Wednesday, July 31, 2013

California Dreaming.

Well, it wasn't on such  a winter's day this time. It was on a summer's night. The Lord visited me in my sleep last night. I'm not sure why. Most nights I dream, but over the years I've got better at discerning between my dreams and God dreams. Still, it's hard to describe the sense of knowing that God was speaking.

I've been reading through the minor prophets recently.  Pretty bleak stuff really, but Joel 2:29 is a beautiful promise of God's  relief after Israel's judgment.  Afterwards I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. You sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. This is the sermon text that Peter used to explain the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 and the phenomena which followed.

Dreams and visions played an important role in the advancing of the Gospel in the early Church.
Think Paul's vision at his conversion, and his dream in Corinth telling him to stay and preach amidst opposition. Remember his dream during the shipwreck which assured those on board that they would be safe too? Think Peter's vision on the rooftop, before he visited Cornelius. Dreams and visions are an integral part of the Holy Spirit's indwelling and infilling of the believer. Visions come to us while we are awake, and my theory is that God communicates to me more in dreams than visions, because my mind and body rest long enough for Him to get a word in edgeways!

Of course, dream interpretation is not an exact science. It's more art than science. I'm wary of an exact  'dream code' approach which aims to decipher dreams. Although there may be some helpful principles of interpretation, we don't get given a secret code in scripture. What we need is the discernment of the Spirit, the wisdom of people who have walked with the Lord, and the authority of Scripture to bring clarity to our dreams.

One of the characteristics of dreams that have proved true and have significantly shaped my life, has been clarity rather than obscurity. And also,  I tend to remember them clearly in the morning. Generally when that happens, I will write down what I remember. Habakkuk 2:3 talks about this. Write the vision down, make it plain so that a herald may run with it. Though it waits it's appointed time, it will not delay.

Whether it be visions or dreams, the gap between revelation, interpretation and application requires wisdom and patience. Things tend to get clearer over time, but we also forget them over time, so being a faithful recorder of dreams and visions is just good stewardship of God's communication.

Finally, a recent example of how God can use dreams to add weight to what He is saying to a congregation through the preached Word.  Two Sundays ago, Nick Saltas preached a potent message from Ecclesiastes about Authority. The heart of his message was that one of the most counter-cultural
things we can do as Christ followers is to submit to flawed human authority. He called us to trust in a Sovereign God who would ultimately have his way, even through unjust authority. It was a difficult word for us in our culture of self-governenance, but one which was skilfuly given.

My wife, who very rarely claims to have God dreams, leans over to me during the second service, and says, "I had a vivid dream last night which is only making sense now that I'm hearing Nick's message."
She told me the gist of it, and I asked her to speak to the congregation after Nick finished, before we broke bread. This is the gist of what she said. "I dreamed that I went into an elevator, but it began to feel like it was getting smaller, like it was a trash compactor. I was terrified that the elevator was going to crush me but it didn't, it compacted and shaped me." She continued with her interpretation of the dream. "For some of us, we feel that submitting to authority, whether that be at work, marriage,  family or church, is going to crush us. It will shape us, but not crush us. And God's promise is that it will ultimately take us higher. Submit to God and he will lift you up in due time."

Rynelle's sane, humble clarity added huge weight to the Word that had just been preached. People's hearts were pierced. It's a helpful example of how dreams can work as the Spirit confirms the preaching of His Word. I also believe it's a pertinent message for us as a church, and one worth reflecting on as we embark on a season of enlarged mission.

So in the meantime, I will record and reflect on what I dreamed last night. And pray that we all remain attentive to the whispers of our God in the day and in the night.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The pain of numbness

This is a personal, confessional piece. My hope is that it will offer comfort and clarity to those who shepherd God's flock.

Being a pastor is not just spiritually intense. Whether it is our job, or something we do over and above our careers, it is a relationally and emotionally intense calling, often for prolonged periods of time. And one of the most serious consequences of living with this kind of intensity is that you can begin to feel numb after a while.

By numb, I do not mean that you cease to care. Hopefully not.
By numb, I mean that you are unable to feel with the appropriate depth of emotion in a particular situation. And it's not for lack of trying. Try as you may, feeling seems beyond your grasp.

You may find yourself listening to someone in your flock. They may be experiencing the agony of betrayal, the discouragement of hope deferred, the shame of their own unfaithfulness, or the grief of losing a loved one. Sometimes they are sitting there because they are disappointed with you. Other times it is someone telling you about the joy of answered prayer, the wonder of freshly-found freedom, or the mystery of a deep encounter with God.

And as they speak, you are attentive, trying to empathize, doing your best to say something helpful, and yet you are thinking at the same time, "I am not feeling what I should be for this person."

It is not that your heart is empty. If your heart were a cup, the cup is actually too full. Full of people's sorrow, frustration, shame, joy, wonder. There is no more room in the cup. You so desperately want to feel. But you feel, well, numb. Maybe another helpful metaphor is painting a picture. I remember learning to paint at pre-school. The more colors I used together, the less colorful the painting seemed to get. They smudged together for a generally gray hue. That may describe the emotional landscape of a numb pastor - just kind of gray.

