A different kind of community

This post is an edited version of a message I gave on 6/26/16. You can listen to the audio here

I read something recently that busted me, see if it gets you too. It’s a typical day in the life of a fictitious family named the Johnson’s, see if you can relate:

Bob and Karen Johnson both rise at 6:00 a.m. On this day, Bob hurries to leave the house at 7:00. He opens the door to the garage, gets in his car, and pulls out of the driveway. He spots his new neighbor taking out the trash and waves to him with a forced smile. As Bob drives down the road, he reminds himself that this neighbor has been in the neighborhood now for 2 years and he still can’t remember his name.

Karen has worked out an arrangement to be at work at 9:00 a.m. so she can drop off her two children at school on time. As Karen is making her way out of the driveway, her son announces that he left his lunch inside.

The easiest move for Karen would be to go back in through the front door, but she sees her next door neighbor, who is retired, beginning her yard work for the day. While Karen would love to catch up with her, she’s afraid if they engage in a conversation the children will be late for school, and then she’ll be late for work.

So, rather than risk being late, Karen makes her way back to the rear-entry garage, opens the door, and goes inside. She grabs the lunch, and off they go.

Fast forward to 6:30. Bob and Karen arrive home after getting the kids from school and heat up dinner. After dinner, the dishes are cleaned up, homework papers are checked, and the children get ready for bed. It is now 9:00 p.m.

At 9:15, Bob and Karen finally sit down. They are too exhausted to talk, so they turn on the TV and watch it until the news is over. Finally, at 11:30, they crawl into bed. A couple of words are exchanged, mostly business-like talk concerning tomorrow’s details.

Sound familiar?

But what busted me more was what came next, which was this:

The Johnsons appear to have a wonderful life. They own a house in a nice suburb with a two-car garage. Their house is surrounded by a six-foot high fence for privacy for their patio and grill. Bob and Karen have two children – a boy and a girl. They each have jobs and everyone is in good health.

Yet, if you could enter the hearts and thoughts of Bob and Karen Johnson, you would discover that they have dreams and fears no one else knows about. While they’ve never voiced it to anyone, there’s an increasing sense of isolation, distress, and powerlessness growing inside them. In a nutshell, the Johnson’s have done a fine job at keeping up with the Jones’s, but they still aren’t happy.

Continue reading “A different kind of community”

Tasting the Gospel

“There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, ‘Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.'”

-Charles Spurgeon on his conversion

Question: Have you ever experienced anything like that? Can you point to a time in your life where the gospel actually made sense and the dark cloud was lifted and your heart longed to do nothing more than to gaze at Christ?

Or did you just pray a prayer?

Interesting questions. But are they necessary? Continue reading “Tasting the Gospel”

What No One Tells You About Your Calling

There’s one dominant formula to discovering your calling today. It goes something like this:

Understand your gifts/personality + Find something your passionate about + Do what fulfills you = Your calling

But there’s a problem with that formula.

It’s not that all the parts are wrong. Most of them are important to discerning your calling. It’s that the whole formula is designed to serve one person – you.

Continue reading “What No One Tells You About Your Calling”

What are we simplifying for?

An army of people are urging us through their books and blogs to simplify our lives. The advice is the same, though it takes many forms: “Declutter your life.” “Throw away some clothes.” “Buy only what you need.” “Move into a smaller house.”

Minimalism is the heading under which most of this takes place. It’s been around forever of course, leading back to asceticism and the monastic movements (it should be noted that most minimalists would deny they’re after the same things as those movements).

But of late, minimalism found its home on the internet, starting with people like Merlin Mann, and more recently The Minimalists, a couple of guys that quit their jobs, got rid of lots of their stuff, and then moved to Montana. They’ve also brought joy to many of their readers’ lives, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Now the movement has broken out into more mainstream culture, with things like the documentary Tiny, a film that follows people who’ve abandoned typical housing arrangements in favor of “tiny houses” that are only a few hundred square feet. Late last year came an interview with Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker behind the reboot of the Batman franchise, Inception, and Interstellar, in The New York Times citing his decision to wear the same thing every day to help simplify his life.

In just the last week, another story of a daily uniform came in the form of an interview with Matilda Kahl, an art director who’s been wearing the same outfit to work for three years now. Before Kahl and Nolan there was Steve Jobs, who famously wore the black turtle neck and jeans for his daily garb.

