Saturday, February 22, 2014

Stealth Prodigals

There are different kinds of wandering.  Of them all, the most painful due to its intense loneliness is what I refer to as stealth wandering.  If you have ever spent a season wandering without anyone knowing, you can identify with the kind of loneliness I am speaking.  Different from other types of wandering, this kind is not triggered by anything in particular.  It slowly evolves over time without a discernible starting point.  It develops out of spiritual ruts, fatigue, quiet doubting, desire to please, lack of balance, and, ironically, a keen sense of right and wrong.  Let me explain. 

Stealth prodigals are stuck in a conundrum.  They are well aware at all times of competing; co-existing; opposite thoughts that have taken root in their hearts:
1.  Jesus needs to be Lord but other things look good also.
2.  I trust in the goodness of God but I trust that bad stuff happens too.
3.  Godliness leads to blessing but the ungodly seem to be doing fine as well.
4.  God is present but it does not often feel like it.
5.  The Church is a spiritual family but a dysfunctional one.
6.  People are capable of change but it seems to rarely happen.
Yes, these thoughts are in all of us.  Faithful living does not exist without some awareness of them.  But stealth prodigals take these competing thoughts to a dangerous place.  They develop an intense disillusionment from their complexities.  They become paralyzed and overwhelmed by them to the point of deep depression undetectable by most people.  And though they feel incredibly guilty they choose loneliness over help.

The pain of stealth wanderers is complicated by pride and fear.  They stubbornly believe that resolution should only arise from personal not collective effort.  “God and I can get this worked out,” they privately try to convince themselves.  But this only makes things worse.  And there is also fear.  “What if others discover the internal struggle?”  “What if my spiritual family begins to view me as unspiritual?” they wonder. So external expressions of faith are maintained disingenuously which, not only is unhelpful, but proves to be more destructive and guilt producing.  And anger takes root.  Stealth prodigals do not like themselves or their wandering but struggle to break the cycle.

Our churches are full of stealth prodigals.  Right now they might be teaching Sunday school, leading a small group, greeting and ushering, playing music, teaching, or quietly slipping in and out.   And there is a spiritual battle underway for their futures.  The deceptive enemy of our souls continues his assault relentlessly and effectively - convincing them that acknowledgement will only make things worse.  But our Heavenly Father’s love and kindness, timely and strong, can come to us in our stubbornness.  He sends along a friend, a counselor, a bible study leader, a caregiver, a pastor, a relative, or a surprise visitor that becomes our minister.  God makes his appeal through that person who now becomes a part of our story.  Others not themselves rescue stealth prodigals.

Hear this good news.  I cannot state it strongly enough.  Jesus receives all prodigals - even stealth ones.  He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).”  The fatigue that comes from wandering dissipates in Jesus.  And peace and rest of body, mind, and spirit reestablish their rightful place in our existence.  There is no wandering that cannot be ended or reversed in Him.  There is not a hierarchy of wandering whereby degrees of severity are determined – receiving some but disqualifying others.  There are simply wanderers who continue to do so and those who stop.  And Jesus is waiting to take us by the hand.  He is ready to lead us into new places of healing and life that reconcile us to God.  But we must trust Him.  This step is not only unavoidable; it is essential.  Trust Him.

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Snow Story

Several years ago, we awoke in the morning to find a beautiful blanket of the white stuff everywhere. Like this morning.  At that time, our home did not have a garage so I decided to start the day by cleaning off our two cars.  I got bundled up and grabbed a broom and scraper.  Just as I was heading out the door, I felt a tug on my coat.  I turned and found my son, Miles, standing there.  He asked, "Dad, what are you doing?"

"Going out to clean off the cars," I replied.

"Can I help?" he asked.  "Sure," I answered.  So I got him dressed warmly and the two of us headed out. 

We decided to tackle our Honda Pilot first since we would most likely be using it to get around in the snow.  As I started on the front windshield, Miles stood back watching me.  Eventually he asked, "Dad, how can I help?  I can't reach that high."

My initial thought was to send him back inside.  Given his insufficient abilities, he might be more in the way than helpful.  But then I got an idea.  I walked him around to the front and back of the car showing him the bumpers.  I said to him, "Miles, you see this area?  Do you think you can help me by getting these really clean?" "Absolutely," he said.  And he dived into it with all his little might.

As the two of us proceeded to clean the car together, I had one of those moments with God.  It went like this:

     God:  "Do you see now?"
     Me:  "See what?"

     God:  "How you and I work together?"
     Me:  "What?"

     God:  "I could do it all myself.  I certainly do not need your help.  And your insufficient abilities are obvious.  But I like being with you just as you like being with Miles.  So I let you clean the bumpers while I tend to the rest."
     Me:  "Hmmm."

I was inspired by two things that day.  First, God Calls us to do nothing where He is not tending to the big stuff.  While we do have a role, the success and completion of our work is not as contingent on our contribution as we think.  This is not an excuse to be lazy;  we are to be diligent in all our efforts.  But it is a comforting depiction of the God that covenants to be on our side.  God does not operate unilaterally rendering us to be mere spectators of His handy work.  Though that is His prerogative if He chooses. But God operates His purposes as a means for us to be with Him, in His presence, where there is great delight.  And outcomes are simply determined by His care and timing.

