Love Others Like You Love Yourself, Even When It Hurts

August 31, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

Loving people can be easy.  It’s easy when we already like the people and they’ve never really hurt us.  It’s also easy if we don’t really hear what Jesus said in the 2nd greatest commandment.  “Love people like you love yourself.”  That is a tremendous and deep concept and it forces us to think about the way that we love ourselves and then apply that to other people.  It should force us to think about both the magnitude with which we love ourselves and the ways in which we love ourselves.  Obviously, we love ourselves a lot.  Even those of us who struggle with self-esteem, we are the people that we think the most about, try to help the most, are most worried about, etc. What if we thought about and helped and served and loved people as much as we do those things for ourselves?

It’s not just degree.  There are ways that we love ourselves that can be helpful in our understanding of what God has called us to.  I’ll mention 3.

1) I always do what is in my own best interest.  I never (intentionally) do something that I don’t believe is in my best interest.  Even when I sacrifice what I want for someone else, it’s because I believe it is best for me to be that kind of person.  Even if I were to hurt myself on purpose, it would be because I believe that I deserve it.  Everything I do is put through a grid of “Is this good for me?”  What if we used that same grid to consider the way that we treated others?  What would my relationships look like if I only did what was in their best interest?

2) I believe the best in me. I know that I make mistakes but I always have reasons. The bad things that I do are never as bad as you think they are.  If you only understood, then you would know that I’m still a good person.  That’s how we view ourselves but not how we view others.  We look at they way that they hurt us through the worst lenses.  I’m a good person with reasons for what I do.  You are a bad person with lame justifications and excuses. What if we chose to believe the best possible interpretation for what someone else is doing and worked hard to give everyone the benefit of the doubt?

3) I always give me another chance. I have never exhausted the grace that I am willing to give myself.  I have done more damage to myself than anyone else.  In fact, I have probably done more damage to myself than everyone else combined has done to me.  However, no matter how many times I have hurt me, I’m always giving me another chance.  I know that I didn’t mean it and that I’m going to turn it around soon.  However, if you hurt me a couple of times, then I’m done with you. What if we were always willing to give people another chance?

Those thoughts are all well and good, I know, when we are talking about people that we have a good relationship with that we need to love better, forgive better.  These are great tips for improving existing, relatively healthy relationships.  But what about those relationships that are just bad.  How do we love like ourselves those people that are the most unlovable? How do we love those that have hurt us repeatedly and wisdom would tell us that nothing is going to change?

1) Know the difference between mandatory and optional relationships.  You can’t be all done with your kids or your spouse (Cases of abuse being a counterexample.  Talk to a trusted friend, counselor or pastor in those cases and get help now).  God requires you to love and serve them. You cannot remove yourself from some relationships.  I know they continue to hurt you, but God’s love and forgiveness are unconditional and he is calling us to love our family in the same way.

2) Sometimes the best thing that you can do for a person is to create some real distance.  If the relationship is doing real damage, it is in their best interest to step back from a relationship where all they seem to do is cause pain.  You can believe the best in them by believing that with some distance and boundaries they will get better.  You are also forgiving them and giving them another chance in a more healthy context to get better.

3) Do not try and do this alone.  Too often we dismiss people when we are just being selfish and unforgiving.  Other times, we are trying to make something work and we don’t have the strength to do it.  In both kinds of circumstances, you need a trusted friend to lean on, to get counsel from and to just be a shoulder to cry on sometimes.

4) However, know the difference between a buddy and a friend.  A buddy will back up whatever you say.  A friend will challenge you when you are the problem.

5) Live deeply in the grace and forgiveness that God has given you.  You can’t do it alone.  You can’t even do it with just a friend.  You need to draw on the power and the experience of the love and grace that God has shown you.  We love because he first loved us.  It is the same with forgiveness.

God is calling us to love each other deeply and to model his love to the world.  The model becomes even stronger when people see the power of true forgiveness and restoration.  Don’t give up.

Christian Book Recommendations

August 27, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

At The Grove Church on Sunday, I recommended that some people needed to buy and read a theology book.  I also talked about some books that challenge may way of thinking.  I also talked about authors that I agree with, but they still sharpen me as well.  Here are some specific recommendations.

Does God Really Have a Plan for My Life? (The Path)

August 27, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

pathI was at Student Mobilization’s first Christmas Conference in 1992 and we were meeting in the banquet room of Bonanza right on the strip in Branson, Missouri.  One of the highlights of that is being able to pay $1 at the beginning of each day and get soda with free refills all day long!  I was a college student, back then it was the little things, not that I would say no now to all I could drink soda for a dollar. It was an incredibly fun week.  My team made it to the finals of the 3 on 3 basketball tourney. I was there with some great friends from school and was able to reconnect with new friends that I had made earlier that summer at a summer project called Kaleo.  But more than all the fun that I had and more than the joy of being able to connect with friends, this conference in Branson was a powerful week in my life.  God was confirming in my life that he wanted more from me than what I considered to be the normal Christian life.  I heard speaker after speaker talk about what it truly meant to follow God. I began to more fully understand that God did not simply want church attenders and generally religious people. God wanted my whole life.  I was being remade.  I could tell that my life was never going to be the same again.

