Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Thrival Guide for Outward Focused People // Immunity


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 06/23/2013
video available at
podcast here:
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A brief review, as we conclude our Thrival Guide for Outward Focused People: How to live outward focused lives and not get derailed or bogged down.


Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant...

from Philippians 2:1-11

Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus

This of course, is easier said than done. And one of the reasons it can be so difficult is that even when we are inspired to pursue an outward focused life that really makes a difference in the world, the nature of the world in which we want to make a difference is such that, sometimes, it chews us up and spits us out.


We talked last week about how chronically anxious our world is. You get enough anxiety in a system (a family, a congregation, a company, a country, for that matter) and pretty soon it will become emotionally regressive. By emotionally regressive, I mean that the system adapts towards the least emotionally mature people, so that over time, the least emotionally mature members of the group set the tone and agenda for the group. The group invests much of its energy in pacifying (or attempting to pacify) the anxious responses of the least emotionally mature members.

So we start off outward focused, with great intentions. We tune in to the needs of others, experience compassion, and set out to help. Which, if it worked out, would be life giving for everyone. Win, win, benefits multiplying. Only some anxiety or emotional immaturity on the part of the very people we are trying to help derails us, drags us down, and for the sake of our survival, makes us turn in on ourselves and give up on our dream. [examples…helping someone with a practical need, turning an organization around, maybe even loving a spouse or a friend through an addiction, signing up for a ministry team] That’s just what emotionally regressive systems do, everywhere there are broken people with needs and hurts.


But we don’t just want to survive; we want to thrive. Which, it so happens, is Jesus’ desire for us as well. “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”

Abundant life, that’s what it means to thrive, not just survive.

So what’s an outward focused person to do?

Well, we begin by looking to Jesus. After all, he’s the example Paul gives us in that passage in Philippians. And after all, Jesus is the one who says he’s here so we can have life to the full. And after all, Jesus lived the ultimate outward focused life in the midst of broken people with needs and hurts. Because let’s not kid ourselves, our biggest problem isn’t others who are broken; it’s the fact that we, too, are broken.


So on to the Thrival Guide, part 3: Immunity

Last week, we noted that Jesus did two things that allowed him to both make a difference, and to thrive, in the midst of chronically anxious, emotionally regressive systems.


One, He self-differentiated.

To self-differentiate is to gain a clear sense of who you are and what your purpose is. To have a strong grip on what you and your life are all about. As a student of Jesus, you might describe it as knowing who God made you to be and what he made you to do.


And he stayed connected.

He didn’t run for the hills; he remained present. (Well, I suppose he did go to the mountains from time to time, but only briefly, to recharge.) He didn’t get caught up in the drama, yet he still stayed in a loving posture towards the fitful toddlers in his life. He maintained a non-anxious presence in the anxious system.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew 12, Jesus has been getting flack from some of the local religious leaders (imagine, you’ve come, at great personal cost, specifically to accomplish everything these leaders have invested their lives in seeing happen, and all they do is get upset with you because you’re not doing it the way they would do it)…


9Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

Notice: Jesus knows what he’s there for, and their critique doesn’t stop him from keeping on keeping on.


15Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16He warned them not to tell others about him.

Notice: Jesus isn’t ignorant of the threat these chronically anxious, emotionally regressive leaders pose (see, he makes adjustments to minimize their negative effects), but he also doesn’t get derailed by them.

He gets some more flack, which he responds to directly and firmly, and then…


46While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”

49Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Now you read this how you want, but it seems to me that his mother and brothers are probably trying to interrupt him because they don’t want him stirring up such a fuss. They care about him; they don’t want him provoking something that will get him killed, right? It’s entirely reasonable. But it’s also rooted in anxiety and ultimately, emotionally regressive. They aren’t saying what they are saying with knowledge of who he is and what he’s there for. They are saying what they are saying because of their own unfortunately limited and misguided perspective.

Edwin Friedman, in his book, Failure of Nerve, says that an emotionally regressive system's only hope for growth into maturity is a leader who knows who he/she is, and who knows his/her purpose for being. Who has a firm enough grasp on those things that he/she won’t let go of them when the most emotionally immature people around him/her start acting out of their anxiety and immaturity. A leader who is, in other words, self-differentiated. And who stays connected – out of love – to the broken system. This is exactly what we see in Jesus here.

Jesus knows who he is. He knows what he’s there for. And instead of letting go of that to pacify his family, he invites everyone to become his true family, a family that joins him in the reality of who they are (his brothers and sisters and mother) and that joins him in their true purpose (doing the will of the Father in the heavens).


This whole knowing who you are and what you’re here for is what boundaries are all about. Boundaries are just a way of talking about knowing where you end and where someone else begins. And being comfortable being you, and being comfortable letting others be others. Not feeling compelled to change who you are or what you’re about to please someone else. And not feeling compelled to override someone else’s boundaries in an attempt to change who they are or their sense of purpose.

