“Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.” I’m not certain who first said that but I know it’s been said more than once. Change is a given. To become that picture of who we’ve pinned up on that vision board will cost us the person we are right now plus the effort of transforming into the new creation we’ve displayed on that board. That sounds tiring, doesn’t it? It’s sort of like every motivational poster we’ve ever seen in the hallway of every other professional office we walk through – pictures of eagles soaring and rock climbers dangling from the ledge of some canyon. “If you can conceive it, you can achieve it!” And here we are on a holiday weekend and what you are really trying to do is sit still for a minute in the presence of God and try to be comfortable in your own skin. The process of becoming whatever it is we long to become is tiring, difficult work – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and often physically. And – if you’re at all like me, every morning is primed with enthusiasm for making great strides toward those becoming goals. Then, your feet hit the floor and the struggle is immediate.
There was a little clip floating around social media of late. Maybe you’ve seen it. It is a compilation of clips from Tom Hanks movies that suggest a walk-through of a typical work day – all the feels from total seize-the-day enthusiasm to “I don’t know what just happened” mind benders. Check it out and see if your days ever feel like this…
Do you know this struggle? It’s why everybody’s working for the weekend I suppose. We pour ourselves into this and that and even when it’s good, good work or we’re motivated to achieve and then we actually achieve some desired outcome, we are still left with some feeling that is less than satisfaction.
Peggy Noonan was considered the best of the Reagan-Bush speech writers. She tells how difficult it is to write the “Big Speech,” and the reasons why it rarely and barely measures up to expectations. Of even the best of her speeches, she confesses, “After a few minutes, you’re thinking, what’s for lunch?” It’s hard to stay constant in our quest for more or better or transformation of any kind. How do we stay engaged in the process of becoming? That’s what we will imagine together as we conclude our series, A Just Be Conspiracy. The last two weeks have focused on the first two of our three core values we rally around as a congregation. It was seven years ago, nearly to the day, that we adopted Be Loved, Believe, and Become as the values that would guide us on our quest to step in sync with the Way of Jesus. We don’t claim to do that perfectly – we are imperfect people making up an imperfect church – but these are the ideals we build upon together. In fact, that’s where the conspiracy language comes in. To conspire, in the Latin root of the word, is to breathe together. We are breathing together these 3 B’s – and you can even order a shirt today that will remind you of what they are because nothing says, “I love Jesus and my church” than a sweet cotton/poly blend. I wish I had one of those t-shirt cannons you see at ball games so I could shoot them out to you right now. Let’s get pumped up! But I digress…
Become. We want it. We want to. It is not a value that says “God will love you more if you become something different.” Not in the slightest. God could not possibly love you more or less than God loves you right now. I feel the same way about my three kids. I cannot fathom a single thing or single feeling that could change my love for my children. And yet… most any parent or someone totally invested in the children in their lives will tell you they want the very best for their kids – which tends to come out as, “I just want you to be happy.” “I want you to find love and meaning and purpose in your life.” Think about the times when you experienced such love or meaning or purpose in your own life. My guess is that it was generally a time when you were honed in – focused – working hard to achieve something your insides were just overly passionate about. It was not likely a time when something was given to you or a time when you had to put in zero effort to realize the goal. You worked hard for it. We have built within our very souls a longing to become – to live into our unique purpose in this world – and as people of faith, we tend to believe such is the movement of God in our very beings. It is a wrestling match to say the least. I always think of Jacob of First Testament fame as he wrestled with the angel down by the river; probably parked his van down there by the Jabbok (Genesis 32). He was struggling to work some things out in his own spirit – strained and complicated relationships in his family and struggling with his purpose – he wrestles all night with this angel – a reckoning with God. Cost him a dislocated hip and a permanent limp but he got the blessing he was looking for. He has the angel in a headlock and says, “Say uncle! Say uncle!” Not exactly but sort of. He says, “I won’t let you go until you bless me. Until I figure out what I’m supposed to become, I ain’t letting go.” And we wrestle like this all of the time – with God, with ourselves, with our purpose.
