“The most devastating criticism turns out to be the finest mercy”

I’m re-reading Alfred Poirier’s article “The Cross and Criticism” and stopped to linger over this paragraph:

In light of God’s judgment and justification of the sinner in the cross of Christ, we can begin to discover how to deal with any and all criticism. By agreeing with God’s criticism of me in Christ’s cross, I can face any criticism man may lay against me. In other words, no one can criticize me more than the cross has. And the most devastating criticism turns out to be the finest mercy. If you thus know yourself as having been crucified with Christ, then you can respond to any criticism, even mistaken or hostile criticism, without bitterness, defensiveness, or blameshifting. Such responses typically exacerbate and intensify conflict, and lead to the rupture of relationships. You can learn to hear criticism as constructive and not condemnatory because God has justified you.

 I just love that statement, and I don’t think we can hear it enough: “No one can criticize me more than the cross has. And the most devastating criticism turns out to be the finest mercy.”

Family Tensions at Christmas

A helpful post from Russell Moore on the reality of family tensions during the holidays and a God-honoring (and peacemaking) way to approach them. Here’s a quick taste from his intro:

…An issue that will hit all of us sooner or later: tensions within extended families at the holiday time. Some of the people I was talking to will be visiting non-Christian family members. Some of them have family members who are contemptuous of the Christian faith, and are downright hostile to the whole thing.

Others are empty nest couples who now have sons- or daughters-in-law to get adjusted to, maybe even grandchildren who are being reared, well, not exactly the way the grandparents would do it. Still others are young couples who are figuring out how to keep from offending family members who are watching the calendar, to see which side of the family gets more time on the ledger. And others are new parents, trying to figure out how to parent their child when it’s Mammonpalooza at Aunt Flossie’s house this year.

And, of course, there’s just always the kind of thing that happens when sinful people come into contact with one another. Somebody asks “When is the baby due?” to an unpregnant woman or somebody blasts your favorite political figure or…well, you know.

Here are a few quick thoughts on what followers of Jesus ought to remember, especially if you’ve got a difficult extended family situation…

I think we can all identify with these kinds of situations. Read the whole article for some good counsel on how to head into the holidays with a proper mindset.

(HT: JT)

Seasonal Expectations

The little girl lay in her bed staring at the ceiling as she wondered if she would get the doll she was hoping to receive the next morning.  The thought of not getting it made her sad and angry.  Then she let go of it, and fell asleep.

She was startled by the rustling and licking of her puppy as rays of sunshine pierced through the corners of her curtains.  She slipped on her slippers and walked downstairs to find no presents under the Christmas tree and flat stockings over the fireplace.  She smelled the aroma of bacon floating through the air, and followed it to the kitchen.

          “Good morning honey.  Merry Christmas!”  Her mother greeted her with a warm smile.

The little girl’s face showed signs of sadness and frustration as her mother greeted her.  Where were the presents?  After all it was Christmas.  There should be presents.

          “Mom, if it is Christmas, why isn’t there presents under the tree?”

          “Honey, why do we celebrate Christmas?”

           “Well…it’s when Jesus was born.  Christmas is his birthday.”

          “That’s right dear.  It is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Honey, do you ever think Christmas can become   about what we want and expect instead of being thankful for our Savior being born?”

The little girl’s heart sank.  She wasn’t going to get the doll and worst was that this wasn’t going to be the Christmas she had hoped it would be.  But, her mom was right.  She had forgotten about the true meaning of Christmas and she could only think about the things she wanted.

          “Yes, I can see that but that’s what everyone does.  I mean…it’s a tradition.  It is what we do every year.  It’s something we look forward to.”  Tears started welling up inside her but she held them back as her stomach began to do summersaults.

          “You are right sweetie; we do have a tradition of exchanging presents on Christmas.  Jesus was the ulimate gift because he was born to rescue us from a life without a relationship with God.  The world gets their pleasure from things but we get our pleasure from relationship.  We get to have a relationship with God and because of that relationship we can have good relationships with others.  In the end, Jesus died and he didn’t take any possessions with him.  Do you know what he did take with him?”

