Monday, May 24, 2010

Giving your best

We often hear about "giving our best." Graduation speeches, corporate motivation seminars, father-daughter talks ... all are laced with some form of the challenge to strive for excellence, to "give our best."

As Christians, we certainly want to be all about excellence. However, sometimes "giving our best" has a whole different meaning in the life of the Jesus-follower. We see a foreshadowing of it in this story about Cain, Abel, and Seth.


Seth was the "replacement" son -- the son God gave Adam and Eve to replace Abel, whom Cain killed. (See Genesis 4:25-26). The lineage of Jesus is traced through Seth, not through Cain or Abel. Seth becomes the carrier of God's promise, the reminder of God's presence, the agent by which God delivers the Messiah to the world. But Seth comes as the "replacement."

When I was about 20 years old, one of the character traits that I liked best about myself was that I was emotionally strong. By this I meant I was able to walk through any situation without getting emotionally entangled in it. I could preach or speak in the most grueling emotional circumstances without choking up. I could walk into the most gruesome stories of abuse or tragedy without getting hurt myself. So, I thought, I was best able to help others because I could be strong for them.

As God has grown me from what I was to what I have become (and I have a long way yet to go) one of the things he's done is to take many of those "best" things about me away. He has crucified my best on the cross and destroyed it so that he might replace what I thought was good with the very presence of Jesus himself, living in me.

So for example, God has worked for many years to tear down and crucify the invulnerability that I thought was so good. He has torn down my walls and allowed me to walk through tragedies -- both tragedies of my own and the tragedies of others, where I come alongside as a guest in their grief. These experiences have tenderized my heart.

In 2006 I worked to build a leadership team for Central Lutheran's Alpha ministry, and I faced a crucial question. Would I maintain a "professional distance" -- by which I meant keeping my walls up and maintaining my invulnerability -- or would I let these people become friends, dear friends, who had access to my heart? It was a tough question, and I wrestled with God for months over it. I became convinced God was calling me to open up my heart -- always, I hasten to add, making sure that appropriate boundaries are respected and maintained -- and let these people in. To be honest, it was a frightening process. As God brought what I thought was best about me -- my "strength," my invulnerability -- to death on the cross, he replaced that cool distance with a family affection for this amazing team of people. In the process he drew the members of this team into each other's lives as well so that they are in and out of each other's homes, kids run from one living room to the next with complete comfort, and this group of people tends and shepherds each other far better than I ever could. Oh, and by the way, they have done an AMAZING job of leading Central's Alpha ministry as well.

Last week we began the week with a prayer service for Amy, one member of this family, who was fighting cancer. That was Monday night. After the service we went to her home and prayed over her and her family. Holy moments. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning Amy met Jesus face to face. The rest of the week was a roller coaster of grief, leading up to her Friday funeral. This group of people who have become extended family to me and to each other broke my heart as I saw those I cared so much about grieving in such pain. The invulnerability was certainly long gone as I wept with them and for them.

Several times in the last few days members of this team have pulled me aside with some version of these thoughts: "Jeff, you know this is all your fault. If you hadn't pulled this group together and taught us to love each other, this wouldn't be nearly so difficult. Thank you. Thank you. You should be very proud."

I am not proud, for that would be like taking credit for something I got the privilege of watching the Holy Spirit accomplish, and I was as much in awe as anyone as I observed the bonds growing over the last several years. But I am so thankful in the face of this grief that God took the best of me to the cross, to give me something better -- to give me Jesus and his vulnerability, his love, in place of my own "strength."

So when God demands your best, give it to him. Let him nail it to the cross. Receive from him the brokenness, the emptiness, that feels so frightening, and let him grow you into the image of Jesus. What he will give you is so much better than what you would give yourself.

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