Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Changing the Man in the Mirror

Last Thursday, two entertainment icons died – Farrah Fawcett was an icon of female beauty, and Michael Jackson an icon of pop music: for both of them, personal change was one of their biggest challenges. Michael Jackson’s extraordinary talent was apparent to all from birth; he was the King of Pop; but his biggest challenge was trying to grow personally even as he was growing in fame publicly; to overcome his fears and his insecurities, to grow up when everyone wanted him to stay the cute little 5 year old who sang with the Jackson 5. Jackson was a gifted man who felt completely free on stage, yet terrified of crowds. He sang songs about 'making the world a better place'…but like most of us, his biggest challenge was changing 'the man in the mirror'. Change can be scary; overcoming fear or personal shortcomings may seem unlikely at times…but real, lasting, positive change in our lives and the world around us is possible. Here are three things "the man in the mirror" really needs to know.

First, we will never be fully rid of sin or the need to change in this life. The Bible is set apart from a lot of the self-help books on transformation today for one important reason…it takes seriously the reality of evil. The Bible is about more than the power of positive thinking. It rejects the notion that with enough vigilance and will-power and the careful adherence to rules and regulations, that we can reach a state of perfection in this life.

The prophet Jeremiah once spoke of the waywardness of Israel, and her pattern of self-destructive behavior with a question: “Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23). It's a sad commentary on God’s own people! Our capacity to do evil, to make a mess of our lives or the lives of others, given the right circumstances, is as much a part of us as our skin or hair color. It’s part of our fallen nature as human beings. We can’t begin to experience real change if we don’t appreciate how much we need it.

When we see failure and weakness in public figures, it only reminds us of our own. The eccentricities of Michael Jackson, the infidelity of Governor Mark Sanford, or even President Obama’s struggle to kick the cigarette habit, remind us of our own weaknesses, and how difficult it can be to change. Paul spoke truly when he said, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

We will never be fully rid of sin or the need to change in this life; on the other hand (and this is my second point) revelation and experience shows that we can change, grow, and increase in God’s grace. The LORD’s indictment of Israel in Jeremiah 13:23 is not hopeless. The chapter ends with another question, “How long will it be before you are made clean?” It's like saying to a child, “How long will it take for you to learn to pick up your room?” The question seems to assume that change is possible down the road.

If Jeremiah 13 is a chapter of judgment; Jeremiah 31 (ironically) is a chapter that speaks of the hope of future redemption, for the LORD says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31: 33).
The Bible consistently gives real hope that God’s people can and do really change, grow, and increase in his grace. Take Ephesians 4:15, “Speaking the truth in love we must grow up into him who is the head, into Christ”; or Philippians 1:9, “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.”
Then there's 1 Thessalonians 4:1, “Finally, brother and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus Christ that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God…you should do so more and more.” Or consider 2 Thessalonians 1: 3, “We must always give thanks to God for you…because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of you for everyone is increasing.” The story of Moses is the story of a murderer who became a model leader. The story of David is the story of a boy who became a king. The story of Ruth is the story of an outsider who became a model of faith.

There’s a pop Christian theology that is the opposite of triumphalism (the idea that I can be perfect in this life); and that is Christian apathy; the idea that Christians should be blasé about sin; and content with being just forgiven. John Ortberg asks us to imagine an alcoholic welcomed at an AA meeting like this, “We’re so glad you’re here. We want you to know that you are loved and forgiven through nothing you have done. Of course, don’t expect to change too much. Don’t expect to actually stop drinking. We don’t like it when people suggest sobriety is possible. We believe that trying not to drink breeds arrogance and self-sufficiency. Our motto is, ‘12 steppers are not sober, just forgiven’" (Leadership, Spring 2009). The whole point of AA was to re-capture classic spiritual practices and to bring deliverance from a spiritual power that was destroying their lives. Let’s take a moment now to consider how that deliverance from evil begins -- and real change happens according to Scripture and 2000 years of experience.

First, real personal change starts with a grace-filled community. When Jesus set out to announce the good news of the kingdom of God he began with twelve rag tag disciples. Mark 3:14 says that “Jesus appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message.” He called Matthew, a tax collector (a Roman collaborater); he called Simon the Zealot (a left-wing revolutionary); he called Judas his betrayer, he called ordinary and untutored fishermen, he called a doubter like Thomas, and a hothead like Peter. He called them all (warts and all) and he called them to be with him… with each other, to share their lives together and to learn from him in the context of a close-knit fellowship, a Lifegroup in which we are experiencing the transforming grace and mercy of God.