         “No.  What did he take?”  She looked at her mom with anticipation.  She really wanted to know and she didn’t care about the doll at this point.

        “He took our sins so we could be saved.  He sacrificed his life and served his friends unselfishly.”

        “So, is getting presents on Christmas bad?”  The little girl asked gently.

        “No, honey it isn’t bad at all.  But, when Christmas becomes only about what we want and expect, it becomes a selfish act.”

The little girl looked at her mom and said, “Mom, I don’t need anything.  I’m glad I have you.”

As the little girl said this and hugged her mom, her dad walked down the stairs with a large garbage bag full of presents.  “Does anyone want to open some presents?”

The little girl smiled but then said, “Can we read about Jesus being born first?” 

“You bet honey.  I love you.”  Her dad then picked up his little girl, gave her a big squeeze, and winked at his beautiful bride across the room. 

Family Feuds

The Christian Counseling and Education Center shared a helpful article last week called “Family Feuds: How to Respond.” 

In it, Tim Lane shares some ideas for bringing our relationship with Christ to bear on difficult family situations, which are often brought to the surface during the holiday season.  I found his counsel to be wise and realistic (he doesn’t gloss over painful issues like abuse), but above all I appreciated his reminder that we can only respond with grace to our family to the measure that we ourselves have received grace:

 Living with a conscious understanding of who you are in Christ can practically impact the way you love your family. Think of it this way: if you are very poor and someone steals a dollar from you, you’d be very angry and you’d try to make that person give you your dollar back. But if you are a multi-millionaire and someone takes $100 or even $1000 dollars from you, the offense, though real, doesn’t sting like it would if you were very poor. In the same way, when you become a Christian you are a spiritual multi-millionaire a millions times over!

Because of what Jesus did for you through his life, death, and resurrection, God has poured an unlimited amount of grace, forgiveness, love, commitment, security, and commitment into your life. Your spiritual wealth puts all of the slights, unmet expectations, and hurts of parents and siblings in a totally new light. It doesn’t mean you ignore or don’t feel the hurts, but they pale in comparison to what you have been given in Christ. Because of who you are in Christ, you don’t have to be overwhelmed and dominated by the sins and failures of your family. Instead you will be free to share with them the same grace and mercy God has given to you.

Read the whole thing here.

Great Links

I’ve come across some great links in the past few days that are all relevant for our peacemaking world.  Here ya’ go:

 A great (brief) parable for those who think their sin affects no one else.

Take Your Vitamin Z links to a post from Tim Keller about how to deal with harsh criticism. Here’s Keller’s first big statement: “The biggest danger of receiving criticism is not to your reputation, but to your heart.”

Also on the subject of criticism, a post about criticism that is delivered secondhand in churches: “Is Anonymous your first or last name?”

     *Here’s an interesting thought: Do the two posts on criticism contradict each other?  On one level, they certainly seem to.  I resolved the difference by reading Keller’s post for moments when I am the target of the criticism; I read the “anonymous” one for times when I am prone to offer that anonymous criticism from a “safe” distance.

Ray Ortlund describes George Whitefield’s “archaeology of repentance.”  A quote:

Our righteous self-images start to deconstruct our excuses, our rationalizations, our entitlements.  Every false refuge gives way.  “You must be brought to see that God may damn you for the best prayer you ever put up.  Our best duties are so many splendid sins.  There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of the heart.”

Tim Challies reflects on a flock of 400 sheep in Turkey that wandered over a cliff.  His comments immediately reminded me of sessions 2 & 3 of our Leadership Opportunity resource, in which Tim Laniak teaches on Scripture’s use of shepherd imagery.

Finally, Thabiti Anyabwile on the Church Matters blog posts a letter from a friend about contextualization.  While I am particularly interested in contextualization questions for the international outreach of our  ministry, the letter was a great reminder about our ultimate motivation for seeking clear communication in every area of life.

It’s a Wonderful Life?