Then one of the speakers introduces to us the idea of unreached people.  Unreached people in missions terminology are groups and cultures that are far removed from the gospel.  There is no church among the people capable of reaching the culture for Jesus Christ.  These people are relatively hopeless, not just in that they don’t know Christ but that for the most part they don’t know anyone who knows anyone who could explain the gospel to them.  I was totally overwhelmed.  I had never been confronted with that level of need before.  Between that and how God was changing my heart about discipleship, I knew that God wanted to use me to change the world.  God wanted me to make a difference in the lives of people who were unreached.

The last night included a lot of powerful worship. They were preparing us for a night where we were to reflect on the week and commit to apply what God was laying on our hearts.  They didn’t want us to get all fired up and go back to school and get into the same routines.  The last speaker spoke and encouraged us to consider what God wanted us to do. He knew that God was speaking to us and he wanted us to think about what specific ideas and applications we were taking away from the conference.  After some time of reflection they wanted us to share.  People were supposed to stand and speak out what their life application for the conference was.  After a few people stood and shared, I boldly stood up and declared that I was going to be a missionary to an unreached people. In that moment I knew that’s what God wanted me to do, so I stood up and told everyone.

Over 20 years have passed since that moment and what I declared has never happened. While I suppose that there is still time left for me to do that, I now believe that honest heartfelt declaration from a 21 year old is not the direction that God has for my life or necessarily that he ever had.  God was definitely speaking and leading.  God was telling me to make some changes and was reshaping my life, and I truly believed that was what God wanted.  Now, 20+ years later, God has reshaped my life in many ways because of that season in my life, just not by going to an unreached people.  So I wonder what really happened? I look back and ask, “What was God really saying?”

I also think about the people all over the room that didn’t stand up.  Not only did they not stand up, but they hear messages like that and think “There’s no way that applies to me. God doesn’t think of me like that.”  They do not believe that God truly has a big plan for their lives.

Two types of people both struggling to determine what God really wants from them.  One, not truly believing that God wants to use them.  The other is incredibly fired up but life took him somewhere different than what he thought.  Are you either of these? Did you once have big plans and dreams of how God was going to use you, how you were going to make a difference? Then life got in the way, life zigged when you wanted to zag, and you are left confused wondering what went wrong. Or are you someone who doesn’t believe that you are someone that God truly wants to use? Calling is for those people and you are just an ordinary person living an ordinary life.

Regardless of where you are now and how you got there.  Know this: God has big plans for your life and wants to use you to change the world.  I’m going to spend a lot of time on here for the next few months talking about how we can discover what that plan and path is and how to navigate the ups and downs and twists and turns that we will face trying to get there and stay there. I encourage you to subscribe so that we can walk together discovering God’s path for our lives.

Adventures with Laylah

August 26, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

It is hard to imagine that it has been so long since I’ve blogged that there is nothing on here about Laylah.  For those of you who don’t know, Laylah is our 3, almost 4, year old daughter.  For those keeping score, that means we have 3 daughters–17, 14 and 3, all with birthdays this fall.  People always make a face when they hear the spread for the first time.  “Got a surprise, huh?”  “Yeah, but not how you think.”  I’ll tell you the story some time in the future for sure about how God brought the awesome Laylah Sue Loften into our lives, but that is for another day.

Today we are talking about adventures.  About a year ago on a Saturday morning, mom was headed out garage saling (Red squiggle for saling, huh?  So “to garage sale” is not a verb? Agree to disagree.) and Laylah was not happy so I asked her if she wanted to go on some adventures.  Not exactly sure why I used that word, because what I had in mind was not, by most definitions, adventurous.  That perked her up quickly and we were on our way.

As we were getting in the car, I asked her what she wanted to do first.  She said that she wanted to go to the gas station and get a sucker.  Adventure! So we went to Kum & Go (Where & Means More!) and she got a sucker and I got an obnoxiously large fountain drink (The smallest drink is the medium and it’s 32 oz). I was hungry, so we then went to Chick-Fil-A (Home of the Original Chicken Sandwich) for some breakfast. Adventure! The Chick-Fil-A we visited happens to be next to Barnes and Noble (Unleash Your Imagination) and Petco (Where the Healthy Pets Go).  So after lunch we went to “The Pet Shop.” Adventure! Then we went to “The Story Store” (You see the story store is different than a library because you have to buy the stories instead of take them home with you). Adventure!

