MY ALPHA EXPERIENCE Kristen’s Story

Note from Dane: I’m delighted to turn my blog over today to my new friend, Kristen Zerbato. You will enjoy her story. 

I moved to a small southern town a little over a year ago, not knowing a soul.  All it took was one kind gesture from my new friend Sally, inviting me to lunch one afternoon, for me to see that there was something about her, a peacefulness, happiness, and quiet joy, that I wanted to know more about and have for myself.

That afternoon at lunch she told me about Alpha and gave me the red post card.  I was overwhelmed with the idea of going to a church function, not having been to a Catholic Church since my grandmother had passed away five years prior, but Sally committed to being there with me. I knew, not knowing anyone, this would be a good way for me to make some friends in a new town, but I never would have imagined what doors it would open and the magical experiences and relationships that would have formed.

I’ll never forget my first Alpha class, while I felt out of place because I didn’t know anyone, the whole Alpha crew and members of the church were overwhelmingly kind and welcoming.  After watching the video and splitting up into groups, I was so anxious and tried to keep that fear buried where no one could see it. As soon as the hosts started the group conversation I felt some tension dissipate.  Their kindness, openness and encouragement was calming and exactly what I needed to begin to open my heart and mind to the possibility of knowing God.

I knew there was something missing in my life, a hole almost, and Alpha set the foundation to fill that hole.  Alpha gave me truth to the big questions I had around Christianity and helped me establish relationships with people I couldn’t imagine my life without now.

I have lived a very good life so far, but the joy and love I’ve felt and all of the things I’ve learned/ am learning about myself and the Lord, has made this year without a doubt the most meaningful and memorable.  I can’t thank everyone at my new church, and especially Sally, enough for showing me so much kindness and love.

PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

EMBRACING YOUR JESUS CRISIS

There is an old story about a gathering of people listening to recitations of the 23rd Psalm. One man everyone wanted to hear was a well-known actor with a deep melodious voice. He wasn’t a particularly spiritual man, but he appreciated the Psalm and was happy to comply. He stood and delivered it beautifully and everyone was duly impressed. Then a very old gentleman, one with no great skill at public speaking, but a man whom everyone respected, was also urged to recite. He slowly rose to his feet and in a quiet voice quoted the Psalm from memory. As he spoke a hush fell over the room, a silence and peace no one wanted to disturb even after he sat down. Finally, the actor spoke the truth everyone knew: “I know the Psalm. He knows the Shepherd.”

Many people are like the actor in the story. They say things like: “I’ve read the Bible. The teachings of Jesus are brilliant. I like the idea of going to heaven when I die. As far as religion is concerned, I check the “Christian” box on official forms. But this whole idea of a relationship with God is beyond me. I know other people experience it. I believe they are genuine. But I don’t seem to be able to have it myself and I don’t know why.”

A story from Luke 5:1-11, the story of the calling of the first disciples, offers a clue. Jesus was seated in Simon’s boat, teaching. He finished, turned to Simon (later called Peter) and said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Now Simon was an experienced fisherman, a concrete, rational businessman. He was also tired. He and his partners had fished all night without a catch. He had every reason to politely decline. What Jesus was asking wasn’t rational. Peter could have cited a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work.

But Jesus wasn’t thinking about fish. He was working on Peter’s faith, precipitating a crisis in Peter’s life by purposefully, intentionally, and meaningfully pushing him to choose between Peter’s will, intelligence, experience and knowledge, and Jesus’s command. The question was not: would they catch any fish? The question was: would Peter obey?

Peter did obey and the rest, as they say, is history. They caught so many fish that the boats began to sink. But again, it wasn’t about the fish. It was about what happened inside of Peter. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” he said. In other words, Peter now knew Jesus on a whole new level, knew Jesus as God’s Son, and his shepherd, because when his “Jesus crisis” came, he obeyed. He chose submission over experience, Jesus’s will over Peter’s. Life was never the same for Peter after that day.

The ability to experience a living relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit within, does not depend on a blind leap of faith–far from it. It depends on how we respond to our “Jesus crisis” when he calls us to obey against all experience. And call, he will. Perhaps he already has in your life. Perhaps you’ve had many crises with Jesus and, like the rich young ruler in another story, “went away very sad …” without obeying, never knowing the incredible peace and power that comes from obedience. My prayer for you is that the next time he brings you to that moment of crisis you will, like Peter, obey. I promise you, your life will never be the same.