This is serious if our ministry is priestly. Being priestly means that like Jesus, we sympathize with people's weaknesses, aiming to see them reconciled to God and people. If we are unable to sympathize we are really unable to reconcile. We will just regurgitate principles and remedies according to a prior situational template. And it will leave people feeling like projects.

The question to ask then is, "What is an  appropriate and sustainable way to feel?"

I have known some pastors that have been unable to reign in their emotions. They almost feel too much. They are empathetic in an unsustainable way. They blow out or burn out in some way.  That is for another blog. I am talking about drying out, I guess.

So how to come back from the pain of numbness?

Firstly, I would say avoid a Messianic complex. We are called to be priestly, but we are not the Priest. The Priest is Jesus, who feels more deeply than we could ever feel, and who ultimately mediates between God and  the people we are pastoring. We are not their Savior. We are not indispensible.

Second, we need to learn to empty our cup; to develop a prayer life that casts our cares upon Jesus because He cares for us and our people, who are actually His people. The Lord is our Shepherd as shepherds. When He promises that His yoke is easy and His burden light, it is a promise for those who have committed to plough with Him. It is a ministry promise. Jesus' yoke of ministry is not meant to crush us. When we empty our cup, we make room to feel for others.

Third, we need to learn to guard our heart for from it flow the springs of life. Proverbs 4:23. Guarding our heart seems like a counter-intuitive way to recover form numbness. But it is not about shutting down our hearts. It is being vigilant so that when someone throws trash down the well of your heart,  it is not left there. We cannot allow the trash of people's criticism, flattery, bitterness, disappointment or envy to to remain and poison our hearts. We need to filter what people say to us carefully, through prayerful discernment, sober reflection, a wise team around us and repentance if needed. This will keep our hearts from being puffed up or beaten down. Both are a poison to the heart.

The beautiful mystery is this. A guarded heart does not mean a closed, numb heart. When we live with guarded hearts, the spring is fresh and clear so that it can nourish and refresh many.
May God keep us from the pain of numbness.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Community Killers

There's the story of the guy with the big ol' handle-bar moustache who ate a block of stinky blue cheese. Some of it got lodged in his 'stache. So he walked around the house sniffing and asking who had left the stinky cheese lying around. What he was smelling was the cheese lodged in his big ol' stache. 

Often, being a part of of a Christian community is encouraging and compelling.
There've been countless  ways in which God has expressed His love to me through community.
Community is God's love with skin on. But there are times  when being in Christian community hurts, makes us feel awkward or even repels us. It can stink like stinky cheese!  At those times we need to check to see whether we have some stinky cheese on us rather than looking at everyone else to find the problem.

We were created for community.  When God created the heavens and the earth and everything in it, He said that it was good. When he created Adam he is that it was very good. The first time we hear God say that something is not good, it's because Adam is alone. It is not good for man to be alone. So God created Eve; for friendship, for partnership, for pleasure, to bear children and to more fully bear the image of God. It required community to reflect the image of the Tri-Une God, the perfect community.
As Ecclesiastes 4 says, Two are better than one...and a chord of three strands is not easily broken.

But what kills God's life in our communities?
Solomon, after describing the ideal community, goes on to describe 4 Community Killers in Ecclesiastes 4
a. Envy. Through envy of his neighbor the fool toils at his work. When we are unable to rejoice with those who rejoice because they are more popular, more wealthy, better looking, or have more profile than us, we are wrestling with envy. Most of the wars between us are because of the wars of envy within us. Jesus can empower us to take pride in our humble position, and  empty ourselves for others instead of living in envy towards them.
b. Self-centerdeness. The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. Many of us expect community to be laid on for us. We are waiting to be served, loved, mentored or given ministry opportunity. It is consumer-Christianity at its worst. CS Lewis described hell as a table laden with fine food where people's arms were in splints so they could only their neighbors. But they refused to feed their achother, because they were self-centered, so they starved. I have found that as we serve and love others we get fed and loved ourselves.
c. Work.  Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of striving. When we get too busy to waste time with people, community becomes distant and difficult. The Sabbath is a gift for us to rest from our toil and our play, and prioritize worship, eating and resting with our family and the people of God.
d. Refusal to take advice. Better is a wise and a poor youth than a rich and foolish king who cannot take advice.  The gift of community in helping us to see our blind spots and giving us counsel in decision-making, is profound . Paul the Apostle knew how to hear from God, yet he travelled to Jerusalem to hear from some leaders to check that he wasn't running his race in vain. Priscilla and Aquila  showed Apollos a more adequate way. We may have a good grasp of God's ways but we never have the whole picture alone.

So which Community Killer am I guilty of?
Repentance and turning to the God of grace empowers me to own the problem and change something that I can control, entrusting Him with others people's community killers that I cannot control.
It empowers me to remove the stinky cheese from my ol' handle-bar stache.
Did I hear someone say cheese?