Incremental and Transformational Growth

[The Land Between - chapters 14 & 15]

I played many sports as a kid. Eventually, as I got older, I narrowed my focus down to one sport: golf. Golf is all about repetition. Going to the range and hitting hundreds of golf balls, trying to repeat the same swing over and over and over again. Spending hours on the putting green, working to replicate the same exact stroke over and over and over again. All this repetition was for one reason: so that when you were on the course and the pressure was on, you could simply “trust your swing.”

When I think of incremental growth, I think of the hours and hours of tedious and boring practice sessions. Trying to train my muscles to do the exact same thing every single time. When you’re doing it, you don’t feel like it is doing anything. You feel like it doesn’t matter. You feel like you are sometimes just going thru the motions. The reward doesn’t come until your out on the course, and playing in a tournament where the pressure is on.

When the pressure is on and you feel the heat of the situation, I was able to trust my swing, and it came thru for me. MY mind was able to simply say, “Just trust your swing.” When that happened, I was able to perform under the pressure.

Incremental growth in our faith is similar. Sometimes we find ourselves reading scripture, praying, going to church, participating in a small group, etc., and we feel “Tedious and bored.” What we don’t necessarily see is that those moments of incremental growth are preparing us for life-changing and transformational situations. They are preparing us to face and deal with the heat, pain, and suffering of life. Those times in our lives that seem to produce “transformational growth.”

What season are you going thru? What kind of growth are you experiencing right now? Do you feel like you are in a season where you feel like you are just trying to get into a rhythm of repetition of spiritual practices? Are you going thru a time of trial and testing, putting your faith to the test? Or are you stagnant? Nothing is happening at all? God is concerned with our growth. We are either growing towards him, or moving away from him.

Conclusion

We wrapped up our discussion of the book, and here are some of the overall “take away” thoughts from the book:

  • The “Land Between” is better spent trying to learn, rather than complain. Focusing our energy on learning what God is teaching us, rather than trying to figure out why we are in the “land between”.
  • No matter where we are (Egypt, Land Between, Promised Land), we have a choice in how we will respond to the situation around us. And the choice we make reflects the level of trust we put in God.
  • We can cry out to God no matter what our thoughts and feelings
  • Trust. Trust. Trust. Will I continue to trust him?
  • There is lots of unknowns in the Land Between, and not sure if there is resolution. But we need to expect that God is doing something, no matter you find yourself. God is tirelessly working no matter where we find ourselves, and if we find ourselves in situations that we created for ourselves, or were forced upon us from the outside.
  • Looking at the concept/idea of God’s Presence, and allowing it to be enough.
  • The book frames pain and suffering and how to find hope in that
  • We don’t necessarily know what the “Promised Land” is, and that’s okay. We are learning to live for TODAY and what God is calling us to TODAY.
  • So often we want to “figure out” God, but trying to figure out or understand God can become a barrier to worship or trust him.
  • We can’t have hope unless we have faith.

The Redemptive Purpose of Discipline

[The Land Between - chapters 12 & 13]

I have a sister who is a professional bodybuilder. I know, I know. You’re not surprised after looking at me. I have been to a few of my sister’s shows, and they are fascinating events. One of the aspects to any bodybuilder competing on the amateur or professional level is the amount of discipline they have in their lives.

When I lived in Michigan many years ago, my sister was preparing for a competition when she came to visit me. I don’t need to go into detail, but my sister was on a strict eating regiment in which she had to eat, literally, every two hours, 6 times a day. It was incredible not only to watch her hold steadfastly to the time, but also in the fact that she had to prep all her own meals!! She couldn’t just go out and eat whatever she wanted. Meanwhile, I’m just eating what I want, when I want.

Whether it was in the workout or in the diet restrictions, my sister displayed a tremendous amount of discipline. She put her self and her body thru great pains in order to compete. Discipline was part of the process to get where she wanted to go.

The author uses a picture of a workout to define the purpose of discipline. He says:

This picture of the early morning gym can be helpful in understanding redemptive pain. It reminds us that pain is something we willingly embrace when we believe it will serve a helpful purpose. – p. 145

In another section he says:

 Discipline is the activity of inflicting pain for redemptive purposes. (p. 135)

When I think of my sister, discipline is definitely the word that comes to mind. But her discipline is something that she undergoes willingly. Sure she’s not thrilled about it at the time, but she also knows that is what she signed up for. But what about discipline that is inflicted on us from the outside? Pain that is external and that we don’t ask for? What do we do with that?

Our staff really struggled with this section of the book. We all struggled with where to place external, uninvited discipline. It’s difficult not to confuse discipline with hardship. Is God disciplining us because there is something we need to change or areas we need to trust him in? Or is what we are going thru simply just the hurt and fragility of life on full display?

Here is the way I see it: Discipline is something that we know is part of the journey of faith as God continues his cleansing and redeeming process in our lives, in order to free us from sin. Hardship is the brokenness and pain of life exerting its will on us from the outside, beyond our understanding.