I have two movies I like to watch every Christmas. Although both are seasonal favorites watched by many, my reason for appreciating these movies might be different than the holiday spirit they invoke.

My first favorite movie is Muppet Christmas Carol. I know, I should be too grown-up for this one and prefer an older, more sophisticated version. But Michael Caine did a superb job playing the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man caught in the trap of a selfish heart. Even the words sung by the little muppet character’s reveal the depth of Scrooge’s meanness:

“He must be so lonely, he must be so sad
He goes to extremes to convince us he’s bad
He’s really a victim of fear and of pride
Look close and there must be a sweet man inside
(Nah . . . uh uh)”

They seem to understand Luke 6:45 “for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”  And so Scrooge begins a Christmas Eve journey coming to an understanding of his life and how he came to be the way he is. He first visits his past life, observing how he chose work and money over community and relationship. He visits his present life, seeing the effects of his responses in relationships and what people really think of him. He even visits the future to reveal where these choices will inevitably lead. Finally, in a tearful plea, kneeling at his own gravestone, Scrooge cries with regret: “Tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone.”

My second favorite movie is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Despite the Capraistic sentimentalism, this movie touches on some deep topics; unfulfilled aspirations, unhappiness, bitterness, anger, frustration, boderline violence and even contemplation of suicide. The main character, George Bailey, despite his own personal dreams, puts them aside for the good of others only to find his growing bitterness come to the surface when a great crises occurs. James 4:1 speaks to this, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” After wishing he had never been born and experiencing the horror of that life, George pleads through tears, “Lord, I want to live again.”

And why do I like these movies? With a telescopic lens looking at the big picture, I find these stories help us see the impact of our lives in community. Focusing only on our own happiness at the expense of others creates all kinds of havoc. But when I put on the microscopic lens, I see my own heart and can truly identify with both Scrooge and George Bailey.

This year as I decorated our Christmas tree, hanging ornaments we have gathered over the years, it was like the Christmas Carol as I went back in time revisiting my past. And like Scrooge, it was hard to see those former years. I remembered seasons of anger, bitterness and envy. The sin of selfishness had caused havoc in my own heart and had spilled onto others. I also remembered moments of despair, confusion, and fear and even a time when I had cried out like Geroge Bailey, “I wish I had never been born.” Like Scrooge I felt great regret and remorse.

Of course, the movies I mentioned have happy endings, something everyone seems to want at Christmas. Most of the world may not acknowledge that this desire for redemption, even in movies, stems from the image of God imprinted on man.  But for me, I know that real redemption came in the form of a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. It was through Jesus Christ, his birth, death, and resurrection that I am redeemed, that I have hope. As the Ghost of Christmas Past put it to Scrooge when asked why she was there, she replied, “For your welfare…your salvation then.” Christ indeed came for my salvation.

And Christ indeed redeemed my Christmas tree decorating. Amongst the sad memories, regret and remorse, came Lamentations 3:19-24:

“Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I have hope in him.”

I am not sure what you are experiencing this Christmas season. From the calls I receive as the Intake Coordinator here at Peacemaker Ministries, many are sad, anxious, full of regret, suffering from very heavy circumstances and hearts. May these words encourage and remind you that we don’t need Christmas movies to remind us of God’s goodness. The Word came in flesh and we have been redeemed through the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases. I do not know of any other life that could be so wonderful.

The Power of Relationship when you’re helping others

If you’ve been trained in biblical peacemaking (for example Conflict Coaching and Mediation), it’s easy to assume that people in conflict will just come to you looking for assistance. And you might be disappointed or discouraged when you hang out your peacemaking “shingle” and hear nothing but the crickets chirping.In our Peacemaking Team e-Newsletter I recently wrote the following article emphasizing the power of personal relationships for a church peacemaking team member…even BEFORE we assist others in conflict.Here it is:

How to Promote Your Visibility:Being Relationally Connected
By Jerry Wall

         A good friend of mine, Steve, is a successful real estate agent. In fact, he just helped my wife and me purchase a home that we’ll be moving into soon. Observing how my friend achieves success in business reminded me of your ministry as a peacemaking team member. Let me explain.It’s obvious that if you’re going to have a fruitful ministry, people need to know about your ministry in the first place. How can you get the word out? You might make an announcement from the pulpit or publish one in the church bulletin, participate in a church ministry fair, hold a “reconciliation Sunday,” or any number of “traditional marketing” means of raising awareness.

