back through the window for the sake of her sons and me may have been even more instrumental to her survival.

Few truly want to die, but choosing to live for the sake of others under such circumstances is not a given. The crisis revealed the depth of her love for her family, and her decision showed the extent of her devotion.

In prison, the Apostle Paul similarly found himself in a struggle between living and dying. We don’t know if he was at risk of being executed or simply felt he had an option to surrender his life to his suffering. Whatever the case, under his circumstances, death had become increasingly attractive.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul described his ambivalence about living and explained his rationale for the choice he finally made:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. (Philippians 1:21-26, NIV)

Paul did not choose life because he was afraid to die. His relationship with Jesus Christ and his faith actually made the next life very appealing. However, he said no to death, because he had a stronger reason to live.

Most of us are not aware of making a decision about life or death, or even feel that we have any say in the matter. But the truth is, every day we are deciding, and we do have a say.

I’m not talking just about our power to affect our physical wellbeing. I’m referring to coming to grips with our raison d’être—our reason to wake up in the morning. I, for one, have no interest in simply trudging through life, just keeping busy or passively yielding to the demands and expectations of the status quo. I refuse to go through the motions of looking alive, when I am actually dying on the inside. I want to live, and want to do so with the meaning, purpose, and passion that grow out of God’s unique calling on my life.

We have choices. We can allow ourselves to be controlled by misguided values and empty pursuits, or we can look at our lives as a series of opportunities to make a difference. How we find the life we were meant to live will be different for each one of us, but only by making a concerted effort to discover and to pursue our callings will we truly live.

Near death experiences like Jill’s slap us in the face. We suddenly grasp that we cannot take our life for granted. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, after his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future, we may gratefully gulp down the air whose consumption proves that we still are alive. In our moment of second chances, we may eagerly search about for whatever changes we can quickly make while we still can.

You may not see yourself going out a window feet first, having to choose between life and death, but you do have life or death choices to make. What are they going to be?

A Prayer

“Dear Lord God, I want to live. I mean truly live. Please show me where I have settled for lesser gods or simply meaningless preoccupations, and set me free. Lead me in the path of life, and give me the wisdom, courage, and strength to take the next steps available to me…for Christ’s sake, for mine, and for all those you want to bless through me. Amen.”

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Forgiveness Beyond Belief

Agnes and Tim
Survivors of Genocide

Her husband and children had been killed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, along with over 800,000 others. Hacked to death actually. In this case, by her next-door neighbor.

The killer was sent to prison, but his wife and children still live in the same place. Every day for the past 15 years, “Sarah” has had to walk by their house and be reminded of the horror of that night, of all she has lost, and of all that she must continue to suffer because of what happened. On top of it all, the killer’s wife resents Sarah for causing her husband to go to jail, and is cold and rude toward her.

Then, about two weeks ago the unthinkable happened. Sarah decided she couldn’t take living under this cloud any longer. She took a friend from her church and knocked on her neighbor’s door.

When the woman saw Sarah standing there, she screamed. She left the door hanging open, ran into the interior of the house, and locked herself in the bathroom. When her children begged her to come out, all she would say was, “Run away. Run away. Don’t you know they’ve come here to kill us!”

Sarah and her friend sat down inside the living room and waited. Yet, when the woman refused to leave the bathroom, they decided to come back later with a different friend who knew the woman well. When Sarah returned the next day, this time the neighbor nervously let them in.

What happened next is beyond my comprehension.

Sarah fell on her knees and began pleading with the woman. With tears streaming down her face, she begged for forgiveness. Sarah was sorry that she had been so judgmental of her neighbor. Could she forgive Sarah?

At this, the neighbor dissolved into tears. “No, no! I should have been the one to go to you to ask for forgiveness,” she cried out. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me!”

A miracle was happening.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Sarah to live next door to the family of the man who killed her husband and children for all those years, let alone comprehend living with the memory of their brutal murder. But going to ask the man’s wife for forgiveness?? What in the world?

Yet, there she was. She did it. And in an instant, years of hatred, guilt, shame, fear and grief were transformed. I don’t think for a minute that all of their pain is now gone forever, but real healing took place in a way that I have never experienced or heard of before.

I heard this remarkable story from Agnes (pictured above), one of the participants in the Pastors Leadership Training Conference I was leading in Musanze, Rwanda, last week. Agnes runs a ministry to promote reconciliation between about 200 Hutu and Tutsi women, and offers in-home care for many of those who are especially struggling, some of whom are HIV positive due to being raped at the time of the genocide. Her face was literally radiant over what had just taken place the week before, and she kept bubbling over with joy as she told me all that God was doing in so many different lives in the community.

