The first battle of the day

Meadowkirk Tree at Sunset

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other Voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussing and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

God says, “You are mine. I love you.”

Lord, let that be our perspective throughout our day. Amen.

[H/T to John Sowers’ The Heroic Path.]

How do I know my calling?

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “How Do I Know … My Calling?”]

“How do I know?” is one of the most common questions that comes up in counseling, in prayer, in conversations.

  • How do I know what God’s calling me to?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be with this person?
  • How do I know if I should marry this person?
  • How do I know if I should try and have kids, or adopt, or foster?
  • How do I know if I’m supposed to be in this city?
  • How do I know if I’m in the right job or if I should look for a new one?
  • How do I know how I should spend my time and with whom and doing what?

It’s probable that you’ve asked one of those questions at some point in your life.  It’s possible that you’re still wondering.

Here are three quotes that have shaped my understanding of calling. First, from C.S. Lewis, who describes the process of discovering your calling like this:

All of the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it, tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”

And then author and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote,

the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

And finally, civil rights leader and philosopher Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Though they could be interpreted as being in opposition, I don’t think they are; I think they’re all true, just maybe not the way we may automatically think.

I grew up in the church, where people talk about “discovering God’s will” and “discerning God’s plan” and “asking God what he desires,” and I developed the image in my head of God’s will or calling on your life being like a map or a blueprint. You had to “discover God’s will,” as if that meant figuring out where on the map you were and then navigating along God’s route to point X; or “follow God’s will,” as if there were certain instructions on how to construct a godly life and if you skipped a step, you’d end up with a wonky product.

And so, for much of my life, I was kind of anxious:

  • What if I miss what God’s will is?
  • What if I end up doing a job that God doesn’t want me to do?
  • What if I don’t answer God’s calling on my life?
  • What if I don’t marry the person God wants me to marry?
  • If I fall off the path, what happens to the rest of the journey?
  • If I skip one instruction—even accidentally—can I go back and fix it or am I screwed for the rest of my life?

I wonder how many others have that image of God and of his will; I wonder how many others feel or have felt paralyzed because of that.

Understanding God's WillAbout ten years ago, I came across the late Kyle Lake’s Understanding God’s Will: How to Hack the Equation Without Formulas. One illustration really helped me see things in a different light. He references an article by Brian McLaren, who gave this analogy:

Imagine one of my sons calls me on the phone and asks, “Dad, what’s your will for my college major?”

I would say, “Son, I have raised you to this point in your life so that you can make that decision.”

“Yes, Dad,” he replies, “but I want to do your will, not my own will. So, please tell me what major to choose.”

“Son,” I’ll say, “I’d be glad to help you think this through. For example, we can talk about how much you hate history and calculus, and how much you love writing and business. I think I can help you eliminate some options, but I really want you to decide this.”

“Dad, don’t you love me? What if I make a mistake? I just want to do your will!” he says.

“But, Son,” I’ll reply, “it is my will for you to make this decision. Again, I’m glad to talk with you and help you think it through. But my will is for you to grow up, be a man, and make a life for yourself by making decisions, hard decisions, like this one. And believe me, whatever happens, whether you major in business or art or physics, whether it goes well or not, I will be with you. You can count on that, no matter what.” The point is that he lives with my guidance, but not my domination, because he’s my son, not my lawn mower.

And all of a sudden, the anxiety-inducing image in my head of God as a blueprint maker was done away with, and I learned about an important distinction, a distinction that may make all the difference: it’s between your general calling and your specific calling. As Kyle Lake explains:

A general will [or calling] applies to everyone equally; a specific will [or calling] applies to everyone individually.

When we ask, “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?” or “How do I know my calling?”, what we’re normally referring to is the second one, the specific calling. That’s the one we get most obsessed with, most concerned with, and most worried about.

The thing is, though, while it may be tempting to think that we’re starting from scratch—you feel like you have no clue what to do or where to begin—what God has left for us in Scripture, what God shows us most commonly in the Bible, what we have in abundance in what we call the word of God, is God’s general calling.

This is what God has said already, what he has said to generations past, and what he continues to say through these pages to our generation and to future generations. And when we follow these words, when we do what God asks of us in Scripture, then I believe we discover what Buechner calls “our deepest gladness,” what Howard Thurman describes as the thing that “makes you come alive.” Because this is our Creator God, speaking words of life to us, speaking words that will bring life to us if we listen and obey.

  • Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”—general calling.
  • Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself”—general calling.
  • Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—general calling.
  • Genesis 1:28: “He made human beings in the image of God,” we should treat each other as such—general calling.
  • Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—general calling.
  • In the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus says, “Follow me” (4:19) and “Make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:19) —general calling.

I could go on and on, and oftentimes when people ask me what they should do with their lives, I want to say: “Read the Bible first. You never know what God may say in there. You never know how what God has already said may impact your life. You never know who you’ll encounter there … Jesus, for instance.”

Now, I’m not saying the Bible is where you to go to solve all your problems, nor am I calling it a manual to follow literally and step-by-step in order to build the perfect life. Many of the contemporary issues we face the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. But if you want to know what God has already said, read the Bible.

Here’s one thing you’ll find in the Bible:

God offers far more instruction on whom we are called to be than on what we are supposed to do.

This is not to say that what we do doesn’t reflect or have an impact on or any relation to who we are, but the thing is, as author Os Guinness reminds us in The Call:

We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless you’re operating within God’s general calling, you’re unlikely to discover God’s specific calling. Unless you’re seeking to follow Jesus, to take up your cross, to be filled with the Spirit, to be living a holy life, to doing justice and being kind and walking humbly with your God; unless you’re treating the least of these as if they were Christ himself, putting the needs of others before yourself and putting God above all, it’s going to be really hard to discern what specific thing God may be calling you to.

Dallas Willard goes one step further; he writes in Hearing God:

people also often seem to lack desire to receive God’s word merely for what it is, just because we believe it is the best way to live. This is shown by a disregard of the plain directives in the Scriptures. Sanctification from sexual uncleanness (1 Thess 4:3) and a continuously thankful heart (1 Thess 5:18) are among the many specific things clearly set forth in God’s general instructions to all people. It is not wise to disregard those plain directives and then expect to hear a special message from God when we want it. … Anyone who rejects the general counsels of Scripture is in fact planning not to be guided by God and cannot then rely on being able to be delivered from their difficulties by obtaining God’s input on particular occasions.

The hope of God isn’t that we’d just always be asking him, “What do I do now?” and then doing it and then asking him again and then doing it and then asking him again (ad infinitum). The hope of God is that we’d grow into mature believers, we’d answer his call to follow, we’d be becoming the kind of people who are always learning from their Master and Lord, and to be children who reflect the family likeness. So please don’t let the fact that you may not yet know God’s specific calling on your life stop you from doing what he’s already asked you to do.

Nike+ RunningAnd how will you know what he’s already asked you to do? By spending time reading the Bible. Maybe you’re in a season where your Bible spends more time on the shelf than open in front of you—or maybe you have the app on your phone and it’s actually on your home screen, but it’s more to make yourself feel better because you know it’s there. Kind of like me with my Nike+ running app—just because it’s on my home screen doesn’t mean I’m getting any fitter! After a while, you get tired of feeling guilty and you’re either going to use it or you’re going to move it to a folder.

Let me encourage you to use it—the Bible (app), that is.

  • Take time in God’s word every morning: reading, reflecting, praying, studying.
  • Learn the vocabulary of God; learn the character of God.

You may not have a Damascus Road experience every morning, but one of my friends calls this “winning the first battle of the day” for a reason. I would guess that if we surveyed (1) folks in our church who read the Bible first thing in the morning and then moved to email and Facebook and Twitter and the news and (2) folks who did things the other way around, that first group would say their days are a little more centered. I want us to go to the word of God before we go to the words of others—because here’s what I think:

news + email + Facebook + Twitter – the word of God

= empty, jealous, hopeless, angry.

And I don’t think God wants an empty, jealous, hopeless, angry life for us. I think he wants much more for us than that.

I was almost thirty when I figured out that God was calling me to pastoral ministry. It was here at The District Church where I finally felt like all the strands of my life came together, all the threads were woven together—my passions for theology, music and justice. It was here that I finally came to know in truth and not just in theory that God doesn’t waste an experience. It was here that I was finally able to see that, while the journey had seemed for me a wild careening from one to another, it all flowed within the broad brushstroke of what God intended for me—and that God’s general calling and his specific calling, at least in my case, weren’t all that far apart.

Of course, I can point to all these things with hindsight. When I was going through these things, over the course of twelve years, I felt frustrated and uncertain, going from passion to passion—finding something I was interested in and then realizing I didn’t want to do it with all of my time—law, and then music, and then theology, and then politics and advocacy. I was trying to be faithful at every step and not sure how it would all fit together—not sure if it would all fit together; I didn’t know what I’d end up doing with my life. Anne Lamott describes her journey as a “series of staggers” and a “lurch” rather than leap of faith—and I can say that, in the moment, much of my journey of discernment has felt like that, too.