One of the results of our discussion regarding discipline versus hardship was that in both cases the result is the same: our unwavering and committed trust of God.

  • What would say is the difference between discipline and hardship?
  • How would you distinguish the difference between discipline and hardship in your life?
  • Is all uninvited pain just part of life, or is it from God?
  • What is the purpose of discipline?
  • Does God seem to be an elusive bully in his dealings with the Israelites? What about his dealings with us?

Other thoughts that came from our discussion:

  • I “get” discipline and the need for it, but it seems unfair. An example was Moses who stayed faithful, and yet he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. He suffered the same fate as the older generation of Israelites.
  • What is faith look like for Mather Teresa? She never saw the “end” of her works in Calcutta, but she kept doing it. But for what?

Provision of Presence

[The Land Between - chapters 8 & 9]

In our parent small group, we have been watching a supplementary video along with the reading. After watching the video, one of the parents made a comment that I feel like best defines the topic and struggle of provision. He said, “We have to be open to ‘redefining provision’.”

So the question is, when we think of “God’s provision”, what do we think of? Do we think provision is when God gives us what we want or need? Is provision when He gives us what He wants and we just have to take it and trust that it’s enough? Is provision an actual object or “something” we receive, like the Promised Land, manna, a job, spouse, health, money, etc.?

For me, the question that seemed to be illuminated thru our discussion was the question, “What if His Presence is our provision?” Think about it. Throughout Scripture, it seems that God wants to define provision as His Presence. There are times when he specifically defines provision in terms of “things”, but they are always couched under the umbrella and based in the assumption of His Presence

When he was leading the people to the Promised Land, the 40-year preamble was the people following His Presence (pillar of fire and cloud). When the people tried to take the Promised Land by force on their own, God’s Presence was not with them, and they were sadly defeated.

And at the end of the “400 years of silence” between the Old and New Testaments, God provides the hope of the exiled people thru His Presence in the person of Jesus Christ. For us today, Jesus’ words at the end of Matthew, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” is experienced thru the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit.

So what does the provision of His Presence mean for us today? What does it mean for us in how we define provision?

On page 103, Jeff Manion said this:

 “I have seen…I have heard…I am concerned.” I believe these words can land with powerful force when spoken over us in our times of confusion and difficulty.

There is something both unsettling and comforting about those words. What is “unsettling” is that they don’t provide concrete solutions or answers to our problems. They don’t provide the provision that we are wanting or think we need to get thru a situation. Those words don’t pay the rent. Those words don’t provide the job. Those words don’t re-ignite passion and love in our relationships. These words don’t take care of the immediate, felt need before us.

What is comforting is God knows. God knows my pain, my hurt, my struggle. He knows what I am going thru. He hears the prayers I thought were going unnoticed. He sees the difficulty of my situation and conflicts. There is something reassuring and “hope-ful” in the simple understanding that I am not alone.

God’s provision of Presence is summed up and displayed most adequately in the incarnation – God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. We think that His Presence means that we will never have need again. God will come, snap his fingers, and it’s all taken care of. But in my understanding of Scripture, God seems to operate a little differently. In the incarnation, he didn’t simply snap his fingers and conquer Rome. Instead, he seemed to be saying, “I have seen…I have heard…I am concerned.”

What God was concerned about was not the overthrowing of Rome and then establishing a temporary kingdom in a specific location in the world during a particular time in history. God was interested in a once-and-for-all victory over a greater enemy of sin and death for all time. But the way in which he carried it out seemed to be a slow, methodical, hard-to-understand means.

I think that’s what’s hard for us today. We feel like we know what is best for us and other and we also know the timeline that is more effective for people when it comes to provision. But maybe there is a reason that God is moving slower than you want? Maybe there is a reason that God is not providing in the way you hoped?

May we find comfort and hope in the God who “has seen…has heard…and is concerned.”

Do You Trust Me?

[The Land Between – Chapters 2 & 3 reflection]

Aladdin

Do You Trust Me?

Chapter 3 of The Land Between brings up a dicey issue – trust.  The author is clear in his perspective that we choose our response to undesired situations.  On page 54 he writes:

“Don’t be fooled.  We choose.  We will respond to painful situations, and the choice of response is ours.  That choice is an opportunity.”

Tough situations give us an opportunity to trust God.  Sure, but…

In our staff discussion this week, we had a few thoughts about this so-called “opportunity” to trust.

For example, the Israelites were concerned about basic needs.  If they didn’t drink water they would die.  Their babies would die.  Their aging parents would die.  It’s called dehydration – it’s a thing.  The request for water seems legitimate.

For another example, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his child.  This seems… extreme.  If a parent told me he was going kill his child because God told him to, I would call 911 immediately.  We are quick to sanitize this narrative by pointing out that God provided an animal to sacrifice instead.  But not until Abraham had the knife raised.