I, on the other hand, was absolutely speechless. I wanted to run out of the room and find some place to weep. I don’t cry that easily, but I had been hearing so many tragic stories of human suffering from the genocide. What few seem to realize is that the nightmare is still going on for thousands upon thousands of orphans and widows living in poverty, struggling to survive without their husbands and fathers, and constantly being reminded of the massacre in myriad ways.

I had been working with 50 pastors for the week, and I was feeling the unimaginable heaviness that each pastor carries from the ongoing legacy of the genocide. The traumatization was evident in their tired eyes, grim faces, and slumping shoulders. Many of them clearly bore deep scars, and perhaps deeper secrets they could tell no one. They were clearly people of faith and dedication, but I didn’t even know if true healing under such circumstances was possible.

But apparently it is.

Sarah’s authentic expression of longing for healing collapsed a seemingly impenetrable wall of judgment and mutual hatred. And in the face of such humility and vulnerability, the neighbor woman refused to cling to her defensive denial and projection of her guilt and shame. Their heartfelt response to one another made real repentance and reconciliation possible.

I still don’t really get it. But I want to learn from these women. And I want to spend more time with people like Agnes and many other men and women I’ve met in Rwanda, who show Christ’s love in such practical ways, and who work tirelessly to help survivors and perpetrators alike to build new lives post-genocide.

And I want to never forget that the unimaginable is not only possible on the side of darkness and evil. God also does unbelievable works of grace in the lives of those who look to Jesus Christ for healing and help, who cry out to him in their longing and despair, and who obey the leading of the Holy Spirit and step out in faith.

I realize now that my flood of emotion when Agnes was speaking was only partly due to all the pain and suffering I was seeing. My heart was breaking because I suddenly knew I had given up on God too easily. Some part of me had stopped believing that such miracles were still possible. I was in Rwanda to inspire, teach, and encourage pastors and leaders, but I needed to hear Sarah’s story to break through my own despair and to revitalize my own faith and hope once again.

Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Agnes.  Thank you, Lord.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:13-18, NRSV)

The Point: Just because we can’t imagine how God can help in certain dire circumstances doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit cannot exceed our imaginations.  We serve an unbelievably compassionate and powerful God, who can do unimaginable works of grace in the lives of those who depend on and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Prayer: “Loving God, please forgive our lack of faith and despair when we cannot imagine how we might forgive others, or experience healing and transformation. We believe, yet we need your help to dispel our lack of belief. Please do in us what we cannot do in ourselves or by ourselves. Thank you.”

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Self-Confident or God-Confident? (5 of 6)

I had to laugh. I was walking the labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral today, looking for inspiration and peace. I was trying to get motivated to write this week’s web article on self-confidence. Instead, I just felt anxious about whether or not I really had anything worth saying!

Whenever I lack self-confidence like this, or become overly self-conscious, I freeze up or become horribly awkward. I’m afraid I won’t be clever, interesting or original enough, and you won’t keep reading or won’t respect me. So, I procrastinate.

This kind of paralyzing self-consciousness and lack of self-confidence is widespread in my experience. Many of my clients, students, and friends wrestle with these same issues in their own ways.

As I see it, the root cause of the problem is often fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of looking foolish, fear of what others may be thinking or feeling about us. Our confidence falters, and we hesitate to put ourselves forward.

Sometimes, we have the opposite problem, too. Driven by pride, we become determined to prove our worth or superiority to others—or to ourselves. We may accomplish a lot, but too often the end result is more about us, and less about God.

At the same time, pride can be the cause of a low self-image and our feeling badly ourselves. It works like this: When we can’t do something as well as we’d like, our pride can’t bear the thought of our “losing” or “not measuring up.” So we mope about or feel embarrassed over our shortcomings and failures, and stop trying.

Either way—puffed up into self-serving overdrive or deflated into self-defeating underdrive—we can easily become too pre-occupied with Self.

What’s needed is a shift in our focus. We need to move from being so self-conscious (worrying about our performance or what others might be thinking about us) to being more God-conscious (focusing on what God wants for our lives and how the Holy Spirit works through imperfect mortals to bless others).

And what a difference it makes! When I become more God-confident at least 5 things happen:

1)   I remember to base my self-image first and foremost on how God looks at me (I am loved, valued, cherished, and forgiven; and have purpose in life), and on what God will do through me (not on what others think of me).

