Becoming a Better Version of Me

As we were leaving a friends’ house recently, Jennifer said to me in the car, “Talking to her (referring to a new friend we’ve just recently met) makes me want to become a better version of myself.” What a great line! Which led us into a discussion about friends, friendships and the people who influence us.

Try this out. Think about someone in your life for just a minute. It can really be anyone. Got a picture of their face in your head? Good. Now finish this sentence:

“After spending time with ____________, I feel…”

Given my job, interacting with people a lot, I’ve been trying to be aware of how I answer this question over the past couple of years. Because, simply put, some interactions are draining and some are energizing. Even for an extrovert. Here are some of the ways that I answer this question:

  • “tired.”
  • “sad.”
  • “envious.”
  • “bored.”
  • “put down.”
  • “energized.”
  • “inspired.”
  • “like the time just disappeared.”
  • “safe.”
  • “comfortable.”

Of course, out of love, I hang out with all kinds of people. And I’m sure there are people who are generous to me, even though they may only be able to tolerate me in small doses. But, in my inner circles these days, I’m trying to pay attention to how I answer that question, and I’m trying to create a space filled with people who help me become a better version of myself, just like Jennifer said.

And this isn’t just about trying to create the perfect “beer commercial” life, even though that happens once in awhile, But it’s really something bigger than that. I believe that this journey, of becoming a better version of myself is at the heart of spirituality, it’s all about fully realizing the unique ways that I’m created in the imago Dei. 

This quotation from David Benner, in his book Soulful Spirituality, bounces around my head a lot these days:

Sometimes I encounter writers and speakers who describe us as human beings on a spiritual journey. I think this is true and have used the same language myself. But I think it is equally true that we are spiritual beings on a human journey. Both journeys are crucial, and each should complement the other. Any religion or spirituality that seeks to make us less than, more than, or other than human is dangerous. Spirituality can and should be in the service of becoming more deeply human.

That’s it for me. I want to be in intimate relationships with people who are helping me become more deeply human. (That needs more definition, but would be another 4 posts. Hmmmm… maybe that’s a series.)

So, anyway, who is it for you? Who is it that is inspiring you to become a better version of you? Who is it that you should be finding more time for, and who should you start parceling out small doses to? Sometimes, it’s the people we’ve always known. Sometimes we need to go looking for “our people.” Sometimes people pursue us and we’re suspicious because we wonder “what do they want from me?” but then realize that there’s just some spark that being with that person makes us – in the cheesy words of Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets,  – “want to be a better man.”

(Um, editors note: if it’s your kids, or your spouse that feed the darker versions of you, you’re can’t just cut them out. Sorry. But you can find other people who will walk with you in the journey.)

Anyway, all this to say. I’m thankful for my circles of friends, the people I lead with at the church, my parents and the many, many people in my life whom I get to interact with that energize me, inspire me, and challenge me in all the right ways. To be perfectly honest, I’m thankful that I’m surrounded by so many interesting people, that sometimes it’s really, really hard to get enough time with all the people whom I would want to spend more time with. Jennifer and I have a “must invite to dinner list,” that is probably 2 years long.

And I hope – especially at this time of the year – you tell them.

In it Together

Last Sunday, I taught on Psalm 44 – a lament.

I don’t know if you know much about laments, but in the Psalter there are these poems that are outrageously accusatory towards God. The rant, they rave, they accuse God of being absent, of sleeping, of abandoning his people. They are the types of poems written in fits of rage and tears and darkness.

Simply put, I love the lament Psalms.

But here’s what I’m thinking about today: what do we do when another person is in a season of lament? How do we honor their lament? What is the modern equivalent of shaving one’s head, rending one’s clothes, and sitting in the ash heap?

(To be honest, most Christians suck at this. We too often correct people, “Don’t say such things about God.” We trivialize them, “God has a plan.” We give trite advice, “You need to get into the Word.” Or we make it all about us, “You know, this is like the time that I…”)

Yesterday, I read a blog post. A lament. A profanity laced, honest cry out to God titled “Rend the Heavens (A Psalm for Advent),” by a guy I don’t know, but I’ve followed his blog enough to know that he’s in a season of deep lament, and this seems to be his truest expression to God. And somehow it connected deeply within me. This morning, on the way out the door, I whisper-quoted some of it to my wife in her ear and she whispered back, “We’re in it together.”

