Monday, August 14, 2006

Cellular Spirituality, PART ONE: THE CELL OF YOUR SOUL

One of the most important things you will ever learn about me is I like to talk about my kids. I love to tell stories about the dumb things I do. I think when I tell you about the dumb things I do, it makes you feel better about the dumb things you do.

We’re trying to teach my son how to potty train. He’s 2 ½, and when you go through this as a parent, people give you all kinds of advice about how to potty train your kids, about how their kids were potty trained and walking and talking and writing a thesis at age one. You get all this advice, but people don’t entirely prepare you for the emotional consequences of what happens in the mind of your son while he’s trying to learn how to potty train.

For Jacob, he doesn’t understand why, when we go to certain places, he’s not allowed to participate in the preschool activities because he’s not potty trained. He’s old enough, but if you haven’t yet reached that level of maturity in your body, you don’t get those opportunities.

The idea of maturity is an idea I’d like us to talk about. Of course, I’m not talking about our kind of maturity in terms of potty training. I’m talking about our maturity in faith, our Christian maturity. Maturity is not just biological, but maturity is also emotional and physical.

Independent of the potty training we are trying to sort out with my son, we’re also trying to teach him about how to respond appropriately to things that happen that he doesn’t like. Carmel has taught him this new phrase; it’s called “freaking out.” She’ll say, “Jacob, are you freaking out right now?” He’ll say, “Yes, mommy, I’m freaking out,” or “Daddy, I freaked out today; I’m sorry.” It’s really great, because we’re trying to teach him that there are appropriate and inappropriate things to freak out about. It’s inappropriate for him to freak out if he spills his milk. “Jacob, we don’t freak out about spilling our milk.” “Sorry, Daddy.” He freaks out if he breaks a toy. “Jacob, we don’t freak out about breaking a toy. Daddy can fix anything.” If, however, he punches his sister, then Daddy freaks out. That’s totally legitimate, because that’s not the kind of behavior we want to approve.

In the process of maturity, particularly emotionally, my son has begun to learn when he acts more mature, if he limits his freak outs to major things, then he gets new opportunities and he gets new satisfaction in his life. If he’s able to control his body or temper, then he’s given additional privileges. If he’s not able to do those things, then he loses privileges. He has to go have a time out or go to bed early.

Spiritual maturity is like this also, and for anybody who claims to be a Christ follower and for all of those people, like myself, who consider themselves having chosen Jesus, the idea of spiritual maturity is intimately connected to who we are. It is, in fact, the first thing we begin to think about. You become a Christian by making a choice to accept and love Jesus. You become a Christian by selecting Jesus and saying, “Whatever this means, I pick the Jesus of the Bible” … the Son of God who came down to the earth in the form of a man, was crucified, resurrected on the third day, and ascended into heaven; we’ll reign with him in all eternity, member of the Trinity—that Jesus. You may not understand all of that, especially if you’re new, and it’s not entirely crucial you have all your doctrine right. If you have your doctrine wrong, that’s the Jesus we’re talking about.

When you make a choice to be in love with Jesus, you do so out of a sense of love or devotion or gratitude. There’s a reason you are compelled to follow Jesus. You feel like he’s given you hope when you had none or worth when you had none or he’s got a sense of promise for you. He has given you a sense of healing or restoration. He’s put you back together again, removed your sin and shame. He’s saved you. That’s why we love Jesus. That’s why I follow Jesus, not because I read a book, but because he’s actually made a difference in my life. Because of that, I look at the person of Jesus and I want to become more like him; he is what I want to be. The process by which I become more like Jesus is commonly understood as spiritual growth or spiritual maturity or spiritual formation and that’s what I want to talk about today—how we become more like Jesus. For anyone who loves Christ and puts him first in their lives, this is almost the defining issue of our Christianity.

I’m a pastor because I want to help people come deeper and more fully into the presence of God. There have been people with that same noble intention stretching back throughout the last couple of millennia. In an effort to help people know and understand and grow in the spiritual life, there have been a lot of books written and a lot of models put together about how our Christian life progresses. I think it’s worth mentioning some of these models that are popular today that you might hear on Christian radio or you might see on Christian television. Sometimes they are a little bit misleading. In an effort to be really, really simple, sometimes these models actually make things a little less accurate. They oversimplify the Christian life and the process of becoming more like Jesus. I don’t ever think that’s the intention of the people who put these models together. Quite the opposite. I think anyone who puts together an understanding of spiritual growth does so because they want to help people become more like Jesus.