The interest in pairing back possessions and wearing a daily uniform is fascinating to me, and I’ve been reading about it for years now. Take a look at the page you’re reading on and you’ll see I have a taste for minimal things. I don’t like clutter. I don’t like unread text messages or too many numbers in those little red bubbles on my iPhone.

In the past I’ve found myself sending loads of stuff to Goodwill, deleting old files, and feeling better in the process. But as anyone who’s ever undertaken this stuff knows, that feeling doesn’t last for long. Eventually, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we simplifying for?”

What are we simplifying for?

According to what’s out there on minimalism (at least everything I’ve read), the answer is usually “So you can live a more meaningful life.”

That’s a great bite-size answer that makes us feel warm and cozy. But what defines a meaningful life?

When you push past the catch-phrase you find out that what’s being promoted is a more meaningful life defined by making yourself happy. A more meaningful life is defined by being freed up to do what you love, live where you want, and be who you want, without the definitions your stuff gives you.

To be fair, the best of minimalism talks about getting rid of material things to make room for more noble things, like friendships. But even with noble intentions, this is nothing more than shifting our source of identity and meaning from having lots of stuff to having little stuff.

Promoters of the minimal philosophy would almost certainly disagree, but at the same time they’re promoting it to such a degree that their identities are literally wrapped up in the concept of not having things (i.e. – The Minimalists).

My intention is not to denigrate some of the actions that are promoted by minimalists and those advocating a simpler lifestyle, because, like I said, I actually find much of that advice helpful in my own life. But the ideology behind those actions is not enough to help us live a meaningful life, no matter how many closets we clean.

The real (deeper) problem

The problem with having too many (or too few) possessions is that we’re trying to find meaning where there is none. At one extreme, we’re trying to define ourselves by our iPhones, cars, and homes, and at the other we’re trying to define ourselves by our own happiness. But neither is sufficient to ground us in a world of earthquakes, cancer, and hunger.

I’ll put it this way (and this isn’t original to me, I heard it elsewhere, but the source escapes me): Imagine yourself in the midst of the Nazis in World War 2. If your meaning in life could be taken away by being put in a concentration camp, then it’s not enough.

That’s just one example, but it could be phrased any number of ways. If your meaning in life can be taken away by a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, then it’s not enough.

If your meaning in life depends on your circumstances, know that your circumstances will change. At some point, you will find yourself in a different set of circumstances that shakes the foundations of where you’ve staked your meaning.

You can find meaning in your possessions, but one day they’ll be taken from you.

You can find meaning in your beauty, but one day you’ll lose it.

You can find meaning in your happiness, but one day you’ll be sad.

So the problem is less that we need to decide between how much or how little stuff we have, and more about where we find our meaning in life. There are a myriad of suggested solutions to that problem, but let me suggest the Christian worldview as a way of solving it.

A solution to the problem of meaning

The Christian worldview has much to say about possessions, and its solution to the problem of where to find meaning is sufficient to hold us up through life regardless of our circumstances.

At the root of the Christian worldview is the idea that God himself came to earth in the form of the man Jesus and that man died for the sins of humanity, but he was resurrected after three days, defeating death in the process.

Christians see that saving act of Jesus as being the foundation for meaning in life. This can be seen throughout the Bible, but most clearly in the beginning of the book of John, one of the four biographical accounts of the life of Jesus. The book opens with this:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

John, the author, wrote that in Greek, and when he chose the word that’s translated as “Word,” he used a term that was absolutely loaded in that day. That term was “logos.”

Logos” didn’t simply mean “word”. The term was coined by a guy named Heraclitus long before John was writing, and he defined as being the divine reason or plan which coordinates a changing universe. Logos meant the reason for something, in this case the reason for life.

In Greek culture, the logos was where meaning and reason was derived from, and the whole universe was tied together by that logos. This is what philosophers and thinkers had been discussing up until the time John was writing.

Some of them decided that there was no meaning, no reason, no logos, in life. Others decided that their own pleasure, their own happiness was the logos (which we see today in any of the self-fulfillment philosophies).

It was into this setting that John redefined the term.

He said a couple really important things. First, he said the reason for life, the logos, was there in the beginning. Now, the Greeks of the day would have had no problem with that part, since it fit with their general understanding of the term. It’s the next part where John drops his bombshell.

He says, “the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” He said the logos, the reason for life, was a person. And this logoswas with God. But not only was he with God, but he was God, meaning he was the same as God.