I was in St. Louis a week ago for a day-and-a-half of meetings with the Week of Compassion Advisory Committee. We met at Union Avenue Christian Church – great, old, gothic looking facility. We first met in a little room that was clearly utilized as a chapel at some point. It had a very southwestern vibe which was kind of neat. The age of the facility called for a few instructions from the staff about how to get around and how to hold your jaw just so in order to get that door to open, etc. They even put some labels on one set of doors just to be clear on how to get in and out of them. I took a picture of it because it made me smile. You can’t be more clear than that. “Yes.” “No.” I never messed that one up as I came in and out. It made me wish the rest of the movements in my life were that clear. Who am I supposed to be? What does God desire of my life? How do I grow to become that version of myself? Very seldom have I ever had those things marked in my spirit like the doors of that church.
So how do we prepare to get where we gotta get to from where we currently are that we just got to from where we recently were? Direction in life is just that confusing you know? Essentially, I’m trying to ask, “How do we become the best version of ourselves?” “How do I become the person God longs for me to become?” To be effective, we must always start with prayer. Prayer awakens our sensitivity to God’s movement in the world. Prayer is living fully alive. It’s living aware. And prayer will inspire us to act. One blogger says, “You don’t wait for inspiration; you fight for it.” He goes on, “If I waited until I felt like going to the gym, especially on Leg Day, I’d never do it. If I waited until I was inspired to write something, I’d rarely write. More times than not, inspiration is something you work towards, not something you wait for. You have to act your way into it.” We might add this about prayer – you have to pray your way into it.
The Apostle Paul believed this to be true. We draw a word about becoming from his letter to the church at Corinth. They were a tough church for Paul. They’d get one thing straightened out and then be up to some other shenanigans. It’s hard being the church sometimes. Paul even gives them the ‘parental talk’ right before our passage for today. “Look,” he says, “If I acted crazy, I did it for God; if I acted overly serious, I did it for you. Christ’s love has moved me to such extremes. His love has the first and last word in everything we do.” And then he says something that I think is critically important to the work of becoming. He says, “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.” To become anything new, you’ve got to have a firm and focused center. How? We start to see as God sees.
“From now on, therefore…” Paul says, which is to say, “Because of that firm and focused center, we don’t look at each other from a slanted human perspective anymore.” Don’t look with a judging eye. Look at your neighbor – who is any and every one – as God looks at them. God loves us as we are even as he sees our potential like no one else. God doesn’t just believe we can be new, God knows the transformation is already in process. When have you last looked at your neighbor in that way? Accepting who they are, believing who they are becoming? So much of our society is critical and discouraging of one another – everything (and everyone) is seen as a competition. When we see that way, we start to wish ill on someone else or failure. Instead, we need to view each other through eyes of great encouragement. If in your eyes and words and body language I sense support and encouragement, I am already on my way to becoming a better version of myself. If you want to take it to the next level, start asking of yourself when you see someone else trying to become a better version of themselves – “What can I do to encourage them in that effort?” And don’t leave that in your thoughts – act, move, and you might even find yourself becoming a better version of your own self in the process.
