Seasons of Faith 3

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The Desert Phase is inevitable and important, but never welcomed. After the Honeymoon Phase and Growth Phase (and sometimes right in the middle of one of these phases that I talked about in the past two posts), God allows the evil, broken world we live in to affect us just like it affects everyone.  It’s a time of disequilibrium. God lets us down because he doesn’t do what we wanted or expected. Inevitably, we had a “deal” with God that He didn’t agree to: “If I do good, God will keep me from suffering.” Then we realize that was never the deal God agreed to. Death or disease, betrayals, trials or sufferings enter our lives—just as it entered the life of God demonstrated in Jesus! We don’t “feel” close to God.  We “feel” like He’s just not there and we’re stumbling in the dark alone.  Jesus himself went through this, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  What we are learning is how God overcomes an evil world, not by removing all evil, but by overcoming it by faith. “And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.” (Romans 8:17)

This is probably the most important time of growth in a person’s life, yet if that person doesn’t have the support of spiritually wise friends or enough growth in faith to know that every writer of Scripture went through the Desert and emerged stronger, she might walk away from God for years (usually until the pain and hopelessness of life without God drive us back to Him).

The reason God allows us to go through this phase is it forms us into truly compassionate, loving people if we allow it to work its truth into our lives.  This is the painful birth canal through which every spiritually alive person must eventually pass. (Romans 8: 22-23)  Instead of seeing only a black and white world of “good people who think and do like I’ve learned to do” and “bad people who don’t,” we learn to grieve a broken, evil world where people created good in God’s image get hurt and deceived and then hurt and deceive each other. We realize that “I’m no different—I need God’s forgiveness and leadership just as much as everyone else.”

Jesus pointed out the difference between the Religious Pharisee who prayed, “God thank you I’m not like that Tax Collector Sinner over there,” and the Tax Collector who prayed, “God have mercy on me, help me.” We realize the line between good and evil isn’t “out there,” it runs right through my heart. That’s why I need what Jesus did to count for me, and it’s why I need God (and usually this realization at a deeper level creates in us compassion and empathy for those who struggle or hurt, and even those trapped doing hurtful, evil things). Jesus told the Religious people stuck in the growth phase, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”  As we allow God to change our hearts, we emerge from this Desert Phase with a far deeper experience of God’s love and a far greater capacity to love others.  This is a truly maturing faith.

My own experience is on the backside of these Desert times, which I went through an incredibly intense one this year, and two years ago—on the backside there’s an internal joy and depth of life that’s just amazing.  It makes no sense, I can’t really even explain it. It’s the experience of that Living Water Jesus talked about that comes from your innermost being—it’s a gift from God that refreshes after the parched dryness of the Desert. Only after experiencing this multiple times have I come to understand a verse that always perplexed me:  “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” (Romans 5:3-5)  I now “get this” experientially. I’m convinced God doesn’t cause the sufferings (any more than God caused the sufferings of Jesus). But God allows them for a time and uses them to form willing people into truly compassionate, loving people who can be His Body serving a broken, hurting world.  Studies on spiritual growth show that people identify times of trials and suffering as the greatest catalyst to forming who they are today.

Something to reflect on this New Year is the question, “Does my view of spiritual growth include seasons of trials and suffering?” “If not, why not?”  “Am I prepared to endure so that God can birth something strong in me through it—or will it all be for nothing?”

Seasons of Faith 2

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Last blog, I reflected on the first Season of Faith: The Honeymoon Phase. After this comes the Growth Phase if faith is truly to survive the test that will inevitably come.  This phase is marked by more rules and boundaries and black and whites. It’s a time of learning and putting new practices in place to reorient our old habits into new ones that help us live life with God at the center. It’s a time of learning, of trying new things, of developing a more disciplined spiritual life. Usually, we need more structure in this phase, and we often become a bit rigid and even judgmental of those not “getting serious” about God like we are.

When I was in this phase (before going through the next two phases) I was definitely feeling that “better than” or “good boy” sense of accomplishment from having regular (cannot miss) “quiet times” or “prayer times” or diligently studying or memorizing.  This is actually good and important (we need to feel good about our diligence to persevere), but if we get stuck here, it can also lead to a kind of Religious Piety that is judged only by rules and outward appearances and looking-down-the-nose at those less inclined (Many of the Pharisees of Jesus day seemed to be stuck here).

I’ve seen people come to faith at Gateway who entered into this phase and became so black and white, they started feeling judgmental toward the very approach that helped them find faith, and left our church condemning us as heretical.  I’ve since come to see that the first time we enter this phase (because these phases are not linear, but more cyclical in a spiraling upward kind of way), we need well defined paths and boundaries—it actually gives security to our faith.  It’s okay for people to be more black and white first growing through this season.

It’s almost like the way children need rules and boundaries to feel secure, when they don’t have the maturity to see the deeper principles that govern the rules or boundaries.  But that’s okay, it’s a phase.  This is why we’ve clearly defined a spiritual formation path called Morph that helps people get intentional about growth (whether new to faith or those who have been “at it” for years, but who still do not have regular practices in place or a good working knowledge of the Scriptures).  If the first growth phase is successful, we now understand more about who God is, who we are, and how life really works, so that the next phase does not sink our ship (though it almost always feels like it will!).

For me, I’ve realized that some of the practices I used to do almost legalistically, I have not done in years—like memorizing Scripture. I got a group of guys who I recently challenged to start memorizing, and it reminded me of how beneficial this has been over the years. Having God’s promises on your mind throughout the day—so I’m returning to that practice with them.  What season are you in?  Does this need to be a year of increased structure and discipline?  Or have those structures become a legalistic act by which you judge yourself and others—is it time to give yourself permission to “chill” and pursue life with God outside the boundaries of the play-pen?