When you go on to read the rest of this chapter in John’s book, you find out that when he uses the term logos he’s referring to the man Jesus Christ.

John’s saying that there is a reason for life. That there is a way to find meaning in life. But it’s not a philosophical principle – it’s the person of Jesus Christ.

And if you don’t know that Person, you can’t find the deepest meaning in life. If you don’t know that Person, you can’t find something that’s capable of standing up to what life throws at you.

Not only does the Christian worldview have the ability to provide us meaning in life that can’t be taken away, but it results in a healthier relationship with possessions than either the American Dream or the minimalists offer.

A better way to relate to possessions and people

The Gospel, the central good news of the Christian faith about Jesus taking judgement in our place, fundamentally changes how you relate to possessions, thereby changing your relationship with the meaning associated with them.

This entire argument is more than we have time for right now, but the essence of it is that the Gospel frees you from assigning meaning to possessions by showing you that you find meaning in Christ. You find meaning in the treasures of the world to come that will never fade away, instead of the treasures of this world that won’t last.

And that changes everything.

I love how David Platt, a former pastor and the current President of the International Missions Board, put this:

Think about it. Faith in Christ reconciles us to God, right? It’s the essence of the gospel. We no longer live for earthly treasure. We love our eternal treasure. God is our treasure. That frees us from the constant pursuit of stuff in this world, which means faith in Christ now reconciles us to one another because we’re not living any more for selfish gain. We’re free of that. Free to live with selfless generosity.

Finding meaning in Christ changes how you relate to possessions and, as you just read, how you relate to people.

The Christian is freed to live a simple and generous life. Both of which I think we’re all after, aren’t we? We want to live a life that isn’t defined by things we know won’t last, and we want to positively impact the world around us. But we won’t find those things by looking to either our stuff or our own happiness.

So what are we simplifying for? What are you simplifying for? And is it really worth it? Is it something that will bring real, lasting meaning to your life?

Do you like the person you’ve become?

I was on a run a while back, and I was listening to Bastille’s album Bad Blood. It’s not new at this point, but I really like their music. One of the reasons I like it is because they their songs bring up interesting spiritual questions, even if it they don’t provide any real answers.

As I was running jogging (it’s funny what we call a “run” isn’t it?), I was listening to the song called “The Weight of Living Pt. 2.” Here’s a taste:

It all crept up on you, in the night it got you

And plagued your mind, it plagues your mind

Every day that passes, faster than the last did

And you’ll be old soon, you’ll be old

Do you like the person you’ve become?

Do you like the person you’ve become? That’s a loaded question. So loaded that many of us don’t want to think about the question at all. But it’s an important question nonetheless. Because when we stop to think about it, many of us don’t like the person we’ve become.

We have really good intentions to stop being short with our families, start reading our Bibles more, or stop making the same relational mistakes. But when we take stock of our lives next to those standards we’ve created, we often fall pretty short.

No one is harder on us than ourselves, of course. So the weight we feel from not living up to those standards is both created by and shoulder by ourselves. And what we think of ourselves has the potential to suffocate us emotionally and spiritually.

But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s first look at why and how we’re creating these standards in our lives.

All of us are trying to live up to something

We’re all trying to live up to some standard in life that we’ve either created for ourselves or that’s been created for us.

Much of that has to do with your family background or your cultural background. For instance, there are really two main value structures in our culture, two main ways we form our identity – the traditional and the Western.

If you’re in a traditional structure of identity formation then you draw your sense of self-worth from the community, or from your family. Your sense of value comes from what you contribute to that community and what your place is in it. This is more prevalent in other countries, but many families here in the US still have a strong sense of this.

If you’re in a Western structure of identity formation, then you draw your sense of self-worth from your individuality. You’re not concerned with the needs of the community as much as you are with your own needs. Your sense of self-worth is tied to what job you can get, what kind of life you can make, and what’s best for you. This is obviously the more predominant structure for identity formation in our context.

I should point out that neither is better or worse than the other; this is simply a picture of how the two structures work. It’s important to know because it helps us understand what we’re trying to live up to and why we’re trying to do it.

For instance, a person in a traditional setting is trying not to bring shame to their family or their community. How do you do that? Well, by carrying out your assigned role and accepting your place within that community. So the temptation in those settings is to try and live up to others’ expectations for your life.