 

VICTIMOLOGY 101

 

What do Islamic terrorists, LGBT activists, and the rioters in Charlotte all have in common? One would think nothing at all, but dig a little deeper and you will find an underground stream running through our culture that nourishes all three.

Welcome to Victimology 101.

The Jihadist rationale for violence depends in part on a doctrine that paints Islam as the victim of infidel oppression. So let’s say you’re the editor of a satirical French magazine that publishes some unflattering cartoons of Mohammed; or you’re a priest of another religion operating in territory claimed by Islam; or you’re a passenger on a plane that represents the prosperity and freedom of an infidel nation. Bang, slash, crash, boom you’re dead and it’s your fault for insulting Islam. That’s Victimology.

The LGBT rationale for imposing its agenda on photographers, bakers, florists, wedding venues, and most recently every public school in the nation regarding who can use what bathroom, is the same. “We’re victims! We have the right to impose our views on everyone in the country!” That’s Victimology.

The rioters in Charlotte, and other municipalities where police have been forced to use force have destroyed businesses, property, and lives for the same reason. “We’re victims!” They cry, as they perpetrate their scorched earth path to power. That’s Victimology.

Adherents of Victimology have at least three things in common.

First, their pain is their fame. They glory in victim status and expect everyone else to comply. Any attempt to diminish their status is met with indignation, anger, or accusations of insensitivity or oppression. Any attempt to persuade them of a need to change behavior in order to change outcomes is met with multiple rationalizations and blame shifting.

Second, they count on cultural co-dependency. “Compulsive rescuing, called co-dependency,” said Robert McGee, “allows the dependent person (or group) to continue acting destructively and keeps him or her in need of habitually being rescued, so that the pattern continues.”[1] We are suffering from national co-dependence. We rush to fix the problem when stepping back, taking a second look, and figuring out how to help the victim help himself would be better.

Third, emotion equals truth. No one is totally objective. But the adherents of victimology have no objectivity whatsoever. Thus, any appeal to dispassionate reality has little to no authority and is often twisted in order to validate the victim’s outrage.

“Now hang on,” you reason. “Some bad stuff has happened to Muslims, Gays, and Blacks at the hands of bad actors.” Of course it has. Welcome to the fallen planet, where power corrupts, racism lives, and gender-disordered people are hated for something that feels out of their control.

Any society worthy of the title civilized would want to address obvious inequities and open oppression of the strong against the weak and marginalized. I for one am glad to have learned what I have about Islam, same-sex attracted people, and racism by the conflicts we’ve endured over the past two-decades. But the missing truth is that you do not help one class of victims by creating another. That path is as old as mankind and littered with the rubble of civilizations.

Thankfully, there is a better way.

The most successful reconciliations in history are those that adopted and adapted the doctrines of Jesus Christ. Why didn’t the American Civil War continue as a perpetual guerrilla battle after Appomattox, as Jefferson Davis commanded? Because Christian Generals like Robert E. Lee wouldn’t allow it. How did South Africa overcome the rancor of Apartheid? By applying the doctrines of reconciliation taught in the Bible and applied by men like Desmond Tutu. Why did Rwanda not continue in a blood-bath of retaliation after the Tutsi’s defeated the Hutu’s in 1994? Because Christians led the way in reconciliation.

What can we do when we see Victimology at work?

First, refuse to buy into its precepts. Don’t participate in the pain is fame game, cooperate in cultural co-dependency, or acquiesce to the myth of emotion as truth. But just as important, be a student of Reconciliation 101. Do not take revenge. Let God be the judge. Forgive your enemies, as you have been forgiven. Be kind to those who oppose and oppress you, and look for ways to serve the greater good.

[1] McGee, Robert S. The Search for Significance. Pg. 63.

THE DEACON & THE HOOKER

It’s a simple story told in Luke’s characteristically lucid style.[1] Jesus is dining with a Pharisee named Simon. Picture him as the successful, well-dressed chairman of the deacons and you’ll be in the ballpark. A woman steps haltingly into the room. Her name is not given but it is not needed. Everyone knows her, the local hooker. She is not composed, not there to impress or seduce. She is weeping with gratitude, on her knees over the feet of the reclining rabbi from Nazareth, pouring out years of pent-up guilt, little rivers of happiness and shame, down upon his ankles and between his toes. She bends further and wipes the watery dirt away with her hair. Then she withdraws an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and empties it on his feet, rubbing it in with her hands as the sweet aroma fills the room.