Take, for example, the model I was given when I was in seminary. It said any follower of Jesus had these four characteristics in their life: You were saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Spirit and involved in service in a local church. If you were a super Christian, you looked like “this.” I began to have my first niggling moments of doubt with this kind of approach when I realized, according to this model, Mother Theresa isn’t considered a Christian and Billy Graham isn’t considered a Christian. I thought, “Wait a minute, this can’t be right. When I think about the people who are most admirable in the 20th Century Christendom, I think of Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. How do you get more spiritual than Mother Theresa? Obviously, Mother Theresa doesn’t really meet up to this little model, so in the eyes of the people who put it together, she doesn’t really fit.” I don’t even think the people who put the model together would agree that’s accurate.

For us, then, we’re left with understanding there’s got to be a better way to understand how we grow spiritually. There’s got to be a more biblical reflection of how Jesus takes over by our submission all of the different areas of our lives. I am convinced every part of our lives is spiritual; everything you do is spiritual. The process of becoming more like Jesus is a process of allowing Jesus to seep through every area of our lives and gradually and increasingly infect who we are with him.

I want to use a cellular metaphor to talk about this today. I’m not a biologist and I promise the biology component of today will be almost minute, but what I love about cellular biology is that it tells us, for example, in the average adult male human body there are anywhere between 30 and 100 trillion cells. If I’m to investigate my own spiritual life, I could easily conceive of that in many different areas of spirituality.

I sat down in my office the other day and I thought, “I want to think through all the different areas I feel like God is telling me to grow.” When I sat down, I thought there would be two: Don’t be a jerk and love other people. I sat down with a pen and I thought, “I’m going to try and write these down.” I spent a couple hours in prayer and thinking through this, reading a little bit. I came up with 117 different areas where I thought, “Wow, I really feel like God is coaxing me to grow in these areas.” That’s a lot; that’s more than two, just in case your math is weak.

I’m not saying we need to put together a 117-level model of spiritual growth. No, I think that’s ridiculous. What I’m saying instead is that we need to have the orientation in our spiritual lives to see everything as spiritual and everything as fair game for God. We need to say, “Jesus, where do you want me to grow? How do you want me to grow? What can I do to give more of myself over to you?”

To this end, we’re going to look in 2 Peter 1:3-9. We’re going to read it in two different translations today—the first one being in The Message. I think it gives us a nice poetic quality to things while still being accurate.

“Everything that goes into a life of pleasing God has been

miraculously given to us by getting to know, personally and

intimately, the One who invited us to God. The best invitation

we ever received! We were also given absolutely terrific promises

to pass on to you—your tickets to participation in the life of God after

you turned your back on a world corrupted by lust.

So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given,

complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual

understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent

wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension

fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active

and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no

day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience

of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s

right before your eyes, oblivious that your old sinful life has been

wiped off the books.”

This is a compelling piece of the Bible. Here it is in the NIV, beginning in Verse 5:

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness;

and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to

self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to

godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For

if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep

you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of

or Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is

nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed

from his past sins.”

If we look at portions of the Bible like the full armor of God, the fruits of the spirit, the beatitudes, there’s a great and erroneous temptation for people to say, “You start out as an amateur and you add to your faith, goodness, and now you’re a varsity Christian. You add to your goodness, knowledge, and now you’ve gone pro. You add to your knowledge, self-control, and now you’re a superhero.” We begin to stack these things one on top of another and use them not to appraise how well we’re doing in the presence of God and in our representation of Jesus, but we use them as a way to judge everyone else. We use it as a way to understand where we are in the hierarchy of Christendom.

I don’t really think that’s what Peter is getting at. I don’t think that’s what Paul was getting at in those other lists. I certainly don’t think that’s what Jesus was getting at. Instead, I think they’re talking about something much more cellular—something that spreads out from the center. Imagine, if you will, your spiritual life being like a cell in a human body. It’s got little parts to it; it’s got a membrane, a nucleus, some goopy junk in the middle with twenty-seven different names. You might say in your Christian life everyone begins with one cell, your soul cell. That first cell is your purely vertical love, affection and devotion for Jesus. That first beginning point is Jesus Christ.