And secondly, I was reminded to stop taking myself so seriously.  I'm just cleaning the bumpers - not exactly the most important responsibility.  Humanism and enlightenment have conned us into believing in ourselves too much.  We are proud of human achievement and not afraid to talk about it.  And this mindset has crept into the Church.  I wonder if God sighs every time he hears another church brag of their latest accomplishment as though they were responsible for it?  Have we forgotten that our best acts are compared to "filthy rags"by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 64:6)? Imagine if we took God as seriously as we do ourselves.

Miles and I finished cleaning both cars that day.  We worked hard.  But most importantly we were together.  And when we got inside, he announced to the family, "We finished cleaning the cars!"  And we had the cleanest bumpers on the block.

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden                         


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Change Their Assumption

During one of the recent snows I decided to take a break from other responsibilities to go sledding with my kids.  Without telling them, I put on a few layers of clothes along with a jacket and positioned myself by the front door.  As I stood there, I began anticipating their excitement.  There was going to be shouts of joy when they entered the foyer and saw me standing there ready to play.  But something very different happened.

Miles spoke up first.  "Dad, what are you doing?"

I said, "Going sledding with you."

"Really?" was his surprised response.  And then he turned to his sister, "Avery, Dad is going with us."  And she replied with a quiet mumble, "Huh?"  And that was it.  The two of them walked passed me and out the door.

It's typically good not to respond with your first reaction.  And this was no exception. I was mad and wanted to give them a big lecture on the busyness of life and how appreciative they should be that I was setting aside some time to do this.  Basically, I wanted to critique them for their response not me. And then the little but powerful voice began to speak to me.  

"Why would you expect them to react any other way?  Their assumption, based on repeated behavior, is that they play in the snow alone or with their mother.  Not you. So get over it or change their assumption," said the little but powerful voice.

Perhaps there is no greater example of someone changing their assumption than the Apostle Paul.  The early followers of Jesus knew him initially to be strongly religious and a dedicated killer of their kind. So when word began to spread of his conversion, there was great skepticism surrounding his new faith. Paul spent much of the following years walking out his new faith in front of a host of doubters.

On one occasion, in a letter he wrote to the church at Philippi, he penned these words:  One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  All of us who are mature should take such a view of things (Philippians 3:13b-15a).  The Word of the Lord.

Here are some insights from Paul.

Your Thoughts Not Theirs
Paul understood that he could not control others' thoughts but he could his own.  So he does NOT ask others to forget what is behind.  He does not write, "Forget what I used to do since I am now straining toward what is ahead." Paul is not trying to convince them of his change; rather, he is describing his change process to them. There is a big difference.  When we are implementing some changes, we are tempted to spend energy asking people to change their assumptions toward us.  But words do not change assumptions.  Only behavior and time do.  People need space to determine if the change is a new standard or a new whim.

Memory Control not Memory Denial
When Paul describes that he is choosing to forget what is behind, he is not suggesting a denial of what took place.  It is unhealthy to overly dwell upon or overly deny the past.  Both extremes are destructive in their own way.  To overly dwell upon something is to devalue God's grace and mercy.  To overly deny the past is to disregard our history, running the risk of repeating it.  And Paul is not suggesting that we are capable of eradicating the past from our thinking.  He is, however, describing the ability God gives us to control memories - keeping them in the past where they belong not the present.  Don't drag yesterday into today.

A Marathon not A Sprint
Paul is using the metaphor of a race to describe his growth process.  He paints the picture of a runner who is straining and pushing ahead.  Over the years I have struggled with this imagery because I always envisioned the runner in a short sprint which seemingly equates our spirituality to a short burst of energy that basically produces fatigue. Not very appealing.  But Paul's metaphor is about a marathon not a sprint. The straining is about pace and endurance not quickness.  My friend, Wayne Mancari, is an avid runner.  He told me one time, "In a marathon if you think that your pace is just right, slow down a little. If you think your pace is a little slow, it is probably the perfect speed to ensure completion."  And the same is true for our spiritual growth.  Find your pace.  Strain.  Endure.  But don't sprint.

Why not What
I recently watched a Ted Talk by Simon Sinek on How Great Leaders Inspire.  I highly recommend it. He talks about the importance of anchoring our message in the why more than the what.  He said, "People don't buy what we do; they buy why we do it!" Paul's message clearly focuses on the why: "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Paul not only knows why he is changing but is motivated by it.  The what informs us but it does not inspire us.  And regular inspiration is needed to keep us on the pathway of change - pushing us through tough seasons.  When we get stuck, our tendency is to modify what we are doing.  While that might be helpful at times, it should not be our default assumption. We may just need to revisit and reaffirm the why.        

Mature Audiences Only
Paul gives us a surprise conclusion.  He says that this is a process for "all that are mature."  Up until this point, we assume that he is giving a roadmap for the immature who need to change - not the mature that have supposedly already done so.  But a strong indication of spiritual maturity is not a sense of arrival but of the journey. Those I spiritually admire always have a keen awareness of our continual need for God's grace.  In other words, the closer one draws to God, the clearer one sees ugliness and the inability to fix it humanly or instantly.  Paul knows this in his own life and imparts it to us as well. Changing their assumption is with us till we depart this world.

So I went sledding with my kids that day.  I doubt either of them are prepared to announce that their dad loves to sled.  But this one thing I am sure of.  The next time their assumption will be slightly different.  I'm on my way.

Ex nihilo,

R.J Rhoden