Simon is aghast. The Pharisees were known for their righteousness, their religious purity and high moral character. They were the successful middle class evangelicals of their day. They didn’t hang out with sinful people nor approve of those who did.  Scenes like this were too much for such men. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” he grouses within.

Jesus knows exactly what she is, a broken woman experiencing forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame for the first time in her life. But Jesus also knows something else: what Simon is, a successful man in need of humility, a man every bit as lost in his self-righteousness as the hooker had been in immorality. The only difference between the two is that the woman knows her sin and knows she needs a savior. Simon’s success blinds him to both.

Jesus tells Simon a story of two forgiven debtors, one who owed eighteen months wages and one who owed about two months. “Now which of them will love the forgiving moneylender more?” He asks.

Simon can’t help but answer, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

Then Jesus says the most important thing in the whole story, the thing that reveals who he really is. “Correct!” He looked at the woman. “See this woman? I came to your house yet you have not offered me the least of common courtesies. But she has not ceased, since the moment I walked in, to show me the greatest love and devotion. Therefore I tell you, her sins which are many have been forgiven, for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

In other words, “Simon, in the grand scheme of things I’m the lender, I’m the one that everyone is indebted to. I’m God. Your achievements in life and religion matter not at all. Your relationship to me is all.”

And as if to put an exclamation point on it he turns to the woman with something only God has the authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It isn’t what we’ve done or not done in life that determines our salvation. It isn’t how religious we’ve been or how irreligious, our successes or failures. The only thing that matters is our ability to acknowledge our sin, to own the guilt and the shame, to the one who “holds the note” on it and trust him to forgive the one and remove the other. Then every room we enter will be filled with the aroma of our love for him.

[1] (Luke 7:36-50)

OLYMPIC IDENTITIES: Who You Are is Greater than What You Do

Michael Phelp’s amazing return to gold medal form for the 2016 Olympics is the story of a man with a new mission in life. He was contemplating suicide in 2014 when his friend, Ray Lewis, an All-Pro linebacker and Christian, convinced him to enter rehab and gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

Phelps recovered and thanked Lewis, saying to an ESPN reporter that the book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”[1]

Phelps isn’t the only American medalist whose identity is anchored outside the pool. The silver medal winning U.S. 10M platform synchronized diving team of David Boudia and Steele Johnson also gave credit for their poise under pressure to something other than their training: their “identity in Christ.”

What’s going on here?

Ask the average Christian about their identity according to scripture and you often get a blank stare, or sometimes, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” But the New Testament fairly bubbles over with illustrations of the principle that once we have been “born again,” as Jesus said, or “regenerated and renewed,” in Paul’s idiom we are no longer simply saved sinners, we are “new creatures in Christ. The old things have passed away, and new things have come.”

Here are just a few Scriptural phrases that articulate the concept:

  • Colossians 2:13 – You have been “made alive with Christ” and are no longer “dead in trespasses and sins.”
  • Colossians 3:1 – You have been “raised with Christ” and your life is now “hidden with Christ in God.”
  • Hebrews 10: 10 – You have been “made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Christ once for all.”
  • Romans 6:3-4 – You died with Christ and were raised with him to a new life.

Athletes are, by definition, under loads of “performance pressure.” How they do on the field or in the pool will determine not only whether they win or lose, but often how they feel about themselves as persons; their self-worth measured by the few tenths of a point or hundredths of a second between the bronze medal and fourth place. At the highest levels, as was the case with Phelps, they often have no identity outside of their sport and once they age out, or can no longer compete with the best, become depressed. The internal need to succeed is enormous.

That’s why Boudia’s answer to how he handled the pressure was so important.

“You know,” he said during an interview after their dive, “it’s just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this, thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy, but we both know our identity is in Christ.”

His diving partner, Johnson, agreed, “I think the way David just described it was flawless. The fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace. It gave me ease, and it let me enjoy the contest.”[2]

Take a lesson from these athletes and remember: if you’re a believer your identity is greater than your performance. You are accepted in Christ, you are loved by God, you belong to him and whether you have a gold medal day or come in somewhere back of bronze, nothing can change that.

[1] Michael Phelps is Driven; Breakpoint Daily, August 11, 2016, with Eric Metaxas.

[2] http://www.cnsnews.com/blog/michael-morris/us-olympic-divers-following-silver-medal-performance-our-identity-christ