Saturday, April 26, 2008

You Make this Promise Every Day… Without Realizing It

It was another bright morning, the warmth of the sun a welcome change from the cold winter. I sat on my stoop sipping my coffee, feeling a deep sense of peace in the quiet neighbourhood. Across the street, a robin sang from his perch near the top of the large maple. I smiled and watched him dance across the branch, his voice clear and unmistakable. Since spring had finally broken through, he’d been up there every morning. When I’d first spotted him, I’d been relieved. Birds meant spring. And spring meant new things, new hope, and warmer weather. More than just a symbol however, I’d come to enjoy his song. Strange that a bird could offer some form of reassurance, but he did. And now, every day before I began my morning prayers, I found myself looking for him. I watched him sing for a bit longer and finally turned to my Bible.

I was going through the Gospels again. I tried to do that every six months, because like no other part of the Bible, it was the stories of Jesus and how he lived that always carried the greatest impact for me. Sometimes it helped me spot tendencies in my life that I hadn’t seen, and it always cause me to reflect on human nature. As I re-read the story of Jesus walking from village to village, I noticed a paradox. While Jesus was incredibly unpredictable, he was also amazingly consistent. People were drawn to him, and not always because they agreed with him. But why?

It's a common tendency for people of faith to forget the Bible is stories of real people. It's especially true of Jesus. We apply the “God principle” to everything that Jesus did. (i.e. people were attracted to Jesus because he was God) When we do that however, we miss some of the subtle teachings that are not recorded in the red letters (words he spoke). This emphasis is perhaps why so many Christians associate faith with talking, because they believe that somehow the Gospel is centered on verbalization. Perhaps that is why so many Christians talk so much about their faith, but have no center or rest within their souls and become so defensive when people don't agree with them. When our faith is not centered in its relational core with a God who loves us unconditionally, we often fall prey to the ‘tyranny of assertiveness’; to this necessity of insisting not only that we are right, but detailing exactly why we are right and why others are wrong.

People were drawn to Jesus for many reasons, but there is no question that his presence had something to do with that. In that sense, I am not talking about the presence of God, but the promise he made with his presence, the same one we make every time we’re with people.

Every time I interact with someone else I am making a promise. Our tendency is to focus on the people we know – family, friends, work acquaintances – but our influence is far greater than that, and so is the promise of our presence. It often doesn’t involve speech, but make no mistake, who we are is the promise we make every day of our life. And we make that promise to every single person we interact with.

Most of us don’t think about this too often, life is too busy and too full to dwell on the promise of our presence. And sometimes we dwell on it too much, so much so that we become tired and start avoiding people, or we become phony as we attempt to ‘promise good things’ to every person because we think we're supposed to but don't actually believe it is possible.
And therein lies the problem.

We must be aware of how our presence affects others, but if we focus on it too much, we will eventually become phony and our relationships will inevitably be shallow.

So what do we do? How do we attract and encourage people as Jesus did, without burning out or hiding ourselves in groups of likeminded people (think fundamentalist churches or mosques that ‘avoid the world’)?

I believe that the answer lies in our inner makeup, in what we truly believe. The only individual that will never leave my story, my life, is me. Therefore, whoever I am, in whatever circumstances, always emanates from who I Truly am. Not who I say I am or even who I think I am, but the wellspring of my thoughts and experiences that flow out in my words and actions to the world around me. In this, we often fail to realize how much control we actually have over our lives. No matter what condition or circumstances we find ourselves in, we always have a choice. We choose what we believe. We choose how we act. We choose so often that we even forget we are choosing.

I think part of the reason so many religious people become intolerable is that they stop making choices and they stop examining what they actually believe.

Your presence is formed by what you believe.

Your beliefs determine your life.

Your life is the promise you make to God, and the promise you make to people around you.

Many of us think we know what we believe. For example, I may say that "I believe in God. I believe in equality. I believe in loving my neighbours." If that were the case however, this planet would be a far different place, wouldn't it?

Most of us actually don't know what we believe. We don't realize how much 'junk' is in our belief structure. I may think that I believe in loving my neighbour, but if my neighbour is rude and plays loud music at night, I won't love them. A man may say that he believes in equality, but in the house everyone else knows that only what he thinks matters, that a man has more value than a woman and should therefore always take the lead. I may say that I believe in helping people, but only if I get a chance to give them a pamphlet or talk about my faith. If they are completely uninterested in my religion, I will love someone else who may be more receptive to my ideas. The list goes on and on. And all of it affects the promise we make with our presence.

Not everyone will know about our junk, because everyone has junk in their belief pool. However, eventually people will KNOW, even if they don't know, and they will respond accordingly. Jesus was very clear about what he actually believed, what he knew, and so the promise of his presence was consistent with his own self-awareness. How amazing would that be? To be with someone completely comfortable in their own skin? No wonder people were drawn to him.

There's another application here, one that my scholar friend, Mark, and I were discussing a few days ago. How is it that so many Christians, especially fundamentalists, can read the Bible and pray, and still be so shallow and unforgiving and harsh and demeaning? Again, our thought was that it all boils down to what we REALLY believe. If I believe that prayer and Bible study, which are both good things, are the key ingredients for growth or movement towards God, than I probably won't worry about the rest of my 'junk.' If I believe that I am a "new person in Christ", and don't have to examine who I am or the things I've done or the state of my relationships on a regular basis, I am probably going to become self-righteous.

The signs of a person who is walking towards God is not whether they swear or smoke, or drink beer and watch movies. The signs of someone walking the 'narrow path' are an increasing tendency towards love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If those things are increasingly evident, if the promise we are making is that our lives will reflect more daily those qualities, than we know we are on the path towards God.

To make our promise, our presence, more like Jesus, we also need to check and see if we really believe we can do it alone. Is God necessary? If he isn't, eventually we will find ourselves becoming proud of our 'growth', and soon enough we will no longer grow. It is this combination of both confidence (in God's love) and humility (in awe of God's greatness) that keep us along the narrow road. They help us to look within, and yet focus on those around us.

My prayer this week is that we will start to become more aware of what we really believe. Don't be afraid or discouraged. We all have some garbage in there. Bring it into the open, talk about it, pray about it. You're not perfect, nobody is. Ask a friend or someone you trust who will BUILD YOU UP to be honest with you. When you admit your weaknesses, it automatically pulls you towards humility and enhances your presence. You will notice immediately how people will start to become drawn to you. Just be sure that the humility leads you to God. Jesus walked the same road we do. He understands. If your self-examination leads you to self-flagellation, it will soon turn to low self-esteem and pride.

Every day we have an opportunity to impact the world around us. Every day we make a promise to friends and strangers alike. What is your promise? What is flowing out of your heart into the rivers of life around you? Make it your goal this week to find out, and if it isn't what you want it to be, or what you think it should be, choose accordingly, and start making the changes that will push you closer to God. And to the people around you.