Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Religion vs. Relationship

I've been reading an interesting article from Relevant magazine over the past couple of days. In it, Jack White (marginally famous musician!!) talks about his faith journey. Here is a quote that summarizes his thoughts:

"I don't much care about man's interpretation of religion. What I care about is what God tells me directly."

This is a very profound statement, and one that I hear many folks declaring in one way, shape or form. The issue with spirituality has always been the dichotomy of religion vs. relationship. Religion has often times been given a bad rap, and in some cases rightfully so. Religion is the attempt of humankind to organize thoughts on spirituality. Most faith structures set up and demonstrate a system that if followed will allow the individual to experience a certain level of control regarding their big unanswered questions such as "what is the meaning of life" and "is this life all there is?" What sets Evangelical Christianity apart from all other religions is its' relational foundation. At the root of what Christianity is, you find the pursuit of relationship, or restored relationship with a Creator God. Unfortunately, the lines of this pursuit can easily become blurred when we add in the human element and desire for structure and organization surrounding this pursuit. The structure, the institution or the organization provides a level of control and security, but it does not and will not provide one with the means to experience purpose, life and hope for the future. Only a relational bond with a spiritual being that exists beyond and outside the boundaries of religion can offer the answers to the questions each of us have.

Religion may focus on who is right and who is wrong, but relationship asks a deeper question. The pursuit of a relational connection with a Creator God assumes that this life is not all there is, and therefore it's not religion that is or should be the focus of our pursuit, but understanding why we are here and what we can do with the time we've been given.

As a Christian, I can identify with Jack White's statement. Where I take my stand on a personal level is believing the Bible to be true, and to be the source of communication through which God does speak to me directly. Structure, organization or any type of institution cannot and will not replace the authority of God's word (the Bible) nor the truth for which it stands. The Bible is clear and teaches that true religion is about  relationship with God and with others. This relationship is available to anyone who chooses to believe what the Bible says is true, that God does exist, that Jesus provides the way for us to be relationally connected to Him, and that our life on earth matters. Religion vs. Relationship...which one do you choose?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Relational Revolution Pt. 2

I was sitting in Swiss Chalet today meeting a group of people for lunch to discuss upcoming funeral plans when I overheard pieces of a conversation that sent my mind spinning forward. Now before you jump to conclusions, I was not purposely eavesdropping, but as I was updating my calendar on my iPod touch, I happened to overhear the people in the booth behind me begin to chat about their work environment. As their conversation continued, I couldn't help but begin to draw several conclusions from what was being shared.

The first emphasis is that relationship is the keystone that underpins absolutely every facet of life. Whether you are looking to succeed in business (people, service industry or otherwise), if your venture is void of relationship it will not succeed. Business is all about customer care. In listening to this conversation I could tell the relationship in this particular work environment was strained. People can smell a rat. When we approach life with anything less than authenticity, we end up finding only pain, emptiness and dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, most of us seem to fall into this trap, whether by choice or by ignorance. Instead of learning to truly care about others, we are content with saving face or playing a role in our quest to find the life we've always wanted.

The second conclusion that came to mind is that we must continually refine our definition for relational success. Without knowing what we are aiming for, we may become easily distracted and lose sight of what really matters. When we focus on things like efficiency and productivity, we can begin to devalue relationship, leading us to lose sight of what will help us achieve the success we are looking for. Ford has a marketing slogan they use to sell vehicles: Built Ford Tough. What matters most to an organization will shape its' reputation. Those companies that are built on relationship are the companies, organizations, churches and communities that will find true success over the long term. This stage of re-definition is not one that should be taken lightly, but one that should be re-visited as often as possible in order to ensure that the mission, vision and purpose of the entity are at the root of all its' functions moving forward. What is built on relationship will remain secure. That which is not will crumble and fall.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reshape Your Love

Take a look at this video.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps one of the most well known stories Jesus told. The goal in its' telling is to reshape one's definition of love.

Lately I'm wrestling with the idea of what love is actually all about. I've spent a significant amount of time in thought and prayer regarding this idea of love, and I've come up with three small areas of focus that I believe define what love is. Here is my working definition: love is about being real, being there and speaking truth. When you tell someone that you love them, you are communicating much more that a 2 or 3 word verbal barrage. Instead, you are conveying a message of intentionality. Love is a word that has lost much of its' significance in our society only because it is easily associated with a solitary action, a preference of taste or a fickle feeling. But love is so much more than this! Love is a state of being; love is all consuming; love is a choice. Choosing to love means learning to be real, to be there and to speak truth. Being real with another person, or one's own self, means that there is an ever growing level of authenticity, transparency and vulnerability that encompasses this act of love. Can you imagine for a second if all your connections with other people were surface ones? These connections never carried with it depth of any significance. Time spent with these people would merely focus on matters of pleasure or ritualistic behavior/conversation out of duty more than anything else. But those relational connections that conjure up a level of trust through the presence of being real provide the recipients with the platform from which to truly enjoy a meaningful relational connection with others. Without risk; without a pursuit of being real, love is absent. True love demands authenticity.

