First in the series: Live yourself into new ways of thinking
WHAT TO TRY WHEN WE BELIEVE WE’RE ON OUR OWN
For our talks the next number of weeks at BLV, we’re going to be doing a little bit of diving into memorable past experiences in our lives
I remember a time playing basketball with a bunch of peers when I was around middle school age
There was one guy my friends and I were playing with (who was cooler than me, more popular than me, better at basketball than me… I know all of that is just so hard to believe looking at me now… so you’ll just have to do your best to imagine)
This guy had done something to upset me, so I yelled at him
His defense (a common one on the basketball court) was to laugh at me, try to get everyone else to laugh at me, and play the “relax. it’s not so serious” card
Some of you right now are probably gritting your teeth thinking: oh yeah, I know that card
Well in the grand scheme of things, this guy being a jerk to me wasn’t particularly traumatic… in fact later in high school, I actually had a decent friendship with the guy
BUT in the aftermath of that experience that day on the basketball court, I did end up feeling quite hurt for another reason
My two friends in this group of guys playing basketball, rather than back me up, joined in laughing at me for getting upset
The ocean-wave-like force of middle-school peer pressure being what it is, my friends folded like a couple of lawn chairs on the beach and were swept up into this more charismatic guy’s pull
That felt like pretty crappy friend behavior to me
The most difficult thing is what I started to believe about myself after an experience like this:
I guess I have to fend for myself because no one will back me up
I’m on my own
Friends are likely to turn on me and laugh at me, if I’m not careful
So it is best to avoid embarrassment at all costs… I have to read my situation always… Calculate my decisions carefully… my friendships depend on this!
Do you have any experiences in your past that have birthed beliefs in you, like this?
Some other examples you might resonate with are:
I have to provide for myself because no one else will
I have to make myself beautiful to be accepted
Bad things always happen to me. I’m cursed.
Life doesn’t work for me like it does for other people.
Sometimes these are hard to identify
Because this isn’t beliefs in the sense of what we CLAIM or REPORT to believe
This isn’t professions of conviction or faith
This isn’t “what religion do you belong to?”,
This isn’t “what opinion do you thoughtfully hold on this or that matter?"
This is more complex and much deeper than
I’m talking about
The unexamined beliefs that determine the most unthinking, routine choices we make
Or the most foundational beliefs in us that determine what we do when we’re pressed and have to in a moment make a gut-instinct choice
This is what we REALLY believe… this is the water we are always swimming in
Formed by our culture, our religious exposure, traumas in our life, victories in our life, our parents, how we felt about our parents, (as I’ve begun talking about for me) interaction with peers, etc., etc.
But even if we can’t fully identify them, we can usually see the fruit of these beliefs in our lives (or bad fruit of them, as the case may be)
Because these beliefs that result from our past experience do a lot to determine our current experience
As I went on to high school and most of my undergraduate college years, I increasingly lived out of that belief of “really, when it comes down to it… I’m on my own… no one will back me up… I have to fend for myself”
It came out in small ways I can laugh at now with some distance
Like my favorite movie at the time: Bourne Identity… because Jason Bourne was on his own, guys… he had to fend for himself… he gets me
But it also came out in ways that were legitimately toxic to my experience of life, that now with distance I look back and feel grieved by… broken-hearted and compassionate toward my younger self
For example, avoiding embarrassment at all costs doesn’t work when you’re trying to become an adult and build deeper relationships with people
Because building deeper relationships means sharing stories and everyone’s stories include embarrassment
But I just would never tell those stories with friends. I would focus on other people’s stories, and hope no one asked about mine
I needed to appear cool, calculated, and like I knew what to do at all times
I also told lots of “little white lies” in those years (do you know this phrase “little white lies”?)
Not big things… I would just hide minor details that might potentially embarrass me
I left out the part where I had to leave and go to the ATM because I didn’t know the place was Cash Only
I’m late because I wasn’t keeping good track of time, but instead I tell you it was that ridiculous traffic that was outside of my control
All of these sorts of things amounted to a very guarded Vince
When I was re-thinking the college major I’d gone into, I didn’t know how to reach out for advice from friends or anyone because “I was on my own”
When I was struggling with that crush that just wouldn’t die (even though any sane person could have told me “she’s just not into you”) I just struggled silently… I couldn’t rely on friends for something like that… they’d probably laugh at me
It’s a toxic cycle, right?