After about two and a half hours, she gets tired and she is all adventured out.  We go home get some lunch and she passes out for a nap.  Little did I know that I had begun a weekly tradition.  This is now what my Saturday mornings are–always.  In the last year, we have expanded our repertoire.  We go to Toys ‘R Us (Where a Kid Can Be a Kid) sometimes and occasionally run the aisles at Wal-Mart (Always Low Prices).  We also have southern adventures with a different Kum & Go and Chick-Fil-A, but includes the Fayetteville Public Library (strengthening our community and empowering our citizens with free and public access to knowledge) and the Farmers Market (where our commitment to fresh, locally grown produce and goods has helped Northwest Arkansas grow into a healthier and greener community) Adventures!!!

We do some version of this every Saturday we are in town.  We’ve even been known to do it in Branson (There’s Only One…) on occasion. Too Much Adventure! Laylah asks almost every day if tomorrow is Saturday or “Adventure day.” It is one of the highlights of her week and mine as well.  We have a blast together.  For a relatively small investment of 2-2 1/2 hours, I get so much.

She knows that I love her and that I value spending time with her.  She is building up a huge memory bank of a dad that consistently and lovingly gave her part of his time.  I’m building up the same memory bank.  Big picture, there is going to come a day when her eye is going to be looking to other guys.  The more I serve and love her, the less and less likely it becomes that she will settle for some selfish guy that wants something from her but gives nothing.  I am teaching her what it means to be loved by a man, what a dad is, and in 50 years or so, when she starts dating, I want her standard to be high.

Dads, I can’t say this to you enough.  Search the site, and you will see that I have been saying this for years.  You need to start now, investing personal regular time in your girls.  You need to love and date and serve them. The payoff now and in the long run is huge.  It doesn’t take a huge investment–you’d be surprised how much mileage I can get out of a 20 cent sucker.  While the investment can be small, the dividends will echo for eternity.

We are too cool for these bike helmets, Wal-Mart, and everything

We are too cool for these bike helmets, Wal-Mart, and everything

Ashley Madison and Josh Duggar: When Christians Fall

August 25, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

Allow me to be the next person to weigh in on Ashley Madison and Josh Duggar. In the early days of the original controversy, there were 3 types of thoughts.  1. Grace and forgiveness 2. Judgment and condemnation 3. Some kind of innovative 3rd way position.  In part 2 (hopefully of 2) of the controversy, all we have is #2.  People are taking this opportunity of his public failing of his wife to criticize and condemn a lifestyle that they always thought was a little weird but made good television.  We stand on a high horse and declare that he deserved it.  We “other” the discussion and distance ourselves from it and make ourselves feel better.  We make a conscious decision to do what we almost always do, which is to believe that we have nothing to learn from this.  “They” have these problems.  I don’t.

As always, we choose to not learn the right lessons.  We choose to speak loudly about the lessons that other people should learn.  We fail to do the hard but necessary work to ask what I need to learn from this.

(Disclaimers: It’s difficult to talk about this when they are local.  I’ve met them. I know people that legitimately know them.  They are real people where I live. Second, I believe that my condemnation of molestation and adultery are a matter of the public record. Nothing I say here should be considered “giving him a pass” or “normalizing” his sin.  However, I have no stone to throw, certainly not publicly. It’s not my place. Why I don’t is one of the points of this post.)

There are two things that have been on my heart as I have been processing all of the controversy surrounding Josh Duggar (3 if you count the sheer lack of compassion and understanding given to his wife and kids, but that’s a blog post for someone else.)  These issues have more to do with me and us than him.  The first issue that has been on my heart is that your sin will find you out.  You may believe that you are keeping it hidden, and you may be for a little while.  However, your sin will find you.  Maybe not today or tomorrow or even this year, but it always catches up with you.  This pattern has been repeated way too many times over the years.  Consider how many public Christians have fallen in tremendously awful ways over the years.  Someone rises to prominence but the whole time they are hiding some sin.  The pressure of their fame increases the pressure which makes the sin worse, which makes them try to hide it even more.  Then the light shines on it.  They are exposed and they fall.

For every “famous” Christian that this happens to, there are thousands of regular people following the same pattern.  It doesn’t show up in your Facebook feed, but it shows up in family courts all over the world, families being destroyed because of a secret sin.  We are no different.  If you have a sin that you are hiding, the light will find you.  God loves you too much to allow you to continue to destroy yourself in private.  He wants you to be free from sin.

So if this is you, make the decision to let someone know.  Ask someone for help.  Put a little light on it, before it happens to you.  Surround yourself with help.  Your sin will either find you or you can humbly take it to people.  Either way, when it comes to light, you are going to need people to come around you and help you and restore you.