2) I ask God how I may best serve Christ’s purposes today and meet the needs of those God brings into my life (rather than on what I might get out of my efforts).

3)  I stop procrastinating, because I know I have important work to do in the name of Jesus that stems from God’s calling and will (rather than waiting until I feel like getting started or I am certain of “success”).

4) I work hard to offer my best to God, because I feel so grateful to be loved by God and eager to be part of whatever the Holy Spirit is doing.

5) I make a conscious decision to trust that God will do good things through me, because that’s how God works when we obey the Spirit’s promptings and use our spiritual gifts to serve others.

In short, focusing on self either keeps us from getting to the work God has for us to do, or distorts our motivation and message by bringing glory to ourselves instead of God. Focusing on God makes our confidence soar, and motivates us to get going with the good work God has for us to do—today!

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

The Point: Are you tired of getting all tangled up in yourself? Stop thinking so much about what others are thinking about you and being so afraid. Have more confidence in God’s work in you and through you, and get going with what you know you need to be doing.

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Don’t Give Up

Been struggling lately? Feeling a little confused? Discouraged? Losing motivation?
Perhaps, temptations seem to be getting more intense. Your weaknesses seem more evident. You may be wondering if you are actually moving backwards, rather than forward.
If so, let me encourage you. You have reached a critical point in your spiritual development. Don’t lose heart. And most definitely, do not give up!

Contrary to appearances, our emotional turmoil may actually be a positive sign. Our struggles may actually be a sign of growing pains in our spiritual life—we may even be on the verge of making a major breakthrough.

In contrast, when we become complacent in our spiritual life or are too pre-occupied with our own concerns or pursuing our own happiness, we may feel just fine. We may be able to successfully distract ourselves from our inner longing for God. We may be able to avoid thinking about the inner work we need to do to keep growing and maturing.

However, once we turn our attention and intention (back) to God’s calling on our life, we will certainly soon be brought back to the place where we last left off.  We may have shrunk back from the difficulty of our spiritual journey, and now that we have resumed our pilgrimage, we have to face once again what we couldn’t face earlier. We are being given another opportunity to see and feel our loss, our failure, our weakness, our longing, our frustration, our disappointment, or something else that has been too difficult or painful to face.
So what should we do when we find ourselves newly committed but struggling as much or more than ever?

The same things that are always appropriate and most helpful whenever we want to go deeper, to grow spiritually, and to serve Christ more fully and effectively in our lives. We need to…
• Face reality—ask yourself, what is true about your life and circumstances that you need to acknowledge, whether you like it or not?
• Feel our feelings—without running away from them or distracting yourself, can you let the depth and intensity of your feelings teach you something you need to learn?
• Ask God for help—are you willing to pray that the Holy Spirit will help you to see what you need to see, to have courage to face the truth, and to have enough strength to act on whatever is revealed?
• Look for signs that God is actually part of the process—can you identify ways that God is at work through your struggles? Perhaps the Spirit is helping you to identify important questions; is bringing greater clarity about what’s most important to you; is providing opportunities to grapple with something you know you need to deal with; or, is bringing others into your life at the right time.
• Thank God that we are being given an opportunity to grow—can you hold fast to your faith that God will see you through this current struggle and lead you to the place the Holy Spirit wants to take you?
• Ask others to walk with us—who could you reach out to in order to get the support and help you need to face what you need to face and work through the pain or difficulty you are experiencing?

Facing the truth about how hard our spiritual journey can be a good and necessary thing to do, providing we don’t get stuck there. As the Apostle Paul teaches us by his example, we must also hold on to our faith in the midst of our struggles so that we persevere in the midst of them and grow through them.  He writes:
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16, NIV)

No matter how great your struggles may be, today is the day of opportunity for you. Believe it. Pray it. Live it….one step at a time.
Grace and peace in Christ,
Tim

For more on how to navigate better the spiritual journey, order my book, One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living, at https://spirit-ledleader.com/?page_id=29.

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Incredible Joy! (4 of 6)

Easter Vigil in Cathedral
Youth celebrating Christ's resurrection in Chartres Cathedral
Youth celebrating after the Vigil

I have never been to celebration like this before. I’ve been to social gatherings with lots of laughter and commotion. I’ve enjoyed elegant multi-course, white-table clothed, dinners with sumptuous delicacies, as well as fun backyard barbecues with kids running all over the place having a great time. But there was something different about this night.

The joy was almost palpable. As soon as the three-hour vigil finished, just before midnight, the youth rushed to the front of the church to sing and dance. As the huge cathedral bells announced the arrival of Easter Sunday morning, near pandemonium broke out near the altar.