“Others” might include your parents, your family, your friends, etc. Religion can fit into this category as well. They all have expectations for you and your life and what your place should be in the world, and in many cases there is honor and respect on the line so it’s a serious thing. The standards you’re trying to live up to have been created for you. In the traditional setting, you’re trying to become the person other people want you to be.

Now, in contrast, a person in a Western setting tries to live up to different standards. Some of the standards still have to do with other people’s perceptions, but the root of the standard lies in what you think about your performance, your relationships, your wealth, or any number of things.

The tendency here is to set up some standard for yourself – maybe it’s a certain job, a house on the lake, a particular relationship, or status – and then make that how you judge your value and self-worth. Then there are the standards that come from a society that tells us to look a certain way, behave a certain way, and live a certain way. In the Western setting, then, you’re trying to be the person you think will make you happy.

So regardless of how your identity has been formed, none of us is really free, as much as we like to think so. We’re all bound to something, we’re all trying to live up to something. Don’t you feel that in your own life?

The weight of living is crushing

If all of us are trying to live up to something, then sooner or later the weight will be crushing.

And there is a weight to life itself, isn’t there? All of us carry some kind of standard around that we’re trying to live up to, and each one of them is just another burden weighing us down. Many of those standards we’ve talked about are necessarily bad things, but when you make them your source of self-worth and value then you will always be crushed beneath the weight of them.

A guy that had been a struggling writer wrote about this once in The New York Times. His name was Benjamin Nugent, and he was reflecting on the maddening season in his life where he couldn’t write anything halfway decent, and he always had a sense of malaise about his life and his work. He said:

“When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane.

 For anyone that’s ever made their work everything, you know exactly what he’s talking about. He made the quality of his work the measure of his worth. If he wasn’t a good writer, he wasn’t a good person, and he couldn’t be happy. But of course that kind of thinking makes you so neurotic that you never think you’re a good writer, so you’ll never be happy. The weight of living was crushing him.

Are you making the quality of your work the measure of your worth? It’s worth considering.

Maybe you’re not making your work the measure of your worth, but there’s something else. Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright refers to these things that we’re making the measure of our worth as “life-lies.” These things we tell ourselves that if we can just get them then we’ll be happy. If I can just get that car, just get married, just get that house, then I’ll be happy.

Listen to what Ibsen says about this:

 “Take the life-lie away from the average man and you take away his happiness.”

Every one of our life-lies can and will be taken from us at some point. And when that happens we will be crushed under the weight of it. All the self-worth, all the value we assigned to ourselves because of those life-lies will disappear in an instant.

If all of us are under the weight of living and will eventually be crushed under it, then what can we do? If you don’t like the person you’ve become, what can you do about it?

Jesus can bear the weight and show us how to be the person we were made to be

Let’s see what Jesus said about this. And I think you’ll find it an interesting way of dealing with it. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says these words:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The first thing to understand in this text is the word “yoke.” A yoke was basically a harness that connected some kind of animal, like a donkey or an ox, to a tool of some kind. It might have been a till or a wagon-type apparatus that was used to transport something.

Regardless of what an animal was yoked to, it was a burden to them. People weren’t fastening animals to something that they could do themselves; it was something too heavy or straining for them to do alone.

Jesus is using that imagery to talk about the burdens and standards we’re trying to live up to that we discussed earlier. He’s saying, “I know you’re tired of trying to live up. I know you’re weary from the weight of living. Come to me, and I’ll show you how to take a real rest.”

He’s pointing out again that we’re all burdened by something, the weight of living is on us all. We’re all yoked to something.

But what he doesn’t say about burdens is that we don’t have to have any. Did you notice that? Jesus didn’t promise for us not to be yoked to anything – he promised to give us rest, relief, from the weight of living, if we yoke ourselves to him instead.

We’re always going to be yoked to something, after all, so Jesus is telling us to yoke ourselves to him so we can learn from him. So we can see how to live our lives unburdened by the expectations and standards of others.

Those things aren’t going away, of course. So what’s going on here? Jesus is offering us a way out of making those things our sense of self-worth and our sense of value.

He’s saying, “If you don’t like the person you’ve become, maybe it’s because you’ve got yourself yoked to the wrong thing. You’re trying to become the wrong person. Yoke yourself to me, watch me, learn from me, and I’ll show you how to find rest and be the person I created you to be.”

Jesus alone can bear the weight of our standards. He alone can give you a meaning outside yourself, outside of others.

*Note: I’m indebted to Tim Keller for much of the thought and structure behind this post.