This leads to the second thought. Be careful how you talk and act toward others.  When you see the sin of others, how do you respond? Do you respond with compassion and hope or anger and judgment?  In the often misunderstood and misused passage about judgment, Jesus says this:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

So, the way that you judge is how you will be judged.  If I see someone in sin and I say, “That’s not good.  You should stop. How can I help you?” I can expect that is how someone will judge me when it is my turn.  If I angrily condemn people, I should expect to be angrily condemned when it is my turn.  Again, don’t be fooled.  Your turn is coming. When your sin is discovered, people will respond to you the way that you have responded to people.

Why has the response to Josh Duggar not been compassionate? It seems pretty clear that he has some deep rooted sexual issues that messed him up as a kid and continue to this day.  Why is there not a call for helping him deal with whatever these deep issues are?  The reason is that he never seemed to show the same compassion.  In his role with the Family Research Council, he said and behaved in ways that made many people feel strongly condemned.  He didn’t show compassion and grace.  When it was his turn, he put out public statements asking for compassion and grace, and very little was to be found.  He is reaping what he sowed.

When my time comes (and no I don’t have an Ashley Madison account and I have never cheated on my wife) and some sin of mine is exposed (I do sin though.  Both publicly and privately), I want the people who know me to love me and help restore me.  How can I be sure that will happen? By doing the same for people now.  Sin is real and destructive.  I do no one any favors by not calling sin what it is.  However, I also do no one a favor, including me, by raining down condemnation either.

So that is why I have no stone to throw.  It is why when stories like this (and worse) come into my office, I offer love, prayers and help. I don’t tell them what they did is ok, but I also don’t literally or figuratively throw stones.  Instead I try to offer the same compassion of Jesus who said “sin no more” and offered the love and help to people to make that command a reality.

What is the Greatest Thing You Have Ever Done?

August 24, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

In the series we started at The Grove Church yesterday, we are looking at the Great Commandments and the Great Commission.  These are two foundational passages that should define what  a church is and what it means to be a follow of Jesus.

In Matthew 22:36, Jesus is asked this question:

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

As I was preparing this message, before I could even get to the answer, I found myself dwelling a lot on the question.  What is the GREATEST command?  Said another way, “What is the greatest thing that you can do?”  This led me to the more personal question, “What would I say is the greatest thing that I have ever done?”

There are so many ways to answer that question. My mind always goes to the time I hit a half-court shot in overtime to send our high school basketball team to the playoffs in the last game of the year.  (If only the internet had existed in 1990, I would so be linking to that article right now) Why is that great?  It’s incredibly difficult for one and incredibly rare.  It had significant consequences for the team.  However we all know how this falls short.  It was great but it’s impact was short-lived and small comparable to other great things someone can do.

Maybe the greatest thing that I have ever done is to adopt a daughter from foster care. It is definitely near the top of things that have made me the happiest.  It also has had significant impact in all of the lives of our family. It reflects God’s deep heart and love for the orphan which is reflected all throughout Scripture.

Maybe that’s too narrow though, maybe if I were to broaden it out.  Perhaps the greatest thing that I have ever done is to be a great husband and dad, or to be a pastor, or helping lead people to Christ.  All of those things have and will have great and deep impact in the lives of people and definitely feel great to me.

What all of these candidates for “greatest” have in common are they are things that I did or do to serve other people (half-court shot included, I suppose).  Jesus, on the other hand, had a completely different answer.  He didn’t give a do/don’t do command.  The command didn’t involve serving other people.  His answer was this:

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’” 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

When asked what the greatest thing that we could do, he gave a relational command.  We need to love God with everything that we are.  The greatest thing that we can do is love God.  That is so counter-intuitive to what we believe makes someone or something great.  However, God is the greatest, so connecting to him is great.  Also, it was what we created to do.  We were created for him and by him.

Even last night, after preaching on this 3 times, I was still thinking about this and this illustration came to me.   What is the greatest part of your house? Some might say the kitchen/dining room.  Wherever it is that you and connect with each other for dinner is the greatest place.  Perhaps it is the living room where the best family memories or made.  If you have small children, it might be the private solace that comes from the bathroom.  (Just me? Ok. Never mind)  It may be the bedroom (Uh.  Again, never mind)

The greatest part of the house is the foundation.  Without it, nothing else in the house can function properly.  It is the piece of the home, by which all other pieces are made possible and better and functional.  We take the foundation of our house for granted, and that’s ok.  Your foundation doesn’t care.  However, we cannot take for granted the foundational relationship by which every other part of our lives rests.  That is our greatest relationship and loving him is the greatest thing that we can do.

Why do you believe that loving God is the greatest commandment?