There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability;
there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. - M. Scott Peck

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Seventy Times Seven

Anger and forgiveness are automatic conversation starters in our group. No warm-up or DVD needed. Here are some thoughts we tossed around:
- anger can easily become a habit of the heart and lodge deeply there
- our level of anger is a reflection of our overall satisfaction with our life, more of a symptom than a cause
- forgiveness only comes from the heart, not the head – saying it doesn’t make it so
- our world is full of petty anger and not nearly enough God honoring righteous anger and we stand convicted by our lack of righteous anger
- seasons of life – our circumstances – are a factor in the level of anger in our life
- forgiving a deep hurt is incredibly hard even when we know we should and want to forgive
We finished the DVD and the words “seventy times seven” echoed subtly and weighed somewhat heavily in the room. While we struggle with anger, we struggle with forgiveness more. The deep wounds inflicted on us by others are hard to forgive. And especially hard when the person who hurt us doesn’t care about the hurt or doesn’t want to be part of our healing the hurt. How do you forgive someone like that? And what if the hurting continues – over and over again? Can Jesus really expect us to forgive someone over and over who hurts us over and over?
As I sat struggling with words I have always found hard - Seventy times seven? Really? – my lens shifted. What if Jesus was also saying that He knew how hard forgiving is for us? What if He is saying that we will have to forgive over and over and over – seventy times seven – before we will be able to root those angers and pains that have lodged deeply in heart? What if the “seventy times seven” Jesus was talking about wasn’t just about us forgiving someone who repeatedly hurts us, but was also about how hard and how often we will need to work to root out the deep hurts from our heart?
I often beat myself up and feel like a failure because I know I haven’t really forgiven. Oh, I’ve said the words, I know I should be forgiving, and even tried to forgive. But deep in my heart – and that’s the key – I continue to be angry and unforgiving. But isn’t Jesus saying He knows our heart, He knows our struggle, He understands how hard forgiveness is for us. And so He asks us not to stop trying, not to become discouraged, but to keep forgiving the same hurt until it is rooted out of our heart – even if it takes seventy time seven times to release the hurt and truly forgive.
Inflicting a deep hurt can be a matter of a single event. Forgiving a deep hurt can be a lifetime process. Jesus encourages us in the process. He knows it’s hard for us, but He wants our hearts to be free of the darkness of our anger. He encourages us to keep trying, to keep forgiving again and again and again until we have released our hearts from the angry chains that bind us so deeply. Even if it takes seventy times seven times.

Reading and Ragging

I learned this past weekend how very intimidating this blogging thing can be for me. I spent the weekend at a family wedding (why do weddings and funerals bring out the best in families and the worst in families?) and was more than a bit surprised when Becky and Brian, our two oldest, started ragging on me about the blog. I wasn’t surprised by the ragging – they’re both good at it and I keep providing them lots of material to work with – but it put a whole new lens on these blogs having them as part of the audience.
You get very little feedback about who reads these posts so it’s easy to imagine – and I often do – that I’m writing to this admiring audience who hang on my every word (see what I mean about material for ragging). And many people reading this don’t really know me or else have formed opinions of me from others. But few have gone through the peaks and valleys of my life like Becky and Brian. They have seen the eye of the storm of my anger (“Jack moments”), the tears of my complete failures (divorce and job loss), my unrealistic expectations (why can’t a 10 year old kid repeatedly field rocket shot ground balls hit by a maniac), my crazed competitiveness (life long Yankee fan – enough said), and much, much more.
Knowing they might be reading this notches up the honesty factor – I’m now sharing this with two of the most important people in my life and I owe them nothing less than my best effort at honesty and humility. And it reduces the “what a nice guy” posing factor – I can’t hide behind that fa├žade as easily with them in the front row.
I intend these posts to be one way for me to grow in my faith and, at the same time, share my faith journey with others. There are few people more important for me to share it with than you guys. I hope you guys will keep reading and keep ragging.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flying Solo