I once heard about an experiment that was done with a class of students on the value of paying attention in class. The professor had no idea the experiment was taking place. The students were told to act disinterested in the lecture – not too hard a task for most of them – but when a pre-assigned silent signal was given, the students were then to sit up, lean in, make eye contact with the professor and take copious notes. When the signal was given again, they were to resume utter disinterest in the professor’s lecture. So the professor begins – it’s pretty dull, boring, just reading through his notes – offering that monotone “Bueller, Bueller” voice as he gives his lecture. But then comes the signal and the students become deeply attentive and what happens? The professor stands up straight. He becomes more animated. He uses hand gestures and his voice swells and dips like a great story teller. He even goes off script a bit as he’s inspired to go deeper in his connection because his students are all ears and leaning into his every word. The signal is offered again and the students slouch in their seats, look down and doodle on their notebooks. The professor soon goes back to the same old monotone snore-fest-style lecture. Do you know what this said to me? If you want me to be a good preacher – you need to lean in and listen carefully. It’s on you, not me. That’s how it works. I was so relieved. I’ve been spending so much time working on these messages and all. Honestly, it made me think how entwined we are in who we become as individuals, as family systems, as co-workers, as a church. We each must do our own hard work, of course, but we have a larger role in others becoming their best selves than we may suspect. Maybe this is what Paul meant when he said, “Quit looking at each other from a human point of view. Lean into their lives like God does.” What would that do for your spouse – if you leaned in like that? What would it mean to your children, or your significant other or your aging parents or you politically-differing neighbor? And the agenda is not our own – it’s not, “Hey – become who I think you should become.” It’s a become the version of you God has created you to be.
Paul might call this the ministry of reconciliation that we have all been charged with carrying out in our lives. It’s an effort of restoration, of bringing together, of reunion. It’s the act of holy communion lived out on the daily. That’s how we become. We make the space; we bring the healing ingredients to the table and we cheer each other on in the transformative effort. Become. It’s a God effort. It’s an individual effort. It’s a communal effort. And somehow in this effort, we may become what Paul calls the righteousness of God. Righteousness, interestingly enough, is a word that is dropping off the graph of use in today’s society. Its use has dropped a great deal since the 1800’s and we can presume this is due to the negative associations with being self-righteous. Paul’s use, however, refers to God’s righteousness – sometimes translated from the Greek as God’s justice. God’s righteousness is connected to actions lived according to the established covenant. This was wrapped up in the First Testament law but Jesus brought a new covenant. He dropped the more than 600 covenants found in the First Testament to two: Love God and Love Neighbor. Later, Jesus shaves it down to one covenant: “Love one another as I have loved you.” It’s a step deeper than the Golden Rule which is to treat others as you want to be treated. Some have called it the Platinum Rule – “Love one another as Jesus loves us.” We become the righteousness, the living justice, of God when we honor that covenant. It is a high calling but as I stated early in today’s message – those are the callings that we look at with greatest joy, meaning, and purpose.
This is a picture of my buddy Chris. We were in China together last fall with the Week of Compassion. He’s a brilliant guy. President of HELM – Higher Education and Leadership Ministries of our denomination.
He posted another picture this week with the following commentary. “Someone sent me this photo of me from 2000 as I was finishing my first year of seminary. In addition to being struck by how utterly young I look, I began to reflect on what advice my current self might offer my then self, if I had the chance to do so. I’d probably say something like this: “Nothing I can say will prepare you for all that you will experience and accomplish in the future. In fact, if I were to give you any advice, you would probably screw it up.”
Look – becoming is just as hard, if not harder, than being loved and believing. Our core values should drive us this way and they have for the last seven years – and they are to this day. Looking back seven years ago when we agreed to own these three values, we looked like a very different church then than we do now. Looking back – the whole practice of “In hindsight”… you wonder if we made the right choices; did we agree to the right things; have we grown into the church God desires for us to be? The thing is – we’d start to tell our seven years ago selves – “You’ll have twice as many people worshipping with you in 2017. These new people will be called to serve on your staff. These key leaders will have joined the great cloud of witnesses. Your building will be 100% transformed and be some 4X bigger. Half the people that utilize your building in a given week are not members of the church. Almost thirty of your people will be headed to Nicaragua in a few weeks because of the international partnership you share with people there.” We could go on and on but I’m not sure any of that could prepare us for who we have become. Instead, we might say, “Keep at it.” Becoming the best version of ourselves all depends on what we do today. “Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.” My greatest prayer is that our seven-years-from-now-selves will look at us in this time and say, “Thank you for not settling. Thank you for leaning into God, one another, and the future. You helped us become more than we ever imagined we could.”
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