Frank Laubach was a missionary in South East Asia. At one point he was sharing the gospel with a tribe that had a long history of violence. The chief was so moved \that he accepted Christ on the spot. Then, he turned to Laubach in gratitude and said, “This is wonderful! Who do you want me to kill for you?” (cited by John Ortberg, Leadership, Spring 2009). That was his starting point. He obviously didn’t have the advantage of being raised in a Christian home, with parents who loved him and each other or a culture with Judeo-Christian values. I may be less likely to kill somebody than that tribal chief…but that doesn’t mean I’m superior; I just have different problems.

The question is, “Wherever our starting point, are we moving toward the light of Christ and actively helping others to do the same; are we part of a grace-filled community that is willing to speak the truth in love; holding us accountable to keep growing in Christ-likeness?” Robert Hilburn said of Michael Jackon, that he was “one of the most fragile and lonely people I’ve ever met." Most of us would be pretty lonely and fragile without a grace-filled community to stand by us...and to encourage us when we fall short. What Jackson desperately needed, we all need in order to experience real change in our lives.

In addition to a grace-filled community, real personal change requires a new vision of who God says we are. Farrah Fawcett worked hard at trying to change her Charlie’s Angel’s image and be appreciated as a serious actress; to be more than a tabloid cover or a pinup girl. She had to play the part of a battered wife to finally rid herself of that stereotype. It’s difficult to overcome labels…especially those we have embraced.

God tells us the truth about who we are. In 1 Peter 2: 9-10 we read, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." There are other “You are’s” in the Bible. You are the Bride of Christ. You are the salt of the earth. You are made in the image of God. You are crowned with glory and honor, with dominion over the works of God’s hands. You are a new creation.

The beginning of any movement of social or spiritual transformation is a new vision; a new understanding of who I am and who I can be. The driving vision of the Constitution was “that all men are created equal.” The Bible takes it one step further: We were created in God’s image, to be fruitful, multiply, and have dominion as the earth’s caretakers. I believe it is this biblical idea which is feeding the unrest in Iran right now; the movement to end human trafficking, it’s the only hope of North Korea, and the fire behind a new respect for God’s creation.

Third, real personal change assumes a radical new example for imitation; and I believe that new example is none other than Jesus Christ, who calls us to enter into his total lifestyle. The apostle Peter challeged us to imitate the lifestyle of Jesus with these words: “Make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love" (2 Peter 1: 5-7). Notice that Peter says “make every effort.” When Jesus calls us to follow him, he gives us the responsibility to exert some effort; to get up and start walking. The grace of God is opposed to earning, but not effort. Dallas Willard reminds us that “we’re saved by grace…but that doesn’t mean there is nothing for us to do.”

Everyone knows you don’t play like Michael Jordan simply by putting on his shoes or jersey number and sitting in front of the TV eating your Wheaties. You’ve got to practice. The Lakers didn’t become the world champions two weeks ago by accident. They worked at their game; they corrected some of the mistakes that lost them the championship last year. They practiced. They became an unbeatable team. In the same way, our bodies and minds need to be retrained, as we practice the lifestyle of Jesus; embracing new habits of the spiritual life in his grace… fellowship, worship, Bible study, prayer, stewardship, service etc.

Alfred Lomas is a converted gang member, who experienced unconditional love for the first time when he met the Christians at the Dream Center. He experienced a new kind of community, he received a new vision, and now the LA Times reports that he’s devoting his life to “distributing food, prayer, and a sense of change.” The LAPD is in awe of him…a model of the change that is possible in South Los Angeles. His faith is more than just belief…it is faith in action (Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2009).

Change requires a supportive community; change requires a transforming vision; change requires new habits to practice; and finally, change requires the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8: 11). Don't too easily discount the need for a real supernatural intervention by the very God who raised Jesus from the dead.

I heard a secular psychologist on the radio comment on the many stars who have stayed at one of several high end drug/alcohol rehab treatment facilities in Malibu only to relapse. A caller asked if there is any program that really works. One, he said, and that is the 12 step program. He also went on to say that the 12 step movement has recognized that a key step in personal change is (1) that we admitted we were powerless over our addiction…and (2) we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Christ came to give us that power!

One of Michael Jackson's most popular songs was “Man in the Mirror” – a song about changing the world by changing and growing yourself as a person. Here's the refrain of that song...

"I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror / I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself And Then Make A Change"

Jesus once said of the man who wanted to pull the speck out of someone else’s eye; that he must first take the log out of his own; start with the man in the mirror. Before I can change the world; I’ve got to begin with myself; but -- and this is what I wish someone could have told Michael Jackson -- to begin with myself doesn’t mean doing it by myself. I need a grace-filled community, I need God’s vision of who I am and who I can be; I need to practice with others the lifestyle of Jesus, I need the power of his Holy Spirit...to make that change. Change is difficult. Change may seem impossible at times...but Jesus promises us (and experience confirms) that with God... "all things are possible."

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