I was sitting on the deck this morning with a cup of coffee enjoying the view of the ocean over the dunes. Today was shaping up to be the only quiet day to myself (we have a week of family wedding craziness ahead), but I was thinking about this blog and what I’d be missing tomorrow night. It always a bit of a loss for me when I can’t make it.
Getting up for the second cup of coffee, an email from one of the guys hit my inbox (once again the “no blackberry at the beach” rule was violated). He had forwarded us the daily reflection from John Eldredge. The reflection ended with this quote: “…community cannot live without solitude.”
I was brought up a bit short by Eldredge. I have been such a zealot for small groups (a friend kids me about being a St. Paul extremist for groups) that God knew I needed a little more of His perspective on small groups.
I found myself thinking about the model Jesus gave us – the balance God wants for us is pretty clear. Jesus found many opportunities to speak to people in rows – in the temple, on a hillside, from a boat off the shore. Delivering clear, practical, often challenging messages to large groups was important to Jesus.
He greatly valued his small circle of brothers. He prayed with them, ate with them, traveled with them, and shared His pain with them. This was an incredibly important part of his life.
And in the midst of all that swirled around Him, He created time to be alone with His Heavenly Father. This time alone rejuvenated, strengthened, and comforted Him. Jesus made this time happen – no matter what.
Circles, rows and solitude. All are part of what God wants for us. Even zealots need to fly solo sometime. I’m thanking God for the quiet time He gives me, my circle of brothers, and the rows at Nativity. I am blessed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

God's Anger. My Anger.

Three topics on the table last night and we had to pick one: character, purpose, anger. (That a group of 9 guys would come together for two hours and have those as their choices for conversation says volumes about the impact of small groups.) With little hesitation, we all jumped on anger.

Everyone was in; everyone related easily to the topic. One of our newer guys – with us for 6 weeks or so – said he has had anger issues all his life. He thinks some of it might be related to his being abused when he was three years old. Another show stopper for me. Where do people get the courage to share such painful, personal stuff with 9 other people that they’re only beginning to really know and trust? We again stopped and acknowledged how humbled and honored we all were as another broken and pained heart entered the circle. (I continue to be amazed by what can happen in small circles that doesn’t happen in Sunday rows.)

We continued talking about anger. Fr. White’s statement that “God gets angry” came up over and over. We all had scripture references for what that looked liked for us. As I sat and listened, it struck me that God’s anger was always for the right reason, with the right people, at the right time. My anger is often over petty things, directed at people (usually my wife!) who are often not the cause of my anger, and is often delayed so that my anger is out of proportion to the incident at hand (my kids still call them "Jack moments").

God gets angry at the Israelites for worshiping false gods right after He saves them from Egypt and sends Moses back to straighten them out. I get angry that my kids leave dishes in the sink and I cop an attitude with my wife for the rest of the night. Jesus gets angry at the money changers defiling His Father’s house and He immediately throws them out of the temple. I start yelling and screaming because some guy with a North Carolina license plate cuts over two lanes because he’s about to miss his exit on the beltway (like I’ve never done that!) and I become a more aggressive driver for the rest of the trip. Jesus is angered by the Pharisees whose hard hearts lead people away from God and He constantly challenges them. I get angry because the 20 minute home improvement project takes 4 hours (largely because I don’t know what I’m doing) and I’m not pleasant to be around for the next three days.

Anger isn’t a sin. God is angry at the right people, for the right reason, at the right time. This is how God has modeled appropriate anger for us. I don’t need to work on my anger – I’ve got plenty of that. I need to prayerfully look at what I’m getting angry at (more anger over sexual abuse than dishes in the sink), who I get angry at (not my wife who happens to be in the wrong room at the wrong time), and when I get angry (letting anger build up in my heart that only leads to explosions that are out of proportion to the incident at hand.)

God’s anger. My anger. What about yours?

