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“9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:9-13)

What possessed Jesus to go to the wilderness to be tempted? Where did he get the courage to do such an uncomfortable thing? I’ll suggest it was an experience of the Father’s love and the Spirit’s presence at his baptism.

That moment in the Jordan must have been a moment of clarity for Jesus. God knew there were difficult tasks ahead so he gave Jesus 2 big “tools” for his tool belt. These two truths would carry him through the desert, through his ministry, and to the cross.

1.    The Spirit is with me, leading and empowering me.
2.   The Father loves me. I’m his son. And he’s proud of me.

So compelled by the Spirit’s presence and the Father’s love he went willingly into the desert, into hunger, deprivation, and temptation. Notice who’s in the desert? Angels, animals, the Holy Spirit, and the Devil. Notice who’s NOT there? People. I think Jesus went to the desert not just to say “no” to Satan and get clarity on his mission. I think he spent that time apart from civilization, apart from food, apart from human relationships, to learn how to rely on the Spirit and engage with spiritual realities around him. I think it was HERE in this place of total vulnerability that Jesus grew deeper into this “oneness”, this intimacy with the Father.

When I personally experience the Father’s love and the Holy Spirit’s active presence in my life, THEN I gain the power to do the scariest things imaginable. It’s not a pep talk or a kick in the pants or a biblical education that gives me courage. It’s a deep unshakeable knowledge that Daddy loves me and that His Presence is with me, that my life is no accident and that I am no orphan. When I can learn to HEAR the Father’s acceptance, and SEE the Spirit, that’s when I gain the courage to be vulnerable and to rely on Him every day.

This is changing the way I think about parenting. It’s tempting to focus on behavior modification or “winning battles” or protecting my kids or fostering their independence as the stuff that will help my children become courageous adults. But I’m beginning to see that it starts at a much deeper level. Before I do anything else as a parent I need my kids to know two things:

1.    I love you. I’m proud of you. You are MY child.
2.   Your life is no accident. You have great purpose.

We’re currently deciding whether to send our daughter to public or private school. Debra had an excellent experience in a small Christian school where she experienced a feeling of acceptance and belonging. The last thing we’d want for our 4-year-old is for her to be in a classroom (public OR private) where she feels she doesn’t belong or isn’t accepted. Given my daughter’s sensitivity to shame and rejection, we feel pressure to make the right decision from the get-go.

But as I look back on my childhood and think of MY most painful experiences with rejection, I’m realizing something profound. If I had felt comfortable enough to fall in my father’s arms, to embrace my mother’s acceptance, to grow deep in the knowledge that I have a place of nurture and love and belonging… then I could have dealt with those painful experiences with grace and courage. My parents are kind and caring people who sought to instill in me a sense of love and belonging. But no parent is perfect and I needed to make the choice to trust in their care.

So as I parent MY kids, my focus isn’t on keeping them from challenging or painful situations. My focus is on ensuring that every challenging or painful situation in their life is matched by countless experiences which show them that they are loved, that I am emotionally present for them, that they have a place in their father’s heart and in their father’s arms.

If you’re still reading this, I want you to listen to this. It has become the fodder of endless conversation in our house:
http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

Researcher Brenee Brown nails it on the head. In this 20-minute talk, she discusses her research into what gives people the courage to live whole-hearted lives full of risk and vulnerability (or faith, if you like). She basically says that the courage to be vulnerable, to “risk it” with the people and situations in our lives, comes from an innate belief that one’s love and belonging are never on the line. Even if our endeavors fail, WE cannot become failures. Even if our relationships go south, we believe that we are worthy of receiving love. And that belief beyond anything else is what makes us brave.

I think the secret to Jesus’ obedience, his courage, his authoritative confidence, his willingness to do ANYTHING, stemmed from that moment in the Jordan, and other moments throughout his life when he could SEE the Spirit and HEAR the Father. Likewise, in our pursuit of maturity, in our passion to get “unstuck” and grow deeper in God, I think that’s where our focus should be: experiencing the Father’s love… and understanding the Spirit’s presence and purpose in our lives.

group of womenAs a counselor, I meet with people one-on-one all day long. It’s rewarding, exhausting and humbling. As much as I believe in the value of individual counseling, there is another way of helping people heal that I believe is, in many ways, more powerful.