John Ortberg, author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says that it wasn’t until almost thirty years into church ministry that he got a sense of God’s confirmation that he was doing the ‘right thing.’ He says, in “God’s Call Waiting”:

I never got marching orders. Partly, I think, it may have been because God knows that I will grow much more as a person if I have to figure things out and exercise judgment and make a decision and accept responsibility than if I just got a postcard and followed directions.

That’s how God’s worked in my life, too—not as a divine blueprint-maker but as my heavenly Father. Within the general calling of following Jesus and being a disciple who makes disciples, who studies the word of God and learns the character of God as revealed in Scripture—the character God seeks to cultivate in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit—God has more often than not allowed me to choose …

because I’m his son, not his lawn mower;

because he wants me to grow up and become a mature and responsible citizen of his kingdom;

because he wants me to learn what it means to love fully and to follow whole-heartedly.

I want to leave you with a couple of practical things you can start doing this week:

  1. Read the Bible—get in the word of God, not just at decision times, but at all times. Learn what God’s already said, read how’s he interacted with his people before, see what he’s already asked you to do, cultivate a sense of who God is and what he might be saying. Read the story of Jesus: know his character, his actions, his words—it’s awfully hard to follow someone if you don’t really know them!
  2. If you want something more specific, read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is one of the parts of Scripture where, every time I read it, I’m grounded again in God’s reality, in God’s vision for life, in God’s kingdom. So, every day this week, try reflecting on a verse or passage a day from the sheet. What might God be saying to you through it? Take time to write down your thoughts in a journal or talk through it with friends. Start with the word of God before you go to the words of others.

Every single one of us has a calling on our lives, and it’s more important than what we do and who we marry and where we live and what job we take and how many kids we have.

The calling is to follow Jesus, to find a life more true and more real than we could ever imagine.

I can tell you that much for sure.

Being Single, Part 4: Sex

[Adapted from this past Sunday’s message at The District Church, “Being Single.”]

Statistically, most single adults have had sex. Some of you are in relationships where you’re having sex now; others of you have had sex before—maybe it was good, maybe it was terrible; and some of you really wish you could have sex. My hope today is that, regardless of what has already happened, we can have a biblical understanding of and approach to sex, because what happens next is also pretty important—actually, more important.

It’s an interesting thing being a single 30-year-old pastor in a church full of young, smart, good-looking people, in a city full of young, smart, good-looking people, in a culture that tells you that you need to be young, smart, and good-looking in order to find someone else who’s young, smart, and good-looking so that you can “find God’s match for you” (anyone seen that tagline recently?) and/or just have a little good old harmless fun between the sheets.

Accepting singleness as a gift—living into who God created you to be—doesn’t mean being free from sexual desires and urges; it doesn’t mean you’ll be miraculously free from hormones and chemical reactions in your brain and your body; it doesn’t mean you’ll be rescued from the cultural bombardment that we’re all faced with: on billboards, in ads, on the internet. I know how difficult it is to be hit by wave after wave of messages that say you need to have sex in order to fully enjoy life; that you’re somehow incomplete if you haven’t had sex; or that it’s just another appetite like being hungry or being thirsty—it’s a physical urge that just needs to be satisfied.

I realize this may be a very sensitive topic for some of you, but the perspective that says, What happens in the bedroom is nobody else’s business! doesn’t really work for a people who say, as Christ-followers, “All to Jesus I surrender; I surrender all.”

So here’s what I think the Bible says about sex—and if you disagree, talk to me, email me, dialog with me; let’s keep encouraging each other to find better and fuller and more holistic ways of following Jesus.

First, if Jesus was single and celibate his entire life, for 15-20 years after his hormones started kicking in, for 10-15 years after he was ‘supposed’ to be married and at least have some sort of outlet for his sexual urges, and if Jesus is the most complete, most fulfilled, most content human being that ever lived, then you are not incomplete if you haven’t had sex and you can live life to the full even without having sex.

And before you say, “Well, he was God,” the author of Hebrews reminds us: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

And before you say, “Well, he didn’t have the internet or magazines on which every single cover has the word ‘Sex’ on it, or he didn’t date anyone so of course he wasn’t tempted to have sex,” you don’t need those things to be tempted. As far as I’m aware, you have a mind, you are a sinner, and there is a devil: ergo, you will be tempted. It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted! It is a sin to give in to temptation, to entertain those thoughts and play them out and act upon them. Martin Luther is reported to have said that you cannot stop birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.