College-aged Vince’s current experience just reinforced past experience, which reinforced the same toxic beliefs, which continued to determine my experience, and on and on and on
Stealing life from me, right?
So the series of talks we’re starting today at BLV is about all this:
How do we change our minds when we have toxic beliefs deeply entrenched in our thinking?
This, I’ve learned, is one of the biggest interests of Jesus
It’s generally brought up on very ugly or uncomfortable terms, but a consistent refrain of Jesus’ message was: “repent"
Which we get from a Greek word that is sometimes translated “change your mind”
If we’re thinking on these terms, Jesus’ plea to repent is NOT fire and brimstone “you’re going to hell if you don’t repent!”, it’s NOT John Lithgow from Footloose demonizing dancing, and it’s NOT Puritan, religious prudishness…
It’s something very different…
It’s not shaming. It’s welcome.
He’s got his finger on the things that matter most to my experience of life
He’s right with us on changing those toxic beliefs stealing life from us
At one point he offered a wonderfully memorable image to summarize his message about how to change our minds or repent
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
He says: The difference-maker is acting in some way… putting some wisdom or teaching or personal sense we’re picking up from God into practice
We could know all the teachings or conventional wisdom in the world on God or on life in theory, but if it stays in theory, that’s just a house built on sand
This feels so profound to me
Because so much of life makes empty promises to us that we can think ourselves into new ways of living…
Mass-media bombards us with this:
These seven things to remember will make you ridiculously successful or amazing in bed or impossibly happy
It’s funny how in the world of social media every headline has to say things in the most extreme way
Or what about religious voices?
“Just trust God more and that problem of yours will disappear”
Which basically sounds like a crueler version of “it’s all in your head so get over it”
Jesus’ words ring true
These empty promises make life sound too simplistic… they’re houses built on sand!
In reality, we have to live ourselves into new ways of thinking
What it takes to truly change our minds… to repent...
Is logging experiences of something different, better than what is currently in our memory…
And letting that growing log of experiences re-shape the data in our brain, so to speak
And, more than this, my experience has been that when it’s Jesus inviting me into something like this, he is actively helpful to me the entire way
It’s not just that Jesus gives sound advice, rather than empty promises
I’m getting sound advice and the company and aid of the advice-giver along the way
One of my clearest memories of this was a season of time about 4 years ago
A friend had invited me to join him and one other guy for a standing early morning coffee date before we were all off to work on Thursdays, where we’d share how we’re doing and then pray for each other
This, I learned, is one of the most commonly encouraged regular spiritual things someone can do: a standing prayer time with a couple friends
It jumps off of some Ancient Hebrew wisdom in the Bible’s Old Testament: how good and pleasant it is when people seeking God meet and do that together
It’s become a lot of the thinking behind some of the small groups in this community…
A little later this morning we have an update for you all on small groups at BLV
Anyway I accept the invitation
Now I obviously know my friend who invited me, but I don’t really know the other guy that well
On the other hand, my friend and the other guy knew each other really well - old college friends
And I’d see these two interact
They’d talk about past romantic blunders, or awful things one or the other had done (which often had to do with those past romantic blunders), and they’d laugh at themselves but also express genuine regret, or they’d just talk openly about what was hard for them currently in life
And then I’d see the two of them them just fiercely accept each other, without any question, without any ounce of judgment
And every time I’d witness this, I’d feel a tug in my spirit…
It felt like Jesus signaling to me: you can have that too.
You can see these guys are obviously safe.
Try being as open as they are about your regrets and see what happens
Try telling an embarrassing story about your past and see what happens.
Try being yourself without holding back and see what happens.
Try asking for their advice on something you need to decide and see what happens.