So, does God have some unresolved psychological and sadistic issues?  Does he enjoy withholding his power to watch us squirm?

Or, maybe we don’t have the right to our own lives like we think we do.  Is it possible that we operate from a place of entitlement for something we never really had to begin with?

Despite these uncomfortable examples, trusting God involves a process of relenting control.  Of allowing God to make the decisions from his whole-picture perspective.  And perhaps choosing to trust God is going to be uncomfortable sometimes.

Our staff shared some of the things we feel God is asking us to trust him with – here are a few examples:

  • fear of being a parent
  • going to school
  • why Los Angeles?
  • dealing with death
  • career
  • why do I exist?  why am I here?
  • the future
  • being matched in an adoption
  • using the gifts God has given me
  • aging parents
  • what is my purpose?

Maybe some of these sound familiar.  Or maybe not.  What is God asking you to trust him with specifically in your life right now?

The Tension Between Honesty & Complaint

[The Land Between – Welcome & Chapter 1 reflection]

The land between, as Jeff Manion describes it, is a middle space of undesired transition in which there is opportunity for deep spiritual growth.  Yet there is also the possibility of spiritual decline into embitterment.  Yikes.

One mitigating factor in the difference between enlightenment and despair is how we navigate the fine line between honesty and complaint.  How do you discern between being honest with God and complaining to/about God?  Does venting count as honesty or complaint?  If I want to (or feel the need to) complain to God, should I hold back these thoughts as to not offend God – but then I’m not being completely honest with God…

In our staff discussion this week, the Psalms of lament were referenced as a model for honest dialogue with God.  The most well known of these is probably Psalm 22 which includes the phrase that Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Walter Brueggemann expands on this idea of lament in the following 2-minute video:

On page 35 of The Land Between, the author asks, “…what is wearing you out?  What is eroding your energy and draining your joy?”  This is a good place to start in being honest with God.  Some of the things that are wearing us out include:

  • not having a clear purpose
  • feeling not good enough
  • fear of failure
  • am I doing “what I’m supposed to be doing”
  • unmet dreams and desires

What is wearing you out?

The Land Between

The Land Between is a book about what God can teach us during times of transition.  The author writes from his own experience and weaves the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ journey in the desert as a metaphor for being in an undesired transition.

At our church, our community is in transition.  For myself and RO, our lives are in transition.  And we hear from others around us that lots of us are in transition together.  Our staff team for the Children & Youth at our church has decided to read this book together over the next 8 weeks and thought it would be helpful and interesting to invite others around us into what we learn.

Once a week, someone from our team will blog thoughts from our discussion and we invite you to interact with us!  Here is the schedule that we will be reading along:

Jan 5-11 – Welcome & Chapter 1

Jan 12-18 – Chapter 2 & 3

Jan 19-25 – Chapters 4 & 5

Jan 26-Feb 1 – Chapters 6 & 7

Feb 2-8 – Chapters 8 & 9

Feb 9-15 – Chapters 10 & 11

Feb 16-22 – Chapters 12 & 13

Feb 23-Mar 1 – Chapters 14 & 15

We hope you will join us!

Two Streams: A Christmas Thought From The Amazon

We take our high school kids to Manaus, Brazil every other year for an international mission trip to serve on a medical mission boat in villages within the Amazon region. There are two big rivers: The Amazon and the Rio Negro.

There is a cool phenomenon that happens between these two rivers in Manaus. Because of the minerals and source, the Amazon River has a brown, dirty color to it, and the Rio Negro is a dark, black color. In Manaus the two streams meet for the first time. Instead of joining together instantly into one color, they literally run alongside one another (Google Image: “Meeting of the Waters”). The river goes for miles side-by-side, but because of all the minerals and current, they do not interact yet. It is almost as if there is a sense of both anticipation and resistance within the water.

But…when they do finally interact, it is a beautiful and artistic merging of the two rivers.

In the passage we looked at today, something similar is going on. Up to this point the story of John’s birth and the story of Jesus’ birth have been two separate events leading towards the same place. Here, we start to see the results of being “downstream” and the two stories merging into one beautiful and artistic narrative.

So I guess my question is: where are you at right now? Where do you find yourself in life?

Are you in a season of anticipation for God to “merge Himself” in your life? Are you anticipating the manifest presence of Christ to occur in your life? Are you wondering where God is or what he might be up to?

Or are you in a season of resistance? Is there a sense that although Christ may be right there next to you, for some reason you are resisting him? You don’t really want to invite his plan and purpose into your life because you’re afraid it might screw everything up?

Or are you “downstream”? Have you felt the invasion of God’s presence in your life, and now the beautiful and artistic dance that happens when the Holy Spirit infiltrates your life is in full effect?

Wherever you are during this season, this week, this day, this moment: May you get a sense that the God of Jesus Christ is running alongside you. May you lay down all resistances to Him. And may your life and the life of God thru the Holy Spirit because of Jesus Christ begin to merge into one beautiful and artistic narrative.