We’re going to pull out some application from that and dissect it a little bit, but first I want to make a point that is really important. In church a lot of people get distracted by a lot of other good things. A funny little saying goes, “If the devil can’t get you to do a bunch of bad stuff, he’ll get you to do a bunch of good stuff.” You get distracted and instead of falling in love with Jesus, you fall in love with social justice. Social justice is important. In fact, if you love Jesus, you’re going to want to be involved in social justice, but as soon as you forget about Jesus, what good is it? If it doesn’t start with Jesus and move outwards, at the end of the day it’ll leave you feeling hollow.

Our spiritual life begins with our relationship with Jesus Christ. The cell of your soul must continually be nourished because a cell, unlike a tier or a level, is not achieved. A cell is not something you acquire. A cell is something you manage and give life to, something you feed and culture and grow and protect. So this cell of your relationship with Jesus Christ has to constantly be managed.

Many people, maybe people like me when I was six years old, prayed a little bedside prayer with a parent to choose Jesus. Many people continuously trade on that old experience. We’ve got to keep refreshing our personal experience with Jesus Christ for all of our lives. You can’t keep trading on that stuff that happened twenty or thirty or five years ago. Another reason I love this metaphor is that cells die. Every second approximately one million cells in your body die. In order to keep those cells from dying or in order to have those cells be reborn (as every cell in our body ultimately is), we’ve got to continuously pay attention to those cells.

As the metaphor expands (this is mostly what we’ll be talking about in message two of this series), we can see that the more you love Jesus, the more you’re going to love other people. If you’ve got a problem hating other people, that problem is a fundamentally spiritual problem and it needs to be resolved first between you and God. The more you love Jesus, the more you’re going to love other people.

In a sense, that one cell now is going to multiply; it’s going to reproduce, and you’re going to have two cells: A cell of your love for God and a cell of your love for other people. Those things are going to feed health back and forth to each other. You love Jesus. You feel him. He fills you full of his love, and as you demonstrate that love to other people, you’re going to experience what God experiences when we respond to him in love. Those two things are going to have a mutually beneficial relationship. If you love other people, you’re also going to do other things for them. You might give birth to a cell of compassion and your spiritual life begins to spread out in a kind of cellular map. Instead of having an area of spirituality in your life, every part of your life is now infected by the presence of Jesus.

What I love most about this whole way of understanding spirituality is that all of these other areas are not only connected back to the cell of your soul, but they’re connected to each other; they are independent. You cannot be spiritually healthy in one area and be totally spiritually bankrupt in another area without those two things affecting each other, either positively or negatively. Think of someone you know who has everything going for them. They do everything right; they’re just incredibly perfect, wonderful people except for one little area—a little drinking problem or pornography or they hate their wife. The truth of the matter is one area will wreck your whole life because it’s like a poison shot into your body, and it spreads throughout your system. In our spiritual lives we have to be aware of those areas that get sick or feed poison to the rest of us.

I hope this isn’t overcomplicating things, but I want to give us a very clear picture of how I believe the Bible presents spiritual life and health. The good news is everything we say and do matters. The bad news is everything we say and do matters. The good news is everything is spiritual and God cares about every part of our lives. The more of himself he puts into us, the more it spreads to all the other relationships and behaviors we have. I think that’s what Peter was talking about and what Paul talked about. I think that’s what Jesus talked about. I even think that’s what the Old Covenant was based upon—a God that cared about everything we did and wanted to spread health to every area of our lives. He wanted to help us in our imitation of him.

Let’s talk for just a minute about this one cell—the cell of your soul. A cell, in order to maintain health, has to be connected not only to itself but to the whole system. Cells reciprocate healing energy. A cell grows because it has an open exchange between itself and its environment. Your soul cell grows because of an open exchange between you and God. You allow Jesus to speak to you and ask specifically for him to give you wisdom and instruction. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living or how long you’ve attended church. At the core root of it every one of us must continually be managing and taking care of our relationship with Jesus.

It’s Jesus that’s the tricky part for so many people. It’s easy to ascribe to the reality of God in some form or another. It’s when we try and nail it down and really clarify what our beliefs are that it gets uncomfortable for some people. For us, we are followers of Jesus, so everything begins and ends with the person of Jesus Christ. That’s not an experience we had. We didn’t have—past tense—an experience with Jesus. Followers of Jesus have experiences with Jesus again and again all the time, not just because they magically happen, but because we’re deliberate in searching them out. I can tell you in my own life all of the bad things I do start with how well connected I am to the source. Let me say that may be what your life is like too. It’s that relationship with Jesus that must be managed and cultured.