All those are helpful and will go a long way toward helping members of your church learn more about your peacemaking ministry. But what about my real estate agent friend, Steve? How can he (or any other “salesperson”) raise his or her visibility? He certainly does use traditional marketing, like sending out flyers, or fridge magnets, or taking out newspaper ads. But as I watch my friend I see a much more powerful “marketing” vehicle: genuine care and involvement in people’s lives.

A successful real estate agent makes a lot of sales because he or she knows and is involved with a lot of people. I notice that about my friend: He seems to know everyone in our church and community. Sure, he wants to connect with people in order to build his business. But I also see that he’s just a very relational guy—he’s out there meeting people, greeting new people, and genuinely caring about what’s going on in people’s lives.

And so, when people need to conduct a very personal (and, to some, very scary) transaction like buying a house, most people choose a real estate agent they already know. You can expect the same for persons in conflict in your church. Conflict is scary and it’s deeply personal; folks won’t turn to just anybody for help; they need someone they trust, someone who can actually help, someone who really cares.

While it is very important (especially in a larger church) to get the word out through the bulletin or with announcements, the best publicity is personal relationships. When folks are experiencing conflict, they will turn to people they know and trust.And so, for your peacemaking team, it’s important to be out there in the church. Are you out there among the flock? If there are people in your church who could benefit from conflict coaching, would you know about it?

Now I’ll grant that all of us have different skills. Some of us are quite skilled at making these personal connections, while others of us struggle in this regard. But that’s where the team comes in: you might note that some members of your peacemaking team are especially skilled in building relationships. Put this gift to use for the benefit of your church, your team, and those you serve.

Regardless which team members focus on this area, it’s critical that you raise the visibility of your team by building relationships with many members of your church. If you just “hang out a shingle” that says “peacemaking counsel available,” you may be disappointed. But if you love people enough to demonstrate genuine care and active involvement in the lives of others (even if there’s seemingly no current “need” for peacemaking), you’ll find that the Lord will open doors for you to be a vessel for peace in the body of Christ.Being relationally connected is key.Here are some questions to ask yourself:
à Are you a relationally connected person? If not, how can you grow in this?
à Who on your team CAN do this?
à Name some of the very best relationally connected people in your church who can help raise your visibility. 

The Internet and Church Conflicts

Trevin Wax, over at his blog Kingdom People, recently wrote a post on 9 Ways the Internet is Changing Our World. The part that most piqued my interest was number 7: 

7. Disgruntled church members are utilizing the internet as a way of stating their discontent. [This year, several relatively well-known churches] have all had to deal with situations in which dissenting members aired their concerns on public websites. Church leaders claim the sites perpetuate gossip and do harm to the Body of Christ (I agree).

If this is truly an emerging pattern and represents a change in the typical dynamics of church conflict (and with the advent of web 2.0 and the ease of sharing one’s collective experience online, it very well could be), then it seems to me that we at all need to do some thinking about this issue. Sounds like churches could use some guidance regarding how to deal with situations like these, beyond advice like: “Members, don’t do it. Leaders, tell them not to do it.”

What should church leaders do when dissention starts to be manifest online? How can church members channel their frustration and communicate in an appropriate way when they feel like they are not being heard? Can an online forum ever be appropriate? What are the inherent dangers of situations like this? What dynamics are commonly in play? What steps should be taken? Which ones should be avoided?

At the very least, I sense an article or conference workshop in the future that addresses this topic… but before we go down this road too far, I’m interested in others weighing in. What do you think? What would most help the church? What issues do we need to wrestle with in order to say something helpful to the church?

If you have examples of positive, helpful, and constructive engagement on this issue, I’d love to hear about it.