Seasons of Faith 1

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I’ve been reflecting on where I am spiritually right now. Usually, I do this each year on the backside of Christmas. But we ended up driving 36 hours with a carload of teenagers from Gateway on The Uprising snowboarding trip (can you say, “bruised tailbone”?). I learned to snowboard (which I discovered is nothing like wakeboarding, surfing, or skating) and tried my best to keep up with my son (who after three days was rippin’ it up—he’s in the orange suit!). So I’m just now reflecting on the year, which in the past might have caused guilt that I didn’t stick with my yearly discipline. This made me think back to seasons of faith that we typically all go through if we stick with it long enough. The next four posts, I’m gonna reflect on each season. People have called them different names; I call them the Honeymoon Phase, the Growth Phase, the Desert Phase, and the Love Phase. One thing to note, the seasons are not linear. I see them more as a spiraling up as we pass through different seasons again and again, but in “higher” more mature ways as we grow.

The Honeymoon Phase is that time when we first really get it that God is real and good and wants us!  It’s the beginning of seeing the world as a place of hope and possibility now that Someone Bigger is in the picture.  Everything’s new—prayer is new and fresh, reading the Scriptures is new–we’ve stopped being the accuser and cynic and instead seek to really learn—this opens us to see God and life in new ways.  It’s like a honeymoon as you start a new life with God.  I remember for me, though I didn’t have lots of warm-fuzzy feelings or any wild “experiences” this time was very hopeful and full of promise.  Ironically, I remember my first ski trip was on a retreat right after I came to faith.  Being in the mountains reminds me of this time of first love—for the first time, seeing the God behind everything good and beautiful and fun. Do you remember this time—do you remember your “First Love?”  In Revelation, Jesus tells us to remember and return to this season of our “First Love” (Rev. 2:4-5).  Those feelings come and go, like in any relationship, but we can rekindle the light of that first love for God by remembering and doing some of things we did before in this season.

So Much Better

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Wow, I’m grateful for the improvement since I last blogged. I did three things that really helped pull me out of that downward spiritual spiral we all can fall into:  I put additional intentionality back in place to stay connected better (got my watch beeping to remind me, and when I felt stressed I slowed down to talk it over with the Lord), and more importantly I set aside extended time for solitude and decompression last weekend. It’s amazing how three hours of hiking or sitting quietly with no noise, just talking things over with God, can clear out the fog and bring back the light of hope.

Another thing I found helped is I went back to meditating on God’s Word. I had been reading a book that I got so caught up in, I started to slack in my nightly ritual of reading and meditating on the words of Scripture. I started back, and it reminded me again of how God’s Spirit uses his Word to guide and instruct and reveal things to us. There’s a reminder Paul gives to the church in Corinth about the purpose of the stories of faith and failure and God’s will and ways written down in Scripture: “These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age. 12 If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. 13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.” (1 Corinthians 10:11-13)

I find that this simple practice of reading through a 365-day Bible (one that gives a passage from the Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms or Proverbs each day that gets you through the Bible in a year) helps me immensely. It’s all in the attitude with which you approach it. I try to read with the intent of listening to God’s Spirit as I reflect on an Old Testament story (what does this teach me about You Lord, or about people like me?), or the words of Jesus or the instruction given to first century churches (what do You want me to know, see, or do with this, Lord?)  Holding up what I’m reading like a mirror through which to reflect on my own life, asking God’s Spirit to teach me and meet with me as I ponder what I read, letting it turn into a free flowing conversation…this has been a practice God has used to lead and guide me in very helpful ways.  It’s not always a warm-fuzzy, electric experience—sometimes it’s just simply realizing or learning something I didn’t know, sometimes it’s asking God questions that still puzzle me, sometimes there is that “ah-ha” spark of realization that enlightens and leads me to a better place.

Settin’ the Beepin’ Watch Again

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The 60-60 Experiment is over for Gateway.  I warned our church that when you’ve focused on growing spiritually in an intense way for 60 days like this, there will be a tendency to “let down” and just revert back to old ways.  So I challenged them to be aware and not go back! Even though I’ve practiced staying connected to God for years, and it has become more of a habit without needing the watch beeping, I still went through a spiritual letdown the past few weeks.

I was talking to my Spiritual Running Partners about it yesterday and one of them said something that made a lot of sense.  He said, “If Jesus’ life teaches us about what to expect, after a season of great spiritual victory, we should expect increased temptation.  And right before God does a great work through us, we should expect increased temptation and spiritual struggle.” I thought about that–Jesus was baptized, marking the beginning of his public ministry, and what followed?  Forty days of temptation in the desert!  Right before Jesus’ greatest spiritual accomplishment—paying for the debts of all humanity on the cross—he was tempted in the garden of Gethsemene to take the easy way out.

So I’ve experienced what I’ll bet many of you have experienced.  After a season of seeing God’s presence and power in my life in some wonderful, life-giving ways, I find myself feeling weak and tempted and attacked.  But I don’t want to just give in to it, because I know that the life I lead disconnected from the Source of Life drains my soul dry.  Even this week, I’ve found myself tense and stressed in ways I haven’t felt in years.  I found myself impatient and saying things at times I had to go apologize for afterwards, all because I’m not staying connected.  So today, I’m relying on God’s loving forgiveness. I’m not soaking in my failure, I’m moving forward with His Spirit, and I’m fighting against the lies that tell me what a loser God thinks I am—I know where that comes from.

So, I’m setting my watch to beep again…’cause I don’t want to go back!