Outside the circle of dancers, everyone was clapping, belting out the choruses led by Simoni, a guitar strumming, Spanish priest. “He is resurrected! He is resurrected!” “With him we died. With him we are resurrected. With him we live!” The mood was infectious.

By one a.m. the Chartres cathedral finally closed its doors and the joyous singers took to the streets. I couldn’t fall asleep until at least two.

Actually, I didn’t want to go to sleep. I never wanted to lose the feeling. In fact, I’m still smiling several days later, picturing the scene and recalling the laughter, the delight, and the great feeling of hope we all felt that night.

In a flash I knew that all the money in the world could not buy what I was experiencing at the moment. The emotions ran high and love was overflowing. At the same, the feeling behind the celebration was very deep and the meaning substantial.

The one who died on the cross for our sins came back to life again! Unheard of. Unparalleled. Life-transforming for his band of scared disciples and followers. Radically re-orienting. Hope-inspiring. Joy-producing. Confidence-building. Energizing. Motivating. Absolutely explosive.

In the midst of the darkest of human realities, light has come into the world. No matter what difficulty we must face when we walk outside the doors of the church—and no matter what darkness we sometimes see when we look inside our own hearts and minds—there is more to the story.

God lifts up those who look to him for life. Fighting for what’s right is not a lost cause. Seeking to live by love is not a fool’s game. Struggling to be a person of integrity is not a waste of effort. Though we may be exploited by the opportunists, be disadvantaged by the unscrupulous, suffer unjustly at the hands of others, or simply stumble over our own weaknesses and failures, God does not abandon those who put their trust in him.

Jesus’ resurrection proves who is really in charge, and where true hope can be found. There is justice. There is forgiveness. There is reward for doing good. There is eternal life.

What a great night! What a great Savior.

Though you have not seen [Jesus Christ], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9, NIV)

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Knowing

On spiritual retreat in Chartres, France, I am seeking God—looking at stained-glass windows, walking the labyrinth, taking long runs by the river, reading Scripture, worshiping in community, thinking, writing, and praying. This is the first in a series of postings on knowing and following Jesus more fully.

Tim in center of Chartres Cathedral labyrinth

Yesterday, a pastor who attended my “Spirit-Led Leader” workshop in Myanmar wrote to me to ask me for suggestions for his Easter Sunday sermon. My answer was a question: “What brings you the most joy and power from your Christian faith?”

For me, the answer is pretty simple. Nothing has more dramatically impacted my life and perspective on the future than Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection—and the hope he gives me of eternal life with God after death.

Recently, one of my sons and I went to see the movie, Knowing. Nicholas Cage stars as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, who stumbles upon a sheet of numbers buried in the ground 50 years earlier. The more he investigates, the more he discovers that the numbers might be pointing to a series of disasters. Can he figure out the code? Can he stop the disaster from happening? Can he convince his scientist friends that he is not crazy?

I won’t give away the ending, but let me say this film goes where “no man (or woman) has gone before”. Well, actually, the apocalyptic genre is well represented in literature, but few films dare to grapple with the end of the world in such a sobering manner, without a super-hero implausibly saving the day. In doing so, the film taps into the worst fears gripping much of the human race today (annihilation), while grappling with powerful human experiences that lead so many to faith in a higher power and in life after death.

Knowing terrified and comforted both. There is hope for those who are “called” and who listen to the “whispering” of the benevolent voices, warning them and guiding them. The biblical writers do something quite similar in dealing with ultimate matters. Prophets and apostles terrify those who dare to spurn the will of God, while offering hope to those who are called to faith by the grace of God, and who listen and follow the leading of the Spirit.

The biggest difference between the movie and the Bible is that Scripture actually names the source of our hope—Jesus Christ—and puts the hope of salvation within reach of anyone who believes.

Last week, Jill and I led a prayer walk for the Chemin Neuf (New Way) Christian Community on the labyrinth on the stone floor of the magnificent Chartres Cathedral. As I approached the center, I found myself asking God to show me the way forward in my life. In a flash, the words of Jesus came to my mind: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

I had my answer. I still have many questions and issues to resolve, but I know where my process needs to start. Knowing God and knowing how to best proceed need to be grounded in my relationship with Jesus. It seems I keep forgetting this most basic of spiritual truths.

Holy Week is a very good time to come to know Jesus better by taking extra time to focus on him, his life, his death, and his resurrection. What else—who else—can better help you know what your life is about and give you better hope for the future?