Peacemakers and Prisons

I just saw a very cool sidebar in an article in The Baptist Standard (a publication of the Baptist General Convention of Texas).  In it, they talk about a prison ministry where John Morrison has been taking peacemaking directly to the prisoners. Check out this photo:

The caption under this photo reads:
The Gib Lewis Unit Peacemaking Team–the Brothers in White–completed the Peacemaker Ministries small-group study to instill in them peacemaking principles to help stop violence in the prison yard. Brothers in White include (seated, left to right) Jess, Eric and Jason; (standing, left to right) Floyd, “Alabama,” Charles and Francisco. Not pictured are Thomas and Olguin.

We love hearing how God is using the Small Group Study and other peacemaking materials in the lives of people everywhere!

Advent Message for Spiritual Shepherds

The following excerpt is from an article written by Dr. Tim Laniak, a friend and colleague who collaborated with us in creating our new resource for church leaders–The Leadership Opportunity. Tim’s an Old Testment professor and has a passion for the biblical image of shepherding and what it means for church leaders today (see also his 40-day devotional book called While Shepherd Watch Their Flocks). We appreciate what Tim added to our study, and I think you’ll appreciate what he writes below. (You can find the entire article at his website.)


Shepherd Witnesses

For this Advent season I thought spiritual shepherds “watching their flocks by night (and day!)” might appreciate the following reflections on the familiar account in Luke 2. Though well-known to us both in public liturgy and drama (e.g. the Herdmans), perhaps there’s more here to enlighten the shepherd’s mind and encourage the shepherd’s soul.

First, a word about the shepherd’s occupation. In light of certain rabbinic texts, it appears that shepherds in first century Palestine were not highly regarded. Assuming they were prone to dishonesty, herders were not legitimate witnesses in court. Luke deliberately highlights the “unlikely” people who participate in the Nativity account: an unwed mother, a barren woman, a widow in the Temple courts, and these field shepherds…

The geographical context in Luke 2 further illuminates the role of the shepherds. Some sources indicate that the fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem were reserved for Temple flocks. If this is the case, then these shepherds were tending highly valued, ritually certifiable livestock. They were entrusted with the very animals that served as substitutionary sacrifices for God’s people.

Let me draw out an implication. The importance of shepherding has everything to do with the value and identity of our flock. Such is the case metaphorically. Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Every life we care for is worth dying for. That’s how the Divine Shepherd came to become the Lamb of God.

Another observation: One of the commonly heard phrases from this account describes shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8 KJV). A literal and better translation reads, “keeping watches.” Shepherds would take turns through the night watches, making sure that their flocks were protected from wolves and thieves. Like soldiers sharing guard duty, field shepherds can’t expect a good night’s sleep.

Once again I find a suitable parallel to the work of spiritual shepherds. We take breaks from our work, but mostly take turns. The work of caring is ceaseless, even when the day is officially over.

Next, notice the shepherds’ responsiveness to the angelic visitation. They “hurried off” to “see the thing that … the Lord has told us about” (vv. 15-16). These unnamed wardens were not only tirelessly overseeing the predictable behavior of their animals; they were attentive to something unprecedented that God was doing… Perhaps this scene will provide a reminder that good shepherds are always ready to recognize God’s activity, wherever and whenever it occurs. That kind of perception is hard to come by when the daily grind is overwhelming.

Finally, watch the shepherds return back to their fields, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Following their own personal encounter with the Incarnation, they worshipped God and bore testimony. Yes, though excluded in court as legitimate witnesses, these shepherds could provide credible evidence of what they had “heard and seen.” The Gospels are full of witnesses whom Jesus accumulated during his life. Fundamental to any message they shared was a living testimony of personal experience.

Like these shepherds we are witnesses to God’s work before we are anything else. Before we “do” anything for Him, we watch Him at work on our behalf. This Advent season, we join the angels in their joy over God’s favor on all people.

Shalom!

Tim Laniak, Th.D.
Director, www.ShepherdLeader.com