True love also demands one's captivation. In order to truly love another individual we must learn to be there for that person. The idea of being there supersedes the notion of being purely physically present for another person. Being there refers to the offering of one's entire self (body, mind & soul) to another person. Here is what I am referring to. As a Dad, I can easily be physical present with my family, but during this time I can also be easily distracted by projects that need to get done, stuff on TV, other technological devices, or my desire to find time for myself. As my kids grow up, I hope they don't think they have to battle for time with their Dad against all these other perceived potential foes! My family must know that they are more important to me than any of these things. In the same way as I approach my relational connection with my family, those that I love the most, I must also be willing to extend this same courtesy and connection to others, even if it is only for a few brief moments at a time.

Lastly, true love speaks truth. Love that is real is love that has the courage to battle mediocrity. Love that speaks truth is love that is committed to see the other person reach their fullest potential in Christ. This kind of love says that things that aren't easy to here at times, but it also shares encouraging words and spends moments demonstrating truth through action. Love that is truthful is love that is intentional; it's a love that has purpose and meaning; love that defies all odds and love that doesn't stand still but love that continues to evolve and grow over time.

Have you ever wondered what your love capacity may be? Perhaps if each of us would be willing to grow in our understanding of what it means to be real, be there and speak truth in the lives of those we truly love, we may just begin to grasp the depth of love the overflows from the throne of our Creator. For the love He has for us is surely more than an Ocean Wide.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Relational Revolution

There seems to be a movement that is taking place in the realm of youth ministry that is also beginning to shake the foundations of the church at large. It's an old idea with a new flavor, something I lovingly call the Relational Revolution.

This is a movement not for the sake of change, but one that is deeply rooted in the oldest tradition in time: the relationship. At the creation of the world, God chose to create human beings in order to be relationally connected with a piece of His creation. Adam was the first human being created; his body formed out of the dust of the earth and the very breath of God breathed into his nostrils to bring him to life. Interestingly enough, this is the only part of creation where God takes a hands on approach while creating. Every other account in the creation story is a result of God having spoken it into existence.

After the creation of Adam, God sees that it is not good for man to be alone, and so creates Eve through a similar hands on approach. This is the very first and oldest human relationship recorded in the Bible. The foundation of creation can be traced back to this underlying desire for relationship.

Youth ministry is rediscovering this ancient practice. Authors such as Andrew Root have written many books and articles discussing this matter. My goal in this brief post is not to reshape their thoughts, but to share a few of my own in hopes of creating a conversation point for you in your own life, whether that happens to be in your ministry, church or even your own family.

There are two basic observations I would like to make about the relational revolution. The first is that you cannot program relationship. Relationships don't happen because they've been scripted to do so. Take arranged marriages for example. Born out of necessity at times, and rooted in the political and financial aspirations of a few at others, these relationships were strategic for the purpose of survival. But when examining the heart of what a true relationship is all about, the basic elements for this type of connection are void in this type of programmed setting. The basic element that underpins every relationship is choice. Yes, we can be biologically connected to one another, but we must choose to be in relationship with one another, we cannot program this connection. My son Cannon is adopted. He is not biologically connected to my wife or I, or his sister Saydie. Cannon is, however, relationally connected to us because of the choice we have made together as a family to be in relationship with one another. Without the element of choice, a relationship does not exist. Can these arranged marriages turn into fruitful relationships? Absolutely, but only when the participants actively choose to dwell in relationship with one another. In youth ministry and in all relationships, the element of choice must be present.

The second observation I'd like to share about the relational revolution is that we can only control two variables in the relational equation: the environment & the experience. What I'm saying here is that although we cannot program a relationship to happen, we can make a conscious choice to cultivate a relational dynamic or approach to all that we do. In our family we've created two such experiences that we celebrate together on a weekly basis. The first is Family Date night where we spend an entire evening together doing things that we enjoy doing with each other (which consists of ultimate dance parties at this point due to the age of our young children!). The second is Daddy Date night where I spend an entire evening with my two children working on developing our relationships with each other. I work away from our home most days during the week, so having these moments of time where the environment and the experience are focused on developing relationships lends itself to strengthening our family connection as a whole. What sort of elements accompany a relationally charged environment and experience? The few things that we focus on as a family include spontaneity, diversity, intentionality and authenticity. These times together share the common purpose of building relationship, but they can look very different each time we gather together simply because of the elements we bring to the table. The ultimate goal for us is to experience growth in our relational connections.

A relational revolution begins when we become discontent with the status quo and desire to see the life that we are living change for the greater good of all. Life to the full, the kind of life Jesus talks about in the gospel, is one that is steeped in relationship; valuing our intentional & authentic connections with others through compassion, joy, celebration, hope, desire, passion, truth, love, grace and mercy among other things. True relationship is built on Christ and is lived through Christ. May you wrestle with the realty of a relational revolution in your own life today!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ReShape Your Life

Take a moment to watch this video here.