The group.

Oh, how I love a group, in all its messiness, closeness, vulnerability and intimacy.

At WDA, our materials are designed to be used in groups. We believe in the vast restorative power of a group. We use groups for our discipleship materials and for our Restoring Your Heart materials.

There is a reason “small groups” are so popular in churches today. We all crave intimacy. We are designed for intimate relationships with each other and a healthy small group is the perfect place to “figure out” intimacy. Most of us really don’t know how to be closely connected to others because we have been hurt by others. We don’t trust, it is risky, and we would rather not take the chance. Yet, in avoiding closeness, we go against our created design. So, we get caught in an approach/avoidance relational intimacy dilemma.

With that in mind, I want to encourage you in three ways.

1.  Embrace the risk of either being in a small group or starting a small group.

No matter what the stated purpose of your small group, whether it be Bible study, fellowship, discipleship or emotional healing, no matter what materials you use or don’t use for your small group, there is an overriding transcendent goal for your group.

Cloud and Townsend, in their book Making Small Groups Work, refer to this goal as the ministry of reconciliation. In aiming for this goal, we (the group) are not supposed to be the moral police, we are supposed to be the restorer’s of life. We achieve reconciliation in a small group by combining grace, truth and time with our desire to connect with God and with others. We use a small group to be restored to God, to learn how to relate to others and to experience and practice grace and forgiveness.

And, yes, it is messy sometimes. There will be conflict. There will be unease. There will be anxiety and unsurety. But, don’t you have all of those in your life anyway? And isn’t it frequently hard to navigate those waters?

The beauty of a healthily functioning small group is that all these things can happen, but all these things can also be successfully navigated, dealt with and the group members restored to relationship with each other. There is nothing more exciting and bonding than to experience this reconciliation in a group.

2. Read Making Small Groups Work by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. 

Take notes while you are reading it and think about ways you can use these principles in your own life. This book is one of the best books available about small groups.

3. Read this Short Story.

I was leading a Restoring Your Heart (RYH) group several years ago. When leading these groups, I use one of several workbooks dealing with emotional issues that are written by WDA staff. With this particular group, I was using the Processing Pain Workbook, which deals with childhood issues and then moves into grieving and forgiveness.

The group consisted of myself, the co-leader and three other women all of whom had bi-polar disorder. (If you want to learn more about bi-polar disorder, click here.) My “starting out” goal for the group was to help these women see the impact their past had on them and move them joyfully into emotional health within the 18 week group time frame.

About three weeks into the group, I realized that my lofty goal was out the window. These women could not focus on the material or on their past long enough to gain much insight from it. They were having so many problems navigating their daily lives, largely because of their bi-polar disorder, that they were overwhelmed. Each week, one or all of them would come in with a present day crisis that needed to be discussed.

So, I readjusted my goal for the group. Once I let go of my agenda, I realized that these women were gaining much more benefit from the group just by being in a place where they were heard. So we moved through the workbook slowly and incrementally. Usually each week, we spent roughly one-third of the group time on the material, sneaking it in and out of our conversations. They all gained some small understanding of the impact of their past, and they gained a little benefit from talking about grieving and forgiveness.

But, the huge benefit they gained from the group was a chance to bond, experience intimacy and be heard. In other words, they experienced the ministry of reconciliation. Our group lasted about 6 months, much longer than the prescribed 18 weeks. During this time, I realized that the Holy Spirit was going to do a much better job of leading this group than I was and He was going to help these women experience intimacy at a more experiential level than the materials could. The group ended when one group member went to jail and another one went into the hospital. The workbook was still not completed.

Did this group challenge every aspect of my group-leading experiences and desires? Absolutely! Do I consider this one of the more successful groups I have ever lead? Definitely!  Grace, truth and time came together and created intimacy for women who rarely experience it.

And now, following the encouragement, a challenge for you.

Look for ways you can experience intimacy in a small group environment.

And,

Move towards the messiness that results in closeness and reconciliation.