Jesus is a master of boundaries. He is always fully himself. He cannot be coerced or seduced. And he never attempts to coerce or seduce anyone else. The three persons of the Trinity, as Christians understand it, have the same dynamic at work. They are one, in that their wills are perfectly aligned in Love. And yet they are three distinct, self-bounded persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Which is necessary for love. Love isn’t possible without boundaries. Love always draws us closer to the other. But without boundaries, it would be too dangerous to get close, both for us and for the other. A destructive fusion would happen. We would lose our selves, in every sense that that is possible. We see this happen in unhealthy relationships all the time, don’t we? Someone without a strong sense of themself gets overwhelmed and dis-integrates in relationship with someone else. Picture a young teenage girl dating an older guy. A recipe for disaster, right?


Interestingly, biologists are discovering that everything we learn about the “self” applies to the immune system, and vice-versa. Because the immune system is very simply the body’s capacity to know what is itself and what is not itself.

[experiment with two organisms without an immune system…smaller organism completely abandoned itself and became part of the larger organism.]

Remember how everyone was concerned about Jesus hanging out with the sinners and the sick, as if he might somehow be corrupted by them? When in fact, it was he who ended up healing them? You might say his sense of self was so complete as to be a perfect immune system.

One final story, this time from Matthew 16…


21From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Once again, that same dynamic. Jesus, knowing who he is and what the purpose of his life is. Self-differentiated. Peter, anxious, trying to drag Jesus away from his purpose and into his anxiety. Taking him aside, even. Seems so well meaning, mature. Like his only concern is Jesus. “This shall never happen to you!”

What makes Peter think he knows what will or won’t happen to Jesus? What makes Peter think he knows more about Jesus’ life than Jesus does? Just a paragraph earlier, Peter made the incredible statement that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And now, he doesn’t trust Jesus to know how the plot of his life and mission plays out? This is exactly what chronically anxious systems do to people; they get wrapped up in their own anxieties and concerns but fool themselves into thinking they aren’t, fool themselves into thinking they are being thoughtful and helpful and wise and others focused. It’s the most dangerous kind of deception – self-deception in the guise of good intentions.

So Jesus resists it; calls it what it is – the devil at work. “Get behind me Satan!” And then he calls Peter to move in his direction, to let go of human concerns and take on God’s concerns. He’s inviting him into maturity as a human being.

This is the big picture story of what God is doing in the world, isn’t it?

We human beings traded shalom (peaceful, loving right relationship to one another, to God, and to all things) for an anxious, emotionally regressive existence because we believed the anxious urging of the serpent (Did God really say that…? You can’t trust him…).

So God himself comes among us, self-differentiated and deeply connected to us, with an announcement of Good News. God’s kingdom is here; you don’t have to worry. Forgiveness is here. God’s good. He’s trustworthy. He loves you. He knows your every need and is going to take care of you. You can be free to love. Good news! And he sets out to demonstrate it, model it, teach it, embody it, set us free from enslavement to everything that has bound us in anxiety, free us to join him in freedom.

He takes everything this chronically anxious, emotionally regressive system has to throw at him – death even! – and stays the course. Stays true to himself and his purposes until the very end. And we do what every emotionally regressive system tries to do to every nervy leader it encounters – we kill him. But even death doesn’t derail him, because he never lets go of his identity as a servant, and as a result, the script gets flipped. Instead of him being brought down, we are raised up with him.

Because every doctor knows that trying to defeat a disease by trying to wipe out the disease causing agent head-on is a losing battle. It’s far more effective to help people increase their own capacity resist the pathogen. To strengthen and develop their immune system. And Jesus is the great physician, come to us so that we might have life, and have it to the full. Teaching us and empowering us to be more fully who we are in him, discovering our true purpose as we seek first his kingdom, all the rest added to us.


So, some practical suggestions:

1. Get clear on “you.” Write down your top five values and top five goals. (it’s ok if the list changes over time – self differentiation is the work of a lifetime, and it’s more of a process than a state of being.) Put them on your bathroom mirror and read them at the beginning and the end of the day every day this week. Notice if any environments or situations are challenging your ability to stay true to “you.” Ask God for help becoming more fully “you” in those environments or situations.

2. Begin to take a Sabbath, a stop day, a period of true rest each week. This is the first boundary in scripture. God knew himself and his purpose, and so on the 7th day he rested. A Sabbath is a time you set aside (make holy) where you are tending to the needs and priorities of your self, and not letting the demands of others, not even of your work, establish your priorities for you. If you can learn this one boundary setting practice, and faithfully practice it, other boundaries will fall into place much more gracefully. And it will give you space to remember who you are and what God made you for, week after week after week.

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