What if I were to say to you that God cares less about what we do and more about who we are? When questioned about the importance of the Old Testament law, Jesus responded like this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Jesus' response leads us to focus on what is at the heart of the biblical code of conduct: relationship. God is far more concerned about where we receive our identity than about what we do, because an accurate, educated biblical identity informs our behavior. Love is the product of relationship, not the product of a code of conduct. True love is experienced when one's identity is rooted in a relational connection with Jesus Christ. Outside of this, love is empty and has no meaning.

There is a second story from the life of Jesus that helps to frame up my thoughts regarding this subject matter. Here is the account from the book of Mark 12:41-43:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came in and put in tow very small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on.

There are two central characters to this story. The rich man is looking to project the image of generosity, but it is the widow that personifies it. What is the difference between the two? Believe it or not, it's not about the sum of money, but about the condition of the giver's heart. The widow gave not out of compulsion or notoriety, but out of a desire to be generous. The rich man did not share this desire; his desire was rooted in being seen. This is the key difference between who we are and what we do. Just because we act generous does not mean we are truly generous. True generosity comes out of an identity that has been reshaped by an encounter with the love of God. 

A life that has been reshaped is a life that is focused on the growth of character. Who we are online and offline demonstrates what is truly important to us. What does your life say about you?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Obstacle or Opportunity?

From time to time I have the privilege of walking with people as they encounter questions for clarification on what they believe as a follower of Christ from their family, friends and co-workers. What is fascinating about these somewhat challenging moments in our lives is that each of these experiences provides us with the opportunity to cast the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

If you think about it for a moment, when we ask a question we are often looking for clarification are we not? A question is the beginning of the defusion of mis-truth. I can remember the moment that I asked my wife Bonny to marry me. In that moment, I was looking for clarification and affirmation to the truth that I believed in that she did in fact love me and want to spend the rest of her life with me as husband and wife. Thankfully, Bonny responded with the word yes to my question instead of the word no. There was, however, a brief pause in between my initial request and her response, which briefly led me to question the truth that motivated me to ask this question in the first place!

Several weeks ago a group of students from Chestemere visited my place of work. These students were part of a peer leadership initiative sponsored by their town's municipal government in hopes of creating a greater level of understanding and level of engagement with this generation of young people in the areas of cooperation, commonality and religious acceptance. Several of my peers and I were bombarded with a variety of questions regarding our faith in Christ, and with each question we were provided with the opportunity to defuse mis-truth and re-cast the vision of Jesus in their midst. As I observed, listened and responded in love to each question directed my way, I couldn't help but wonder and what these seeds of hope and life would flourish to become in the lives of these youth.

When we are faced with a question, we have a decision to make. Will we choose to see this question as an opportunity to cast the vision of Christ, or do we see it as an obstacle in our attempts to proclaim the gospel message for all the world to hear? I hope and pray that as you take time to listen to those around you, that you may respond to their questions in step and in line with the Spirit of God so that in all things His Name would continue to be honored and glorified for all the world to see!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Progression leads to Simplicity

One of my most favorite pass times is cooking. I didn't discover this passion until after my high school graduation. At that time I found myself away at college and fending for myself in regards to the accumulation, distribution and consumption of food!! This passion was born out of self-preservation, cause we all know what 3 years of cafeteria food can do "for" the body, right?

My love for food prep continues to this day as I use this passion to serve my family by making dinner most evenings. One of the greatest lessons I've learned about cooking is something that I think I need to be even more aware of in my spiritual walk with Christ. I've been writing about this idea of progression as of late. The basic concept regarding progression is our life's focus. Each of us is moving forward and towards something...this is called progression. As a self-professing follower of Jesus, my focus or my progression needs to be towards Jesus. Often times in our good intentions we find our progression distorted as we become more concerned about moving away from something and less concerned about what we are moving towards. It's in these moments of time where we must allow simplicity to influence our progression.

When cooking there is one rule of thumb that seems to hold true: Less is More. A few years ago a TV show called Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares caught my attention. I was fascinated by this chef's ability to come into a dire situation and help a restaurant, pub or dining facility re-invent themselves by pursuing simplicity. Often times we think in order to have the best product we must have something that is complex in nature. The fact is that the reverse is often more true. Places that serve simple, good-tasting and reasonably priced food often do the best in terms of growing their business. So it is with our faith in Christ I believe.

I have found that when I allow the pursuit of simplicity, the removal of clutter and the embrace of focus, to influence my progression, I have more peace, hope and joy than I can shake a stick at! As with cooking, if we use to many ingredients and spices, the food itself suffers. When we allow too many exterior "good intentions" to influence our walk with Christ, our faith in Him, our influence in our world and our relevance suffers greatly.

Let me ask you this: What is getting in your way of progressing towards Jesus? How can you overcome this obstacle by embracing simplicity?