And so I did try those things
And I was accepted by those guys
And each time I’d have this confirming sense in my spirit
Like Jesus was logging that experience in my memory, like I could sense the shape of the data in my brain changing
That weekly coffee & prayer meeting came to an end because one of us moved for a job
But the two of us who remained invited two other friends to join in so we could keep it up
And in meeting with that new group of the four of us I think I was more open than I’d ever been in my life
Asking for advice
Expressing out loud my regrets
Being honest about things that scared me and hurt me
Willing to laugh at myself and not clamming up at the threat of being embarrassed
That season of the weekly guys’ coffee & prayer meeting was a season of Jesus helping me live myself into a new way of thinking
There is one last layer to this worth highlighting, because it presents some obstacles...
The poisonous beliefs about ourselves and our lives that we pick up throughout life, we also project on to our image of God
We all unavoidably do this
It doesn’t make us bad… It just makes us human!
So, this is never as simple as any of us "just going to God for help"
Maybe, like me, you wonder sometimes: won’t God respond to me just like those peers in my youth?
Or maybe for you it's: If God is an ultimate authority, won’t he be just as abusive or manipulative as the authorities or parents I’ve known?
Perhaps it was when you won or succeeded at things that you received the most praise a young kid, so now your image of God is someone from whom you need to earn praise by your accomplishments
Perhaps you grew up in a specific kind of Christian environment, and have trouble separating the attitudes and opinions of the religious leaders who were around you from your image of God
Or perhaps you grew up in a more irreverent or agnostic environment (like me), and you just can’t seem to come up with any image of God that doesn’t include at least an ounce of skepticism (Am I making all this up? Is there really a God out there?)
We’re all a mix of healthy and toxic (good and bad) images of God.
No one has all good, no one has all bad.
This is why it is such a great gift that the Gospels of Jesus and the first writings about Jesus (The New Testament of the Bible, which we open up every week here) have endured for 2000 years
Jesus had a goal to show people what God is really like…
To improve the accuracy of our images of God
BUT EVEN SO...
(And this is important to note for anyone here who has spent lots of time in churches)
Developing a Jesus-like image of God can not be accomplished just by reading a book and taking notes (not even the Bible).
I’m sorry to say it but there is no official Christian or (if the phrase means anything to you) Bible-Based presentation of Jesus out there that is perfectly accurate
Every pastor you've ever met and every church you've ever been in has images of God that are not perfectly aligned with Jesus
Kyle and I, pastors here, and this church have images of God that are not perfectly aligned with Jesus and we're just not yet aware of that
Developing a Jesus-like image of God is not ticking the right boxes or understanding correctly… it’s developing a relationship
There are no right answers in relationships
There are no formulas in relationships
There is just two parties doing their best to connect, to let something grow organically
That is what I experienced Jesus developing with me
As I tried to be more open with those two guys at my standing coffee & prayer time,
That left me feeling so connected to!
BUT not just connected with them
Connected with Jesus!
Like: Wow! It worked!
I felt like you were tugging at my spirit to try something, and I did, and it went really well!
It is connection experiences like that - Wow! God is real! And cares about me! -
That, regardless of the toxic beliefs we inevitably project on to God, will keep our sense of fulfillment and relationship with God thriving
And we can trust that if we do have some toxic beliefs, that thinking will course correct on its own as we just keep living
If you relate at all to the “I’m on my own” belief I’ve struggled with, let me suggest something to try
It would be to find someone in this community you trust (or someone in your life you trust) with whom you can try the sorts of things I mentioned in my story...
being open about struggles,
asking for advice,
telling an embarrassing story about yourself
And then have that person speak acceptance out loud to you
I like knowing these things about you. I accept you. I love you. I think you’re awesome.
Something like that.
I know that sounds like it could feel a little awkward… It might, I guess… can’t promise you it won’t be
But I think it will also feel like something spiritual is happening!
It can be powerful to try to take that “spoken-out-loud acceptance” from your friend as an opportunity to feel connected with and close to Jesus
Like your friend’s words are a pipeline, carrying God’s words to you
This is basically a version of the long-standing spiritual practice of “confession”
Kind of a loaded term for some people, especially if you’re coming from certain Catholic backgrounds…
But if we can throw off the ugly connotations of shame, the wisdom behind confession is precisely what we’re talking about today
Living ourselves into new ways of thinking
Alright, on that note, would you stand with me and I want to pray for us all today.