Second, sex is not just an appetite like any other. This is clear from the way Scripture talks about it: Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). In fact, it is for these very reasons that Paul writes, one verse earlier, “Shun sexual immorality! Every other sin which a person commits is outside the body; but the one who commits sexual immorality sins against his or her own body.”

I think God intended sex to be not only a way to procreate and have babies, but more importantly, as one of the most intimate and vulnerable and enjoyable expressions of commitment and trust and love. In the beginning, it says in Genesis, “The man and the woman were naked and unashamed” (2:25). That doesn’t mean they were brazen about it, as is the common attitude today, which says, It’s just sex! What’s the big deal? Rather, it means that they had no fear in revealing all of who they were to one another. And the physical act of sex is symbolic of this closeness, allowing someone to get about as close as a person can get, “becoming one flesh.”

Scientifically speaking, when two people have sex, not only is the chemical dopamine released, which makes you feel good, but also oxytocin, which is the bonding chemical, increasing commitment. That’s why, relationally and emotionally, if you have sex with someone, you’re more likely (and of course there are exceptions) to feel a connection with that person. Relationships in which sex is a part are going to be a lot harder to end if they need to and they’re going to hurt a lot more when they do, and relationships in which sex is the main thing tend to be self-serving rather than self-giving; and we see in the person of Jesus Christ that love is about putting the other’s needs before our own. “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Love is an act of the will, where you act lovingly even if you do not always feel loving. We tend to think love is a feeling, but it is not. Love is an action; love is something we do for others” (God Has A Dream, 78).

So sex is not the same as love. Sex is intended to be the most intimate and vulnerable expression of love, meant to be enjoyed in tandem with serving the other person and sacrificing for the other person and putting the other person’s needs before your own. It’s not that sex is bad as a single person and then good for married people. Sex was always intended to be a very good thing; so precious, in fact, that God wanted to protect it within the confines of a covenant relationship, where two people have committed to each other that, no matter what, they will see it through. When things are valuable, we take care of them: most of you treat your iPhones as valuable, even if that shows itself by putting it in a protective case so that it can take some punishment. Similarly with sex, if it is a good thing, if it is one of the best things in life—and I believe that it is—then it should be cared for, it should be protected, it should be enjoyed in the safest environment, that is, a committed covenant relationship.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote a couple of great blogs on sex (here and here). Here she’s talking about waiting:

… when you wait to have sex, you are creating an important connection between the very powerful urges to do things that feel really good and the ability to control those urges. Otherwise known as self-control. This practice of self-denial and delayed gratification makes you a healthier, more poised, and better moderated person. Ultimately, self-control is a character trait—or *ahem*, fruit of the spirit, for the Christian folk—that will help you be a better long-term partner in your ’til-death-do-we-part relationship.

… we’ve done a really bad job of teaching about sex in the Church. Our approach has been to shame girls for having it, and shame boys for wanting it. And when the smart kids ask, “Why wait?”, we shrug our shoulders like a hillbilly and say, “Because the Bible says.” Then we give the girls a purity ring and we give the boys nothing and we cross our fingers and hope they’ll cross their legs. So dumb.

We’ve made virginity the goal, when it is purity that we should be aiming for; they’re not the same thing. Sexual purity is a lifelong spiritual practice that doesn’t begin or end with a single sex act, just as it doesn’t begin or end on a wedding night. So when we are asked, “Why wait?”, we should have an answer that empowers and prepares people to choose wisely for a lifetime.

So her advice for her kids is to wait and, by waiting, to cultivate self-control and to grow as a healthy, mature human being who’s capable of rising above the animal instincts that tell you that you can’t do anything other than what you feel. She says:

the person you’re with right now … is not the last person you will have those feelings toward, and you need to know what it feels like to not act on those feelings, because a day will come when you will have to exercise self-control for the sake of the relationship you’ve given your life to—and, trust me, you will want to know how to do that. Do not relinquish that power without a fight.

Now, please don’t hear me saying that what married people do in the bedroom doesn’t matter. It’s entirely possible to be selfish with sex as a married person, just as it’s entirely possible to live a life of integrity and wholeness and joy as a single person without sex. And as C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’

The risk of love

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 123:

Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.