Everything you do either neglects or cultures that soul cell. Maybe you don’t pay any attention to it or maybe you deliberately act against what you know to be right based on that relationship with Jesus. What you’re thinking about right now, what you’re going to do this afternoon, who you’ll talk to, how you treat your spouse—everything you do either neglects or cultures that cell of your soul. This is important to realize, because this isn’t just true for this cell, but it’s true for every part of our spiritual lives.

Those cells, of course, can be killed. We kill cells by lack of attention; we kill cells becoming over-protective. In a sense you almost have to be a spiritual risk taker. You have to hunger and thirst for righteousness and for the presence of Jesus; you’ve got to search those experiences out. If all you do is have a little experience that’s totally private to you and you never tell anyone about it, it’s going to die. You’re not giving any attention to it; you’re not giving any life to it. We could also kill our cells by having a poor response to adversity. You have a bad experience at church, you blame Jesus and that cell’s dead in a second. I’m always fond of saying, “I enjoy the great miracle Christ has done in my heart because I’ve given my life to serving a church, and the only thing in my entire life that has hurt me has been the church.” And yet here I am. By the way, it drives me nuts when people rag on any church, even churches they don’t like or churches I wouldn’t like. It’s not about what we get to like; it’s about who we are and who Jesus made us. Jesus gave his life for the church and so will I.

The good news is cells are reborn. When old experiences die, when memories fade, when things fall out of place, those cells are reborn. Your experience with Jesus is reborn, refreshed, renewed through new experiences. Sometimes those experiences look like very simple, quiet things. They are moments of resolution where you realize you’ve got things all cockeyed and you want to straighten them out. You fall on your knees, repent and say, “Lord, I want to get my life right with you.” Sometimes those are much more supernatural experiences where you run down to the altar and you’ve got snot and tears falling everywhere. You grab your best friend’s hanky and you cry. It doesn’t matter what those experiences look like. The fact is we get them anew and again.

I can think of touchstone moments in my life: When I was six praying by the bed having my first official experience with Jesus Christ; when I was eighteen having a much more dramatic and yet personal, private and emotional encounter with Jesus Christ, when my family and I decided we needed to move on from our last church where we had been for ten years being led by the hand of Jesus Christ. These are new experiences and we pray for you to have them all the time.

With all this in mind, we’ve got to realize everything we do is connected. The way we manage the health of this cell of our soul is connected to the way we manage our family, our mouth, and our finances. Everything we do matters to God. I don’t want you to get confused by the model. In fact, I never really care if you think about a cell again. What I care about, what I hope we understand, is that spirituality is not a measure. It is allowing God to seep through every part of our lives and redeem them. That is a much more biblical understanding than much of what we’re taught about how to be like Jesus.

In closing, let me ask you a couple of questions.

  • What are you deliberately doing to manage your relationship with

Jesus to keep it fresh and whole?

  • In what ways might you be neglecting your soul? What things might

you be doing that take you away from thinking or acting or ever

spending time with Jesus at all?

  • How are you going to be mindful not to neglect the cell of your soul when you go to work or play sports or go to the beach?

Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” I think all of us think of people in our lives who are so godly and so Christlike that we look to them as a way of looking to Jesus because we can see that godliness lived out. For all of us, I think God presents incredible opportunity to grow and become more like him. The challenge today is whether or not we will.

Today we’re talking about this first cell, the cell of your soul, of your relationship with Jesus Christ. I’d love it if we just take a minute to examine where we are. If you have no relationship with Jesus and you want one, it’s very, very simple. You don’t have to have all your thinking straight, but simply begin a choice for Jesus.

Some of you may have grown up following Jesus and feel like somewhere along the line you’ve messed something up, either through neglect or through deliberant disobedience. You just feel disconnected from God and you feel like your soul is sick or broken. The great, powerful truth of the Gospel is the way back to Jesus is very simple. Once again, it’s a decision to choose Jesus, to empty ourselves of the garbage and the brokenness and say, “Jesus, I love you, I pick you; help me.”

Maybe you’re at a spot where you feel like things are absolutely great and they have been for a long time. What a great reminder for you to take this time and say, “Thank you, Jesus.”

For all of us, when we reach a time of examination, I desperately and sincerely hope we pay attention to and allow that which is at our very center to become more whole and strong.

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