PS: The subject of multiplying came up again – and I wasn’t the one who brought it up. Touchy, touchy topic. How do we grow into greater acceptance of this?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Gentle Rains

After what seemed like a couple of intense weeks, we settled into more of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. The emotional intensity in our group the last couple of weeks, like a sudden thunderstorm, can grab your attention and focus you pretty quickly. It’s easy for me to feel God’s presence when the really emotional issues are on the table. That’s when I’m really looking for God’s presence and help. But, like the thunderstorm, you can’t sustain that emotional level for long.
One of the more amazing things about small groups is that it’s also in the quiet moments, the less intense times, that God’s presence can be felt. If you listen carefully. Here’s where we quietly wandered last night:
- Listening to Warren, we all wanted to surrender our lives to Jesus – within reason (and we’d like to decide what “within reason” means)
- We talked about the importance of sharing scripture. One of our guys described how he and his wife spent some time reading Ephesians about not uttering unkind words and then proceeded to melt down with each over their household budget.
- Another guy is assuming a leadership position at Nativity and is feeling a little uneasy about where his faith is and being asked to lead in the Church. I shared a great line Maria has used with ministers: Nativity is a place of sinners for sinners. Guess that includes leadership.
- Warren challenged that transformation comes from transforming our minds and replacing all the lies we’ve been told or tell ourselves with God’s truth.
- The only thing that using will power in our personal transformation does is create tension and stress. God’s word in scripture is more effective and transformative.
- Without personal transformation, religion is like tying apples on a dead branch. Looks good, but it’s still dead.
- Your prayer life is an indicator of what you’re relying on God for – if you’re not praying about it, you’re not depending on God for it.
- The group is a place where you can break the power of sin by speaking your sinfulness and acknowledging your temptations - if you’re willing to use it.
- And right after we finished praying around the circle and were packing up, one of the guys asked for some help defining what “character” means. That one will need some work.
Lots to unpack. No thunderstorms, just some gentle rain filling our hearts. Nice.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Small Groups - Big Change

How does it happen that, almost intuitively, all of us in our group felt that we could go deeper; that there was more depth of sharing possible; less posing we wanted to do; more vulnerability we needed to drive toward, another leve we could reach? Last week’s discussion kicked off last night’s group.

I heard this phrase somewhere (probably an Andy Stanleyism) – God’s will in God’s way in God’s time. We asked to be led deeper into fellowship and last night it was God’s will and it was God’s time for us.

I led off trying to explain my sense of urgency for our group to multiply. I have clearly created some discomfort by pushing the topic. None of us really like the idea, but we talked about our fears. Most of us are afraid to lose the good thing we have in the group. Trust takes time and hard work to build. Few of us are anxious to start over with the hard work of building trust with another group of men we don't know. We know we'll never really be “ready” to expand a circle into two circles, but I’m more confident that, after last night, we’ll know when it’s time and work through the tough decision.

That conversation was a mere baby step toward the edge of the plateau. One of our guys then took a major leap to the next place dragging us with him. He read three pages that emotionally and heroically placed his broken and troubled heart in the middle of the room for all of us to see. His self image is shaken and confused; he’s facing a painful divorce; he fears for his relationship with his sons; he’s fighting bouts with depression; he despairs of things ever getting better; has all kinds of voices telling him how he should handle things; and has few places to pour out his hurt. How does one find the courage to lay all of that out in front of seven other guys? What do you do when you’re handed someone’s broken heart?

We started doing what most guys do - offer suggestions to “fix” the situation. Seeing the deep pain in his eyes, we quickly moved away from that. We offered support, shared similar painful experiences, and mostly just experienced the ache of a despairing heart. Then we did something we have never done. We always go around the circle and pray at the end of our meetings. Last night we went around the circle and prayed specifically for our brother who placed his broken heart in our hands. There was little we could really do last night but pray with him and for him. We left humbled, honored, aching a bit more in our hearts, and wondering about this new place we may have entered. Small Groups – Big Change.

P.S. Did I mention that we had a new member join us last night? Not sure what he really thought at the end of all this, but it was certainly quite an introduction to a Nativity Small Group. God’s will in God’s way in God’s time.