That’s it. Right there, “in it together.” That’s what I think we do with lament. That’s how we’re supposed to respond when someone we love it in a season of lament. We remind that that we’re in it with them that we’re carrying their load. So often, there is literally nothing that we can do, but somehow knowing that people are with you matters. So here are some scenes, some ideas of what I think a proper response to lament is supposed to look like. Maybe you have other ideas to add?

  • I walked by a couple in church on Sunday. They had sat through much of the teaching with tears in their eyes. And they have good reason. This year, lament is their song. And on my way out of the sanctuary, I just squeezed the husband’s arm. There is nothing that I can do for their pain, for their lament. But I wanted them to know, “we’re in it together.”
  • A friend stopped by my office last night for no good reason, except to drop off a 4-pack of a beer I really, really like. I can’t fathom what made him think of me, and to do this. I’m still puzzled, speechless and deeply moved, but it made me feel like “we’re in it together.”
  • I wrote a lament to a couple friends yesterday. I just bitched about things that are bothering me, and I told them they didn’t need to respond, they didn’t need to say anything because they’ve already demonstrated over and over again that we’re “in it together,” and I feel safe with them, because I know that’s true. And so, I shared my burden knowing they will carry it with me.
  • A woman in our church is going through a tough time, and the people in our church are surrounding her with love, compassion, food, assistance, anything that they can think of. And they can’t make her situation any better, but they are demonstrating to her that we are “in it together.” She wrote me this morning to tell me of the tears she’s shed over their kindness to her.
  • We had dinner with new friends last night, and they offered us their house over Christmas, knowing that we’re in a small apartment for this season of our lives. They’ll be out of town, their house will be empty, and they want us to use it. “What’s ours is yours,” they say. And I’m pretty sure they mean it. We barely know them, but they wanted us to know that we’re “in it together.” And they shared their own story of being in a similar place as we are now. And it made us feel less alone.
  • I have a friend show me an unexpected and over-the-top kindness, and he ends his emails and texts to me (and others I’m sure) with the phrase “in it together,” and I believe him because he an amazing listener, and one time, when he was visiting us, he showed my wife so much grace in the midst of a tense situation that she still glows when she talks about him.
  • On December 21, we will host our annual Longest Night Service where we will darken the sanctuary and honor the grief and darkness that many people feel in this season of light and festivity. And some people in our church will show up not because they are in a season of lament but simply to identify with others in our church – to “weep with those who are weeping,” to demonstrate that “we are in this together.”
  • I have a friend who, a couple weeks ago, said to me, “the weight of everything in your life right now really just hit me, and we’re with you in this.” And her words, and her actions have demonstrated this is so.

[spoiler alert for you Imago people… this Advent week four sermon theme coming below]

This, to me, is what the Advent story is all about – that God is with us. I don’t know if there are solutions to the problems that many of us face. Life is complicated, resources are scares, relationships sometimes feel like a lose-lose proposition, good people get ugly diseases and there aren’t any really good answers to the problem of pain and suffering in this world, but God is with us. And sometimes I feel it – this sense that God is with me – and sometimes I don’t, and I need to be reminded that it is still true, even if I don’t feel it.

In it together friends, in it together. Amen?

(and thank you Steve Wiens, for the phrase “in it together”)

The First Step into Advent

On Sunday I explained the liturgical calendar to our church. I reminded them that on the first Sunday of Advent we start to tell the story again, as we do every year. I showed them the genius of the rhythm of the calendar; Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, culminating in Christ the King Sunday where Jesus rules in the eschaton.

This morning, as part of my own, personal, annual Advent tradition, I began reading a book about Jesus. This year it’s John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. And reading the preface this morning I was struck by an idea from Crossan.

We can know everything there is to know about Jesus. We can study, we can immerse ourselves in 1st Century Mediterranean politics and culture. We can read the church fathers and strengthen our theological understandings of Christ. But if we don’t follow Jesus, it doesn’t really mean anything.

At the end of the preface, Crossan relates this imaginary conversation between him and Jesus after the release of his book The Historical Jesus: the life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant in 1991. (He originally published this in a 1991 article in Christian Century.)

Jesus: “I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good. So now you’re ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”

JDC: “I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”

Jesus: “Thank you Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”

JDC: “Is it enough Jesus?”

Jesus: “No, Dominic, it is not.”

As we start to tell the story of Jesus again by entering into the season of waiting, and then, on Christmas, celebrating God-with-usit’s not enough to know more, but rather it’s about following more.

No, this isn’t rocket science, but…Hmmm… something for me to sit with.

Welcome to Advent.