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11, NIV)

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Staying on the Path (3 of 6)

This posting is in a series of reflections from my time in Chartres, France.

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth

“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, whose thoughts are fixed on you!” (Isaiah 26:3, NLT)

A labyrinth located in the nave of the Chartres Cathedral serves as a pathway of prayer for believers. It winds back and forth, symbolically representing the many twists and turns throughout our life’s journey. Christians have walked the labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral to meditate, pray, and seek a closer connection to God for over eight centuries. While walking, believers often experience something that mirrors some aspect of their life, giving them new insight and prompting prayer.

While traversing the winding path over the past two weeks, I have been praying that God would help me to know better what it means to deny myself and to pick up my cross to follow Jesus, as he instructed all of his disciples to do (Mark 8:34). I have been asking Christ to set me free from the fears that have been holding me back from surrendering my will to God’s at a deeper level, and from the distractions and impulses that take me away from the Holy Spirit’s leading.

On one walk, as I approached one of the dozens of hairpin turns on the labyrinth pathway, I suddenly saw a picture of how easily I get off track with my thinking or behavior. For example, I may be thinking about my writing, or my family, or something to do with my work, and suddenly, I’m off rehearsing how someone hurt me or of how I would like to get revenge. Or, I can be doing well with living by my priorities, and then I’ll make some stupid decision that dissipates my energy or health. Or, I’ll feel love and kindness toward someone, only to bite someone else’s head off in the next instant. Or, I’ll be all set to go forward with God’s leading in some important aspect of my life, and then I get cold feet and start to question myself. I let myself get distracted from the calling and opportunity at hand, or my faith wavers, my confidence diminishes, or I start hedging my bets.

The 180 degree turns in the pathway in front of me were suddenly illustrating a troubling aspect of my life that I wished were different. Indeed, my life is full of contradictions and competing values and impulses, and I frustrate myself often (not to mention how I must negatively affect others at times).

Now, I know my path is going to keep winding back and forth in my life, shifting direction from time to time, but that’s not what I’m concerned about. What I what to know is how can stop letting my “flesh” (sinful impulses and fear) so easily cause me to veer away from the Spirit’s leading onto a path that is contrary to God’s will for me?

As I prayed about these things this past Friday, I realized again that on my own I do not have the power to change my most deep-seated instincts and habits. God has to do the deep inner work within me to set me free and to keep me on the Spirit-led path. Yet, my experience also teaches me that my response to the Spirit and the ways that I order my thinking and living can help.

• The path of the Spirit is pretty well marked out for me—not necessarily all the details, but the character, the spirit, the intention of God’s ways are well known to me. I can consciously remind myself of what I already know to be true.

• I can set out to walk this path every day, and in every circumstance, setting my intention to listen, learn and follow the Spirit.

• I can make a point of not letting other things or people so easily distract (disturb, entice, annoy, consume, intimidate, threaten) me. I will react often, but I can catch myself and ask, “Is this how I want to react?”

• I can choose not to distract myself when I become afraid, anxious, or overwhelmed.  I can simply remind myself, “Yes, this task is scary or hard, but the Spirit will show me what most needs to be done, and help me to do it.”

• When I discover that I have taken a sharp turn away from the Spirit’s leading, I can stop, reconnect with God, look around for how to get back on the Spirit-led path again, and start fresh.

• I can focus on walking the path that leads to God, rather than focus on trying to change myself or others. That is, instead of trying to make things happen so much, I can put my energy into connecting with God and letting the needed changes in me and in others flow from the Spirit’s activity.

• I can choose to trust God.

If I close my eyes I can see distinctly the spot on the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth where the Spirit spoke to me about how I am living my life. While, at first, the 180 degree turn painfully illustrated to me how easily I switch directions, change focus, and move out of the Spirit into the flesh in a moment. Yet now this mental picture also depicts how I would like to navigate the twists and turns in life by staying in the Spirit.

I leave today for Africa. I’m a little nervous, but now, after spending time seeking God in prayer, I feel ready. I do not know all of how God intends to use us there, but I’m sure the Holy Spirit is leading us, and will work in us and through us to serve Christ’s purposes. The most important thing is that I stay on the path.

Final Thought

Isaiah said that God would keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfastly fixed on God. Focusing on the Spirit-led path before us is what a steadfast mind is all about.

When you feel yourself starting to veer off the path in your mind, heart or behavior, try simply saying to yourself, “Stay on the path.” As your mind and spirit obey your instructions, feel the temptations diminish in power, and the peace within you deepen and strengthen.

What helps you to stay on the path?

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